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The Silent Pool

December 17, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I guess I’ll start off with the mundane introduction as to who I am and why I’m telling you this. They want me to hide my identity, so just call me E. I’m currently 16 years old and I’m on holiday in the Philippines.

My mum was Filipina. As a result, we spent most summers here to escape the dreary grey skies of Britain. I have to admit that the change of scenery is really rejuvenating; I had just finished my GCSEs (exams), so lazing around on a beach for a few weeks seemed ideal. The Philippines, on the whole, is a vast place, being more of an Archipelago than a country.

On the night of the 26th, my father, mother and I left Manila, the city where the airport is, and headed for M….they don’t want me to tell you. It’s a beach resort with palm trees, coral and sunsets in abundance. That’s about all I can say I think.

It’s not the average resort you come across, as the actual accommodation was, in traditional Filipino style, wooden villas overlooking the turquoise sea. I stayed in Villa 22, whereas my parents stayed in 23 – the two villas were connected by a bamboo bridge on the first floor, so they could check up on me to see if I was getting on alright. I lived a pretty sedentary lifestyle, so the majority of my days were spent listening to music on the hammock, tied to two protruding wooden logs on the balcony. Mum and dad knew that, from an early age, I had been relatively independent, so they would only see how I was doing once a day, if that. Allowance would be given, and we would only meet for occasional lunch and dinner.

This resort was built upon a hill, meaning the stairs going to our villas were extremely steep. The steps were essentially rock slabs, with encrusted seashells, going up the hill. From what I can remember, it was a fairly old resort; the staff maintained the grounds well, but you could see wear and tear in some of the rooms, and the swimming pool had an unnerving reddish tint. I never saw anyone enter it. Signposts were scattered across the hotel, directing guests to one of the several restaurants, spas and restrooms on the tiny island.

Being curious, I asked the resort staff if there was another swimming pool on the island as the colour was too off putting; I have had eczema, among other multiple skin conditions, for all my life, and the sea’s salt water stinged like hell. Contrary to their usual upbeat, helpful nature, the Filipino staff seemed hesitant to even respond to my question. I repeated the question at least two or three times to other staff across the space of an hour, and the only response I got were blank, icy stares.

Asking the staff here was practically pointless, so I took it upon myself to go online. The search results were…strange, to say the least. Nothing. Not just that, it was like this resort was non-existent on the Internet, even with the hundreds of guests staying weekly. No reviews, no pictures…absolutely nothing.

A couple of days after this, I took it upon myself to personally search the island. The island’s perimeter was 2 miles, at best, and I was feeling confident that I could find a pool, especially as we weren’t the only resort here. I hadn’t actually seen the other resort(s), but loud laughter and native music could be heard during the night from across the island.

At this point, my memory gets a bit hazy. The small, insect-ridden nature path I had taken to find this pool had just stopped. I looked back, and all that I could see was a tropical forest staring back at me, with thick air resting on the forest floor.

“I headest east” I thought, so logically, I opened up the compass on my iPhone and headed west to return to the resort. As I said, my recollection from now is not great, but I distinctly remember walking for hours in between trees and being unable to find the trail. It seemed like the forest would never end, despite heading in the exact same direction.

Then, a lifeline. A signpost in the distance. In fact, it was identical to the ones at the resort, which filled me with joy. Surely, this meant I was back, safe & sound. Except, I wasn’t. The rotten signpost had 5 arrows pointing out of the top, all in the same direction (left). It simply read “silent pool”, engraved deeply in the wooden signs. I knew heading back to the resort was futile, and at least the pool must have someone about that I could talk to about returning. At this point, I didn’t even fancy swimming anymore.

The dense jungle faded almost instantly; instead, a long line of stepping stones along a calm, slow-flowing stream. I wanted to look back to see if the forest was still there, but I couldn’t. I was drawn to the stepping stones like mouse to cheese. Step by step, I made my way across the stream towards a building. I can’t explain what it was, but it was unbelievably tall, and it casted a huge shadow across me. It’s lime green and beige coat of paint was old and flaky to the touch. Again, the words “silent pool” were engraved on the lone skinny door.

There was no turning back now. Having no doorknob or handle, I had to kick the door with some force after two or three tries. It swung open with a bellowing thud.

And, true to its word, there was in fact a silent pool. It had a hot spring style to it, being dug directly into the ground with steaming, natural water. Nobody was around, and the derelict structure I found myself in looked like it hadn’t seen a visitor in years. I undressed, put on my swimming shorts, and slowly entered the silent pool.

I gotta admit, at first it was pretty relaxing. It was really just like any other hot spring, which made me wonder why it was so secluded and unmaintained. Was there an accident here? Did they run out of money? I laid there, in the silent pool, feeling increasingly uneasy minute after minute. The only thing that was really ‘comforting’ me were the crickets and birds making noises in the background – this white noise helped to distract my mind from overthinking too much.

And just like that, it stopped. The crickets and birds were just…silenced. With my back to my change of clothes, I turned around and exited the silent pool, too afraid to continue bathing. As I looked up from where my clothes were positioned, two figures glared down at me. They were both completely charcoal-black, with a slender build, no limbs (bar one arm each) and hollowed-out holes for eyes. No mouth, no emotion, yet I could feel the two beings smiling. The hairs on my body stood up with fright beyond comparison; I opened my mouth to scream for help, but nothing came out.

The left-figure, much shorter than the right, picked up my clothes and politely handed them to me and helped me out of the silent pool. Why?! Then I thought, “if they wanted to kill me, I would be dead already”. This unsettling fact eased me a bit, and over a minute or so I began to notice their friendly nature. Maybe they were Angels, or spirits of good.

Without making a sound, the two entities glided across the stony surface around the pool and out the door I had opened. The outside that I could see through the door was…nothing. And by nothing, I literally mean no space, no matter, just emptiness. It wasn’t black…it wasn’t any colour for that matter. I turned around and yelled at the beings for an explanation. The taller, right-hand side spirit simply carved the word ‘mata’ into the side of the wall with its lone arm. For those who don’t know Tagalog, it translates to ‘eyes’.

After looking at the word, observing it carefully to see anything else I hadn’t spotted, I looked back up at the towering dark spirits. They both did a synchronised point to their respective hollow eye-holes, before pointing to my fingers. At this point, as any logical person would, I ran. Well, I tried, but I couldn’t move. I was frozen in space, with only my limbs being free from this paralysis. I tried to ring the police from my phone, but instead I was greeted with a red screen if I tired turning it on.

They were still pointing, at my fingers. I didn’t know what exactly they were asking, so I asked them nervously what they wanted. Both of them got the sharp end of their stump arms and carved holes into their faces. They didn’t bleed, or even react with any pain from this. They didn’t have skin, exactly, but I didn’t want to find out what it was instead to be honest.

Then, it spoke. The sheer fact it spoke was creepy enough, but it’s voice…was my father’s. “Son, do you want happiness?” it asked me. I replied with a hesitant “yes”, shielding my face with my hands. I couldn’t bare looking at its hollowed-out eyes anymore. The shorter, left spirit, this time with my mother’s voice, asked me the exact same question, to which I replied “yes”.

They explained to me how I got lost in the human world, and ended up in their world by mistake. They said that human eyes don’t see the world fully, but only what evil entities want you to see – they will create a normal looking, matrix-reality for you to live in before capturing your soul when you die. Everybody goes to hell. Except, not me. I wouldn’t want that. With the most assured I felt in a long time, I got my hands and clawed away, piece of flesh by piece of flesh, before digesting the remains of my eye. I didn’t feel pain, only happiness.

A lot of time has passed since then. I can’t remember the last time I heard another voice except my parents, it must have been hundreds of years ago now. They would tell me everyday how beautiful the world here is, and how they love me. I love them too, I really do. Their cold embrace comforts me. I wait patiently, with my mother and my father, for another lost soul that we can help.

Come visit the silent pool.

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In The Tunnels

December 15, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I was fourteen when I went into The Tunnels for the first time eleven years ago. It was almost the end of summer vacation, a few weeks before school started. There were five of us, six if you counted Chaz, a junior at Pace Middleton. He was going into his senior year and we were incoming freshmen. One of us, I think it was Rob, had met Chaz at a baseball camp. He told him about The Tunnels, and asked if he wanted to see it. Rob told us about it and that was how we all wound up down there one Saturday morning in August. I remember looking at Chaz as he talked. I had heard the stories about what happened to his friend. I didn’t say anything to him. I never know what to say about stuff like that.

He walked us through the graffiti covered main corridor with its nearly seven foot high clearances. The water pooled in the middle, less than half an inch deep. Pentagrams and weird cryptic symbols I didn’t recognize covered the walls. Real edgy teen stuff. In between the graffiti, the walls were honeycombed with the genesis of other, smaller tunnels that branched off the main. Flashlights pointed down those holes revealed smaller tunnels, with ceilings anywhere from four feet high to ones that required crawling on hands and knees. We trailed behind Chaz in barely concealed awe, while he walked backward like a tour guide, explaining the history.

Chaz said it all stated because he was looking for a place to get stoned. Illswell is a small town and like most small towns, it’s attitude on public drug use by teenagers is hardly progressive. Spurred on by the draconian anti-marihuana policies of our great nation, Chaz wandered off to the south end of town, down by the river and the glass factory, in hopes of finding an isolated area to get high. That was where he noticed an old storm grate that seemed to be askew. Pulling it aside, he lowered himself down a worn path and was astonished to come out into the massive environs of The Tunnels. After a few moments of wandering around the cavernous space, he realized he was not only in a bizarre, empty space, but he was in a bizarre empty space that was completely free of parents, police, or any of the other patrician forces who would care if he smoked a bowl in public.

Which he did. And then the next day. And then the next day after that. Pretty soon, The Tunnels became a home away from home for him. Which is when Chaz started to wonder why a small town like Illswell needed such a massive, intricately linked tunnel system. A series of pipes to take away excess rainwater made sense. What he had discovered made no sense.

There were hundreds of tunnels, fanning in all directions. They followed no plan as far as he could tell. Some looped in circles. Others terminated abruptly. Still others seemed to go off for miles, with no end in sight. It was baffling and it seemed like it shouldn’t have existed. And after Chaz spent a few hours researching the city history, he found out that he was right. It didn’t exist.

At least that’s what the public record said. The Tunnels were not real. On paper the city of Illswell had, as one would suspect, an extremely basic water drainage system. One large pipe ran north to south and ten smaller crisscrossed the rest of the area. The infrastructure had been built in the early fifties and, as far as Chaz could tell, hadn’t been adjusted since.

These facts stood in stark contrast to the reality of what was underneath the town. So much so that Chaz wasn’t sure if he was going crazy. So he began to conduct himself scientifically. He swore Steve and their other friend Ray to secrecy and then enlisted the two in his project, explaining as much as he could while trying to sound as sane as possible. Once all the parties were all on the same page, the three descended into The Tunnels armed with pens, compasses and notebooks. They were going to map the system and find out exactly what was going on.

Almost immediately, bad luck struck. One of them, Ray, was grounded for failing geography (an irony lost on no one) and then there were two weeks of solid rains, rendering The Tunnels impassible. By the time the rains had ceased and everything was dry enough to explore, nearly a month had passed.

Once they got in The Tunnels, the frustration vanished in the face of the their task’s immensity. Beneath Illswell, The Tunnels splayed out in a hundred contradictory directions. The job to map them, the boys realized, was Sisyphean at best. Nevertheless they tried, diligently going after school to wander and sketch starting points and ending points and everything in between, meeting up later as a group to map out the territories as best as they could. Which is when, almost two months into the project, they realized why the area was so large:

new tunnels were appearing.

They didn’t know how it was possible. There was no construction work, no jackhammers, no machines, but somehow new tunnels were coming into existence at a rate of nearly one a week. Ones with ragged edges and the same sort of bizarre graffiti that infected the main corridor. Weird human like shapes but hunched over and with long tails, painted in a strange shining black ink.

Chaz and his friends decided they needed to talk to someone about what they had discovered. Ray’s dad was the unanimous selection. Not only was he a lawyer, he was also friendly with some people in the local government. Out of anyone they could approach, they assumed he was the most likely to be able to help.

Long story short, he wasn’t. First, Ray’s dad told the boys they must have made a mistake. When confronted with the unimpeachable facts of their maps, he grew silent, studying them. Then he cleared his throat and told the three that The Tunnels weren’t a place for kids. That he knew about them, that everyone in charge of Illswell knew about them, and that the boys were putting themselves at a risk going down there. The Tunnels, he explained, weren’t for us.

But he declined to say who they were for.

He made the three swear on a Bible that they wouldn’t talk about it and would certainly never go down there again. After he left the room, the boys stared at each other in Ray’s living room with its nice TV and huge bookshelves and expensive furniture.

“What the fuck was that?” Steve whispered.

Ray, Steve and Chaz decided to ignore Ray’s dad’s advice. They were going to keep going into The Tunnels until they discovered what was going on down there. They planned on starting that night, but the prediction of storms had them put their plans on hold.

The next morning as rain came down in great sloughs, drenching the landscape and turning the world grey and blurry, Steve called Chaz. Ray had disappeared last night. He must have gone into The Tunnels before the storms started.

After he hung up the phone, Chaz rode his bike down to the storm grates, pedaling so fast he crashed twice. When he got there, all he could do was stare at the flooded corridor.

They found Ray’s body a few weeks later, bloated and egg sac white from the unrelenting waters. He was naked, too, but the police ascribed that to the simple process of drowning and the degradation of the elements.

But there was something else. The body was covered in bite marks. Small, tiny bite marks. It was odd in that he hadn’t even been partially consumed. Just almost…nibbled. The bites formed a strange, cryptic pattern that Chaz and Steve immediately recognized, staring at the visible wounds on the neck of their friend’s corpse in his black coffin. When they left the funeral home, they looked at each other.

“Those marks…” Chaz said.

“They’re the same as the ones on the walls of the corridor,” Steve finished.

“And that,” said Chaz, finishing his story as we stared at him, open mouthed and gaping, “was when we decided we needed to find out what was going on in the The Tunnels.”

His words echoed in the suddenly sinister space of the great main corridor in which we stood, our shoes wet in the standing water.

“Why’d you tell us this? Is this a joke or something?” I asked, my voice shaky and weird sounding in the dark.

“We need help. We can’t do this on our own. I don’t want Ray to die over this and then nothing happens. We want to figure this out. You guys want in?”

I believed him. Even if his story sounded so absurd I was worried it was a prank, and I was going to be the incoming freshmen getting punked by the senior, I still believed him. The way he was staring at us, his eyes hollowed out and glowing, made something in me that usually wasn’t there present. I spoke up, my voice ringing in the enormous place.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m in. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Unfortunately I found out.

***
Chaz was almost thirty, but he looked older than that with his thinning hair and grey stubble. His teeth were bad when he smiled which he didn’t do a lot of, which was sort of a good thing, I guess. I had agreed to see him while I was home for a few days, but I told him I didn’t want to talk about The Tunnels, or what had happened to Steve. He said that would be fine. I got the sense that he was lying.

We met at a fast food Mexican place near my parents. It had opened after I moved out. I had only been back to Iswell twice since turning eighteen — once for Christmas and then for my dad’s funeral. Other than new taco places, it hadn’t changed at all.

Chaz had, which he acknowledged.

“I look different, huh?” He asked as we sat down at a table near the window.

“We all do,” I shrugged. But not like him. He didn’t look different. He looked battered.

“It’s my job,” he said. “They’re kicking my ass all day up there, Timmy.”

“Where do you work?” I wasn’t really that curious. I just was trying to make conversation.

“Mihn hospital. Near Greyson, out on 118?”

“My dad worked there. That’s quite a commute.”

“No jobs here, man. So it’s either a drive or,” he laughed, “you know, no drive.”

“A drive is definitely better, yeah. I hear you.”

“Plus,” he said, in between bites of his soft taco, “I’m pretty sure that the hospital has something to do with The Tunnels.”

I put down my taco and stood up.

“It was good seeing you, Chaz,” I said. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“No, don’t get up, please. Sit down. Please. Ok?”

I stared at him. He looked so desperate, rail thin and ratlike in the dirty fast food light. I sighed and sat down.

“I’m not talking about them, Chaz. I don’t want to think about —”

“I work in the animal labs at the hospital,” he interrupted me. “They do experiments on animals. The neurosurgeons. You know that? They get all this money and they do all these experiment. On all kinds of animals. Cats, monkeys, dogs —”

“I said I’d stay here, but I’m not going to just sit and listen to this. It was nice seeing you.”

“— rats,” he said and he made eye contact with me. He stopped talking and so did I. Above us, the ceiling fan spun lazy circles.

He played with the straw in his drink while we didn’t talk. Behind him, some guy was ordering a burrito. The place made terrible burritos.

“I clean the cages at in the hospital,” he began after the silence, “it pays nine dollars an hour. That’s the only reason I took the job, I swear. I wasn’t thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it. You think I do?”

I saw a woman at the table next to us look at us. She was with two kids who were petulantly eating nachos. She was trying to look like she wasn’t listening.

“But I took the job there. I didn’t think it would…” He looked away, at the register, at the sign for the bathrooms, then back at me. “I clean the cages. That’s all. But when I went into the rat room, I was by myself. I felt weird. Looking at them. Listening to them. But they weren’t…you know.”

“I know,” I said. My heart was pounding.

“But then, one day, they looked at me. I was by myself. Just me and all of them. And I swear I heard that noise.”

Someone dropped a tray. Both of us jumped. My knees banged the table.

“Are you sure? It was that noise?” I said, settling back down. The kid who had dropped his tray was staring in horror at his tacos splayed across the grey tile floor.

“Do you forget what it sounded like?” Chaz asked.

I shook my head. Sometimes I felt like I could still hear that noise.

“That happened two days ago” he said. He leaned across the table. “I haven’t gone back yet. Called off both days. They think I’m bullshitting them. But I can’t go back. I still go to Ray’s grave once a year. I stopped going to Steve’s. But I worry. I worry about —”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” I shouted and slammed the table. The mom with her kids stared at me. I lowered my voice. “I’m not here to talk about it. You said you didn’t want to talk about it.”

“I had to get you here and you wouldn’t come any other way.”

“Why? Why do you need me to —”

“I gave some kids the maps. They’re like, what do you call them? Urban explorers? They had heard about The Tunnels. I think they’re going to go in.”

“What?” I hissed. “You did what? Did you say what happened down there?” The mom with the kids was still staring at me.

“No, I didn’t tell them. You think I want them to think I’m crazy?”

“How could you give them the maps? After what happened?”

“They gave me money,” he said. He looked horrible. Pale and sickly. I remember hearing about what had happened to him. What he had started doing. “I don’t know. I shouldn’t have. I know…”

“When did they go in?”

“Two days ago,” he said. “I think.”

I got up.

“Where are you going?” Chaz asked. “You can’t. It’s been raining and — man, you can’t.”

“Why?”

“You know why,” he said. “They’re still down there.”

“I’m going,” I said, “and you can come if you want.”

“But —”

****

“—we’re going in. Tonight,” said Steve the last night I ever talked to him, almost eight years ago. His voice crackled over the phone connection.

“Tonight?” I asked. “It’s been raining.”

“Not that much. Chaz is there already. He said it’s fine.”

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there in, like, twenty minutes.”

The line went dead. Steve was awful at saying goodbye.

I left a note for my mom and dad that I had gone out. My mom was out at dinner with a friend. My dad was at work. He was always at work. After he died, I was startled by how little my life felt changed by his absence. I suppose he had never been there, so his death was merely the continuation of a theme, a running joke that hadn’t been that funny.

Whenever I tried to think of him all I could ever recall was him going to or coming from his job. I barely even knew what he did. Whenever I asked him, all he would is that he was trying to make a better world. My mom told me once I should never marry anyone who mistook their work for their life.

The Tunnels were a fifteen minute bike ride from my house. I loved Illswell because it felt trapped in time: an early eighties Spielberg movie with big rambling houses and cinematic cloud streaked skies. In the fall, leaves fell off of massive trees onto the bright black asphalt of quiet streets besides the sidewalks cracked by dandelions pushing up from the underground. Life is resilient.

That night was the last time I was in The Tunnels, I was seventeen. Out of all my friends who heard Chaz’s speech, I was the only one who had decided to help with their project. The other guys thought the whole thing was stupid at best, dangerous at worst, but I didn’t care. I wanted to learn the secret.

My whole life I had read books about mysterious cities and strange other worlds. The fictional undergrounds of my childhood literature seemed suddenly tangible. Everything was possible. I was on the verge of interrupting a grand mystery. I felt elated.

I also felt a grand, horrific boredom. For as mysterious as The Tunnels were, they were also essentially just big fucking holes. The weird graffiti was baffling, as was the emergence of new tunnels, but none of that ever turned into anything. I thought that maybe it never would.

Until that night.

We went in late, after seven. The streetlights were all on and it had been raining intermittently all day. We thought The Tunnels would be still dry enough to get through without any flooding. We were right about that at least.

The years of obsessive exploring hadn’t been good for any of us. I was in high school and everybody thought I was the weird kid who didn’t do anything, didn’t date anyone, and only hung with two shady older dudes. Steve was inarguably the most well adjusted. He worked part time at packing facility, lived in his own little apartment, had even stared seeing some girl. In contest, Chaz had fallen apart. Something about Ray’s death had driven him crazy. He copied down the patterns on the walls and filled notebook after notebook with drawings of them. I think he thought it was an alphabet — like hieroglyphics. Or maybe he believed it was some sort of weird code. No matter what he actually thought it was, his increasing devotion to it, and the subject of The Tunnels in general, was troubling to Steve and I.

Chaz had also started taking acid before he went underground, something he hadn’t told us. I’m not sure how it was even possible, but it slipped by both of us. Later, Chaz told me that the drug’s effects, combined with his nearly psychopathic focus on the area, allowed for an intense quasi-religious experience. He explained that that the dark and the hallucinations made him feel that he was on the verge of discovering some kind of God.

Going into The Tunnels that night something felt strange. My pulse was racing as I walked into the corridor. There was only a little water on the ground. I can still hear my chucks splashing in it.

“Let’s go,” Steve said. “We can finish tunnels 19-24 tonight if everything breaks right.”

The tunnels we were working on that evening were small and cramped. We had to crawl through most of them, which I hated. The trapped claustrophobia of it, the top of the concrete scraping my shoulders, my face almost in the dirty ground, made my body tense. I found it hard to not race out. Panic was always barely below the surface.

For the last couple of trips down, I had been hearing a noise. A strange sort of chittering. I asked the other two and they said they hadn’t heard it. This night, as I crawled into tunnel 21, I heard it again. Louder.

The graffiti in 21 was bizarre. Lots of crude drawings of what almost looked like houses with strange hunched over things standing next to them. Things with long tails.

21 was also one of the narrowest we were able to get in. I could barely fit through some of the smaller sections. I had never been in the one part I was trying to maneuver through. I thought I was trapped at one point — unable to move forward or backward. It was like when you have a ring on your finger that you can’t get off. You pull and you pull but it doesn’t come over the knuckle. You start to sweat and then, magically, it pops off. That’s what I kept trying to think off as i pushed my body as hard as I could, then harder, then …

I broke free and the tunnel expanded significantly. I was able to breath again, which I did. Great gasping gulping breaths of air. So loud I almost didn’t hear the chittering noise until it reached an unholy din.

I swing my flashlight to the darkness before me and gasped.

The tunnel had opened up to nearly three feet high. There along the edges were strange, horrifically primitive drawings of four humans. They were nearly cubist in their approximations of the human form but there was also a horrible familiarity to them.

They were pictures of Steve, Chaz, Ray and me.

The picture of Ray had X’s through his eyes.

The chittering was getting louder. I turned around and wedged myself back into tunnel 21. I was screaming for the other two as I scrambled through the dirty cement hole.

I came out into the corridor. Ray was standing in shock in front of the tunnel he had been in.

“We have to go!” I was screaming at him. “Where is Steve?”

He didn’t say anything. Just pointed behind me.

I turned around.

Steve was at the edge of the corridor. Something was holding a black hand, or maybe a paw, over his mouth. His eyes looked like two moons glowing in the black night. I could tell he was trying to scream.

The dark thing was with other dark things. They were hunched over, almost human but obviously not, even in the darkness. I saw long tails. I heard the chittering. It almost sounded like human speech.

I heard a noise next to me and turned. It was Chaz, running as fast as he could, away from the things and toward the exit. I turned back and saw Steve vanishing into a tunnel.

I wanted to say I tried to save him. But I can’t lie.

I ran, following Chaz, out of The Tunnels for what I thought was forever.

And now, here I was with Chaz, staring at it again.

“Long time, huh?” Chaz asked.

It was past sunset. The sky was all bruised yellow and pass out red colored. Chaz was scratching his arm. I could see scab marks along his veins. I remembered him that night, running out of there with me. When we stopped, what felt like miles later, he told me he was never going back. Ever.

I remember how he got strung out after that. Photo albums of bad scenes on facebook, a selfie of him smiling with blood in his mouth, holding one of his teeth, posted without explanation or caption. I heard he got arrested for possession — meth, oxys, heroin. He did time upstate. I went out of state, went to a small liberal arts school. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t met anyone. I stayed in my room. I drank when no one else was up. Then I started drinking when people were up. Then I stated drinking when I woke up. Anytime, really. Anytime I thought about this place, I drank. And I thought about it all the time.

I looked at Chaz.

“Let’s go,” he said. “This isn’t going to get any easier.”

The Tunnels were bigger than they used to be. Things usually reduce as you got older. Here my past seemed to expand to swallow me whole.

As we walked in, I heard the chittering. It sounded like a chorus.

“I shouldn’t have given them the maps,” Chaz said. He sounded like he had said that a million times to himself and he was practicing it aloud. “They gave me money…”

“It’s ok,” I said, even if it wasn’t. “Maybe we can find them.”

The rain waters were beginning to trickle into the corridor. Our flashlights glared dull yellow beams on the walls. I didn’t think we were going to find them.

“That noise…”

“It’s the same one in your lab?”

“I think,” he said. “It sounds so much like that. The rats in there, they look so weird. They don’t look right. They look smart. Like they know something.”

I thought I heard something moving behind me. I spun around and swung the flashlight. If there was something, I didn’t see it. But there it was. In front of tunnel 43.

An old tennis shoe.

“Do you think that’s one of their shoes?” I asked Chaz. He shrugged.

“Maybe?”

We decided to try the tunnel. It was a low one, but not so low you had to crawl. I could hear the water starting to splash in the main corridor. We walked hunched over, me behind Chaz.

The tunnel was long, filled with the graffiti. I hadn’t been there in so long that the vivid strangeness of the art grabbed me, but the obvious rage in the work shocked me. It showed people killing, shooting, dying in a world where the sun shone and birds flew and flowers grew, while underneath, the things with tails showed their teeth and wept.

The chittering was getting louder. The weird noise was turning familiar. Something in its pattern? I couldn’t catch it. We turned in the tunnel and Chaz, who was slightly ahead of me, gasped and stopped. I came out from behind him and froze.

In front of us, in a small room, pressed against each other, on top of each other, and suddenly staring at us, were hundreds of rats.

Seeming them up close, I realized they weren’t quite rats. They were too big, standing over two feet tall, and their faces carried too much if what I would want to call humanity in them to be only rats. But their tails, their greasy fur, their long quivering noses: that was rat. That was all and only rat.

I couldn’t scream. All I heard was their chittering. I could smell them, a hot wet smell like garbage in the sun. I felt sick. I thought of Steve, those things biting into him, all of them, chewing and chewing and chewing and —

“It’s one of the kids,” Chaz pointed. He sounded emotionless, like he was pointing out a car on the highway. “They have him on that stone.”

I looked. There was a stone in the front of the space, and tied to it was a dead teenager. His chest had been cut open. A rat stood next to him with bloody paws holding something raw and red.

“They cut out his heart,” Chaz whispered. “This place. It’s a church. Look.”

He was right. The rats were all facing the stone, which was obviously an altar. The walls were painted and their were candles burning giving off a queasy, flickering light. The rat at the stone had some kind of cloth wrapped around its shoulders. Behind him was a drawing, one I immediately recognized.

The way the rats stood, the way the air felt: we had interrupted some sort of religious ceremony. This was prayer.

Chaz looked at me. “Good luck,” he murmured. I was going to ask him what I needed luck for but then he ran, screaming, into the moving brown ocean of rat. I saw him bitten almost immediately. I heard the way his scream transformed from defiance to agony as he was swallowed in a sea of brown fur. I only saw his face once, the way his eyes were closed as tightly as he could close them, a paw reaching into his open mouth and ripping at his lips….

I turned and ran back into the tunnel, running as quickly as I could. He had bought me a few seconds, I remember thinking. I might be able to get out. And then I remember my foot hitting a puddle, a wet spot on the ground. I went into the air thinking this is the way I die. I remember landing and then hitting my head and then everything went away.

*****

I woke up in the hospital. The cops said they found me half drowned, but somehow still alive at the edge of the entrance to the storm sewers. Next to me was one of the missing kids. He hadn’t been so lucky.

I told the cops I heard the kids had gone into The Tunnels and I had gone in trying to rescue them. I don’t know if they believed it or not. Maybe they didn’t care. I got out of the hospital the other day. Nobody answers Chaz’s phone. I don’t think anybody will. I don’t know why they let me out of The Tunnels and not him, or Steve, or anybody else.

I’m worried I think I know why I survived.

I’m worried I found out what my dad was doing, I’m worried I discovered how he was making a better world. I’m worried because he’s dead and I can’t talk to him about what happened.

And I’m worried because I just heard his voice, sounding as strange and as inhuman as his portrait had looked behind the altar of the rats, asking me to leave my room and to come and see the better world he has built, the world that will become a new and great kingdom upon the earth, a world which is about to begin.

Credit: Kevin Sharp

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Their World Was White

December 14, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Their world was white. For as long as they could remember, the world had been white. Perfectly white snow was all around. Even when the snow had ceased falling from the sky, it was still cold. It was always cold. Cold enough that the snow wouldn’t melt, forever collecting on the ground outside. For as long as they could remember, there had been snow on the ground.

“All is white,” said the girl, huddling by the fireplace. The boy put more wood in the fire, and came over to hug the girl.

“It’s just snowing again,” he said.

Sometimes the snowing would cease, and the white sky would become impossibly clear. But, even then, the world was white. He looked at the dwindling pile of wood.

“We need more wood,” he said. The girl gazed back at him hollowly.

“What about the pile of wood in the attic? We’ve been saving it since the last time it was snowing.”

“This is the last of it.” The fireplace filled the room with its last remnants of heat. The boy and the girl huddled together. Despite everything, they were happy. Yes, this white world was imperfect, but it was their place, and they were together.

The snow always started with an earthquake, and the last one had almost turned their home upside down. Neither could remember a time without earthquakes. The earthquakes were erratic, and came without warning. Around Christmas, they occurred almost daily, but at times they would go for months without one. Yet, even during these times, the world was white.

“I’m going outside to get more firewood,” said the boy

“You have to get the wood now?” she asked. “What if there’s another earthquake; the snow has just barely stopped falling.”

“If I don’t go now, we won’t have enough wood for the next few months.” She kissed him, and made him promise to return to the cabin in one piece.

The boy trekked through the snow, his white footprints marking his way back to the cabin. Other than snow, the cabin was the only thing for miles. When he was in the forest, it seemed as if no matter which direction he walked, he could find his way back home. The forest itself was very sparse, just a few snow-covered pine trees for wood. At first, they had worried the forest wouldn’t be enough, yet the small forest seemed to somehow replenish itself; new trees kept growing back whenever the boy returned for wood. His hands white from the cold, he grasped his hatchet and approached the tallest pine.

“BUT I WANT TO PLAY WITH IT AND MAKE IT SNOW AND YOU SAID I COULD!”

Without warning, the voice had appeared, knocking the boy backwards. He picked up his hatchet and got up from the ground. Turning, he looked around for the voice’s source. Surely, anything that loud would be seen. But he saw nothing but white. He wiped snow from his pant leg and tried to put the voice out of his mind. He had imagined the whole thing. Perhaps it was the cold. The couple had long given up on meeting anyone else out here in their cabin, there couldn’t possibly have been another person. Certainly not a person with such a loud voice.

He gathered the wood and put his hatchet back into his pocket. The ground shook. He grabbed a nearby tree to steady himself. As violent as they were, the earthquakes never lasted long. The worst part was afterward. The snow would fall and fall, impossible to avoid.
The boy had dropped his firewood, and, with difficulty, he attempted to gather it. The snow was blinding. Other than the cabin, there was nothing around for miles. He knew he had to get home. He had their only hatchet, and if he couldn’t get back to the cabin, then the girl would have no more firewood for the constant harsh winter. He slowed his breathing and gazed around him at the white. Each angle looked impossibly like the last. He gathered his nerves and decided to head off through the snow.

Ahead, he saw a clearing. In this clearing, it was not snowing. In this clearing, it was not white. Like the sky, it was impossibly clear. The boy ran towards the clearing, and as he neared it, he was pushed back. Some barrier, some invisible clear sheet was preventing him from making it to the clearing. The boy stood, and put his hands out toward the barrier. It was a sheet of cold glass. Clutching his hatchet, he approached the barrier, when he was knocked back again by the voice.

“HAHA-I WANT TO MAKE IT SNOW AGAIN! I LIKE THIS GAME!”

The boy again looked for the source of the voice, turning around for a sign of anyone nearby.

“Hello,” he called out to the unending world of white. Receiving no response except an echo of his own voice, he turned back towards the barrier. What he saw made him fall back into the snow. A giant hand, large as the sky, was reaching towards the barrier. The hand grasped it, covering the barrier, and blotting out the white sky. Everything went dark. The boy cried out, as he felt the ground move. He slammed into the barrier from the force of the earthquake, desperately clutching for his already erased footprints. The snow attacked him from all sides, and his face was filled with cold. After a few minutes, all was still, and the boy turned to see the giant hand ascending once again into the sky.

“PUT DOWN THE SNOW GLOBE, DEAR,” he heard a loud voice scream. But this was different, an older voice, just as loud. Not knowing, not understanding, the boy picked himself up off the ground and grabbed his firewood. The snow was falling everywhere, and there was nowhere else to head but into the falling blanket of white.

Credit: Miles Purinton

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The House on First Street

December 12, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I grew up in haunted house. Well, at least for the first few years of my life, I believed this to be true. My mom and I stayed for about a year in the house until things got too strange to handle.

My mom was a single parent who was busy working to provide for her son. We couldn’t afford a large house or one in the best neighborhood, so, like most single parents, she took the best that was available. It happened to be an early century row house that sat on a tiny hill in Santa Ana, street number 9899 on First Street.

The house was truly the perfect fit for my mom and I. It had two bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen, and two bedrooms. What more could you ask for on one income, especially in California?

Truthfully, things were great for a while there. I remember having Christmas at the house with our family all gathered around in our small living room and also a few fun evenings with friends.

But then things started to get, well, kind of weird.

At first it was just some oddball moments— things that could be explained away by logical explanations, like a mall earthquake in the night. Things around the house would move ever so slightly. It would be a misplaced book or an open curtain that was closed the night before, or a light left on that we thought had been turned off.

But then the movements became…well…more substantial.

We awoke one morning to find the cupboards in the kitchen open. Every single one of them. My mom looked to me, and I to her. It seemed we both had the same thought: why did you do that?

Of course, neither of us did. After that, our cupboards just couldn’t stay closed. This turned into a morning ritual: get up, make breakfast, close the cupboards, and go to school. But then it was other things too.

One morning we woke up to find all four of our dining room table chairs, thrown about the living room. It looked like someone had tossed them from the kitchen, one by one, heaving (or floating) them to an entirely different room in the house. My mother took a deep breath and put them back at the table like nothing strange had happened.

Now, I was only six at the time, but I remember hearing my mom talk on the phone to a friend. She talked about seeing an old man in the window, a wrinkly face that visited her every night. The face appeared and scowled at her. She hid under the covers until morning. What made the whole ‘face in the window’ thing all the more terrifying is when my aunt stayed with me one night when my mom was out of town for work.

Once again, I overheard a conversation I probably wasn’t supposed to. My aunt asked my mom who the old man in the window was, and if she’d called in a priest or medium to deal with the ‘presence’ in the house. To this my mom replied, “You saw him too?!”

Things only got worse from here on out.

One night we came home kind of late and the entire house reeked of smoke…a very peculiar kind of smoke. It wasn’t the smell of something burning, like our house had been lit on fire. It was pipe smoke; a common smell anyone could recognize who’d ever had a pipe before.

The smell was the strongest in my room, which of course, freaked my mom out to no end. She opened the windows and turned on the fan, but the smell stayed strong, like someone was still in the house lighting up their pipe.

Most folks would have probably fled by this point—chairs that move at night, cupboards that can’t stay open, a face in the window, and now a smell that was as real as someone smoking in front of you—but we stayed, at least a little while longer.

I suppose all of these events were just a precursor to what happened next.

One morning right after I woke up, my mom and I found my toys in the living room. All of them. Mind you, I had a lot of toys.

They were perfectly arranged in stacks according to their kind. My mom asked me when I had moved the toys. I told her I hadn’t. That’s when she ran into my room. In the corner where I kept my toys she found an old pair of boxer shorts and a wooden cane.

My mom was crying at this point, asking me where I’d gotten them. I told her I’d never seen them before. That’s the moment, she said, where she saw the man in the window again, but this time he was standing in the hall grinning at her.

We left after that. The next weekend family and friends helped us move out of the house and we went to stay with my grandma for a while.

Looking back, I’m not really sure what to believe about it. Was it paranormal or something equally as scary, but with real-world explanations? I don’t know, of course, but I’ve always found one memory particularly odd.

The neighbor to the right of our house was an elderly man named Mr. Cochran who lived alone. I only remember meeting him one time officially when we first moved in. But there was something that happened that I never told my mom about.

One day when I was in the backyard playing by myself, I saw Mr. Cochran in his bedroom window. He was just standing there, staring at me. He was wearing boxer shorts, smoking a pipe, and holding a cane in his hand. A twisted smile appeared on his face. He stood there smiling sickly at me, puffing out the smoke from his pipe.

I don’t know, of course, but it always made me wonder. What if our house wasn’t haunted by ghosts or otherworldly entities, but by someone from this realm? What if all those things that took place were real?

To this day, whenever I think about that house on first street, I get the chills.

I just can’t shake the feeling that maybe Mr. Cochran was in our house, watching us sleep, waiting for the opportunity to unleash his next haunting.

Credit: Stephen Pate

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Knock Twice For Murder

December 7, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Tiger can’t change his stripes, tiger can’t change his stripes. That was the motto Jo chanted in her head as she slowly rode over to 7 Brook Street. She found herself circling the block a couple times even after she had located the place, too nervous to act. It was a tall, brick behemoth that sat atop old cement steps with a sharp, sloping green roof and accents to match. The house was old, older than the rest of the city. Finally, she was ready.

She approached the black iron fence and looped her bike chain around and locked it. As she entered the gate, its creaking shut nearly startled her, and Jo had to chide herself for jumping at something so lame. She was seventeen, not some scared little kid, right? She hesitantly made her way up the steps. As the house loomed up at her intimidatingly, she saw thick, ropy vines that came up from the side and split into a dozen winding directions, like a map climbing all across the brick exterior. She might have stopped to snap a pic with her phone on any other day, just passing through. But today this was her mission.

Tiger can’t change his stripes. To her surprise, the dark wooden door had a small bronze slot in front, and yet no knocker. So… was it up to HER to knock twice? How many times does rapping your knuckle on an old door count as “one” knock? She wasn’t told this part, and Jo realized she may not have thought this all through, but then she remembered the cold, unsettling gaze from Timothy Tanzer… and little Kimberly… and she hastily brought her fist down hard on the door, just twice, very quickly. And waited.

A couple minutes went by, and she started scanning the windows of the house, which all seemed shut with velvet curtains from the inside. She took a step back for a better look at the roof, jutting down at her with a hard angle, and peered around the sides of the house- but there was nothing. Jo turned to look at the street and nearly screamed when she noticed a woman in an overcoat and gloves standing by the fence, staring hard at her from the side. Why is she watching me? Did she come because I knocked? Why is she-

Her thoughts were interrupted by a biting gust of wind, and as the woman turned her head to avoid its blast, Jo realized that she hadn’t been staring. The woman had one fixed, unmoving glass eye and one ordinary brown one. It creeped her out a little, but Jo didn’t want to be rude, and gave the lady an uneasy smile. The woman returned it politely and bowed her head, clutching her purse in front of her, as if to defer to the girl. Next in line, Jo figured. Finally, there came a short scraping sound and Jo whirled around to see a man’s hand was reaching out of the slot with an index card.

Tension still gripped her throat as she asked, “Um… what do I do?” There was no answer. “I’ve never been here before. Do I just… write it?” Silence. The hand waved the card at her impatiently, and so she grabbed it, taking a pen out of her school bag. Jo was done asking- she knew what had to be done, and wanted the nightmare to be over with. At the top she scrawled TIMOTHY TANZER, then his address. Her eyes fixed on that one odd line at the bottom, typed there in old-fashioned black lettering that simply read, INFRACTION, with a blank space.

It took a minute to sink in, but Jo was sure of herself. “Child molester,” she wrote. “He hurts little kids.” She wanted to write MORE, about how no one was doing anything about it, how many children were in danger, but the hand was still waiting, tapping its fingernails restlessly on the slot. With a sigh she gave over the card, and the hand withdrew with a small “clink,” the entire exchange wordless. After a last look, Jo went back to the street to retrieve her bike. She gave the woman approaching the steps one more polite smile, trying not to look too long at that eerie glass eye.

All at once, a weight had been lifted off Jo’s shoulders. She rode home trying to bat away the million questions that whizzed around her head. Did anybody see me? Could it all be a sick joke? But she held her head high and turned the corner, washing away any sight of that old house and its secrets. I had to TRY, she told herself. Had to do SOMETHING. And if there’s any kind of justice in this world… well, maybe something will happen to stop that sick bastard.

TIMOTHY TANZER, the flyers had read, beneath a greyscale photo of the man himself. They’d been all over the neighborhood just a few weeks prior- his face plastered on every lamppost, tucked diligently under every windshield wiper. SEX OFFENDER HAS MOVED TO 375 HIGH STREET. COMMUNITY WATCH. Jo had biked the rest of the way home double quick, poster still clutched with a sweaty palm against her handlebar, only to turn the key and run in to discover that her mother had the same one. Mom hadn’t want to know, but in an instant the teen girl was already clacking away on her laptop, her blue-shadowed eyes flicking across the screen at lightning speed.

Timothy Tanzer was convicted of sex assault on a minor, aged 12. He’d just taken a job at the auto shop on Goodman Street. To Jo’s horror, he had touched two OTHER girls, even younger than that, but was only sentenced to 14 years in prison… and got out in nine. Just NINE, she’d thought to herself, seething. A sick, twisted feeling began to grow inside her gut, steadily, like a bird emerging from its shell, flapping wet slimy wings against her stomach. She argued with her mother that it wasn’t fair, that just because they lived in one of those “urban” neighborhoods they couldn’t just dump scumbags in their area, that her little sister was only eight years old and a sweet blonde… but it was no use.

Money didn’t grow on trees. What were they going to do about it, up and move? He had the “right” to go where he pleased, her mother said. And besides, Jo’s parents worked hard enough as it was, and they’d scheduled their shifts this school year to have someone at home at all times to take care of Kim when she wasn’t in school- Dad worked days and Mom was on nights. She didn’t want to stress them anymore, so she dropped it. But it didn’t take long for the bird in her to begin beating hard against her ribs with white-hot rage.

Kimberly didn’t want to take the dirty, smelly city buses that the school district provided for kids like them. She wanted to walk to school with her friends- after all, her big sister biked to and from Our Lady of Grace every day, so why couldn’t she? “Because I’m a big girl,” Jo had told her adamantly, stopping in front of the mirror to hitch up her stockings one morning after the flyers had been found. “Even if you’re walking with your neighbor friends it doesn’t mean you’re safe. You take the city buses, you hear?” She released a held-in breath as the mist of the hair spray evaporated and started toward the door.

The little girl pulled a defiant face. “Have you SEEN those buses? Ain’t nothin’ but creepers on there.” but Jo just didn’t have time for it. “And there’s a very REAL creeper in the white house down the road,” she told her, and the girl went pale. Jo bent down to face her. “Look, I’m sorry. If you’re gonna INSIST on walking with your friends though, always go together in a group, right?” Her sister solemnly nodded, and Jo descended the steps in a hurry, stretching her new plaid dress over the bicycle seat. She smiled as the little girl waved her off, but once she was down the street and Timothy Tanzer’s house loomed into view, she couldn’t help but shudder.

Kimmy was right about one thing; the public buses were rarely on time, and they DID smell bad, but it was all they could get living out where they did. Not like those nice, yellow buses all the suburbanites get to ride in, Jo thought with derision. Preppy bastards. Don’t have to live with no child molesters. Don’t have to ride with hobos and freaks every time it’s cold out. Just trust fund babies, all of them… But she had rushed up to the bike rack and into school. Jo never wanted to be just that “city girl,” and she’d been climbing the social ranks since middle school, forcing smiles, helping with homework, and all that.

So when she sat down for lunch after a week of worrying about her kid sister, it was a mixed table of girls. There were some like Jo, from the same neighborhoods; her old friends. Then there were the popular girls, whose names meant something around here. Jo had started to bike slowly past Timothy Tanzer’s house, sometimes even coming to a stop to peer in through the dirty old windows, leaves gathering at her feet. Often she’d glimpse him just going about his daily life- doing the dishes, watching TV, or just sitting in a ratty old armchair. One day he even looked back out, and she rode away in panic, praying under her breath he hadn’t seen her. She wasn’t about to let some perv get the better of her.

“So they just LET some dirty old fuck move onto your street? That’s disgusting.” Jenny Santori had shaken her head when Jo told them all, her hoop earrings a-jingle, and took a sip of Vitamin water. “But I mean, he’s not allowed to talk to kids, is he? Isn’t that a rule?”

Jo shrugged. “I dunno WHAT the rules are- online it says every state is different. I’d wanna look into it more, but it just makes me sick.”

“I’ll pray for you,” Ruth Madison said, reaching over from across the table. She’s such a Jesus freak, thought Jo. She only hung out with her for the family name- the one plastered across the school’s new library addition. Rich, religious little Ruth… Jo still smiled. “Surely,” the pretty girl continued as Jo pushed around her tater tots, “this man wouldn’t think to touch another child. It’s all so filthy…”

A sly voice had come from the end of the table. “You KNOW, if you really wanna get him gone, there’s ways. One way I know of, anyhow.” Tina. That girl was always trying to stir the pot. She’d probably slept with half the senior boys already and it wasn’t quite October- that was just her way. Jo rolled her eyes, which was how she usually dealt with Tina’s ‘advice.’

“What, bump him off or something? Sorry, girl, but not an option.” Jo took another bite of her sandwich. “And no offense, but you tell a lotta stories.”

“Isn’t that right,” Ruth laughed snarkily. “Tina, come up with a REAL solution.”

“It IS a real solution,” Tina bit back, crossing her arms and pouting her glossed lips. “If y’all are just too dumb to listen, not MY problem.”

And as time passed, Jo had tried, really TRIED, to put Timothy Tanzer in the back of her head- but he seemingly refused to stay there. She started to hear talk. Sonya, the girl across the street, swore she’d seen him outside, complimenting some teen girls jumping rope on their “cool moves.” Sure enough, when Jo biked up one day, she was startled to find him sitting right there on his porch in a yellowed old lawn chair, waving at passers-by. A woman in a wool coat quickened her pace and tugged at the sleeve of her little boy. “Come on, Gordie,” she said, and her heels clacked fast down the sidewalk as she averted the man’s gaze and went inside. Jo had seen enough. She knew she had to act.

So with Halloween right around the corner, and the horrible notion of trick-or-treaters being watched by that creep and his cold, filthy eyes, she decided to take Tina up on her offer of that “solution” one day after school. Jo sat on the steps with the other girls, preening as usual, absentmindedly fixing her bangs and re-applying lipstick when Tina arrived, backpack on her lap.

Jenny sighed. No one ever believed Tina’s gossip. “Jo, aren’t they not allowed to ‘have’ a Halloween? Pedos, like. I think it’s a law or something.”

“No, no, it’s that their LIGHTS can’t be turned on. And they can’t have candy,” Ruth said matter-of-factly, looking all tarted up and smiling that day. She was scoping out the football field- not such a prude after all, Jo thought. “It doesn’t mean kids still won’t go to the door. MY family doesn’t celebrate, and the little ones still come every year…” She sighed and glanced away. “What about the police? Surely they have to, like, watch these people at times like that?”

Jo couldn’t contain her laughter. “Oh, hun, the police do not do SHIT for folks like us. They don’t care.” Ruth gave her a distasteful look. “And besides, they don’t have an officer for every single pervert in the city.”

“She’s right.” Tina was ready to back her up with a mischievous smile, her brown eyes enticing Jo to learn more. “I’ll tell you how to make him go away. Not just for Halloween. For good.”

“I’m listening,” Jo said as she leaned in.

“Well, it’s a real old place. You know, one of those historic neighbors, down by the river.” Jo knew what she meant- she would sometimes ride through all those pretty Victorian gardens and their resplendent mansions in the summer. “You can knock on the door… two times. And when they answer, and you give them the name of someone bad enough, you get your wish granted.”

“Why twice?” asked Jo.
Jenny shook her head. “What wish?” she said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

Tina continued nonetheless. “They’ll take care of them. You write the name, and if they really deserve it, they might get punished. Even killed. It’s not a joke!”

“Yeah, it’s an urban legend. Snopes much?” Ruth laughed. “It if was that easy, and people knew about it, sinners and whores would be dropping like flies.” She stood up and ushered some of her friends with her. “Come on… I don’t like this kind of talk. I’m a CHRISTIAN girl.” And with that, it was just Tina and Jo. Tina had told her she didn’t blame her- that she wouldn’t believe, either, if it wasn’t for her uncle, and then spun one of her usual tales. Her uncle married some nasty bitch who made his life a living Hell.

He had a son from his first marriage that this lady hated. She was on meth, and it made her act insane. Jo listened intently, eager to hear about this mystery house and its powers. “So ONE day, my uncle comes home from work to find her with the kid in the tub, holding him under the water, that bitch,” Tina spat. “She was SICK. So he left, but figured divorce was too good for her. Learned about the house from my grandma. So when he found out, he went there and he knocked, twice. And if you fill out the card with someone who really deserves it… obviously, Auntie Psycho fit the bill, so he did it.”

Jo was on pins and needles. “AND?”

“And a week later, my uncle and his kid were staying in the Motel 6 when they got word my aunt died of an overdose. Ruled the whole thing an accident, the cops. But now they’re free, even got a new house. No crime in that, don’tcha think?”

Jo was wavering, imagining the death of Timothy Tanzer.

As if on cue, Tina chimed in, “Look- somebody needs to do something about this jerk, right? All the adults have got their heads up their asses. Didn’t keep him in jail in the first place. And you think he won’t do it again?”

“No, you’re right.” Jo nodded slowly. “I think maybe he would.”

“Oh, you bet he would. A tiger can’t change his stripes.” Tina rose and gave Jo a friendly pat on the shoulder. “It’s on Brook Street. The house, I mean. It’s the big, red brick one with the gate- number 7, can’t miss it.”

And so Jo had done it. Days went by, then more days, but she still found herself fixated on that tall, strange house. As far as Kimmy went, it was finally too chilly for her to walk, so she agreed to ride that “stupid, smelly bus,” and Jo was over the moon- not just because of that. She finally snagged a cute guy from school, Brandon Soltys, one she’d had her eye on since the 8th grade, along with a dozen other girls. Funny, handsome, and muscular in all the right places. Jo would sit on the bleachers and watch him play football, his leather jacket around her shoulders with a big smile painted on her face when she looked at all the other girls. Jo wasn’t some queen bee, her family wasn’t known for their wealth, but SHE had Brandon.

She’d always thought that once she’d gotten what she was after, she’d feel happy, and yet… that damn house still loomed large in her mind. So many things you could do with a place like that. With the POWER over someone’s life, if that’s how it really worked. But so far, it hadn’t come to fruition, and Halloween neared. At the local costume warehouse, Kimmy was quick to pick out a Disney princess, but Jo mulled it over as she slowly thumbed through all the plastic-sheathed costumes until she found it. Flashy purple, a tight bodice, and sexy black fishnet to top it off. At first her mother balked, but Jo had worked all summer to save up, and was more than happy to chip in. The Friday before Halloween was gonna be a “dress-down” day, so all the kids could show off their costumes- and she was determined to be the sexiest witch there.

It was two weeks after Jo’s visit to “the house,” when she saw a bunch of neighbors outside, talking. She slowed her bike and approached Mrs. Arrowsmith, an old lady she knew from babysitting. “What’s going on?” she asked the woman, who was holding onto her grandkids.

“Well, I know it’s wrong to say but… for these little ones, I personally feel relieved.”
Jo was puzzled. “Did something happen?”
“Yeah, you bet it did,” one of the gossipy moms across the street confirmed. “Didn’t ya hear? That Tanzer guy crashed his car comin’ back from the shop last night.”
“He’s… dead,” Mrs. Arrowsmith whispered, glancing down at the children. “Must have been speeding… the whole thing went up in flames.”

Jo rode stunned all the way home, realizing that she didn’t actually feel bad. He couldn’t hurt her sister, or any other child, EVER again. And she couldn’t help but start adding up more of the world’s villains, the ones we could do without. She took the long way home each day now, finding herself in that historic neighborhood with the brick house almost compelling her to walk back up those steps. The list of people in her head was getting longer.

Jo led Brandon to her lunch table, satisfied with herself, to tell the other girls. To her dismay, they wouldn’t believe her. “You really think that was because of YOU?” Brandon asked, holding her hand and scooping his vegetables with the other. “I mean, I dunno, Jo… sounds like a kid’s story to me.”

Ruth glared at them fiercely with big, thick-lashed eyes. “He’s right. People die in car wrecks every day. Every. Day.” She quickly typed into her phone before looking up at Jo. “No such thing as magic. That’s the Devil’s work, you know.”

“Hey, all I know is, the dude’s NOT coming back. And I’m glad.” Jo finished her water and beamed at Brandon. These girls were all so air-headed- except maybe for Tina, who gave her a knowing glance and a wink. Jo winked back. “And the Devil? If it’s anyone, it was THAT creepy guy. And now he’s dead.”

“Shouldn’t say stuff like that,” said Ruth with a hard look. Oh-so-righteous-Ruth, always keeping her skirt hems at regulation length. Always… well, making eyes at HER man. She snuggled up to him and ignored the girl. “Halloween is the Devil’s time. All parties and sex and joking, when we should be more careful about the… forces all around us.”

Jo giggled. “What is this, Bible study? Jeez, Ruth, lighten up for once.” The girl just turned away, her haughty face gone red. “If anyone ELSE is interested in some of those ‘Devil parties,’ I happen to know a teen night going on at the club on Wheatley Road… BRANDON and I are going.” She smiled and clutched his bicep.

Tina said yes, and so just like that, Jo made up some ‘SAT study group’ to her parents and, leaving her dad to watch Kim, headed over to the spot with Brandon, slouching off his jacket to reveal bare shoulders and the cutest red top. “Hey, Jo! Thanks again for the sweet invite,” Tina shouted over the music, ushering them to a table. “I love it here!” Jo couldn’t help but feel a little enervated- even after getting all dolled up for Brandon, he seemed disinterested, and didn’t want to hear ‘another word’ about the house. He went to fetch them a couple sodas, and she turned to Tina.

“Man, it worked just like you said,” she told her, flashing a grin as she fixed her hair. “I mean, think about how many good things someone could do with the house. How many people-“

But Tina looked dead serious, and touched Jo on the arm, making her recoil in annoyance. “Jo, you can’t think all these people DESERVE to die,” she warned. “Listen- you should NOT go back to that house. That shit can become like… like an addiction, I’m telling you.”

“And how would YOU know?” Jo gave a hostile shake away from Tina’s hand just as Brandon returned, and she cozied up to him, saying, “You said you never went there yourself, right? Maybe you SHOULD.”

“No, Jo. I’m serious about this. My uncle? Who used the house?” Brandon already looked mad- he didn’t believe her, and here was Tina running her mouth. “He became obsessed over it, Jo. Always wanting to go back. Thinking of new people he could… take care of. He even goes on these conspiracy websites about people who shouldn’t be allowed to ‘share the same air’ as us…”

Brandon winced. “Seriously? The dude sounds whacked. Babe, she’s right… I don’t think you should go around there anymore.”

But Jo was incredulous. They were ganging up on her, treating her like some bratty kid, and she didn’t like it one bit. “Well, thanks for the input, GUYS,” she hissed, grabbing her bag.
He stood to reason with her. “Let’s not talk about this anymore. You just need to relax, alright?”
Yeah, I’ll relax. But not with YOU. They both shot her a worried look, but Jo’s cheeks were already burning hot and she wanted out. “You guys don’t understand, okay? Just… have fun without me.” She fixed her skirt and left despite their protests, greeting the cool night air in a huff. Jo had heard about all the trendy places down the road, and now she could forget all about that exhausting house and its temptations, heels clicking up the sidewalk. One night without her thoughts- and the growing list of people that constantly ate away at the back of her skull. Thirsty Thursday, here I come.

Jo’s head hurt. Her EVERYTHING hurt. But it was dress-down Friday, even if she had woken up with a bad hangover and two pissed off parents grounding her for a month. As if, she’d thought, and styled her hair and makeup to go with her hot little witch number. Brandon came into homeroom, but he didn’t sit next to her. She chortled in response- two can play at that game. She turned and faced another guy, leaning in so he could get an eyeful of her tight bodice and extra dark lashes. “So, Scott, what do YOU have planned for Halloween?”

“I, uh, maybe just staying in…” She smiled with satisfaction and turned back to see Brandon with a pissy look on his face. The desk behind him was vacant. Oh, that’s right, Jo remembered with a tinge of anger. Jesus freak Ruth doesn’t CELEBRATE Halloween. If only SHE could get away with missing classes, too, and still passing with honors- except HER family couldn’t just donate whenever they felt like it, getting their daughter through by flashing cash at the academy.

That’s when Brandon took it too far. “Mrs. Penderson?” he asked innocently. “I think Jo might be… in violation today?” You son of a bitch, Jo fumed as she glared daggers at him across the aisle. But the teacher was already walking her way.

“Marjorie, your dress is not appropriate. And take off the hat.” Jo couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her anger and throbbing headache finally boiled over.

“I WON’T,” she spat at her. “It’s part of my costume. And my costume is FINE.”

Mrs. Penderson was taken aback. “Do I smell alcohol on your breath? This is completely unacceptable, Marjorie. You will come with me outside-“

Jo sat straight up and got in her face. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I’m… just… FINE, okay?” The teacher began to march her- wriggling in her grasp- out, as the other kids whispered. Once in the hallway, Jo broke free, humiliated and pissed, knowing her mother was sleeping off the night shift- some old bitch of a teacher wasn’t about to go bother her mom. She made for the doors and to the bike rack even as Mrs. Penderson called out behind her, unlocking her bicycle with trembling fingers and flinging herself on.

Jo’s fury only grew as she raced back to her house, imagining her poor groggy mother awakening to a phone call about what she’d done. No, she wouldn’t. Her costume was a poor choice for riding, and her stockinged legs were cold, but she was almost home. Finally she turned her key and snuck into the living room, her mom dozing a few doors down. She found her mother’s cell phone and turned it to silent- but she wasn’t done yet. The outfit was still too awkward to pedal in, so she quickly slinked to her room to change. Something loose. DARK. For once, Jo didn’t want to be seen.

I’ll go there ONE more time, she told herself, back on her bike and flying past side streets. Surely knocking just once doesn’t kill somebody. Maybe it just… puts them in their place. All she could picture was Mrs. Penderson, with her strict, stupid little rules. Probably went to some expensive fancy school to get her degree, never had any fun… THAT’S why she’s so pissy, always trying to come down on kids so she can FUCK UP their lives for something as dumb as drinking. Which everybody does anyway. She turned the bend and there it was- that brick Victorian beauty, calling her name.

But as Jo pedaled up to the gate, she all at once stopped, her breath caught in her chest, and dove behind some bushes, ditching her bike. It was that BITCH. Ruth Madison. Suddenly it all made sense- always eyeing Brandon, getting on her high horse about Jesus this and sinful that, and now SHE was the one at the door? To her horror, Jo heard her knock- just once. She craned her neck and watched the girl pull out a card, then scribble on it. Before Jo could say anything, Ruth handed it over and, with a closing of the mail slot, descended the steps.

“What the Hell did you DO?” Jo emerged from the bushes as Ruth’s eyes got wide with shock, and she made for her waiting blue car. “Take it back, right now!”

“We get what’s coming to us,” Ruth shouted defiantly, opening the driver’s side door.
“What did you DO to me, damnit? Answer me!”

Ruth just gave a curt little smile. “You really are a witch, you know that? YOU’RE the one who let me know the house was here, Jo. Maybe it’s what you DESERVE.” And with that, the door was shut and Ruth sped off, Jo still screeching at her AND the door. In desperation she ran up to it and knocked frantically, but only the hand emerged, card ready, which just served to feed her madness.

“I DON’T WANT ONE OF YOUR STUPID CARDS, JUST GIVE ME MINE!” The hand abruptly drew itself back, and she continued to shout and plead, but to no avail. Stepping away, Jo’s thoughts turned to other possibilities- she COULDN’T let Ruth’s card go fulfilled. Her mind set on sabotage, she went to the alley beside the house. Jo ran her hands over the brush and, finding a loose brick, used it to smash a hole in the cellar window.

Even as her fingers were nicked and cut, her heart beat fast, and she quickly brushed away the glass, blood dripping down as she examined the entrance she’d made. Squeezing in, she crawled through and dashed up the musty old steps of a long-unused basement. Jo discovered herself in the parlor of the house, all decked out in beautiful rugs and Old World finery. But she headed at once to the front door- she knew she wouldn’t have much time.

To her dismay, a mountain of cards met her there, and she dropped to her knees and began frantically sorting through them, looking for her name. As she tossed aside paper after paper without success, she heard a thump from up the stairs, which sat behind her made of wood and covered with a well-worn carpet. She feverishly continued the search until at last she spotted familiar handwriting. Her OWN handwriting. With a quiver in her chest she lifted the card for a better view. It was something she filled out at the beginning of each year- an information card the school kept on file. That bitch, what did she get her hands on, she thought, her eyes scanning quickly down past her name, her address, her parish… and there it was, the same typed letters she had so often pictured in her mind.

INFRACTION. And after that, the response by Ruth. The rich bitch. The self-righteous schoolgirl. It simply read, “PRIDE.” Without warning there was a noise upstairs, and Jo tried wildly to tear the card, but somehow it would not shred. All she managed to do was get her own blood, still wet from the glass cuts, smeared over the words. Pride. God DAMN her! If she couldn’t destroy it, she would steal it. As footsteps approached the staircase, Jo got to her feet and took in the room. There HAD to be something else… and then an odd gleam in the corner caught her attention.

Installed next to the door was an old, faded bronze plaque, and its engraving brought out a primal fear inside her. It read: DISFIGURED- Price- One knock. DEAD- Price- Two knocks. TAKEN- Price- Three knocks. Taken? Jesus, what could THAT possibly mean? But Jo didn’t have time to find out; at the sound of another footstep, she ran like Hell back down into the cellar, haphazardly climbed through the window, card still in hand, and got onto her bike. She reluctantly dusted off her old helmet, for protection, and put it on. Then she rushed away from the house faster than she’d ever pedaled before, reeling from what she’d seen.

Jo only knew one thing: she had to get home, NOW. Pride is a fucking sin. I’m not a sinner, she told herself, taking care as she continued down every shortcut she knew. I can’t get hurt- DISFIGURED, oh God- if I just stay at home, away from everybody. She tried to build up her confidence as she whizzed past the neighborhoods full of jack-o-lanterns and decorations. No trick-or-treating with Kimmy. No parties.

Plenty of shit could go wrong Halloween night- fireworks, pranksters; Hell, maybe there was even some truth to this idea of “demons” coming out. After all, hadn’t she just tried to rip an unrippable card? In a house that can kill a man just by taking down his name? I can lay low, I’m already grounded. It’ll be OK. Almost home. Her heart calmed to a more steady rate as she biked around a sharp turn- only to come face-to-face with a group of kids in costume, exiting a Halloween store.

Jo yelled and swerved hard to avoid them. A blur of color was all she saw as her bike veered off to the side, and all at once she went flying forward, over the handlebars and into Mrs. Arrowsmith’s prized hedge. Its thick, giant branches shot up at Jo as she was thrown in face-first and screaming.

Credit: TheJinx

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Crimson Grove

December 5, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Delia jogged into the forest, smiling as she listened to her mother’s cry to be careful. She was going to play with the fairies, they would keep her safe! Running over upturned roots and thick underbrush, Delia’s slipper-clad feet barely touched the ground as she sprinted past the tall Elms, moving deeper into the Worley Woods. Streaks of sunlight breaking through the thick canopy became fewer and fewer the deeper into the Woods she ran until she reached a moss covered, sunken grove that seemed to be in perpetual twilight, glints of sunlight from high above flickering like stars in the night sky.

Standing on a boulder overlooking the grove, Delia slid down to her rear, folding her arms around her knees as she stared out over the expanse of crimson that covered most of the grove; blood-red flowers, their petals wide and rich lined the forest floor like a thick carpet. Staring out over the peaceful scenery for a few moments, Delia reached into the small sack she’d slung over her shoulder as she’d left home today. Pulling out a biscuit, hard and cold from the time that had transpired between breakfast and now, she tossed it idly into the air a few times, catching it only to study the crumbing edges.

The flowers rippled, like the surface of a pond you threw a rock into, as the quiet calls of far off birds fell silent. Delia smiled, looking down at the sea of red expectantly.

“It’s okay,” she said, catching the bread in one hand, “it’s just me. Come on out.”

A faint buzzing, like the wings of a bee, fluttered from several points beneath the red petals, glittering points of light glowing from beneath the darkened leaves.

“I brought food again,” Delia said, holding up the biscuit high in the air.

A faint wind blew over the vale, a slight coppery scent filling the air that Delia savored; it smelled so familiar. The shepherds’ daughter could never place where she had smelled the slightly sweet scent before, but the flowers fragrance was something she had smelled before. It was sweet, it was salty… it was something she couldn’t put her finger on.

A small head breached the bed of flowers, black and shiny as if moist from morning dew. The head was dominated by one silvery eye and a pair of pointed catlike ears, devoid of fur. Instead, strands of tar seemed to connect the ears to the head, which stretched and pitched as the ears rotated atop the misshapen head. In the perpetual twilight of the grove, Delia could see dozens of glimmering eyes hiding beneath the flowing red petals, watching her.

Winding her arm back, Delia pitched the biscuit out over the grove, smiling as the tar-like Fae buzzed into the air with glistening wings, stretching out three-fingered hands to catch the biscuit, which was half its size, midair. The creature gave a flash of sharpened fangs as it bit into the bread, fluttering slowly back into the foliage below, rending off a piece of crispy bread which it noisily chomped on. Arms stretched out, tiny yellowed bones visible beneath the holes in the tar as they elongated, tearing off small portions of bread as it came within reach. Slowly, the black fairy was engulfed in the sea of crimson once more, the petals parting and flowing around him like the ebb of the tides.

Pulling another biscuit from her sack, she broke it in half and hurled it across the grove, giggling as another of the twisted little creatures leapt into the air. She entertained herself for a few minutes, unloading bread into the grove to the waiting maws of the ravenous sprites until she came across a strip of cold bacon.

Eyeing it carefully, she pulled it out and sniffed it. She could feel eyes roaming over the strip of meat, practically hear mouths salivating- the sprites were obviously intrigued.

“The stories all say you can grant wishes. Is this true?” Delia asked, finally bringing up the subject matter after weeks of visiting the small folk. She’d discovered the vale nearly a month ago, almost falling from the circle of mossy boulders that surrounded it. She’d dropped her honeyed treat into the grove while regaining her balance, the lemon bar disappearing like a drop of water into the sea. She’d almost gone after it until she’d heard the sounds of the little creatures eating it just below her.

Now, after weeks of feeding them, she wanted to know more about them.

“Answer me or no more food.” She threatened, holding the bacon over the lip of the boulder, dangling it enticingly.

Angry chatter echoed from beneath the red tide until one lone voice remained. It was thick and heavy, with its words sounding like the bending of wood in a storm. “Food. Wishes for food.”

“Alright,” she said, tossing the bacon out lazily, smiling as three separate sprites leapt out, and tearing into the bacon mid-air while violently scratching at each other with inch long talons. She watched the buzzing forms tumble back into the flowers, their wings clacking angrily before she continued. “You know of my family, right?”

Hisses and clacks rose from the flowers, the voice finally emerging once again, “Yes…”

“Good. Then you know we struggle to make ends meet. The sheep produce just enough wool to clothe us, and their meat is just enough to keep us fed. Between the animals we raise and the herbs we sell from the forest, we can barely pay our taxes. And now my father has fallen ill.”

The voice, hoarser this time, rasped, “Food?”

Delia grunted irritably and fished out another slice of bacon, holding it above the red field, the wind blowing softly through her hair, carrying the copper-scented pollen with it. The chattering rose in tenor. “I want silver, silver and gold. Enough to pay for the medicine we need to make my father better. Give me this, and I’ll continue feeding you as I have been.”

She threw the bacon down into the flowers to punctuate her statement, smiling as she heard the tiny beings scrap amongst each other, jockeying to get a slice of the salty meat. Scraping her slipper along the mossy boulder, Delia looked down to watch the flowers pitch back and forth, rippling chaotically until the meat was gone. The flowers swayed gently from side to side, their wide blossoms waving over the tiny black fairies.

“Can you give me what I want?” Delia asked, pulling out her last strip of bacon.

“Lower a basket… lower a basket and give us food… you get what you need…” The voice clucked, the sound of rustling leaves telling her that her forest friends were moving to and fro beneath the crimson petals.

Pulling out the roasted leg of lamb and three biscuits, Delia shook her sack empty of crumbs before looking over the edge. “I’ll lower my sack, you just fill it up.”

Sliding the satchel through her hands, she slowly began to lower it into the crimson sea of flowers below her. Resting on her knees as she did this, she could only marvel at the countless flowers that seemed to move of their own accord, swallowing up her satchel as she lowered it the few feet from where she sat. She felt a few tugs on the material, heard the clattering voices and the clacking wings… the flowers scent was almost overpowering, flooding her senses with the coppery odor she could not place.

Slowly, she felt the bag grow heavier. Heavier and heavier, and heavier still. Shifting it between her hands, she heard the clinking of metal on metal, the sliding of coins against the fabric of her bag. The clattering voices fell silent as she began tugging up the satchel, grunting as she did so. The bag was so heavy now!

Smiling as the edge of her sack broke the surface of the red petals; her smile grew wider when she caught sight of the hundreds of silver coins weighing it down. Hefting it up to her and over the edge of the boulder, she heaved a sigh before laughing. Grabbing a biscuit, she threw it out over the grove in thanks before plunging her hands into the bag of coins. Each coin was thin but heavy, with a worn face embossed on each one, etchings around the edges in a strange language she couldn’t make out.

Shifting her knee, she was surprised to see the boulder beneath her bore a similar symbol beneath the fuzzy moss. Dropping the coins back into the satchel, she scraped away a few feet of moss, to reveal a myriad of unidentifiable sigils. They were carved around the lip of the grove, at the edge of the boulder; beneath them were crude engravings of fairies, not like the ones in the vale before Delia, but with butterfly wings and childish grins. Taking out one of the coins, she flipped it over to examine the raised features of a regal looking figure. The sigils on the other side of the coin looked like the ones forming a ring around the grove, the carved stone twinkling merrily as the carvings had been inlaid with metal.

“Food…” the voice hissed, catching Delia’s attention. “Food for treasure!”

“Oh, yes… here, the main course!” Delia said, grasping the leg of lamb and tossing it out into the vale as far as she could. Spinning in a lazy arc, a dozen black tar fairies leapt from the ruby forest floor, latching onto the leg and dragging it down into the depths below.

“Why is there a ring of fairy writing around your grove?” She asked, one hand cupping the bulging sack of silver in her lap.

The voice didn’t answer at first, but after a few moments of gnashing teeth and noisy chewing, she got her answer. “Cage… keeps us here.”

“You’re caged? Who would do that?” She asked, outraged that her friends were kept imprisoned. Fairies were supposed to live in the forest freely.

The voice crackled as it answered. “We did… end fighting with others goes into hiding… shhh… keeps them out while keeping us in.”

“Oh,” she said, moving to stand up. “Well, then I guess I’ll leave you to your meal. Thank you for the silver!”

The fairies hissed low, moving amidst the flowers as she stood over them. “Meal isn’t over…”

“Well, that’s all the food I brought. I’ll bring more next time, I promise!” She said, grabbing the slings of her satchel.

Lifting the satchel up as she pushed herself to her feet, Delia grunted from the weight on her back before hearing the sound of fabric ripping. Before she could react, the back of her sack split wide open, pouring the coins back into the vale below, the silver coins clinking together as they hit the boulder and bounced about wildly. Spinning, Delia mad a mad grab at some of the falling coins, dropping to her hands and knees to scoop at some as they fell below.

“No!” She screamed, her hands grasping only air. The satchel over her back stirred, catching her attention. She screamed once more as she heard the buzzing of wings from behind her, catching sight of one of the one-eyed Fae launching itself from her sack, two firm handholds on the back of her dress as it flew over the edge of the boulder, clattering loudly.

Delia wobbled from her precarious position, slapping her hands onto the mossy boulder’s side to try and brace herself against her the miniature creature’s tugging. She felt secure too, at least until her blue eyes met the silver ones beneath the petals.

Leaping with savage hisses, three fairies buzzed up from their vermillion cover, their three-fingered hands grasping onto her forearms. Their skin sizzled against hers, searing tar being poured over her pink flesh like water over hot coals. Their grips sank into her arms, drawing blood, causing her to scream in agony as they pulled her over the side.

Landing amidst the flowers, Delia quickly found herself overwhelmed by the scalding creatures, each one hissing and clattering the same word.

“Now the meal will begin,” the voice said as the fairies closed in on her.

Their teeth bit into her flesh, tearing it away in long stringy bits while claws pulled away muscle. Delia screamed and thrashed, the scent of her own coppery blood filling the air… mixing with the same odor of the flowers. Howling madly, she struggled to stand, to knock the hungry pests away; but she was feeling warm as if she were going to sleep. The pain was slowly fading away as her eyes blinked wearily, her head rising up to breach the crimson canopy above her.

Fresh air! She tried to take a gulp of it, but she found she couldn’t breathe. Looking around, she tried to scream as instead of a sea of flowers she was greeted by a sea of bloody faces.

“They got you,” One head rasped, sounding dejected. It was that of a young boy that had gone missing a few years before.

“Of course they got her!” Another head hissed, this one that of a handsome teen.

“They always get us…” A few heads said in unison, blinking back tears of blood that were welling at the corners of their eyes.

“We’ll just have to warn others like we warned her.” The boy said, turning on a stalk made of chitinous bone. It cracked and popped as he twisted, snapping as he turned to face Delia. “Now you see the grove for what it is. Hopefully, our smell will keep away the next person unlucky enough to stumble by.”

Delia wailed her voice dying on the wind as the fairies below wormed their magic over her, changing her appearance from that of a talking head on a spine to that of a beautiful red flower. Delia spread her petals wide, opening up the bulb of her flower, coughing out the stench of blood for all to smell.

Her blood, which would hopefully warn away the next child to stumble by the Crimson Grove.

Credit: Nicholas Paschall

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