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Perception

July 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Well, this is embarrassing. Usually, I check on the new arrivals, and they’re already begging to make it all stop. I mean, even if they had no regrets before, they sure do now, right? But this… this is new. Just a room with blank walls. I haven’t seen an occupied room that didn’t at least have scenes of torment projected on the walls.

“Okay, so first things first. This is Hell… Who am I? No one important. I came down here the same as everyone else, with all the torment and loss of hope and knowing that this would be my eternity. But then, after a while, I was given a job. Trusted lieutenant in charge of recruitment. Armageddon, you know. Need to find the ruthless ones, separate the strong from the cannon fodder. It’s all in how you handle your torment. I guess I handled mine better than most.

“No, no fire pits or anything like that. Dante had a good imagination, but that’s not what hell is. Hell is whatever you bring with you. And you, my friend, have brought nothing with you at all. No regrets, no torment. Jack diddly squat. Well, of course you miss your wife and kids and family and friends. And football, of course. And coffee. But that… that’s not grounds for torment, pardon the pun. By all rights, you shouldn’t even be here.

“What does it mean? No clue. I haven’t heard of us transferring anyone up to you-know-where, but I haven’t been here all that long compared to my superiors. So it might have happened before.

“Now, normally I’d be tempted to torture you myself, but regrettably, that’s not my job. So I’m going to find out what’s going on. I’ll get back to you. Don’t go anywhere… yeah, I know, but it is Hell. Mostly bad puns and Dad jokes.”

***

“Okay, my friend, I might have some… hey, how did you make that chair? And the bed? How the… wait, it’s a projection. You’re projecting your desires instead of torment… I had no idea that could be done. I was only gone for a week, and look at you! I’m actually really impressed… Yeah, I’ll bet it does take epic concentration.

“Anyway, I… wait, can I sit? I don’t ever get to sit…. thanks, buddy. Anyway, human souls. Perception determines reality, and that’s true no matter if you’re generally good, evil, or somewhere in between. And just to clue you in, pretty much everyone is in that third category. You’ve done things you shouldn’t have, told lies, sinned, all that, and while you yourself regret those actions, that regret is not enough to make you want to self-flagellate for all eternity. Nor does it mean you don’t feel bad. Unless you’re a psychopath, which you aren’t, you have a conscience. So you’ve made peace with your sins, and you’re certainly not unique in that.

“Now, contrary to the general belief of humanity, you don’t accumulate a point value for your good and bad deeds and get sent up there or down here based on your score. It’s more like a whole-life approach. Did you do enough to help ensure the continuation of humanity as a species? Now, on the surface, many people, going up or Hell-bound, can say that. They had kids and raised them right, they did their part to leave the outdoors cleaner than it was before, and so on. But what were you doing when nobody was watching, when you stepped away from glorifying your family and accomplishments on social media, when it was just you, or just you and your family. Did you maintain the same values? Or did you molest your kids? Did you beat your wife? Did you rape, murder, decrease the value of someone else’s life in some way? Mankind’s inhumanity to mankind. Were you the same person in the dark as in the light? Because that plays a factor.

“I can tell I’m losing you, so I’ll simplify it. Human souls only get routed here because they deserve it, or because they are so full of regret that they cannot possibly accept salvation. You fall into neither category. I have read and re-read your file, and the file includes everything you have ever done, good, bad, ugly, every thought, every deed. I had my superiors take a look, and they have soft spots for nobody. They agree with me. There is no reason for you to have been sent down here.

“I agree, that’s a comforting thing for you. The problem is that the only precedent of someone coming to Hell and leaving again… well, you can guess who that was, and even then He made a stop in the mortal realm first before ascending, didn’t He? A direct transfer of a soul from Hell to… there? Way above my pay grade, my friend. So it may take a while to get a decision on this. So you just sit tight… and try not to make yourself too much at home.”

***

“Okay, so I… wait, what did you do? This… wait a minute… this looks like your house! The window, the view? How do you have a view? This is Hell, man! You’re not supposed… okay, okay, I know, unique situation, but if anyone else figured out they could do this, then Hell wouldn’t be Hell anymore. Everyone would delight in their own depraved little fantasies… what do you mean, including me? I… okay, well, yeah, but that’s not the point!

“Anyway, here’s the deal. You’ve been brought to the attention of the Morning Star himself, and a decision is pending. You’ll be happy to know that even the Father of Lies thinks you don’t deserve to be here. And that, paradoxically, is no lie. It doesn’t guarantee you a way out, though. They’re still trying to figure out how you got here in the first place.

“How did… man, you can’t say that name down here! Not unless you’re screaming for deliverance, anyway. So okay, how did He come down here and then leave? Well, when you’re the son of… well, you know… that pretty much gives you free reign to go wherever you please. Part of the whole ‘new covenant’ thing. All you have to do is believe in Him, and up to… there… you go.

“But there’s the rub. How many truly believe, and how many just say they do so that they can act however they want and justify it in His name? My personal favorites? The ones who talk about Him but worship at the altar of Ayn Rand; in other words, ‘I got mine, so fuck you!’ The ones who give to charity because of the tax write-off instead than the good they can do; for the purposes of the afterlife, it’s the intent that counts, not the result. The ones who use tax havens so that their tax dollars don’t go to services for the elderly and the poor. The only reason they say they believe is because it’s politically expedient and good business. Yeah, I’m a sinner, and in a big way, but there are some transgressions that even make me sick. It pleases me no end to see pricks like that get what’s coming to them. I’ll sit there and watch them suffer for hours, if I can…

“Why am I here in the first place? Let’s just say I had a lot of fun over many years with teenagers and cutlery. Oh, don’t give me that look. If you knew what my own mother did to me… yeah, Mister Morals, I know that doesn’t excuse it, but at least you know I wasn’t born that way. And besides, unlike those hypocrites I just mentioned, I never had any illusions about who I am. Still don’t, as a matter of fact.

“Right, anyway, I’ll let you know what Lucifer decides. Sanctimonious little…”

***

“Hey, buddy… wait, where are you? Hello? … okay, are you hiding now? Not cool, my man. Maybe you’re downstairs? Anyway, I know you’re here, and I know you can hear me. So the decision was made… wow, something smells good… the decision was made to keep you here… the one pure soul in Hell. You’re going to be leverage, my man. They have people up there that we want here, and we’re going to get them with your help. You should be honored.

“Not in the kitchen… wow, and a roast in the crockpot. You really have taken ownership of your reality. I am truly impressed. I wish I didn’t have to say what I have to say next…

“More stairs? How big is this damn house? Anyway, I’ve been ordered to keep you company until the exchange, which could take a few centuries to arrange. So in the meantime, we’re going to tarnish your soul a bit, just to make a point for when we hand you over. You’re going to view my sins. Over and over. Who knows? You might start to see your own kids in the faces of those that I… ended. I consider myself a craftsman, and after I… broke them, I turned each of them into a work of art. I think you’ll come to appreciate me…

“Wow, spacious basement. Come on out so I can…”

***

“Wha… what the hell? How do I have a headache? Why does… you! You hit me! How does that even work? It’s the fucking afterlife! My head shouldn’t… shouldn’t… yeah, I remember what I said about perception determining reality, but what does… what… oh no… you didn’t… you can’t… hey! You tied me up… but you didn’t even move, you… just… thought it. Look, man, I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish here, but… ahhh! No!!! No, please! Make it stop! Nooo! I can’t fucking take it! Jesus God, please help me, ohh nooo!”

***

“N-no… no, I’m n-not telling you shit… they’ll be here any m-minute… oh nooo! No! It fucking hurts! No, please stop! Okay, okay! Okay! Stop! Stop!!! … Okay, they don’t know when I’m c-coming out… I told my superiors I w-wanted at least 100 years to break you d-down, s-so they got someone else to do recruiting… Bundy, I think, or D-Dahmer… no, I can’t. No! I can’t tell you how to move between… nooo! Kill me! Kill me for good! Stop stop stop stop stop…..please… pleeeeeease! Okay, I’ll tell! I’ll fucking tell!!!…”

***

“You know … I don’t even know how long… eight months? Seems l-longer…

“Made them watch… I made them w-watch the n-news about themselves… their p-parents crying… new depths of despair… recorded and made them watch it while I used them… drilled the hope out of them… but I still hope, Whenever you l-leave, I have hope. I’ll do all this to y-you one day. I’ve tried to change reality when you leave, but… but I fucking can’t! Why? I have the p-power here! I have… nnoooooooOOOOOO!!!”

***

“Rumble… rumble rumble… never been rumbling… earthquake? Fuckin’ earthquake. Hell doesn’t get earthquakes… or does it… can’t r-remember…

“Oh… back again… got earthquakes now… how… how do… whoa… whoa… I feel… better… why am I… why did you heal me? I’ve been in constant pain for years and… okay… I’ll… yeah, I’ll shut up…

“Dead? Man, I thought you were smarter than that. Lucifer may be fallen, but he’s still an angel, and he can only be killed by… by… They came? From up there? But we had the best of the best! I helped recruit… you posed as me… what? Oh, you clever fuck. You altered their perception. That’s what all the… the crockpot, the smell… the attention to detail… that was you training yourself. But wait… you unbelievable bastard, you were sent here! That was your whole… oh, nice, slow clap for me… arrogant fuck… ow, fuck, okay! Okay!

“So what, all the ones I recruited, all the ones like me, they’re tied up in other basements? … What do you mean, or worse? You know what? Forget it, I don’t want to know.

“So It’s all fucking over? We lost? Okay, fine, so what, though? You still have billions of souls here, and one of them is bound to pick up the mantle… selected for forgiveness? How does that work? … Wait, the ones who were worthy but refused to believe? You took them??? What the fuck, man! They turned it down! … Saw the error of their… unbelievable.

“So the rest of us? What, are you going to wink us out of existence? … Wait, finish out our sentences? The sentence is eternal damnation, so how can we… how can… no… no… you call me a sadistic bastard, and you do this? How is this just? How is this fair? We don’t get cleansed? We don’t get shown mercy? The dregs of the earth? Those who fucking need it most? Those who were damned to this fate by their own parents? By a mother who used her fucking needle-nose pliers on every inch of flesh she could find? I never had a chance! I never… yes, I’m fucking crying! … Why should I say I’m sorry? Why shouldn’t she have to do that? … Okay! I’m fucking sorry, okay? I’m sorry I hurt them! I’m sorry I killed them! Now, please let me out, please!! … How can you say that? Of course I meant it! … Well who the fuck cares if I meant it! Let me out of here! Please!!!

“Wh… where did you go? Where did… oh, you vanished upstairs. I hear you up there, rummaging through your drawer! What, too lazy to walk up the damn stairs? Oh, coming back down, I see. You’re just a … just…

“M-M-Mother?”

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Truth or Dare

July 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Okay, now it’s your turn!” Chloe cheered loudly.

“Sssshhh! You’re going to wake up your mom,” said Krissie.

“Oops, sorry. Teehee… So truth or dare?”

“Erm… truth…” Krissie seemed to be hesitating, but Chloe couldn’t have it.

“Why truth? That’s boring! You never pick dare… Chicken!”

“But I…”

“Chicken! Chicken!” Chloe crossed her arms and turned away.

“Fine. Dare then. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to… Go to my mother’s room, flicker the lights and slam the bedroom door shut,” Chloe pointed towards the door in the hallway. Right next to Chloe’s bedroom, facing the stairs. “Just to scare my mother, because she forbade us to talk so late at night,”

“Are you sure?” Asked Krissie. “Won’t I get caught? Maybe she’ll find out we’ve been up all this time. Maybe she’ll get mad and maybe I won’t be able to come over anymore,”

“Why of course not, silly! She’ll probably blame me anyways. Now go for it, go,”

Krissie went into the hallway and as Chloe said, she flickered the lights, closed the bedroom door with a loud slam, enjoying the sound of her mother’s loud gasp and returned to Chloe’s bedroom, closing the door behind her. They giggled together about what Krissie just did.

The giggling stopped when Chloe’s mother had found her way to the hallway, stomping towards Chloe’s room frustrated. Chloe quickly gathered the Ouija board, candles, books and other mickmack, threw it in a corner, jumped in her bed and pretended to be asleep.

Her mother opened the door, about to say something, but didn’t. She sighed, stood there for a second, then closed the door again. She retrieved to her bedroom, went back to sleep, keeping the lights on and the door closed this time.

After a few minutes Chloe crawled out of bed quietly, grabbed the Ouija board and searched the ground for the playing chart. She then sat down in the middle of the room again, lighting four candles and spelling out the words:

“That was a close call,” on the Ouija board.

Credit: IQuackInTheDark

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Hank

July 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Think of a drop of dark red ink falling towards a sterile marble floor. It splashes into a crown and branches into threads of alternating lengths, ejecting droplets into the air. The droplets too skim across the floor, and eventually, the drop is gone. The crown settles in the image of a shining sun, but red, like a plague of rash. The splatter brightens the red at the extremities while maintaining a thicker, darker core in the center. Imagine a face protruding from the core. Then imagine the shoulders emerging. Arms. Now chest. Stop. There it is. We call him Hank.

He is an atypical contiguous single spore issue germinated by the colony seen surrounding him. Picture half a man implanted to the corner of a room, the blood vessels arcing out from beneath him like bronchi, creeping and thinning as one zooms out. These are called forelegs, and although blood relatives, they compete with each other to wheedle nutrients from the parent pod as self-preserving individuals, coaxing, cajoling, seducing, and sometimes even drugging or coercing what in botanical terms would be the central xylem for their due. It is undying, it is highly resilient, and it is expensive. Growing the fungal colony has helped solve 2 maritime crises, saved the African continent from an unending drought, and salvaged 80% of the world’s timber waste.

The way it is grown is a complex duology. In the first part, a human being volunteers to submit bone marrow and other tissue samples to undergo advanced bioengineering. In the second, the engineered genetic isolate is cultured with plant matter. The setup for this is accomplished during the former stage, where the human samples are retrofitted with numerous enzymes coded to diffuse into the plant substrate in the latter stage, making what’s known among the scientific community as the ‘green goo’. The petri dishes are let sit for 34 hours under intense monitoring for signs of germination. Once the initial polyp sprouts, the node is tested for blood vessel merger, maturation and efficiency. After that, it is replanted in damp carbohydrate-injected soil and left in the dark. Once this point is reached, the spore begins reproducing asexually with its own genetic information. The fusion of proteins involved in this process is analyzed monthly by 6000 agriculture scientists and critics worldwide for unethical practices. Debates are held biweekly to lay down ground rules and, to an extent, insurrect the first system to legally recognize undesired scenarios. This way, the public could rest assured the life-binding is continually filtered of any moral dilemmas.

In one such debate, the vanishingly low probability event of a dominant human allele was suggested. Although the splice is strained 1,000,232 times over to ensure passiveness, the human allele may sometimes emerge triumphant. Under the ‘human’ influence, when two compatible heterokaryotic forelegs of the newly germinating pod compete, they may ‘consider’ collective success a more viable option instead, thereby disengaging from the deathmatch and joining to form a larger dikaryotic foreleg. Once an unsympathetic organism concerned solely with a net survival status, its canny is dulled by an attitude of interdependence. Our social instinct causes this tweak in the symbiosis, and the resulting growth metastasizes, transcending a rather human psychology to a part of the whole colony. This part, if left unchecked, may form a fruiting body. That is Hank. Hank is sentient.

The odds of these conditions aligning dwindle infinitesimally, shaking off a billion or so at each step. The extreme unlikelihood of the scenario caused it to be deemed theoretical, and was dismissed with a “To be revised” prescription.

It has taken Hank 2 years to grow into this office room. An initially captivated staff had to be cleared out by management after receiving a critical number of immutable reports of being deeply unsettled by the sight of “a melting man”. He started out in the unlit agroforestry vault just by the breezeway. Thirst is said to have been the motivator for the ‘migration’, the mechanics of a ‘breadcrumb-trail’ scenario charged the culprit. The water cooler on this floor sits a short walk away from the office area, just before the greenhouse. Employees are known to stagger along this route to and fro in pursuit and consumption of water, and the janitorial department revealed that the area was therefore subject to the most cleaning. In the same pursuit, Hank became the permanent and only occupant of office #238.

The blood vessels—Hank’s pod—are the crop yield of this splice. They boast remedial properties when processed into a serum and injected into the bloodstream due to their ability to distill a targeted molecule. By the same virtue, they can be utilized to retrieve the most nectar out of a flower, for modest example. Some unorthodox methods such as using the product as seasoning in food have been reported to give enhanced results but remain scientifically unverified.

These are pros. They are the benefits the project was intended to produce. They are clear and loud. But the cons are even clearer, and by today’s evening, probably just as loud. And they can be summed up with minimal simplification by the eponymous question.

Hank does not talk but he has been observed mumbling. His eyes barely open and seem to be milky white, indicating subpar vision capabilities. The ears are deformed and functionless as Hank does not respond to auditory cues. His skull is doughy and inflates and deflates like a granule of maggots, seemingly in rhythmic discipline with his breathing, indicating the lungs share an inhospitable space with the brain. However, he has shown tremendous touch sensory competence, which is a note of both marvel and despondency for the world at large.

A senate hearing has been called to address the issue at once. The streets are flooded with rhetoric and judgments. The internet is riddled with support groups, fan-pages and pseudo personality profiles based on what is known of Hank.

They are going to cut him out in 3 hours, and somehow, Hank seems to be clairvoyantly aware of his fate. He has grown restless and the commotion has only made his coping worse. Some are calling it a harvest. Others are saying ‘abortion’. The question is, will Hank be euthanized, disposed of, the paperwork burned, the ledgers closed, the history erased, the dilemma forgotten, the incident buried and piled on with minutia and quibbles, or will he become the first legal subhuman subject of scientific study to live in a glass box for years to come? What are we going to do with Hank?

Credit: Kash

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The Dark is Better

July 5, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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It is dark now. Thank god it’s dark now.

This way is better. This way I cannot see them.They come out during the day, during the night. But night is better, so much better, because I cannot see them.

Sometimes I can feel their breath, sometimes hot, right down the base of my neck. Sometimes it is cold, an icy blast that chills me to my very core. Sometimes I can hear them breathing, at first distant, a slow, even pace. Then, as they get closer, excited, panting, almost. But I can feel no breath. I can always feel their presence. Even when I cannot see them.

I’ve known about their existence since I was six. Maybe longer. Some people call them ghosts, others; demons. I’ve heard the term shadow people tossed around. I refuse to accept this term. They’re not people. They can’t be people.

People don’t walk around with bleeding stumps of missing limbs and act like everything is fine. People don’t have fangs for teeth, and blazing red cores for eyes. People have substance, those things have none. No. They are not people.

I believe that there are thousands of them, though it has also occurred that it could be three or four that can all change shape. Some of them appear somewhat normal. The vast majority are horrible, terrible projections of some Eldritch Abomination that has long since been lost to the ages of time. Or erased, intentionally, from the history books.

It seems that every day they grow bolder. In the beginning they were nothing more than figments of my imagination. A fairy tale that I took a little too seriously, told to me by my uncle. They would simply hang there, in the corners of my eyes, never approaching, hardly moving. It was two years before one approached me. It had waved one of its four hands, bleeding and cut wide open down the center – as if somebody had taken a blade and run it down the middle finger to the palm in a straight line – extending towards me.

It had passed through me. There was nothing to it. I had to let out a sigh of relief which, as always, somehow managed to dispel that immense, gripping fear of death that every human being possesses. Since then, things have changed. They have become bolder.

After that incident, I thought little of them. Maybe they were just the projections of a fearful, possibly even diseased, mind. A mind rent with disorders. A rotting thing, filled with the stench of decay, the pulsating of maggots, just eating away. I suppose it doesn’t matter, in the long run. It was another stretch of time before they started moving things. Hitting things.

I don’t know how it works. I’m not a scientist, I hardly have a high-school education, but I’ll try to make a guess. I think they’re concentrating. Manifesting themselves into something more real every day.

But they started with breaking things in my house. Vases, chairs, the cat…

They progressed rapidly. They followed me everywhere I went.

It was then that I started to appreciate the true beauty of the night. I can’t see them at night. I can hear them, all right, but I cannot see them over my shoulder. I cannot see them breathing heavily and staring at me hungrily. Though sometimes I can see the eyes. And from those eyes I can imagine the rest. Eyes bright like the fires of hell. The drawn-out breathing enough for me to tell that it’s coming from a horrid, capsized chest, bogged down with rotten waters.

Had it simply been breaking things, and being horrifying, I may have just left this story on the corroded shelves of my mind, but something happened yesterday that made me realize that I need to share this.

They killed an old woman.

I saw it. I was outside, walking. I walk often, I can’t stand to sit still for too long without closing my eyes. She was on the opposite side of street and she interested me. Dare I say, she captivated me. She could see them too. She looked more frightened than I had ever seen anybody before. Her wrinkled lips were moving silently in something that I recognize, only because I’ve recited it endless times myself.

It is the chant of the faithful, of the damned, of those who don’t know what else to do.

She never finished it a second time. The things were upon her quickly. They devoured her. It was silent. It was bloody. I had to try and turn away, but I simply could not. This big one with blades for hands that hung crookedly, like some fucked-up version of a bug’s leg, started shredding her remains apart. Shoveling them messily into its mouth, which consisted of nothing more than a gaping black chasm, the lips, cracked inhuman things, tinged red.

It finally clicked that these things could, and would, kill me. That’s when I fled. I should’ve helped, but by the time that thought went floating through my shocked mind there wasn’t anything I could do. I ran back inside like the coward that I am. That’s where I’m at now. I had a mental debate with myself, some inner turmoil and anguish. But I’ve decided to share this. So that somebody else knows.

Often times I think back to my uncle. The one who told me the story. I never saw him after that. My parents maintained that he had gone on a long vacation, which I was content to believe, until my 16th birthday party when one of my distant cousins let slip that he had been murdered. Torn apart, they said. Limb from limb. A rosary in his hand.

And I wonder why he shared the story with me.

Why?

It’s been some time, but I have my rosary at hand. I know the chant. Our father, who art in heaven… The whole nine yards.

I don’t think I have anything more to say. If I die, somebody now will know how it came about. Over the last few minutes the fear has really been settling in, because it’s dark but I can see them now. I can see them, oh god and they’re glowing, they’re glowing. That heinous fucking yellow light of the sunrise.

I’m posting this now, as the sun rises higher, slowly. I hope for the best, but the outlook is bleak.

God, how I hate the sun. I wish I couldn’t see them. It would be better if I couldn’t see them. Somehow, It would be better.

Credit: SpongyWaffles

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The Evil of the Exsor

July 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experience with the Exsor, it’s that I’m not afraid of monsters.

Monsters that roar, ghosts that shriek, and demons that howl… none of that scares neither me nor anybody else. No, the true pedestal that all of these manifestations of chaos are built upon is the unknown. That true horror is the basis of all fear. It is that entity that lurks within the darkest regions of the night, that cold hand brushing down your back when nobody’s around, that blur out of the corner of your eye. It is that which you always imagine is behind you, ready to strike as soon as you become away of its presence.

The worst part is not knowing what it looks like, and that is what makes them unknown. We put faces on our fears because it makes them real; because it makes them less scary and brings them closer to our understanding, but that one thing that remains invisible and faceless… that terror comes from our imaginations.

That terror comes from us, but sometimes in the most hellish situations… that terror comes from something else.

I cannot even begin to describe the creature, nor do I want to. The very sight of the abomination made my mind begin to unravel, and I was forced to look away before it could claim my very sanity as it had claimed so many others before. In fact, I immediately vomited at first sight of the monster. I now believe the insanity that lurks in its presence is due to an aura of sorts because I can clearly remember being around it and feeling tense and terrified when I was in its presence. I can also remember what little of it I actually saw without feeling any effects, aside from the sickness I feel whenever I think back to that dreadful evening.

It was a fresh, cool October evening when I first got the call from Gavin. It was the first warm evening in quite a while, and I took advantage of the change from the frigid temperatures to spend my evening outside, reading a mystery novel in a chair on my back porch. As the sun began to set, the quiet serenity of dusk was shattered when a shrill ring erupted from inside my house. I immediately recognized it as the phone, and I hurried inside to see who it was. Delighted to see that it was from a close friend of mine, someone I hadn’t spoken to in a few weeks, I quickly swept up the phone and answered.

Professor Gavin Thomas, the man on the other end of the phone, was an archaeologist who had recently returned from an excavation. He had called me in a frantic hysteria before he left to travel to the dig site, claiming that it was the greatest opportunity of his life. The excavation, he told me, was of a town from the 1800’s that had been buried when an earthquake caused a chain reaction that sank the town and buried it beneath an avalanche. He said that a man representing a wealthy benefactor had approached him after work one evening and asked for him to join the excavation crew as the head archaeologist.

The benefactor had given Gavin all kinds of information about the dig site to get him excited, and Gavin accepted the offer to join the crew. Gavin said that such a find was unprecedented, and he couldn’t believe his luck that he would get to witness the excavation firsthand. I wished him well before his departure, and hadn’t expected to hear from him for over six months. An entire buried town would be quite the time-consuming project… or so I thought.

Now, almost three months after he had left, I was confused to see that he was calling me. I answered the phone and hesitantly greeted him.

“Hello? Gavin?”

“Devon!” Gavin sounded like he was bursting with excitement, but I detected an edge to his voice… was that nervousness…?

“Why are you back so soon? Did the excavation of that town end early?”

“You could say that,” Gavin replied. “Look, I need you to come over here, to my house.”

“The sun is setting. It’s almost night.”

“Devon, this is important,” Gavin assured me. “I wouldn’t ask unless it wasn’t. I… I found something in the town. I… I just need someone here.”

“You have it with you?”

“Yes,” Gavin slowly answered, his voice shaking. “I-It’s a huge discovery. Something impossible. Just… just get over here, alright? I can tell you everything when you get here. N-Not over the phone.”

“Gavin, are you-” I tried to ask before I heard the sound of the phone clicking as he hung up, “…okay?”

~~~~~~

Of course I thought Gavin’s behavior was odd, but he was still my friend. So, with only the slightest sense of foreboding about what terrors tonight would birth, I climbed into my car and drove to Gavin’s secluded forest home.

Gavin Thomas lived in a modest two-story home on the outskirts of the city of Marwind Heights, where we had grown up together and currently worked. He taught at the local college until his archaeology career had forced him to take a leave, but the house wasn’t very far from the college. I pulled into his driveway to see that he was waiting for me on the porch. Almost every light in his house was on, and the brightness shone through the windows, turning his house into a beacon in the dark forest. Large, towering trees sent menacing shadows over his unkempt lawn, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread for no particular reason. The sun was still setting, but the sky had been bright red and streaked with orange before I had driven into the woods. After entering the dense trees, it was as if I had traveled into a moonless night.

“Devon! Good to see you again!” Gavin greeted me warmly as I climbed out of my car and slammed the door shut. As I began to walk over to him, Gavin stood up from where he’d been sitting in a chair on the porch and extended his arms as I drew closer, and then we hugged when I got close enough. He was my best childhood friend… and still was.

“You seemed worried on the phone,” I said, peering at him with concern when we pulled away from each other. “What exactly did you find on that dig?”

“Hurry. Inside,” he motioned me toward the front door, and his worried eyes swept across the trees quickly, as though he were looking for something. I was growing increasingly unsettled by his behavior, but I went inside anyway and he quickly followed, locking the door behind us. I followed him across the house to his den, where we sat next to each other on the couch. In front of the couch was a coffee table with a worn-out leather satchel resting atop it.

“So… about the excavation,” I murmured, breaking the ice.

“Right, right,” Gavin took a deep breath. “As you know, we were digging up a buried city; the city of Nightshale. It was a very prominent city in the 19th century, but has faded to relative historical obscurity in recent years. It was found beneath tons of rock and dirt because, you see, it was buried during an earthquake.”

“An… earthquake?

“Nightshale was built around the Mitis River, at the foot of a mountain,” Gavin continued. “One day, the ground began to shake, and a ravine opened up beneath the town as the earth itself split in two. What little of Nightshale that remained after that was buried or destroyed when an avalanche swept down from the mountain, burying the town and everyone in it.”

“That’s horrible,” I said in disbelief, “but it sounds like it was a pretty big job. It takes some people weeks to dig up a dinosaur fossil, yet your crew excavated an entire town in three months?”

“No, no,” Gavin waved his hand in dismissal, “we actually dug up a very small portion of the town, but we still made very good progress in those short months.”

“So why did the dig end so early? Why are you back so soon?”

“It, uh… it’s a long story, Devon,” Gavin grinned, but I could tell it was forced. If I’m being honest, he looked terrified, but I didn’t see it then. Maybe because I didn’t want to see it.

Gavin leaned forward with his arm outstretched as he grabbed the satchel. Taking it, he leaned back against the couch, and reached into the bag. As I watched, he pulled out a shiny red jewel that was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand.

“Ooh…” my eyes widened in awe. “How did you…?”

“This is the Nightshale Strange Gem,” Gavin explained, staring more at it than me as he talked. “I… I shouldn’t have it. I think I’m in danger because I do.”

“What do you mean? What kind of danger?”

Gavin gently placed the gem on the coffee table, where it appeared to glow radiantly. Next, he reached into the bag again and pulled out a leather notebook.

“These are my notes, my journal,” he told me. “Everything that happened during the dig is recorded right here. I-”

Gavin stopped, his face turning white and his eyes widening as he stared past me. I turned around in time to see something big duck out of view of the window. I jumped to my feet, and Gavin began trembling.

He’s here…” Gavin whispered, his voice shaking.

“What?” I demanded, making a move to get out of the room, but then Gavin leapt off the couch and grabbed my shoulders.

“Devon, NO!” he shouted. “Just… just wait here, okay? I’ll go take care of it; I’ll be back in a minute.”

“What was that?! Is there someone outside the house?” I exclaimed. “Gavin, what’s going on?!”

“Everything’s fine!” Gavin managed to say before he raced out of the room. “Devon, don’t follow me! Just wait here! It’ll be fine, I promise!”

I heard Gavin running around the house as he searched for something, and then I turned back to the gem and the journal. I didn’t like it, but I knew there was something Gavin wasn’t telling me. Something that was in the journals.

I sat back down and listened to hear if Gavin was coming back. Once I was satisfied that he wasn’t, I picked up the leather notebook and began to read Gavin’s notes. I heard the front door open and Gavin hurry outside, but made no move to get up. It was time to learn what really happened during the excavation of Nightshale, even if Gavin wouldn’t tell me himself.

~~~~~~

From the journal of Professor Gavin Thomas:

August 19th, 1988
Today, I arrived on the excavation site. Unearthing this town is going to be difficult, and quite frankly, rather expensive. Fortunately, our benefactor has spared no expense. He claims that the old city of Nightshale was quite a sight to behold hundreds of years ago, and from what I’ve seen so far, I believe him.

Nightshale was a very pronounced city during the 19th century, built around the gentle Mitis River at the foot of a mountain. The earth had split and the mountain had all but collapsed unexpectedly one day when an earthquake hit, sending an avalanche careening down the mountain’s steep slopes and burying Nightshale and all of its citizens beneath hundreds of feet of mud, rock, and debris. The city had apparently been forgotten after that, so I’m not sure how our benefactor knows of it. Still, it should yield some incredible discoveries if the dig goes well. Today, a forest surrounds this sandy area, and I can’t help but wonder if those trees have been left over from the forest that was outside Nightshale before the catastrophic earthquake.

By the time I had arrived, the excavation had already begun. There is an abundance of collapsed buildings all around the area, but amazingly, some have remained standing despite being buried all those years ago. The others, an excavation team consisting mostly of diggers and excavators, but also of a few archeologists such as myself, were excited because they had discovered a particularly large structure, and they believe it to be the Honeycomb mansion.

The Honeycomb family was the heart and soul of Nightshale back in its prime, and their generosity with their wealth is what built it into the awe-inspiring city it once was. Tales of the heart they put into the city and its citizens brought settlers from far and wide to start families and businesses here. The fact that the mansion may still be intact is only an example of how strong they made this forgotten city.

Assuming nothing from the avalanche damaged the interior, it may be possible for us to enter the mansion in less than a week, though I have no doubt that a few sections of the mansion have caved in. As I said before, our benefactor’s money is plentiful, so this dig may very well last for months. Maybe even over a year. All that he asks is that we find something special. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll find what he’s looking for in the mansion, if it hasn’t been obliterated.

August 22nd, 1988
We’ve managed to dig up a bit more from the surrounding area, but we’ve mainly focused our efforts on the Honeycomb mansion.

Apparently, a body was found in the area that the old Mitis River once flowed through, but now the river is a dry trench in the sandy landscape. Nothing preserved, only a few brittle bones and torn clothing from someone who must have drowned in the river before the disaster. Nevertheless, they aren’t necessarily a bad find and I can feel high morale for the dig.

The mansion is an enormous, two-story structure, and I have no doubt of the valuables inside. I wonder if our benefactor was after money all along? We’re hoping to enter the mansion through an upstairs window tomorrow. It will no doubt be dangerous, but the reward will be tremendous. Lord only knows what’s buried in there…

I am going to bed earlier tonight. I keep getting a paranoid feeling, as though there were something watching us dig. Such irrational thoughts are no doubt the product of a disordered, hyperactive mind. There IS something ominious about the forest around us though, so I’ve decided to stay away from it and advised the others to do the same.

August 23rd, 1988
Finally! At long last, we’ve entered the Honeycomb mansion! I could hardly contain my excitement when we entered. The damage from the avalanche had broken a few windows, if not all of them, so we had to clear away all of the dirt that had spilled into the mansion, but surprisingly, there wasn’t very much. The windows must have held up a lot better than we thought, or all of the rocks from the avalanche stopped a lot of the dirt from entering. We started thinking that the wreckage wasn’t very bad at all, but then we found that a large portion of the mansion- presumably the portion that had absorbed the blunt of the destruction from the rocks- had caved in. So much for luck…

The interior of the mansion is the 18th century in all of its glory. Colorful, artistic paintings cover every wall. There are elegant rugs stretching from one side of the mansion to the other via a long hallway, and who knows how many rooms there are. It seems that as much as the Honeycombs built up Nightshale, they were also stylizing their mansion, though I am believe that most of the more gaudy decor comes from Bella Honeycomb.

Bella was a wretched woman who married her way into the Honeycomb family, and she became the sole heir of the family fortune when an illness swept through the city and claimed the lives of the other heirs, including her husband. She was greedy, and stopped using the money for what it always had been used for, Nightshale, and used it on herself instead. According to my research on the city, Bella had died under mysterious circumstances only months before the avalanche. I can’t help but wonder what they were.

We didn’t find anything today, and the feeling of being in a buried house without support beams up got to us before we could do a very thorough inspection, but we managed to see every room that was still intact. I still have goosebumps from exploring that place, and can’t wait to do it again tomorrow. There WERE some rooms that were destroyed by the avalanche, but we can dig them out when the support beams are in place, hopefully without ending up burying ourselves…

August 26th, 1988
Great. Just great.

We’ve been exploring the mansion for the past few days, and I am always shocked at how large it is. We’ve only cleaned three rooms so far. I personally inspected everything even suspected to be valuable, and nothing of significance has been found yet. Only a few intact 19th century vases and paintings, which aren’t BAD finds, but from the way our benefactor spoke, I can’t help but feel like we’re looking for something on a scale unlike any other. Something that could change the field of archaeology as we know it.

Today, a digger down by the river by the name of Henry scared everyone into a frenzy. He was digging when he suddenly started shouting about how he saw something in the forest, but nobody else saw it. Some of the more mature diggers went into the trees to look for a wild animal, but they came back and said there was no sign that anything had been there. Henry swears that he saw something, and asked me to move him somewhere away from the forest… which is going to be difficult, considering it surrounds most of the area. I suppose I could move him to the mansion, if he can handle it.

Now everyone is on edge, and some of them are concerned about if there ARE animals in the forest. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by such irrational fears. Everyone is just letting their imaginations get to them.

THERE IS NOTHING IN THE WOODS!

August 30th, 1988
Still nothing to report. The mansion seems to go on forever, and we’ve gotten nowhere despite clearing three more rooms. I DID find a neat amulet on a rotting wooden shelf, but that’s it. And I was so sure this dig would get somewhere quickly… but it looks like Nightshale isn’t as amazing as everyone thought it was. We’ve begun to dig out a large quarry around the mansion so we can see the full scope of the destruction, but it honestly does not appear to be very bad. Only a few rooms were destroyed when a part of the roof caved in, and a few more were buried, but it could have been much, much worse.

August 31st, 1988
Bad news; some of the workers were clearing dirt out of one of the rooms when suddenly it collapsed. Fortunately, there was a loud creaking overhead before it happened, so they quickly evacuated the area and most of them got out in one piece, but when the ceiling caved in, two diggers were struck by debris and another wasn’t fast enough and was buried from the waist down in rock. He was screaming in agony the entire time we were trying to dig him out, and then we had to call in the helicopter to airlift him out of here.

I got a telephone call from the benefactor today in response to the injury. He says that the injury “was an unfortunate mistake” and he hopes it doesn’t slow our progress. It’s as if all that man cares about is money or whatever he hopes to gain from what we find here.

Henry, the digger who swears he saw something in the forest, hasn’t caused any trouble in days, which is good. I think people around here are starting to relax, but I can’t be certain. I’m still having trouble sleeping, and I hate to admit it, but Henry’s story must have gotten to me as well. The paranoia has only gotten worse, and I am almost inclined to believe Henry DID see something in those woods… but not a wild animal…

I’m just being foolish. The accident today must have worked me up more than I thought.

September 3rd, 1988
Finally. We found something.

We reached what appears to be a bedroom that caved in under the rocks, and began digging. We weren’t even finished clearing it out when we found a body lying on the bed beneath the rocks and dirt. I didn’t have to be a forensic scientist to see that whoever it was died when a rock cracked their skull; their skin had long been gone and they were left with only dusty bones and ragged clothing when we found them. It looked like whoever it was somehow knew they were about to die, because clenched in their skeletal hands over their chest was a small, metal chest. I suspect that they wanted it to be found.

The chest is VERY small; small enough that I can hold it in one hand. We pried it from the skeleton’s lifeless, yet firm grasp and I opened it. Inside the chest was a carefully-folded piece of yellowed paper. The paper was thin, and felt like it was made of dust, so I made sure I was gentle as I removed it from the chest; it felt like the slightest rough treatment would cause the paper to fall apart.

I unfolded it, and written in faded ink was the following poem:

Fear the Exsor
Flee my child, flee to the endless sanctuary anon
Lest ye linger, best escape this place ere it comes
For it shall arrive, snarling in the everlasting night
Ah, for those whom dare look upon shall deathly succumb

Breaking the dusk with a cry of rage
Before starting hither with a yearning to play
Hide within thine empty house, dare not go outside
For when the beast comes, it is best to pray

With eyne of darkness and mouth so sharp!
Fear the dread Exsor, my child!
Lest thee end as another victim!

Back to the wood forthwith it goes yon
Dare not give chase as it returns
For behind you now, its mouth stretches wide
To look at him, the temptation burns

Eyne of oblivion doth he possess
As madness claims, you begin to scream
Those eyne now glow, his mouth opens wide
Thy mind unravels at the seams

Fear the dread Exsor, my child!
Only leaving wanion and black insanity in its wake of paranoia
Flee my child, and yet there is no sanctuary from the dread Exsor.

I don’t know what relevance this poem had during the 1800’s, if any, but it wasn’t the only thing in that chest. Beneath the poem, there was an old, dull golden key. At this time, I am unsure of what it unlocks. Careful analyzation of the author’s words hasn’t yielded any clues, but I’m focused on the line “Back to the wood forthwith it goes yon”. The poem is saying that this “Exsor” thing comes from the forest, and I find my thoughts returning to what Henry said. I wonder, could it be possible…?

No. I’m being foolish again. A poem is all it is. Just a poem.

The author of the poem remains unknown, but I suspect it was neither the skeleton nor a Honeycomb. If that’s the case however, why was it sealed in a chest in their mansion?

I’m keeping the key in my pocket at all times now. I know that’s a tad unprofessional, but I suspect we’ll find out what it unlocks soon enough.

September 5th, 1988
I’ve read the poem so many times now, searching for anything I might have missed. I feel as though I could recite it from memory at this point. I don’t know why, but I feel as though it has some kind of deeper meaning. And the mystery of this key continues to baffle me…

There was another injury today. One of the diggers over by the Mitis River area suddenly fell into a panic about something he had seen. We suspect it was a hallucination of some kind, because he was the only one who saw anything, but this man screamed, dropped his shovel, and tried to run from the imaginary monsters. He kept looking over his shoulder, and didn’t see the edge of the quarry around the Honeycomb mansion until it was too late. He fell in headfirst, rolled down the slope and got a few awful cuts from the rocks before landing on his arm at the bottom, snapping the bone.

Again, we had to call in the helicopter. The other diggers are worried now, and I swear I heard one of them say Nightshale was “cursed”. Injuries are COMMON on a dig as massive as this, albeit not on a scale like this, but common nonetheless. No doubt that Henry is the source of these whispers. I’ve talked to him about it and made it very clear that he would be kicked off the dig if his behavior continues, and I think he’s starting to understand. Only time will tell!

I am still focused on finding whatever this damn key unlocks. It’s driving me mad. First the poem and now a key? I wonder if this mystery will lead us to whatever our benefactor is so keen on finding…

September 9th, 1988
Pointless. All of it is POINTLESS!

We’ve looked through almost every room in that mansion, and I still haven’t found what this key might unlock! On top of both that and all the injuries lately, Henry is still telling stories about that ridiculous forest, and I am seriously considering kicking him off this dig. The last thing we need is to get everyone all worked up over nothing.

I’m feeling very angsty as of late, no doubt due to sleep deprivation. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and usually have no idea why. For example, last night I woke up, climbed out of my cot, left the tent, and was halfway to the Honeycomb mansion before I realized what I was doing.

I need to find what this key unlocks. Every day that goes by until then is another day spent struggling for answers.

September 13th, 1988
I inspected the room we found the poem and the key in again today. I looked everywhere: in the bookshelves, under the bed, and in the drawers. I even searched the skeleton to see if there might be anything else on him, but we had gotten everything already.

Another room caved in today, but fortunately there was nobody in it. I keep wondering if whatever this key unlocks was in that room, and have to force myself to think of things besides the key.

I don’t understand why the key was with that poem in the chest. The Exsor sounds like a fantasy monster, like something that isn’t real. Still, I’ve toyed with the idea that this key could unlock a cell or something where the monster, or more believably a serial killer with that name, is locked up, but that would be impossible. Nightshale has been underground for over a hundred years. If there was some monster or serial killer locked up somewhere, it would be nothing but bone by now.

No, I think this key leads to something else. Something bigger.

September 17th, 1988
I did it.

I did it I did it I did it I DID IT!

I finally found what the key unlocks, and it is the most remarkable discovery that I have ever made. This will be what makes my career. This will be the prized attraction of a very lucky museum. This will be the only good thing that comes out of the cursed city of Nightshale!

We were searching another room today, one that appears to be a trophy room full of vases and paintings, all of which we were removing from the mansion. One of the men pulled a painting off the wall to take it topside, and yelled that he had found something behind the painting. I rushed over, and sure enough there was something, a hidden compartment, behind the painting! It was a small alcove, with a small metal chest identical to the one we found the skeleton holding. I pulled the key out of my pocket and tried it on the chest, and it opened. The interior was made of velvet, and there was a gorgeous red gem sitting neatly at the bottom of the box. I immediately closed the chest and took it topside, back to camp for further inspection.

The gem is an odd shape. It’s round and smooth on one side, but sharp and jagged on the other, as though it were unceremoniously torn off a larger jewel. Through the glistening red color, the gem is transparent, but sparkles in the sunlight. When I held the gem and looked through it, I was amazed to see what appeared to be something moving INSIDE the gem! And then the gem fell from my hand as I dropped it, because I could swear, it PULSED.

Was that just my imagination, or is the gem… alive? Just the fact that I’m doubting myself should prove that I cannot accept the truth: the gem moved.

I’ve placed it and the Exsor poem in a small leather bag, and I’m keeping that satchel with me at all times.

There was also another cave-in today in the mansion. If anything, this should only prove to me that we should start focusing our efforts elsewhere. Nightshale had a fabulous museum in its past life. We should have started there when we began this excavation… it’s my own fault for letting my interest in the mansion guide our dig.

I called our benefactor today to tell him about the discovery, and he seemed thrilled about the gem, even though I only described what it looks like. I didn’t mention the movement or the pulsation, but I suspect he already knows the mysterious nature of the Nightshale Strange Gem, or so I’ve been calling it. Honeycomb Strange Gem probably would’ve been a better name.

He’s asked me to bring the gem when I meet with him at the end of the month to deliver a progress report. I’m keen to hear what he says about the Strange Gem…

September 19th, 1988
I don’t know why I can’t sleep. I notice myself being bitter toward everyone else because of sleep deprivation, but what’s really bizarre is that I’ve been noticing these same emotions in everyone else. It’s probably just the enormousness of the dig.

Henry went for a walk in the woods and hasn’t come back yet. I find it strange because he was so determined to spread his rumors about animals in the forest. It’s only been a few hours though, so I’ll probably go with a few other diggers before nightfall.

September 20th, 1988
Henry is dead.

I went with four other diggers when the sun was still just over the horizon, and we walked through the woods calling Henry’s name. I noticed a putrid odor coming from somewhere within the trees, and this was almost enough to get us to turn back. We pressed on though, and soon noticed a large mass of flies over in a certain direction. Out of curiosity, one of the diggers went to see what they were circling, and then he yelled for us.

It was Henry’s body. He was still wearing his work uniform, which had thick cuts down the front so we could see where the razor-sharp claws dug into his chest and stomach. His eyeballs appeared to have been torn open with the same claws, and his mouth was hanging open loosely. As I watched, a fly crawled out of his mouth on his tongue before flying away. His right arm was broken, and it was bending the wrong way so the white bone poked out of his skin.

This was too violent to be an animal, but I am forcing myself to believe it was a bear or some other large creature.

The excavation has ended. Everybody is packing their things, and this whole site should be clear in a day or so. Nobody is going to continue working when they’re tired, afraid, and now in danger. I can’t believe that this, the dig that was going to make my archaeological career, has ended on such a horrible note, but it’s really for the best.

May the cursed city of Nightshale forever remain undisturbed.

September 21st, 1988
I was up all night overseeing the helicopters and everyone leaving. I packed my gear in a trunk and climbed onto the last helicopter. I swear I could hear the echoes of a cave-in from within the mansion as I left the excavation site for the last time.

I still have my meeting with our benefactor on the 30th, and I expect he’ll require a full report of the Nightshale Incident, which is where these journal entries are going to come in handy.

I didn’t realize the Nightshale Strange Gem was in my trunk until the helicopter was already far from the excavation site.

September 30th, 1988
I met with the benefactor, who asked to be referred to as “Mr. S”, this evening.

I drove to his home where he greeted me at the front door and pulled me inside. It was storming, so I was grateful to be out of the rain. It was a large manor, but nowhere near as impressive as the Honeycomb mansion. I was mostly intrigued with the benefactor himself; we hadn’t met in-person up until this point. I was expecting an older gentleman, but the man who showed me into his home was fairly young, and he was wearing a black hoodie with the hood up, as though he were determined to hide his face from view. He wasn’t at all who I imagined he’d be. We sat in two chairs facing each other in his living room with a table between us.

“First thing’s first, Professor Thomas,” he said. “Let’s see the ‘Nightshale Strange Gem’, as you call it.”

I produced the satchel and placed it on the table. He swept it up, opened it, and shook it upside down so the gem and the folded-up piece of paper fell out onto the table. He grinned at both of them.

“This was a very difficult find, Mr. S,” I informed him as he gently took the gem in two fingers and brought it up to his eye for a closer look, “The Honeycombs kept it locked in a hidden chest.”

“I must congratulate you for finding it,” he praised halfheartedly before gesturing at the paper. “What’s this?”

“We found the key to the gem in a chest in another room,” I continued. “This paper was with the key. It’s a poem about something called the ‘Exsor’. Have you ever heard of anything like that?”

He sighed, “The Exsor was just a Nightshale urban legend back before the avalanche. I don’t remember the details, I just remember it being pretty standard monster stuff, like a werewolf or vampire, just a story about a monster. Looks like you’ve found some uninspired writer’s work.”

“And the Strange Gem?”

“Again, this was a spectacular find,” Mr. S said excitedly, still observing the gem. “Look closely into its shiny red exterior to its transparent inside… and they say you can see fire dancing.”

Fire! It must have been the movement I saw in the gem. I listened to Mr. S more intently as he stood up, pushing his chair aside as he did so, and turned away from me to walk over to a ceiling-to-floor window to stare out into the storm.

“You’ve put a lot of research into this, Mr. S,” I noted.

“Indeed I have, Professor Thomas,” he replied, still gazing out the window and watching the rain slowly slide down the glass. “Nightshale’s demise was an unfortunate historical event, but with this gem… this gem has powers.”

“Powers?” I asked, a fearful knot forming in my stomach. Surely he had noticed the extraordinary pulse of the gem… but had he been expecting that? Was the gem what he was after all along?

“The people of Nightshale were too weak to use the gem’s abilities,” Mr. S said through grit teeth, “but I… I can wield them. I can use them.”

“What kind of abilities?” I leaned forward in my seat, intrigued.

“I suppose I’ve already told you too much, Professor Thomas, and I do not wish to bore you with outlandish tales,” Mr. S shook his head as he stared out the window. “Your check is in the envelope labelled ‘GAVIN THOMAS’ on the counter. Leave the gem. Pick up the check on the way out.”

I slowly, unsurely, rose from my chair, and looked back at Mr. S, the benefactor to our insane excavation, who still refused to look at me. At this moment, I knew I had to make a choice… and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that choice.

I quietly took the gem and placed it back in my pocket. Mr. S didn’t turn around, and I left the envelope sitting on the counter as I hurried out of his manor. I stole the Nightshale Strange Gem from a man who definitely has more of a claim to it than I do. I found it, but he paid for everything. He found the city. He was the one who brought me onto the excavation in the first place.

So why did I take the gem? I can’t say; I was overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. I am certain that Mr. S is mad if he thinks he can use the gem for some nefarious purpose, so was it really the right choice to steal the gem?

He’s coming for me. I’m sure of it. Mr. S has money and influence, and I’m certain that he could make me “disappear” fairly easily. I need to find someone who can take these journal entries to a safe place. As for me… I need to do something with this gem.

I need to get rid of it.

~~~~~~

The last journal entry was dated a week before he called me.

I set the papers down in disbelief. No archaeologist that I knew of had ever had to deal with an excavation that was so dramatic. For a moment I thought Gavin’s story was too fantastic, too impossible, to be real. I almost believed that it was false too… until a loud gunshot rang out from the other side of the house.

“Come on! Come on!” Gavin was yelling outside. “No- ah! AAAHH!

Gavin!” I cried out as I dropped the journal onto the table beside the Strange Gem and leapt off the couch. I hurried out of the den and tore through the hallway to Gavin’s front door. A cool breeze drifted into the house from the doorway; Gavin had left the door wide open when he went outside onto his front porch. Nothing but the porch light illuminated this soulless night, and I stepped outside slowly and cautiously. I froze, listening for a sound, but I heard nothing except the unending roar of nature in the trees around the house. I took another step, this time off the porch, and felt my foot kick something, so I glanced down.

The grass was damp and slippery with dew, but it was also stained crimson red. The toe of my shoe had kicked what appeared to be the barrel of a shotgun. My gaze followed the gun to see a hand, rigid and limp, over the trigger. My eyes peered at the hand, and then at the arm, and then at the body, sprawled on its back in the grass.

Gavin’s lifeless eyes stared up into the night sky. His lips were slightly parted, and a thin trickle of blood dribbled out the side of his mouth. Already, it seemed as though his face, now locked in its last, terrified expression, was growing pale. I gasped and covered my mouth with my hand as my jaw fell and my eyes widened in sheer horror at the brutal display before me. My legs buckled, and I fell to my knees beside my deceased friend. The front of his shirt had been torn to pieces, and a long, bloody slash was visible. It was no longer oozing blood, but whatever knife had done this had cleanly carved through his skin.

The world seemed to stop. I couldn’t even scream. I couldn’t even react… until I heard a snarl from behind me.

I can’t explain exactly what it sounded like. It was a high-pitched wail, but it also resembled a dog or a bear, mixed with the sound a rattlesnake makes, all combined into a single, chilling growl. I pried my terrified gaze away from Gavin and looked over my shoulder to see a dark shape moving through the shadows on the edge of the house. There was a shuffling sound as it moved through the grass, and my blood turned to ice when I realized it was coming toward me.

Without thinking, I threw myself away from the body onto my hands and knees, and I frantically crawled onto my feet again as I desperately made a run for the front door. The creature in the shadows let out a bellowing roar, and out of the corner of my eye I could see it emerge from the shadows into the light of the porch, but I was too focused on escape. My feet barely touched the porch as I managed to get into the house. I quickly whirled around and tried to slam the front door, but I turned too fast and lost my balance, falling onto the door as it closed. Just before it could close all the way, something slammed into it so hard that I nearly went flying away from it.

Beyond the door came another howl, and I gasped for breath as I pressed my body against the door, fighting to close it. Whatever was on the other side banged on the door, causing it to shake, and I saw the dull-golden doorknob twisting as I grit my teeth, pulling away from the door for an instant before pushing myself into it with all my strength. The creature must have been caught off-balance, because the door finally clicked shut, and with a grunt I reached toward the knob and locked it before falling to the floor with my back against the door, breathing heavily as trickles of sweat traveled down the sides of my face. The thing on the other side of the door pounded on the door, enraged, but the door held and a few moments later I heard its heavy footsteps on the wooden porch leaving.

It was gone.

I took a deep breath, trying to steady my racing heart. My mind raced as I tried to comprehend what was happening, and I buried my face in my hands and took another deep breath. Whatever that was, I was sure that it wasn’t Gavin’s deranged benefactor, but the worst part was that I didn’t know WHAT it was. For a second, I had a crazy thought that it was just a wild animal, but animals couldn’t turn knobs or bang on the door like that.

But right now, it didn’t matter. Gavin had been worried about someone stealing the Nightshale Strange Gem, and I struggled to think if this creature was after it. It couldn’t have been a coincidence, Gavin stealing the Gem and then this thing showing up, but judging from the shotgun he had, Gavin had been prepared.

You went down fighting, buddy, I thought to myself, now realizing what I had to do. I had to escape with the Gem, and take it where nobody would find it, but shiver after shiver ran down my spine. Visions of my own body outside my house flashed through my mind; if I took the Gem, would this thing come after ME?

I couldn’t take any chances. Maybe I could still escape from Gavin’s house and somehow find the benefactor and give it to him. Anything just to get rid of it.

It was completely silent on the other side of the door, and I carefully got to my feet. The floorboards made little creaks as I tentatively made my way across the house, through the kitchen and into the hallway. Doors hung open, to a bathroom and to Gavin’s bedroom, but the den was at the very end of the hall. There was no door there.

The lights were on in the den, which I was thankful for; the whole room seemed bright, which was an enormous relief after the darkness outside, as though some black fog had covered this whole area. The Gem was still on the table next to the journals and the satchel, and the way it glistened under the lights seemed to mock me. I moved over to the table, picked up the satchel, and was about to put the gem and the journals back inside, but then I paused when I noticed a piece of yellowed paper stuffed in the bottom of the satchel.

I examined the paper suspiciously before reaching in with two fingers and gently pulling it out. The paper had been folded in half, and I unfolded it to see words written in a fading black ink. Immediately, I recognized it as the Exsor poem that Gavin had transcribed in his notes. “With eyne of darkness and mouth so sharp, fear the dread Exsor, my child…”

Hadn’t Gavin mentioned that Henry, the poor digger who had died during the excavation, had looked as though he were killed by a wild animal? Just like Gavin…?

I blinked a few times as something connected inside my mind. He had mentioned feeling strangely paranoid during the excavation, as though something in the forest were watching them. He had also been curious about the Exsor when the poem said it went into the forest. The key to the Gem had been found alongside THIS poem… that couldn’t have been a coincidence. Could… could the thing outside really have been…?

“The Exsor…” I whispered, my lips hardly parting as the words escaped me. It couldn’t have been. It was only an urban legend from a long-dead city, but at the same time it felt completely real to me. The monster that had plagued Nightshale over a hundred years ago… it was back. There was no way it could have been real, but there had been something impossible about the creature that had chased me. The mystery of it all was unbearable, and I wanted answers more than anything.

It was then that I realized it was too quiet, and felt the eyes on the back of my neck.

Slowly, my hands shaking as I did so, I turned my head toward the window. My eyes widened, and the room immediately began to spin around me as my vision blackened dizzyingly, making me sway as I stared at the twisted vision in the window. Out of the shadows of the night, two yellow orbs stared back at me while teeth like needles twitched across a wide gash in the monster’s face, where it looked as though its skin had been torn in half. All I could see were its eyes and teeth; nothing else was visible behind his spasming visage that shook and twisted as I looked for a few seconds, as long as I could bear it, and then I turned and puked yellow chunks onto the carpet. My skull felt like it was roaring as I endured a searing pain in my head, as though my cranium were being split in half and the jagged pieces of bone were poking into my brain. This feeling faded almost as soon as I looked away from the monster, but my head still ached and my hands shook even worse than before. My heart was racing fast, too fast, and I wondered if I might have a heart attack.

I wiped off my mouth as I struggled to catch my breath. Sweat flowed from my forehead and dripped to the floor, and I tried to stop shivering, but only the act of looking at the creature had swept me up in wave upon wave of nausea and terror. When my nerves had calmed a bit, I risked a look back at the window to see that the Exsor had gone, but on the glass were four long scratches that appeared to have been made by claws or a knife.

I exhaled without realizing I had been holding my breath. It was gone, for now at least, but to where?

There was no time to worry about that now. I took the satchel, put the poem, journals, and gem into it, and took it with me as I made my way out of the den and stalked down the hallway as quietly as I could. I was passing through the kitchen toward the front door when I saw the Exsor again, this time leering at me from the kitchen window. I dropped the satchel in shock, but couldn’t look away in time. Fortunately for me, all I saw were its orb-like eyes; it darted out of view as soon as I saw it.

Sighing a bit to calm myself, I bent down and retrieved the satchel from where it had fallen. Once it was in my hands, I thought about how I would get out of Gavin’s house. There was no way I could just open the door and run to my car, not without being caught by the Exsor. I wondered if there was a way to lure it behind the house while I ran toward the front. Gavin had secured his house, but I couldn’t stay in here forever. I noticed the telephone sitting on the counter, and a rush of adrenaline hit me. Could I CALL someone?

I picked up the phone, dialed 911, and held the receiver up to my ear, silently thanking the Lord for this miracle. There was a click, and a man’s voice said “Hello?”

“Yes, hello, you have to help me,” I breathed into the mouthpiece, trying not to sound like I was ranting. “I-I’m at Gavin Thomas’s house, in Marwind Heights, the address is 1915 Maple Avenue. There’s some kind of creature outside, i-it mauled him. You need to send somebody, please, it’s going to kill ME!”

There was silence on the other end of the line, and then the man’s voice spoke again.

“I’m sorry Devon, but I can’t do that.”

I stopped breathing. I didn’t move. My heart stopped.

“W-what…?”

“The Exsor is a wonderful creature, isn’t it?” the man on the other end of the line sighed fondly. “So vicious. So unpredictable.”

“You… oh my God,” I stammered. “Y-you’re the benefactor. You’re Mr. S!”

“I go by many names,” he replied, “but, look, here’s the gist of it: Gavin stole the gem, so the creature came after him. The Exsor wants that gem, Devon, and it WILL take it. Even if it has to rip you to shreds to do so. I’m sorry that you got involved in all this… unpleasantness, but that’s the way it has to be now. I’ve taken the liberty of sabotaging the phone lines, so you won’t be calling for help.”

“No…” I whimpered. “Please, I’ll give you the gem, just call off the monster-”

He laughed, “You think I control it? Ha! Nobody controls that thing. You’re dead. It’s going to kill you and then it’s going to take the gem. Anyway… it’s been nice talking with you Devon. I’ll send the police to your location tomorrow morning… after the Exsor is done. Don’t worry: I won’t be sending anyone else to Nightshale for a very long time. Oh, and one last thing… you’ve probably figured this out already, but DON’T look at the Exsor. It doesn’t like that.”

With that, the benefactor hung up, and the dial tone hummed in my ear as I stood, paralyzed with astonishment and complete horror. I gently hung up the phone, and stood, leaning against the counter, for what felt like hours, just staring at the wall. Was there NOTHING I could do now to avoid my fate?

No. There had to be something. There just had to be.

I was snapped out of my dread-filled trance by the sound of glass shattering, and then that familiar, yet haunting roar resonated from the den. Even as I broke away from the counter, satchel in hand as I ran toward the den where the sound had come from, I knew in my stomach that the Exsor had broken the window while the benefactor had distracted me.

It was inside.

I had barely gotten into the den when a blur slammed into me, knocking me to the ground as it snatched the leather satchel from my hands. I cried out as the wind was knocked out of me, and lie on the ground wheezing. The sound of papers tearing echoed through the room as the Exsor ripped the satchel open and tore the journal apart, sending the pages raining through the room. The poem fell to the ground in front of my face, and I looked up in time to see the Exsor holding the bright-red Strange Gem in one gnarled hand, or was it a claw, or tentacle? The pain in my head returned as I stared at the Exsor, unable to pull away my gaze, and I let out a scream as I felt my brain pulsing. For a moment, I swear that I could see a small, golden fire rise up from the gem. A face made of fire seemed to rise from the flames, accompanied by a hissing sound that resembled windy laughter.

The Exsor seemed to contemplate this gem for a moment, and then it crushed it.

My eyes rolled up into my head, and I blacked out, finally succumbing to the trauma the Exsor’s appearance had on my mentality. I fought to remain conscious, listening to the sounds of the Exsor pulverizing the gem into a powder. I opened my eyes a little, enough to see the remains of the gem, now dust, fall to the floor. Either I was hallucinating again, or a pink smoke rose from the gem. The Exsor stood over the gem and me, and I weakly tried crawling away from it. As soon as I looked away, my strength returned, albeit slowly. I managed to get to my feet again as the Exsor snarled, and then lunged at me like a wild dog, but I was already bolting. Behind me, I could hear the Exsor’s pounding footsteps echoing on the floor as it chased after me, determined not to leave any witnesses to its insane act.

I reached the front door, silently cursing myself for locking it, and desperately unlocked it and twisted the knob. I managed to pull the door open before the Exsor hit me at full speed, hurling me off my feet, over the porch, and into the grass beside Gavin’s corpse. The Exsor roared again, ready for its last kill, and my hands moved through the wet grass as I tried to push myself onto my hands and knees, but it was too late. The Exsor threw itself at me, a blur except for those snapping needle teeth ready to rip into my throat. At the same time, my hand brushed against Gavin’s gun in the grass. My fingers curled around the trigger, and I reacted without thinking. In one smooth motion, I rolled onto my back with the gun in my hands in time to see the blur of the Exsor barreling toward me. I squeezed the trigger, and in an explosion of light and pus, the Exsor was thrown backwards by the force of the hail of bullets fired by the shotgun.

It fell to the ground and tried stumbling away, like a wounded animal, but I pumped the slide and fired again as I climbed to my feet, marching after it. This time, the monster fell to the grass. Shadows obscured its details from my vision, so I surprisingly didn’t feel any pain from looking at it, so I fired one more onslaught of white-hot lead at the Exsor before the gun was empty. The Exsor lie in the grass and didn’t move. I lost my balance and toppled onto my knees as the gun fell out of my hands.

And that’s when I passed out.

~~~~~~

I awoke less than an hour later, and quickly got up to see that the shotgun was right where I had left it, as was Gavin’s body. I couldn’t see the Exsor’s body in the dark; the shadows had only gotten darker as the night grew deeper, and a looming gray cloud hid the moon from view.

I went back into the house, breathing in weak gasps. My head ached like someone was pressing a railroad spike into it. I limped into the kitchen, and grabbed the phone, dialing 911 again and expecting to hear the benefactor’s cruel, taunting voice once more. I looked out the window as the phone rang, and from beyond the window, I heard a muffled but familiar sound.

A low snarl.

Unable to believe what I had heard, I looked out the window, mesmerized, to see two yellow orbs staring back at me. Then, as I watched, the orbs slowly moved away from the window. Without looking away from me, they drew further and further away before finally disappearing into the night. I stood there, stunned, with the phone still up to my ear.

“Hello, 911, what’s your emergency?” a woman’s voice asked from the other end of the line, “…is anyone there? Are you hurt? Hello?”

I hung up the phone.

I don’t know if the Exsor is still out there or not because, looking back, I realize that I don’t actually know that much about it. Its motivations, what the gem was supposed to do, or why it spared me that night… all I know for sure is that I never want to hear the name “Nightshale” again.

Nightshale was a town that was truly haunted, and all the excavation had done was unleash the curse.

Credit: Alex Sorrow

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It’s There, in the Dark

July 2, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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You’re right to be scared of the dark.

You know that feeling you get when the covers are pulled up to your face? When you’re lying in the dark with your eyes open but too afraid to look? That feeling that makes you a child again, holding your breath while you say to yourself, If I don’t look, maybe it’ll go away?

If you muster your courage to stare back at the watcher in the dark, it’ll be gone…

…if you’re lucky.

I’m not.

Let me tell you about when my life fell apart.

It was 1982.

I was in the kitchen. Mom said that there were no such things as monsters. I can hear it, now, clear as day.

“You’re too old for that crap.” She spoke over her shoulder from the stove.

I’d been having nightmares and she couldn’t keep waking up in the middle of the night. Work started early and ended late.

“That’s kids’ stuff, Johnnie.” I saw the dark circles under her eyes and the way her face sagged with fatigue. She was working double shifts to make ends meet and it was wearing her thin as a coin passed through too many hands.

“I need to rest,” she said. She wasn’t telling me as much as she was pleading, and even as a kid I could hear the difference. That made my part in it worse.

The pan rattled across the burner and I could smell the sausages browning. It was Sunday, so breakfast was more than Wonder bread and peanut butter.

Gran-dad sat in the kitchen, too. He was drinking his coffee from an off-white mug with a chipped rim.

He had a cigarette in his other hand, and when he wasn’t taking a drag, his hand was on the table next to his GPCs like he was guarding them. Gran-dad called them Good People’s Cigarettes.

His nose was almost as red as the Marlboros he couldn’t afford once he’d been laid off. He coughed, his face blue with the effort. But as soon as he could breathe again, the cigarette was back in his mouth.

Mom dropped two links on my plate from the sizzling pan.

“When I was your age, I was already working odd jobs to help out.”

I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut.

“And I wasn’t keeping my folks up half the night.”

Gran-dad rescued me. “He knows, Tammy. Give it a rest.”

He looked at me, and I could see that he was asking for assurance. I was just a kid, but also somehow the fulcrum on which the family’s troubles pivoted. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but it seemed that way to me: I was a mouth to feed, a knot keeping the ends from meeting. Those dark circles, that tired sag that pulled at her mouth—one way or another, life was using Mom up. By stealing her sleep, I was tightening its grip.

Shame’s heavy, and it bent me just then.

Gran-dad noticed me sag in my chair. “Johnnie’s just shook up. He’ll be alright.”

He didn’t look so sure, but he gave me a nod anyway.

“Right?”

“Yeah.” I knew I was lying.

So did Mom, but she kept her peace and dropped two dollops of scrambled egg next to the links on my plate.

High-cotton. That’s what Gran-dad said about sausage and eggs. I didn’t feel it, though, not that morning.

He used a fork to cut the links into bits and to mix everything together. I usually liked mine separate and made sure no egg touched sausage, but I watched them meet in the middle as though they were best friends. I had lost my appetite somewhere so far off that even the smell of Jimmy Dean couldn’t call it back.

He watched me scooting my sausages around, took a long pull from his cigarette, and winked. His eyes were playful, conspiratorial even.

Mom joined us with a plate of her own.

“Shit!” she said suddenly. “I forgot the toast.”

In a moment, she was back with a small plate stacked with five or six slices of white bread, a bit more burnt than brown.

“Eat up,” she said. I did, one joyless bite at a time.

High cotton. That’s what Sunday morning meant.

Sunday afternoon was a lazy affair at my house and this one was no exception. Gran-dad leafed through old magazines, nodding off now and then. The pages were dog-eared and he’d read the stories before, but he didn’t mind. Mom washed her hair in the bathroom sink and took a long nap.

I went outside while Mom slept. It was sunny and hot and I decided to poke around in the shed. It was under an old maple and dappled with shade and sun in summer camouflage.

The shed was never locked because there was nothing worth stealing. I opened the door and stepped in. It smelled like rust and oil and old wood and the light that shone through its only window spotlighted the dance and swirl of the dust in the air.

I poked around a bit, looking for something—anything—that might take my mind off my Mom.

I had a file in one hand and I was wearing away at the head one of the bolts attaching a beat-up vice to the worktable. Each push gave a raspy sound and the glint of shiny new steel. One push carried my knuckles too far and I scraped them across the sharp edge of the vice. It peeled the skin back and the blood welled up under the curl.

I stuck my hand in my mouth and tasted the metallic tang. My knuckle stung and I winced as I ran my tongue over the flap of skin.

Then I saw it.

In the corner of my eye, I could just make out a shadow, blacker than the black against which it stood. Two long arms with long hands and long fingers that looked more like claws to me.

It was just my imagination.

No, it’s not, John. My father’s voice.

My eyes were on the workbench but I focused on the shadow without looking.

It grew, stretching in the dark, raising those long-fingered hands.

My breath caught. I dropped the file and it clunked on the wood floor. I forgot about my knuckle. The hair on my arms stood up and I could feel my heart skipping, starting, faster, pounding, trying to escape my chest. I was too scared to look at it directly. I thought about running for the door, but the shadow was right there, just beside it.

It had long arms. I’d never make it.

I edged into the light from the window, trying my best not to look.

I thought that maybe if I just ignored it, it’d go away.

But you tell yourself that, too, don’t you? Late at night?

Something in me knew better. Something in you does too, I bet.

It was moving, inching toward the mostly closed door.

I was pretending not to look, but I took another sideways step into the light. I could feel the sun on my skin. In the light, the darkness deepened.

I couldn’t make out the shadow anymore, but I knew it was there.

It’s there alright, Johnnie. Don’t you doubt it. Now the voice was Gran-dad’s.

The door closed with a thud.

My chest ached from the effort of keeping my breath in check.

I had to do something.

I grabbed a hammer—a big heavy one with a painted red wooden handle.

“You stay away from me!” I yelled. “I mean it! You just…”

My words died in my throat.

It was there. I could see it now, blacker than black, getting darker every second.

It was creeping closer, sliding like it was on rails.

My hands shook and I my lower lip begin to quiver. White-hot panic burned in my mind and every thought but RUN! was smoke in its wake. But I was frozen and my feet wouldn’t budge.

It stopped at the edge of the light.

It slid around the side, staying just beyond the patch of white on the floor.

It was close, really close. The light was small but it was everything.

Mom wasn’t much on church and she never taught me to pray. But I prayed my heart out that some passing cloud didn’t happen by, just then.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t holding my breath—I was trying to take one and it wouldn’t come.

We stood like that for a long time. The hammer got heavy and my arms ached, but I didn’t dare lower my guard.

It was trying to get behind me when the shed door opened.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mom asked.

She noticed the wet patch on my jeans.

“What the hell, John? I mean…”

I stood there, lip quivering, hammer held high, until she took me by the arm and dragged me out into the yard and the sunlight

Sunlight!

and into the house.

She was angry about my wet jeans but I didn’t care.

Mom was making dinner in the kitchen.

Gran-dad and I were in the living room. He was on the couch. I was on the floor, sitting Indian-style.

He turned off the TV. I wasn’t watching anyway.

“What’s wrong, Johnnie?” He took a long pull and breathed out through his nose. His face was wreathed in blue smoke.

I eyed the window. The sun was setting and it would be dark soon.

“Nothing,” I said, trying to guess how long the light would hold, watching the shadows grow across the front yard.

“Doesn’t look like nothing to me,” he said. “Come up here and talk, man to man.”

I joined him on the couch and he crushed the nub of his cigarette into the ashtray. It was brown glass, made to look like amber.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, tousling my hair.

“Nothing.”

He could see that it was something and the tousling stopped.

He caught my eye with a long, sideways look of one milky, brown eye.

“Some men think they should keep their troubles to themselves. Not me. A trouble shared is a trouble lessened, I say.”

He paused for a breath or two and I could hear how bad his lungs were.

“What’s your trouble, Johnnie?”

“In the shed…well…” It was too ridiculous to even say.

Kid’s stuff. It was Mom’s voice in my head. You’re too old for that crap.

“What about the shed?”

“Well, I…”

“You saw something, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“I thought you might. The nightmares…” He coughed, one of the really bad ones that doubled him over and brought tears to his eyes.

“They’re not just nightmares, Johnnie.” He wiped his eyes and his voice was high and tight and wheezy. “Some folks are more…sensitive. The nightmares let you know when it’s around.”

That got my attention like a slap. “What’d you mean?”

He had recovered and his hand wandered over to the pack of GPCs. “Well, some folks see things other folk can’t or won’t.” He had my eye again and I could feel his intensity.

“You follow me?” He fished a cigarette out the pack and held it, unlit, rolling it in his fingers.

“I guess,” I said.

“You’re at that age, now, that age when either you stop seeing it, or start seeing it more than you’d like.”

The way he said it quickened the hair on the back of my neck. Every follicle was alive and tingling.

“The shadow…?” My voice was barely a whisper.

“Yeah,” he said.

I was stunned. It was like I’d known a secret that no one else can share and suddenly I found out that everyone already knows. Gran-dad knew. He’d seen it too. As real as the shadow had been, this was impossible to believe.

“You see it, too?” I asked.

He looked at the cigarette in his hand and then back at me.

“Yeah.”

“Really?” I asked.

He nodded, a slow-motion move of his head.

“You be careful, Johnnie,” he said. Some things lose their power when you say them aloud. I found out then that this wasn’t one of them. It was way worse after he had admitted that it was dangerous. Way worse.

I was about to ask more when Mom came in. She didn’t want to hear this and I knew it and I couldn’t bear to make it harder on her.

“Dinner,” she said.

“Later,” Gran-dad said. “We’ll talk about it later.”

Mom had a double-shift the next day and went to bed early.

Me and Gran-dad waited till we were sure she was asleep.

I watched the windows like a hawk. It was full dark and the hair on my arms was at attention.

He took one last glance at the hall. Then, his voice as low as a cricket’s belly, he said, “Johnnie, you got to watch out now.”

Hearing him say it gave me the shivers.

“Once it knows you can see it…”

“It’ll come for me, won’t it?” I asked, barely able to get the words out.

He was having the same trouble so he nodded.

Millions—hell, billions of parents tell their kids that there’s nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light. You’ve done it yourself, haven’t you? You repeat it until you believe it, or nearly so, and you hope your kids believe it too. But maybe it’s you who need to believe, maybe it’s you who need the consolation. Maybe because you know, deep down, that there are things that go bump in the night.

I knew it and so did Gran-dad.

“I’m gonna watch over you tonight. You’ll be safe as houses, I promise.”

That helped a little.

“But I’m not always going to be here.” I shook my head but he continued. “And when I’m not, you’ll need to keep watch yourself.”

“You hear me?”

“Yeah.” The word was more breath than speech.

“Good. When the nightmares come on heavy, that’s a sign it’s around.”

“Why does it…”

“I’m not sure. Maybe it feeds on us at night, stealing a little bit of you when you sleep…”

He lit a new cigarette from the old one and puffed it to life.

“I think it comes for those who can see it and maybe it ignores them that can’t, or won’t. You know what I mean.”

I did. Even if Mom saw it, she would convince herself that she hadn’t.

I said so and he nodded.

“Yeah.” His tone told me that he wanted to be a little more like Mom.

“But what can I do? I mean to stay safe?”

“The light, Johnnie. Stay in the light.”

Neither of us could bear to talk about it anymore. There are things you can say in the daylight that you won’t dare in the dark.

Instead, we watched Hogan’s Heroes and Sanford and Son with the volume down low so as not to wake Mom. Normally, we’d have been laughing, but that night we didn’t even crack a smile.

It was getting late and Gran-dad told me to get ready for bed.

I had the covers up like a shield.

The lamp was on and my room was fairly well lit. The overhead was busted, but it had always been busted and there was a problem with the wiring.

Gran-dad was in the corner in a battered fabric chair. He was wearing his red and black plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and he had a big, silver Rayovac Sportsman with him, the kind that took two D-cell batteries. Something about the chrome reminded me of a knight’s a sword. I felt a lot better with him there.

“I’ll watch over you,” he said.

I tucked my head under the blankets. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see it.

I was tired and scared but my eyes were heavy. At some point, I fell asleep.

I woke up suddenly. Gran-dad was still in the corner, but his flashlight was on and he was shining it under the bed.

I sat up and he saw that I was awake.

His face was pale as fresh paint and the Rayovac shook in his hand. I could hear the batteries rattle.

“Don’t get out of bed,” he said.

“Wha…? Why?” I rubbed my eyes. I was still groggy.

“It’s under the bed, Johnnie.”

I was wide awake then.

“Don’t get out the bed!” he repeated. He wasn’t asking.

I jumped to my feet, the saggy mattress bouncing slightly under my weight.

“What’d you mean?”

“It’s under the fucking bed! Don’t move!”

I was ten years old and I’d never heard Gran-dad so much as say “shit.” This was bad, real bad.

I couldn’t stay on the bed—no way, no how—so I ran the step or two the end of the mattress and jumped for all I was worth.

“No!” Gran-dad yelled.

I traveled too far and too fast and hit the window in mid-air, flattening the blinds and tangling in them, ripping them from the wall when I fell backward toward the bed.

Toward the bed.

Gran-dad was off the chair in an old man’s flash, but my hand was falling into the shadow even as I tried to stop it.

Upside-down on the floor, I could see it too, flat as a doormat in the shadow under the bed.

I snatched my hand to my chest as it reached for me and not even a hair’s breadth separated its fingers from mine. It was cold and misty, like my hand in the freezer to get ice.

“Jesus, Johnnie!”

“I’m OK! I’m OK!” I said, finding my feet. I hopped up and down like it was Christmas morning. “I’m OK! I’m OK! I’m OK!” I was yelling, but I didn’t know it. Gran-dad didn’t either, but we figured it out when Mom burst through the door.

“What the hell!” she yelled, her bathrobe trailing behind her like a cape. “John? Mack?”

“What the hell is going on?”

Her hands were on her hips and her face was as red as Gran-dad’s nose.

She pointed a finger at Gran-dad. If it had been a gun, he’d have been be dead.

“You! Out!”

He gave me one long, pitiful look that said, “What can I do?”

Mom stood her ground like a titan and he trudged into the hall past her, his head down, defeated, worried, afraid.

Then it was my turn.

“You! In the bed!”

“But…!”

“Now!”

What was I supposed to say? That there was a monster under the bed? That I needed Gran-dad to keep watch?

Haven’t your kids said the same thing?

I picked up the Rayovac and leapt into the bed. Not flounced, not jumped, leapt. Like Bruce Fucking Jenner in the Olympics.

“When I get home, John…” That threat needed no conclusion.

She turned and slammed the door.

But not before she switched off the lamp.

I sat with the flashlight on and I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

I was on the tracks tied to the rails and the train was coming and there was no hero waiting just off screen to run in and save the day.

It was really dark in there and there wasn’t even a light peeking under the door.

It was in its element.

I could hear Mom giving it to Gran-dad in the kitchen down the hall, but I couldn’t concentrate on the words. My heart was at least as loud as her cursing and my mouth felt like it’d never known a sip of water.

I had the Rayovac in one hand like a spear, and I was shining the light at the edges of the bed, moving frantically from this side to that, from the headboard to my feet and back again.

It was waiting, savoring my fear.

You know how it does that, don’t you?

That’s when Mom came in.

In the instant before the bulb blew up, she saw it and her mouth dropped open and her eyes grew just like the did on Saturday morning cartoons.

I heard her take a loud breath, the substance of a scream filling her lungs, but it was black now and there was a rush of air and she was gone.

She was gone.

Gone.

I was screaming, tearing at the doorknob, running down the hall toward the light. My socked feet slid on the kitchen floor and I smashed into the cabinets hard enough to send my head spinning. The Rayovac skittered across the tired, yellow linoleum.

Gran-dad overturned the table. He saw something, too, because it was few minutes before I could get him to see me or answer my frantic questions.

It had been right behind me in the hall all the way to the edge of the kitchen.

We waited there till morning.

That sounds crazy—I know it—but we did.

Even then, every light in the house was on as we searched my room for Mom.

Of course we never found her.

Folks think she ran out, just like Dad did. That the double-shifts and bills and me and Gran-dad were just too much in the end.

We knew better.

I knew better.

That was 1982. A long time ago.

Gran-dad and me had a hard time of it, and soon enough, I was working those odd jobs to make ends meet. They never really did. Not even close.

Gran-dad passed before too long and I got more help from the state and foster care. The Willis’ weren’t so bad, and Fred and Rita did as well by me as they could.

I sold the house when I turned 18.

I’ve got stacks of bulbs in the kitchen closet: 60 watts, 100 watts, fluorescents—you name it. My lights are all rigged to a master switch in each room, too. One flip and everything’s lit.

I won’t have it any other way.

When the nightmares come—and they do come—I keep the lights on all night. The Rayovac’s been replaced by a Maglite rechargeable, and I keep a Q-Beam by the bed, just in case. Every room has a few lamps and an overhead. The wiring’s like new.

I want you to know that when you get that terrible feeling, that feeling of being watched from the dark, you’re not alone. When you pull the blankets up like a shield and slide your head down and pull your feet up, I do too. When you feel it watching from the dark or pull back a cold hand dangling over the side of the bed, when you feel like a kid and try to tell yourself there’s nothing there but your imagination, even though you know there’s something there…

…there is.

Kids go missing all the time don’t they? And sometimes they die in their sleep even though there’s nothing wrong with them.

And sometimes parents just get up and go when they’ve had enough.

But maybe, just maybe, not all those kids ran away. And maybe, them that die see something before they do. And sometimes, just sometimes, those parents didn’t run off when times got hard.

And you’re right to be afraid of the dark and what’s in it.

Credit: jd lucien

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