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Eustace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He flapped his hand in good-natured dismissal again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eustace? “I didn’t summon you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your…luck?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re in remission.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: MJ

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The Great and Powerful Oz

May 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Not all ghost stories are scary, but they can still send chills down your spine.

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister. Growing up he had four brothers. His wife, my grandmother was an only child and a divorcee, a terrible blemish in the 1950s when they wed. Her first husband had been abusive, but even with that justification a divorced woman marrying a minister in that day and age was an anomaly. Other than that, I know remarkably little about my grandparents.

This story is about my grandfather. “Grandpa Boo” we called him, though he was never scary to us. He had a big hearty laugh and would sometimes take the long way home down a big hill so our tummies would toss. He’d let us decorate his office with streamers when we went to visit and we mutually impersonated the mysterious figure of “Oz” that my sister and I had dreamed up one day as children. The joke stuck.

Every time we visited we’d dress up a mannequin in a costume and position it at the top of the stairs, saying that Oz had come to visit too. Over the years we started sending tapes back and forth of our deeply-modified recorded voices, always impersonating Oz. He usually had a riddle or joke for us, sometimes he told us to be good or enjoy an upcoming trip. In turn, we’d create tapes and send them to him. He thought we were immensely talented, and would tell anyone who’d listen that my sister and I were going to be famous broadcasters someday.

————————–

I remember the day my grandfather died. It was March 1, 1991. I was young and he’d been sick as long as I could remember. He was always in and out of the hospital, having some procedure or running some test, but that never dampened his smile. His death wasn’t unexpected. We went to visit him in the hospital before he passed. I remember picking out my best outfit; I think I knew it was the last time I’d see him alive.

We traveled from central Pennsylvania for the funeral near Altoona. It was scheduled for March 4, my Birthday. Looking back, I was unforgivably selfish about the arrangements. I pleaded and begged for it to be changed so we could observe my Birthday and, when that didn’t work, I resorted to guilt.

“It’ll scar me for life,” I promised. This did not turn out to be true. At least, I don’t think it did.

“I’ll never be able to celebrate a Birthday without thinking about this day,” I sneered. This turned out to be true, though I often reflect more on my poor character than any other aspect.

“You’ll be sorry you scheduled it for that day,” I threatened. This, as fate or other forces would have it, also turned out to be true.

————————–

My Aunt, Uncle and cousins came in from Pittsburgh for the viewing the night before the funeral. As I said before, my grandfather was a minister and almost the entire parish came out to wish him farewell. It was unreasonably long and terribly boring for my sister, my cousins and me.

Eventually the eight of us were told we could play quietly in the other rooms of the funeral home. Before long we found the kitchen and proceeded to dare one another to consume the packs of sugar we found there. By the time the viewing was over and my parents came to get us we were unruly, sugar-fueled terrors.

They packed us all in cars and shuttled us back to my grandmother’s house, a three-story home with plenty of spare bedrooms to sleep all the guests. We ran screaming from room to room, high on sugar and the company of one another. My Mom and Aunt somehow got us all washed and changed, then dragged us up to bed, threatening that if we didn’t say in bed and go to sleep there’d be hell to pay.

Now, in my cousins’ family there is a special Birthday competition to see who can wish the Birthday girl/boy happy Birthday first on their big day. So that night, as my Mom tucked me in, I was promised of a shower of Birthday wishes in the morning even though it was the same day as the funeral.

————————–

I did not awake to the promised Birthday wishes. The first thing I remember was hearing screams. We woke up late, very late, though no one could say exactly how late at first. The power had gone out overnight, most likely due to the near foot of snow that had fallen so far. Without power, none of the alarms had gone off and we’d all slept just as late as we pleased.

My Dad had to run out and fire up the old wagon to see the time. It was 9:07 a.m. The funeral was at 10:00 a.m., half an hour away in good travel conditions. There were eight kids and five adults in the house who were not showered, dressed or fed. The immediate consensus was that we’d skip breakfast and showers were on an as-needed basis. Everyone flew into action and, miraculously, by 9:30 a.m. we were all buckled into cars and on our way.

In our car was my Dad behind the wheel, my Mom, sister and grandmother. We plowed through the snow at a desperate crawl. Each mile seemed to go slower than the last, with snow falling more and more rapidly as the minutes ticked past.

Because of the heavy snowfall we soon discovered our planned route – west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike – had been unexpectedly closed. We followed the detour onto the highway instead. It was only a minor setback; we could still make it my father insisted, trying to convince himself as much as the rest of us.

We didn’t begin experiencing car trouble until we were getting off the highway. My cousins were behind us – all eight of them crammed into their car. My Mom leaned out the window and flailed urgently at them, trying to communicate that we needed to pull over. We stopped in a Hoss’s parking lot.

There was more than a foot of snow on the ground by now, and our options were quickly deteriorating. We’d all come to terms with the sad reality that we were going to be late. Now it looked like we might not make it at all. As my Dad and Uncle were under the hood trying to figure out what was wrong with our wagon, my Aunt crept over to me.

She smiled weakly and bumped hips with me, trying to feel out my mood. I half-heartedly smiled at her and hugged my coat tighter as the sky pelted us with white flakes.

“I feel bad,” she confided. “In all the rush this morning, I forgot to wish you happy Birthday.”

I beamed.

“Who was first?” she asked.

“You,” I said. “Everyone else forgot.”

A burst of laughter overcame her. I was confused; how was that funny? Just as she was stopping, another wave of laughter seized her and soon she was nearly doubled over from laughing so hard. Everyone was staring at her by the time she regained her composure.

She smiled, a big wide smile that seemed so out of place with the mood of the morning. She squatted near me. “Grandpa Boo remembered,” she said, gesturing at the car and snow and the world around. “Heck, he’s only been up there three days and he’s already running the place. Guess he didn’t want his funeral to be today either.”

In the end, the fourteen of us all piled into my Uncle’s car for the final five miles of the trip. We didn’t make it on time, but we made it. On the way back we stopped at my parents’ car. It started right away this time and rode fine for the trip to the cemetery and, later, back home. My parents never figured out what the problem was.

————————–

On the way back to Harrisburg after the funeral, my sister and I found an unmarked tape in the backseat of the old wagon. We played it later when we got home and found a mysterious message recorded on it. Though it didn’t identify the recorder by name, the voice sounded too similar to Oz to be anyone but him.

The tape explained that sometimes life doesn’t go our way, but that the people who love us will always try to do their best for us. It signed off with a promise that he’d always use every resource at his disposal to ensure our happiness. He always did.

When we tried to replay the message, nothing was on the tape but static.

————————–

It has been 25 years since my grandfather died. To this day I believe that he was behind the trials of that morning. Between the rogue snowstorm, the power outage and the car trouble, it’s just too many events for me to chalk it up to mere coincidence. And if that wasn’t enough, my sister and I both heard the fortuitous message on Oz’s final tape.

Not all ghost stories are scary.

*Written with love in memory of The Rev. Richard L. Tome

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The Banshee

May 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I can’t fall back to sleep. I don’t even remember what woke me up, but now that I’m awake I can’t fall back asleep no matter how hard I try. Counting sheep doesn’t seem to help. It wouldn’t even be that bad being awake in the middle of the night if I could get up, but I can’t move a muscle. My body is rigid like a corpse. Can’t even wiggle so much as a toe and not for lack of trying. After the initial panic set in and passed, and I realized I wasn’t dead. I racked my brain and tried to come up with an explanation for my immobility. I began to remember a lecture about dreams and sleep disorders in a psychology course I took freshman year. That’s what made me think of sleep paralysis. Which might help explain why the only part of my body I can move are my eyes. Maybe if I’d paid attention more in class I’d be able to figure out how to raise myself from this state, as it is I’m stuck waiting here for one of my roommates to come check up on me in the morning. Doesn’t make for much of a plan, but it’s all I’ve got. Certainly helps stop the growing pangs of fear that were spreading through my body. Though in the pit of my stomach I still feel uneasy.

There is an ominous, yet measured beep that I can just faintly hear. Too soft to be a fire alarm or a carbon monoxide detector, and it has been going on long enough that it’s definitely not someone’s car alarm. It feels both close and distant at the same time, like it is by my side but just out of reach. Regardless this isn’t the source of my uneasiness. No, it’s something else keeping me awake. Something else stirring in my chest giving me this sense of dread. It’s like something is in the room with me but I can’t quite see it. Everything looks a little blurry like things are moving too fast. There are other sounds like the soft pitter-patter of feet around me, and just outside of my room I can hear what sounds like whispering. Since I don’t live alone and the walls are pretty thin this usually wouldn’t be such a strange occurrence, even this late at night. However, these voices aren’t familiar, and the murmurs though soft, somehow sound urgent. While I want to decipher what they’re saying, deep down I know, that even this is not what has me on edge. It’s something in the air, something is…off.

As I’m trying to pinpoint what is making me feel so restless, the sounds of shuffling feet, faint whispers, and even that incessant beeping all begin to fade away. My vision swims and darkness begins to swirl around me growing thicker. I can feel my chest tighten and my breath catch. I try to cry out, but no sound emits from my mouth. Not a scream, nor a squeak. I try desperately to move, even an inch but my body doesn’t respond. It feels as though I’m being held down by invisible hands. I’m smothered by an infinite darkness and a deafening silence. The pangs of fear I’d suppressed before, grow and spread through my body with a burning fervor. The uneasiness that dwelled in the pit of my stomach is now full blown terror. And just as I’m about to succumb to my fear and apparent demise. A bright light parts the sea of darkness, and I’m brought face to face with a woman.

Her hair is a ghostly white, which reaches out into the infinite black surrounding her, like wispy tendrils. Her skin is so pale it’s almost transparent. I feel like I could make out the bones beneath her skin if I strained my eyes hard enough. But it’s not her hair or her skin that has me captivated, it’s her eyes or lack thereof. Where her eyes are supposed to be instead are just sunken, black sockets. Staring at them I feel as though I’m being sucked back into that never-ending void of black. With difficulty, I pull my eyes away from them. Looking down I notice that she is draped in an alabaster dress that matches her long white hair. The dress though once was obviously beautiful, now lies in tatters, clinging to her body like vines on a gnarled tree. I raise my gaze to meet hers yet again, but before I can even try to utter a word, she raises a withered finger and points directly at me. Her thin lips part and she let out a low moan. As her mouth widens the low moan begins to raise in pitch. Like a kettle coming to boil. Her moan rapidly escalates into an otherworldly wail. Her maw has now become so impossibly wide it’s cavernous. I shut my eyes in a desperate, but futile attempt to block out the piercing sound. It continues for what feels like an eternity. I feel blood trickle out of my ears and down my neck. I hear her desperate wail reverberate in my skull making my teeth rattle. Even with my eyes closed I still see her ghostly visage looking at me. No, she’s looking through me, at my very soul.

When I finally open my eyes it’s not to the oppressing darkness with the female spectre, or even the familiarity of my room, but to what appears to be the inside of a hospital room. I try to move and am immediately jostled by a sharp pain in my chest. A sharp cry passes my lips, and my hand automatically reaches towards the pain in my chest. After a brief moment, I realize that I’m able to move again. I’m not allowed much time to reflect on my shock; however, as someone strides into my room at that moment. A pale man with a bald head looks down at me and smiles showing off an impressively white set of teeth. He’s dressed in a white overcoat and has a black dress shirt peeking out just underneath. “I wouldn’t try to move if I was you, trust me I’m a professional.” He says with a mischievous wink. As he steps closer I can make out a name on a badge pinned to his lapel. It reads Donn, with two n’s. I turn my head and am greeted by a now familiar beeping. The heart monitor is connected to my chest by tubes and wires I can’t quite see. There is also an oxygen mask lying just by my head. The doctor seemingly reads my thoughts and explains I had quite the night. I was wheeled in by paramedics last night after I’d collapsed in my room. One of my roommates had called 9-1-1. The shuffling of feet and the urgent voices all begin to make sense. “You had a close call” he finishes still smiling.

I begin to straighten up slightly and he hands me a small cup of water. After a few sips, I tell him about my nightmare. His smile never fades as I talk. “Sounds like you dreamt of a banshee,” he says when I finish. He explains when I give him a quizzical look. “Ghastly spectres that let out the most blood-curdling cries. They’re known as harbingers of death.” His grin seems to grow wider as he talks, and I feel an uneasiness sprout in my chest. “Despite their frightening appearance, they’re merely warnings that death is around the corner.” I begin to cough and reach for my chest again. “Death doesn’t like to be cheated. You mortals, you build structures and even create professions just to delay the inevitable. A pointless venture wouldn’t you agree?” I clutch at my chest and look back at the small paper cup of liquid that I realize now is not water. The man’s skin begins to fall away and he reaches a skeletal finger to pluck each of his eyes out. He removes his white coat letting it fall to the floor and pulls up the hood of the black robe he’s wearing. The creature looms over me and gently closes the lids of my eyes. “I hope your next dream is a bit more…pleasant.”

Credit: Autumn Leaves

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“Maisie went missing last year”

April 27, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Last summer, I flew back to my hometown for a school reunion. It had been almost three years since I had graduated from school, and aside from close friends, I had heard nothing from the rest of my classfellows.
The reunion took place at the school itself, lasting till midnight. I arrived home early that day, giving me time to catch up with my family before I headed down.

At the reunion, almost everybody had turned up. There was food, drink and plenty of time to get up to date with what had been going on in everybody’s life. Boys I hadn’t seen in ages gave me aggressive hugs and said things like ‘long time no see.’ Girls I hadn’t seen in ages fussed over me in a motherly way, saying things like ‘Oh my goodness! You’re so grown up!’
Then everybody went round talking to nearly everybody else, asking and answering all manner of questions. For the first two hours or so, some of our former teachers who still taught at the school were there, which was nice. They left before sundown.

As the night drew to a close, and most people began to head home, I and a few others hung around outside the school hall. I leant against a railing and sipped lemonade while listening to the conversation. One of the girls asked about a certain boy who hadn’t turned up.
“He said he couldn’t be bothered,” explained another, “He says he’s going on holiday with his uni friends or something.”
“Typical.” Someone commented, and they all began to reminisce about how antisocial that particular classfellow of ours had been. As they talked, my mind drifted off elsewhere. I tried to think of who else hadn’t turned up. Among a few other absentees, one person stood out – Maisie, a tall quiet girl who had been in many of my classes.
“Hey did any of you see Maisie Heathen?” I posed the question out of the blue.

The others quietened down, registered the name, thought about it, and shook their heads.
“Nah,” said one boy, “but let’s be honest – she was probably the least likely to turn up. I mean, she hardly turned up at school, some weeks.”

“Yeah,” said one girl sarcastically, “says the guy who skipped school to play video games. At least she still got respectable grades.”

“Woah, no need to get personal,” the boy grinned, “Her attendance didn’t really make a difference, anyway – she was naturally smart.”

“Unlike you, right?” The girl teased him. The others continued bantering, while I thought about Maisie. It struck me that she hadn’t entered my thoughts for so long. Three years at university many miles away with another set of friends in another town had taken their toll. It felt like all the excitement of student life had made me move on from this small world which was my old school, and in moving on, I’d forgotten so much.

“Didn’t she go to Oxford or something?” I heard someone ask. I tuned back in to the conversation, as they were talking about Maisie.
“Wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I’m pretty sure she applied there.”
“Yeah, and she got in. I remember seeing Mr Thompson congratulating her on it.”

“She was odd,” remarked a boy named Joe, “nice, but sort of in her own world, you get me?”

“Hmm,” I nodded. I knew what Joe meant.

“So, anybody know what she’s up to now? Anybody in touch?” Asked Joe. We all shrugged.

“Maisie went missing last year.” Said a low voice from a few yards away. We looked to see a man’s outline standing in the darkness. He stepped into the light. It was a former classmate, David, who had been eavesdropping from the shadows.
“Huh?” I looked at him stupidly, feeling suddenly cold.
“She went missing last year,” he repeated, “they still haven’t found her.”
We all exchanged uncomfortable glances.
“Oh come off it, David,” I heard a girl say, “stop trying to frighten us.”
David came and leant against the railing beside me.

“I’m really not trying to be funny.” He said, “You know I’m not known for my sense of humour.”

It was true. David, a lanky fellow with glasses, had always been rather dry.

“Honestly. That’s what I heard, at least. My parents told me about it around when it happened, last autumn. People were talking about it in church. Her family was stressed. Everybody was trying to console them.”
Nobody said anything for a while. The party had become noticeably quiet, and people were leaving by the minute.

“That’s… weird.” A girl said. “Do you know what happened? How did it happen? Where?”

“I don’t know the little details, but I do know that she had gone on a trip alone. Apparently she had wanted to get away from everything for a while. So she had booked some cottage in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, gone to live there by herself, and after a few days, vanished.”

“That’s terrible,” someone remarked. I don’t remember who, as I was too caught up in my own thoughts.
‘Vanished?’ I wondered, ‘what on earth could have happened?’

Shortly, the gathering dispersed and we all went home. Joe offered me a lift, which I accepted. We hardly spoke, and when he dropped me off, we exchanged short, sincere goodbyes. Something was seriously wrong. Maisie had disappeared and not been found. That in itself was inherently a frightening thing. But I had a nagging feeling that there was something greater behind her disappearance – something that had been building up over the years. I felt like I knew something about what might have happened, but, for some strange reason, couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

I lay awake that night, trying to think back into the past. Slowly, it all came back to me, and when it did, I shivered.

Maisie had joined my secondary school in year thirteen – the final school year. From her first day onwards, she kept to herself.
She was a tall, delicately made girl with refined features. With her prominent grey eyes, dainty nose, and flaxen hair neatly bound in a single braid, most agreed that she was pretty. She usually sat alone in class and spent more time gazing out the window than paying attention to the teacher. In spite of this, she got high marks in most exams. And although she hardly took part in athletics, when she did turn up, she could outrun even most boys.

Over time, her reclusiveness earned her dislike from some members of the class. Her high achievement only made them resent her more. I, on the other hand, felt bad whenever I saw her, and more than a little curious to know what was up with her. She never seemed quite there – it was as if she were constantly engrossed in another, faraway dimension. At the time, I saw it as enigmatic. Now, having thought about it a bit more, I’ve come to realise that her behaviour was troubling. A sign that something was troubling her, and wouldn’t leave her alone. But as a simple seventeen year old boy, I didn’t understand these things.

I sometimes told my mother about Maisie’s behaviour, and she told me to ‘be nice’ to her and ‘be a gentleman.’ I remember one particular conversation we had – my father was at work, so it was just me and my mother in the kitchen.

“Mum?” I began, tentatively.

“Yes?”

“You know that girl Maisie?”
“Of course I know her, you’re always talking about her.”

“Well, she still hasn’t made any friends. She literally doesn’t talk.”
My mother smiled.

“And…?”

“Well… I don’t understand girls, and I just find it strange. Do you have any idea what could be the matter with her?”

“Really, Daniel, there’s no need to pry into people’s lives like that. It’s nosy.”

“But I’m sort of concerned, mum.” I said plaintively.

“That’s sweet of you, but I’m sure you don’t need to worry about her. Everyone has their own problems, and I think she’d prefer to keep them to herself.”
I thought about what my mother said, and wondered what kind of problems Maisie might have had.

“Do you mean, like, family problems? Are her parents getting divorced or something?”

“Could be, but I doubt it. I’ve met her parents, and they don’t look like they’re splitting anytime soon. And they seem to be really nice people.”

I realised that I had seen them once, too. They had seemed like nice people. They were the sort of gentle, charitable church-goers who cared a lot about community and never skipped mass.

Their daughter was different. I figured that whatever was on her mind was something very personal that she hid even from her family.

But whatever could that be?

My simple masculine brain couldn’t get over her mysterious sullenness.
“You know,” my mother suggested one day, “if you’re concerned, you could go talk to her. Perhaps she just feels isolated at this new school. You never know, it might make her feel welcome here.”

I considered it.

“I might do,” I said, “yeah, I might do, mum.”

I first spoke to Maisie Heathen on the way home from school. I wasn’t expecting to cross paths with her, as I had just had an afterschool detention. I was likely the only one at school apart from the caretaker. It was a chilly, blue-skied evening in October, and the sun had sunk enough to slightly darken one half of the sky.
The homeward path cut through farmland at the back of the school, where a path had been demarcated with low wire fences on either side to keep students out of the fields. I noticed, about two hundred yards ahead of me on the path, Maisie.

I realised this was my chance, and tried to walk faster to catch up with her, then ran. I noticed she looked downwards slightly when she walked. But she moved quickly, and I was a little out of breath when I caught up.

That’s when something weird happened. When I was about five yards behind her, panting like a hound, she heard me and turned round with such a look of fear upon her face as I won’t forget. It scared the heck out of me, seeing her face tightened into that silent, wide-eyed scream.
When she saw who I was, she looked with embarrassment at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No,” she shook her head, “I’m sorry. I thought –. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry. I should learn to make better first impressions. I was running to catch up with you.”

“Why?” she turned fully round.
“Because,” I tried to think of a reason. Eventually, I just said the truth, “Because I wanted to talk to you.”

We continued down the path through the fields, then exited onto a lane that led down to town, where I lived, and where she presumably lived.
Maisie was surprisingly easy to talk to. Her manners were a little funny, but she responded to questions and even asked some about school-related stuff.
I asked her how she was finding the new school. She shrugged and said ‘good.’

“You mean you don’t actually like it.” I remarked.

“No. I’m indifferent.” She said, and we walked on quietly for a while before she explained, “we move around a lot. I’ve been to so many schools that it makes no difference to me anymore.”

“So… why do you move around? Is it because of your parents’ work?”

She completely ignored that question, and said something to change the subject – I can’t remember what. I just remember it took me aback how hastily she changed the subject.

We eventually parted ways at a crossroads. I told her that if she should feel lonely at school, she should feel welcome to approach me. She responded with a quiet smile. It was a sweet, genuine gesture of gratitude, but something about it sent a chill through me. I could see through those eyes of hers that she knew something I didn’t, and that she had been through things I couldn’t fathom. It was a fragile smile, quietly haunting.
I walked home feeling glad that I had broken the ice between us. I felt like I had been a ‘gentleman,’ whatever that meant.

But somehow, something still didn’t feel right.

The first occurrence that struck me as genuinely odd took place later that year. I took a job cleaning the school on Friday after school. It was a warm day in early summer, and I had the task of cleaning the theatre hall. This hall had been built sometime in the fifties, and was rather grand. The seats would be full and lively whenever there were performances. On that day, I thought I was the only one there.

I was carrying the vacuum cleaner to a backstage room, when suddenly the door to that room opened and a girl, white as a sheet, came out. I almost screamed. It was Maisie Heathen. She had been in the room all along. She looked terrified. Like she’d seen a ghost.

“Woah, everything alright?” I said, laughing.

She looked ready to burst into tears, then ran out of the hall, leaving me utterly confused.

Suddenly, I felt afraid to enter the backstage room. What on earth was in there? What had scared her so badly? Against my instincts, I went in. There was nobody there. I checked all potential hiding spaces and turned on every light. Nothing. Perplexed, I got the vacuum on and started cleaning. All the while I was in there, I had this sinking feeling in my stomach – a feeling that something bad would happen any second. That I would see something any second, and then run out of there white as a sheet. But nothing happened. I vacuumed the place and got out of there quickly.

I never raised the topic with Maisie. The year wore on and nothing of that level of weirdness happened.

Many weeks later, something did happen. Not weird. Disturbing.

Believe it or not, Maisie was actually beginning to fit in. She made some friends.
Occasionally, she would engage verbally in lessons. This turned heads, as it was strange to see someone so silent suddenly so vocal. Not that she was particularly vocal – she was still quiet and understated, but it seemed as though some mysterious shadow had shifted away from her.

There was a summer concert in which she played a piano solo in front of the whole school. I applauded heartily.
I gradually came to the conclusion that she had simply had some form of anxiety earlier.

Then, on the last day of term, school finished early. It was a sunny day, and I had been planning on going to the cinema with some friends. It turned out they were all going to a nearby nightclub that evening. I, who hate alcohol and everything to do with it, had no intention of joining them, so I settled on having a quiet evening at home.

But as I set off along the homeward path through the fields, I noticed Maisie Heathen ahead of me – just as it had been the first time we had spoken. But it was high summer now – not autumn – and the day was cloudless, and she was at ease.

“Maisie,” I called as I caught up, “do you have a moment?”

She turned and nodded. We had not spoken in a while.
As we walked, the sound of crickets in the grass filled the air.

“So,” I said, after much anticipation, “do you like films?”

“What?”

“Do you like films?”

“I don’t mind them.”

“Would you like to see one? Tonight? At the cinema?”

She seemed to be considering my offer, because she smiled quietly to herself. Then said yes.
I expressed my gladness, and, when she asked why I was asking her, told her about my friends ditching me for a nightclub. That seemed to amuse her. Then I told her which films were on.

She settled on the horror – which surprised me. Horror? Really? She didn’t seem the type.

“It starts at eleven thirty, though,” I warned her, “are you going to be able to come that late?”

“Sure I can.”

“Then that’s sorted, I suppose. Shall I pick you up?” I offered.

“Please.”

“Where shall I pick you up from?”

“My house.”

“I don’t know where you live.”
On the way home, she told me where she lived. It was close to my own home. I went home and killed time till night fell.

At eleven, I drove my parents’ car to her house. She didn’t own a mobile phone, so I waited outside. All the while I waited, I felt, for no apparent reason whatsoever, a touch of dread. I had the radio on and was sitting comfortably in a car parked in a pleasant suburban neighbourhood. But something outside seemed to be stirring. I kept looking out of the windows, expecting to see – well – not knowing what to expect to see. But there was definitely something about the place that night which was making me uneasy.

I jumped when somebody opened the car door, and climbed in on the seat beside me. It was just Maisie. I hadn’t seen the front door of her house open.

“Where’d you come from?” I asked, “I could swear I never saw the front door open.”

“I came through the back door,” she explained, “It’s quieter, and I don’t want to let my parents know that I’m going out.”

“Oh… right.” I realised I was doing something against her parents’ will. I didn’t want them to worry if they found her gone, and I didn’t want to be the one responsible. But I guess I had no choice. Calling it off was out of the question.

The drive took twenty minutes or so, and aside from ours there were only about five cars in the carpark. This cinema was, bizarrely, a standalone building a few hundred yards off the side of a very long 50mph road. Usually cinemas are in town centres, or part of shopping complexes, but this one was just a large cinema theatre with its own carpark and no other buildings around for some distance. It was quite nice, really – away from everything else. The only noise usually came from the road – but at eleven thirty, long after dark, it lay silent. Beyond the cinema, woods stretched on seemingly endlessly.

We bought tickets and joined about ten other viewers in the theatre. The film itself was about some demonic possession – fairly cliché. But it gave me the cheap thrill I’d paid for, and the audience screamed at least thrice. I would occasionally glance at Maisie. Something about the way she watched the film was strange. Rather than looking excited or bored or afraid (how people usually look when watching horror), she seemed intense and… angry? Maybe not quite angry. It was more a look of hatred – not obvious, but subtle and cold.

I found it disconcerting, but shrugged it off. Then told her I was going for a toilet break. Her expression loosened into a pleasant smile as she nodded.

Alone in the men’s room, I relieved myself at leisure by a urinal. It was perfectly silent and relaxing, until I noticed footsteps moving about in the corridor outside. I assumed somebody was coming to take a leak, but whoever they were didn’t enter. Their footsteps sounded flappy, as if they were barefoot, and there was a lot of time between each step, suggesting that whoever it was had very long steps. Or legs.

I washed my hands and left the toilet. There was nobody out there, strangely enough. Again I shrugged it off and returned to the film.

When it ended, I and Maisie waited until the end of the credits, by which time everybody had left. Then we made our way out to the car.

“Wait, I left my pullover in the cinema,” she remembered just as we reached the car.

“Shall I get it for you? It’s empty in there now.”

“No, I’ll go.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

So I slouched in the driver’s seat and watched her hurry back in search of her pullover. She was pretty brave, going in there alone. The place tended to get a bit spooky at this time. Creepily enough, mine was the only car left. I wondered if there was anyone else at all in the building with her.

Anyway, I flicked the radio on and waited. She was taking a while. I began to get nervous, and turned to open the door. Then I froze. I saw something alarming. In the woods behind the cinema, there was a man standing, facing me. He was far away, but I saw clearly that there was something wrong with him. First of all, he was stark naked. His pale body, wirily lean, was on full display. This began to sound alarm bells. The only rational explanation for his state of undress was that he might be an escaped mental patient. Or perhaps he was a pervert. He could be dangerous, I realised. I got out of the car, and the man disappeared into the trees at once. I was getting increasingly uneasy.

I decided to go find Maisie. A lone eighteen year old girl in an empty building at night just seemed like something bad waiting to happen.

But to my relief she came out right then, wearing the pullover.
We got into the car and shut the doors. I switched the radio on and, when the silence between us lasted too long, asked her what kind of music she liked.

“I don’t listen to music.” She said.
I half expected that answer, and shook my head with a laugh.

“But you play it quite well.”

She shook her head with a smile. I switched the radio off, remembering the man I had seen. I reckoned this would be more a more interesting topic.

I told her what I had seen and began to regret it. She became suddenly on edge, asking me where I had seen him. I pointed at the trees. He was no longer there.

“I need to get home now,” she looked me squarely in the face. “Please.”

“Okay,” I asked no questions.
I started up the car and we drove out of there in haste. We didn’t talk until we had left the cinema far behind.
I stole glances and saw that she was biting her nails. Something was bothering her – something about the man’s description? I had no idea. I just kept driving.

Several minutes later, I stopped midway along a country lane and got out.

“Why?” she asked.

“Just like that. I need some fresh air.”
“Here?” she looked round cautiously. But we were alone.

“It’s nice here,” I explained, “really, you should come out with me. I cycle along here with friends sometimes.”

Doubtfully, she joined me. We leant against the car while looking at the fields which lay as far as the eye could see on one side of the road. On the other side were thick woods. On that quiet warm night, it was nice to stand out and simply gaze at the fields.

In spite of her earlier unease, Maisie seemed to feel more and more comfortable where we were. Perhaps it was the pleasant view before us, or the fresh air, or perhaps it was the excitement of being out at night – whatever it was, something made her forget whatever had frightened her. I told her about how I had once been roughly at this same spot with some friends at sunrise, and how beautiful it had been. Then she opened up and tell me about how she was honestly finding living in this town and going to this school. We laughed a little about the antics of our French teacher, and even discussed poetry we were studying.

Occasionally we would say nothing and simply take in the night air.

During one such silence, I felt a sudden inexplicable pang of dread. Not sure why, I turned to look back at the road. What I saw flooded me first with confusion, then utter disbelief, then relentless creeping fear; the naked man from the cinema – he was there, standing less than a hundred yards away.
How? How was he there already? More chilling was the question of why. What did he want?

When I had first seen him, I hadn’t thought much of him besides that he might be a potentially dangerous pervert. But where he stood in the moonlight, other odd details became clear. He appeared to be very tall – perhaps somewhere between six and seven feet. His body was lean to the point of starvation, but his thighs and shoulders carried disproportionate muscular bulk. There was something disturbing about his face. It looked deformed and blotched – like a plastic clown mask melted to disfigurement. Perhaps it was a mask. I couldn’t tell.

“Uh, I think we should get in the car.” I said.
“Huh? Why?” she turned to me, then she must have seen him too, for she stiffened.
“Hey, come on, get in the car, quick.” I began to breathe heavily. She didn’t seem to hear. She looked as though she were in another dimension. I opened the door and tried to usher her inside – but she was alarmingly firm.

The stalker stood still. The more I watched him, the less I thought of him as a person and the more I thought of him as… something else. There was something disturbing and inhuman about his face. His presence stank of raw, otherworldly menace.

He moved. He began to sprint. Towards us.

Maisie took off. I knew she was fast, but I’d never seen her run like she ran then. It was as though she had been maddened by pure terror and lost control.

“Shoot!” I cried, fumbling with the car door. My hands were sweaty and felt weak, as if enfeebled by fear of the stalker. Looking back, I was shocked by waves of cold panic; he was quick. Demonically quick. There was no way she could escape him on foot, let alone I.

I overtook her in the car and called repeatedly from the window. Hearing me eventually, she got in. Then I put my foot on the gas and drove like there was no tomorrow. I expected to see the stalker in the rear-view mirror. But instead I saw nothing. Empty road. It was as if he had never been there in the first place.

I didn’t dare say a thing throughout the drive home. My thoughts ran wild and my arms shook on the wheel. We reached our hometown in silence, and it wasn’t until I stopped outside her house that she spoke.

“No,” she whispered, “Take me to your house. I don’t want to go home.”

“Sure, sure,” I was baffled, but didn’t want to fluster her by asking why, “not a problem.”

So we drove a few more streets to my house, entered through a back-door, climbed the stairs to my room and closed the door firmly. I drew the curtains and turned on a reading lamp.
“Feel free to take the bed. Don’t worry, I’ll sleep on the armchair.” I smiled, and felt so stupidly false for acting as though nothing had happened. She got under the covers without a word, and hid her face in her hair.
I settled down, still shaking, on my chair.
“Don’t leave.” she said. It was more of a plea, and it made something within me go soft.

“Trust me, I won’t.” I said. That’s the last thing she said before, somehow, falling asleep.

I sat there for hours trying to make sense of what had happened. Something about that strange man had really shaken Maisie up. So much so that she couldn’t sleep in her own home. Why not? Did she think he’d follow her there? I realised that my mother would be most dismayed if she found me with a girl in my room at night. But I was her friend, and hated to see her so afraid. I couldn’t have said no.

She slept a few feet before me, breathing calmly, apparently in peace. But I knew that something was troubling her. I got the terrible feeling that the weird distorted-clown-faced man was somehow connected with her strange behaviour.

‘No, surely not. This was a random, one off incident.’ I told myself.

‘But then why was she so afraid of him? Why did the mere description of a skinny naked man arouse her immediate fear?’

‘Could she know him? How?’

‘Who the heck is he, anyway?’

There were too many questions and my head was too tired to attempt to answer them.

Eventually, from the exhaustion of sitting upright, I began to doze off. I was lulled to sleep by the hum of the night breeze, the quiet whirr of the fridge downstairs, and the soothing sound of footsteps. Bare skin slapping against concrete outside. Slowly. As if whoever was out there, had long legs.

After the incident at the cinema, Maisie more or less stopped talking to me. I didn’t hold it against her. I assumed she just needed time. But weeks passed and she kept silent. During the last week of school, I passed her in a corridor and we made eye contact. She forced a wry, short-lived smile.

“Daniel,” she spoke at last, “I…”

She sighed and hurried away without finishing what she wanted to say.
We finished school without ever speaking again.
On the last day, I slipped my number into her locker, in case she ever wanted to get in touch.

She never did.

The summer holidays dragged by. University began. Years passed. Before I knew it, I didn’t remember much of what had happened. You’d think someone would remember things like that. But no. It was almost as if my brain was deliberately trying to erase the memories.

After what David said at the reunion, things came flooding back. I revisited the archives of my memory, and was frightened by what I found.
I spent the following days strolling round town, thinking nonstop about the whole frightening affair. Trying to understand.

About a week later, I was going for a run in my hometown and crossed paths with someone I hadn’t seen in years. Maisie’s father. He had thinned and lost hair – but I knew him at once. He didn’t notice me until I said hello, and seemed to only vaguely remember me, which was upsetting.
We stood talking about what I had been up to. Uni and stuff. Then there was a silence, and I dared to mention the topic of his daughter’s disappearance.

“Look, Mr Heathen, I heard very recently about… Maisie. I’m devastated.”
He looked up at me through his old-fashioned glasses with a tragic, defeated look in his eyes.

“Young man,” he said softly, “this world has things in store for some people that seem so unjust, so cruel, that they test our faith in the Almighty. But we must keep faith. It’s all I have now. That, and Mrs Heathen.”

I waited for him to carry on. Instead, he tenderly took one of my hands in his. It chilled me how old he seemed for his age.

“What’s troubling you, boy?” he asked, “you seem to have something on your mind.”

“I – I do,” I admitted.

“If you wish, you may tell me. Let us go to the house of God,” I didn’t know what he meant until he gestured to the church, “evil things won’t follow us there.”

Shortly, we were seated beside one another in the old town church. It was always open and always empty. Apart from Sundays when a few regulars would attend.
I described to Maisie’s father how I had often felt concerned about his daughter. I told him a lot. But I didn’t mention the night at the cinema.

He listened intently, sighed, and then spoke.

“Mrs Heathen can’t bring herself to accept it, but deep down, I know that Maisie was afraid of something. I think you will have noticed that she could be withdrawn, sometimes – perhaps a bit unresponsive, as if she were not quite there.”

I nodded.

“Well, she wasn’t always like that.” he reached into his breast pocket and handed me a photo. I knew at once that it was his daughter – only she was several years younger than when I had known her. It was a school photo, and she was smiling. It was a carefree, sincere expression, untouched by any underlying anxiety.

“I’m not sure what it was, but something in her changed when she was thirteen. I think I know when it happened. You see, we lived for a short time in another part of England. In a small rural town up north. There were woods near to the village that had a reputation for being… unwholesome, haunted even. The place had a dark history, according to townsfolk. We were new in town, and had come because of my work. Maisie didn’t fear the superstitions. One night at a sleepover, she and a few friends she had made at the local school thought it would be exciting to go walking through those woods.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Nothing happened.” Then he hesitated, “Not at first. But things began to happen soon after.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I fear that something followed her home that night. Something from those woods latched onto her, and never let go.”

“Something?”

“Something,” he explained, “an evil being. A demon, if you will go that far. Whatever it was, it haunted her, and when we left that town, it followed.”
He paused.

“It was nothing much at first – just nightmares. Then she complained about a presence in the corner of her bedroom. This was, naturally, unsettling. But nothing came of it. We put it down to too many horror films. Then she stopped eating. She struggled sleeping. She demanded that we take down the mirrors in our house. We didn’t know what to think. I got the first feelings that something… unnatural… was happening. But I wasn’t sure. I never once saw anything unusual with my own eyes. But sometimes, I admit I would go into her room at night and feel the hairs stand up on my neck, inexplicably. She would go through phases of being extremely paranoid, then she would have months of going back to normal completely. But whatever it was kept coming back.”

“Mr Heathen,” I said, my voice shaking, to my surprise, “did she ever describe what this thing looked like?”

“Never. Maisie avoided talking about it. I don’t know if it even had a visible form.”
I couldn’t help but think of the man at the cinema – his elongated body, his hideous deformity, his strange aura of threat. I tried to remove the image from my mind.

Her father carried on.

“Before she vanished, Maisie rented a cottage in Scotland, by the sea. She told nobody about this apart from a university professor whom she trusted. It was a strange thing for her to do. Our family has no affiliation with Scotland, nor had she been there before. The cottage was far from any human settlements. It was as if she wanted to escape everything. It didn’t make sense.”

“Then she didn’t return. Police searched the area thoroughly, but there was no trace or clue to be found. No sign of foul play. But they found something.”

“What?”

“Her clothes. They were left in the cottage. The odd thing is that they were not strewn all over the place as you might expect. They had been neatly folded and laid on the bed.”

I had hoped the conversation would help better understand the mystery. But the more Maisie’s father told me, the more mystified I grew.

“What do you make of it all?” I asked.
He replied in a hushed voice.

“I think, young man, that this was something from beyond our world. Grief has toughened me, but it pains me when I say this. I think that something evil lured her to that cottage, cut her off from society, and left her there, vulnerable. Then one day, as she was stranded in that obscure part of the world, it came for her.”

I saw the old man’s eyes watering. He wept at my side for a while. I couldn’t do anything. No word of consolation could have helped.

He dried his eyes and then smiled weakly.

“I’m afraid I can’t talk any longer,” he said, “My wife will be waiting. She’s not well.”
I thanked him and apologised many times. As he turned to leave, I called out to him; I still had his photograph.

“Keep it,” he said.

“What? No. I couldn’t take this.”

“You seem like a good lad.” He said, coming back and putting a hand on my shoulder. “You were kind to my daughter, and behaved like a gentleman. It would make me glad for you to have that photograph.”

“Mr Heathen –”

“Please. It’s nothing. Take care, young man. Never abandon faith in the Lord.” And with that, he turned and was gone.

I was left standing in the church alone. Evening was coming on, and shafts of moody golden sunlight fell through the stained-glass windows onto the pews and carpets. I looked at the photograph in my hand.
“What happened to you, Maisie?” I said aloud, “where did you go?”

For an unnerving moment, I half expected the photograph to answer me. I hurried out of there and ran home.

I don’t think I’ll ever know what happened to Maisie Heathen. As uncomfortable as it makes me, I sometimes believe it really was a demon that was making her life a misery. I can only hope for a more rational, logical explanation.

Until recently, I had a habit of keeping my dorm room door unlocked, believing (ridiculously) that someday she might come looking for me.
I used to sleep with her photograph in a silver frame on the bedside table. It made me feel strangely at ease.

Then one morning I woke up to find that somebody had entered my room overnight and stolen the photo.

What unnerved me is that they took nothing else. Not even the frame.

Credit: Spuk

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The Tale of Moll Dyer

April 26, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The Tale of Moll Dyer
By Christina Durner
After ten years of nightmarish terror, saved only by the conviction of the reality that I witnessed that night, I will vouch for the truth of what really happened to Ruby Trent. For the longest time I held onto the hope that my experience was partly phantasmagoria. Yet, the reality of it is so horrific that I often wish for it to be a figment of my imagination.
Assuming that I was sober and sane, what I witnessed that night was a warning to heed the advice conveyed to us through myth and legend. There is no proof that my story is true. But if you have ever believed in the darkness of the human soul and the existence of otherworldly forces I pray that you will believe my tale and learn from our mistakes.
When I came upon the specter I’d been alone. I could not stop Ruby from tempting the spirit. But maybe you will listen to my counsel. My name is Laura Walker. Perhaps you recall the moniker from last decade’s newspapers and television exposure. The news casts at the time were inundated with the details of my miraculous survival and the grisly death of my late friend Ruby. After all, as a rather famous Baltimorean writer once said “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”
Ruby and I were in the midst of the winter semester of our senior year at Bryn Mawr High School. Ruby was known for her stunning beauty while I, on the other hand, had been more of the bookish persuasion. I relished in the idea of being best friends with the queen bee. One might question how such a kinship came to be. The answer is simple. Both Ruby and I were obsessed with horror. Not the horrors of everyday life of course. We were not obsessed with the horrors of war, famine, and disease. We were not interested in the horror that our beloved city was decaying and crumbling before our very eyes. We delighted in tales of the macabre. Local urban legends held a special place in our hearts and that winter I discovered one of the most captivating urban legends Maryland had to offer.
The first mistake I made was telling Ruby the legend. Long ago in the village of Leonardtown, Maryland lived a woman named Moll Dyer. Accused of witchcraft, Moll fled from her captors on a snowy winter’s night. Taking refuge in the woods she stopped to rest against a large boulder. The next morning Moll was found dead, frozen and fused to the rock. Legend says that anyone who touches the impressions that she left behind on the boulder will be visited by the spirit of Moll Dyer but will never live to tell the tale.
Naturally Ruby was intrigued by such a proposition. We’d visited many local haunts. But Black Aggie’s statue never wrapped its arms around us. There were no cries when we turned off our headlights on Crybaby Bridge. And no caretaker tracked us down with his shot gun and vicious dogs at Hell House. Ruby and I held fast to our hopes of witnessing something paranormal in our lifetime. That is where we made our next mistake and made our pilgrimage to Leonardtown.
Friday evening after school we made our way to Leonardtown. The quaint village was located in St. Mary’s County and was known more for its oyster-shucking competition than its sordid history of witch hunts. But the tale of witchcraft and the curse of Moll Dyer loomed over the ancient Maryland town. The skies were moist and cloudy that evening, and the weather forecast promised a substantial snowstorm later that night.
Piecing together the tales which we’d collected from the internet and supplementing them with the accounts of several local residents, I’d deduced the relative location of Moll Dyer’s rock. I was much less disturbed by the legend of the ghost and more concerned about traveling into an unfamiliar forest with and impending storm. But the allure of the story had been too great for Ruby and she managed to persuade me to accompany her into the woods. That was the most fatal of my mistakes.
Night was swiftly descending upon us as we reached the outskirts of the forest. In the dank twilight we trudged into the darkness of the woods. I shivered fiercely while struggling to find a foothold through the overgrown gnarled tree roots that twisted and protruded through the wasteland as far as the eye could see. Stumbling through a rocky makeshift path in somber solitude, the shade grew denser and the air around us filled with the dismal sense of malice.
The endless woods seemed to swallow us up as my feet groped in vain for purchase of a smooth path. There was none to be found. It was likely that this woodland had remained isolated and unvisited for decades. Then unexpectedly we came upon the boulder, rough with strange indentations that resembled the legendary handprints of Moll Dyer.
At that moment a terrible feeling seeped its way through me like a stain seeps through a piece of cloth. The nightmare was quick to come. Against my advisement, Ruby placed her hand to the impression on the slab. There occurred immediately the most horrific event that I had ever or would ever see. Her cries were shocking. So shocking that for a moment I stood dazed and trembling, cursing myself for the swigs of Mr. Jack Daniel’s liquid courage that we’d snuck in the car before we stepped into this hellhole. Ruby was unable to move her hand. It had become affixed to the massive stone.
I moved toward her as quickly as my feet would carry me under the petrifying circumstances. The closer I came to her the less I became sure of what measures to take in order to help my friend. Standing no more than three feet away from the boulder I beheld in full, formidable vividness, the beginnings of heavy snowfall as lightning struck Ruby dead in an instant. My companion’s charred and blackened remains lay slumped over the rock. The mingled scents of scorched flesh and seared hair assaulted my nostrils. With the putrid stench came the terrifying revelation that I was now alone in the desolate countryside that I was unaccustomed to. With nothing more on my person than a coat that was too thin for the biting cold that enveloped me and a fickle flashlight that only functioned half the time, I frantically searched for a way out.
My youthful foolishness led me to believe that I’d memorized the map that was left behind in Ruby’s car. Even though I had examined the ancient map with the greatest care, I was unprepared for the difficult trip ahead of me. My memory of our expedition was broken; for my mental health was greatly disturbed after witnessing my friend’s demise.
I wandered for what seemed like eons, the snowfall accumulating quickly around me. Soon it became ankle-deep, making it increasingly challenging to travel. I noticed that there were footprints all around me and was convinced that I had been traveling in circles. That is, until I saw a hooded figure hunched over in the distance.
Crying tears of relief I ran as fast as I could toward it. Surely one of the villagers we’d spoken to earlier that evening had come searching for us. As I approached the figure my flashlight faltered and the voice of an old woman beckoned me to follow her to safety. I was apprehensive about following this shrouded stranger. But there were no alternative options at my disposal.
The flashlight flickered but I remained on the heels of the old woman as we made our way through the trees. Desperately I tried to see the face of my savior but all I was able to make out was the ratty gray cloak that encased her. The wind howled and ice crystals stung my face as I straggled along.
Hours passed and my guide remained silent throughout our journey. My gloveless fingers began to tinge with the unmistakable signs of frostbite. Numb feet carried me sluggishly through the twisted maze of petrified timber. I staggered onward, weakening with each cumbersome step. The snow was almost knee-deep and I said a silent prayer that we would come upon sanctuary soon.
Once again I attempted to speak to the old woman, questioning where we were going. She spoke not a word. But the sinister laugh that she unleashed told me everything I needed to know. In my desperation for escape I’d neglected to notice that she was not leading me back to the car. This whole time she’d been leading me further into the woods.
A mixture of rage and horror filled me. My faulty flashlight flickered back on, illuminating the figure that stood before me. With frozen hands I yanked the hood from her head and shined the artificial light upon her face. Nothing could have prepared me for the monstrosity that stared back at me. So hideous was this creature that it is almost indescribable. But I shall do my best to give you an accurate portrayal so that you may know the beast should you happen upon it.
Her eyes were hollow, pitch black, and the recesses that once held eyeballs now writhed with the likes of maggots and worms. The monster’s gray hair was caked with mud and the crumpled remains of dead leaves and decaying tree bark, a stray spider climbing the filthy strands as if it were its web. Thin, cracked lips peeled back over rotted teeth as the hideous creature smiled menacingly at me. But more frightening than anything else I’d seen was its face, for it resembled melted wax that made all of its remaining features indistinguishable.
There was no forehead, no cheeks, no chin. The entity lacked a nose and ears. It was then that I realized that the featureless face was not composed of wax-like skin but rather bluish white icicles that had once been a human face, the face of Moll Dyer.
Transfixed by the repulsiveness that stood before me, I was almost paralyzed. My eyes, refusing to close, were mercifully blurred by the gusting wind and slashing snow. I tried to lift my hands again to shield myself from the sight of her. Yet my nerves had been so stunned by the cold and by the horror in front of me that I could not make them obey. Such efforts disturbed my balance causing me to stagger backwards, falling into a mound of snow.
The world around me spun and fell silent. I could not hear the bending of the trees or the howling of the wind. Only the sound of the witch’s hideous hollow breathing could be heard. I did not shriek for the ability had escaped me. Her figure hovered above me, kneeling down to make eye contact.
Her sour breath skittered across my face as several maggots fell from her eye sockets onto my cheeks. I writhed and twisted to move away from her but my body refused to obey me. The monstrous cackled that she discharged chilled me in a way that the storm could not rival. The last thing I remember before blacking out was her wicked grin and the touch of her frigid bony fingers on my forehead.
The details of my rescue are still rather vague. At some point my parents had phoned the local police station. A search party found me on the brink of death and I awakened the following day in a hospital bed. That trip had cost me a great deal. I lost more than you could ever dream of losing. Three fingers, four toes, my best friend, and for a brief time my sanity. Eventually I came back around and began to speak again. How I survived the curse of Moll Dyer remains a mystery. I still wonder why my life was spared. Perhaps she wanted me to issue a warning to others.
No eye has seen and no hand has touched that wretched rock ever since. That is why I implore you to call off your search for the accursed thing. Perhaps you think me mad or believe that Ruby’s death is a coincidence, a random act of nature. But I beseech you, please, do not search for the witch. I somehow escaped her clutches but you may not be as lucky.

Credit: Christina Durner

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One For The Road

April 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I woke to my friend, Tom, climbing through my window. It was a summer’s night, around 2AM, and the heat had been unbearable for days. For that reason I had left my window open slightly to let what cool air there was filter into my bedroom while I slept. It was a scrambling, panicked noise which brought me to consciousness and immediately I thought someone was breaking into my home. In the darkness I couldn’t tell who it was, but as soon as I heard ‘help me’, I recognised my friend’s voice.

After turning on the light I pulled Tom into the room and sat him down on my old brown armchair, which had seen better days.

‘Close the window!’ he seethed, half shout half whisper, and completely occupied by the nighttime scene outside. ‘Switch the light off’.

‘Why?’, I asked, confused and still half dazed.

‘It might see us’.

That word ‘it’ sat in my mind, distilled and unerring. I would have laughed if Tom hadn’t had such an unsettling look on his face. I’d never known him to be spooked by anything, and to see him so visibly shaken took me by surprise and filled me with trepidation. I switched off the light and my eyes adapted once more to the dark. Tom sat there with his head in his hands, the room lit dimly by the street lights outside filtering through the blinds.

‘What’s going on?’, I said.

‘You won’t believe me’. He looked up at me and, even in the low light, I could see the sweat running down his temple.

‘Tom, whatever it is, it’s okay’.

‘No, you don’t understand’.

‘Try me,’ I said. And with that, he relayed his story in a hushed, wavering voice.

*

Tom had been out that night, no surprise really as he always enjoyed a drink. In fact he enjoyed it too much, and his behaviour of late had been erratic at best, self-destructive at worst. He’d been at the Windarm Lodge, a small old-man’s pub near the town main street. I knew why he’d been there before he even told me. His ex-girlfriend, Shelley, worked there behind the bar. A month earlier she had broken up with him; she just couldn’t take his drinking anymore.

That night, Tom had dragged a mutual friend of ours, Greg, to the lodge, under the guise of ‘a couple of games of pool and just one drink’. Come midnight, as the pub closed, Tom had to be dragged from the bar by the manager and thrown out into the street. He’d been pleading with Shelley to have a drink with him when she finished her shift. When his simple question turned into a bitter demand, he was quickly ejected.

I knew what Tom was like when he had a drink in him, which was one of the reasons I’d refused to go out with him that night. He’d been increasingly argumentative and unpleasant. The break-up with Shelley had made him even worse. We were all trying to help him as best we could. I’m not painting a great picture of him, but when he was sober he was a thoughtful and caring person, and a good friend.

After staggering down a couple of streets and lanes, Tom produced a hip flask filled with whisky which he carried in his pocket, and asked Greg to join him for a few more drinks on the way home. Greg refused, no doubt already having had his fill, and so it wasn’t long before an argument broke out. Greg was just trying to help Tom up the road, but instead received drunken insults; Tom throwing around words he’d regret in the morning. After a few minutes of a verbal bashing, Greg gave up and made his own way home.

Tom staggered along the road and cursed Shelley, Greg, and the rest of the world for refusing to have another drink with him. There was nothing else for it but for Tom to drink alone. As he wandered along an empty street not far from where I live, the rain came on, slight at first then torrential; so heavy was the downpour in fact, that he was forced to take shelter and wait for it to pass.

It just so happened that the street he was on, Serling street, had its fair share of abandoned buildings, having once housed the workers of a now defunct factory. One house in particular had an old porch which encased the front doorway on either side and had a pointed roof, which provided just enough shelter for one drunken twenty-something during a downpour.

Tom climbed a small fence and staggered across the weed filled garden to the front door.I say the front door, but in reality it had long since been broken in, no doubt rotting somewhere inside the house alongside unseen floorboards, roof beams, and memories. No matter how drunk my friend was he had no intention of exploring inside. He just wanted somewhere to stay dry, and the porch would provide enough protection for that. And so he sat on the front step, angry and embittered, the rain for the most part being rebuffed by the porch roof above.

He waited there a while, looking out across the overgrown garden to the street beyond, the rain dancing off the tarmac. It seemed clear to Tom that he was going to be there for a while longer, and so, if all else fails — drink. There he sat taking increasingly longer slugs from the hip flask: it filled with cheap whisky and Tom filled with anger at the world, at Shelley, Greg, and everyone else who ‘didn’t understand’.

Now, Tom had a habit common to heavy drinkers. When he would get to the precipice and intoxicate most of his sober mind, he started to talk to himself; and that night, after the pub and a good portion of the hip flask, he began a conversation. He cursed his friends and family, his situation. He called Shelley a ‘whore’, and, beyond all else, he hated those around him for being so perfect and lecturing him on how to live his life. At least the drink wouldn’t turn its back on him. That was something he always said he could rely on.

The rain hadn’t abated, falling with the same ferocity as it had from the start, Tom’s words swallowed up by the white noise which blanketed everything around him. Finally, after another slug of whisky, he slumped against the cold rotting porch frame, closed his eyes and began to drift off to a drunken sleep. As he did so he mumbled once more about Greg and Shelley’s refusal to join him; that it was ‘just one drink for the road’.

It was then that Tom felt a drip of rain make its way through a crack above onto his forehead, and at the same time the weight of something uncomfortable prodding into his shoulder. As he opened his eyes he felt a warm, humid breeze flutter across his face, arid and stale, far removed from the air around him which pulsated with each sheet of rain.

‘I’ll drink with you’ a gravelled voice breathed into Tom’s ear.

He turned, startled and horrified by those words, only to be confronted by an unnatural, aberrant face which rested its pointed chin on his shoulder, its body poking out from the darkened doorway behind. The face was covered in dirt and grime as if it had spent decades beneath the earth, and had the shrouded appearance of ivory cloth pulled tightly over a withered frame, implying skeletal features beneath and showing every movement of jaw and bone.

There are some sights which will sober even the most inebriated drunk, and this was one of them. Tom dived forward, falling onto a slabbed garden path thinly concealed by weeds and soil. He screamed at the top of his voice, only to be drowned out by the torrential rain, its million voices engulfing his forsaken one. Clawing at the ground he rushed to his feet and leapt over the garden fence into the street. Then, on; on into the rain, into the night, away from that house, from whatever thing had been disturbed there.

Blood coursed through his veins as he fled, and his head began to ache excruciatingly from a potent cocktail of fear and alcohol. Gasping for breath, he stopped for a moment, now far away from the house at the other end of the street. He turned to look back, but it was difficult to see, the rain hurling itself into his eyes with such force that the scenery was blurred and indistinct.

Slowly, he calmed and entered into a sober dialogue with himself about having ‘drank too much’ and ‘just seeing things’. It was then that through the bubbling wall of rain he saw something move. A figure, shrouded in darkness and cloth climbed over the fence in pursuit. Tom wiped his eyes in disbelief as it began to run towards him at speed.

Panic, absolute and controlling. Tom turned, screaming, no one able to hear his pleas for help. He kept running. He left Serling street behind, and yet at every turn the shrouded thing from the house followed. Finally, he made it to the street where I live, and clambered through the window hoping to be saved.

**

I stood there in silence. He seemed so upset, so certain, that he even had me believing his story for a moment. But then what I saw as the truth presented itself.

‘Tom’, I said gently. ‘You’re bone dry’.

‘What? No, I’m…’, he stopped as he ran his hands over his clothes and then his hair.

‘There hasn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, and tonight has been just as still as the others’.

‘But…’ He hesitated for moment, shaking his head and rubbing his mouth with his hand. ‘No, I’m telling you. This happened. That thing is real’.

‘Tom, you’ve been drinking too much, and you probably fell asleep, and in a daze you made it here’. I placed my hand on his shoulder to reassure him. ‘Please, let’s get you home. Give me a minute to change my clothes and I’ll walk you there’.

As I moved across the room Tom pulled out his whisky flask and took a big slug. ‘Maybe you’re right. Just need to sleep it off’.

I turned to put the light on, but before I had a chance to, Tom let out an almighty scream. I have genuinely never heard anything like it. Utter fear, complete and distraught. He leapt to his feet, opened my window in hysteria, and then fled into the night.

***

Two months passed, and myself, Greg, Shelley, and our other friends who cared about Tom were unable to contact him. Indeed, the only reason I knew he was alive, and not drowned in a river somewhere, was because his brother assured me he had spoken to him.

Finally, one day, Tom appeared at my front door looking in as good a shape as I had seen him in a long time. He claimed that he had in fact went through an alcohol rehabilitation program which, while he still struggled with an urge to drink, had kept him sober for several weeks. He said that the tipping point, his lowest ebb, had been that night, when he hallucinated that thing into being on Serling street. Indeed, he said that for weeks whenever he had a drink near him, the figure would appear from the darkness; following, chasing, never relenting. In the end, more than anything else, it was the fear of a mental illness taking hold and seeing that hallucination again which made him stop drinking.

I was, and am, so happy for Tom, and would hate to do anything to change his interpretation of the events. Doing so could perhaps undo his rehabilitation. I’m sure he’s right, about the whole thing being an hallucination. That seems like the reasonable and obvious conclusion to have. But I often lie in bed kept awake by an uneasy memory, unsure whether to trust my own senses. For when Tom jumped back out of the window into the night, I saw something follow him from the corner of the room.

Credit: Michael Whitehouse

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