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Crippling Debt

November 7, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The first phone call came as we sat down to dinner.

I had been expecting calls from potential employers or recruitment offices, so I was excited when I heard the ring tone. I was nine months into the job search and our savings were running dry. Though it was six in the evening where we lived, it was only three on the west coast and I had sent my resume everywhere. My stomach gave a small lurch as I looked at my phone and read the word UNKNOWN across the screen. The only phone calls I had gotten from unknown numbers over the past months had been bill collectors or people trying to sell me solutions to debt or upgrades to my internet service.

“Should I take this? It’s an unknown number, but maybe it’s important,” I asked my wife, Caroline.

“Two minutes, Tom. I’m serious,” she said.

I touched the accept button.

“Hello?” I said.

For a moment, the line was almost quiet. There was some distant sound, like a record player or a crackling fire, but I blamed poor reception.

I looked at my phone to make sure it was connected, which it was, and almost tapped the End Call button at my wife’s insistence, until a voice came through the speaker, high in pitch and business like.

“Hello, Mr. Hanshaw,” said the voice.

“This is he. Not much time to talk. Who is this?” I said into the receiver, admittedly coming off as impatient.

“Oh, this isn’t that kind of phone call, my good sir. There was no question mark at the end of that sentence,” the voice replied.

“Well, there was one at the end of mine. Dinner is getting cold, the wife’s stare is colder, you understand. I’ll ask again. Who is this?” I tried to sound firm, but I was tired and I sounded it.

“It may be best to have your wife eat without you. We have a few things to discuss. Cold supper should be the least of your worries,” said the voice.

“If I owe you money, I’m doing my best. If this is a prank, you need to do better than that. Have a great night,” I said.

I touched the End Call button on my phone sat down to eat so my wife would stop rattling her finger nails on the table.

“Obviously that wasn’t a job offer,” she asked.

“Unless the job is sniffing out bullshit, no. I’m afraid not,” I replied, deadpan. I couldn’t even be disappointed anymore. It had become the status quo.

“Tom, we are going to be alright, aren’t we?” Caroline said.

“Of course we are. This is just poor timing. I just got my master’s degree. I’m stuck between overqualified and under experienced and I just need to meet with the right people,” I repeated for what had to be the hundredth time that month alone. Her eyes rolled the same way they had every time I said it.

“I hope you find them before the bank sends a moving van and locks us out of our own house,” she said.

She spooned peas into her mouth, her face contorting to one of hatred (though hatred of me or another leftover meal, I didn’t know). It amazed me how quickly love didn’t matter when everything else went to hell. Happily ever after wasn’t a real thing, but in my case, tolerable for a while was pushing it. The problem wasn’t that we hated each other. It was that we didn’t want to, and neither of us knew how to prevent it from constantly poisoning every fucking discussion we had.

The phone rang again. I had set it next to me on the table. My wife gave me a look that said she would be happy to throw the fork across the table and eat with her hands if I delivered any more bad news. The screen said UNKNOWN again, so I didn’t answer.

The ensuing silence lasted long enough for each of us to take a bite of the leftover chicken ziti her sister had given us the night before. It had become a habit to accept any offer of a free meal, served with a side of sarcasm and dirty glances from her sister for not taking care of her sister.

Before my wife could swallow her first bite, my phone rang again. The volume grew with each ring until the sound was deafening in the small dining room. Caroline’s hands flew to her ears as she screamed something I barely heard. I tried tapping the decline button enough times to make my finger numb, but it wouldn’t stop ringing. My wife ran across the room. I was able to make out her words as she passed.

“I’m not even hungry anymore. The last thing you need is a broken fucking phone when we can’t even make a car payment, Tom, so fix it or shove it up your ass so I can’t hear it!,” my wife screamed, approaching the stairs.

I stuffed the in my pocket to dull the noise. I had kept my voice mail empty, paranoid I would miss a message about a job lead or offer, so I knew that it should have clicked over at some point. The ringtone kept getting louder.

Grumbling to myself, I separated the back plate from the face of the phone and removed the battery. At last, the ringing stopped, though there was a ringing in my ear that wouldn’t go away. I put everything in my pocket to leave the table technology free, the way Caroline had insisted it should always be before the credit collectors had started ruining every second of our lives with phone calls and endless e-mails. Just in case she came back into the room. No need for another fight over something stupid.

I kept eating the now-cold dinner, lulled into a mechanical dance of scooping cold ziti into my mouth as I reveled in the silence, until the phone ring again, not bothering to slowly build to full volume this time. The sound was deafening in the small dining room. I inhaled and nearly choked, but was able to cough up the pasta. It took a moment to realize that the phone in my pocket, sans battery, wasn’t the one ringing. I crossed the room to my wife’s small purse, which was dancing across the kitchen counter with the power of the vibrations, and pulled out her phone.

The screen said UNKNOWN.

I clicked accept, ready to yell at whoever was on the other line, my last straw reached.

The voice didn’t wait for me.

“Hello, Mr. Hanshaw. It was very rude of you to hang up on me without hearing what I have to say. I abhor rude people, so I will say this just the once. If you hang up or otherwise find a way to interrupt this call again, I will take something from you,” said the voice.

“What do you want? I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with prank calls. Have some empathy. Please, save it until I have a job again before I end up sleeping on the couch,” I said

“Mr. Hanshaw, what on earth makes you think this is a prank?” the voice said, half laughing.

I started to take Caroline’s phone apart to remove the battery, same as I had done with mine. Like my wife, I no longer wanted food. Just five minutes of peace. I planned to call the phone company to figure out how to block unknown numbers the next morning.

“If you do that, I will have to take something from you, Mr. Hanshaw. I would highly advise against…” the voice cut off as I removed the battery and tossed it and the dead phone on the kitchen table. Frustrated and ready for the day to end, I tasted none of the food as I shoveled it into my mouth.

Whoever was trying to contact me was out of phone numbers. There were plenty of people who knew how to reaching us both it wasn’t hard to hide a phone number from caller ID, but whoever was doing this was in for some advice on their people skills and an evaluation of our friendship. Every person who mattered in our lives knew what we had been dealing with. I didn’t recognize the voice. The harassment was unnecessary. When our shit was in order, I would find out who was responsible, and one day, they would regret it. One day, I would…

The phone began vibrating on the table. I froze, colder than the remnants of the food stuck to my fork. There was no ringing, but the way the table shook made the phone seem…I don’t know…angry.

All the anger that had been building up drained away. When the phone started vibrating without a battery, I became scared. When the phone answered the call without my assistance and put itself on speaker, I could barely breathe.

“I warned you,” said the voice, much deeper than it had been the previous two times.

I wanted to speak. I truly did. The food in my mouth, half chewed, might as well have been cement. I couldn’t open my mouth at all. My eyes, however, were wide open.

“I don’t know why it is you people find it so hard to answer a simple instruction. You are all entirely too rude. And now, I have to take something from you, Mr. Hanshaw. I really don’t want to. I sincerely mean that. But you must take me seriously or this is all for naught. So, which bitch will it be? Zelda or Caroline?” the voice asked.

That broke the spell. I kicked the chair backward and stood, sweeping my head around and looking for an intruder, a face in the window, something…anything…to lead me to whoever was taking this sick joke one step too far.

“If you wait too long to make a decision, I will be happy to make it for you, Mr. Hanshaw,” the voice warned. “Just think about who you love the most. Everybody else in a person’s life is usually expendable. How about thirty seconds? Thirty. Twenty-Nine.”

“You think I’m a naive asshole?” I screamed, regaining both my anger and the use of my mouth. “Oh, big man, you know the name of my wife and dog. As soon as I found out who this is, you won’t have a job, either. Then we’ll see who is laughing!” I screamed.

“Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.” The voice continued to count down.

Scary stories weren’t like real life. Even at that moment, as I ran to the front door and threw it open with a shout, hoping to find some past co-worker or a close friend trying to take my mind off of the terrible situation I was in and the crippling debt that was destroying my family from within, I had no notions that this was something beyond an elaborate, albeit convincing and offensive, prank.

Until the voice reached zero and the lights went out.

Until, in the darkness, I heard a crash from upstairs and a light laugh from the phone on the kitchen table.

I ran towards where I knew the stairs to be, knocking the knick-knacks and paintings we had wasted so much of our depleted earnings on to the floor as I rushed my way through the blackness, all the while screaming for my wife and my dog. I heard Zelda bark and it calmed me down enough to stop screaming. I heard some other sound too, something muffled and frantic. Probably Caroline wanting the dog to shut up while she drank away her sorrows.

I tripped in my scramble to climb the stairs. Instant pain shot up my shin and stopped my ascent for a moment.

The lights returned shortly after that. They didn’t flicker or buzz as lights tend to do after a power outage. One second it was black, the next I was nearly blinded as I limped my way up the rest of the stairs.

Zelda met me at the divider gate we kept at the top of the stairs, jumping up and down and licking my hand as I reached down to pet her. As soon as I opened the latch and stepped through, she sped off towards the bedroom. I took a couple of breaths before I walked into the room, knowing how angry Caroline must have been to ignore my screaming during a blackout.

Those deep breaths are the only reason I didn’t pass out when I entered my bedroom.

Caroline lay face down on the floor. That isn’t entirely accurate. A pile of clothes at the foot of the bed must have tripped her during the black out, and her back was to the ceiling, her face wasn’t exactly on the floor. Half of the bottle had disappeared down her throat. Her mouth had been stretched so wide by the bottle that the corner of the lip I could see had torn. The blood seeping down the bottle and onto the carpet had mixed with wine and something that looked thick and snotty. Tears trickled from her bloodshot eyes. The top part of her body rested at an unnatural angle as her head balanced on the wine bottle, which rested perfectly upright on the floor save for the person choking on the upper half of it. Zelda lapped at the frothing mixture like a doggie cocktail. There was a disgusting bulge under the skin on the back of her neck.

As disturbing as all of that was, the single blink of Caroline’s visible eye was what caused me to drop to my knees and vomit. Zelda was quick to run over and begin her second barking course of the night as tears and snot streamed down my own face.

“Now, I’m sure this is something of a shock to you, Mr. Hanshaw, but I gave you a warning and told you my terms in plain English, the same as your creditors before me,” the voice said from my pocket.

The phone hadn’t bothered to ring this time.

I pulled my phone out, my voice catching on the sobs and whimpers in my throat. The screen no longer said UNKNOWN, but had instead opened up one of those video chat apps. My vision was blurred from the tears, but what silhouette I could make out made me think that was for the best.

Caroline made a coughing noise and her body jerked. I cringed.

“Don’t be such a baby. Those kind of spasms are completely normal. It’s not like you’d hear a death rattle, right? If you think that’s bad, wait for the bowels to let loose!” the voice chided.

I grabbed Zelda and ran from the room. The last memory of my wife was going to haunt me long enough. I didn’t want to be in the room while my dead wife shit herself.

I locked Zelda and myself in the bathroom. She whined some, but only because I hadn’t let her finish snacking. That thought would have made me throw up again had anything remained in my stomach.

“I’m going to give you exactly two minutes to compose yourself, Mr. Hanshaw. After that, we will resume the intended conversation. So that you know, this is an attempt to collect on a debt. I hope you realize that any further attempts to delay or avoid this conversation will result in…similar consequences. Get your shit together,” the voice said.

The next two minutes might as well have been an eternity, though looking back I wish I had just washed my face and waited for the call.

As soon as the screen went black, I reached into my pocket and grabbed the battery. I pushed it into the phone and held down the power button, waiting for it to turn on and cussing at it under my breath for wasting time. Zelda sniffed under the door and scratched to be left out, sick and tired of being cooped up.

I opened the door and let her out, not wanting to deal with the distraction. Beyond everything that happened, I regret that the most. It was the only time that night I feel I had any real control, and in my panic I reacted how I would have on any other normal day.

By the time the phone loaded, nearly a minute must have been wasted. I called 911, fulling expecting something crazy to prevent the call from going through, but they picked up after a ring.

“911, what is your emergency?” the operator asked.

“My wife is dead. Someone is attacking us,” I answered.

“Are you in any immediate danger?” the operator asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

She started to ask me to describe my assailant, but I cut her off, knowing time was short.

“He will be back in less than a minute. He killed my wife. I don’t know who he is or what he wants. He says he is a debt collector. Please send help. My address is 932…” I was cut off.

“Salvador Street, Mr. Hanshaw? Obviously, I know where you live. Technically you did nothing to prevent our conversation, so I suppose I can’t fault you for keeping your wits after such a traumatic experience. To be honest, I’m impressed you were able to think at all! Are you ready to talk?”

I was done. I had reached my limit. I had wasted whatever wits left on a failed 911 call and had nothing left to maintain my composure. I proved it by tossing the phone in the toilet and holding down the flushing handle. I thought it would just sit at the bottom of the bowl as the water flowed over it, but it was small enough to disappear from sight.

I cried then. I leaned against the wall, ignoring the painful jab of the towel rack and Zelda scratching to be let back in to comfort me, and cried in loud, heaving sobs.

I wasn’t a bad person. I hadn’t done anything illegal. I lost my job at an inopportune time and had shitty luck, but I was trying as hard as I could. I loved my wife despite her criticism and resentment. She had a hard time understanding that trying hard didn’t always equate to results. Her anger was understandable. I had insisted on going for my Master’s degree, sure that it would take us to that next level of financial stability, and every failed interview and missed opportunity I blamed on that degree was me hating myself a little more for how much of a failure I had become.

Through all the anger and resentment, Caroline had stuck by me and put up with my self-righteous bullshit. She was my best friend, and now she was dead. If the voice on the phone was to be believed, it was just as much my fault as the debt that had caused him to call in the first place. Zelda’s scratching and whimpering grew louder, so quieted my sobbing until she let a bark of boredom and moved on.

That’s when I decided to end my life. My reason for living was dead in our bedroom. Whether all of this was a bad prank mixed with worse coincidence or the act of some crazy individual out for blood, better to die by my own hand than by that of whoever that voice belonged to.

I opened the bathroom door to call for Zelda, planning on leaving her in the neighbor’s fenced in yard with my suicide note tied to her collar. She didn’t come. All it took was a downward glance to realize that she hadn’t been scratching at the door to try and comfort me.

Zelda, both halves of her, lay dead at the foot of the bathroom door. Blood had soaked so deeply into her white fur and the carper that it was hard to tell the two apart, save for the collar around the lump on my left. Much like my wife’s final blink, some part of Zelda let out a final wheeze that sounded like a weak bark.

Zelda was like our child, and though I had no illusions that we would outlive her, I cannot explain to you what seeing something so brutal done to something you love so much does to you. What happened to my wife could have been a fucked up accident. Somebody had torn Zelda in half.

I felt nothing as I walked to my bedroom, stepped over Caroline, and stepped into the closet. I unlocked the combination safe and grabbed the gun from top shelf, not bothering to close it afterwards. I stuffed the gun into the back of my pants and grabbed the blankets folded at the end of our bed. I used one to cover Caroline as best as I was able without looking, and the other to cover Zelda, hoping they would appreciate the gesture if they had been able.

I walked down the stairs, slow and deliberate, almost too carefully for a man on his way to swallow a bottle of cheap vodka and a bullet. At the foot of the stairs, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t surprised as I looked towards the door. I knew exactly what I would see through the cloudy, decorative glass of our front door.

The same silhouette that had been on my phone screen.

The voice spoke to me through the door. I pulled the gun out of my pants and walked towards it, hearing every word, defeated.

“Now that we can avoid further interruption, Mr. Hanshaw, let’s discuss business. It’s very simple. You owed money and services to some very impatient people. I am more dedicated than most when it comes to collecting on those debts, and so people of such influence tend to come to me when all else fails. Why, you ask? Because instead of waiting for a peasant like you to pay installments, I pay your debts in full. Call it pre-consolidation. Now the only person you owe is me,” the voice informed me.

“I don’t have the money. I don’t have anything left!” I cried, leaning my head against the door and placing the gun against my temple.

“I don’t need your money, Mr. Hanshaw. Money is paper. Paper can be recycled. I only require one thing to clear your debt. Something invaluable. Just one little thing, and we can both move on from this. Open the door and give it to me. Trust me when I say that the gun in your hand won’t save you. There are plenty of things left I can take from you. You just don’t have the imagination in you to know what they are,” the voice said through the door.

“Just take it! Take what you want and leave me alone! What the hell do I have left to give?” I screamed, slamming my head and fists against the door, letting every emotion hit me at once.

“Your soul,” replied the voice.

Then, a sharp pain struck me in the chest and I was on my back, with bright light blinding me and demons screaming and scratching at my arms, turning me on my stomach and whipping me, pulling on my, beating me.

Through it all, I was content, because the voice was gone.

It was over.

My debt had been repaid.


The image of Tom Hanshaw’s calm, smiling face froze on the screen.

The man who had paused the video read from a sheet of paper, his voice unnaturally deep and clear.

“When this was filmed, Mr. Hanshaw was free from any drug or alcoholic influence. It was filmed three days after Officer Stevens and Officer Norman entered the home, by force, in response to Mr. Hanshaw violently banging on the door from inside. Due to the nature of the emergency call, they thought Mr. Hanshaw was being attacked. Instead, they found him holding a gun and dazed from being knocked to the ground when they entered. Nobody can be sure rather or not the 911 call was meant to lure in further victims or bring someone in to clean up the mess he left behind. Thankfully, he was restrained and taken into custody without a single bullet being fired. He had rested and eaten before filming his confession, assuring anybody who would listen that he wasn’t worried as his debt had been repaid. He requested this confession and signed forms claiming he was within his right mind while delivering his confession. He assumed he would be free to leave afterwards. That was a year and a half ago,” he said.

The recent testimony they had all been privy too was entirely different. Tom had been frantic and weeping. Though his state appointed lawyer had adamantly warned against it, Tom Hanshaw wanted to tell his side. Anti-psychotics and trauma prevented him from saying anything helpful. The gaunt man was barely able to string a legible sentence together as he cried out that his debt had been repaid and that he should be free.

Due to the lack of witnesses and scant testimony, all they had to go on was evidence from the crime scene, expert testimony theorizing what led to the break, and Tom’s own poor excuse to defend himself. Some of them were unwilling to condemn a man so broken and driven to insanity by debts of the system when he was barely able to tell his side of the story, so they requested a review of his confession tape, filmed three days after his arrest at his own request.

The man set the paper on the table and spoke to the men and women before him.

“The man on that tape is not the man we have seen in the court room over the past few weeks. His sanity has been cleared by multiple professionals, meaning Mr. Hanshaw believes what he is saying is the truth and may be a functioning sociopath. Comparisons to Ted Bundy, while not relevant, seem accurate at this point. Now that we’ve seen the tape, I think it’s safe to say we can reach a fair, unanimous decision. We may never know whether it was an insurance ploy or an argument over finances gone wrong. What we do know is that Tom Hanshaw blamed murdering his wife and dog on calls received from two cellular phones that evidence shows had been disconnected weeks prior to the event. Difficult as it may be, we have a decision to make.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the options are as follows. Option one, the real Tom Hanshaw is the cold man we saw on that tape, and we condemn him to a guilty verdict and the death penalty. Option two, the real Tom Hanshaw is the man we saw in the court room, though still guilty, and we condemn him to a live out his life in a high security psychiatric facility. Option three, the real Tom Hanshaw is both men at different stages of grieving, is telling the truth, is not guilty, and should go free. The verdict must be unanimous. Are we ready?”

He let the question hang in the air for a moment, giving everybody a chance to digest the weight of the question with murmurs and head nods.

“Very well. Now then, all those who think Tom Hanshaw is guilty, please raise your hand.”

Moments later, the man walked to the door and informed the guard that a unanimous verdict had been reached. The jury was ready to inform Tom Hanshaw whether or not his debt had been paid after all.

Credit: Rob E. Nichols

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White Owl

November 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Okay, so the first thing I’m going to tell you, in the interest of full disclosure and because it’s fairly pivotal to everything that comes next is that I am a drug user.

User, not addict. And I realise that this may well lead you to discredit everything I’m about to say as either lies or the fantasies of some junkie but that’s a risk I’ll have to take I suppose. Everything I’m about to relate to you is true, whether you want to believe it or not is entirely your business. If you want to just walk away at the end of this and forget all about the crazy druggie and their nonsense then that will be no skin off my nose.

So, I’m a drug user. Me and most of the guys were. I know it’s painfully cliché…a bunch of Wall Street big shots who do cocaine but there you have it.

Sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re true and in our case it definitely fit. It wasn’t anything we were into in a big way; however you would define that, which is why I reject the label ‘Addict’. It was never something I HAD to do, just something we did.

And it really did take the edge off, though I realise that’s probably a cliché excuse as well. But after a week of looking at numbers, staring at paperwork, filling out reports, moving sums from column A to column B, it became something to make unwinding that little bit easier.

There were four of us usually, myself, Peter Creed, then there was Raymond, Jake and Blakely. We’d go out, hit up a club that we knew had a reasonably hygienic bathroom and we’d do coke.
Blakely was usually the one carrying and usually the one to get it for us too.

And he was always the one to suggest trying something new, which we always went for, because after a while cocaine had lost its thrill. The first time I’d done it I’d been terrified of getting caught. The second time I’d been exhilarated at getting away with it. But after the fifth, the sixtieth, the hundredth? Honestly all I was worried about was whether I’d have a clean tissue if my nose started bleeding.

I suppose it’s like anything, if you do it often enough it becomes monotonous.

It stops becoming a thing you do because you want to do it but rather something that you do because it’s just something that you do. It becomes part of the routine, dull and predictable.

It stops being fun and becomes just
another aspect of your daily life.

You work nine to five and then Friday night you go do cocaine. So when Blakely had something new for
us we paid attention.

Blakely was the youngest of the group and easily the wildest. He hadn’t yet lost touch with old buddies from his college the way most of us had as work got in the way, hadn’t yet lost that energy we’d had when we felt ready to take on the world. He wasn’t the sort of person you could ever be FRIENDS with but he had this certain something that still made you want to be around him, spend time with him. He had energy, an enthusiasm, and a confidence that made you want to see what he’d do next.

It was a magnetism of sorts, a charisma that drew you to him even if your better judgement told you to keep away.

He had a spark…I suppose it would be fair to say that of all of us he was the one who seemed the most alive.

This is ironic given what happened later I suppose but I’m getting ahead of myself. Excuse me.

So anyway, Blakely. It was Friday night and we were all at some horrid little club the size of a shoebox where the music was too loud, the drinks were watered down and overpriced and the crowd was made up of equal parts thugs and morons. And Blakely, over the sound of the music and the people tunelessly singing along, asked me ‘Have you ever tried White Owl?’

I had no idea what he was talking
about. He was clearly trying to be discreet though not doing a good job of it as it was impossible to have a quiet conversation, and leant closer toward me.

“White Owl! It’s some next level shit!”

“Have you got any on you?” I hollered into his ear and he shook his head, grinning that wide grin of his. That was another thing about Blakely; he would always have this big, stupid smile on his face. Most of us figured it was the coke or whatever pills he was popping at work, giving him that little boost that stopped it breaking his spirit the way it had ours.

“No man, that’s not how it goes!”

“So what is it?” I asked, a little curious as to what exactly he was talking about. He shook his head again.

“No, no this shit, it’s not something you DESCRIBE to someone. Listen…” and at that he jerked his head toward the exit, beckoning me to follow him.

Pushing through the throng of bodies we found ourselves out in the open air, our only company one or two smokers desperate enough for nicotine fix to brave the cold night air.

And he began to tell me about White Owl.

Apparently it wasn’t something that could be carried around with your even purchased from a dealer. It was something far more exclusive than that, available only by invitation at a certain time and a certain place, to a select few who were picked out to get to try it. He’d been invited in by a friend who’d been invited by a friend and so on and so on. Once you were in you were able to select others to join the select group who got to partake of it.

It all sounded like a pyramid scheme or worse, some kind of cult to me, but Blakely was so lively as he talked about it, so eager and excitable that I was a bit curious. And more than anything I was desperate for something, ANYTHING to break the cycle, the soul crushing routine that felt like it had been going on for an eternity.

I was twenty six years old for Christ’s sake and my life was going NOWHERE. I wanted something to add some kind of excitement, some sort of thrill.

Blakely pressed his sweaty palm against mine, giving me a card with a time, a date and a place. Apart from that the only other thing on the card was a large white oval on a black background, with two large dark circles like eyes on it.

“Try it out man. It’s exactly what you’re looking for”

I was honestly still debating whether I would go or not when the anointed day came. Curiosity warred with cautiousness in my mind as the part that was eager to see what exactly was so special about what Blakely was talking about argued with the part that feared that all of this was some kind of trick, that at best it would be a prank and at worst this would be some kind of operation designed to snare unwary drug users, catch us in the act.

And my parents certainly hadn’t sent me to the finest schools in the country so that I could end up with my picture in the paper having been caught in some low rent crack den.

But in the end I wound up taking a cab down to where this ‘White Owl’ stuff was supposedly available, the desire to see what was so special about it winning out over fear and paranoia. The address was for one of those ghastly little places that’s meant to look ‘run down’ or ‘Urban’ but in fact cost a ridiculous amount of money to put together and was usually occupied mainly by hipsters and ‘artists’
desperate to feel like they were seeing the city’s ‘real’ face.

Spending a lot of money to make something look cheap is probably the best way to describe the aesthetic of these places. The one I was driven out to however didn’t seem to be occupied, unless everyone had their lights off at ten of clock on a Saturday night. I got out, paid the driver and made my way to the apartment specified on the card.

A few quick knocks on the door later and I was being greeted by a sight I really hadn’t expected. The person who had yanked it open in a manner which suggested they resented being bothered by anyone was about three feet tall, and dressed like he would be at home as a performer in some kind of carnival or circus.

His face was…deformed. That’s the only way I can think of to say it politely and from the looks of it, the deformity was not one he had been born with but rather something that had been inflicted.

He nodded at me, grunted and then motioned for me to follow him down the hallway.

As I passed a few closed doors I was aware of odd noises coming from behind them but I obviously wasn’t about to go snooping around this place, especially with my ‘host’ right in front of me.

Instead I followed silently to a lounge area where various people sat staring straight ahead. And all of them were staring at laptop screens.

The laptops themselves were set up on desks and had an incredibly strange design. It was as if random bits and pieces had been bolted, welded or wired up to them, none of the additions seeming to serve any purpose or function other than to make the laptops look odd. All the laptops were displaying a blank blue screen except for those that had people sat in front of them, those screens displaying nothing but static instead.

The people had a slack jawed expression on their face, headphones on their ears preventing them from hearing anything around them. It was a very strange sight to be greeted with and I was about to ask the dwarf what exactly was going on when a voice called out to me.

“You came! I knew you would!”

I turned to see Blakely just as he came up to me, giving me a slap on the back, his grin wider than ever, his face sweaty, eyes wide. He looked like shit, in all honesty but he certainly seemed happy to see me.

“Yeah, what IS this exactly?” I asked gesturing around at the people sat at the desks, “What, do they give us a free peepshow while we take this stuff?”

“This IS the stuff. Come on”

He led me to a chair and a desk, sitting me down and handing me a pair of headphones. I looked at him with an expression of confusion and discomfort but put them on all the same at his silent urging, wondering where this was going.

“Okay, now just watch” he said.

I looked at the screen. After a few moments it began displaying static and white noise could be heard through the headphones. I was wondering just what I was meant to do here and if this whole thing was some massive waste of time, if Blakely had been pulling my leg about this ‘White Owl’ thing. But then something happened.

Through the white noise I began to be aware of what sounded like snatches of conversation. The odd word here or there, muffled and hard to make out.

And as I stared at the screen I began to think that I could see something. It was vague and indistinct, like the blurry world a guy with bad eyesight sees without his glasses, or when you try and view something or someone through frosted glass.

But it was there. And I began to think that if I just tried to focus on nothing but what I was hearing through the headphones and seeing in the static, maybe I would be able to make it out. I began to become dimly aware of a shape forming, the white dots merging together to create one huge white mass as the black dots became huge circles in it, like eyes gazing out at me.

A hand on my arm jolted me out of the trance like state I’d slipped into and Blakely was looking at me with a smile as he yanked the headphones from my head.

“C’mon, time to go”

“Time to go? I’ve only been here for…”

I began but I trailed off as I looked down at my watch. I’d been there for five hours, staring at the screen, listening to the white noise. How had I been there for five hours? How could I possibly have not noticed that length of time passing me by? I’d heard of zoning out, losing track of time, but this was ridiculous.

I hadn’t taken anything. Nothing had been snorted, injected or otherwise entered my body. Just the screen and the headphones and the sensation of being on the verge of seeing something, hearing something, to the point where everything else slipped away.

“I don’t get it…all these people just come here and do this all night?” I asked, gesturing at the few who were still there, all still staring at the screens that doped up look on their faces. Blakely nodded.

“The first time’s just a taste man.

When you’re doing it regularly, that’s the real shit”

I really didn’t know if I wanted to be doing this ever again, whatever this was. I was creeped out, frightened by how I’d seemingly lost five hours of my life to static. We walked towards the exit, the little man with the scars holding it open as Blakely explained that the first time was free but after that you had to pay for any future visits.

I asked how much it was, more out of curiosity than any real desire to come back. How much would people be willing to pay to look at a screen? The little man grunted something in what could have been Russian and I looked at him quizzically. In a low growl he said,
‘One thousand’ in English.

“One thousand dollars? What, a day? A week? A Month?”


“On thousand an hour for THIS?”

Blakely was starting to look nervous now. That smile on his face was a little too forced; his skin looking like it was stretched taut over his face. Christ he really did look awful.

“It’s worth it man. Listen, I’ll pay for the next one. Long as you need. And if you don’t like it the second time, that’s it”

He was gripping my arm tighter now, to the point where it was becoming painful. There was urgency, a need in his eyes and more than that, a fear. He looked afraid of something, though whether it was the little man or something else I didn’t know. I just mumbled something like ‘Fine man, it’s your money’ and agreed though I had doubts about whether I’d stick to it.

Blakely looked relieved and the little man gave us cards with the date, time and place of the next meeting and then slammed the door behind us. I suppose the price explained why the guy running this show was such an asshole. If they were charging their customers a thousand and hour for this shit they probably weren’t too worried about attracting new people to these little get togethers anymore.

It was while Blakely and I were walking back together that I asked the obvious question.

“Why is it called White Owl?”

Blakely looked at me confused, tilting his head like a dog looking up at its master.

“You didn’t see it man? Everybody sees it, even the first time”

It took me longer than I would have liked to work out what he was talking about. That shape in the static, a white-ish mass with two large black ovals where you’d expect to see eyes.

Like a white owl. Was that what Blakely was talking about? But that made even less sense than when I had no idea why they named it this.

“What do you mean everybody sees it?

You can’t share a hallucination”

“Everybody sees it man. I don’t know what else to tell you”

We said out goodbyes and I made my way home, thinking about what Blakely had said. It must have been something other than a hallucination that I saw I told myself, some trick they did on the screens. Or maybe even some marginally less low-tech version of those ‘Magic eye’ images you would stare at when you were a kid. It was a trick.

Though that didn’t explain the odd sensations I’d felt while it happened. It hadn’t been exactly like being high, but it was comparable to that. And the time I’d lost, how could that be?

I didn’t sleep well that night. I jerked away with a word on my lips that
I’d never spoken before and didn’t know what it meant. The covers were drenched in sweat, despite the cold of the room and I found myself feeling strangely exhilarated, like I’d been running. My heart was beating fast and my eyes darted around the room. I couldn’t get back to sleep.

I figured they had to have slipped me something or else used some kind of subliminal messaging, some fancy mind-fuck that messed you up. Why anyone would pay to feel like that was beyond me. And yet despite myself, despite every rational impulse in my body telling me to leave this alone, I wanted to go to that second meeting.

I wanted to find out what was so special about the second time that it made people want to come back again and again, pay such huge amounts of money for the privilege of being part of this little group. And I told myself that since it was going to be Blakely paying for it I didn’t really have anything to lose, except maybe a few hours of my time that I’d only spend sleeping or at some shitty bar or club anyway.

Why not try it out, a little voice in my head whispered. Why not see what makes it so special?

The night came and this time Blakely was waiting for me outside, looking anxious until he spotted me at which point he smiled happily and rushed over to meet me, like an eager little puppy.

“I was getting worried you weren’t gonna show” he said and I shrugged, brushing off his concern. Why the hell would he be worried? All me not showing up would mean is that he got to keep his money.

“Whatever. This is probably going to be the last time I do this” was all I said back, the words coming out a little more bluntly than I mean them to. But

Blakely didn’t seem to care, instead hurrying along towards the building, looking back now and then to make sure I was following him inside.

It was the same set up as last time, though a few more people were there now. The headphones went on, I sat before the screen and the static and white noise began to play.

Except this time it was different.

This time somehow the images seemed sharper, the voices more distinct. This time I began to feel more like I understood what I was seeing, what I was hearing. I began to feel immersed in it, as if the static was pouring out of the screen, flooding the room around me, surrounding me in a sea of black and white, all other noise lost in the roar of the sound from the headphones, the sound of voices, many voices.

A thousand, a million, maybe more. All speaking, in hushed whispers or perhaps loudly but infinitely far away, my skin tingling as I watched, as I felt myself being taken somewhere else.

And above it all was the shape, wings stretched wide, covering a thousand miles or more, its eyes looking into me, those black, empty eyes. The White Owl.

As before the session felt like it was over before it began. But this time I didn’t feel confused and irritable, this time I felt…different. I felt charged, energised. I felt like I was overflowing with life, like there was too much energy in me to be contained.

I felt like I could do a million things all at once and still not feel remotely tired, that I could do anything, anything at all.

I felt potent and primal, felt like a lion about to pounce upon limping prey.

That sensation of barely repressed power, ready to be unleashed upon the world. Like I could burst.

Blakely could clearly tell that this time was different. As soon as we were out the door I began to speak, hurriedly and eagerly, a grin on my face that would probably rival Blakely’s own.

“That felt INCREDIBLE!” was the first thing that came out and he nodded, evidently not surprised at this reaction.

“What’d I tell you? After the second time it’s all different”

“I feel fantastic! I feel…I feel BETTER than I’ve felt in…in ever! Like I could do anything, beat anyone, achieve any goal! I want to…I want to run! I want to run and swim and jump and…and HUNT”

The word slipped out without me even consciously meaning to say it. I had no idea why I said it. And yet it felt right, felt good. It was true, wasn’t it? I did, I wanted to hunt. I wanted to see something run before me and to give chase, to run it down, chase it until it was exhausted, until it couldn’t run anymore and then to pounce upon it, to devour it whole. To rip. To tear. To eat.

I was hungry. I was so hungry.

After that experience I started going more and more frequently. In fact pretty soon I was never missing a meeting, showing up for every single one of these little get-togethers the people selling ‘White Owl’ did. I was spending a small fortune on this every month and yet it really didn’t matter.

Because the more I went there, the more a funny thing started to happen.

Things just started falling into place for me. My job, that I’d found so taxing, so draining, became so simple.

It was if each burst of that static, each dose of that white noise had the effect of sharpening my mind, like a knife on a whetstone. As if I was being sculpted, perfected, the dull witted thing I once was being moulded into someone who could overcome any obstacle, beat any challenge.

Raises, promotions and hearty slaps on the back from those above me became a commonplace occurrence at work as I proved myself to them. As I became smarter, more focused. The imbeciles around me, unable to see the solutions
I saw, unable to work to the standard I worked, gazed at me with envy.

“What’s his secret?” I imagined them muttering to themselves.

I won’t deny that there were…side effects. The odd dream I’d had after the first dose became the norm. My dreams became increasingly bizarre. Not frightening I would say, just strange.

I would imagine myself somewhere else. Someone else. Something old and powerful and strong, in a place far from here. Wet grass beneath my bare feet, and the sound of the ocean, the smell of fresh air that had never been tainted by the pollution of man.

I would imagine myself surrounded by things, things that slithered and skittered and crawled, that chattered in a billion strange and ancient voices, in a language not meant to be heard by those unworthy of this blessing. I imagined myself stood with others like me on an island far from ‘civilisation’, in a place long forgotten by the foolish and fickle.

We would sing and dance and run and hunt. We would call up to the sky and hear an answer from somewhere far away and yet close.

I imagined a vast structure, huge and imposing, stretching up to the sky like a tower of Babel, its design utterly alien, utterly unlike anything one would dream up for people to live or work in, covered in strange writing and odd sculptures.

And I knew that there were things living inside it, vast things. I imagine shapes, things I could recall with no great clarity when I woke up, huge fleshy bulks that glistened and shimmered and moved so fast that they made everything else appear to be slow motion. And above it all, her wings stretched out to blot out the sky, her eyes looking down upon us, was the White Owl, the beautiful and terrible White Owl.

Each time I would wake up I would remember a little bit more. Never the whole thing, never the whole shape of what I was seeing but my memories would become clearer. Like they weren’t memories of a dream but memories of something that really happened, long ago. Sometimes I would imagine, just for a brief moment that I wasn’t alone in my room when I woke up. That all around me were things in the dark, chittering and hissing their eyes locked on me.

I imagined they were proud.

I was hungry all the time. I was eating more and more and yet never gaining weight, my clothes getting baggy and loose on me no matter how much food I gobbled down. It was as if the White Owl wouldn’t allow me to put on weight, as if it sculpted my body as perfectly as it sculpted my mind, not letting me get out of shape. It was the same with Blakely and some of the other guys too I noticed.

The first stray dog I killed was probably about nine months into this thing. I didn’t plan to do it or anything, I just…I saw it there. Old and limping and weak. I picked up a can from the sidewalk and threw it, made it run.

It had to run, had to flee. Had to have a chance, I suppose. And then I was bounding after it, pouncing on it, teeth and nails digging, biting, and ripping into it.

I was disgusted with myself after I was done. But for the first time in months

I felt full. I felt satisfied.

After that it became something of a nightly thing for me. Stray dogs and…other things. Standing there with blood under my nails and on my teeth, licking it from my lips. I felt like I was tapping into something ancient and powerful, buried underneath all the layers of politeness and ‘society’. I felt like roaring up to the sky, howling my triumph to the stars. Sometimes I imagined that there were eyes looking back down at me, proud of my accomplishment.

Proud of the hunt.

Then came the night that changed things.

We knew that there was something different as soon as we arrived, Blakely and I. When we showed up at the time and place we’d been told to gather there were no screens set up, no headphones waiting to be comfortably fitted over our ears. Everyone was sat in a circle, a bunch of the regulars and a few of the ‘casuals’…those who either didn’t have the money or the dedication to make it to every meeting, who didn’t do White Owl every time it was available.

How we despised them. How we sneered. They would never understand the full experience, never truly be embraced by this majestic and beautiful thing we had allowed into our heads. For them this was just another buzz, another high. For us it was something transformative. Something holy.

Blakely and I sat down, no one saying a word. We all eyed each other up; all wondering what this could be about. And then the door opened and a newcomer stepped into the circle.

She was tall and dressed in a dark black suit with red gloves. One side of her mouth sported a jagged scar, giving her the appearance of a jagged grin, her short red hair a mass of curls. She held a chain in one hand, attached to a collar around the neck of a man dressed in a wifebeater that was stained a bright red, his arms and face caked in the same. He would take a few lumbering and clumsy steps with each tug on the chain, his eyes bloodshot, his pupils like pinholes.

“This is Jonas.

Jonas is my dog” the woman said, by way of introduction. She didn’t give her name. Her voice was strange and difficult to listen to. At first I was unsure of what it was but something about it sounded hollow, artificial.
Like it wasn’t a real voice at all but one that was being generated by a computer or something like that. And more than that, the voice hurt. She spoke normally and yet it felt like it was too loud, like all the noise in the room was absorbed by it so it was the only thing you were allowed to hear.

“One of you has let me down. One of you has broken my heart with your betrayal.

And Jonas is here to find the betrayer.

One of you has been talking to the police. Naively thinking there is anyone you can talk to who doesn’t belong to me. Naively thinking that they are smarter than me”

Her voice hurt so much to listen to. I could tell it wasn’t just me, the others flinched with every word, looking nervously at each other, all of them thinking the same thing. Which of you was it? And what will she do to us because of it? Every single one of us was afraid in that moment, afraid that all would be punished because of what one had done.

Myself, I was most worried that she would no longer give us the White Owl. The thought of having it taken from me, not getting my regular fix of the White Owl was the worst thing I could imagine.

The woman came to look at each of us in turn, her eyes focused on us with a frightening intensity. Her eyes looked wrong. Her face looked wrong. Not the scar, the scar was hardly the worst thing I’d seen but just something about her was off. It made my skin crawl to be near her. I saw others flinch away as she brought the tips of her fingers near to their faces.

Finally she came to a stop at a sickly looking man. He was a casual user of White Owl, not someone who showed up often but I’d noticed him there a few times. It didn’t surprise me to see that it was one of the casuals who had sold us out. In that instant I hated him, despised him, wanted to tear him apart. How DARE he try and ruin this wonderful thing for us?

He began to whimper and stammer out claims that this wasn’t true, that he would never do this thing but the woman looked like she was looking right through him, like he wasn’t even there. Like nothing he said was being heard.


You have upset me”

The man’s face drained of all colour as if he knew that those words would be some of the last ones he would hear in what little remained of his life.

“Hold him”

Two of us stepped forward to grab his arms. He begged and cried and pleaded for us to stop this, his voice becoming higher and shriller as she beckoned for us to bring him, tugging on Jonas’s chain. The blood soaked thing on the chain turned and followed her, the rest of us accompanying them, dragging the kicking and shrieking man with us, knowing that this location was surely carefully chosen so as to make sure that no one would hear him who could help.

We stepped out into the cool night air to see a crowd had gathered. Others dressed in smart suits like us but with the crucial difference that each of them wore upon their faces a white mask, featureless but for two large dark ovals. I didn’t feel surprised to see them. I can’t speak for the others but none of them, even the casuals, looked that shocked that they were there.

Like the woman they were new to us, unfamiliar and yet at the same time it felt like we knew them. Like we had seen them before. And we all instantly knew that they were here to be a part of whatever was to follow.

Darren, the crying and screaming wreck of a man who had earlier been so composed, was hurled to the ground at the woman’s feet. She looked down at him the way one would look at a mass of maggots they had found in their dinner, a look of unrestrained and complete disgust. He got on his knees, sweaty hands clasped together as if in prayer, begging for his life, begging for her not to hurt him, insisting he had done nothing wrong.

She clearly did not care.


He looked at her, confused.


You’ll be given a five minute head start

Then we hunt. We hunt YOU”

He looked at each of us in turn. Did he expect any of us to plead his case? Ask her not to do this? HELP him? What a stupid little man. As if any of us would cross her. As if any of us would do anything that might get us cut off from the supply of White Owl. But then that’s a casual for you. He took off running after a few moments and I looked over at the woman.

And for an instant she wasn’t the same. She wore no mask and yet for just a second, for a split second, her face was not her face at all. Her hair was gone. Her head was bald and devoid of facial features, save for two massive black circles where one would expect to see eyes. Two pitch black sockets that seemed not to merely contain darkness but an absence, an absence of anything at all.

And then it was gone and she was once more as she had been before. Her eyes lingered on me as if she knew what I had seen, and I thought for an instant

I saw a smile there.

We waited for a few minutes and then Blakely stepped forward, eager to begin.

“So do we do it now?

Do we hunt?”

There was a pause. She looked at him, her expression unreadable. Unknowable.

“The five minutes weren’t for him”

The gunshot was louder than I thought it would be. I mean I’d only heard a gun go off on TV before now. In real life it’s really much noisier.

Blakely’s expression slowly turned from that confident, cocky grin to a look of confusion and pain, as a dark red stain began to spread, seeping through his shirt. Dumbly he pressed his hands to the wound, as if not quite believing it was real, red coating his hands as he dropped to his knees, much as Darren had before him.

“I knew it was you Blakely.

I just wondered if you would confess”

I was so disappointed in him. But then Blakely had always been greedy. But to try and sell us out, to sample the delights and wonders of White Owl and then try and earn himself a quick buck by selling us out, it disgusted me. It was strange how little our former friendship meant as I looked down at him, I suppose. But suddenly he wasn’t a friend or even a man at all.

He was traitor.

“The hunt is sacred, Blakely. Do you think I would desecrate it like this?

Traitors don’t get hunted.

Traitors just get butchered”, the woman said.

And then, as one mass, we fell upon him. With nails and teeth we fell upon him, clawing, biting, scratching, gouging, ripping tearing. The sound of tearing clothes followed by the sounds of tearing flesh, as Blakely vanished into a dozen hungry, eager mouths. And he wasn’t even a traitor to me anymore. Now he was meat.

I didn’t feel hungry for weeks afterwards.

You should have seen Darren’s face when we caught up to him…forgive me for chuckling but he really thought we were going to hunt and eat HIM! Oh lord was his face a picture…we all had a good laugh about it afterwards though, once he’d calmed down and gotten himself another dose of the good stuff to calm his nerves. The woman, who I learned after was named Fenris, even gave him that nights dose for free, to compensate him for his troubles. He was a good sport about it after that.

Blakely officially took off on an ‘extended vacation’ after that, during which, as far as the boys at the office and his family members are concerned, he met a beautiful young woman who he eloped with on the spur of the moment.

I’m sure he’ll still send his family postcards though. We all share a little smile every time we ‘receive’ them at the office too.

We pin them up on the notice boards and everything, letting anyone who walks past read about what a good time Blakely’s having.

And wouldn’t you know it with him gone, guess who wound up getting picked for that cushy top job he was going to be getting? A big promotion, a big pay rise…and a MUCH nicer office. I guess I have to thank Blakely really. He introduced me to White Owl and now, with him ‘away’ I guess he’s helped me out in another way too.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re waiting for the downside, right? You’re waiting to hear how it all went wrong, so I can warn you to stay away from White Owl and the people who peddle it, waiting for the part where something horrible happens and I learn the error of my ways too late.

This isn’t that kind of story. And that sure as hell isn’t why I’m telling you it.

I’m telling you it because one day, maybe one day soon, you might just get an invitation to try White Owl.

Someone, a friend or a relative might slip a card into your pocket with a time.

A date.

And a place.

And I would strongly encourage you to go there.

Because here’s the thing. I know I made it clear at the start of this story I hate clichés but I’m going to have to end on one I feel is particularly relevant.

It really IS a jungle out there. And take it from me, it’s eat…or be EATEN

Credit: Alice Thompson

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The Ragman

October 31, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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“He’s waiting, he’s watching. He’s biding his time.
He stares as your sleeping, it’s just after nine.
You‘re holding your blanket, In comfortable heaven.
He’s sneaking towards you, the clock says eleven.

You dream about candy, and chocolate and fun.
He’s nearly beside you, it’s just turning one.
You don’t see him coming, there’s no time to flee.
You wake up, you scream. It’s his time. It’s three.”

Old children‘s tale, The Ragman.

I’ve always had a keen interest in horror. Ever since I was a young boy and my friend Richard and I used to sneak into his living room at night when I’d stay over. We’d stick on whatever scary film we could find on VHS or we’d turn on his TV and watch one that we’d spotted in the TV guide.
I remember watching the movie ‘Halloween’ when I was roughly twelve. It terrified me, sent chills up my spine and made me peek over my shoulder for the next week but it intrigued me. I kept lapping up all the ghost stories and horror tales that I could get my hands on. I watched the Exorcist when I was fourteen and it freaked the hell out of me. I didn’t sleep for about a month I’d say.
That was also roughly around the time that I discovered the delights of Stephen King and James Herbert novels. Nerve shredding chills on every page and there was just so many of them that I could barely have the time to read them all. No matter how old I got, no matter how mature I became, I never lost that spirit. That need to be frightened by a horror story or movie. That desire to feel terrified. That’s probably why I turned to writing horror myself. I just wanted to give someone else that thrill that I’d been seeking all throughout my adolescence.
In time I unfortunately grew desensitized to scary movies and books. It‘s part of growing up. The feeling of fear when watching a terrifying movie alone with the lights off began to get diluted as I became older and I began looking for bigger and better scares.
Searching for ghost stories or other tales of dread that people had told me were real became the next big thing. Not the stories that you might see on the TV screen and then switch off and simply try to forget. Not the tale in the pages of a book that’s escaped from by shutting it. I went from town to town and all over the web hearing all the ramblings of the paranoid and the true believers and after years of searching I found something. That experience with the truly macabre that came with the chill up my spine. The peeking over my shoulder. The difficulty of sleeping simply by knowing it. The most disturbing and heart retching, fear inducing tale of menace that I had ever heard. Well, to be honest, I am a little bias and I will tell you why. It’s simple, it happened to me. Here is my account with the entity known as ’The Ragman’.

In my home you could find all sorts of horror paraphernalia. Old books, haunted dolls, crucifixes used during real life exorcisms and just about every scary movie you could mention. Give me a thunderstorm and a camera and I could give you a truly terrifying scene by simply filming any part of my house. Still, everybody has their vices. Mine was something I was proud of. It had become difficult to meet women though. Most of them couldn’t stay in my house too long and it’s no wonder why. There just simply isn’t enough cushions in the world to block your sight from that much frightening imagery. That is just the way that I am however, and say what you want about me. I don’t change to suit someone else, a trait that I find to be a rare quality.
Let me start the tale of ‘The Ragman’ by giving you a little history lesson in folklore. While you may not be aware of it, the story has been around for centuries. Supposedly it was taken up by the Grimms brothers at some stage and became a fairytale of sorts. This of course was back in a time that all fairytales were darker and more chilling. Back in the day when Disney didn’t own the rights to them. When they had a more sinister effect on the imagination. Eventually it was forgotten as its details were known to be too grim (excuse the pun) for a child’s bedtime story. Parents refused to tell the story to their kids and it was lost over time. If you ask me, they were right to. I had never heard of the story, in all my years of researching tales of terror but that changed on the evening of November 12th. The date I received a painting.

It was a morning like all others, nothing special or noteworthy about it, therefore, I’ll try not to bore you with the unimportant details of exactly what happened in work and get right into the story. I went to work, as I always do every weekday, for eight hours, in the planning and payroll section of the local authorities office. Sorting out invoices for local businesses and decades old planning files. Boring work basically, and like all other days I was glad and exhausted when the clock said five.
I immediately went home eager to get online and talk to my friends over Facebook about a party which I had been planning for that night. Nothing special, just a couple of drinks, a scary movie or two. To celebrate the fact that it‘s Friday and I had the rest of the weekend to enjoy and because I still had Halloween fever. I always tried to remain social amongst my immediate circle of friends, most of them I had already converted into die hard horror fans. Some of them hadn’t quite become comfortable with it, which also suited me. If you’re not intrigued you’d be scared and that’s what it’s all about.
I reached the patio doors at the front of the house and just as I was about to find the front door key hidden within the rest of my keys I spotted a package just inside the closed patio door. It was large, surrounded by brown paper and was covered with a two thin lines of white string, one horizontal, one vertical meeting in the middle in a large knot. I didn’t need to open it to know that by it’s dimensions it was some kind of painting or poster, framed, as the outline of the paper suggested. It had a small note attached to it, which I picked up and read.
‘Title: The Ragman. This should offer adequate material for a story.’
I was a little perplexed. It wasn’t entirely unheard of for people to send ideas, objects or pictures of a scary scenario to me. Normally it was done online and it almost always came with the name of the contributor so that they could have their names in the finished piece. But this trinket came with nothing of the sort. Not even a return address. Still, I was curious so I took it inside.
After settling myself with a hot drink and taking my coat off I undid the string that hid the mysterious picture underneath. As the brown paper fell from view I was struck with the beautiful but haunting image that dwelled on the other side. It was a large painting, roughly three feet by two. It depicted the edge of some kind of haunted woodland on a mound encompassing the left portion of the painting, overlooking some kind of plantation style house and surrounding land on the right. The plantation land was being toiled by labourers and land owners that watched on, drinking some kind of iced beverage (I assumed) seemingly oblivious to a menacing and daunting, long limbed and aberrant figure standing on the mound at the foreground to the left of the scene. He was wearing some kind of strange pin striped, dark and ragged suit that barely covered the base of each of his twisted limbs. His fingers extended, pointing towards the house in the distance. They seemed disproportionate to the rest of his strangely thin body. He had an odd hunch on his back which facilitated a tear on the suit. He had badly worn shoes on his feet that were torn at the seams, much like the rest of his attire, and he pointed from the trees, into the direction of the house in the distance, his face trapped in some kind of twisted laugh. His eyes were pale and white, giving some kind of deathly omen and his smile stretched from one ear of his large head to the other, bearing gritty, yellowish teeth. His long, dark hair strewn past his shoulders. He seemed to even absorb the color from his side of the picture, leaving the whole tree line melancholic with a deep sense of foreboding. The picture genuinely unnerved me. I put it down, propped it up against the wall and examined it intimately, my eyes focusing on every detail, noticing that there was no date or artists signature anywhere to be seen. I felt a chill up my spine, that cold sensation I had felt when I was frightened as a young boy. Whoever sent me the picture had indeed given me good material, and I thought to myself ‘Bravo’.

I hung the picture up in the spare room downstairs connected to the sitting room. It was originally a utility room that had been converted into a spare room by the landlord two years ago, right before I moved in. I would occasionally let a friend sleep in the room now as I didn’t have anyone else to share the rent at the moment. The picture sat above the radiator on the wall opposite the entrance to the room so that it could be seen from the living room if you simply kept the door opened. It would help with the inspiration.
Later that night, one by one, my friends showed up. We partook in some drinks, put on a DVD in the background (not really paying attention) and discussed life in general but we also discussed the gift that I had received at great length. The painting became the life of the party as I mentioned it to everyone when they came in. People discussed the disturbing imagery in the painting, the fact that there was no name to take the credit for the painting and also the title. Like myself none of them had ever heard of ‘The Ragman.’
They all had their two cents on the art and then requested that I keep the door closed for the rest of the party which I did. It seemed a little too eerie for some. For a time afterwards people threw ideas at me for what kind of story I should write with it. One of them thought that I should write about the plantation owner in civil war era and that the Ragman should be an avenging angel to get vengeance on the evil land baron for cruelty to slavery. One of them postulated that the Ragman be a disfigured slave himself, his gaunt body having been tortured by the master of the house. I thought the best suggestion however was when someone mentioned that he should simply come out of the haunted forest for victims. It should not be related to the fact that the man owned slaves, on the contrary, he should just show up out of the woods for the rich mans children. Stories are always scarier when they involve innocent children I thought.
Eventually as the evening dwindled people started to leave, the drinks and tiredness had gotten the better of them. I offered the room if anyone wanted to stay but they all politely declined. Some of them said that they didn’t want to get up in the morning and have to go then and would instead rather leave now. Some said that they just preferred the comfort that only their own bed could give but I knew the real reason. The conversation about the painting had unsettled most of them.
As the night came to a close I walked the last guest to the door, an old friend of mine, Matt. He smelled like there was a thick blanket of beer surrounding him. I thought to myself that it was a good thing he wasn’t driving. As I said my goodbyes I asked one last time his opinion on my acquisition.
“So what you think of the picture?”. He placed his hand up to his mouth as his response came with a slight burp that reeked of alcohol.
“Very creepy” he said. “Gives me chills. I hate the way he’s just pointing at you with that messed up smile…anyways, good luck. I’ll see you later.” he answered, fighting off another beer soaked burp.
I closed the door behind him and locked it. I began turning off the lights in the house one by one, starting with downstairs. I decided to leave the empty bottles of beer on the sitting room table until tomorrow morning when I would have the energy to clean. I saw from the lack of light under the doorway to the spare room that the light had already been switched off and I flicked the switch in the living room before making my way up to bed. One by one I turned the lights off. The one in the downstairs hall, the one on the stairs, bit by bit the house was succumbing to the darkness of the winter night, culminating in the final switch for the landing at the top of the stairs. Then I entered my bedroom, took my clothes off, apart from my T-shirt and my boxer shorts, turned off the final light in my room and then got into bed. I decided to even leave brushing my teeth until the morning, after all, I had been drinking and didn’t care about my dental hygiene. I just wanted to sleep more than anything.
I lay there in the darkness for a few minutes waiting for the grip of my dreams to hoist me to sleep when a thought struck me. I felt that tingling down my spine so much worse than before and for the first time in years I panicked as a thought of pure horror made me recoil under the covers like a child. Did Matt say that the figure in the painting pointed outwards?
The thought swam around my mind like a hungry shark. The figure in the painting, the Ragman, pointed towards the plantation house. That much I was certain. I had spent some time earlier studying every inch of that artistry and was convinced that that’s what I saw. Yet Matt said, clear as day, “…I hate that way he’s just pointing at you with that messed up smile…”
My mind flooded with rational thoughts to explain how he must have been mistaken. How, perhaps the alcohol he had consumed had gotten the upper hand on his better judgement. I composed myself as I lay half under the covers. I laughed to myself quietly at that moment, dismissing my fears as flights of fantasy. Dreams of an old horror fan, looking for the attention his imaginary counterparts had received in the stories he had read his whole life. I lay there, still, for a time. All I could do was see the image of the picture in my mind. I studied it again and again in my head and every time I regarded the painting, the figure near the woods, the Ragman, pointed at the plantation house. I knew that I would not get sleep with this notion itching at the back of my mind so I decided to go downstairs to check the damnable picture myself.
What’s the worst that could happen? I have a haunted painting in my house, I thought to myself. Maybe it could be worth something. With this thought I sat up and turned on the bedside lamp which lay on the locker next to me. I uncovered myself and walked over to the light switch on the other end of the room, near the door. I flicked it on and proceeded out into the landing. The cold air in the house tickled my skin in my dishevelled state of undress but that was the least of my concerns. I made my way downstairs turning on all the other switches again in reverse order from before until I was in the living room. I stood there for a few seconds, staring at the spare room door. It was strange but I felt uneasy at that moment. All the experience I had with true terror, whether it was in the words of an author or the celluloid of the silver screen were now working against me, giving me a million reasons not to open the door. Perhaps there was a demonic entity on the other side. Perhaps there was a monstrous creature ready to devour my very soul and take me, screaming into the pits of hell. Perhaps it was just a picture. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
I was greeted with the dark room, on the wall on the opposite end hung the painting, its features fogged and jaded, a mere silhouette in the pitch black. I flicked on the light expecting the outstretched arms of the devil himself to reach from the framed menace on the wall but instead it was just the opposite. A simple picture. I looked at it, squinting to capture all the details, and because of the sudden introduction of light into the room and saw that the figure indeed did point towards the front of the painting. Maybe I was wrong, I thought. It was hours ago and I didn’t really look for that long. I must’ve simply been mistaken. I took one last glance as I switched off the light. It was more than at the front of the painting that his long, bony, disproportionate fingers were pointing. They were pointing at me. I closed the door.
Mere hours later is when things began to get….interesting.

I awoke from a deep sleep at 3:07 to the distant, rhythmic sound of tapping.
My eyes weren’t heavy. I wasn’t still fighting the compunction to drift back to my dreams. I was fully aware, as if I hadn’t slept at all. The tapping sound took all of my focus. With the lack of light in the room it seemed as though the strange sound was all that existed. Even in my state of complete awareness it took several seconds to register the intrusion of my thoughts. I looked over at the time on the alarm clock on my bedside locker and notice that it was just after three. My mind studied the sound, which came every two seconds or so in increments of three light sounding knocks and determined that whatever was tapping was hitting against something wooden. It sounded too far away to be coming from my within bedroom too. If I cared to guess I would’ve said that it came from downstairs. I sat up in bed and turned on the bedside lamp. I sat there for a time, in my tiny kingdom of light as I listened studiously to the tapping sound. I made my way downstairs against my instincts in an attempt to find the source.
By the time I had made it to the base of the stairs the tapping stopped. I checked the whole floor meticulously after turning on all the lights, leaving the spare room to last but I could not find where it had come from. I was somewhat hoping to confront a rational reason for the sound but could not decide whether it was more frightening to let my imagination create the cause or find it the cause of something else that was supernatural. I eventually went back to sleep, my answers unfulfilled.
This happened to me at the same time for the next few days. I would awaken to the tapping sound from my sleep into a state of complete awareness, and it was always at the same time. Always at 3:07. Most nights I wouldn’t even get out of bed, because I never found where it came from, but I knew. I didn’t want to believe it but deep in the depths of my soul I knew where it came from. After a while I eventually had to admit defeat with the painting. I decided to devote myself to investigating its origins in great detail and I took the sheet from the bed in the spare room and draped it over the picture. It had declared war now and I was going to delve into the rabbit hole and see what I could find. I decided that I wouldn’t tell my friends about what foulness had befallen me. The last thing I wanted was them mocking me. They would just say that I was getting what I deserve, searching for ghosts and other entities, only to find one. Not exactly a surprise. I could already hear their jeers.
I spent the next two weeks looking for some clues to the origin of the painting and for a history behind the story of the Ragman to no avail. Then something really strange happened.

I awoke from a deep sleep at 3:07 to the distant, rhythmic sound of tapping.
It was early morning of November 28th, Sunday. I lay there in my bed, as usual. The sound of tapping goading me to come search for it, attempting to spur me to action. As I lay there, observing the thin rays of moonlight that breached the confines of the otherwise dreary, dark bedroom my eyes began to become accustom to the lack of light. More and more of the room came into focus. The tapping in the distant corner of the house mocking my attempts at rest. I was getting agitated with the unwelcome disturbances and they seemed tame at this point. I mean, a horror story about a man who is annoyed by a tapping sound was not enough in itself. I was starting to get bored with the antics at this point.
Then I heard a loud crash. The unmistakable sound of falling wood from downstairs. The sudden, thundering ruction echoed within the entire house and caused me to sit bolt upright, the adrenaline took control and prepared my body to flee as fast as my muscles would physically allow. The bone chilling thunderclap was followed by a slightly quieter sound of a similar nature, indicating that something had indeed fallen downstairs. It was obvious that it was the painting. That was the way my mind worked now, something went wrong, it was the painting.
I composed myself momentarily and got up out of bed to confront whatever the sound maker was. It was becoming second nature now, turning on the lights in the house to check the darkened corners. To peer into the hidden vestiges of my house of horrors. It was a nerve wrecking time indeed, but this night was different. The tapping was low and agitating, much like the noise didn’t want to wake me, rather just to know that something was there. This was different, this was aggressive and violent. I made my way into the living room and stared at the spare room door. I gathered the courage that I had inside me and I opened it.
As I stood there I gazed into the gloom and noticed that the window next to the bed was opened. The wind from outside was blowing the curtains wildly, their fabric fighting against the gust as if desperate to stay attached to the window frame. I felt the cold breeze, since I was only in my boxer shorts and T-shirt again I shuddered for a moment. The painting was lying on the floor underneath its designated hanging place, it’s back facing me and the sheet was lying on the ground next to it. I uttered my annoyance at the open window thinking that in my lack of sleep I left it open at some point. I was making a habit these days of going into the room occasionally to check that the sheet still covered the picture and some ominous force hadn‘t removed it.
I walked over to the window and made an attempt to close it, jamming the wooden frame down hard. It stuck half way and required more force but eventually I got it closed. I stepped over the sheet strewn across the floor and I picked up the picture, turning it over in the process. My eyes widened as a sickening shot of fear ran all the way down my spine, causing all the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck, making my limbs go numb and my whole mind shut down out of terror. I dropped the painting and fell straight backwards into a seated position, forgetting the pain of falling as my arms lay behind me to keep me up, staring at the picture intently with a new-found horror I could barely keep contained. I was afraid to break eye contact from the picture which lay diagonally, facing me, in all its malice, empty of the Ragman. I lay there motionless as I realised that everything about the painting was just as it had always been, but in place of the figure on the left side was an empty mound. My eyes took a few seconds to process this earth shattering information. The mound on the left of the picture, where the Ragman had been standing, watching the door to the spare room was no longer in the picture. How had this happened? Was the picture truly haunted? How could this be?….Where was he? That last question was the most disturbing. After looking at the void in the painting for this extended time I noticed something else that was equally disturbing. One of the trees that lay on the outskirt of the wood, more specifically the tree that the Ragmans right hand was on as he pointed outwards had another feature. Scratches of some kind. No, not scratches. Etchings, from weeks of tapping against it every night. At least that’s how I perceived it.
I got up from the floor with the unbalanced flair of a man running for his life. I left the room, leaving the painting lying where it had fallen and closed the door behind me. I flew into the living room, desperate to get away, to go anywhere but here. I bumped into the table in the living room with force and fell in a heap on the floor, pain searing through my leg as I caught my shin bone off the edge of the table. I was only down for seconds before I staggered upwards heading straight for the living room door. A loud, powerful, devilish cackle filled the air, coming straight from the room that I had left in such a terrified hurry. My senses were in full alert as I ran into the hallway, screaming in white knuckle terror. The laugh began to die off as I got further from the spare room. I didn’t dare look back, instead running for the front door. I fumbled with the handle as I attempted to open it, the cackle then started to get progressively louder as whatever was making the sound was seemingly getting closer to me. I was too afraid to look back, too scared that it may be my last time if I did. My mind attempted to prompt me to my terrible thoughts, feigning the feeling of something touching the back of my neck, causing my muscles to tense at the thought and my mouth to emit a horrified scream. I realised in that moment that the door was locked, as it always had been and that the keys were upstairs. I slumped to the ground, sobbing and with as much courage as I could scrape from inside me I turned to look down the hall, down in the direction of the living room door. Down towards the ever increasing laugh. Then nothing.
No evil demon, no wretched, horrible creature. No Ragman.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that night. I certainly didn’t try in that house. I went to a motel, leaving the place locked up, just the way that it was when all that happened. I didn’t even put the painting back up. That night I just stayed in the motel with my laptop checking my friends Facebook profile to see if anyone mentioned anything similar happening to them, but there was nothing.

I returned to the house the next day, under the protection of the daylight. I decided to take another sick day off work. The restless nights meant that I didn’t have the energy some days to go in. I had nearly used up all of my payable sick days at this point but it was for a worthy cause.
I unlocked the front door and walked into the house. On outside inspection you would not have thought that anything had gone wrong in the house at all. I walked down the hall towards the sitting room and entered. I felt a sudden chill at the sight of the open spare room door and the fallen picture that lay opposite. I could see, even from the sitting room doorway that the figure of the Ragman had returned to the painting. I walked over for a closer inspection. It seemed as though it was all there, as it was the day I received it. The figure was there, the trees had returned to normal. I was both relieved and confused. I made my decision that I would stay in the house again that night but this time I was going to set up cameras around the house. If horror movies had thought me anything it’s that you need proof, lest you be branded a lunatic.
I spent most of that day procuring all the equipment I could to record anything that would happen in the house that night. I had some of it already, being an avid fan of films. I can’t say that the rest didn’t cost me a pretty penny but I was eager to catch that ‘thing’ inside my house. I felt a little safer at the thought of all the corners being watched, but still the more time that past that day, the darker it got as it reached night, the more I felt uneasy. The longer that I spent in that house the more I felt supernatural eyes watching my every move, waiting for me to fall asleep. At roughly midnight I did.

I awoke from a deep sleep at 3:07 to the distant, rhythmic sound of tapping.
This time I was ready though. I was already dressed before the clock turned to 3:08. I had already had the lights in the house on, so that the cameras could catch everything, no matter how brief or small. I went down the stairs and into the living room. As I reached the door the tapping sound disappeared. I opened the door to look in. The spare room had been left open, the picture returned to where it had been these last few weeks. The sheet had even been removed just to see if what happened before would repeat itself. There was a mounted camera on a tripod behind the living room table, facing the open spare room door. A light at the side of the camera shone into the direction of the room and the light in the sitting room was still on to catch whatever would be there. When I opened the door and looked in I saw the painting was hung up where I had left it after I prepared the cameras, absent ‘The Ragman’. It stood there staring at me. The mound empty, the plantation house alone, the trees free of their friend who had been terrorizing me.
I let out a quiet wail, out of shock. I began to cower, reaching for a wall behind me so that I could not be ambushed. The tapping sound returned, this time accompanied by the sound of laughter. I don’t know how I knew, there was no way, but I felt that the laughter was sarcastic, as if I had angered him and he was laughing at my failed attempt, my attempt to make him look the fool. The laughter resonated throughout the house but I was close enough to discern its origin. It was coming from the kitchen. I mustered up all my available courage and slowly moved towards the dining room and then the kitchen. I could hear the sound of pots and cups banging against the counters as if someone was having a tantrum. The laughter was sickeningly twisted.
As I reached the side of the open kitchen I closed my eyes and reached out with my fingers so that I could drag the rest of my barely willing body to look inside the room. I peered around the corner and saw it. The Ragman stood in the kitchen throwing dishes around as it flailed. Its long limbs I determined to be about three times the length of mine and with its thin frame it towered at least twelve feet tall. It was hunched over and its knees were bent as it couldn’t stand upright in the room. It moved energetically but violently, knocking over all the cutlery it could see in an anarchistic, trashing frenzy. Its laugh occasionally turned into a growl as it moved its arms in a feral motion. Then it turned and looked straight at me. I was frozen in terror and for just a second I didn’t realize that almost half of me was visible as I was peeking around the corner. It looked into my eyes and I stuttered in dumbfounded disbelief. It was only when the hunched figure frantically ran towards me that my instincts took over and I attempted to flee, my voice uttering an automatic howl of desperate fear.
There were crashing sounds as furniture was tossed around the dining room and its excessively long legs made running meaningless. I felt an icy cold hand grip my shoulder and spin me around. My eyes were jammed shut as long, nimble fingers wrapped around my throat and I was hoisted up against the wall like a rag doll. I heard the laughter mere inches from my face and felt its breath against my cheeks. I opened my eyes and looked at it then, noticing its unnaturally large face, pale skin and its deeply disturbing, incomprehensibly evil eyes. Its smile was extended to impossible proportions and it spoke in a loud, gravely, guttural voice which shook me to my core.
“iT iS rUdE oF yOu NoT tO aNsWeR mE”.
I simply stared, dumbstruck by its immense stature and the ease at which it was holding me off the ground. My arms held its hand as it kept me against the wall. My attempts to break the grip were futile. Then it spoke again.
“yOu ArE mEaNt To AsK wHo’S tHeRe”.
I stared at it. For a moment I had forgotten that it was pinning me against the wall and with the greatest of ease it could snap my neck. I pondered what it was saying to me and although the words together made sense, I still didn’t understand what in the world it was talking about. I simply looked at it, puzzled.
“aFtErALL I’vE bEeN kNoCk – KnOcKiNg fOr WeEkS nOw…”
Then it laughed with a raging force that shook my whole body and I screamed loud and hard. The room began to spin and I became dizzy as the overflow of impossible information started to weigh my thoughts down and I slipped into unconsciousness. The laughter echoed in my mind until a darkness swept over me and I was consumed by nothingness.
Sounds flooded my skull, faded and distant and I opened my eyes. It took me a moment to realise that I was lying on the dining room floor. There was no sign of the Ragman. I sat up against the wall. My attention was caught by shards of plastic strewn across the floor and bent sticks of metal. It took me a few moments to figure out that the shrapnel that was lying on the dining room floor sharing the space with me was the remnants of the camera equipment that I had set up. I knew without thorough examination that there was nothing left that could be construed as tangible evidence of the supernatural. I felt alone and defeated. I felt that there was nothing that I could do. I gripped my knees as I sat there, leaning against the wall. I cried for just a moment.

I stood up and gathered my will. I marched into the spare room beyond the living room and I grabbed the painting off the wall. I couldn’t tell you if the figure was back or not because quite frankly at that moment I simply didn’t care. Without a second thought I broke the frame and tore the canvas within into pieces. The pieces I placed in the fire and then burned them. I then walked upstairs and got dressed to leave the house. I had the eerie suspicion that I was being watched. More than that, it felt that there was always something in my peripherals just shy of sight waiting to grab me. That there was a thousand eyes on me at all times but that I was alone. I grabbed my keys and my laptop. I left the house, lights on and all. I had had enough of that place.
I got in my car and drove away. I didn’t know where I was going, only that I was going as far away as I could. The entire journey I spotted things in the shadows. Things that weren’t there. I was jumping at every sound just waiting to be ambushed. I had passed through the looking glass and now existed in a world where everything was possible. I felt that everything that we knew as a species was meaningless and that there was an entire multitude of worlds beneath the surface of ours. I knew that I would never be the same after that night.

Now that we’re at the end of our story I can tell you the conclusion. This is where you come in. You see, I went to a motel room that night again and I spent hours, and I mean hours searching for any details on the Ragman. I needed to know what it wanted and what I should do to rid myself of its torment. Well the good news is that I eventually did find it. I stumbled across the old Grimms Brothers tale of ‘The Ragman’. As it turns out there was a very simple way to escape his clutches and save yourself from becoming one of his victims. You see the Ragman is a tale of an entity that thrives on the fears of young children. If you want to rid yourself of the fear of the Ragman you simply tell one of your friends. You tell them every detail of the horror that the Ragman puts you through and let it fester within them. The Ragman is effectively a tale of ‘Ghost story tag’. Until eventually the last one cannot find someone new to tell and the Ragman reaches out to them in the depths of their nightly slumbers to make them his. That’s what the painting was about. Someone must have had some problem with me or just knew that I would be attracted to horror material like that and purged themselves of the horror of the Ragman. It didn’t work on my friends either because I can’t passed on someone else’s story. You need to tell it yourself. That must have been why it did not appreciate the cameras in the house. So I have stayed up for as long is I could in this motel room writing out this story. Trying to put in all the details that I can. Trying to paint you a picture of what the Ragman was like for me. I have deliberately tried to terrify you, frighten you, even intrigue you slightly. That’s all that I need. Just enough for you to think about him for a brief moment.
Tag. You’re it.

Credit: Paul Breen Jnr

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The Night’s Hook

October 30, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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The Night’s Hook

I am writing this to occupy my mind before its sanity disintegrates by thinking about the horrors lurking outside the window behind me. I suppose this will serve as a warning to any survivors in case they target others as well, for I expect the neighboring lands are impregnated with them in densities equal to here. I can hear their shrill wails despite the stifling, outward wind in their direction.

I am usually too sick and frail to interact with the townsfolk, but I still can hear the chatting of loud children in the distances and the servants often relay to me stories they’ve gathered from the local town and of their own hometowns. The cold, constant breeze of the autumn season here brings me many hints of occult happenings in the dense and sprawling forest that encircles my own house as well as the entire town.

While most towns are built upon the shipping routes of rivers or the lands of fertile soil, Axton was built almost secretly in the forest after a family of supposed thieves and charlatans were forced to relocate north from Maine over 200 years ago—or so the rumors tell. The veracity to this tale is disputed by many of the proud and educated residents as it seems too sensational to be true, but they rarely offer any evidence to the contrary and soon leave for bigger places than here.

Axton, anyhow, then began to make its living by becoming a logging town, making use of the thick woodland in these hills and doubled its population to nearly 1000 about 150 years ago, but the logging suddenly stopped when most of the prime lumber was cut and the nearby forest could no longer be seen except from the higher vantages of the hills; there is seemingly little market for expensive hardwoods anymore. Since then the forest has mostly returned even thicker than before. And the town began to shrink again, leaving a few deserted houses along the border of the town and the forest.

My family, which owned most of the logging company, had enough money to sustain themselves through other investments and we retained this estate nestled in the southern pocket of hills deeper inside the forest. I am the youngest and only member surviving the main line as semi-distant relatives have sought—mostly successfully—to start other businesses in the cities and my parents and their siblings have all reached and passed the time when human death draws certainly close. Leaving me to remain here and watch over the affairs of the Milton estate with the few servants I can afford.

Camille, the maid and cook, once told me a story about a certain creature, called a Night’s Hook, in the hills of her distant French-Canadian town that would linger in caves and dark forests during the night to infrequently feed on deer and other small animals. The disappearances of any small children during autumn and spring would also be blamed upon them. They had never been spotted in any bright setting, so their appearance was merely guessed upon, but they were hinted to be anthropoid in shape with long, slender bodies and limbs. And making large thuds in the air like that of a partridge as their voluminous wings beat about. Rare calls like bleating screams of yelps were heard and said to belong to them as well. This story had agitated my younger self as to leave me scared of any darkened forest setting and of the nights as well. As I matured, the frequent tales of horrific beasts, such as the Night’s Hook, would gradually lessen the effect, but my general uneasiness of mind remained—Oh god, I heard the worst cry outside. . . . As you can read, the uneasiness in me is apparent now. The other servant, Derrick, at my requests had told me similar tales of beasts, but of much more prosaic and fantastic origins than the ones Camille was able to tell me about.

Six months ago, near May’s Eve, there were talks of demolishing the abandoned houses finally after some children had hurt themselves on the decrepit wood floors and the collapsing walls as well as general complaints of the recent manifestation of mass rodent infestations. With no one coming to claim the houses, their demolitions were agreed upon and planned. Before they were carried out, though, one of the children who had hurt themselves had disappeared from their backyard after becoming well enough to walk and play again. The town searched the surrounding forest to no avail. I asked Derrick who it had been, but he refused to name their identity for some unknown reason to me.

The warm air of coming summer had instilled in me the ephemeral health to amble, so I enjoyed short walks on the surrounding property and the edge of the forest. The infrequent silence of the woods was novel to my quiet-soaked mind from inside the house. There wasn’t a minute that wasn’t filled with the chirping of several species of birds or the buzzing of innumerable insects. The forest was close to the estate, but my slow walking speed made it feel much farther away and the strip of sun-soaked grass before the shady, loamy soil of the forest floor much wider. I had heard the shrill chuckle of a partridge when a gust of wind had swept through the forest carrying the eldritch shriek from an unknown bird-thing calling “qwree, qwree. Qwree, qwree.” Becoming distraught, I had turned around to stumble home when Derrick appeared close behind and escorted me back to the safe confines of inside.

For weeks I heard no news about town from Derrick, so I had resorted to asking Camille to probe the townsfolk for information on what happened to the child and other things unbeknownst to Derrick. It seems several small skeletons corresponding to that of youths had been found stripped almost bare, save for strips of flesh and tendon, had been found in the hills and one of which was presumed to be the recently disappeared girl—her name was Elizabeth, she told me. The houses were promptly demolished afterward as they were considered to be bad omens of whatever was happening around the town and the forest. Camille’s face became more and more distressed as she recounted what she had learned and didn’t hesitate to compare it all to what happened in her previous town.

The next day Camille had vanished with only a portion of her few possessions missing from her room. Derrick and the other servant, Bartholomew, had decided to divide her responsibilities amongst themselves. With Derrick handling the cooking and shopping and Bartholomew handling the cleaning to the best of his abilities until another servant could be hired, which Derrick guessed would be a few weeks at minimum. I discussed the matter with Derrick and he had come to the conclusion that her superstitious fear of fictitious creatures drove her to escape Axton permanently.

Down to two servants, the house felt lonelier than before and the dark of the forest had begun to shadow more of the lawn. I was still well enough to walk about, but chose to pace inside and busy myself with the studies Derrick had assigned to me from the library. Still hoping that Camille would return, I had left her room untouched and asked the servants to do the same, but a month had passed then and we received no letter of apology or explanation. I slipped into her room late at night down the back hall of the house. Her room was neatly tidied with a few books stacked atop her bedside table and her few dresses hanging in the corner closet. I glanced through the books, all of which in French it seemed, but could gleam little. A few had recipe-like instructions numbered vertically and appeared to be cook books of some sort and the others were long and journal-like with ancient-looking handwriting and dozens of missing pages torn out. Finding nothing useful I returned to my room that night and slept poorly.

The coming summer months had been so hot and dry as to stifle any movement from me, confining me to my bed and sometimes to my writing desk near the window. The dry flittering of the leaves in the wind would filter through the open window and I would spend a lot of time that summer listening and then subsequently becoming lost in thought, thinking about what was happening in Axton. The summer had not been easy on Derrick nor Bartholomew as no replacement for Camille could be found and Derrick turned out to not be a very good cook. Finally, the darkening skies of near-autumn came around serving as a balm for myself and the servants. Derrick was able to make some appropriate stews from the harvest of local farmers and I was able to walk about more comfortably, but the imposing shadow of the treeline had become more and more oppressing as its dark interior became more shrouded by the rustling of fallen leaves and crepuscular gloom.

I found myself having more and more horrid dreams as All Hallows’ Eve drew near, and the “qwree, qwree” yelping from before had returned to the internals of the forest. Unable to find repose, I asked Bartholomew to thin out the nearby forest for the ostensible purpose of gathering more firewood for this winter, but also to lighten up the yard which had a tenebrous atmosphere I had never noticed before. Bartholomew obliged, but only after some convincing. After a week of work, the treeline had receded a three-to-four meters away and was much brighter.

Reports of the town from Derrick had begun to come back in frequent pattern, but only the minutiae of the town life. I could tell Derrick was hiding something, so I sneaked off one morning to the nearside of town to see what happened of those skeletons and demolished houses. My shoes were ill-fit for hiking on the muddy ground of the cleared path to town and I left an obvious trail behind me as I started to limp because of my hurting knees. I thought I had heard a motorcar coming down the path, so I slunk into the thicket of the forest parallel to the road and waited to see the coming passerby. It was Derrick in the motorcar, but it seemed by his speed that he had not noticed the trail of footprints I had left. Unsure of when he would return, I remained inside in the thicket and traveled closely parallel to the road, but far enough that I could not be easily spotted.

The gloomy clouds of frequent autumn rain had formed and cast the landscape, as if in twilight, despite the afternoon time, so I begun to lose my way. I seemed to have wandered more and more off-road and eventually stumbled upon a meager, decaying shack which had seemed to survive the wave of spring demolitions. It had only two south-facing windows and a single peaked roof covering what looked like one or two rooms by its outward design. Interested to see if the rumors Camille and Derrick told me were true, I decided to peak inside the shack. I espied in the corner opposite to me, inside the shadowy interior piles of grayed and decayed wood furniture, a picked-clean skeleton with only the hair and nominal bits of thin flesh clinging to various parts of it. A small family of rats were scuttling about—presumably eating the remnants of meat on it. My legs weakened and I leaned my back against the outside of the building for a few moments, listening to my hurried heartbeat and the hollow din of the quiet forest as I fortified myself. I peered back in to look at the skeleton again, its thin form collapsed on its back with its long, ocher-and-graying hair scattered about its head. The thought that it might be Camille distressed me and I quickly slumped onto the cold ground again.

What had Camille being doing here, or was her body brought here? How certain is it that it is Camille’s body? I wondered about these questions, too scared to go in. Then I had heard that accursed squealing of “qwree, qwree! Qwree, qwree” far, far behind the shack, but its chilling scream caused me to imagine it much closer. I panicked and awkwardly run-hopped away towards the path to town. My disjointed steps caused me to stumble frequently and I soon fell and spun backwards, facing my coming direction.

I noticed the shack in its slight clearing was now quite dark and to the back-and-side was some thin, quivering thing which caused my joints to almost lock and conscious mind to freeze. Its dark form was hard to distinguish from the shaded backdrop, but I could recognize a certain waviness to its tall, humanoid form, as if its torso were an undulating spring parallel to its long arms. It was so dark I could only make out its moving parts, but it appeared like an appalling dancer in the distance and it then continued to cry “qwree, qwree” in a clearer, thicker, raspier tone than I had heard before. If only the abomination would stop that alien quiver I would have been able to get up more quickly, but my straining eyes were transfixed in obsession and fear.

For what I now assume to have been half a minute of staring at it, I hoped to comprehend fully what I was seeing, but also hoped to not. Finally, the far-off rumble of Derrick returning in the motorcar and the glint of the headlights had drawn my attention and I was able to turn around and produce a painful jog. It was my screaming that Derrick had thankfully noticed and he stopped the car to quickly scoop me up in the back of it. While driving us home he asked questions about my petrified expression. I recounted the experience to him as he frequently asked me to repeat the details in both disbelief and concern.

Apparently Bartholomew had just left too, leaving a lengthy note about the stress of having all of the increased responsibilities in addition to needlessly clearing the nearby forest, which is why Derrick traveled to town that day to search for him and ask for a reconsideration. Unable to find any trace of him, he returned to find me. Along the way, when my willpower weakened, I would glance back into the forest and I would sigh thinly each time I did not see whatever that Night’s Hook-esque thing was.

Arriving back, we hurried inside and Derrick carried me into the kitchen to prepare dinner and keep me company as I still shivered in distress. Derrick assured me that what I saw was just a delusion brought on by tiredness and poor lighting and that the sound was likely an injured bird of some sort in the area. I wanted to believe him. I felt much better after dinner had been made and eaten, and I do not remember much of the rest of the evening as I seemed to have fallen asleep soon after.

I woke up in my bed and looked outside at the near-night twilight. The winds had picked up and the jagged branches all clawed at the dimly glowing sky. As my thoughts slowly organized I scanned the horizon more deeply. The horror I saw was in the forest, and interspersed between the trunks of the trees were countless other shadowy figures of winding qualities. I called for Derrick as loudly as I could and he arrived as I nudged the window open weakly to see if their cries would prove their existence in the forest. Derrick quickly entered just as the chorus of screams began and gave me a look of absolute turmoil. “Qwree, qwr-qwree-ee, qwree!” He hastily closed the window and ushered me back into my bed, telling me to stay there for a moment and that he would return for me after arranging some things.

I expectantly stared at the clock, jostling about my bed and avoiding looking out or being seen from the window, for 25 minutes until his return seemed like it would never come. I noticed an orange glow from outside that countered the coming dark I expected from the night. The tree line was ablaze with Derrick pouring what appeared to be gasoline from the spare containers over the trees. He worked diligently across my window viewpoint from right-to-left and frequently glanced back up at me with a forced smile and some form of a dismissive hand wave that I had trouble interpreting. He continued to spread the gasoline across the tree around the entire house until I could see him no longer.

This was two hours ago from now and he has still not returned. The fire—and more specifically the light—appears to keep those horrid things at bay. The damp, thin trees around here will not burn much longer, I reckon, but the winds have picked up again spreading it a little longer. But those screams . . . I still hear them chanting that dismal cry as if laughing at me and the fire is waving much like those twisting shadow-things. I can’t expect the fire to last the night and the townsfolk are unlikely to come to the epicenter of the blaze. . . .

Oh god, they’re coming now. They’re all coming.

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From the Deep

October 30, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The knocking sound had been coming and going in my engine, and I had a feeling that my Nissan Stanza was about to die. In the back of my mind was a tiny voice screaming that it was over sixty miles to the next town and I would never make it. My fiancee, Nichole, had always been on my case about how I never checked or changed the oil. Easy for her to remember; her dad was a mechanic and made her do that stuff on her own. My folks had always checked it for me. Nichole stopped checking in on my car for me soon after we got moved in together and said she wanted to teach me to have some responsibility. I guess I was going to be getting my first lesson. I looked at my cell phone; no service. It had been that way for half an hour. So much for my service providers promise of a nationwide network.

I made a deal with my car.

“If you get me to Gloucester, I promise I’ll check your oil every week and fill up your tank with the expensive stuff.”

The Stanza seemed to be in cahoots with Nichole, because the engine spluttered, and I found myself slowing down.

“Thanks a lot you piece of shit.”

I parked on the side of the road and looked around. I was pretty much surrounded by the woods, but I knew that I was close to the coast, and there was bound to be a house or two by the beach. Sure, it was well into autumn, but maybe a few summer residents would still be hanging around, or better yet, an all year dweller. I’m one of a handful of location scouts, hired to find the perfect place to shoot for all sorts of films. We often do the legal work as well, negotiating to get permission to film for certain lengths of time. The assignment for me had been to find a forest with lots of gnarled looking pine trees but plenty of natural light. This had quite naturally led me to New England, and my current predicament. I grabbed the backpack that I had packed for my trip out from the trunk and dumped all my dirty clothes into the backseat. I replaced them with a map of the area, my water bottle, and the four granola bars that were supposed to keep me from eating my own hand before I got to my motel.

As an afterthought, I changed from my ratty driving shoes to my good sneakers. If I had a hike in front of me I wanted to be comfortable. I was in pretty good shape before I went to college, and I had since let myself go a bit, but I was still fit enough for a jog every now and then. I wasn’t worried about how long I would have to walk, my chief concern was the reaming I would get from the studio if I were to be running late.

There had been a brackish smell in the air as soon as I stepped out of my car and I could hear the faint sound of gulls, so I knew the general direction to go if I wanted to reach the sea. With every step I thought I could hear Nichole’s voice echoing her favorite insult over and over:

“Jake, you effed up. Jake, you effed up. Jake, you effed up.” Not the most pleasant beat for walking.

The trees eventually gave way to hills and a few small beaches. To my relief there was also a scenic looking little ocean village. I didn’t remember it on the map. Houses speckled the area behind the beach, and I could see a school and some businesses near the waterfront. I felt that there was something weird about the place, and I quickly realized that it was the lack of human noise which disturbed me. I noted that there were no cars driving the road that led to the village, nor were there people hanging around outside or in their yards. Still, it was Saturday afternoon; maybe they were all just eating lunch. I decided to investigate and headed up the beach.

I noticed a small child on the beach right away; the only apparent sign of human life. His back was to me and he was slightly hunched over. His hair seemed to be growing out from a summer buzz cut and he couldn’t have been more than five years of age. Worried that he might be hurt, I ran over to him.

“Hey kiddo, are you all right?”

The child turned to me and smiled. Caught in his teeth were small red globs and slender white bones. A scale glittered from his lower lip. I looked down and saw that he was holding a half eaten fish. From the smell I suspected that it had been dead for at least a few hours. A couple of insects crawled over the flesh.

“Do you want some?” The boy lifted the fish toward me. An assortment of guts slid out and fell onto my sneaker. I jerked back reflexively, and the boy looked offended.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t eat raw fish, and neither should you.” I said firmly. Where the hell were his parents?

“He was a present left by the sea monsters.” The little boy said.


“The sea monsters left him behind. They found better food here. The white clouds come in and go away, but they always stay longer and longer to hunt.”

“It sounds like you’re making up a story so that you don’t get in trouble. Where are your mom and dad?” I was getting impatient.

The boy pointed to the waves that were crashing on the beach.

“They went in there.” He said.

“Okay…” I didn’t know how to respond. The kid was obviously having fun with me. “How about you show me where you live? I’d like to ask your parents if I can use their phone.”

“The phones don’t work anymore.” The boy said. Then he froze, his eyes wide. I turned and tried to figure out what he was staring at, but all I saw was a thick mist, rolling slowly in from the ocean.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

The boy had started to shake. He dropped his fish, and I barely caught what he said next.

“They’re coming.”

Before I knew what was happening the boy had started running toward the village. I considered pursuing him, but he looked pretty freaked out. I didn’t think his parents would be very excited about their kid talking to a strange man on the beach anyway.

I continued on toward the houses. There were some fishing boats by the docks and I immediately noticed a man standing in one of them. His back was to me and he appeared to be leaning against the mast. I laughed, relieved that I would finally be able to ask to use someone’s phone, and made my way down the dock toward the fishing vessel.

I stopped short as soon as I came abreast of the boat. My eyes teared up and I started retching.

The man was not leaning against the mast but bound to it with heavy rope. His mouth hung open in a silent scream and his eyes were completely gone. I guessed that birds had been to work on him because there were strips of flesh missing from his face and neck. Over all of this was a faint buzzing sound as flies swarmed the body. One of his legs was missing completely, the other had been taken off unevenly below the knee. His arms were still attached, but they were also discolored and covered in wounds. It looked almost as though they had been chewed on and sawed at simultaneously.

There was another body lying face down in the boat. It was clad in a police officer’s uniform and seemed to be in equally unpleasant shape. I didn’t want to look at it, considering what the other man had looked like, but the officer’s hand was close to me, and I saw that it was swarming with maggots. I felt my stomach twist and lurch as it struggled again to keep my breakfast from escaping.

There was something very wrong in this village.

I turned away and ran as fast as I could back toward the houses. I picked one at random, no longer worried about disturbing the people inside. It was clear to me that there were probably no live people here, except for that one strange little boy. I would have to go look for him – but first I needed a phone. I had to call Nichole. Or the police. Both. I needed to call both.

The front door of the house was locked, and the windows all looked like they had wood nailed over the inside, but the back porch had a sliding glass door that wasn’t boarded up, although the curtains were drawn. It was easy to break into by lifting it off the track. I did nearly break my nose by walking through the curtains into what I thought was a wall. A tentative push told me that it was furniture, and I discovered a large walnut bureau had been moved in front of the doors.

The home was furnished in a country theme; lots of ceramic roosters and chickens, as well as buttercups embroidered on brown throw pillows. There were some photos of a couple, who I assumed were the owners. They were younger than I would have thought, given the décor. The man had a dark complexion and wore a plaid shirt in pretty much every photo, the woman had wavy brown hair and a big smile; she reminded me of Nichole. Normal looking people.

What had happened to them? What had happened to this town?

The phone in the kitchen was a cordless one. It had been left off the hook and the battery was dead. I didn’t see any others, so reluctantly I left my backpack behind and decided to venture upstairs. It seemed more of a violation than the downstairs break in, and I found myself tip toeing.

There were more photos upstairs, the same couple, sometimes with other people. No children though. They must not have wanted any, or maybe they couldn’t have any.

There were four doors upstairs. Three open, one closed. I noticed a sickly sweet smell right away, and something a little more foul or rotten underneath. I wondered if there had been food left out up here. I decided not to look for the source of the odor.

The first door led into a bathroom, the second seemed to be a craft room of some kind, but the third open door was a bedroom, done up nicely with soft blue walls and a plaid comforter. There was a journal lying open on the bed, and more importantly a phone was sitting on the night stand. I picked it up, but the line was silent, no dial tone at all. The kid on the beach hadn’t just been jerking me around. Not only was I in a ghost town, but it was one without phones or electricity.

I looked over at the journal on the bed. Had it been left open like that on purpose? What a strange thing to do. I felt a bead of perspiration slip down my forehead, even though it was chilly in the house.

Wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans, I reached for the journal.


It’s only been a day. Hard to believe. I’m keeping this record for anyone who comes along after we’re… Well, just in case.

I don’t know where to begin. I guess with the fog. It rolled in and the power immediately went out. Our cars wouldn’t start, the phone lines were down. Then people began dying. We didn’t see it happen, just heard the screaming, but a bunch of us ran to the school to hide. We were there for hours.

They tied Nelson to the mast of his boat to try to lure us out. We could hear him screaming off and on all afternoon as he baked in the sun. It was pretty warm out, he must have been dying of thirst. In the end the screams turned sobs and pleading that plain out tore at my soul. The crying was mostly incoherent, but we clearly heard him go:

“Please, they took my feet! Jesus they’re chewing on my legs!”

I couldn’t bear to listen anymore and I covered my ears for a bit.

Finally Officer Dean and a few of the lobstermen decided to go out and try to rescue him. I’ll forever bear it on my conscience that I didn’t try to go with them. We heard their screams too, but they didn’t last as long.

Nelson stopped wailing the next day. Something finally killed him; I guess I’ll never know what.

I made a break for it during the rescue mission, my house was only two streets down from the school and I had to see if Marcy had made it home. She cried when she saw me come in through the door.

Marcy took inventory of what we have left for canned food. Enough to get us through a month if we’re careful. I hope our neighbors are stocked up too. I haven’t seen them since the mist came in. Hope Louis and Pam are good.

Baked beans for dinner tonight.

I’m hiding my worries from Marcy, I don’t want to scare her. The phones are still down, can’t call anyone. Still can’t start the cars either. Louis tried to leave with his family on foot, but they were killed too. I didn’t see it, you can’t see anything, but I heard Pam screaming his name. I heard the kids too, but I try not to think about that. I’m glad now that Marcy and I didn’t have any kids.

The only way to stay alive is to board up your house and pray they don’t find you.

Actually, I’m not sure the praying does any good. God seems to have abandoned us.

Someone was walking around hollering that their car had stalled. I think anyone who comes here is affected by the same strange phenomenon.

They were right outside our house. I almost opened the door because I wanted to help him, but I peeked out through the boards of the window first. Then I saw it. One of the creatures. It passed right by the window. I pissed myself I was so scared.

It got the guy. I saw the whole thing.

Don’t want to describe it… don’t want to write about it. Can’t think now. I might be crazy.

Whatever they are, we know they came from the deep under cover of the fog. We can’t see them, but we hear their squelching noises through the mist and it shows no sign of lifting.

At first the creatures wandered around for only an hour or two at a time, but it was still hard to predict their movements. Better to stay indoors. Now they come out for longer periods of time. It’s like they’re testing themselves.

Marcy hasn’t talked much since Louis and Pam were taken. I try to get her to eat but her appetite is down along with her spirit.

I’m sure we’ll all be dead soon. For all I know me and Marcy are the only ones left. I’ve been thinking the best way to go would be to end it myself. I don’t have a gun, but Marcy and me could take some pills. Go together, nice and peaceful. I won’t think about that now. It’s a last resort.

If you’re reading this then we’re all dead. I hope that what came to our town isn’t able to spread any further. But I don’t know what those water demons are capable of. They’re slithering around in the streets constantly now.

Get out if you can. It’s too late for us.


There were no other entries after that, and now I knew that it had been roughly two weeks since whatever had happened in the village. I swallowed hard and remembered the bad smell and the door at the end of the hallway; the only one that was closed. I suddenly didn’t want to be in the house anymore. I couldn’t quite believe everything that the guy who kept the journal had written, and I deeply wanted to pass him off as an eccentric, or a guy who had gone crazy after seeing people murdered, but the little boy on the beach had been talking about things in the water too. I shuddered.

I went back downstairs grabbed my backpack and went back out through the curtains and the sliding door. My skin prickled when I saw that the world had gone white with thick swirling mist. I couldn’t see more than a foot or two in front of me.

How had it come in so quickly? I figured that I had been in the house for a quarter of an hour at most. Did fog always move like that?

Suddenly I heard a sound. It reminded me of the time I had gone out to play by the brook in my new boots. The ground was soft and glutted with rain, and I had gotten stuck in the mud up to my knee. The earth made a wet sucking sound as I pulled my foot out, and my left boot had been lost forever in the muck.

There were dark shapes moving in the mist, one of them quite close. It was huge. I backed up slowly toward the house, but I realized that it would just be a death trap if I barricaded myself in there. I had to try to make it out of the mist. One of the figures paused, I could almost feel it looking at me. It made a low gurgling sound.

Then, impossibly fast, it was coming for me. I saw that although the creature had two manlike arms it certainly didn’t have legs. It was long, dark, and serpent-like, with slitted yellow eyes and shiny wet skin. Its mouth opened and it emitted a high pitched shriek; revealing a mouth full of teeth with ragged edges that reminded me of bread knives. I remembered the corpse on the boat, his ragged bottom half.

I turned and booked it back toward the hills. I didn’t scream, I couldn’t scream. I just ran.

The mist got thinner as I gained higher ground and I still didn’t stop. I wasn’t aiming for my car, that was a lost cause. Instead I ran down the main road, knowing that I would sprint the full sixty some odd miles if I had to. Adrenaline does that to you. I even lost my backpack and I couldn’t remember ever dropping it.

At some point I realized that I had left the fog and the town far behind me. I hoped that the creatures wouldn’t be able to survive far from the sea, and even entertained the thought that they hadn’t been able to chase me because of their dependance on their watery habitat, but I wasn’t certain of anything anymore. A world where those things existed was a world that no longer made any sense. My legs wobbled dangerously, and I slowed down, but I continued to walk, eager to put as much distance as possible between myself and the village. My breathing was ragged, I hadn’t had this much exercise in a long time and my lungs felt like limp balloons that didn’t want to inflate.

I stopped for a rest, and checked my phone. Still no signal, and the battery was at four percent. I thought of the boy on the beach again and the guilt which assaulted me almost made me turn back. Almost. I know Nichole would have, she was always the brave one, always thinking of others and telling me that I need to get my shit together. Well, I would keep walking until I got to the next town, I would contact the police and they could save the boy from the beach. Wasn’t that what we paid the police for? To be the heroes that we didn’t want to be?

Maybe the boy was already dead.

I only meant to stop for a few moments to catch my breath, but I drifted off. I have no idea how long I was out.

A familiar squelching sound jerked me awake, and I realized with horror that I was surrounded once again by white fog. My chest tightened, because six of the creatures were crowded around me, studying me with cold eyes. The biggest one tilted its head and emitted a low hiss.

I had been followed after all.

I closed my eyes again and thought of Nichole. Her voice echoed in my head as I felt the slimy fingers around my throat. Even as the serrated teeth began tearing at my gut and screams burst from me along with my insides I thought I could hear her speaking to me; that old, painfully familiar slight:

“Jake, you effed up.”

Credit: C.F Campbell

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The Gray Woman of Stockholm

October 29, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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I never believed my friend Steve until I experienced it myself. You see, Steve had told me this outrageous story about an entity he refers to as “The Gray Woman” that has been haunting him since he was young. I didn’t believe a word of it. Not because I don’t believe in the paranormal per se, but because the details seemed more like something from a Hollywood horror flick than something you hear about happening in real life. Steve would see this woman in and around the apartment complex that his family owned. He lived with his mom in the manager’s apartment, and at one point my fiancé and I decided to take up residence in a unit at the other end because we wanted to move into town closer to our family and the apartment was notorious for being the cheapest place around and not doing credit checks.

Steve told me about the Gray Woman many times, describing her as a younger woman approximately late teens to early 20s, but with a haggard appearance. Her dark hair hung to where it covered portions of her face at any given time so he could never look at her completely head on. He described her skin as being an ashen color and her clothing a simple drab-colored dress that looked worn out. These features led him to call her the Gray Woman because of her grayscale appearance.

We moved in during the spring. The place was already spooky enough considering the other residents were all creepy in their own ways. There were approximately 10 units total that sat side by side in this one story building. The section of the building that Steve lived in was up closer to the road in a brick portion of the building that housed 6 of the units. The other 4 units were at the end we lived on, a section that had obviously been an add-on later in the building’s history as it was made out of metal siding rather than brick and the apartments were a bit newer. According to the locals, the brick part of the building had been a dentist’s office from early on until sometime in the 1980s, which explained the unorthodox floor plans and the need for an addition to make room for more units. Steve’s family lived in what was once the main lobby. Across from the building lay a small pond and the entire property was backed by sprawling crop fields, as was a common sight in this part of the south and in this small one stoplight town in particular.

My first indication that things were a little off in this place was the stain. Steve’s mom had hired some locals to paint and clean the apartment before we moved in, but I noticed what looked like a spot of mold on the wall of the bathroom in between the toilet and the sink with its old fashioned medicine cabinet. Upon my asking, they sent out the maintenance worker who tested the spot, checked the adjacent neighbor’s wall and even went as far as to cut into the wall because he suspected a leaking pipe had grown mold inside the wall. When he cut the wall open, there was nothing on the other side. They replaced the section of drywall and it held up until the following week when I noticed the stain had reappeared in the same spot.

We decided to ignore the stain after that, chalking it up to some weird occurrence that wasn’t really a major concern. Then, our pets began acting up. One morning we awoke to a loud wailing scream from outside our bedroom. It sounded like a baby, but at this point we hadn’t even had our son yet. At the same time my fiancé ran to the door, our younger cat came bolting into our room, terrified and shaking. Our other cat was nowhere to be found and eventually we did find him beneath the couch but he wouldn’t come out at all. We had no idea where the scream came from, and ascertained that it must have been the cat getting spooked by something, a mouse perhaps. We knew the noise wasn’t another tenant because it had definitely come from our apartment.

Fast forward to a few months later in the fall. I was in the middle of coming inside from hanging the laundry out to dry in the back (we had a communal clothesline as the building had no washer/dryer outlets and the families who could not afford the Laundromat often hand washed their clothes as I was doing on this day) and as I was about to enter the screen door in the back of our apartment that led into our bedroom, I looked into the unit and saw someone staring back at me from the other side of the front screen door. I had the doors open between the back and front doors to allow air to circulate around the stuffy apartment, and this gave me a straight path between the front and back screen doors to look through and see this…whatever it was. It looked like a woman in an ill fitting dress, and she stood at the front door as if she was waiting for me to return and see her. As soon as I did, she turned abruptly and walked towards the front part of the building, passing by the other units on our side. I ran through the house and out the front door, wanting to catch sight of whoever it was that had been peeping in our front door. I saw no one. The neighbor of the next unit, Dawn, had been sitting outside the entire time at her small patio table and hadn’t seen anyone pass by. Because of the location of her seat, they would have had to walk right by her to continue in the direction I saw the woman take. This was my encounter with the Gray Woman.

I told Dawn what I had seen, and she responded with her own equally chilling story of having had a similar experience in one of the other units when she first moved in and had lived in a smaller one bedroom on the other side. She would wake at night to feel like someone was watching her, and had a lot of maintenance issues while living there. Not to mention the crying. She said it was more like screaming, really. Screaming that sounded a lot like a baby.

Like any good true scary story, the real credibility comes with the research. Months after we had moved out of that creepy place, we were hanging out with some friends at a party. Somehow, it was brought up how we had lived in the apartments with Steve. One of my friends, a local to the area, said that she couldn’t believe we had lived in that creepy place, and asked if we had heard the ghost babies.
“Ghost babies?” I asked, both confused and chilled at the same time
She went on to tell me that the building had been a dentist’s office, that much was true. But dentistry wasn’t always their only service that was provided. Apparently, the office also did abortions on the down-low. As I mentioned, this was a one-stoplight town and the nearest hospital was several miles away in a neighboring town. There wasn’t actually a place in the town to have this sort of procedure performed, and the poor families would get their “problems” taken care of along with their annual teeth cleaning.

This explained a lot. According to my friend and the several people I’ve asked since that have supported claims of the paranormal happening at this apartment complex, people have often reported hearing a baby cry late at night and early in the morning when there were no children in the building at all. I should mention at the time we lived there, there were no babies living in the complex then either. The funeral parlor located directly next door has been claimed by some to have been involved in the disposal of the remains, though that claim has never been proven. The Gray Woman, I have guessed, may be a grieving mother to one of these aborted children. Perhaps she even died during the operation. The most terrifying this about all of this is that to this day, the reports continue. I believe Steve now.

Credit: FallDownGirl

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
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Rating: 6.7/10 (315 votes cast)
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