This one is a slow starter, but it builds to a haunting and some might say terrifying end.
Best to listen alone, with the lights out. Enjoy.
Credit: Morgan M
To this day, I have no idea what I saw.
People I tell seem to not believe me, but I swear this is true.
A little background before I get into it.
I am a 29 year old construction worker. Been doing it since high school. Metal framing and sheetrock mostly. I’m in decent shape, no history of mental disorders in my family. Only problem I have developed over the years is a mild case of tinnitus from being stubborn and refusing to wear ear protection. It comes during times of silence, like when I’m trying to sleep. So I try to keep the TV or a fan on to cancel out the ringing.
Work was getting very slow where I lived, so I decided to move to Virginia. I was staying with a friend who got me a sweet gig with a local construction company on Norfolk Naval Base. Huge job. Five story building, complete buildout from the ground up, good pay, not exactly close to where we were staying, but the drive wasn’t bad as long as I made it in before morning traffic. Only thing wrong with the job was the foreman was a complete asshole; always talking down to us workers in that sort of passive-aggressive tone that made me want to punch him in his face. But as long as we stayed busy, he didn’t bother with us for long. It was a huge job, and he had a lot of people to bug.
About 4 months into the job, I injured my right hand. Sliced my middle finger on a piece of metal. It didn’t hurt at all. The doctor stitching me up said it was because I cut so deep, it severed the nerves.
The next day, I had to file an injury report and everything. My boss said he was going to put me on light duty, and that I didn’t have to do anything except sweep until my hand healed. I was all for it. Same pay for easy work. For the first week, things were alright. But then it started getting boring. I mean, really boring. The days dragged on, and I wondered why they didn’t just pay me to stay home. So, naturally, I started wandering the job to kill time. Checking out all the hallways, and there were plenty of hallways. Really long and gloomy looking when they were just grey brick all around. Some at the very top didn’t even have temporary lighting, and would have been pitch black if it weren’t for the huge window cutouts on each end letting in sunlight. I stayed away from those hallways. They creeped me out.
One day, I was feeling bored, so I decided to go walking around the fourth floor. Most of the work had been finished, and there weren’t any other trades doing work there at the time, so I had it all to myself. It was around that time I noticed my tinnitus was acting up worse than usual. I figured someone must have had a generator running or something, so I started moving towards the other end of the hallway. About three-quarters of the way, my ears start painfully ringing. I tried sticking my fingers in my ears and humming, which usually does the trick, but the ringing was so intense. I started feeling nauseous, and I fell over on my hands and knees. I was slapping my ears, trying to make the ringing stop. My eyes started watering at one point because I was slapping my head so hard. I got up on my knees, still covering my ears, trying to get to my feet so I could make it to the stairwell, but the ringing was so intense, every move I made sent my head spinning. Moving slow helped, but not much.
As I turned around, I noticed someone standing at the other end of the hallway near one of the window cutouts. The sun behind him was so bright, all I could see was a silhouette. I started yelling “Help! Help!” as loud as I could, but the guy didn’t move. I thought maybe he had ear plugs in and couldn’t hear me, so I started moving towards him, slowly so my head wouldn’t spin. As I got closer, I started noticing things I hadn’t before. First, this guy was huge. Like, impossibly huge. His head was small in proportion to his body and near the top of the window. His shoulders were really wide and high, almost like he was shrugging.
His arms were long, hanging down past his waist, with really long fingers on each hand. I still couldn’t make out any facial features because of the bright sun behind him, but as I started realizing this person wasn’t normal, I slowly backed away. He just stood there, looking right at me.
I was almost to the stairs when this thing slowly cocks its head to the side, like a dog does when it’s confused, and the ringing in my ears just goes crazy. It was extremely painful. At the time, I thought my ears were bleeding. I was pressing my hands into my ears and yelling, but it was so loud, I couldn’t even hear myself yell. I dropped back on my hands and knees and threw up on the floor until I was puking air.
I looked up to see if this thing was coming after me, but I caught a last glimpse of it as it walked into a nearby room. The instant it disappeared around the corner, the ringing in my ears just stopped. Like someone hit the mute button. Needless to say, I ran the fuck out of there and didn’t look back.
I stayed away from the fourth floor for the next couple months. I told a few people what I saw, but they only pretended to be interested. It was about five months after it happened when I decided to go back up there.
I checked every room. If there were any signs of this thing, they were long gone. I went to the window where it was standing and took a measurement. The top of the window was ten foot nine inches.
I still have tinnitus. There have been a few times when I’m laying in bed at night, and the ringing gets painful, and I freak out and check every room in my apartment.
But it never gets as bad as it was that day. I really hope it never does.
I am a researcher for a small team, and now, I’m facing a moral dilemma.
Over the past year, one of our main projects has been the development of a healthier, more energy efficient drink named Roadrunner. Upon completion of Roadrunner’s formula and design, we contacted a local university and requested to use 100 of their freshmen as subjects in a study. The purpose of our study was to compare the alertness of the freshmen and determine if our energy drink positively benefited their college experience. The 100 freshmen were randomly divided into two groups. Group 1 received Roadrunner and were requested to drink one bottle per day. Group 2 was allowed to drink anything except Roadrunner. We specifically selected freshmen due to the stresses involved in the first year of college. To contribute to the subjects’ stress levels, we assigned all of them a journal project about adjusting to college. They were required to write one entry per day for a total of 14 entries. Our study commenced on August 11, 2015, and concluded on August 25, 2015.
I will not delve into the intricacies of our data collection and its analysis. For this explanation, I will be straightforward.
The benefits of Roadrunner were unanimous. Subjects in Group 1 were significantly more attentive in class, and collectively, their journal entries contained a more optimistic tone. The journal entries were one of the many methods of data collection, but I’m emphasizing them for one reason.
We hit a minor roadblock due to a subject in Group 1. Across the board, he was an outlier, and needless to say, he halted our project for several months.
The situation is difficult to describe. For that reason, I want to share some of his journal entries. The content of the entries have not been altered. This how they begin:
I have never seen my roommate’s face, and it makes me believe that he doesn’t have one. Benny, he’s a real sick fuck.
Let me start when I arrived on campus. They were swarming. There were people everywhere. Students, parents, friends, they were rushing all over the place and carrying massive amounts of furniture, suitcases, tacky decorations, you name it! I was standing amid the chaos and struggling to find my residence hall on a school map when a group of guys nearly trampled me. These people were out of their goddamn minds.
It took me three trips to my car and back to gather all of my belongings. Everything had calmed down by then, and when I reached my dorm room, I was ready to pass out. I dropped two backpacks onto my bed and laid down on the mattress. My gaze drifted to the vacant bed on the opposite side of the room. Benny still hadn’t arrived. Maybe, he was late.
I tried staying awake for him, but I fell asleep. I woke from the nap a few hours later and glanced over to the empty side of the room. Still not here? The sun was beginning to set. That’s really weird that he wouldn’t arrive sooner.
I spent the evening putting my room together. I hung my clothes in the bureau and claimed two drawers from the dresser. I decorated my half of the room with posters. I left my textbooks and student paperwork on the desk. Lastly, I hung a calendar above my bed and turned around, expecting my roommate to have arrived. It was dark outside now. Where the hell was he?
I booted up my laptop and connected it with the school wifi. Before I could do anything else, I had to leave for my first hall meeting. We were lectured about rules for half an hour. When the meeting finished, all of the guys left in pairs. I supposed that Benny would be arriving later. I just hated for him to be moving in on the first day.
I returned to my room and got ready for bed. I was anxious, beyond anxious for my first day of college. It felt like Christmas Eve. I couldn’t sleep if I tried. When the hallway grew quiet, I finally began to doze off. Half-asleep, I felt a light tap against the back of my head, and I jerked up so suddenly that I smacked my forehead against the headboard. I cursed and felt my head beginning to throb. I slid out of bed and shoved the mattress closer to the top of the bed frame. My head must have dipped past the pillow and tapped against the wood. When I felt it, it was one of those knee jerk reactions. My head ached all night long.
By morning, Benny still wasn’t there. I didn’t have time to worry about him though.
I was rushing around and getting ready for class. I slept a little late and didn’t have time to grab breakfast. I just took a Roadrunner drink instead. It was a weird surprise that I had been selected to participate in this study. I mean, I didn’t mind. It was free smoothies and a cash supplement to my college fund. Who wouldn’t love that?
I was so busy my first day that I returned to my dorm after dinner. I set down my backpack, shrugged off my shoes, and realized something odd. I was still alone. Benny was nowhere to be found. His side of the room was as empty as before.
What was this guy’s deal?
I ignored the situation, did my homework, and went straight to bed.
As soon as started falling asleep, I felt a sharp pat on the top of my head, followed by the shifting of my pillow. I sat upright immediately. Something had touched me. I yanked the pillows back and noticed a dark gap between the mattress and the headboard, the same gap that I had closed last night. I stared into the gap but could see nothing. It was as dark as pitch in my room. My eyes weren’t adjusting to the darkness. I was too tired for this. I shifted my pillows further down the bed and went back to sleep.
By the next morning, I was met with a disturbing surprise. Like yesterday, Benny’s side of the room was still empty. However, one of my notebooks was shredded as if a rabid animal had torn it apart. The pages were scattered everywhere. There were only a few pages intact, and they had a message scrawled across them.
I almost sprinted out of my room in only my underwear. I glanced back to my bed, and within a few moments, I brushed the whole thing off. This had to be hazing. There were upperclassmen living in my hall. That’s what it was. I collected the ruined notebook and dumped it into the trash. Then, I went about my day without anymore surprises.
When I returned that evening, I had seemingly forgotten about the incident. My mind was too preoccupied with schoolwork. I sat on my bed, did my homework, and crawled under the covers. Just before I fell asleep, I felt the pat again. This pat was longer though. This one lingered. It was a hand.
I shot away from my pillows and scooted to the other side of the bed breathing heavily. I was petrified.
There was something under my fucking bed! A part of me wanted to check while the other wanted to dash out the door. Neither of those sides won. I passed out.
The next night, I convinced myself that it had been a nightmare. Even with that sentiment in mind, I placed my pillows at the foot of the bed. I fell asleep without the pat, but I was awoken by a massive, painful jerk. It was a sharp tug, grasping my hair and pulling me downward.
I woke up in the hallway. I don’t remember moving there.
I skipped class, went straight to housing, and demanded a room change. I hadn’t been sleeping well at all, so I was a bit unreasonable. The woman tried explaining to me multiple times that all the rooms were filled. There was nowhere for me to go. After that, I demanded to know where Benny was.
She insisted that we were roommates. That really pissed me off. It got to the point where she had Benny pulled out of class. Benny was on campus. He had been here the whole fucking time.
There had been a discrepancy. Benny’s actual roommate had my first name too, so Benny accidentally got assigned to both of us. Technically, I had no roommate.
I returned to my room and sat on the bed, the bed that should have been Benny’s bed. I laid there all day, staring at the gap between the tiled floor and the bed frame. I could only remember the note now – don’t look. My door has been locked every night. Nobody else had the key but me.
I slept on “Benny’s” bed that night without blankets or pillows. I closed my eyes and started to doze off. Before I could though, I felt the pat on the back of my head. It was sharp but not as angry as the night before. I cried silently. I didn’t remember falling asleep.
It took me a few nights, but I’ve learned Benny’s rules. He liked my bed, so that’s where I slept. It was a routine, and I kept breaking it. Just before I fell asleep, I’d feel him reach up and tap my head to make sure I was there. Benny never made any noise. By following his rules, keeping a gap between the bed frame and the mattress, he was silent. It was just me and Benny.
When I behaved, he was very gentle. He had to wish me goodnight before I could fall asleep. Sometimes, Benny would take his time, but that was okay with me. I’d wait all night if I had to.
This is where I’m ending the subject’s journal. The last few entries are completely incoherent, and I think I should mention that these were typed entries. In particular, the 13th and 14th entries are complete gibberish as if he violently slapped the keyboard over and over.
To some degree, we thought that we were being pranked, but this was no prank.
Due to the nature of the entries, we wanted to immediately do a follow-up study. This might sound unprofessional, but the subject resembled the before and after pictures of meth addiction. His skin was sallow. He was sickly, bony even. He lost an exceptional amount of weight as if he stopped eating. His face was gaunt with pronounced cheekbones, skin clinging to his skull. There were dark rings around his eyes. He was dazed, staring off into space. Somehow, he still functioned, but he was only going through the motions.
He didn’t respond well when we asked if he was sleeping alright. It alarmed him, distressed him, and nearly sent him into a panic attack. We hardly needed to ask. He hadn’t been sleeping. Anyone with eyes could tell you that.
Not even a week later, he completely snapped and threw himself from the roof. Nobody knew how he got up there or what was going through his mind. A professor found his crumpled body that morning, and then, the authorities were all over the case. It was a mess. We were able to see his dorm room before our team was shut out of the investigation. Our subject didn’t leave a suicide note. No, he left an entire wall filled with frenzied messages. The predominant message was he’s always watching, all of the messages overlapping each other, all disjointed thoughts.
After nearly being sued, my team is fed up with the matter. They threw out the subject’s data and blamed confounding variables for the extreme response. Regardless, he was an outlier. In the grand scheme of things, an outlier is not representative of the whole. For that reason, Roadrunner is preceding with its production and will be released for public consumption within the month.
Credit: Ariel Lowe
“How is your relationship with the Harrison boy going?” Asked Sarah’s mother. They were sitting in the front room of their enormous house, sipping herbal tea that had long since gone cold.
“You know, I think I like him,” Sarah said to her mother. “The others loved me, I knew. But they were arrogant. Too confident in themselves. They believed they were the apple of my eye. They weren’t aware that I was the one whom they depended on. But this one, he’s different. He knows his place in this relationship. He would do anything for me, I can tell.
“Would he endure the path for you? It is not an easy road. Many eligible bachelors have trod down that road and been distracted by the terror, or the pain.”
“Should I make him go through that?” Sarah told her. “So many men we have sacrificed to that road. I’m beginning to feel like I will never find a man who can withstand it.”
“You should. I remember when I tested your father, he clung to me like an oyster for weeks afterward.” Sarah’s mother cackled and rested her blind eyes on Sarah. “If you test him, you must remember every step, if you forget to tell him even one rule you will never see him again.”
“Yes, I know, Mother.” replied Sarah.
“How are you planning to get him on the path?” Asked Sarah’s mother.
“I think I’ll invite him to meet you. He hasn’t met you or daddy yet, then I’ll give him directions to our house in the Cold from there.”
“Are you going to do it over Christmas? It would be far less suspicious if you did it at a time when it is typical for families to meet together.”
“I like that idea,” said Sarah “Tell me what happens at the entrance to the path again, I always forget.”
“You must tell him the street doesn’t have a road sign. But also tell him there will be rose petals floating near the entrance, and that the path will be on the right side of the road.” Said Sarah’s mother.
“Allright then, let me get a paper, I’ll write down the rules and double check to make absolutely sure it’s right.”
“We wouldn’t want him to die on the road and join the Cold like all the other men.”
“No, I intend to keep this one as close to me as possible, so I’ll be extra careful with the directions this time.”
Michael was elated. On their last date, Sarah had told him that his parents wanted to meet him and promised to mail him directions to their house. The directions had come a bit later than he expected, and he only just gotten them hours before he was leaving. She told him it took about two hours to get there, so he left 3 hours before dinner to be early and impress them. He checked his breath, packed a few extra sticks of gum, and was off.
He checked the directions, and the first page was basically normal, he read through them and noted that they were mostly taking him towards the forest that only a few people really lived in. But he wasn’t one to judge Sarah’s parents taste in real estate.
The radio he listened to was a news report about someone from a few counties over going missing.
“Alan Breker, a 37 years old man from Mason county, was reported missing two days ago when he didn’t come back from a trip in Pierce County National Reserve. Authorities are calling it a baffling case.
‘We looked on the satellite images and couldn’t even see his car.’”
That was the voice of the Pierce County Sheriff.
“‘But when we changed it to thermal imaging, we saw a deathly cold strip about ten miles long curving into the forest and all the space around it was still 50 degrees.’
“If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of Alan, please contact the proper authorities. In other news…”
It hadn’t snowed that year, so the forest was unusually warm at night for December, but that cold strip was weird. It couldn’t snow in only a line no thicker than an SUV, so why was it so cold? Michael, being a meteorology undergrad, could not think of an explanation.
The ride to the forest was very uneventful, he listened to a radio talk show until he lost focus and only heard mindless babble, so he turned it off and sat in silence for 30 minutes or so before he turned onto the road that passed through the woods. He looked down at the directions and saw the final one on the page.
The road you need to turn down does not have a road sign, but there should be rose petals blowing around near the entrance to the road.
That was unusual, thought Michael. He was just going to have to drive around until he found rose petals. It was dark by now, and Michael switched on his high beams. The road in front of him was dark, and he looked at his watch and car clock, which he had synced. It was 6:23. The sun had gone down by now, and the air was cooling fast. He had 37 minutes until he had to be there, he was making good time. He drove for 5 more minutes, letting the wind blow through his hair through the open window of his Honda. He looked down at the directions and flipped the page over, and laughed a little when he glanced at the first thing on the page.
Roll up your window and turn off the radio.
What? Why would that be necessary? Maybe Sarah’s parents disliked anything that looked non-sophisticated. But Michael did it anyway, figuring Sarah knew her parents pretty well to know precisely the method they prefer her boyfriend to arrive.
Oh, Sarah. Michael’s thoughts drifted to her to fill up the silence. Everything about her was perfect. Michael loved her laugh and tried to draw it out of her whenever possible, he loved her seriousness, because it was fun to shatter. He loved her intelligence, as she was clearly smarter than he was, and he didn’t mind her body either.
Michael was snapped out of his imaginations when he saw a pink petal lying on the road in his high beams. And another one floating through the air as gracefully as Sarah herself. This petal, for whatever reason, seemed to stir something inside of him, and he suddenly felt a huge burst of love for Sarah. Such as he had never experienced before. He felt as if he wanted to curl up and die so that Sarah wouldn’t get her shoes dirty as she walked over the street.
Rose petals blew through the air like snowflakes now. Michael almost missed the turn, but he stopped himself as soon as he saw the abrupt direction change. The road was dark and twisted, so Michael had a very limited vision of what was down the bend. He checked his mileage just out of habit.
Michaels was surprised it was so exactly on 13000. But that was soon to change from the drive back to his house. He checked his directions.
Remain at 30 mph on the road unless you feel you must drive faster.
That one at least made sense, thought Michael. He remembered his dad telling him on his first date back in high school that parents like people who don’t speed, but who arrive a bit early anyway. But why would he “feel” that he must drive faster? Why use the word must? It made the sentence sound like a life-or-death situation. He checked the rules again.
I suggest turning on your heating system, you won’t want to take your eyes off the road later. Also, look up at the stars! They’re gorgeous!
Michael took her word for it, he ducked forward and looked up out of his windshield. He immediately forgot all about the heating suggestion, as the sky was so clear, you could see more that stars. You could see dust clouds, nebulas, asteroid belts, along with hundreds of tiny pinpricks of light. There were so many of them, he doubted if all the stars his ancestors had seen put together could even hold a candle to the sheer number of white lights he saw glittering in the sky.
His awe was short-lived, however, as he heard a crunching sound and realized he had missed a turn and was half off the road. He pulled his car back into reverse, feeling very satisfied with himself, and continued along the road. He checked his mileage again.
He had traveled one mile down the dark road.
Keep focused on the road, it gets less like a road and more like the forest from here. Don’t want a wrecked car!
Michael was wondering why these directions weren’t exactly like normal directions. It seemed more like a survival guide than a map. Michael checked his mileage again
At 3 miles, Mike was starting to get wary of something. He sensed something sinister lurking in the trees, watching him closely, but keeping just out of sight. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he stared more intently into the forest. The trees passed by him, not revealing what was watching him, but as he passed, in the corner of his eye, he saw a man.
Michael gave a small yell and slowed his car to a halt. He opened his door and immediately felt the frozen air. His breath was visible and he could feel tiny pinpricks on his skin. Michael walked back ten feet or so to where he had seen the man and looked through the copse of trees. The journey was illuminated by the brilliant stars and somewhat brilliant moon. He looked to the copse where that man was supposed to be, but the man was gone. He had vanished. He checked the forest behind him, and saw the man. Slightly hunched over, standing completely motionless. He was barely visible because he was on the side of the road without any moonlight. But Michael called out to him.
“Hello?” He cried. The figure adjusted it’s head so the limited light reflected off his eyes, creating two glowing pinpricks in the darkness.
“Hello?” Michael cried again. The cold was becoming almost unbearable.
The figure started moving towards him. Slowly at first, his footsteps making soft crunching sounds on the carpet of dead leaves. But then the man started picking up speed. Michael was becoming very frightened at this point, and started to tense his muscles in his legs. The man showed no sign of slowing. He was jogging for Michael at this point. And Michael decided he shouldn’t stay here with this maniac any longer. Michael ran towards his Honda. Opening the door and pressing the gas, all while looking behind him. He didn’t see the man on the road. Had he given up? Or was he still following the car? Michael turned his gaze back towards the road, and gave a terrified yell.
Standing in the middle of the road, right in the way of his high beams, was a man made of black smoke. His skin writhed and moved like smoke, but it stayed in thick twisting bands that wrapped themselves into the shape of a man. Michael slammed on his brakes, but he was too close. He ran into the man and the smoke passed over his car and out of sight. Michael halted in the middle of the road and checked his rear-view mirrors. He saw no corpses lying strewn by on the road, no blood, no sign that the figure had even been there, but when he looked out his driver’s-side window, his blood turned to ice. There were four smoke-men. Moving towards him slowly, tiptoeing over the twigs and dead leaves that littered the forest floor. Moving slowly, deliberately. Out the passenger side, he could see one nearly gripping the handle for his door.
Michael decided to break the 30 miles per hour rule.
He sped down the path, which now turned to dirt at 50 miles an hour, slowing only to turn. He checked his watch and his car clock. That’s unusual, he thought. Not a minute had passed. It was like time had frozen from the intense cold. Michael realized how freezing it was now. He was fogging up the windows and his breath was freezing in sheets of ice. Michael turned the heat on like Sarah’s instructions had told him to. He looked at the directions and the next step was very frightening.
Don’t listen to the whispers.
Whispers? What whispers? Do the smoke men make them? How is he supposed to drown them out? But Michael obeyed because Sarah told him to. Oh Sarah, how she glowed like a firefly, her body teaching the stars themselves how to shine. Michael wanted so desperately to impress her parents, to make them see how happy she would be if she married him. Michael admitted he was thinking about it. He already had 200 dollars in a section of his budget to buy a ring. But he hadn’t told her. Now, should he go with a traditional proposal, or do something big? This is what he thought about, even as tiny voices began to converse in the back of his head, not loud enough to be understood, but loud enough to be heard. Every time he got curious he would force his thoughts back to marrying Sarah.
The whispers abruptly stopped as soon as the mileage counter clicked over to 13005. Michael looked back at his directions page.
Don’t look at the moon. Whatever you see, keep your eyes forward.
The moon? Michael could only see the halo of the moon over the trees, what was so dangerous about the moon?
Michael continued driving at 25 miles per hour, thinking about Sarah, and what horrors this moon was about to present him. He was gripping his steering wheel so tightly, his knuckles were white. The smoke men still lurking in his mind. Trying to get inside of his car. He could see a few of them very distantly in the forest, and he decided to speed up a little.
On the left side of him, the forest suddenly opened up into a huge lake. The water was still and glassy, and lit up like a torch because of the massive moon. It was ten times bigger than it was normally, and Michael suddenly had the impression that he was closer to it than he normally was, somewhere between the earth and the moon.
But Sarah’s smooth voice entered his mind. Don’t look at the moon. Michael forced his eyes away and gasped. He was about to tumble into the lake. The turn was so sudden that anyone who was looking at the moon would have fallen in. Michael slammed on his brakes and twisted the steering wheel. He felt his tires slide under him as he turned sideways and drifted towards the steep drop-off. But he could feel his wheels slowing down, and friction working to his advantage. He stopped mere inches from the water, which undoubtedly was only warm enough to just barely be liquid. Unless it wasn’t water.
Michael began to slowly move forward again. He decided to save energy and turn off his headlights. The light of the moon was so bright it was all he needed. He began his drive in the very center of the road, and saw the end of the light. The trees ahead grew so thick it was pitch black. Michael approached this imposing archway of darkness and switched his headlights back on. He entered the darkness warily, expecting an army of the smoke men to attack him.
His headlights started flickering. They snapped and popped, but stayed on as adamantly as rocks in the sea refusing the waves permission to break them. He could see smokey gray figures sprinting through the darkness and only barely being visible as the lights came back on. He checked his rear view mirrors and saw many smoke men running through the woods, trying to get away from something, all of them were running across the road and into the forest on the other side. Suddenly there weren’t any more of them. All of them had run and hid in the thick trees.
Michael saw his radio flicker on. There were soft pops and hisses, no normal stations. The digital readout didn’t actually have a channel number. It was an empty station.
The quiet was shattered by a scream. A scream so loud it caused the car to shake, Michael became suddenly and painfully aware that he didn’t like loud sounds. He was so startled he swerved off the road and hit a tree. It wasn’t a bad collision, and the car was only dented.
The scream stopped, and then emanated a voice. The voice was warped and breathy. The voice of a man, but it was deep, and wet, and slow.
“I’ve seen your mind, Michael. I know your thoughts. I’ve also seen hers. Sarah’s mind.”
Michael didn’t want anything besides himself even touching Sarah, and he felt a hot rage fall over him.
“Do you ever think that maybe she doesn’t love you? Maybe she’s using you for her own purposes? What if she says no when you finally scratch up enough money to buy her that ring? It’s not impossible, isn’t that what happened last time? With Julia?”
Michael’s heart stopped. How did the man in the radio know about Julia? Julia ended their relationship a year and a half ago. He discovered her in his bedroom with another man, and she stole $2000 out of his bank account.
“But I hear you really love Sarah, I hear you’ll do anything for her. So let’s make a deal. I’ll slip $100,000 into her purse, and all you have to do is turn around and go back.”
Michael decided this thing must able to hear him, so he responded.
“I’ll take it up to $200,000.” Said the thing in the radio.
“I’ll make her the sole heiress to a massive fortune, she’ll be practically dripping money out of her porcelain skin. She’ll be wearing dozens of pearls, diamonds, and rubies. Perhaps that’ll be all she is wearing… And all of that happens if you just turn around and get back onto the interstate.”
“No. Sarah wants me to come to her house, and that’s what I’ll do.”
There was a pause here, clearly the thing was thinking.
“Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do? Don’t you know what I can do to you, to her? I could have her raped! I could have her murdered! I could get her beaten so harshly her exquisite features are permanently altered, her face covered in scars and malformed! I could puncture your gas tank! I could strangle you! TURN AROUND!”
Michael broke the 30 miles per hour rule again.
While he sped down the road, rounding curves and switchbacks, the voice in the radio was screaming. It screamed in a thousand different voices. One minute it was a man, then a woman, than a child, then it was a pig squealing, a goat screaming, and underlying all this was cracks and pops of breaking bones. Squishes of flesh being torn, and thuds of a vicious beating.
The radio turned off, and Michael checked the instructions.
Don’t listen to the voice in the radio
DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.
Michael became stiff. The instruction booklet fell to the floor. Why couldn’t he look behind him? What was back there? Was it the man in the radio?
Michael heard a soft sound in his ear. It was whispering. Not loud enough to be understood, but just loud enough to be audible. It was the whispering from before. Sarah had warned him not to listen to it. He tried to shut his ears to the sound, but couldn’t help taking a quick glance in his rear-view mirror. He almost passed out from the shock. There, sitting directly behind him, was a smoke man. It stared longingly out the window, and as soon as Michael saw it, it snapped it’s faceless head towards him. Michael quickly looked away. Wondering if the thing had seen him.
He drove in silence for what seemed like forever. He was moving very slowly, so as to not startle the smoke man in the backseat. He heard the smoke man shift in his seat from time to time, and the temperature seemed to drop even lower now that it was inside his car. Then a noise shattered the silence. It was so unexpected Michael jumped in his seat, accidentally making the car swerve a bit, but righting himself. The sound was his window rolling down. The temperature seemed to drop by 20 degrees in his car as the air outside poured into the car. And Michael dared a peek into his rear-view mirror. The smoke man had left. Michael rolled up the window and pulled up his directions booklet.
Slow down. You will hear the smoke-men screaming, don’t focus on it.
Michael looked ahead at the road. It was very twisted now, even starting to tilt to the side in some places, and on either side of the road was a steep cliff. Michael slowed to a crawl, and he started to drive down the treacherous roadway. He heard the scream of a man. A loud yell, and then another. But all the screams were distinctly male. Some said old words, some spoke different languages, and some were laughing maniacally. It was these that disturbed him the most. They were laughing at the misery all around them.
Slap! Michael jumped and saw a smoky hand on his window. Slap! Another on his rear window. Slap! Right in front of his face on the windshield. Crack! The back window split, but didn’t break entirely. Slap! Michael broke the thirty miles an hour rule for the third time. As he accelerated, the road became less curved, and the trees returned rather than the cliffs. The smoke-men continued to barrage his car, but he was beating them in speed, so most of it was only on the back. They started to fall behind, and then they were far behind, they couldn’t catch up with him, and he lost sight of them around a bend.
The car started making grinding noises and slowing down. The headlights flickered, then went out, which cast the road in eerie blackness. No light penetrated the thick trees, and Michael was alone in the dark in a car that didn’t work. He checked the instructions.
CLOSE YOUR EYES
Keep your eyes closed, and restart the car.
Michael looked up and saw small amounts of motion in the darkness. It was difficult to see, but it was definitely there. Something grey was seething out there. It was swirling and billowing. It looked like smoke. They had surrounded him. There were hundreds of them. Slowly moving closer, compressing him in. Michael shut his eyes tight and fumbled for the key. He felt the hood of the car dip slightly, as if there was a weight on it, and he found the keys. He twisted them hard and pressed the gas. There was a hundred screams as he barreled through the road, and he opened his eyes to see the smoke-men retreating from his headlights as he barreled down the road. He slowed at the curve, then tore down the strip again, hearing the smoke-men slapping his back windows to try and get in. Crack! His read window split like a broken rib. But Michael just kept driving. He could see a smoke-man hanging desperately onto his spoiler, punching his window, but his companions grabbed at him to try and get closer to the car and pulled him down. But suddenly they stopped hitting the car and pulled back. It was like they had given up. Or they were waiting for something bigger and meaner to get him, because they couldn’t. Michael slowed down, and they slowed down. He stopped, and they remained still. He sped up, and they sped up. They kept up a constant 20 feet from the car. Watching Michael. Michael checked his mileage.
He looked up and saw that the figures had moved. They were now lining the path. On both sides of the road, they watched him. He checked his instructions.
I know they are watching you, but just keep driving. They won’t hurt you.
Michael followed his instructions without complaint, but looked at the watch and car clock. 6:23. Not a minute had passed since he had turned onto this godforsaken road, and it had felt like hours. Maybe his clocks were broken? But what are the chances they both break at precisely 6:23?
The figures continued watching him, but he focused on the road. The trees here were high and straight. And the smoke-men seemed to be imitating that, they appeared like they were attempting to stand at military-like attention, but sometimes got antsy and started moving their arms in a happy, almost excited way. Michael glanced at his mileage.
The car gave a lurch and shut off. It started to move of it’s own accord. Michael kept slamming on his brakes, but they were useless as the car was off. The Honda seemed determined to finish, even when it’s engine was off. It increased its speed, hurtling down a straight strip of road. Michael began to see a red light ahead and scrambled for the instructions. His frozen fingers hurt when they moved. He managed to pick up the instructions and look down the list. It was the last one on the page, and there was a single tear stain that ran down the page, and rolled off. She was crying when she wrote this.
SHUT YOUR EYES! PLEASE!
He looked at the red light, and closed his eyes. The cold air was starting to heat up. His fingers were rejoicing at he sudden warmth. Through his eyelids, he could see a soft red light. It was getting scorching hot. His seatbelt was burning him, the leather seats were becoming wet with perspiration, and Michael started to scream. It was the worst pain he had ever experienced. All of his nerves were on overdrive. He was shaking, convulsing, and crying from the pain. He lost all conscious thought but what he knew he had to do, but couldn’t remember why. He clamped his hands over his eyes. He had a curious sensation of his face shifting and moving, and he realized the flesh was melting off his body. The feeling started everywhere. All his skin was falling off him and he heard a voice in his head. It was the same voice. The voice from the radio.
“I told you to turn around. I told you I would bathe Sarah in riches if you did. But now you are burning. How does that feel? I could pick the flesh of your body off the ground and make you eat it, because you didn’t follow a simple instruction. But I am merciful. I will allow you to survive if only you open your eyes and look at me.”
Michael could not speak, the pain was too intense. But an image came into his mind. The image was Sarah. And Sarah was smiling. This brief picture of her was all he needed. He knew that this monster was a liar. He wouldn’t give Sarah so much as a dime. But this pain would kill him, that much he knew. And he accepted death. Tears streamed down his bloody and blistered face, and he laid down to die.
“You surely will die if you do not allow me to save you.” It said. But it’s voice was different now. It was harsher, more gravelly. And deepening, becoming more of a growl than of a voice.
“N-n-no.” Michael croaked out a weak reply.
“You choose to sacrifice yourself for nothing, die and lose the chance to be with Sarah?”
“I will not die. You do not speak the truth.” Michael’s voice cracked and his throat exploded with pain. He felt a wet sensation flowing down his neck, but it didn’t feel like his neck anymore. It felt like a mass of ruined strings, snapping like ropes being burned.
“OPEN YOUR EYES!” Yelled the monster
Michael felt a hand grip his neck and squeeze. Another hand grabbed his hands that were covering his eyes and pulled. But Michael resisted. He kept his hands on his face until the monster’s strength began to lift them off. A red light pierced his eyelids, even with them shut tight.
But with a deep, demonic yell, the pain vanished. The man in the radio spoke no more, and the red light was replaced with a peaceful deep blue-black. Perhaps he had died. Perhaps he was saved. But that was too good to imagine. He simply relaxed in the blissful silence. The air was cold again, but not as cold as it had been. It was a bit cooler than room temperature. Then a sound broke the silence. It was a faint sound. The sound of footsteps on gravel. They were faster footsteps. The owner of the feet was jogging. The sound was getting closer. Michael pressed his hands harder against his eyelids, tears sliding down his cheeks. He wanted to die, he didn’t want anymore pain. No more driving. No more smoke-men. No more living.
He heard the door of his car open. And he knew what would happen. A smoke-man would do it. But the smoke-man didn’t smell like smoke. It smelled like perfume. And the lips that pressed against his didn’t feel like smoke. But no… It couldn’t be Sarah. This had to be a trick. It was the man in the radio pretending to be her. Or using her corpse to try and get him to open his eyes.
“Michael. You can open your eyes now.” Said Sarah’s silken, smooth voice.
“No,” he croaked out. “This is a trick. It’s not you. I won’t open them.”
“My parents won’t be very pleased if you cover your eyes the whole time.” She said. “Look, you don’t have to look at me, just look at your watch.”
Michael heard Sarah pulling herself out of his car. He lifted his left hand and immediately noticed that the flesh of his hand was perfectly intact. The light blinded his eyes, they had become so used to the darkness. It was a yellow light. The kind from light bulbs. Through his tears, it was nearly impossible to see his watch, but he pulled his hand close to see.
Time was moving again. He lifted his right hand and looked at his car clock.
He dared to sneak a look. He peeked over the ends of his shoes to see a pair of dark jeans and the bottom of a white blouse. He lifted his head farther to see the ends of beautifully curled golden hair. And he sat up. Now in the passenger seat. But he could see Sarah’s warm smiling face looking back at him.
Michael practically exploded out of his car and grabbed her. He pulled her into an embrace that would crack ribs if she hadn’t have been prepared for it. He put his hand on the back of her head and kissed her. Tears streamed down his face still, but they were tears of the purest joy. Michael heard a harsh cackling coming from behind him, and from his tear-restricted vision he saw lush gardens and a rich-looking mansion. In the high archway that led to the door stood a couple. The laughing one was in a wheelchair, and had long stringy gray hairs. The other was an old man, staring at the couple. His hands in his pockets, staring very sympathetically at Michael.
Michael laughed to himself and pulled Sarah into a kiss again. Hoping that this one would never end.
Life is a cage. I realize this now. The worst part of this realization is that most people know it. But they never do anything about it. They’re content to look through the bars, as long as the cage has a roof and there’s food inside of it. They don’t dare attempt to escape, to risk something better. That, or they’re expecting someone to come along and open the cage for them. That never happens. If it does, you can bet that whoever opens it has his own plan for you. A plan you’re probably going to hate. I finally decided to open my cage. However, I didn’t feel like it had been a matter of pushing a door open and walking out. I had practically bloodied my hands trying to rend the bars, finally grinding them down so that I was barely able to escape. I came out with the scars to prove it. I fought for my freedom.
Outsiders understandably scared me. Homeless people, junkies, drifters, hobos. For some weird reason, I’ve always had a pathological fear of ending up like these people. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was ignorance. These types always seemed naturally repellent to me. Instead of repulsion and fear, I now felt a completely different emotion towards them: jealousy. Some of them might have been mental, granted, but some of them just didn’t care. They lived life on their own terms, not their bosses’, not their parents’, not society’s. Theirs.
I wanted to live life the way that they did. I wanted to start riding trains. I started researching this mode of travel, my brain soaking up every bit of information it found. Hobos were nowhere near as honorable as they were depicted. They would sometimes kill each other by shooting, stabbing, or just pushing one another off of the boxcar while it was moving, not giving a care as they moved onto the next job out West. I learned about the current incarnation of freighthopping, which is basically a pastime of crust punks and bedraggled addicts, filthy transients who don’t have to ride a train. They need to. There are gangs on the rails – the Freight Train Riders of America and its bastard child, the Blood Bound Railroad. I didn’t feel that I had to fear them much. They were monsters that mainly slinked around trains in the Northwest, like ticks on a snake. I was in the South. Yet, I still felt they could be here. Even if they weren’t, there could be people like them.
I went through nearly every scenario in my head that could happen if I hopped a freight train. I’m a small female. Rape. I know nothing about hopping trains. My body getting dumped at the base of a ravine. Where would I find food? They might use you for food. These were concerns that I considered seriously, but I needed more knowledge of this beast before I attempted to bridle it.
There was a railyard a few miles from my apartment. I went there one summer day. It was glaringly sunny and around 90 degrees, sweat beading on my thighs, causing my blue jeans to constrict around them. I arrived at the railyard, a junky maze of boxcars in drab greens and maroons being taken apart by men with glistening, dirt-speckled skin. The crew change, I thought. As I approached them, my boots kicked up the yellow dust that swirled on the ground, wading through dead, scrubby plants that were choking on the surface.
The man closest to me turned to stare. He was missing the majority of his teeth, and his thinning hair was pulled back in a scraggly ponytail. While he had a more prominent nose, he lacked a chin, giving him kind of a dopey look.
“Can I help yew, ma’am?” he said in a strong, country accent.
“Not sure, but I’m willing to take my chances. I’m Emma.”
I extended my hand and shook his dirty, wet palm.
“Pleasure to heyelp. Watcha need?”
“Well, I was wondering if you would mind telling me a bit about the railyard and the trains that come here.”
The man introduced himself as Will. He was a motor mouth but thankfully an informative one. He told me all about arrival times, when crew changes were, and where the trains were headed. When he slowed his pace, he finally got around to asking me some questions.
“Yew doin’ this fo’ a school project?”
“Uh, not really. I-“
I looked around the railyard to make sure no one was listening.
“I actually wanted to hop a train.”
Will’s eyes widened, causing the skin on his forehead to wrinkle.
“Wah wouldja wanna do that?”
“To get away.”
He nodded his head intently.
“Is there any way you could help me?”
There was a moment of silence between us as Will contemplated what I had said.
“The best tahm to fahnd me is around 10 in the mo’nin. I can tell yew ev’rythin’ yew need to know.”
From that point on, every day at 10 AM, I would go to the railyard to meet Will. Before he worked in the railyard, he had hopped trains to get around, so he was a fairly reliable resource. He told me about the finer points of which cars I could get on, which were the safest. If he admonished me once, he admonished me a million times about cargo shifting and crushing me and to avoid the cars that held them. His advice to me about catching out of the yard was to wait until the train was completely stopped. Due to my inexperience, he wasn’t confident of my ability to catch on the fly – hopping on the train while it was moving.
About a week into my training, Will finally broke it to me.
“Ahm worried about yew,” he said.
“There’r a lotta bad people on the tracks. Some gooduns, mind yew. But a lotta… crazy people can be on the train.”
“I’ve prepared myself for that,” I said defiantly.
“No, ah don’t think yew have.”
Will’s voice had taken on a stern quality that I hadn’t heard before.
“Ah was one of ‘em.”
I stood there unmoving. He took a swig of Pepsi, looking me in the eye as his head came down.
“Ah pulled a knife on a man once. Ah was high on meth. Ah cut ‘im across the arm. Thankfully, he lived. Ah spent some time in jail. Lucky ah got straightened out. Listen, ah don’t think yew should do this. At awl.”
“Well, I’m going to. I have to leave. If you don’t want to help me, I’ll just get on the train while you’re not here. You know Tom is a lazy ass bull anyway.”
The look Will gave me was possibly the saddest that I had seen cross over his face in the short time I had known him. I felt sorry that I had put it that way, but I wasn’t going to be swayed. Will also knew that Tom, the security guard at the railyard was sleeping in his office most of the time. He absolutely wouldn’t be bothered with me.
Will nodded his head solemnly.
“When’re yew leaving?”
“Tomorrow,” I said.
Will remained silent for a second.
“Ah’ll see you off then,” he said.
I arrived at the railyard early. It was still dark out. I had a backpack with me that held a loaded gun, some extra ammo, a bit of food, a knife, and a flashlight. In my hand I held a gallon jug that I had filled with water. I wore heavy, supportive boots. I was covered in layers despite the heat and humidity. Once the train got moving, the wind would be freezing. I met Will.
“Yew sure about this?”
He directed me to the last car on the train. It was completely empty, and the doors were open.
“Hide in the back. Yew got a rock?”
I leaned down and picked up a large weathered stone. I could wedge it between the doors in the event I had to close them, since they didn’t open from the inside. I scrambled into the dark corner of the empty boxcar. Will would sometimes lean against the boxcar and talk to me, but most of the time he was getting things set up. It came time for the train to take off.
“Yew know about the next stop? It’s a whiles away.”
“Yeah, Will, you’ve told me,” I smiled.
“Yew stay safe and don’t let anyone fuck yew over.”
The train started moving. I waved to Will as it gained speed. We stared at each other until Will’s image was obscured by trees. I was completely alone now. I sat in the corner of the train, contemplating my situation. I was scared, more scared than I ever had been. And I loved it. I was free. No one, except for me, knew where I was going or where I would end up. Food was going to be a bit of an obstacle, but I figured I could just go to a soup kitchen or work as a waitress somewhere. While there were challenges inherent with this lifestyle, there were also a myriad of possibilities. I was ready to take hold of them.
The first couple of hours in the train, I kept to the back. It was probably running at about 70 miles an hour, and I hadn’t yet gained the courage to move to the open area. I secured the gallon jug behind my backpack and slowly rose. I held to the sides of the boxcar and sat at the opening. What met my eyes was astounding. A dark gray mountain sat in the midst of a sea of green trees. Its vastness filled the land, as a fierce wind howled through the trees, exposing the silver undersides of the leaves. It was like an island fortress in an ocean of undulating greens and silvers, daring anyone to swim to its shores. This scene was gorgeous, but it also terrified me. My apartment, my cubicle, and the eateries in the surrounding area where I had lived were my familiar landscapes. They had been replaced with the dingy metal walls of a car and the fantastic, daunting views of nature you could only see by traveling this way. I left my crappy boss and co-workers, the bartenders who served me when they should have cut me off, and throngs of faceless people I didn’t care to know. I wondered who would be replacing them.
I stood up in the train now. The sun shone upon my face. I took off my coat and threw it in the corner with my backpack. My body pulsed with this unfettered freedom. For the first time in my life, I was happy. I must have stood there for what felt like hours, my skin growing taut with the cold. I drank in every image that nature had to offer. As ecstatic as I was, I was growing exhausted. Will had told me that the whipping wind would suck the life out of me. I now fully believed him. I carefully moved to the corner again with my backpack. I drank heavily from the jug and put my coat on. I closed my eyes and fell asleep immediately.
The positivity of my experience while I was awake hadn’t translated to my slumber. My dreams were plagued by all the horrors I had read about. Grimy, toothless men with jaundiced eyes leered at me through the jungles on the side of the tracks, stalking my every move. Gang members hiding behind black bandanas held knives to my neck as they tried to pull my pants down. A woman with stringy hair howled at me as she lunged at my body, trying to bite me.
I woke up in a cold sweat. I thrashed as I looked around the car. Night had fallen by this point, but the train was still moving. I hadn’t reached my destination yet. I pulled my flashlight and my gun out of my backpack. No one was in the car. No one but me. I took a deep breath and finished the contents of my jug. I would have to get more water when the train stopped. A couple more hours went by. I had shaken off my terrible dreams, dismissing them as my subconscious response to stress. The hobos and the gang members I could understand. I’d read about them exhaustively. The woman I couldn’t. Had she been a drug user? Maybe I had seen her on Google Images, one of those “after” pictures you see of addicts. If she was, she would have to have been one of the more intense cases. I remembered nothing like her. I didn’t remember her at all. My worry about this dissipated as I felt the train slow down. Will had told me to look out for a huge tower with a blinking red light nearby. I saw it in the distance. This was going to be where the train would stop. I could either get off at this place and find somewhere to stay, or I could wait for the yard workers to unload and sneak back on. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
The train slowed. I could tell it was about to stop. I put my gun and flashlight back into my backpack and made sure my coat was zipped up. I stayed in the corner as I felt the train come to a halt. I was thrown forward, so I was glad that I had at least held tight to the walls. I grabbed all of my things and peeked out the open door of the car. I needed to stretch my legs desperately, but I didn’t want to encounter the bull. All I saw were other crew workers who had hopped off of the train when it was only going a couple of miles an hour. Will had told me that the yard workers here were pretty accepting of people hopping the train as long as they were nice. Luckily, there was a crew change going on, so I had at least a few seconds to get out of the car. I hopped off and breathed in the air. Thunder rumbled overhead, and dark clouds obscured the velvety, dark blue sky. Fat raindrops hit the top 0f my head, startling me. I didn’t feel comfortable walking in the rain in a place I didn’t know. Back on the train it was.
All of the necessary paperwork had to have been in order, because I saw the new crew hop on the train. I quickly got back to my original hiding place. It was too short of a rest, but I could live with it. I propped my backpack in the corner. I was worried about not being able to get any water. Maybe I could hold the jug outside of the train and catch water that way, risky as it was. For the time being, I felt fine. I was relaxed, warm, and I felt safe with the rest of the crew being relatively nearby. Despite my long sleep just a few minutes before, I had the urge to doze off again. The rain was falling heavily at this point, hitting the top of the car like little torpedoes. The thunder would boom at random intervals, making me jump out of my skin every time it did so. I hadn’t seen any lightning yet though. As if my recent connection with nature had grown to be psychic, a burst of white light illuminated the car. That’s when I saw it.
There was someone in the opposite corner from me. I had roughly been able to make out a body with a face. No, no, there couldn’t be someone in here with me. I had only been out of the car for a few seconds, and I hadn’t left it. I would have seen someone get into the car, felt their presence near. If someone had gotten in, they had to have been fast. And quiet. Had I hallucinated? I… didn’t feel like I had. The rain pelted the top of the car with a frightening intensity, and the wind howled. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that I hadn’t just imagined something. A dark shape was huddled in the corner. I could see its head shaking as if it were having a seizure. I heard gurgling noises coming from it as its body quaked. It made this sound for a while – until it started laughing. It was a breathy laugh, the laugh of someone who was trying to conceal a joke. The laughter gradually became louder, morphing into a cackle, with the choked gurgles coming up in intervals.
I felt like my bones had separated from my muscles. I was paralyzed as I watched the thing heave up and down, and my throat had run dry. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what I could do. If I jumped out of this moving train, I would die. I was scared to even move, fearing that this thing would attack me. The person in the corner stopped laughing. It inched its head forward, as if it were trying to look at me. One arm extended in front of it, bones cracking as it did. A long, skeletal hand splayed on the floor in front of it. The thing’s shoulders were hunched like it was about to pounce. My fight or flight response kicked in, and I shoved my arm behind me to grab the gun out of my bag. I managed to pull it out and point it at the thing that loomed just a few feet away. I shook even as my finger was on the trigger. However, the figure never moved away. Instead, it cocked its head as if it were amused by my action. In my hurry to grab the gun, the flashlight had fallen out of my backpack. I saw it out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know why, but I felt I had to see what was crouched in front of me. I was prepared to kill this person, but I guess the human side of me had to fully recognize it before a bullet went through its head. I grabbed the flashlight and shone it at the thing. This was an action that I will regret for as long as I live.
Pale, translucent skin stretched across its skull, and greasy, stringy brown hair hung off of it in patches. One of its eyes was a pale corpse-colored blue, its pupil merely a quivering pinprick. The opposite eyelid was plastered into a deformed crevice, revealing the cavernous insides where an eye had once made its home. It growled through a clenched mouth, revealing jagged yellow and black teeth, some of them looking like they had been sharpened down to a point. Its body was grimy and severely emaciated, the outlines of bones looking like they had been carved into its flesh. Red, raised scars covered this thing from its arms to it skeletal face. It appeared to be covered in oily brown rags, one small, wrinkled breast exposed. This was the woman in my dream. This was the demon living invisibly among the drifters, the death goddess willing my destruction. Tears welled in my eyes as she heaved and growled. When the light hit her face, she let out a shrill, high-pitched wail.
Before I could pull the trigger, she lunged at me, pinning me into the corner of the boxcar. Her long, jagged fingernails ripped into my face as inhuman screams emanated from her mouth. I fought her, kicking and flailing, trying to push her off of me. She was stronger than I thought. She was able to wrestle me to the ground, her long fingers grasping around my neck. Her face was millimeters from mine. Her one eye, the hue of decomposition, bored a hole into mine. Her sour breath felt hot on my face, and her cracked lips spread into a wide leer. In a low, gravelly voice, she spoke to me.
“Eeeeeat you… send you to hell… make my house with your bones,” she screamed.
She sunk her teeth into my shoulder, making me yelp in pain. I thrashed as she dug deeper into my shoulder. The gun was to my right. I tried reaching for it while my other hand pulled her hair, trying to rend her off of me. I was able to slip my middle finger around the trigger guard and bash her across the head with the gun. It shocked her enough that I was able to throw her off. I pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger, but it missed her, sailing out of the open door of the car into the darkness. She threw herself at my legs, still screaming, and brought me to the ground. I hit her across the shoulders and upper back with the gun and kicked her off again. She was too fast for me. If I was going to have a chance at life, I had to make a decision. I looked out the door of the car and saw trees in the distance. I lunged out of the moving train into the storm.
The side of my body hit the ground, and I rolled down a hill, rain pelting me mercilessly. I only stopped rolling when my body hit the bottom of a ravine. My ears stung from the howl of the wind. I clambered up the hill, trying to get to the tree line. A more piercing howl rang through the night. I looked back to see the woman running on all fours down the hill, shrieking with anger. I used all the strength that I could to run. Blood spilled from my shoulder, and the gun felt like a heavy weight attached to my hand. She was gaining on me, and I knew that my fate would be even bloodier than it would have been on the train. She wanted revenge. This propelled me up the remainder of this obstacle. I rain across a short distance and flung myself into the woods, never stopping to look back. My legs caught across blackberry bushes, and I had to push limbs out of the way of my face. I could still hear her howls in the distance, but I pressed onward in the dark. I could see nothing and felt like I was moving through jelly.
I finally came to a more open part of the woods. I had to stop due to sheer exhaustion, even though I didn’t feel safe. The only sound I could hear now was the light sound of rain hitting dead leaves and crickets chirping. Most of the rain was caught in the canopy above, forming a roof over my head. I was thankful for this slight reprieve. I didn’t want to look at my shoulder, but I felt I had no choice. It was covered in red, blood covering it completely and running in rivulets down my breast. I started crying. I was going to die out here, I would bleed to death, and there would be no escape. That woman would find me, finish me off, and eat my dead body. She would use my bones to make a house, whatever that meant. I was at the mercy of an insane person and far from any civilization I knew of. As I became resolved to my fate, I listened to the rain. I remembered the mountain and the trees and the wind through my hair. I didn’t want to die. Not yet. That’s when I realized the crickets had stopped chirping. Something was moving through the brush somewhere in the distance.
A surge of adrenaline burst through me, and I took off in the opposite direction. I ran and ran and ran, hearing her howl as she tried to find me. I kept running until I saw colored lights ahead of me. It was a diner, on the other side of a road. I started laughing when I saw it, thanking whatever force was in charge of the world for bringing it to me. I pushed the doors open. A waitress was behind the counter. I smiled and collapsed.
I woke up in pain. I was propped up in a booth, with a woman staring at me. I jumped when I saw her.
“Shh,” she said. “You shouldn’t move.”
I looked down at my shoulder. It was covered in gauze, but it wasn’t bleeding anymore.
“I-I need to get to a hospital,” I said.
She looked at me sympathetically.
“I’m sorry, hon, but the nearest one is about an hour away. It’s pouring out there. I don’t want to risk either of us. I stopped the bleeding. You’re holding up just fine.”
I looked at her blankly.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
I was swiftly reminded of my terrifying encounter with the thing that stalked me like an animal.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” I said.
The waitress nodded. She brought me something to eat. She introduced herself as Mae. She started telling me about herself. At any other time, this would kind have annoyed me, but anything that could take my mind off of the recent hours was welcome. Mae had had a fairly hard life. Her stories weren’t uplifting, but they felt like Disney movies compared to what I had just faced. She talked about how she and her siblings, a brother and a sister, and been moved from foster home to foster home. They weathered sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. She mentioned one home where a male pedophile had locked her and her sister in the closet while he sodomized her younger brother.
“My life was hell as a child. But, it did get better,” she said. “I have a pretty good life now. I make good money for what I do. I can go out and drink. I have friends. I can’t complain,” she shrugged.
“What about your siblings?” I asked.
She hung her head. Mae didn’t say anything for a few seconds, but she finally spoke.
“My brother couldn’t take it anymore. He committed suicide a few years later. My sister was placed in a psychiatric facility. She was supposed to stay there for the rest of her life. But she left eventually.”
I looked at her.
“So, she got better?”
“You could say that.”
“What do you mean?”
She gave a small smile as she looked at the gauze on my chest.
“I guess it would make more sense for me to explain further. The bastard pervert who raped my brother – my sister killed him. She took his eyes out and bit his nose off.”
I stared at her in silence, but she continued.
“They were going to lock her up, but a shrink determined that she wasn’t in sound mind when she did it. So, they sent her to the looney bin. She was only trying to protect my brother. He and I would go visit her. She talked about getting revenge on everyone who had hurt us. When she had bit that son of a bitch’s nose off, she said that she liked the taste of the blood. She told me that she was going to eat all of the people that had hurt us. She said that if she ate them and shit them out, that would be sending them to hell. God wouldn’t take them, because they were shit. Those people drove her insane. But she’s still smart. She escaped. I still see her sometimes.”
I was trembling. Mae looked up at me the same way that a lion looks at a gazelle. She zeroed in on my shoulder.
“You met her tonight, didn’t you?” She smiled with all the evil in the world, her pale blue eyes lighting up at my terror.
I remained silent. She laughed. Her voice dropped down to a whisper.
“She wants to send everyone to hell. I really do admire that in her. Sometimes, she’ll bring me something – an arm or a leg. I’ll cook it up for her. She’ll pull the meat apart like a dog. She takes the bones back with her. I followed her once. She sticks them in the ground around her. It’s like she builds a wall around herself.”
“You’re insane,” I choked out.
“Maybe I could find her. I’m sure she’s looking for you. We could eat you together.”
Mae cocked her head and grinned at me. I bolted from the booth and raced out the door. I looked back to see Mae grinning that evil sneer of hers. I ran down the road, hoping and praying that someone would pick me up. I put all my effort into getting away from this place, this experience, this life I had made. I ran into the night.
Occasionally, I would hear something in the woods beside me. Something walking. I wondered if it was her. After two hours, I had no choice but to slow my pace. My legs couldn’t take more than a sluggish crawl. To my left, a rowdy biker bar crackled like electricity through the night. Two men stood outside near their motorcycles under a yellow light. They laughed and threw back beers. They stopped their chatter when they saw me. They followed me with their eyes. One of them had shoulder length black hair. He smirked as he looked me up and down. At this, I disappeared into the woods.
I live in a different place now. It’s an apartment. It’s not as nice as my other one, though. I do some odd jobs. They don’t pay much, but they get me what I need. I’ll work at the little corner store nearby. I sell watermelons to old people and act like I’m normal. After my day is done, I take the money and go to the bad part of town. I get the stuff from the man who can give it to me. I don’t want to do it, but it helps me to forget. Forget my life, my current situation. It helps me forget her. I go up the steps to the dingy place where I live. The other people who live there stare wide-eyed at me as I go by. I don’t know why.
When I get inside my place, I ready my materials. I tie a tourniquet at my upper arm and smack my veins so I can see them. The needle sucks the stuff from the spoon. I flick it to expel any air bubbles. When I put it inside me, I go away. I see the mountains, I see the trees, I feel the sun. I feel alive. The drugs don’t work when it rains outside though. When the thunder booms and the wind howls, she’s there. I can’t fight her with the needle. The sun is overtaken by black clouds and a hideous, killing cold sets in. I lay in the middle of the moving boxcar, my limbs severed. I can only scream. She lopes around the car, fastening bones together, always making sure her eye and my eyes meet. Her mouth pulls back in a wide smile, laughing. Life will always be a cage. You just have to make sure it’s one you’ve built yourself. I broke out of my cage, and I don’t have the means to build a new one. So she does.
“Drink the blood! Drink the blood!”
Tessa jumped and cursed at the ancient African Grey parrot in the silver cage. She had been in her new position only a fortnight and that bird was already giving her nightmares. The thing was withered and grumpy and he repeated the creepiest nonsense. Tessa was charged with covering the cage at night so the bird wouldn’t be disturbed. She also had to feed the damn thing and clean his cage.
The parrot, by the name of Quincy, would as soon bite you as look at you, and he seemed to hate Tessa especially. He screamed if she entered the room and tried frantically to get at her fingers when she opened the door. Tessa had gotten some gloves from the gardener to protect against Quincy’s savage beak, but there was nothing to protect her maid’s uniform from the dried shit that he inevitably would fling at her. For an old timer, Quincy had no shortage of energy.
“Is Quincy talking rubbish again?” Mrs. Desmond, the housekeeper, announced her presence with the clinking of the many keys she wore at her waist. Tessa curtsied promptly before answering.
“He does say the queerest things. Wherever did he learn that phrase?”
“The one about -” Tessa hesitated before whispering, “drinking blood.”
“Oh… that. I can’t say, really. Some would believe he learned it from Mr. Murdock. He was a footman who ended up at the asylum in the next county, but Quincy was scaring the new hires long before Murdock went loopy.” Mrs. Desmond smiled. Tessa had taken to the housekeeper immediately, for she was a kindly woman who seemed eager to make the new maid feel at home. When Mrs. Desmond had learned that Tessa was an orphan she had clucked her tongue but kept her silence, which Tessa liked. She was tired of being pitied.
“There now Miss Tessa, don’t you worry about Quincy. If he were a person he would be at the asylum too. He’s a mad old bird, and nothing more. It is often that I’ve wished Lady Eastman weren’t so attached to him. Mina hated him too.”
“Mina?” Tessa asked.
“The young lady you replaced.” Mrs. Desmond said.
“If I may,” Tessa asked, “why was she dismissed? I don’t mean to pry, but I know that she left unusually fast, I wouldn’t want to repeat her error.”
“Yes, she was dismissed within a year. Mina just wasn’t the right fit for this house. ” Mrs. Desmond said, but she avoided Tessa’s gaze.
“Look in the Dark Mirror,” Quincy said softly. Tessa shuddered.
The mysterious and little seen lady of the house went by the name of Eastman, and she often asked to have Quincy brought to her room. Mrs. Desmond would have two of the footmen carry the parrot in his heavy cage, and Lady Eastman would shut herself in with him for hours on end, to the point where Tessa was sure she knew exactly who was teaching the bird those creepy sayings. She supposed she couldn’t blame the old lady, she was older than any of the staff knew, and in her bed most of the time. Tessa had heard the serving girls talking about whether she was dying at last, and there was wild speculation about whom the estate might pass to when that time came.
No one knew whether Lady Eastman had any living relatives. She certainly didn’t receive visitors, although she sent out and took in a great many letters from the post. Occasionally Tessa was asked to deliver the letters to the post office, although she didn’t recognize any of the names- Doctor VanMartin, Monsieur Li, Messrs. Poulin, Sowers and Worth. None of these names were local ones. Still, Tessa enjoyed the hour long carriage ride; it was an opportunity to rest her feet, and the task was much coveted by the other staff.
Thus, Tessa passed her time, dreaming of the day where she might climb the ranks in the household, and then eventually be recommended by Mrs. Desmond to a higher position at a more esteemed household. Not that the Eastman Estate was anything to sneer at, quite the contrary, but it was rather out of the way of most of the civilized world, and the whole place was awfully dark and dreary.
Set out in the middle of a bleak looking countryside, the Italianate style home had been completed in the early 1800s according to the fashion and taste of the time. The result was pleasing to the eye, but the interior left much to be desired. The Eastman family crest was in shades of crimson, but Lady Eastman had redecorated after her husband’s early death in the colors of her maiden family name, which was Rookby. This meant a raven on a silver field, so that as a result the entire estate was draped in black and seemed to be in eternal mourning. Lady Eastman had never remarried.
As the summer started to fade into autumn, Tessa found that she had grown comfortable with the routine of her new position. Mrs. Desmond would give her a few keys in the mornings, which would open the rooms that she was assigned to clean. Usually these were guest rooms that were hardly ever used, but they were kept in working order just the same. Tessa would dust, or sometimes air the bedding if it had been a while. The estate was enormous, and Tessa sometimes found herself lost while looking for a particular chamber. One morning, Tessa was given only one key, and instructed to clean the study on the fourth floor, and to check the books for signs of decay or rodents. She tried to mask her displeasure, but Mrs. Desmond frowned.
“No sour faces Miss Tessa, you’ve escaped silver polishing duty.”
Tessa swallowed the reply that was on her tongue, since Mrs. Desmond was her superior, but she actually enjoyed silver polishing. Tessa was usually assigned with at least one of the other staff members, and she enjoyed talking with them. They all had such interesting stories. Cleaning the study promised a day of solitude and boredom, and a lot of sneezing.
However, when Tessa found the door she was looking for, she discovered that it was open a crack, although there was no light within. She couldn’t say why, but Tessa felt nervous as she pushed the door open. The blackness of the room seemed to swallow any light from the hallway, and she realized that the drapes must have been drawn shut. Strange for the door to be open, had no one noticed it? Any room that wasn’t used regularly was always locked tight upon Mrs. Desmond’s orders.
Taking a deep breath, Tessa strode across the room and threw open the drapes. A high pitched shriek burst from one corner of the room and Tessa nearly fainted with shock. Turning, she beheld a skeletal figure in a dusty armchair, arms crossed over its face.
“Close the drapes you damned fool!” The person cried.
Tessa hurried to comply, her hands trembling as she returned the room to darkness once more.
“Now light the lamps, so I know whom I will be dismissing.” The voice, coming from the darkness, was hoarse and crackled like old leaves. Tessa hurried to comply, taking a match from her apron pocket, dropping it, and lighting a second. She looked around in vain for a lamp, but it was difficult to see. She cried out as the flame burned her fingers and she dropped the spent match to join the first on the floor.
“The lamp is on the desk to your left,” The voice said impatiently.
Tessa lit a third match, and the room was illuminated at last, although the darkness seemed reluctant to leave, and hovered near the creature in the chair, casting her deep in shadow. Tessa realized that this must be Lady Eastman.
“My lady, please, I had no idea you were here.” Tessa said timorously.
“I have no doubt of that,” Lady Eastman snorted, but she no longer sounded as angry, “come closer, I didn’t realize you were a young girl; that makes a difference.”
“I beg your pardon, my lady?” Tessa asked.
“Come closer,” The voice snapped like dry twigs, and Tessa walked forward, kneeling beside the chair at Lady Eastman’s gesture.
“You’re lovely, not at all like Mina,” Lady Eastman wheezed, her version of laughter. Tessa couldn’t have said the same for Lady Eastman. The lady of the house looked as though she were ready to lie in the grave. Pale skin was stretched too tightly on her small face. Her eyes were heavily shadowed, and there were only a few wisps of hair clinging to her scalp. A silver dressing gown in beautiful heavy fabric draped over her thin neck and sagged back from her spare shoulders. Tessa noticed black ravens embroidered on the collar.
“What is your name?” Lady Eastman asked.
“Tessa?” Lady Eastman repeated, as if tasting the word. “What an unfortunate name you have. But it’s common enough and will have to do. Now tell me, lovely little Tessa, are you a little slattern like Mina? Do you enjoy male company?”
“No ma’am,” Tessa replied slowly, feeling shocked, “I haven’t had the occasion to meet many gentlemen.”
“Ah, that’s good. Very promising. And your family, do you write to them regularly?”
Tessa stiffened defensively.
“I have no family, I was sent here when I came of age from the orphanage in Southerton.”
“That’s a pity,” said Lady Eastman, although she didn’t sound as though she pitied Tessa. “Did you learn to read at all in that orphanage?”
“Oh, yes, I’m quite fond of reading.” Tessa said. It was one of her few pleasures, and she half hoped that Lady Eastman was about to offer her the use of the library or something similar.
“Very well, that is all I need to know. Be a good girl and go fetch Mrs. Desmond for me.”
Tessa was very glad to take her leave, remembering only at the last to dip a curtsy to her employer before retreating.
She found Mrs. Desmond easily enough, overseeing the kitchen where the cook was complaining about the quality of the sugar. Mrs. Desmond’s eyes opened wide when Tessa explained what had happened, but she nodded and left quickly enough after being told that she had been summoned. Before departing she told Tessa to assist Regan in polishing the silver, which Tessa was happy to do, but when Mrs. Desmond returned she had a queer look, and said that it was Lady Eastman’s wish that Tessa attend her in her bedroom every morning and read to her. Regan’s eyes were like saucers when she heard this, and Tessa felt sure that she looked much the same. True, she had hoped Lady Eastman would bestow some kindness on a fellow bibliophile, but the idea of reading to that frightening old woman made Tessa cringe.
Later, Tessa would think back on Mrs. Desmond, and how she had not been her usual self when she gave these instructions. The housekeeper would never converse in a friendly manner with Tessa again.
Lady Eastman’s room was in the west wing of the house on the fourth floor. The window to her bedroom overlooked the gardens, but the curtains were always shut tight, so she saw neither blooming flowers nor bloody sunset. Mrs. Desmond said that many years ago, Lady Eastman had kept the window open day and night, but had preferred to keep herself shut in almost total darkness after the death of her husband.
Tessa eased open the heavy door to Lady Eastman’s room and closed it behind her, as she had previously been instructed. Someone, probably Mrs. Desmond, had already been in to light some of the lamps and start the fireplace.
Lady Eastman was settled back against her pillows in a large four poster bed and she smiled as the young maid entered. Quincy stood on the far side of the bed in his cage, uncharacteristically quiet. His glittering eyes watched Tessa too.
“Well, how do you like my bedroom?” Lady Eastman asked.
Tessa looked around, there were many porcelain figures, and art on the walls depicting people that Tessa supposed were long dead relatives, but what fascinated her the most was a mirror that had been hung on the back of the door. It was framed in silver, and studded with opals. The face of the mirror was a smoky black, and Tessa thought that it must have been saved from a fire. A strange thing to have in one’s bedroom though, since it cast no reflection. Perhaps Lady Eastman had kept it as a memento of some kind. The mirror wasn’t any more special than anything else in the room, but Tessa felt drawn to it somehow. She stood in front of it, and squinted, as though by doing so she could clear the surface. It seemed to shimmer for a moment, and Tessa rubbed her eyes, sure she had been imagining things. She turned and saw that Lady Eastman was studying her with narrowed eyes, waiting for a response.
“Your room is very beautiful.” Tessa said.
“Is there something you like in particular?” Lady Eastman asked, her voice almost sly.
“There were a great many things, Lady. However, my favorite is this mirror with the blackened surface. It seems to have been burnt, and yet the frame remains exquisite.”
“You like the Dark Mirror, do you?” Lady Eastman chuckled, “and you have such pretty words to describe it. Well, let me tell you – that mirror which is as black as the night came to me from a far away land. I paid very dearly for it – and why do you think that is?”
“I thought it was caused by a fire, but now- I don’t know, my Lady.”
“Do you believe in curses, child?”
“I do not, my lady. They are pure fiction, meant to frighten and entertain.” Tessa wondered what Lady Eastman wanted from her. Fear? She wouldn’t get it.
“You are a foolish girl, but that’s all the better for me. Come read to me.” Lady Eastman pointed to a straight backed chair beside her bed, a book already upon it, and Tessa bowed her head, feeling as though she had been gravely out of place. She sat and began to read, blushing when she realized that she was reading a particularly racy gothic romance. But then, elderly women were probably prone to the same fantasies as the young, so she was able to bear it a bit, only, she wished Quincy would stop staring at her. After an hour had passed, Lady Eastman raised her hand to signal Tessa to stop, and she asked her to look once more into the dark mirror.
“What do you see?” Lady Eastman asked.
“Nothing, my lady.” Tessa replied, wondering what in the world the woman expected her to say.
“As I thought. You may go.” Lady Eastman turned away and started whispering to Quincy. Tessa winced at this display of madness and edged out of the room.
Lady Eastman rarely conversed with her after that first day. Tessa would stoke her fire in the morning once the autumn turned cold, and Lady Eastman would command her to read from the same gothic romance. Quincy was always in the room waiting for Tessa, and he would ruffle his feathers restlessly until she had sat down. Each time before Tessa left, Lady Eastman told her to look into the Dark Mirror and see if she noticed anything different. Tessa knew now that Lady Eastman had gone quite mad, as the mirror always looked the same to her, but the only person she could have confided in was Mrs. Desmond, and the housekeeper was openly avoiding her.
One day, the mirror looked different.
“It’s changed.” Tessa said wonderingly. Her eyes were fixed on the mirror, she couldn’t have imagined this. She backed away slightly, feeling disturbed for reasons she couldn’t have explained.
“What? What did you say?” Lady Eastman’s voice was alert and attentive. This in itself was unusual, as she had, as a rule, been very bored after their first meeting. Each time Tessa had said that the mirror remained unchanged Lady Eastman had grown more and more disinterested in her.
“The opals are pink now – not white, and the surface is clearer. I think- I can see something moving.”
“Can you?” Lady Eastman’s voice was harsh and heavy, and very close.
Tessa turned away from the mirror and saw that Lady Eastman had moved to all fours at the end of her bed, mere feet from where Tessa now stood. The old woman’s gnarled hands had clawed into the sheets and were digging into the mattress, but her face was what truly spooked the maid. Lady Eastman was perspiring, and her eyes were bulging with some sort of crazed excitement. Rivulets of sweat tracked down her face and had soaked the front of her nightdress. Tessa gave a frightened gasp at the sight and backed toward the door. She had no idea what it meant, but the moving figure in the mirror felt evil somehow, and Lady Eastman was acting so queerly.
“You should be in bed,” Tessa cried.
“Yes…. yes.” Lady Eastman sat back suddenly on her knees. Her eyes closed, and when they opened they had a frighteningly distant look, it was as if she had suddenly come back from a journey to the edge of the universe. A thin line of saliva escaped from the corner of her mouth. Tessa found that she was shaking, and she tried to steady herself.
“My apologies,” Lady Eastman gave Tessa a strange smile, “I am told that I am not always myself these days. Never mind the mirror, in certain lights it can be quite mesmerizing, but it is a parlor trick, nothing more.”
Tessa looked doubtfully at the mirror. The shadow within seemed to grow still. She felt like a mouse being watched by a house cat who had been biding his time for far too long. Quincy, at the side of the bed as always, made a low croaking sound that Tessa tried to ignore.
“If you say so, my lady.” Tessa said.
“Come, help me get back under this quilt. My strength is failing me. I had thought there was no hope… but there is… yes. I cannot be mistaken. The opals, they are alight… The promise…. the trade.”
Alarmed, Tessa ran toward the bed and helped Lady Eastman to get comfortable again. Her aged employer was no longer making any sense. Clearly she was having an episode of some kind, and despite the fact that the old woman gave her the creeps, Tessa felt a bit sorry for her too. The both of them were alike after all, for Lady Eastman had no one to care whether she lived or died except her servants. The old woman sighed once she settled back against the pillows. As Tessa bent to tuck the quilt under her chin she found that Lady Eastman was cupping her cheek, almost tenderly.
“So young, and full of life. I would suck the youth straight from your sweet lips, if I could.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tessa jerked away, too quickly, for the Lady Eastman’s fingernails cut her cheek in two thin lines. Tessa pressed a hand to her injured cheek, and stared with horror at the figure in the bed.
“Did I say something?” Lady Eastman’s eyes were wide and innocent. She truly was mad after all.
“Not at all, my lady. Please get some rest.” Tessa bowed and exited the room, but not fast enough to miss what Quincy said next.
“Drink the blood!”
Tessa began dreading her hour in Lady Eastman’s room after that. The mirror no longer moved for her, but the figure in it was still there and it seemed to change positions. The opals were always darkening in color to the point where Tessa believed she might be catching the madness from Lady Eastman. Of course Lady Eastman herself was bad enough. Even Quincy was preferable company when compared to that creepy old woman, although he hadn’t warmed to Tessa at all despite all the time he spent listening to her voice.
“He won’t warm up to you, either,” Regan warned her one afternoon, “That bird, he doesn’t like the new girls.”
“Well, I’m not a new girl anymore.” Tessa had protested. In the next moment, Mrs. Desmond had cleared her throat loudly, and the girls conversation had ended there. Tessa thought that Mrs. Desmond had grown even colder toward her in the last month or so, and she couldn’t help feeling hurt by it, for she noticed Mrs. Desmond was on friendly terms with everyone else in the house.
One morning, while on her way for her reading session, she overheard Mrs. Desmond conversing with Lady Eastman in the lady’s room.
“I suppose you will need me to clean up.” Mrs. Desmond was saying, her voice was very informal for someone who was speaking with her employer. Tessa paused, too intrigued to interrupt.
“Yes, it’s nearly ready.”
“And the bird?”
“Quincy has spoken with the creature and is in agreement. He said today is soon enough. The girl’s voice and face has piqued the creatures interest. I was worried at first, it took such a long time to awaken.” Lady Eastman was speaking with more urgency now.
“That settles it, then.” Said Mrs. Desmond.
Tessa clamped a hand over her mouth in horror mixed with amusement. Mrs. Desmond was pretending the bird could talk! Was she pandering to Lady Eastman’s ravings? Or did she share the madness? The conversation had turned so strange.
“I will expect my share of ten years, as before, for my silence.” Mrs. Desmond said crisply.
“As you wish, just make sure the floor is empty.”
“No need to remind me of that. The others have been sent to air out the bedrooms in the guest wing. They’ll be busy for hours. Of course, I’ll need to start dismissing some of the younger girls who didn’t work out.”
Tessa had little warning, the carpet muffled Mrs. Desmond’s footsteps. The door opened suddenly and Tessa had to pretend to be surprised. Evidently she wasn’t a good actress, because Mrs. Desmond’s eyes grew narrow at the sight of her.
“Have you been here long?” The housekeeper asked suspiciously.
“Not at all, I was just a bit late this morning.” Tessa lied.
“Come in, then.”
Tessa hesitated, but Mrs. Desmond pulled her into the room and shut the door behind them. She made no move to leave. Tessa saw that in the chair where she usually sat, instead of a book there was an open box with silver knife that glinted in the lamp light.
“Well, stoke the fire, girl.” Mrs. Desmond commanded. All the warmth had gone from her voice, and she was quite the stranger now. Tessa performed the task clumsily, she was nervous at this change of routine and she keenly felt the eyes of Mrs. Desmond and Lady Eastman on her back all the while. Quincy made a small hissing noise as the fire sprang to life.
“Please, it’s finished. May I go now?”
“Not until you look into the mirror.” Mrs. Desmond said quietly.
“You knew Lady Eastman kept asking me to do that?” Tessa was confused. She looked to Lady Eastman, who was rising from her bed with difficulty. Mrs. Desmond made a move as if to help her.
“Never mind that,” Lady Eastman rasped, “get to it. I’m feeling weak.”
Mrs. Desmond shoved Tessa toward the mirror as Lady Eastman came to stand behind them. The opals had gone black, with streaks of red veining their surface. The last of the smoke that had clouded the surface began to recede. To her horror, Tessa realized that she could see what was in the mirror clearly for the first time, and it was not her reflection that was shown.
A horned creature of darkness and flames stood on cloven feet, its clawed hands pressed against the glass. The body was upright and manlike, but the face was pure animal, and seemed to shift as she looked. As Tessa watched, feeling rooted to the floor, it opened its mouth and gushed out dark smoke that somehow floated into the room. It spoke gutturally in a language that Tessa did not know. A strange voice spoke with it, and Tessa realized that Quincy was mimicking the creature, speaking the words in unison.
“Open her vein!” Mrs. Desmond roared as she grabbed Tessa’s arm. Tessa struggled and her eyes widened as she saw that Lady Eastman was holding the silver knife. With great effort, Tessa twisted and drove her knee into Mrs. Desmond’s stomach. There was a great whoosh of air as Mrs. Desmond recoiled, and Tessa cried out as she felt a sharp pain in her back. She flailed, and managed to connect her elbow with Lady Eastman’s nose- it made a sickening crunch, and the old woman cursed.
Tessa reached for the doorknob, waves of pain coursing down her back, she was sure she had been stabbed. It didn’t matter. She had to flee. But the figure in the mirror was reaching toward her, its fingers, impossibly, breached the surface and radiated heat as they reached for her face. She felt her flesh crisp and burn, and all she could smell was smoke. Tessa ducked and threw the door open, fleeing into the hall. Mrs. Desmond was shouting her name angrily, but Tessa was already halfway down the stairs. There were so many flights of stairs, and all the while she heard footsteps behind her. Horribly, she thought she heard the sound of hooves as well. Tessa stumbled once, twice, and made it to the front door. She ran into the chilly late autumn air, out into the desolate countryside.
She couldn’t let them catch her.
Credit: C.F. Campbell