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Funland

February 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts during the 90s. It was a great time and place to be a kid. Our Main Street was chock-full of kid-friendly activities. There was an enormous outside go-kart track with a huge arcade full of the best games from the 80s and 90s. I remember spending hours playing the alligator version of whack-a-mole. Then, just down the street, was Tune Town. It wasn’t anything special, just a typical 90s music store, but they had a cute little dog with a bandanna who was in all of their T.V commercials. Though I’ve long forgotten the little guy’s name, he was really cute and whenever I’d go in to buy a new cassette tape, he’d be there to greet me at the door.
Out of all the places I went to as a kid, Funland was by far the greatest. It had its own go-kart track, a small one for little kids and a larger one for bigger kids. It wasn’t as big or fancy as the one down the street, but it was still fun. There were batting cages too, lots of them. It even had a small arcade, mostly filled with Pinball machines, Pac-Man and the always popular Simpsons Arcade Game. But the best thing about Funland was the mini-golf course. It was the only one in the area at the time, and in the eyes of a ten-year-old kid, the place was HUGE. The iconic spaceship with the Funland logo sat in the center of the park. You could see it from the street, along with the giant giraffe statue which stared out into the parking lot, smiling down at you as you entered. There were other memorable statues too, including a pink elephant and a large dollhouse that sat in the back corner. But the greatest part of the entire park was the 18th hole. On the outside, it just looked like a ordinary outhouse. If you got a hole-in-one, not only did you get a free game, but the outhouse door would swing open and you could hear the sound of a toilet flushing, along with the hiss of the hydraulics that moved the animatronic inside. It was a funny looking humanoid dog wearing overalls, with one strap hanging down off his shoulder as if he’d just pulled them up. His eyes would blink, his jaw would move and his arm would rise as he pointed at you, scolding you for disturbing him, “Hey! Whadda think you’re doin’? Get outta here!” he’d yell, in a goofy attempt at a Southern accent. Then the door would close and you and your friends would have a good laugh before you left. Every time I went there, I couldn’t wait to see that dog.
Like all things from childhood, the fun of Main Street slowly faded away. I think the go-kart track and arcade were the first to go, sitting abandoned for years before being turned into a Day Care Center. They still kept the track, having only gutted and rebuilt the arcade to serve their needs, so it just sat there in the back with one or two remaining go-karts frozen in time. Then Tune Town went out of business, unable to keep up with bigger music chains like Newberry Comics and F.Y.E. I imagine that cute little dog has to be dead by now. Last to go, of course, was Funland. It was painful to see it start to rot and decay in its last few years of life. The paint on the animal statues faded, the eyes of the giraffe looking sadly out into the emptying parking lot as less and less visitors came to see it.

When the park officially closed, I was heartbroken. By that time, I was in high school and it had been a long time since I visited the park. I used to drive by on my way to work, watching it slowly deteriorating away. The elephant eventually tipped over onto its side, the chain around its huge stump of a foot that had been keeping it latched the ground was now visible and exposed. The doors and windows of the dollhouse were broken and shattered as if it were a real abandoned house. The outhouse door remained closed, the wood cracking with age. I could only imagine what the poor animatronic dog inside looked like.
Eventually, nature reclaimed the once thriving park and I could no longer see into it. All that remained visible was the head of the giraffe, peeking over the rusted fence. Curiosity got the best of me, so I gathered my two friends Kevin and Zack one night and we decided to break in and check it out. As we walked up to the surrounding gate, I looked up at the giraffe. It was the first time I noticed just how creepy it looked. Its yellow coat of paint had almost completely faded, leaving only its brown spots and huge, almond shaped black eyes. Continuing on, we snuck into the back of the park near the batting cages. Zack brought a pair of garden shears and cut the fence open, just enough for us to squeeze through. As I entered the park for the first time in what must have been over decade, I looked around in complete awe. Everything was just how I remembered it. The go-karts were still on the tracks, the batting cages still had balls in them…but the arcade was all boarded up, and the mini-golf course was covered with trees and was damp with overflow from the nearby swamp. I sighed, saddened by the sight of what was once a happy and magical place from my childhood. The feeling the old abandoned park gave off at night sent a shiver down my spine. I never really noticed how creepy it was until then.
We went through the course in order, starting at the 1st hole. There was nothing special, just the usual challenging mounds of fake grass, now moist with rain; the swamp hadn’t reached that far yet. As we continued, we walked past the pink elephant, now a shade of ghostly white. He lay on his side, eyes staring vacantly out into the park, as if he had just expired. I ran my fingers over his massive head before moving on. The dollhouse was the next memorable thing we came across. It looked like a miniature haunted house. I half expected the broken doors and windows to be boarded up like the arcade was. But you could still see inside, the little pieces of furniture were all toppled over and spilled out on the ground. This is the part of the park where the swamp had touched. The smell wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be; the town was covered with swamps as it was. We couldn’t reach the entire back section, unless we wanted to wade through the disgusting water. Our only choice was to head straight to the 18th hole.
Finally, the part of the park I wanted to see the most. More than anything, I wanted to see that dog again. It was half nostalgia and half an excited sort of fear of what it would look like. Was it even still there? Was it in good condition, preserved by the outhouse? Or was it like everything else in the park, sad and neglected after all this time? I couldn’t wait to find out.
“Did you bring it?” I asked Kevin.
He nodded and handed me one of his dad’s golf balls. I held it in my hand, sighing deeply as I ran my thumb over the grooves. I had stepped up to the outhouse and peered underneath where I knew the hole would be, when there was a sudden flash of light, temporarily blinding me.
“What the fuck, Zack?” I complained, blinking away the white-yellow spots in my eyes.
“I was just trying to help,” he replied, moodily. “Let’s just hurry up and get out of here.”
“Yeah,” added Kevin, “This place is giving me the creeps.”
“Not until I see him,” I snapped.
I’m sure I must have sounded crazy. I was talking about the dog as if it were a person. To me, he was more than just some sideshow attraction to be gawked at, he was a part of my childhood. It was like I was about to meet an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in ages.
My friends didn’t reply. Zack simply kept his flashlight pointed beneath the outhouse and Kevin sighed in annoyance, tapping his foot impatiently. But now we could all see it: the hole; the white tube in the ground that brought the golf balls back into the little hut at the entrance that once contained all of the golf balls and clubs. It was barely visible over the mound created by the fake turf, but it was still there and I had a clear shot. I placed the ball on the ground and, aiming carefully, rolled it towards the hole. We could hear the ball enter the pipe, the sound of it swirling down into the ground echoing in the silent park. Zack and I stepped back beside Kevin, the light now shining on the outhouse itself. I clenched my fist in anticipation, wishing with all my heart that it would somehow still work, that the door would open and the dog would still be there.
It was a stupid wish.
We all jumped at the sudden sound of the once familiar flushing noise, now slightly distorted. Then the doors began to open and the loud hiss of the hydraulics resonated through the night. We stood there breathless and silent. It worked! We actually made it work! After all these years, I’d finally get to see him again. I was so happy that I could feel the sides of my mouth curl up into a magnificent smile, as if I were a child opening a present. …But the present wasn’t what I had been expecting at all. There he stood, my once familiar friend, my reward for getting my hole-in-one…but I could hardly recognize him. The fur that covered his metal frame was matted and wet, and his overalls hung loose around him, like it would if someone had lost a great deal of weight. My breath caught in my throat, which was now suddenly dry. I swallowed softly, eyes widening as they traveled up to the dog’s face. It was a horrible, hideous sight. The fake fur on half of his head had torn away, exposing the wires and joint mechanism in his mechanical jaw. I never remembered him having teeth. On the same side, his plastic eye had sprung from its socket and now remained dangling by his torn cheek. Then he blinked, the mechanism on the broken eye shuddering around the exposed wire, releasing small sparks. More sparks flew as his arm shot up with a clang and the hinge of his jaw creaked as his mouth flopped open. He spoke…
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The funny Southern drawl of his voice was completely gone, replaced by something raspy and angry, and although I could hear the chilling distortion in his voice box, he sounded more human than I ever remembered.
Kevin ran. He didn’t even look back. Zack dropped his phone and slowly backed away, screaming as he stared into the dog’s one good eye, which seemed to turn on him at the disturbance. Then somehow the dog moved forward. He wasn’t programmed to walk. As far as I knew, the hydraulics attached to his back only sat him up. He wasn’t supposed to walk, but by God, I saw that once funny animatronic dog from my childhood step out of that old, withered outhouse towards us. I stood there, frozen in fear, staring at it.
“F-Fuck this!” I heard Zack utter before her too left me.
Now I was alone. With “him”.
I had spent so many years thinking about this very moment. I spent countless hours thinking about this dog and wanting to see him one last time. But I knew then I should never have stepped foot into that old park. My childhood was dead, as broken as the wires and metal rods that barely held the dog together.
He seemed to watch Zack go, his good eye turning with a cracking sound as he watched him disappear into the darkness. Then it turned on me.
“Get. Out,” he commanded, his arm still pointing, now in the direction of the parking lot, where the headlights of Zack’s car had just turned on.
I didn’t move. I could only stare. Was this some sick nightmare? Some bizarre fantasy my brain thought up to get my mind off a time I could no longer return to?
The…the THING stepped closer, its disfigured face near inches from my own. The smell of wet dog seemed to invade my nostrils.
“GET OUT OF HERE!” it boomed, the voice box short circuiting as if it had exploded before slowly fading out. It sounded like multiple voices had spoken, all deep and aggressive, almost demonic.
This time, I listened and ran as fast as I could through the park, which was dimly lit by the headlights of the car. My eyes darted around, the once familiar area now seemed foreign and strange. I couldn’t tell where I was going. I heard the sound of children laughing, the trumpeting call of an elephant…and the clanging and grinding of metal gears.
When I finally reached the fence, I tried sliding through the hole we came through, but I got stuck on something. I looked down to see if my jacket was caught, but it wasn’t. Then I looked back. Staring right into my eyes was one white plastic eyeball with a painted on black pupil. My eyes widened, staring back into that black spot as if it were a hole, ready to swallow me alive. Then I discovered the reason I was stuck…the hand of the animatronic dog was gripping the back of my shirt. I KNOW that hand was supposed to be stuck in a pointing position; it didn’t have any mechanical function to actually open and close. But then again, the dog wasn’t supposed to be walking anyway.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” I heard it whisper, sending a chill up my spine.
Then it released me with a shove and I fell through the opening in the fence. Scrambling to my feet, I ran to Zack’s car, not once looking back as he sped off down Main Street.

It’s been five years since that night. I don’t talk to Kevin and Zack much anymore and we have never once spoken of the incident, not even on the car ride home. I never drove down that stretch of Main Street, either…until today.
It was late and the road I usually take had a detour which led me right to it. What harm would driving by do?
I should have known better…
I tried not to look. I really did. But I just couldn’t help sneaking a peek. I couldn’t see much through all the rain, but I noticed the large ‘For Lease’ sign that now hung on the fence. The giraffe was gone or perhaps it had fallen over and was hidden under the thick brush. With a sigh, I continued on, trying to push the memories of that night out of my mind.
My windshield began to fog up from the indecisive New England weather, so I put my defroster on. Then I noticed something… Instead of clearing from the bottom up like it normally would, my windshield began to clear in patterns. It had formed words. I stared at them, hoping with all hope that it was just a fluke or a fragment of my imagination. But the message was clear.
“DON’T COME BACK.”

When the police asked what caused me to crash into the pole just outside the abandoned park, all I could do was wrap the blanket they gave me tightly around myself as I stared back towards the bushes and trees that concealed the location of the 18th hole. “…Dog,” was all I could tell them, “It was that dog…”

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Empty House

January 17, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Bored teenagers pick the worst places to hang out. Of course, this was the east end of Long Island where all the teenagers are bored. There’s nothing to do during the day if you’re not into sun and surf, and even less in the evenings. Summers are full of tourists, traffic and night clubs; convertibles still running outside of stores. The rest of the year, it’s quiet. And in the winter… desolate.

I was out with a group of friends that night. Well, they weren’t really my friends, but we hung out. They’d always drag me somewhere creepy in the dark to get high. Usually it was some place in the woods where I can’t see my hand in front of my face. One time it was an old betting track that had been condemned. Then there’s the obvious one: a cemetery. Nothing says ‘buzz kill’ like being surrounded by dead people. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was better than staying home alone.

By far the worst place they took me was the site of ‘The Montauk Project’, an abandoned military base where people claim they did experiments with time travel and mind control. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the guy who took us there, Mike, told all these bullshit stories about feral people living in the tunnels. We even went up to the roof of a ten or so story building that was rusted and decaying inside. Not only am I afraid of heights, but the roof was sloped on all sides which made me feel like I was falling off.

“This is kinda creepy. Where are we going?” I asked, hoping it would be tame in comparison.

“We’re going to an abandoned house,” said Mike, much to my dismay. People had often tried getting me to go to abandoned houses, but I always refused. At least those other houses were near a main road, but wherever we were going was far off the beaten path. We had been driving for a while in the pitch black, down some road that felt endless. I couldn’t see in front of us either, since the car we were following was blocking the view, and Mike was driving pretty close.

“It’s not really abandoned,” said Jeff, from up in the passenger seat, “It’s just empty. It was built recently but I guess they haven’t finished some stuff, like the wiring and the locks.”

I wondered why anyone would build a new home in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing but trees lining the road we’d been on, and it was a long road. I was relieved to hear that the house was new, since abandoned houses are usually decrepit and falling apart. They remind me of places you should never go; places where horrible things lurk in the corners and under creaky floor boards. And let’s not forget splintery wood and nails jutting out in all directions, just waiting to pierce drunken teens in the darkness.

In the back seat with me were two alternative-hippy girls. I think it was the first time I’d met them, but I’m not sure. Some people are memorable, while others are just people. Mike and Jeff were probably trying to hook up with them, but I doubted they’d succeed.

“Oh my god, this is gonna be so cool!” one of the girls proclaimed, while the other giggled. Cool, huh? I wasn’t convinced. I suppose when you’re an outgoing person in a place with little excitement, you have to travel to empty houses in the middle of nowhere to get your kicks. As for me, outgoing wasn’t my thing.

When we finally pulled up to the house, the first thing I noticed was the uneven ground all around it. Nothing says ‘unfinished home’ like piles of dirt, unfilled holes, and a view of the foundation. At least the architecture was nice and simple. It was basically like a quasi-modernist rectangle with a lot of tall windows. I was always jealous of my friends who had modern homes. My parents had to be different and go with country charm. Once both drivers shut off their headlights, all I saw was black. We filed out of the cars, and a couple people with flashlights led the way up to the house.

“Ow, shit!” someone shouted. It was Melanie, the one girl that I had actually talked to a little before. She must have rode in the other car because she used to go out with Mike, and now things were a little uncomfortable between them. I didn’t really know the guys in the other car, but at least I knew Mike and Jeff, and I guess Melanie. “Watch out for these holes, guys. I just stepped in one and flippin’ almost broke my foot.”

The girls guided Melanie the rest of the way up to the sliding glass door, where Mike opened it, and in we went. Inside it was your typical, upper middle class Long Island home. The walls were blank white, devoid of any fancy trim, with that shiny wood flooring that doesn’t quite look real. There was a kitchen to the left, and a huge room to the right with a two-story ceiling. The front wall consisted mostly of large, paneless windows, while the back wall was solid and bare. Stairs led up to a second story, complete with an indoor balcony.

In the far corner of the room was the only furniture; a ratty couch and broken armchair that both looked like they came from a junkyard. They sat in front of a fireplace, with small stacks of paper strewn around them. By the looks of it, someone had been squatting there. I assumed it was Mike and his friends.

“Why is there furniture here?” I asked Mike.

“I don’t know. It was here when we found the place. The rest of the house is totally empty. Those papers weren’t here before, though.”

“That’s so weird,” was my typical response to unusual things. The last thing I wanted to find at that house was something unusual. Without the flashlights it was too dark to see, and I hate being in unfamiliar places in the dark. At least our voices echoing through the house gave me a little bit of comfort. It felt like everyone was close by at all times.

One of the guys I didn’t know called us into the kitchen to smoke weed. We were using a really short pipe, and I ended up burning my nose with the lighter. We all burst into hysterics, which lifted the little bit of tension I was feeling. I always seemed to do something funny by mistake when hanging out in a group. Perhaps that’s why this particular gang of misfits liked having me around.

After we lit up, a few of the girls started exploring the house. Intimidated by the darkness, I decided to hang out by the fireplace where Jeff was making a fire. Not having a flashlight made me nervous, and the light from the fire was a fair substitute. I sat in the cruddy armchair, sipping a beer, as Jeff was checking out the papers.

“What is all this stuff?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Some kind of medical stuff. Look,” he replied, handing me a few sheets. They looked like pages torn from medical journals; diagrams of human anatomy and such. Maybe they were photocopies, but in the dim light of the fire it was hard to tell. It was odd that someone would bring so many random papers to an empty house in the middle of nowhere, especially if it was a squatter.

“I figured these would be someone writing a book or something,” I said.

“That’s what I thought. Maybe someone came here to study.”

“This is a really weird place to study. And then to just leave it all here?”

“Creepy, huh?”

“Kinda,” I replied sarcastically.

By this point I was getting pretty bored. Sitting on trashy furniture, surrounded by stacks of mysterious papers, in a dark house, with people I didn’t know that well. I’ve only mentioned Mike and Jeff by name because I can’t remember anyone else’s, except for Melanie. She was as creeped out by the Montauk Project as I was, so we bonded a little. I could hear her voice from the second floor as she and the other girls were getting excited about something. They hurried down the stairs, with Melanie waving a jumbo-sized sheet of paper.

“Guys, check this out! It’s so freaky!” she elated, holding up some sort of crude drawing. It was the outline of a child in black marker. I recalled making those drawings in elementary school. A kid would lay down, and another would trace their body with magic marker or crayon. Only in this case, the hands had been colored in red.

Jeff was the first to say, “What the fuck?”, but we were both thinking it. The mysterious papers were bad enough, but now a mysterious drawing? For a moment I wondered if some of the guys were playing a practical joke.

“It was in one of the rooms upstairs,” said Melanie, “All the rooms were completely empty except for this.” She, along with her two friends, seemed playfully frightened. The kind of frightened you would expect from someone watching a scary movie they know isn’t real. Regardless of the odd nature of the drawing, it was the only interesting thing that had happened since we got there.

“The weirdest part is the hands being red,” I said, “It’s so weird.”

“Right?” Jeff concurred.

“I wanna take it home!” Melanie squealed.

“Why?” I asked, “It’s fucking scary. Why is it even here?” We had fun coming up with explanations, which helped me forget how disturbing it was. Maybe some kids were hanging out in the house and made it. But we couldn’t figure out why they would have brought a huge piece of paper. Then we thought it could have been made in school, and someone brought it to the house. Still, none of our theories could eliminate its somewhat sinister presence.

Mike and the others came over to see what we were doing. Soon we were all discussing the fate of the drawing. Melanie seemed to like it, but the rest of us were more superstitious. Our excuses for its existence started getting silly, as you might expect from a group of inebriated teenagers.

“What if it was made by a ghost? We shouldn’t touch it!”

“Maybe there’s a ghost of a little kid living here, and that’s why no one’s moved in yet!”

“Someone probably cut off his hands and that’s why they’re red!”

Once we ran through every ghost story cliche we could think of, we came to the consensus that the drawing would stay. Melanie laid it on the armchair to make it look like it was sitting. The other girls were going up to the roof, and Melanie asked me to come.

“I’m afraid of heights, remember?” I was hoping that would be enough to make her leave me alone. Last time we went up on a roof I swore I would never do it again.

“Oh, come on. You’ve just been sitting in here the whole time. Besides, the roof is really cool. You can’t fall off unless you try.”

I gave in and followed her up to the second floor. We squeezed through an open window onto the roof where the other girls were smoking a bowl. The middle was flat, surrounded on all sides by upward slants. My fear didn’t come into play, which was a pleasant surprise. It was probably the coolest ‘hang out’ roof I’d seen. While the girls and I laughed over nonsense, Melanie walked up one of the slants to a peak so she could look down.

“Melanie, don’t fall!” the girls said, almost in unison.

“Oh shut up. I’m not gonna fall,” Melanie grumbled, shining her flashlight around. For a minute she was silent, then asked, “Can someone come here for a sec?” One of the girls went up to join her, and Melanie pointed to an area in front of the house. “Isn’t that where we parked?”

The five of us went downstairs, and Melanie approached Mike and his friends.

“Did you guys move the cars? I didn’t see them from the roof.”

Mike replied with a confused, drawn out, “Nooo?” as he turned to look out the windows. He tried shining a flashlight but it reflected off the glass. They all went outside and immediately started swearing. The cars weren’t in front of the house. After circling the entire perimeter, it was confirmed they were gone.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Mike yelled, his voice disappearing into the sky. I started to wonder again if some kind of joke was being played. Maybe one of the guys moved the cars down the road and then walked back, just to freak everyone out. No one heard them start up, though.

“Okay, who moved the cars?” the other driver asked. I hadn’t had much contact with him, and he seemed a little high strung, so I was slightly freaked out by the possibility that he might be aggressive.

“I didn’t. Did you?” Mike said, looking at Jeff.

“No, dude. I wouldn’t move your car, let alone both of them.”

“Seriously, guys. This isn’t cute,” the guy said, “I want to know if someone stole my fucking car, or if you guys are playing a fucking joke.” I could tell this guy wasn’t going to put up with any shenanigans. Mike and Jeff were a little caught off guard that they were being accused. Someone suggested to do a pocket check, and it turned out they still had the keys to both vehicles.

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Jeff, as we all started murmuring. This time it wasn’t any fun trying to figure out the mystery. How did two cars just disappear? The girls were crying now. Well, not Melanie. The guys were cursing up a storm, especially the driver of the second car. I’ve decided to dub him ‘angry guy’. Not that his anger wasn’t justified, it was just his most prominent trait. I had nothing to contribute to the situation, so I just waited for everyone to figure out what we were going to do. The only thing that mattered to me was getting home sometime in the next century. It took a while to face reality, as unbelievable as it was, and we eventually started walking home.

Everyone was silent. The only sound came from our footsteps and the twitter of crickets. There was just enough moonlight to see the barren trees arching over the road. It was going to take a few hours to get anywhere that had streetlights, and we were all exhausted. ‘Angry guy’ was walking ahead. No one wanted to be near him, afraid he would blow up again once everyone was getting cranky from walking so far. Not that we could blame him.

“Hey, can we stop for a minute?” asked one of the girls. We collectively agreed it was a good idea, even though we had only been walking for about twenty minutes. There was a sense of denial that we were still so far from home. Jeff packed a bowl and we passed it around.

As everyone waited for their turn in the cipher, we talked about what to do when we got home. Jeff suggested going to the police, as if that wasn’t obvious. Mike started spewing some crap about how he knew people who could track down the cars, like they were the A-Team or something. ‘Angry guy’ didn’t say anything. I just wanted to go home.

“Did everyone get a hit?” Jeff asked, making sure no one got shafted. As everyone looked at each other and nodded, the girls noticed something.

“Hey, where’s Melanie?” Suddenly, everyone realized that she wasn’t there. The flashlight holders scanned the area but there was only trees and dirt road. We each called her name several times, but it just echoed into the night air.

“This isn’t funny, guys. Where’s Melanie?” We spread out a little, continuing to call her name. If she was playing a joke on us, it was in enormously poor taste. Everyone was frustrated and bewildered by the vanishing cars, and this wasn’t helping.

“Fuck!” Mike shouted, “Where the fuck is she? We can’t keep going if we don’t know where she is.”

“Dude, let’s just leave her,” one guy joked.

“Are you stupid?!” shouted one of the girls, “She’s our friend! We’re not just leaving her in the middle of nowhere!”

“Maybe she went back to the house,” I suggested. Everyone stopped talking for a moment, contemplating the possibility that she did indeed go back. I wasn’t really serious, though. What idiot would go back to the house without telling us? And why? After more grumbling, cursing and arguing, we decided that a few of us would go back to the house while the others waited in case Melanie really was messing with us. If she was, then she just lost some friends. I volunteered to go, since waiting for an unknown length of time seemed worse in that moment.

On the way back to the house, the two girls, Mike, and myself, discussed the whole situation. We had come to an empty house in the middle of nowhere to party, only for our transportation to vanish, and we couldn’t explain it. Mike came up with this theory that the cars disappearing was some sick joke, and that Melanie was in on it. He implied that she got some guys who could hot-wire cars to drive them away so we would have to walk home. Then she ran back towards the house and they picked her up. The girls seemed offended but they were tired of defending her, so they just shrugged it off.

As we finally arrived back at the house, my stomach dropped upon seeing it again. I cursed myself for volunteering to come back. I guess I wanted to know sooner than later if Melanie was okay. Approaching the sliding glass door, we were surprised to see it was open.

“Did we leave the door open?” asked Mike.

“I’m almost positive someone closed it,” I replied. If there was any reason for it being open, it had to be that Melanie went back inside. As we entered the main room, the house felt emptier than before. I noticed that a lot of the medical papers were in the fireplace, and the contour drawing of the child with red hands was gone. We searched the kitchen while calling for Melanie. It was clear she wasn’t on the first floor, so we headed upstairs.

“I’m going to be pissed if she’s not here,” said Mike, “because then we came back for nothing.” The girls just ignored him and went to search the rooms, while I split off to go check the roof. The window was still open, and I squeezed through. If I expected her to be anywhere, it was here.

The roof was empty and silent, with a gentle breeze blowing. I could almost see over the treetops, which made me feel stronger than my fear of dark forests. For a moment I forgot that we were looking for Melanie, until I heard the girls panicking inside. I quickly squeezed back through the window and ran to see what was up. Mike and the girls were looking at something in one of the empty rooms.

“What happened?” I asked. Mike shone the flashlight at a spot on the floor. Reluctantly, I approached and looked down, as the girls gripped each other, sobbing. There were two jumbo-sized sheets of paper, taped together to make one larger sheet. Drawn in marker was the outline of a girl, with only the hands colored in red.

Credit: Umbrello

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The Price is Right

December 30, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The Careys had spent months searching for an apartment in the city. After sleeping on friends’ floors from July through the beginning of September, they were ready to have a home of their own. Their friends had been more than welcoming, but the search was growing tiresome.
“Hon…” said Owen from the couch one night as he scrolled through the online listings once more, “Hon, there’s one in Lakevi-…oh wait, nevermind.” The white glow of the screen lit up his glasses as he sat in the near darkness of another friend’s apartment.
“Owen, let’s go to bed,” said Mal from the doorway. She looked endearingly at her husband and sighed with a sympathetic smile. “Come on, you’ve been looking for hours.”
She crossed the wooden floor to sit on the couch by him. The old boards creaked beneath her bare feet. Mal put her chin on Owen’s shoulder but his eyes remained on the screen.
“Just one more…” he muttered, half to her and half to himself. “Mal, what do you think of this one in Wicker? It looks really good on here, but…” His voice trailed off as he scanned the glowing page. His eyes were sore. “But the price—that can’t be right?” His thick brows elevated.
“That looks nice, Owe. Come, let’s go to bed.” She reached across his lap and slowly pulled the top of the screen closed.
“Alright,” said Owen. “That last one looked really good. Let’s check it out tomorrow.”
“Oh, I have that thing with Beth tomorrow, but you go! Go look at it for us.” Then, almost to herself she added, “hope I don’t have that dream again tonight.” They rose to walk to the guest room. Owen rubbed his tight neck; he didn’t realize he had been hunched over so long.

Owen and Mal had moved to Chicago four months after they were married. Both were from Arizona, he from Flagstaff and she from Phoenix. Their wedding was beautiful and lush. They were beautiful. They had moved to Chicago so his web design business could finally get off the ground, and she could connect with the fitness community in Chicago.
Malorie was a marathoner. She was the fastest female at Phoenix U, but nowadays it was a hobby. For a brief time before meeting Owen, she had tried to launch her own line of snacks for runners that replaced electrolytes and boosted energy called Malorie’s Calories.
When the idea failed, she went by Mal.

The next day Owen and his friend David drove to Wicker Park to look at the house. It was situated just several blocks north of Six Points, Wicker’s central hub, in a beautiful lane lined with green trees and brick sidewalks. Every house appeared to have been designed by a different architect, providing an eclectic appearance of a giant mosaic. The house was on the center of the block, edged on one side by a very postmodern glass house, and a tall brown brick home on the other.
The house itself was nice enough. It boasted no spectacular features compared to the rest on the block, but it was beautiful in its own humble respect. Whitewashed wood paneling fronted it, with green trim and a red brick base.
“Wow,” said Owen, looking over the building the way a child stands before a bakery window with his finger on his lip. “I seriously can’t figure out why the price is so low.”
Dave had accompanied Owen on a number of house hunts since he had arrived in the city. “Let’s look at the inside,” he sighed. “Maybe that’ll explain it.”
They ascended the steps and knocked on the green door. Getting a closer view of the house only made it more appealing to Owen. A relatively well-kept garden sat just below the front windows on either side of the front porch where a smattering of colorful flowers were in full late-summer bloom.
The door opened and a woman in her northern 60’s appeared behind it. She smiled gently as her bright green eyes smiled up at the men.
“You must be Owen,” she said, extending a small shriveled hand. Her skin was soft and cool, and when she smiled, her lips dug deep into her cheeks. She told them her name was Ava.
“Please, come in,” she said, stepping back from the door and opening it wider.
“Oh, thank you,” said Owen.
“Can I get you anything?” she tossed over her shoulder as she walked back toward the kitchen.
“Uhm. No ma’am, we’re fine,” he called back as they entered, scanning the interior of the house. It was small enough to be cozy and large enough to host get-togethers. Dave and Owen both took turns throwing out courteous questions to show their interest, but Owen had made up his mind. The worn white walls and hardwood flooring added character, and the location was ideal.
“It’s all so great,” said Owen after Ava had shown them throughout the entire building, “but if I may ask, is there a reason the price is so low? I mean…”
Ava looked at the ground and for a moment, her warm demeanor dropped. Half a second later, she looked back up and smiled wearily. Her eyes suddenly seemed like they were a foot inside her head as she spoke through the forced grin.
“No reason,” she nearly whispered, pushing her well-worn dimples back into her cheeks. And after a moment, “I’m just ready to move on, get somewhere quieter. Out of the city.” She turned and walked back to the kitchen. “Please, look around all you want, gentlemen,” she called back through the door.

The next day, Owen parked the car in the nearest spot he could find, two blocks away, and he and Mal walked to the house. He hopped alongside her, still reeling with disbelief that he had finally found their home. They were three houses away when Mal’s pace slowed.
When Owen looked at her, her eyes were wide and her feet were dragging.
“Mal?” he said, “Everything alright?”
She paused for a moment. “Owe, this may sound crazy, but you have to believe me.”
He nodded, encouraging her to go on, thoroughly confused.
“You know that dream I’ve been telling you about? The one I have every couple nights?”
“Yah.” He wished he had listened better when she had described it.
“I think this is the street from my dream. I know it sounds crazy, Owe, but I’ve seen this street before. Exactly like this, as it is today. Sometimes it’s night, but also like this.”
Owen was nodding sympathetically.
“And, I always walk up to that house over there.”
Owen froze.
She was pointing to the house. Their house.
“What happens then?” he asked.
“Well, I knock on the door, and then wait. Right when the door begins to open, I wake up.”
Owen felt his neck tense again. He tried to brush off the whole thing, hoping it was mere coincidence. They knocked and Ava answered with a big, wrinkled smile.
“You must be Mal!” she cried, reaching up to embrace her.
Ava and Owen walked Mal through the whole house, Owen showing her every unique feature and special corner of the building. By the end of the tour, Mal had nearly forgotten her dream and had been swept away by the whimsical interior of the property.

On the drive home, Mal asked why the price was so low.
“That’s exactly what I asked her,” replied Owen. “I guess it’s just her time to move on and she’s in kind of a rush to get out of the city.” He chuckled, “I guess at that age, you need to make decisions a bit quicker.” His wife elbowed him while he drove.

The next weekend they moved in. By the first night, boxes littered every room and their bed was a queen sized mattress lying on the ground. They were exhausted.
Mal went to the bedroom while Owen got some work done on the computer. He had already made a few connections in the city, and business was quickly picking up. He was good at what he did.
About an hour later, there was a knock at the door. Owen looked at the clock in the corner of the screen and shook his head. It was almost eleven. Muttering under his breath, he pushed himself up onto his feet and walked to the door. Fidgeted with the locks. When he got it open, he looked out on the porch and no one was there. He leaned out the doorway and looked up and down the street.
He shook his head and closed the door. “Kids,” he muttered to himself. And then, “old lady couldn’t take a joke.”

The next morning Owen told Mal about the pranking.
“It’s no big deal,” she said, smiling and smacking his arm. “They’re just welcoming the new people. We’re like the new kids! We’ll meet them soon and it won’t happen again! Lighten up!” She laughed. Mal finished her breakfast and left for an interview with a gym only a few blocks from the house.
The next few days blurred together as the two of them unpacked their belongings and filled in the barren places in the house. Mal got the job and Owen began catching cabs down to the Loop several days a week for meetings with new clients.

Two weeks later, they were asleep when there was another knock on the door. Neither one stirred for a moment until the knock came again, louder.
“Mm-I’ll get it,” slurred Mal as she threw her long legs off the bed and stood up. After dressing, she shuffled to the door and looked outside.
No one was there.
Mal froze as she fully woke up and remembered.
She had been having the dream again.

Credit: Ethan Renoe

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Scream City

December 29, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Recently, a group of friends invited me to go with them to one of those haunted attractions that pop up when it gets close to Halloween. I wasn’t too keen on the idea. I love scary stories and movies and the like, but the apprehension that comes from knowing something is about to jump out and scare you, not to mention how close the actors get to you, is almost more than I can handle. But since I love Halloween and hadn’t got much of a chance to celebrate it, I tagged along.

The place was called Scream City, so named because it had a loose city theme. It had all the typical haunted house fare, complete with a long line. We managed to pass the time by telling scary stories as the occasional worker dressed as a zombie or insane clown rattled the chain-link fence surrounding the queue and screamed. As we approached the entrance, a man dressed as a witch doctor led us and a few others through the door, where he explained the rules. No running, no touching the actors, if you have a heart condition we are not responsible, and so on. As he wrapped up his spiel, he pressed a button and the steel double doors behind him swung open. We walked past him and into a living room while the doors creaked shut behind us.

The room we stood in looked like a cheap motel room. As the rest of the group filed in I took a look around. Stained, blue carpet covered the floor and in the middle of the room stood a recliner, facing a television that blared silent static back. In the recliner was a seemingly long dead man, his gaunt face partially obscured by stringy black hair. An overturned bowl of chips sat in his lap, and one skeletal hand clutched a TV remote. As we crossed the room and walked through the door on the opposite side, the emaciated figure in the chair sat bolt upright and screamed at us, the sound drowning out as we fled into the next room and the door slammed behind us.

We stood in a hospital, beds lining either side of the narrow pathway that led to the next door. A window on the left wall betrayed the “city” setting with its view of a grassy field. There were four beds on either side, one of them covered in blood and gore. The last bed on the right contained a human-shaped lump beneath its covers, and a chorus of screams erupted behind me as the actor tore the covers off, revealing his mangled face. He laughed maniacally as our group filed into the next room.

This room led us past a church altar, a large, upside down cross hanging behind it. On either side of the altar, stained glass windows let a small amount of multicolored light to seep into the room. In front of the altar stood a woman in a wedding dress. Her dress was torn and frayed, and red stains marred the otherwise pure white garment. She was sobbing, and clutching the hands of the lifeless, skeletal corpse in a tuxedo that stood across from her. As we approached the open door on the other side of the room, the bride let go of the dummy’s hands, and it fell to the floor unrealistically. She turned to us, revealing her pallid, tear-stained face and began screaming wildly.

We passed through the open door into what looked like a factory floor. Our footsteps on the hard concrete floor echoed through the nearly empty room as we approached the only furnishing: a conveyor belt that ran from one wall to the other. At the far end was a large, somewhat phony-looking circular saw blade. A dummy was bound and laying on the belt on the opposite end, slowly approaching the blade. A speaker somewhere within the dummy created distorted screams. A man dressed in safety gear laughed maniacally as he pushed down a lever beside the blade, causing the conveyor belt to speed up slightly. No one in our group so much as jumped when we passed the plastic blade and entered the next room.

We strolled through a graveyard, iron fences on either side of the path separating us from plastic tombstones and zombified actors who groaned and shuffled, one of them approaching the fence to reach for a girl towards the front of the line. At the end of the path stood two open doors. Between the fences was a figure in a black cloak, his face invisible under the jet black hood. He clutched a large, prop scythe in one hand. The door to his left revealed what appeared to be a long hallway. The door on his right opened only into pitch blackness. He pointed to the left as member of our group approached him, obediently entering the hallway. This pattern repeated until I approached, bringing up the rear. He quickly moved his hand and pointed towards the dark doorway. Normally I would be hesitant to continue by myself, but considering how unimpressed I had been up to this point, I smiled and strolled into the inky darkness.

I heard the door close behind me as I observed my surroundings. Rather, I tried to observe my surroundings. It was so dark I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I also noticed that it was cold, so cold I could have believed I was outside if it wasn’t for the unnatural blackness surrounding me. I felt around for walls but found nothing, so I just continued straight, hoping I would soon see something.

My wish was granted after a minute or so of walking, as a door, outlined by light gleaming through its cracks, came into view. Relieved, I opened it and walked into…the graveyard I had just been in.

The grim reaper figure was missing, as were the actors. The room was apparently lit by a black light, as a deep blue tint covered the otherwise familiar room. The gravestones looked much more realistic, so much so that, if not for the cheapness of the rest of the attraction, could have convinced me that they had sprung for real marble. Large, plastic tarps covering amorphous piles littered the patches behind the iron gates. I slowly approached the doorway on the opposite side, jumping and letting out an involuntary shout as something rolled out from beneath one of the tarps. The object was a very real looking corpse. This had to be an actor, and I was impressed by his ability to lay still for so long. Wanting to allow him a break, I shuffled through the doorway and into the factory room.

The first thing I noticed was the saw blade to my left now looked very real, a far cry from the cheap piece of plastic I had seen earlier. This room showed the same eerie blue tint as the previous rooms, as did the rooms that followed it. The bound dummy was missing, and I was startled when I noticed the actor in the safety gear was staring at me, an impossibly wide grin on his face. Without breaking eye contact or changing his expression, he slowly lowered his wrist onto the saw blade. The blade’s shiny silver was soon stained with red as it severed the man’s hand at the wrist. Blood continued to spurt from the wound as he brought his arm back to his side, his smile unchanged. The man remained like this, staring into my eyes for several seconds before he simply collapsed to the floor. I was thoroughly creeped out by this, and equally confused as to how the attraction’s designers had managed to pull off that trick. They must have hired a special effects expert or something, I thought to myself.

A hollow thumping sound rang in my ears as I entered the church, and its source soon became evident. The bride knelt next to the wooden altar, slamming her head into it every few seconds, almost rhythmically. Her eyes, unfocused and unblinking, were locked in a thousand yard stare. I was pretty freaked out at this point, and simultaneously satisfied that I was finally getting my money’s worth. I braced myself and entered the hospital.

Each of the eight beds now had shapes beneath the covers, though many of them looked large enough to be two or even three people. I noticed the most significant difference between this room and its counterpart when I glanced at the window. The field had been replaced by what looked to be a view from a second or third story window, overlooking a large city. I skirted between two of the beds and approached the window for a closer look. Skyscrapers stretched out into the distance, and one close to the window was burning, the orange glow of the flames reflecting in the mirrored windows of the buildings surrounding it. I looked down to the street, expecting to see a firetruck, but instead I saw an empty road. There were no cars at all, not even parked on curbs. Just inside an alleyway was a tarp covering a large mound, very similar to the tarps I had seen in the graveyard room. A man stood opposite it, his back pressed against the wall of the building behind him. He cautiously peeked his head around the corner, looking both ways before he began walking down the sidewalk away from me. Suddenly, a ground floor window of the building he was standing next to shattered, spraying him with glass shards. Before he could recover a man leapt through the broken window onto him, pinning him to the ground. To my horror, the new arrival sunk his teeth into the man’s neck, pulling off a large piece of flesh and swallowing it. I wasn’t keen on seeing what happened next, and instead entered what I hoped was the final room.

The recliner was now overturned, laying on its back in the middle of the room. The gaunt corpse of a man that had been sitting in it now hung from a noose above it, the rope swaying back and forth almost imperceptibly. I could tell from the constantly changing glow that the television projected against the back wall that it was playing something other than static. As the screen came into view I saw it was a newscast, a young blonde reporter clutching a microphone in the foreground standing in front of a backdrop that could have been a warzone. The television was apparently muted, as I couldn’t hear anything she said, but I didn’t need sound to see how nervous she was. It wasn’t the jitters you may expect an inexperienced reporter to exhibit, her expression was one of pure fear. She constantly glanced over her shoulder and even dropped the microphone once. The banner spanning across the bottom of the screen read “RIOTS BREAKING OUT WORLDWIDE.” Beneath it, smaller writing proclaimed “Law enforcement resorting to violence to contain civil unrest.” The young lady’s nervous reporting was sometimes replaced with what looked like scenes from horror movies: two women beating a man to the ground and then kicking and stomping on him until he stopped moving, an entire mob descending on a police officer so that only his wildly flailing arm protruded through the mass of bodies, its movement soon slowing and then stopping altogether…similar scenes played out as the broadcast continued, each one bearing the name of a city in the top left corner. Chicago, Philadelphia, Beijing, Paris…worldwide didn’t seem to be an exaggeration. Eventually, the young woman returned, looking as scared as ever. After a few seconds of silent reporting, she stopped short, her eyes locked on something that seemed to be just behind the camera. Her face contorted into a scream just before a figure leapt out from behind the camera, tackling her to the ground. I could see her legs struggling to get leverage to push the figure off to no avail. The rest of her was obscured by the broad back of the figure that sat on her, stooped over her like the closed top of a convertible. In a scene that was becoming familiar, the reporter’s legs soon went limp. The man that had attacked her turned to stare directly into the camera, his blood-covered mouth spread in a wide smile. He sat there, unmoving, unblinking, for several seconds before he charged at the camera. I briefly felt like I was looking into a running washing machine as the camera apparently toppled over before the screen cut to blackness.

The abrupt end of the newscast brought me back to reality, wondering how long I had actually been watching the television. Remembering that my friends were probably waiting on me, I hurried through the door that led to the exit of the attraction. I quickly spotted the group I had arrived with and excitedly described what I had experienced.

“Wow!” my friend Rob spoke up, “the rooms we went through were just as lame as the rest of the place. Wish we had gone with you.”

Before we left the place for good, I approached the witch doctor that ushered us in at the entrance.

“Hey, man, you should send everyone through the backwards part, it’s seriously scary!”

He looked confused. “I…don’t know exactly which part you mean, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. Have a good one.”
At first, I assumed he was messing with me. After all, it was his job to scare me. But as I thought about the look on his face and the way he had told me he didn’t know what I meant it occurred to me he was either a very good actor, or genuinely had no idea what I was talking about. While this was unsettling, it isn’t the reason I’ve had trouble sleeping for the past week. The image that I see every night when I wake up drenched in sweat isn’t the look of confusion that spread over the man’s painted face when I gave him a piece of advice. It’s the white numbers that stayed constant on the bottom right corner of the screen as the newscast played, giving the date as October 31st, 2037.

Credit: DoubleDDucky

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Are You Coming Upstairs?

December 21, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The 1980’s. The wonderful years of my early childhood, filled with the delicious smells of Christmas, baked apples and amazing memories of endless, warm summer days filled with laughter and innocent, childish friendship. It was also, however, the end of this decade that marked the beginning of the end of my unblemished view of the world and thrust upon me the realisation that sometimes in life we encounter eerie situations that we just cannot explain.

I grew up in a city in the Midlands of England called Stoke-upon-Trent. My mother had grown up in a town on the outskirts of the city called Uttoxeter. I recall countless happy visits to this town to see family and friends; however, it was during one of these visits that the first incident that really made me question my views on reality occurred.

It was the summer of 1989 and I was nine years old. My family was visiting an old childhood friend of my mother. I was very excited to be there because these people had a daughter named Allie who was my own age and it meant that I would not be subjected to the endless whining of my irritating six year old brother alone. There was to be a dinner party late in the afternoon, after which my family would be leaving me there overnight for a sleepover. I felt special because my brother was going to be going home with my parents and I would be having all the fun.

The other guests had not arrived and dinner was quite a while from being ready. Not wanting children underfoot while the food preparation was taking place, Allie, my younger brother, her even younger brother and I were unceremoniously foisted outside into the back garden to play until it was time to go inside to wash our hands and eat.

Allie lived in a cul–de-sac, the end house of which backed onto Uttoxeter Racecourse. Behind Allie’s house, running the entire length of the short street, was a huge plot of land containing an old condemned house that had suffered some fire damage many years earlier.

Rumours were rife in the late eighties about the fate of the house. There were rumours about arson due to drug debts, rumours that the house had been home to a sex offender and his family who had fallen prey to a vigilante style attack, even rumours that one of the occupants had committed murder and that somebody had decided that it was high time that this person get what they deserved. All anyone knew for sure was the fact that in one upstairs bedroom two very certainly innocent young people had sadly succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Surrounding the house was a huge, overgrown orchard and surrounding the grounds themselves was a high wall. The entrance gate, equally high and locked with a gigantic rusty padlock was situated right at the other side of the grounds, far away from Allie’s house. As young children, blissfully unaware of the desolate history of the house, Allie, our brothers, and I had spent many delightful hours with our parents slipping through a gap in the hedge at the bottom of their garden and walking the grounds to pick apples, pears and blackberries with which we could make fruit crumble when we returned home.

On this particular day, as Allie and I sat restlessly at the bottom of the garden bored to tears after having played with all the outdoor toys and having spent at least ten minutes petting her rabbit, our eyes met and she glanced and nodded at the hole in the hedge. Knowing full well that we were not supposed to enter the orchard without permission and stealing a stealthy glance up towards our brothers playing with their boring “boys’ toys” up by the back door, we surreptitiously slipped through the hedge into the woods beyond.

We felt absolutely no fear for the orchard was our playground of old. We fantasised about fairies and magical beings as we clambered around through the undergrowth, dropping apples from the trees into the front of our outstretched jumpers. Maybe if we told our parents that we only ventured a little way in, they would disregard our disobedience and allow us to make apple crumble after dinner.

Suddenly and seemingly with no warning, we realised that the old derelict house was directly in front of us. You could tell from the outside that the place had once been truly magnificent. Two storeys high, built of grey stone, the house inspired our nine year old selves to romanticise about beautiful princesses trapped in ivy covered towers. It was sad to see the soot licked, empty downstairs window frames that were still home to shards of jagged broken glass and the weed ravaged front door that had long since fallen from its hinges and began to decay upon the moss covered ground. The upstairs windows were boarded up, presumably less accessible to vandals and the roof looked patchy as if the slate grey tiles could fall at any given moment. We stared up in awe. I confess that I was again thinking of handsome princes charging through the orchard, sword in hand ready to bestow “True love’s kiss”.

Allie, being a “Sixer” in one of the local church’s brownie groups and also being heavily involved in a lot of out of school sporting activities, was much cockier than I and of an extremely curious nature. She quickly stated that we “absolutely must” go inside to explore. Hesitant for merely a second, I agreed and we marched bravely forward. Peering in through the dilapidated door frame, directly in front of us we could see a long hallway with a large, fairly well lit room to the left. Gazing farther down the hall we saw several more doors that led off to the left and what appeared to be the kitchen at the end, but it was hard to tell as the hallway really did seem very long, more like a corridor. There was a wide staircase to the right that obscured any possible doors on that side of the hall.

Looking up the staircase I felt my first faint twinge of unease. Due to the boarded up windows on the upper level, it was difficult to see very far up the staircase at all. In fact (of course this must be due to my childish imagination) the stairs seemed to be swallowed just over half way up by an unnatural, eerie darkness.

Seeming not to notice that huge, gaping mouth of a staircase and grabbing my hand, Allie pulled me into the large room to our left. It had obviously once been a sitting room. Defaced by graffiti, there was a good amount of soot damaged flowery paper peeling off the walls. There were even some old and extremely dingy looking armchairs that had certainly seen better days. Forgetting all about the staircase, I squatted down by the fireplace beckoning Allie to follow and we allowed our apples to fall onto the cracked hearth. Light, magically dappled from the canopy of trees above us, streamed through the empty window frame. It seemed enchanted, almost as if real fairies might actually live here.

We sat and chatted for quite a while, giggling with our childish innocence about a trick that we meant to play on her brother that night. She had a set of walkie-talkies and we planned to leave one under his bed and whisper into it as he was falling asleep to basically scare the pants off him. In hindsight this seems very cruel, but at the time we genuinely believed that it was terribly funny.

I bit into an apple and we toyed with the idea of visiting the other rooms on the ground floor level. We both agreed that we would not be going upstairs as even at such a young age we had the sense to be aware that the staircase was almost definitely unstable after the fire and we did not want to risk it, knowing that our parents would be furious if anything happened. It then occurred to me however that she too may have noticed the unnatural darkness and silence of the staircase as we entered the house and felt no desire to go poking around in places that certainly did not appear to be very welcoming.

As we sat and pondered, a sound became apparent *tap. tap. tap*, very softly, followed by what sounded like a soft scratching noise. It seemed to come from the outside of the window frame of the room that we were sitting in. We froze, our heads whipping round to stare at the empty hole. We stayed that way for what seemed like ten minutes but what must have realistically only been a few seconds. Upon hearing nothing else, Allie giggled which unnerved me. After all, “they” may have heard her, but then I ticked myself off for being such a baby; however it did hit me how silly we had been to sneak off into the orchard with no one knowing that we had even left the garden.There were no more sounds. All was suddenly very quiet.

“Did you hear that?” I hissed.

Allie shrugged, stating that she believed it was probably one of the neighbour’s cats, or even just the wind blowing a tree branch against the empty window frame. Nevertheless, to me our sanctuary was now slightly tainted. We stowed our fruit back into our jumpers. She took my hand and we stood up and made for the doorway so we could explore further.

Upon exiting the room, Allie and I had a better view of the hallway. There were in fact just two more doors on the left hand side. They both appeared to be ajar, however, the lighting was far from wonderful; we would not be able to see inside without venturing forth. I remember feeling that the place seemed extremely creepy. I just felt a kind of unsettling unease. I voiced my opinions to Allie about not wanting to continue our explorations but she laughed and told me that I was being silly.

Pushing my fears aside and again chastising myself for being such a baby, I followed Allie into the next room. Once inside I relaxed a little. Again the glass in the window was broken but the frame was large and the room well lit. It appeared to have once been very pretty indeed. In its heyday I am positive that it had been a very grand dining room. Most of the furniture appeared to be pretty much still in place including a large wooden sideboard. No bone china remained, of course, for the house would have been looted years ago by thieves, but there was much less graffiti than there had been in the first room. This room, however, was a considerable amount dingier and more damaged than the previous room. Touching the rotting remains of a large wooden table, I was able to draw a face in the soot.

Allie bounded about opening drawers and chattering endlessly about who might have lived here. They “absolutely must have been very posh,” as the furniture was all very beautiful, or it had been at one point anyway. As Allie explored I moved over to the sideboard to examine the pretty design that had been chiseled into the wood. As a child I loved anything intricate, it always seemed to draw me in.

It was at this point that I became aware of what sounded like soft but quick footsteps directly above the place that I was standing. I said nothing and listened for a minute, feeling my skin start to break out in goose bumps. The steps seemed to be scuttling back and forth. One, two, three, four, five and stop. And again. And again.

“Allie, do you hear that?” I whispered, nodding at the ceiling above.

Allie’s movements slowed to a halt and she looked up, following my eyes to the ceiling. Silence. The sound was gone as suddenly as it started. Yet again, Allie giggled at me and told me that I was a “wimp” and that I should be braver.

Upon finishing her inspection on the room, Allie insisted that we “needed” to explore the third room on the corridor, then we could go as I was obviously too much of a baby to continue. Was she seriously not feeling the sense of dread that was now firmly lodged in the pit of my stomach? How on earth could she be so blasé about the fact that we were in the middle of a creaky, abandoned house in the middle of an orchard and that nobody else knew where we were?

Allie placed one hand on the door of the third room, making sure not to drop her carefully gathered apples and pushed gently. The door swung open and we both gasped, me in horror and she, I suspect, in awe. This was obviously the room in which the fire had raged at its worst. It was a much smaller room than the other two and the window was extremely tiny, hardly allowing any light at all. The walls appeared to be almost totally black from grime; there was no furniture to be seen. The wall parallel to the kitchen had been entirely burnt through and we could see the outlines of the blackened remnants of kitchen units hanging like long dead prisoners manacled in some hellish dungeon. A dripping noise gained our attention. We looked to the source and noted a dirty grey puddle lying against the same burnt wall and leaking through into the kitchen. Looking up we saw a sizable hole burnt into the ceiling, appearing as emptily black and uninviting as the staircase. This was the source of the fluid and I knew then that I had had enough.

“This place is horrible,” I hissed at Allie.

All fantasies of fairies and princesses had long disappeared and been replaced with an unpleasant disquiet. This was no palace. It was a place where bad things happened. I had become certain of that and I wanted to leave.

Allie looked at me and sighed, “Okay,” and we turned to face the open doorway that lay at the end of the hall, as open and inviting as any ice cream parlour or toy shop.

This was when things started to take a turn towards the inexplicable.

We took several steps towards the door and we froze. Remember back in the day those toys called Space Hoppers? They looked like giant, heavy duty balloons with large ears that you held onto so you could sit on and bounce around. Well, Allie owned one. It was bright pink and had the face of a goofy bunny rabbit painted on the front. And it was there, out in the hallway near the base of the stairs, facing us. I remember that I felt physically sick. I had been correct; someone was there, but who on earth could it be? Oh, how silly we had been to just disappear like this. Had our brothers seen us sneaking off into the orchard and decided to play a joke on us similar to the one that we planned on playing on Allie’s brother that night? I stood frozen to the spot, not wanting to venture any further along the corridor and confront whatever must be lurking there waiting for us.

“Come on,” Allie whispered.

There was no other way out; I didn’t fancy my chances with either of the empty window frames in the first two rooms which still housed shards of broken glass. If I ripped my skirt, my mother would be furious.

I felt sick to my stomach as we slowly took several steps forward, more of the hallway coming into view revealing the wide, open mouth of the staircase. Suddenly, Allie was jumping up and down and howling with laughter. She grabbed my hand and pulled me onward. I looked up and felt an immediate sense of relief.

There, standing on the first step of the staircase, was Allie’s friend Evangeline. I had completely forgotten that her family had been invited to the dinner party. A year older than us, Evangeline lived in the road parallel to Allie’s, the road that boasted the entrance to Uttoxeter Racecourse where a lot of well to do, rich people lived. Evangeline was by character extremely bossy and horsey, a direct result of having grown up “privileged.” Upon our questioning of what she was doing there and did she see us sneak in, Evangeline smiled at us with that wide, cheeky, grin that we knew so well and she pointed up the stairs.

“Come upstairs,” she giggled in her distinct, rather posh voice (Evangeline’s father was the managing director of a company several cities away and she attended boarding school during term time and always returned for the holidays extremely well spoken,) “I have been exploring up there and I found something that I really want to show you.”

With that, she turned her back to us and bounded up several stairs. Allie of course moved forward immediately but gazing up into the pitch darkness and remembering the dripping black hole of the third room, something inside made me grab her wrist.

Without turning back around to look at us Evangeline spoke again.

“Come on,” she urged, “you really need to see what I found up here.”

At this point she was no longer bounding up the steps. She was walking very slowly one stair at a time, lifting one foot then the other without looking back. It almost looked as if time had slowed down. I found this odd and again a nagging feeling of disquiet gnawed at my stomach. What on earth could she have possibly been able to find in that pitch blackness? And quite honestly, what had she been doing up there all alone in the dark in the first place? It was the last place any well behaved little girl should be.

Evangeline took another step towards the darkness and stopped.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

This time her voice seemed laced with what sounded like an irritable, maybe even demanding tone. However, despite her obvious irritation she didn’t turn around and her arms hung down limply by her sides. Again Allie made a move forward. This time when I grabbed her, I yanked her back hard and she turned her large green eyes on me in surprise.

I looked up at Evangeline as she took another step into the ever increasing darkness and then something struck me. Evangeline was a girly girl. She, Allie and I often compared clothes. Remember in the 1980’s, those awful layered “Ra Ra” skirts with matching frilly T shirts or jumpers? Well Evangeline would never be seen without one of those outfits on, yet the girl in front of us was wearing what appeared to be cut off, mid calf length dark blue Jeans and a grey Sweatshirt. As I watched her climb, almost swallowed now by the unrelenting nothingness, it was then that I noticed something else. It had to be a trick of the eye surely? As the gloom closed in on her, her arms seemed to be growing longer and longer as they continued to hang limply by her sides. I looked across at Allie again and noticed that she too was staring at Evangeline and her eyes were now narrow and confused, as if for the first time she was getting some inkling that something may indeed be amiss.

I tried to take a step backwards but for the first time ever in my life I was paralysed with what must be irrational fear. It had to be the eeriness of the house coupled with the odd behaviour of our friend causing me to imagine things. Barely visible now, Evangeline finally stopped her slow, deliberate steps and turned around. She was nothing but a dark silhouette. Again we heard her speak. This time we heard it in a whisper but it seemed to me like the sound was inside our very heads.

“Are you coming to see what I found or will I need to come and fetch you?”

As she spoke the last few words, she reached out her arms towards us and, I kid you not, those arms looked like tentacles in the darkness. Black; almost fluid like, her arms appeared to snake through the air down the stairs towards us.

This broke the spell. Allie and I both suddenly found our feet, turned our backs on the thing on the staircase and shot out of the front door. Forgetting our plans to make fruit crumble, the apples tumbled from our jumpers. We stumbled madly through the undergrowth, finally bursting through the hole in the hedge, our hearts thundering and both of us sweating like pigs on a spit. Our brothers looked on in amusement at our disheveled appearance.

“What on earth had just happened?” I wondered. “What on earth had Evangeline been playing at scaring us like that?”

By this point, back in the safety of the garden (meaning back in our comfort zone) we briefly talked and convinced ourselves that the eerie nature of the upstairs of the house had caused our minds to play tricks on us. I even began to feel somewhat guilty for leaving our friend behind in that scary place.

Looking at each other, we stumbled up the garden path to the back door, both still rather shaken and desperate for a drink of water after which we were planning to try to convince our brothers to break the rules and accompany us back into the orchard to try to see if we could find Evangeline and bring her back with us.

The back door to Allie’s house opens to the kitchen which leads to a hallway that runs the entire length of the rather small house ending directly at the front door. We both had a quick drink of water gazing out into the hallway as we did so.

A knock at the front door caught our attention. We automatically walked forward to see Allie’s mother answer the door for Evangeline’s mother who was clutching a bottle of what looked like wine. She was apologising for being later than she expected and explaining how her car had failed to start after she had visited the bank in town and it had set her back half an hour. As she was ushered into the living room by Allie’s mother, our jaws dropped in terrified, gut wrenching horror as she moved to the side to reveal Evangeline behind her, hair braided neatly wearing a pink and white skirt and T shirt set and clutching a fluffy pink rucksack.

Allie and I gaped in horrified amazement and Evangeline stared back with a puzzled look on her face. Had we imagined our encounter in the abandoned house? Had it been someone else? Oh, the way children rationalise everything. We did after all still believe in fairies. It must have been another girl, but we had been so sure that it had been her.

Finally, the puzzled look evaporated from Evangeline’s face and she smiled at us, then moaned with that sense of entitlement that she always exuded that her day had been “reallllly boring” so far so and could we “pleasssse” go up to Allie’s room to play with her My Little Ponies for a while before dinner began? She passed her partially opened rucksack to Allie for her to hang it up on the pegs at the foot of the stairs. Allie glanced down at the bag and her face went white. I looked from Allie to Evangeline wondering what on earth was wrong now. Still smiling, Evangeline, now standing on the bottom step of the flight of stairs looked directly at me and simply said,“Silly, silly, silly,” as Allie dropped the rucksack in revulsion, spilling its fruity contents out onto the hall floor.

“You left behind your apples,” Evangeline continued, her eyes glinting wickedly. “How were you ever going to be able to make crumble without them? Now, are you both coming upstairs?”

Needless to say, in favour of the adult filled safety of the living room, we declined.

Credit: Jess

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Hell’s Trickster

December 18, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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It was mid-October in New York, but summer hadn’t quite given up on us yet. The day we’d chosen for the hike was likely to be one of the last good ones before the cold weather set in – we being me, Marisol, Allison, and Dexter.

Dexter was something of an expedition enthusiast – a real outdoorsy type, which is something that, personally, I would never understand. I didn’t even know the guy very well, he was a friend of my brother’s. The only reason I was invited was because he had specifically asked for a few locals with thick skin to accompany him on a weekend-long trek through Drery Forest. Dearest Brother had volunteered me, as well as Allison and Marisol.

Those two I did know. Marisol was my brother’s ex-girlfriend, and Allison had been a friend since childhood. We’d never hung out as a trio, but I didn’t find it difficult to picture. I rarely had a hard time getting along with people.

Dexter showed up at six in the morning on the day. I was barely sentient, an iPhone in one hand and a Red Bull in the other, constantly rubbing underneath glasses at my eyes with the heel of my palm. He was much taller than me, and had a lot more gear. His eighteen-pound backpack didn’t seem to faze him.

“Good to meet you, AJ,” he said pleasantly, and held out a well-toned hand for me to shake. I stuck my phone in my pocket to follow through.

After a long yawn that surely gave an excellent first impression, I nodded sportingly and said, “You, too. If I collapse from exhaustion, just tuck me in a bush somewhere and pick me up on the way back. I probably won’t even notice.”

Dexter laughed brightly. “The ride up to our starting point is about twenty-five minutes. You can sleep in the car if you like.”

I could tell that Dexter and I were going to get along.

He didn’t waste time. We left two minutes after that, once he was sure he had everything and my brother had finished getting ready. He was driving us down so that we weren’t leaving a car on the side of the road for three days.

Next we picked up Allison, and then Marisol. I stayed in the car and tried very hard to keep myself asleep through the packing and moving.

I was shaken awake by Allison what seemed like seconds later, only now, we were pulled over and surrounded by trees. The golden sunrise was masked to our left, and Dexter and Marisol were unpacking the trunk.

The first thirty minutes of the walk were mostly – at least for me – an agonizing attempt to wake up, so I don’t remember much. I eased into consciousness by watching the forest take form around me.

The trees were tall and absolutely beautiful. Most of the leaves blended from bright yellow to vibrant red, spilled along the forest floor or tucked away in high branches. Anywhere uncovered by leaves there was either fresh, healthy grass or wet-smelling dirt. The sun was making its slow ascent – which only added to the effect. It almost tempted me to delete my Twitter and become a forest-hermit.

Instead, I started taking pictures.

At the sound of the automated shutter click, Marisol, who was right in front of me, turned around. She kept walking, but looked at me skeptically, her dark skin radiant and darker hair bouncing from her fluid motions.

“Selfies? Really? You don’t get the whole nature thing, do you, AJ?”

I smiled at her indulgently. “Pictures of the forest, actually,” I corrected. “Human memory sucks. Now, I can look back at this perfect image whenever I want to.”

“Sure,” Marisol agreed lightly. “Until I catch you texting and throw your phone in a river.”

“I don’t mind you paying for a replacement,” I assured her. “Besides, I highly doubt I’ll get service out here.”

I heard Allison – tall, thin, with freckles, and sandy hair tucked beneath a knit beanie – snort ahead of Marisol. “Yeah, as if you’ve never tampered with it to get a better signal,” she said.

“So, Dex,” I redirected loudly and pointedly. “How did you get started with the whole hiking aesthetic? I get it. This place is gorgeous.”

“That’s a little bit why I chose it,” Dexter admitted thoughtfully. “I knew I was unfamiliar with the area and that I’d be traveling with people I’ve never met before – which isn’t unusual for me. Hiking like that just means that it’s usually more about scenery than exercise.”

Allison laughed behind him. “It’s nice that you’re so gracious,” she teased. “But, if that’s only a ‘little bit,’ what’s the ‘a lot a bit’ of your decision?”

Dexter shot a look at her like he was trying to decipher whether or not she was kidding. “Hell’s Asshole,” he said, as if it was obvious.

“I’m sorry, did you just say Hell’s Asshole?” I echoed.

Again, Dexter checked behind him, making direct eye contact with me. He looked almost disappointed.

“You guys really don’t know the legend in your own town?” he asked. “That’s upsetting. I grew up in India and I know your local history better than you.” He shook his head dejectedly, but I had the funny feeling he wasn’t going to hold this against us.

“I for one would like to be informed immediately of my town’s Asshole leading to Hell,” I said candidly.

Dexter gave a superfluously pensive hum. “From what I understand, campers who go through this part of the woods have strange experiences. Equipment disappearing, hearing voices at night, memory loss… The place is really called Hell’s Beacon, but the locals created a charming colloquialism: Hell’s Asshole.”

“For the first time,” I said passionately, “I’m proud to be an American.”

+ + +

It was much later that Dexter, quite suddenly, stopped in his tracks. It almost led to that comical domino effect of us bumping into each other’s backs.

“What is that…” Dexter muttered, peering ahead.

“What?” Allison echoed, and she too squinted into the distance. Marisol and I abandoned our places in line to join the group. And, faintly, I could see what they were talking about. Something was bumbling around in the distance, banging into trees and stepping loudly on twigs, as if it couldn’t see clearly in the bright, afternoon light.

“Is that… a kid?” I asked hesitantly.

“Should we go help?” Allison’s suggestion sounded weak.

So I volunteered and told the rest of them to wait here. The second I started to traverse the brambles, Marisol yanked me back by the hood of my sweatshirt.

“AJ, you are brave to the point of stupidity,” she hissed.

“I prefer to think of it as martyrism.” I unzipped the front of my hoodie to keep my neck skin from pinching just as Marisol let go.

“I’m coming with you, then,” she ordained, and stepped authoritatively over a fallen branch, in the direction of the whatever-it-was. I tripped over myself in my eagerness to follow, earning a solid streak of dirt on my chin. Marisol rolled her eyes and picked me up, then together we went to investigate.

It wasn’t far, so I wasn’t very concerned with losing Dex and Allison, but there was still the overbearing sense of what the fuck. The kid – or whatever the hell it was – had collapsed at about the same time as I ate shit. Now, it was lying on the ground like a starfish.

As we approached, I was more and more apprehensive. At the first sign of ax-murderer suspicions, I would bodily drag each and every one of us out of there.

My train of thought was cut off by Marisol’s horrified gasp.

“AJ, what the hell happ…”

“I don’t know,” I breathed. Then, “Shit. Shit! I don’t know.”

Neither of us could look away. It was fucking awful. We couldn’t tell the gender because the kid was only wearing what really looked like a fucking satanic black cloak. No shoes. The kid had clearly collapsed from… Over-exertion? Exhaustion? Something. The skin was pallid and smooth, far from sun-kissed. Both eyes were closed tight, countering the mouth that was open in a perpetual silent scream of terror.

But none of that was the worst part. The worst part was the barbed wire wrapped so tightly around their head that it was actually embedded into and overgrown with flesh. The skin around it was warped but smooth, like brush strokes from an oil painting. Whatever had happened, it had happened a long time ago, and this kid had been made to live with it. It was obvious why a body might give out.

“We need to call the police,” I whispered.

Marisol hit me on the shoulder. “Fucking obviously,” she hissed. “Get back to the others. Do you have a signal?”

With my phone, it wasn’t out of the question. I dug it out of my pocket to check – but even I couldn’t extend my service range indefinitely. I shook my head. “Nothing.”

“Fuck. Let’s get back, then.”

We turned toward the path to reunite with Dex and Allison – but it was empty. We could see our own footprints, and beyond that the path, and beyond that an infinite backdrop of trees. But Dex and Allison were nowhere in sight.

“They wouldn’t leave us,” Marisol said, looking around in a flurry of panic.

My mouth was dry. “Maybe it was the guy that did THAT to a kid.”

“Shut your fucking mouth, AJ, I don’t need that shit in my head right now. What do we do?”

“We can’t get out of here without Dex.” I realized it as I said it, still looking around with dim hopes that one of us would suddenly spot the others.

So we stayed together and made our way toward the path. I tried shouting, and Marisol kept attempting to discern one landmark from another, but in the end, we weren’t even definitely sure which way we’d come from.

Only when my throat was threatening to give out did I finally shut up. “How can they not hear us?” I demanded of Marisol, though we both knew that I wasn’t expecting an answer. My voice was hoarse.

“Jesus Christ, AJ, we can’t just sit here. We’ve been walking all day, and we barely have enough supplies to last one fucking night. We have to pick a direction and start walking. We’ll have to come out somewhere eventually. What’s the direction we’re most sure we came from?”

She swiveled around and pinpointed one way, based on some supposition that I couldn’t fathom, so, together, we hesitantly set off. It wasn’t long before that plan fell to shit.

“Okay, wait right here,” Marisol ordered. “I need to piss. I’m going behind that tree, I’ll be right back.”

I raised both eyebrows. “Are you serious? We can’t split up, Marisol.”

“AJ,” she hissed, mouth drawn forward into and angry grimace, “I am currently lost in the middle of the fucking woods with my bladder about to burst because I have been walking for seven hours. If you try to take this one fucking moment of peace and privacy from me, I will fucking murder you and find the way home myself. Sorry that I can’t just unzip my pants, take out my magic fucking sperm wand, and immediately be accepted by society when I need to eradicate toxic wastes from my body. Wait here.”

I knew Marisol. She was a feisty, determined person, who was usually very angry when she knew was right and someone contradicted her. I also knew that she was only yelling at me because she was stressed out, so I left it at that. With my nod of affirmation, she turned on heel and disappeared behind a large cedar.

Not a moment later, she returned, brushing off the front of her shirt. She seemed to be in a better mood at least. I was glad she’d gotten herself together.

“Okay, let’s go,” was all she said. She started walking, but I stood planted. She turned back, looking annoyed. “I said come on, AJ.”

I raised an eyebrow and pointed west, nearly the complete opposite direction she’d set off on. “That’s not the way we were going,” I pointed out. She scowled.

“I have a better feeling about this way,” she said simply, but her tone made it clear that there were no more questions to be asked on my part. So, of course choosing to stick together rather than argue, I fell into step behind her.

Just as dusk hit, we began to hear voices. I perked up instantly and faced them. They seemed pretty far off, a few hundred feet toward the east, but it was enough to spring us both into motion. Marisol darted forward into the underbrush, faster than I had ever seen her run, uncharacteristically so – I lost sight of her in seconds.

“Marisol, wait, what the fuck!”

I did my best to follow her based on intuition alone, for a couple of reasons: I didn’t want her to get lost when we were so close to more people, I didn’t want her to find them only to realize that they were thugs or worse, and, most importantly, I really did not want to be fucking alone in the dark woods. I would be dead by morning.

I was wiped out before I’d made it thirty feet in her direction. A branch I hadn’t seen slapped me in the face and I feel onto my ass. It made me lose any bearings I’d had – Marisol could be anywhere. Most likely, however, she would have gone toward the voices, so I decided to find those next.

When I stood up, I hit my head again, although it wasn’t on the branch. It was startling enough to make me shout, though.

I grabbed it with one hand and ducked backward so I could make it out properly. And I was very surprised to find it was a doll.

What was worse, it appeared to be hanging from the branch by its neck with a length of twine. The most horrifying part of all was the way it was dressed. Barbed wire was pressed into the head, a dark blue hoodie, and, specifically, a fresh streak of dirt spread over its chin.

“What the fuck…?”

It was obviously supposed to be me. But… How had it gotten here, where the chance I would see it was infinitesimal to none? Who would make it? Who had even been around to see me? Was someone spying on me, even right now?

Had Dexter done it?

I barely knew him, so it was entirely possible that he was a murderer out for my blood. Maybe he had killed Allison while Marisol and I were distracted, then had led himself safely back to civilization, with the way only he knew. It was horrifying to consider.

But then, if he had left, why would this be hanging here? A place where I would never have found it if not for-

Marisol!

I’d completely forgotten about her. Was it possible that she had run into Dexter, that he had killed her like he had Allison? I must have been too late, it was all my fault.

“AJ?”

I spun around, terrified, acting on instinct and ready to defend myself by any means necessary. “Allison!” I cried. I had never been so relieved to see anybody in my life. Allison seemed only slightly concerned to have found her abandoned friend hours after she had deserted me.

“Whoa – are you okay? You’ve been gone for forever. Did you get lost?” she asked warily.

I threw my hands up in outrage. “Are you fucking kidding me? Yes, of course I got lost! You and Dexter fucking deserted us in the middle of the woods fucking hours ago! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Allison looked completely taken aback, her eyes widening as she struggled to process the influx of information. “AJ, AJ, calm down. What are you talking about?”

My temper flared. “What am I talking about? What are YOU talking about? You practically left me and Marisol out there to die, and now you’re acting like nothing happened!”

“AJ, listen to me,” Allison explained gently. “Nothing did happen. You and Marisol went off the path to investigate, and then you came right back. You were never even out of our sight. You guys said that there was nothing to worry about, that it was just an animal that had died, so we kept going. You were there the whole time. We walked for a bit, then we decided to stop and rest for the night. Twenty minutes ago, you said you needed the bathroom, so you walked away from camp and we haven’t seen you since. I came out here looking for you, and – what’s that in your hand?”

I tried to regulate my heavy breathing. How could she think that we had been with her the whole time? Was she the killer, and not Dexter, trying to lure me into a false sense of security? Was I going crazy, and the fact that I was doubting my friends a symptom? Had I really been with them the whole time?

Wordlessly, I held out the doll for Allison to see. When she realized what I had, that the doll was made in my image, she covered her mouth with shaking hands. “What – what the hell is that?”

I shrugged. Then, having regained some of my courage just by having a familiar face around, I threw the doll onto the ground and stepped on it had hard as I could. It didn’t do much, because the doll was newer, made out of that malleable plastic stuff, but it did get the point across. Whatever was fucking with me was going to have to try a lot harder.

“Where’s Dex?” I asked.

+ + +

Allison navigated us to a small campsite about fifty feet east. Dexter was there, but Marisol, who I’d assumed had followed the voices, was nowhere to be seen. When I voiced that, they both seemed worried.

“We have to go find her,” Dexter said bravely. “She can’t spend a night out here alone.”

We vehemently agreed, but I had to play Devil’s Advocate. “What about our stuff?”

“Marisol is more important than sleeping bags – not that I think anyone or anything is going to chance by this place,” Dexter said. “We fan out, but stay within earshot of each other. AJ, your voice sounds likeshit, so you stay with Allison.” Allison and I nodded our assent.

It wasn’t until Allison and I were just about to leave the campsite, standing next to the bright white electric lamp sitting on the ground, that Allison stopped. She was staring at me with a kind of puzzled horror. Or, not at me rather, but at my face.

“AJ…” she said softly. “Did you fall down… again?”

I gave her a confused look. “What?”

Allison pointed. “The dirt on your chin… You fell… and when you came back it was gone… but now it’s…” She trailed off, unable to look away, and my eyes widened as comprehension dawned.

“I never wiped the dirt off,” I told her solemnly.

She turned to look at the woods as though we were suddenly in the middle of a satanic ritual site. “What sort of a thing can do that… Can take your face and disguise what you see… Shit, now we know how you were in two places at once, this doesn’t even make sense, AJ, oh my God.”

I followed her lead, staring as far into the trees as I could, praying for either conformation or proof of our own stupidity – but there was nothing. The woods were as silent and still as always. “No, I don’t think it’s God,” I corrected halfheartedly.

The worst part was, the doll proved that whatever was out here knew about the dirt on my chin. It had simply chosen not to mimic that once it had infiltrated the group. Instead, it wanted us to piece everything together; it wanted to scare us.

“What do we do?” Allison asked weakly.

“We get Dexter back here, we hold out until dawn, and then we haul ass back the way we came.” Allison nodded faintly but resolutely. “So, first things first, we need for get Dex back here. Can you shout for him?”

Allison stated me in the eyes this time, and she looked utterly terrified at the thought. “What if it knows that we know?”

“If it can put a creepy doll two inches in front of my face, it already knows we’re here,” I said, but I ended it softly, because out of all of the suspicions I’d had for my friends, I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. The only friend I hadn’t suspected, the one who had vanished from sight and then led me right here, on a feeling. Marisol hadn’t been Marisol at all, had she?

“Shit,” I hissed. “I don’t think Dex is looking for Marisol. At least, not the real Marisol.”

“Oh, God, we can’t lose Dex, we’d be stuck in here for days,” Allison moaned, sinking to the forest floor and hugging her knees. I was suddenly wide awake, despite the above-average exertion I’d put my body through today. That being said, I wasn’t sure how long I could run on pure adrenaline, so I was smart enough to add caffeine to the mix.

I knelt beside Allison and swung my backpack around so I could rummage through it. “Here,” I said, handing off a Red Bull to Allison. She took it with uncertainty. “If this thing is fucking with our heads while we’re awake, I don’t want it anywhere near me when I’m asleep.”

That seemed enough to convince her, so we toasted and drank up.

That was when we started to hear it.

Something like a whistle pierced the air. It was like it came from all around us, a sudden torrent of shouts, whispers, jeers, and taunts. I jumped out of my skin and grabbed Allison’s arm. She was giving fearful, tearless sobs, the both of us on our feet again, turning back to back and trying to glimpse what was surely just out of sight.

It was a thousand voices, and yet, unified as one. Each jeer was a cutting, high-pitched shriek, each whisper a tickle ok the back of the neck. Then, there was one shout that stood out from the rest, delivered with a fucking awful, bloodcurdling cackle.

“He’s come out to play, out to play, brace yourselves, the Prince is out! The Prince is out to play! Brace yourselves, the Trickster Prince is out!”

And, like I said, I’m pretty adventurous, but when mysterious shit in the woods starts chanting about Satan in the middle of the night, I’m usually not going to test my luck. I knew we had to get out of there, but there was nowhere to go, and we were helpless without Dexter.

The next shout scared me more than anything, because it was Allison, with a deep, terrified scream:

“LEAVE US ALONE YOU FUCKING BASTARDS!”

My hand on her tightened instinctively, and I couldn’t help but think she’d probably just fucked us over.

But then, miraculously, everything stopped. Which was almost worse.

There was nothing. No crickets, no wind, no leaves rustling together. Fucking silence, that was all.

And then a breathy murmur, which escalated into something horrifying. Quiet, curious voices hissing through the air around us. I nearly shat myself. I didn’t know what they were waiting for. I didn’t know where Dexter was or what happened to Marisol or if I wasn’t still wandering around the woods and actually fucking crazy.

The voices were pulling into a crescendo. There was no crackling this time, no chanting – just the disorganized sound of a thousand people whispering at once. I suddenly got the sense that they were deliberating on us. On what to do with us.

And then it stopped again, this time for good. The were crickets again, but no rustlings. It was as though nothing was moving, but trying still to pretend that it was. I didn’t realize why until I heard Dexter behind me.

“What are you guys still doing here?”

Allison and I both screamed and turned around. There he was, standing tall and stock-still. Behind him, Marisol.

“I found her.”

Her head was bowed low, though she was still looking at us, almost so that only the whites of her eyes were showing. Her fingers were curling and uncurling stiffly at her sides, her mouth open in a grimace, waiting for the chance to growl. Her head was lolling slowly from side to side, sizing us up. Dexter was facing us, so he had no idea.

“What’s going on? Why do you look like that?”

“Dexter, didn’t you hear all that?” I demanded weakly. My eyes were darting from him to Marisol. Allison’s eyes were glued on her in terror.

“Hear what?”

“Dexter, you fucking idiot! That’s not her, it’s not her! It’s going to kill us all!” Allison screamed, pointing at Marisol.

The growl I’d been expecting didn’t come. Instead, Marisol spoke in a low, throaty voice that seemed to resonate in my spine, and I nearly pissed my pants.

“The Trickster Prince is here to play.”

Dexter spun around, nearly tripping over himself. “Marisol?”

Marisol threw her head back so sharply that I heard a distinct snap, but she seemed unaffected. Her mouth was wide open and laughing, her chest vibrating through the cackles like some sort of broken air conditioner. I felt Allison rip herself from my arm and start sprinting – which was the greatest idea ever.

Dexter took several stunted, alarmed steps back until he was next to me.

“What the fuck?!”

“FUCKING RUN,” I ordered, grabbing him by the shoulder. We abandoned the supplied and tore ass out of there. Marisol stopped laughing as we reached the end of the clearing, and I suddenly heard that same voice just as I’d heard what I assumed were its thousands of little minions.

“The Prince is ready to play! The Trickster Prince will play tonight! Run, run, run, here comes the Prince!”

“We have to help Marisol!” Dexter gasped as we ran. I was so thrown by the statement that I almost stopped to yell at him.

“Are you a fucking idiot?” I shouted angrily. “How the fuck do you think we can help her – if that IS her? Let me just grab my fucking handy dandy exorcist book! Or, better yet, my ancient sword of demon-slaying! Perfect! Fucking brilliant, why didn’t I think of that before? No, fuck that, fuck you, all we’re doing is collecting Allison on our way out of here! And YOU are leading the way, so try not to fucking DIE.” I would’ve gone on, but I ran out of breath at that point, so we carried on as fast as we could and did our best to experience nothing else.

Which didn’t last very long.

An ear-splitting shriek sounded at the same moment the area directly ahead of us lit up with unnatural light. Marisol was standing there, exactly as before, and Dexter and I both screamed as he pulled me to the side and we kept running.

I was already getting a stitch in my side, which was not fucking good when starring as Satan’s plaything.

We dove into the trees, which were strung up with more dolls, exactly as before. There were hundreds of them this time, though, and they came in different variations. Some looked like me, some like Allison, and some like Dexter. None of them resembled Marisol.

I batted them away and we pushed through, careening into Allison, who had collapsed at the place where the path reappeared. I knew we wouldn’t have time to stop, so I started shouting at her to get up.

“There’s no time to cry, stand up, fucking run, let’s go!” I shouted at her. She jumped a foot in the air, shaking, and settled just in time for me to grab her shoulder and drag her after us.

Another shriek sounded, and Marisol appeared at our right. Again, we diverted our course.

“Don’t tire out,” the voice hissed, tickling the back of my neck and spurring me onward.

This was all it wanted. It gave us a calm, peaceful morning to wander directly into the middle of its fucking house, and now we were trapped in the kitchen. The thing was just preparing its fucking dinner before cooking it.

Twice more Marisol jumpscared us. There was a point where we ran into the voices again, and it was like running through a room full of radiators. Allison swears she saw something, but she’s never been able to describe it. I believe her – trees don’t leave bite marks like that.

Apart from that, I don’t remember most of what I’m sure was plenty of stumbling and panicking through the woods. My therapist (Dr. Firske, what a guy. The fourth in a line of exasperated professionals having to deal with my rambling) says that the brain has ways of blocking that sort of thing out to protect itself. I believe that, too.

I still don’t know how the three of us survived. I do have a faint recollection, though, of one moment. It was just as the sky began to turn light gray – we were nearly out of the woods. Nothing had happened for quite a while, so we had slowed to a careful stumble through the brambles. A sudden thought had struck me. As we’d managed to evade it, to get farther and farther from the center of its territory, the attempts against us had become weaker.

I think most of it was luck. I think a lot of it was endurance or, in my case, Red Bull. I think if it hadn’t got all of that terror out of us to begin with, it might have tried harder.

Or maybe its waiting. Or it got distracted. After all, we still don’t know what happened to Marisol. She could be dead, or still lost, or she really was possessed, or God only knew where else. We didn’t want any police wandering in there either, so we claimed that it was always just the three of us.

We are quite literally out of the woods. So for all intents and purposes, it is over.

But it’s not. I can’t stop thinking about the woods. I know it isn’t over.

Credit: Striker Flynn

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