The Pond

February 24, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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As I walked, the snow crunched beneath my rubber boots. Every so often I would step on a twig, sending a cracking sound into the air as it snapped in half. There was no wind, and almost no noise besides my footsteps, and the birds calling.

Hunting was a big pastime of mine. I would spend hours walking through the large forest, tracking down animals. I would venture out into any weather, it didn’t matter if it was raining, freezing, or blistering hot. It had been snowing a lot lately, which was good news to me, as I loved snow.

I was making my way over to a favorite spot of mine, a large pond in the middle of these woods. As I trodded along, I took in the scenery. It was beautiful, like a winter wonderland. Despite my happy thoughts, I couldn’t help but think of an awful incident that happened ten or so years back. A young man, around the age of twenty, went out hiking in this forest. When he never came home, the authorities were called, and they went out to find him. Sadly, what they found was his lifeless body, sunken to the bottom of the pond. The poor boy had drowned, and every time I went to that pond, I thought about how it was his grave. Since the accident, the children of the town would tell ghost stories about the forest, and would dare each other to see how far they could go out into it.

I reached the pond, frozen and glistening. It was so cold, I knew that I shouldn’t stay out to long. I started to make my way over to a large boulder. I liked to sit on it, and watch for wildlife. As I came to it, however, my foot got caught on a root jutting up from the ground. My body twisted, and I fell over. I fell flat on my stomach, and my rifle flew from my grasp. It landed on the ice of the frozen pond, and slid a little ways out.

I cursed to myself quietly, and stood up. I had to get it back, but I had to be careful not to slip and fall again. I carefully placed my foot on the ice. Then the other one. I started to walk across. I got to my rifle, and bent down slowly to pick it up. At that moment, I heard a loud crack.
Suddenly, the ice beneath me fell into the frigid water, and I fell along with it.

The water felt like fangs bitting into my skin, and my muscles tensed up and became stiff. I thrashed and gasped for air, trying to pull myself out of the hole in the ice, but it was so cold, and it hurt. Water began to fill my boots, making them like heavy weights. I started to sink downwards. I continued to thrash, only wearing myself out. I couldn’t see in the dark, murky water, and I feared trying to open my eyes, as the water was so cold. I couldn’t let myself hit the pond’s bottom, I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the hole I fell through, and I would be trapped. I fought for my life, I didn’t want to die, I didn’t want to end up like the poor boy from years ago.

I became light headed, and knew that it was over. However, just when I thought I was a dead man, I could make out something reaching into the water. It was a hand. I saw it moving, and reaching down within arms reach of me. I shot my own hands out, and grabbed onto it. It pulled me up, and my head emerged from the water. I kept my eyes closed and my head down, and with the person’s help I was pulled completly out of the pond.

“Oh….God…thank you, thank God you were here……” I said in a quiet, raspy voice. I opened my eyes to see my savior, but to my great surprise, there was no one there. I looked around, glancing everywhere, but there was no one anywhere.

I never went back to that pond. Whenever the children would tell ghost stories about the drowned boy in the woods, I would listen, because I was sure that I owed him my life.

Credit To – Mara

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Avaritia et Invidia

February 19, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The building was old. It had been a factory of some sort one hundred, maybe one hundred fifty years ago. Its sturdy brick and steel construction had weathered the years well enough, and after so very long sitting abandoned, forgotten on the edges of the city, it was reclaimed by a well—to—do family as a new, innovative home. Had they chosen another building all would have been well, they would have renovated, remodeled, cleaned, and renewed the old structure into a showplace of their creativity and affluence. But they chose this building. They saw its bones and thought it strong; which it was, they saw its skin and thought it beautiful; which it was, they saw its broken windows, its empty halls, its shattered floors, and thought it empty. It was not.

As the construction began, scars of days gone by showed themselves here and there. Half done graffiti and shaky tag marks covered the first floor and basement of the building’s interior; disguising the rotting plaster and piss stained floors in garish paint. But all that was easily wiped away with hammer and chisel. The building’s innards were laid bare, wires and pipes were torn away, and then sewn back through the bones to meet the demands of this modern family. Simple, smooth, this was easy, and a good first step. The old wood was cleaned and scraped and finished fresh. The worst of it, the oldest wood that still bore black scars from long cooled fire, was stripped away and replaced anew. And as new skin was stretched over the old bones, as the walls were plied with plaster and paint, work on the upper floors began. Then too began the accidents. First blood was spilled in a careless mistake; the workman forgot to guard against the long rusted nails and twisted wire of the old building’s guts. A finger was the price of his carelessness. A needle and thread and a series of shots would put things to right and he would work again, though not in this building. He refused to return, but there were other workmen and they worked on.

Three months to the day after renovation had begun, all was going well. No more accidents, no more problems, discounting the two workmen who had simply not shown up for work one day. That happens in construction though. Nothing to be concerned about, even if they had left a few tools lying about the second floor from the previous night. Besides, the bottom floors were ready. There was ample room for the modern family to live comfortably as work continued on the second, third and fourth floors. So the family moved in. Hurriedly setting furniture where once offices and great machines had been. They claimed their place in the old building, and it became their home. Had this been another building all would have been well.

From the first night the children dreamed—dreams of fire and hunger. Before the first week was out the mother fretted over sounds in the dark, sounds from above like whispers in the cold space beyond the ceiling. As the days passed and the family staggered through the nights, they began to fear something wasn’t right about their new home. And so it was little surprise to any of them the day the workman screamed and fell from the second story window. It was early in the evening, as the family sat for dinner that the scream echoed out. Then the crash of glass and more screams as the man fell. There were three men on the job just then. He was the last in the building. He had lagged behind the others who were already packing their trucks to head home in order to finish with the plaster on the last of the walls in a corner room. The family and the men outside all heard the scream, that terrible howl and the crash of the window giving way, and that scream that went on and on as the workman fell to the ground below. The men outside turned to see the workman hit the ground and hear the cracking of his bones and the sudden, hollow ending of his scream. Both would later swear that the workman seemed to struggle as he fell to the ground, not to protect himself from the fall, but to turn himself as if to see the window he’d only just fallen from, arms raised not to protect his head as anyone would, but to cover his ears. Broken bones and blood met those who ran to the fallen man’s aid. Even as they reached him as his wet wheezing breath faded away, his face contorted in fear, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, his wide eyes were still focused on the window above.

That night was long and sleepless. Even after the police and ambulance had left, the noises were there. From time to time someone would move across the floor above, the sound of whispers or a faint and lilting cry would echo as if from a great distance. But there were no dreams of fire and hunger. There were no dreams. None in the family slept that night, and in the morning the parents fought. It was long past time for something to be done. Someone had to be called who could prove what they all already knew and fix it. But as much as the father feared the whispers in the dark, he was even more afraid of other whispers; whispers in the board room, whispers at the club. He would have no part of spirits and psychics. They would not play their games in his house. Work on the upper floors was put on hold. The family struggled on. The noises seemed to fade then, there were no more whispers for a while, no more movement from the dark above the ceiling… for a while. A few weeks later, as the dreams began to fade, and the family began to believe it had all just been in their too vivid imaginations, it happened.

Early one morning the youngest child, a boy of eight years, climbed the forbidden stairway to the second floor. Afterwards he could not say what had brought him to do it. He could not say why he took the matches with him. Nor could he say what had possessed him to pile the rags on the wide, second floor landing and set them alight. He only remembered screaming. He screamed as the fire licked up his legs. And he screamed as the whispers began then spun and turned like the flames themselves until the whispers were screams every bit as loud as his own. The father found his boy, screaming at the bottom of the stairs, screaming as the fire seared his legs, screaming and staring up at the fire that rolled up the walls on the wide landing above.

The boy lived. He would bear scars for the rest of his life, and he would not speak for more than a year. The building was little harmed, only cosmetic damage to the second floor said the firemen. Perfectly safe to return to. But the family did not return. Instead they reached out to those who might understand. They sought someone, anyone willing to hear their stories and try to help them. And they found someone. Several someone’s actually. A small group of men and women who hunted that which should not be hunted. These men and women wanted to find, to see and touch something deeper than the lives they lived, the familiar, sane places everyone pretended were real. They had found and dealt with such things before of course. They assured the family they had experience. They knew what they were doing. And had this been any other building they would have been well prepared to deal with what awaited them.

The investigators came to the building with the mother and eldest daughter. They wandered through in the early morning light. The basement and first floor, though empty now, still almost felt of home, but the faint smell of charred wood and burnt flesh somehow still hung in the air. The wide second floor landing bore blackened, scorched walls. Peeling paint and ashen plaster greeted them as they climbed the stairs, but otherwise little of interest could be found. The third and even the fourth floor above were still roughly done and showed more promise, so the investigators set their tools and traps there. Then they waited for night to come. They waited for the dark time to come. And it did.

As the sun settled on the horizon the whispers began. At first they came only to the ears of the most sensitive of the investigators, a man of some forty-five years. He looked and seemed distinguished with his salt and pepper hair and smart suit. He declared the building home to a troubled spirit, something long lost and angry at its passing. It was strong, he said, and full of pain and hunger for life. But it could be well healed and peace could be brought. And so the distinguished man set to work. But it did not go well for him. Nor did it go well for many others in the group. The whispers came, and other sounds too pressed through the night. Footsteps and scraping and a thump here and there gave way to headaches and nose bleeds. Then the fall down the third floor steps. On through the night little things happened to the investigators. One by one they had to leave the building. A twisted ankle, a bloodied nose, a migraine, a dizzy spell. Gradually all were taken ill save three; the distinguished man, a young minister, and a dark skinned, tech savvy college boy. It was decided that this spirit, this angry thing that claimed the building would be best settled in the light of day. So the three began to strike their equipment, to roll up the cables and shut down the cameras. The distinguished man, having battled all evening the attention of the dead thing he named the doer of dark deeds, retired to the first floor to rest and wait, and discuss the possibilities with the mother and eldest daughter. The young minister and the college boy were left to remove the last of the equipment from the upper floors. They moved as quickly as they could through the dark, their woefully inadequate flashlights giving precious little protection from the dark, and none at all from what resided within it.

They stood together on the wide second floor landing. The college boy was twisting up a last length of cable. The young minister packing away a small camera wasn’t watching him, and so couldn’t warn him of the ripple in the charred wall behind. Both were so busy in their growing rush to leave the building that neither noticed the walls begin to glisten wetly. They didn’t see the faint tinge of purple and red begin to seep into the blackened plaster. They didn’t see the slow bulge and sway of wood and blistered paint. So busy they were in their work, they saw nothing. But the smell, it was the smell that brought their attention to the wall. They’d grown used to the charred scent of the fire damaged walls around them, but this was different. It smelled of scorched wood and plaster, yes, but under that it smelled of rot. The smell of burnt plaster became the smell of flesh, half burnt flesh left to rot in the ruins of a fire gutted tomb. It smelled of fire and pain and fear and hate. They both turned their eyes to one another then, and it was this turning that allowed the young minister to see the wall behind the college boy suddenly split and let forth arms; blackened skin tearing and crackling even as they reached for the boy’s back. Eyes widened in shock, the young minister cried out a wordless warning, the boy spun in time to be caught about the throat and was lifted weightlessly into the air.

One rotting, charred arm held him by his throat and another grasped the college boy’s right arm. With his left arm the boy frantically slapped at the hand at his throat, managing only to tear away strips and chunks of brittle puss laden flesh but not loosen its strangling hold. Somewhere below, the distinguished man jumped up with a start. The dead thing was acting. He felt it move and roll through the world. It was stronger by far then he’d ever imagined. The sense of it was huge and terrible. The distinguished man wanted to warn his friends, to call them down and get out of the building he now knew was so very, very dangerous. He opened his mouth to shout, to yell, to scream for them to run. But all that came was a confused whisper, “Four arms?” Then the pangs of hunger tore through his gut doubling him over and stealing his breath away. He knew then, in the feverish pit of his mind, that this was no single soul. This was no lost and angry ghost, but a horde of dead and starving things. The truth of his misunderstanding shattered his last reserves of strength and he dropped to his knees, tears falling from his eyes.

The minister watched as his friend was lifted into the soured air. He watched with terrible fascination as more hands tore from the glistening putrid wall and clawed at his flailing, dying friend. The sheer impossibility of the moment crashed into the simple terror of its actuality and ignited a spark in the young minister. He breathed in deep the stench of the hallway. The thick, awful smell that surrounded him poured into his lungs as he took up the small cross at his throat and began to call upon all that is holy to beat back the horrors that held his friend. But the words never came. For as the young and valiant minister turned to confront the depths of the evil before him the black charred wall behind him erupted in arms. In that moment of his proven faith he was snatched back against the seeping, gory wall. Dead, cracking fingers seized onto his hair, snagged at his arms, clamped hard on his limbs and tore at his clothes. He would have screamed then, but the fingers bore into his mouth, burnt nails and fetid flesh tearing the voice from him even as they tore the sinews from his bones. He could not scream, but screams there were. Tormented, harrowed screams of the dead split the darkness. The pain and fear became palpable things to the living below. Worse than this though were the howls of unimaginable hunger that sounded above all else.

The young minister stood naked and cold. He was confused. There was pain. He remembered pain and fear, but in that moment he could not remember why he had been afraid, or what had caused him pain. Then, in a flash, he knew. He was dead. He was free of the clawing hands and gnashing teeth. He was free in his death and he should flee. But that moment of hesitation was too long. The hungry dead do not easily give up their spoils. As they suffer, so should all. From the walls that were they, from the broken, twisted, hating soul of the building they had become after the horrible fire that had claimed their bodies, the dead reached forth and claimed the young minister’s spirit for their own. Yanked back, slammed into the wall of roiling starving souls, the minister was taken in. His soul, his faith, all that he was, was overcome. There was nothing left but pain, anger, and hunger. Oh the hunger. It was terrible and complete. The hunger was, had been and would always be. It was eternal and insatiable. There was suffering, and fury, and ravenousness—and there was flesh. And in that flesh there was the last vestige of a dying life. What was left of the young minister cried out. His screams fell in with all the rest and he bit into the one thing that might bring him relief. The flesh was cool now, but it still flickered with life. It was soft beneath his dead teeth, sweet beneath his hunger. He tore and took, and then he saw. The flesh he ate, the body he tore, the life he was stealing was his very own. He screamed then. Not in anger, or hunger, but in anguish. He screamed in sorrow for all that he had been, and all he could have been, and all that he had become. His screams rolled out. It shook the walls, it shook the building, it shook the dead from their hunger, and even the dead wondered at the depths of his despair. But only for a moment. And then came the hunger. And as the hunger came crashing back upon the dead, what was left of the minister knew that he was lost. And as hope like everything else fell before the hunger of the dead, he, and all that he was, was lost and forgotten.

Credit To – S. Fillhart

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The House that Death Forgot

February 18, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Melinda hated driving at night. She did her best to avoid it. Short trips to the store if she just realized she ran out of tampons or had nothing for dinner after getting home; that sort of thing happened now and then. But she did her best not to go out after dark unless someone was coming to pick her up.

So, naturally, she found herself on the longest drive of her life tonight, with no moon, few stars, swirling clouds above her, and acres of forest on either side.

As so many unpleasant things in her life, this was her father’s fault. She hadn’t seen or spoken to the bastard in fifteen years, but just after falling asleep tonight…no, that was wrong. It would be yesterday by this time. Out of the blue, her phone rang, and his voice was on the other end.

“I need you, Mellie. Please come, now.” He’d said just that, and then the line went dead.

The old ass was probably drunk, but he’d never called her before, not since she was a child and he was still trying to convince her mother to take him back. It felt like she had been dreaming; waking up to hear his voice again after all these years. It sounded like he was crying. His voice sounded just the same as the last time she’d heard it.

As though in a dream, she had risen, dressed, and gotten in the car. She was well out of town and halfway to his old place before realizing that she had no way of knowing if he even still lived there. She received updates from her mother from time to time over the years about where he was. The last time she heard from her mother about him was seven years ago. Had he ever stayed in one place that long? Not to her recollection. She had been seven when her mother finally had enough and showed him the door. Prior to that, a move had come every few months. The house they had been living in was their longest stay in one place; a full sixteen months. It turned into two years after that, and then the next house had been the one she left when she moved out on her own. In all that time, she heard from him sporadically at best, and had finally decided it was best to simply forget about him.

Until tonight.

She had found out after a two-hour drive that she had been right to wonder if he was still in the same place. His last known address was a sketchy apartment in a low-income area of the town she had grown up in. Had he been number 24 or number 42? Maybe he was 14. It definitely had a four. It didn’t matter. His name wasn’t on any of the buzzers.

Bastard! Her drunk of a father had called her at night, all but demanding she come to him, for reasons he didn’t even feel were important enough to tell her over the phone, and then just expected that she would know where he lived now.

In a flurry of rage, she turned and marched back to her car, slamming the door and starting off in the direction she came. She was so angry she didn’t even look where she was going, and now she’d missed her turn-off.

The next thing she knew, she was on this lonely stretch of road. Cars were sparse, but she took some comfort in the fact that she would pass one every half-hour or so. Her dashboard clock now read 2:27 AM. She had been driving for more than five hours since leaving her house. At night.

Every five minutes or so she checked her cell phone. Ever since realizing she was lost, she had checked her phone and found no bars at all. She even stopped at a (closed, of course) gas station, just sure there should be some service around here somewhere, but nothing.

Take stock of your life, Mellie, she thought. You’re over thirty, you hate your job, you and your mother don’t get along, you haven’t seen or spoken to your father in just under half your life, you have no time for your friends or a relationship thanks to the aforementioned job you hate, and now here you are, trapped on a road you’ve never been on before, at night, and you can’t even so much as call AMA let alone check Google Maps. Smart lady you are.

She briefly considered stopping and flagging down the next car that passed. She quickly realized the futility of that plan. Any car on this road would also have no service. So there was nothing for it. She’d have to drive until she saw a house. She’d feel bad for waking someone up, but there was no choice. She needed to find her way back to the main highway.

But so far, all that she could see on either side was trees. Mile after mile of trees. No lights shining through the boughs. No sign that anyone had ever been here before, except that there was a road, and people were obviously still driving on it.

There weren’t even any road signs, other than the mile markers. Had she really found the middle of nowhere? She was just in the middle of this thought when her headlights illuminated something just up the road; a square, wooden sign, obviously made by someone other than the government. This wasn’t a gas/food/lodging sign, or a mile marker, or a distance-to sign. This looked like the kind of signs advertising a private business was nearby. She slowed down to read it:

Granny Royce’s Road House

Come stay the night at Granny’s!

She’ll take good care of you!

Room! Board! Low Prices!

Next Exit!

Her heart sped up. She certainly wasn’t interested in spending a night at Granny Royce’s, but every business had a phone. At the very least, she’d have a map, or know the way back to the highway. She decided she would stop there.

She almost missed the turn. Granny Royce’s Road House was buried at the back of a long, dirt driveway, secluded amid the trees. She was almost past the little dirt “road” that led back to it before realizing it was there. She skidded to a stop and turned in.

The little house lay ahead. It was two stories; looked to have about eight to ten rooms. Big for a home but small for anything announcing room and board. She got closer and looked for a vacancy sign; nothing. It wasn’t that the sign wasn’t lit; there was no sign. The porch light was on, and the front of the building was illuminated by that light, and by her headlights. No signs of any kind. She almost wondered if she’d gotten the wrong place, but she was certain that she had seen no other exits between this house and the sign announcing it.

She paused in the driveway and took out her cell again. Still no service. She did a quick search for any available wireless signals. To her complete lack of surprise, there were none. Not even any secured. There’s no one here but me, she thought. At this point, she wouldn’t be surprised to find the house empty, as well. But the light was on, and this was supposed to be a road house. Someone would be manning the front desk.

She got out of the car and headed for the front porch. As she turned around to make sure the lights flashed when she hit the lock button on her fob, she thought she could see a flash of movement in the trees. Something human-shaped. She stopped and looked again. Nothing. She decided she imagined it.

At the front door, she hesitated. If it really was a road house than she should be able to just go on in. But what if she got the wrong house? If she tried the door and just walked in, she could find herself arrested out here in Buttfuck, Nowhere.

Cautiously, she tried the knob. It turned. She pressed gently on the door. It opened. Relief flooded through her when she saw that she was in a small, but tastefully decorated foyer that had obviously been re-purposed as an admissions area. A quaint desk with an honest-to-god guest book had been placed in the far right corner, and some chairs had been set out, along with magazines on a table. She read the titles briefly–Mademoiselle, Blue Book, The New Country Life, Arts & Architecture–before turning her attention to the little desk.

There wasn’t a computer. That was a cute touch. It was like the house was from a past era. Perhaps old Granny Royce really didn’t like modern technology. There was, however, a little bell, just like there would have been in 1929. It wasn’t even the round silver kind you slapped to ring; it was a little porcelain hand-bell. This place was starting to out-cute her. Please let her have a phone, and please let it use the numberplan, not 50’s exchanges. She picked up the bell and gave it a shake.

For a while, nothing happened. Then she saw a light come on in the back room, and the shadow of an old woman sprang up on the wall. The shadow moved toward her, and within a few seconds she saw its owner; Granny Royce, who perhaps looked like every grandmother in every storybook ever.

“Well, goodness me,” she said. “My lands. Good morning deary. Pardon my tardiness but it’s been a while since we got guests at this hour. Can I take your name, honey?

Granny Royce was smallish, her grey hair tied in a neat bun behind her head, a dress that would have looked like it belonged to a senior citizen in the twenties, and a faded pink sweater. Melinda thought that she looked just like she would have wanted her own grandmother to look like, but her mother’s mother had died when she was young, and she’d never met her father’s mother. It almost hurt to deny this sweet little woman her business, but nevertheless, she had to get home.

“Actually, I’m sorry,” she began. “But the fact is I’m lost. I’m not even sure where I am in the direction of…”

“Oh, you poor thing,” said Granny Royce. “You just sit down and let me fix you some tea, or something. You must be cold.”

“Really, thank you, but I’m okay,” Melinda said, gently. “I just need to use the phone, if I could, or if you’ve got a map, even that would be lovely. I really only live a couple of hours from here…” She trailed off, not knowing if she was even right about that. She easily could have driven those five-plus hours in the wrong direction entirely.

“Oh dear,” said the little woman, sadly. “I’m sorry, honey, but the phone lines are down. As for a map, well…I used to have one, and if I look I still might, but it’s probably quite out of date by now. The highway moved since then, I know that much.”

Melinda’s heart sank. How could her luck get any worse? No phone, cell or land line, and no map. What could she do? She had to get back home. She was expected to work at 8 AM tomorrow. And why were the phone lines down? The weather was coldish but clear. Were they fixing a line nearby?

She told Granny Royce the name of her town, but Granny only said “Believe it or not, I’ve never heard of that town. What did you say the name was?” She told her again. “No, doesn’t ring a bell. I’m sorry. But I could not say which direction it’s in. Why don’t you stay the night, sweetie. I’ll give you a discount for your trouble.”

“Thank you. That’s very kind of you. But I have work tomorrow and I need to get back home. I’m not even sure why I’m out tonight. The only reason I had doesn’t seem to matter anymore.”

“Honey, I wouldn’t advise trying to drive back that far tonight,” Granny Royce said. “Why, it’s almost three in the morning, and you’ve not had any sleep. Maybe the lines will be up in the morning, and you can call your work and let them know you’ll be late.”

“That won’t work, either,” she replied. “I’m the opener. No one will be there. No, I’m sorry, I’ve really got to leave. I’ll head in the other direction until I find the road I was on.”

At that, Granny Royce’s expression, already one of kind concern, seemed to shift somewhat, to one of fear. She paused, looking at Melinda as though she wanted to say something else to keep her inside. Finally she said, reluctantly, “Alright, honey, if you’re sure. Just you be careful, now. Don’t speak to nobody until you’re back on the road.”

That last warning seemed a little silly. After all, what was Melinda, a little girl? She thanked Granny Royce for her kindness and headed back to the car.

About halfway to the car she remembered thinking she saw something moving in the trees. Her eyes scanned both sides of the secluded little cleared area she was in, looking for anything that appeared to be moving on its own, rather than being blown by the slight wind. She saw nothing. Satisfied, she headed for her car.

All four tires were flat. Goddammit! She leaned down and saw long slash marks on each tire. Someone in this little slice of Green Acres had slashed her tires in the time it took her to find out that she had no way of contacting anyone tonight.

Kids from a local farmhouse, gotta be, she thought grimly. Nothing else to do, so you might as well go out at night and slash tires. She stopped and let the reality sink in. She wasn’t going anywhere tonight. She had no choice now; she had to stay the night here until morning, when hopefully the phone lines would be up and she could call someone from work to ask them to go in for her, and then AMA to get her tires dealt with.

She sighed, then walked back in the house. She could hear Granny Royce as she was walking back to her room. She had already turned off the lights. Resigned to her fate, Melinda rang the little bell again.

“That you, miss?” she heard Granny Royce call.

“Yes, it’s me,” she answered. “Sorry to be a bother. My name is Melinda Orton. Sorry I never mentioned it before. I guess I will take a room for the night, if the offer’s still good.”

“Oh, of course it is, deary,” said Granny Royce, re-entering the room and turning the lights back on. “Melinda. Oh, that’s such a pretty name, honey. Well. Let’s get you situated. You put your name and arrival time in the book there and I’ll get you a key. All the boarding rooms are on the second floor, and there’s only a couple left.”

“There are others here?” This was surprising. Not a single car had been in the front lawn when she pulled in.

“Oh, yes, Miss Melinda.” Granny was puttering around in the adjacent room. “Mr. Norris, young Calvin, there’s a few of us here.” She came back out with a key in her hand. “Just out of curiosity, what made you change your mind?” She seemed to brighten as she asked the question, as though relieved that Melinda would stay after all.

“Oh, it’s probably just local kids getting kicks,” she said. “But I found my tires slashed.”

Granny stopped suddenly, her face twisted with concern and worry. Then she resumed, as though nothing was wrong. “Nothing to be done for it, I suppose,” she said, with an err of sadness.

“Well, not until morning, at any rate,” said Melinda. “Then hopefully the lines will be up.”

“Oh,” said Granny Royce, distractedly. “Yes, hopefully.” She led Melinda up the darkened staircase into an empty, quiet hall.

Or perhaps not so quiet. From one end of the hall came the muffled sound of someone crying.

Whoever it was, they were crying softly, not with anger, or petulance, or fear, but with deep sadness. It sounded as if crying was something this person was used to, but they were still unable to stop.

“Who is that?” she asked, pointing in the direction the crying was coming from.

“Oh, pay that no mind, honey,” said Granny. “That’s just Mr. Norris. He’s been like that a while. Older man, you understand. Not all there.” She tapped her temple.

“I understand,” Melinda replied, but wondered privately how an old, out-of-touch man would wind up at a road house. “Has he been here long?”

“A while, I’d say,” answered Granny. “Don’t really recall how long, exactly.”

How does he pay for room and board? “I guess he doesn’t drive,” she said to the old woman. “Actually, it doesn’t look like anyone else here has a car.”

Granny started at this, looking up with an almost guilty expression. “Oh, well,” she said. “That kind of thing is the business of the guests. I don’t ask about such things.” She turned the key in the lock of the room she had led Melinda to, and opened the door. Turning on the light, she showed Melinda the quaint little room. Melinda thought it looked like stepping into the past. She could swear this room would have looked modern in the early fifties, at the earliest.

Come to think of it, so could the rest of this place, she thought. No wireless service, no computer, that old bell. And those magazines, they looked new, but…

That thought was cut off as Granny put the key on the nightstand and started in with instructions. “Now, the bathroom is down the hallway there. You’ll be sharing with the whole floor, so please bare that in mind if you have to go. There’s a shower schedule on the door, as well. First come, first serve. You just add your name to the first available line and that’s the order the showers are in. I wouldn’t worry about that, if I were you, though. I’m sure you’ll be first in line. I get up at 6 AM sharp every morning and start breakfast, but you come on down whenever you’re ready and I’ll whip something up for you. Oh, and one last thing, my dear. I would strongly advise you not to leave the house until sun-up. You just never know what could happen out there. In the dark.”

“Of course,” she replied. I’d never go out there in the dark if I didn’t have to…She stopped that train of thought right out of the gate.

After a few moments, she was alone. Alone, without anything to wear to bed, and nothing to shower, brush her teeth, or hair with in the morning. She sat on the bed and looked out the window, which faced front. Her car still sat where she had left it, the only thing for miles that seemed like part of her world. And an expensive, over-large paperweight until I can get a hold of someone, she thought bitterly.

Despite the homeyness of the room, she felt an unwillingness to rise and shut off the light. Somehow the thought of going to sleep in this backward little room seemed unthinkable. So instead, she continued to sit and stare out the window.

A figure in black detached itself from the shadows of the trees and made its way to her car. The hell?! She jumped up and ran at the window. The figure was tall, and seemed to be wearing a cloak made of night. She saw as its arm extended. In its hand was a long, jagged dagger. It dragged the dagger across the side of her car, leaving a long gash-mark in the paint and metal.

“Hey!” she shouted. The figure kept dragging the dagger. She reached for the window to open it. It wouldn’t budge! She looked for a lock, but couldn’t see one. “Hey!” she yelled again. This time the figure raised its head. She could see the glint of two eyes under the hood. The figure raised the dagger, slowly, determinedly. It pointed it straight at her face.

She leaped away from the window and ran for the door. A noise on the other side stopped her. Footsteps. Dragging, shambling footsteps. And crying. The sound of a person for whom deep, longing sadness is a way of life. Mr. Norris! She waited. Somehow, she just felt that she should let the old man pass before she opened the door.

Before he got very far, however, she heard other footsteps, these much quicker and lighter, run up the stairs and stop near the door of her room. “Stop it!” hissed Granny Royce. “Go back in your room right now! You know better. She can’t see you yet. Hopefully she won’t have to at all. Now you go back in there. You’ve got no business being out at this hour anyway.”

What on Earth? How could that sweet old woman talk to another human that way, let alone an old man with a foggy mind? She almost opened the door right then, but somehow her hand stopped, and waited until the shuffling, crying man had made his way back down the hallway. She heard his door open.

She opened her own door just in time to see his foot, shod in a well-worn house-shoe, slide into his room. The door closed softly after him. That poor man, she thought. But now she was determined to find out what was going on. The punk outside in the Halloween costume slashing up her car, followed by Granny yelling at an old man, made her begin to understand that not all was well here.

She went back down to the front desk area, which was completely unlit except for the moonlight and porch light coming through the window. There was, however, a light on near the back room that Granny Royce had emerged from before. Melinda paused to take a look outside the front window. The maniac with the dagger was nowhere to be seen for the moment, but she was now determined that it was he that she had seen moving through the trees. He could have killed me!

She strode in the direction of the light, seeing that it was the light to the kitchen. She kept going, expecting to find Granny Royce still puttering about with whatever an old inn-keeper did with herself during the early hours of the morning.

Instead, she found Granny sitting with a young man of about twenty. He had dark hair, and a scruff of stubble, and was wearing a dark brown corduroy shirt and khaki’s, along with a pork-pie hat. He looked like he was ready to go sell newspapers on a street-corner in the thirties. He was quietly sipping tea while Granny was admonishing him from the other end of the table.

“Now that was a horrible thing to say!” she said. “When I was your age, young men minded their manners!”

“That’s a laugh, talking about my age,” muttered the young man with a sneer. “And just how old are you? Do you even remember?”

“Calvin Davidson, you are trouble, young man,” she hissed back. Neither had noticed Melinda yet. “One of these days you’re going to say something you’ll regret.”

“Oh, come on, Granny, what could I possibly say that will make things worse than they already are?” demanded Calvin. “I mean, look at old Mr. Norris up there! Both of us are ol…um, hullo, miss. I didn’t know we had anyone else here.” He had just seen Melinda.

“Uh, hi,” she said. She had the feeling she’d walked in on an old argument the two of them had had many times, and that did not concern her. Her fear and anger were forgotten for the moment. Calvin had been talking to Granny like a sullen kid, but something about what they were saying seemed…wrong.

“Can I help you, Melinda?” asked Granny Royce. “Is there something wrong with your room?”

That brought her back. “No,” she said. “The room is fine. But nothing else is! I mean, what on Earth do you even have a road house out here where it seems like no one ever stops? Why are most of the rooms full even though mine is the only car out there? Why did I hear you talking to Mr. Norris like he was a dog? And why would you want to make sure I didn’t see him?”

She got no further before Calvin cut her off. “Good lord, she’s not even been here a night and she can see it. Why did you even let her in, Granny? Why don’t you just bolt the door? Hell, if I could go take down that sign don’t you think I would have, by now? Lord love a duck.”

There’s something you don’t hear many young men say, thought Melinda. She decided to ignore Calvin for the moment, otherwise.

“And besides that, there’s someone out there! He’s the freak who slashed my tires and he’s been out there messing up my car since then! And you can’t even call the police! Are you gonna tell me you’ve never had vandals out here before?”

There was a long pause in the room. Neither Granny, nor Calvin, seemed willing to break it. Calvin scratched at his neck. For the first time, Melinda noticed a red slash at his throat, half-hidden by his collar. It looked like either a very fresh scar or a slightly healed wound.

“Listen, miss, I don’t know your name,” he finally said.

“Melinda,” she told him.

“Melinda,” he repeated. “Melinda, I think you should sit down. I have to tell you something that you may find…troubling.”

Melina did not like how he said that. She also didn’t like the way his tone had switched from sullen child to serious adult. He looked several years her junior, but he was talking to her like he was her uncle, or her boss.

He swallowed a sip of tea, and sighed. Then he looked her straight in the face and said: “The reason I don’t have a car out there is that when I got here, no one my age, in my line of work, would have owned a car. It would have seemed like an impossible dream.”

“What…what are you talking about?” she asked, hesitantly.

“I worked in a textile mill,” he said. “The mill was shut down by the time I got here. Most businesses were. So I struck out on my own; a drifter looking for what work I could find. And I stopped here. Forever.”

“Businesses were shut down…I don’t understand,” said Melinda. “We’re having a rough time of it right now, but businesses are mostly staying open…”

“Not then, they weren’t,” said Calvin, sadly. “I arrived here…in 1929.”

Melinda blinked. Something had exploded behind her eyes.

“This place was new, then,” said Granny. “My man and I had just opened it. And young Mr. Calvin was a sweet young lad of sixteen. I offered to take him on as hired help over my husband’s objections. Well, my husband was a well-meaning man, but he knew how to pinch a penny. T’was a year after I took Calvin on that Mr. Royce died. Calvin and I have been here ever since. And every few years or so, someone joins us.”

“Yep,” Calvin broke in. “Miss Tillie was first; she was a woman of ill repute who ran here, pregnant and scared that the man who’d run her trade up in New York was gonna find her and kill her. She and that baby…” He broke off, now seeming on the point of tears.

“And then,” said Granny. “There was Mr. Standish. He was a traveling minister. He doesn’t travel anymore.”

“Mr. Norris got here in ’69,” said Calvin. “His story is probably the worst. He was a…well, he was a bank-robber, you see. Carried a pistol. And he didn’t like learning how long we’d all been here.” He paused, stood and walked to the kitchen window. “He tried to leave on his own, you see. He ain’t the first to try it. That was me, actually. I warned him not to try, but he wouldn’t listen. But when he got outside…and he met him…”

“Calvin!” hissed Granny. “We don’t talk about this!”

“She’s gotta know,” said Calvin. “There’s no point in her finding out slowly.”

“There’s still a chance for her!” said Granny in a stage whisper. “All she has to do is wait until morning…”

“She’s not going to wait until morning,” said Calvin, with some remorse in his voice. “No one ever waits until morning. The fact that she came down here is proof enough of that. Besides, what good would that have really done her? Her car is useless. We have no phones here. There was no phone when this place went up, and there won’t never be a phone here. You know that.”

“Okay, everyone, stop!” Melinda shouted. “That’s enough! Now, you can’t keep me prisoner here, and I have no intention of staying any longer. Only that knife-wielding maniac out there is keeping me from running up the road this minute! Now, I need to know what’s really going on here and I need to know it now!”

“We’ve been telling you,” Calvin said. “Granny may not want you to know everything, but you need to. Because you won’t be leaving. Oh, we’re not trying to keep you prisoner. I don’t even care if you run out that door right now. But you’ll never leave this house again afterward.”

“Like hell I won’t!” yelled Melinda.

“Listen, child!” said Granny, rising from her spot at the table. “Listen, please! None of us mean you harm, my dear, not even Mr. Norris. There’s scant he can do anymore, and he knows it. That’s why he’s up there crying all the time. But we’re stuck here, all of us. I hoped there was a chance for you to run for it in the morning, but Calvin’s right. There’s no guarantee you’d be safe in the morning, anyhow.”

“What…the…hell…is wrong with this place!?” choked out Melinda. She was beginning to break down. she could feel the tears welling in her eyes.

“It was about a month after Mr. Royce died,” said Calvin. “When he came. He was wearing that long, black robe, and carrying that ridiculous dagger. I saw him when I was trimming the hedges in the back. I told him he needed to get out of here, because I didn’t like his look. He…he moved so fast I never saw it coming. And he got me, from here…” Calvin touched his neck. “To here.” He touched his lower abdomen on the opposite side from the neck slash. He began to undo his shirt.

Melinda almost vomited. Under his shirt was a long, ugly slash that went deep…and was still seeping blood. She could see bone, muscle and intestines wriggling within that mangled ruin.

“I died that night,” said Calvin. “But then I didn’t. The next thing I knew, I was being dragged into the house by Granny, and when I woke up I nearly scared her to death. She was sure that I was gone. The thing is, I was. But I was awake. I could talk, walk, do anything I could while alive. Well, except take any enjoyment or nourishment from food or drink anymore. I still drink that tea because it keeps my skin from turning ash-grey. I learned that about fifty years ago.”

“He didn’t go away, though,” Granny broke in. “I went out to deal with him, carrying my axe. He took my axe and buried it in my back. I won’t show you the wound, honey. Calvin shouldn’t have shown you his, either. No one should have to see it.”

“But that’s how he works, Melinda,” continued Calvin. “He’s got that knife, but if you try to use a weapon on him, he just…moves like he does and takes it from you. You never stand a chance. He’ll use whatever weapon you try to take him down with to end you. Mr. Norris learned that the hard way.”

“This…this is not happening!” Melinda was ready to break down. She had to hold it together. She had to get out of here, somehow. Nothing about this was right. Nothing about it could be real. It was all a dream; too much didn’t make sense. Her father calling her out of the blue. Her leaving to go to him without a second thought. Getting lost so quickly, and so irreversibly. No cell phone service anywhere on this road. This place, everything about it! She was dreaming; that had to be it. But if so, she was gonna survive this dream.

She turned and ran for the stairs. Her purse was still in her room, but she was going to grab it and go. She’d had enough. Protesting voices began babbling behind her; she cared not one whit.

Mr. Norris was waiting at the top of the stairs.

Contrary to Granny Royce’s description of him, he was not old at all. No more than about forty. But she saw instantly what she meant by “not all there”.

The top half of Mr. Norris’s head looked normal, like a reasonably attractive man with dark hair peppered with grey here and there. His eyes, a clear green, were moist with fresh tears.

The lower half of his face was a ruin of bone fragments, shredded muscle and blood. So much blood. His left side was similarly destroyed. His arm hung on a few hanging strings of muscle, his hip was just as much a mess of bone and blood as his face was. He kept his one good hand on the bannister as he shuffled toward her.

Behind him stood a young woman in a bra and a pair of panties. Her stomach was cut open, and looking out of the wound with bright, intelligent eyes was the mangled remains of a baby.

Melinda turned and bolted for the front door. Her hand had just closed around the knob when Calvin rushed up to her, placing his freezing cold hand over hers.

“They’re not going to hurt you,” he said quickly. “But he will. If you step out for so much as a moment, he will kill you, and it will hurt. And it will go on hurting. Forever. After a while you learn to function with the pain, but it never goes away.”

Sobbing, she asked the question she’d been afraid to ask since coming here. “Who is he?”

“We don’t know,” said Granny, from behind Calvin. “He just…came here, and he won’t go away. He likes to watch us, and do things to incite us to come out again. As soon as someone does, he hurts them more. But no matter how many times he kills us, we don’t die. Believe me when I say, we all wish we could.”

Melinda had had enough of this. She pushed Calvin away and threw open the door.

He was standing on the porch. The knife was held out in front of him, just at face-level. Melinda ran into him at a rush, the knife puncturing her right eye and its tip sliding on through, out the other side. She just managed to see the grinning, pure-white face of her killer, before everything went black.

A few hours later, the house erupted with screams from upstairs, as Melinda awoke to a world of pain, the like of which she’d never known.

Credit To – WriterJosh

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Misanthrope

February 15, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Call me a misanthrope, an introvert, whatever. The fact is, I always thought I preferred being alone.

I had a couple of friends. Well, mainly acquaintances. People I worked with. People I lived near. Family.

But I had tried doing the companionship thing, and it never seemed to be for me. I had a girlfriend for two years, but she left me because I rarely wanted to go out with her friends, preferring to stay home, just the two of us. The feeling that was most prominent after she left was relief.

I also tried hanging out with a group of people I met online. As in, hanging out with them in the real world. I did this because my ex-girlfriend told me I needed to get out more, to meet people, to come out of my shell.

I realized after hanging out with them that I liked my shell better. Again, it’s not that I didn’t like them. I’m just not a hang-out kind of person. I’m not an Asperger’s patient or anything. I can have conversations, I can be friendly. I’ve stopped to help strangers on the side of the road who were having car trouble. I’ve helped people move who I barely knew. I’ve donated blood just because I could. I’ve volunteered at a homeless shelter. It’s just a matter of preferring to stay in on a Friday night with a good book, when having a group of friends would mean I’d feel obligated to go out instead.

I say all that to say that the loneliest I’d ever felt was when I was in a crowd of people, and I truly believed that the best feeling ever was the feeling of being alone.

That is, until this morning.

I woke up, and the first thing I noticed was that the power was out. I live in an older building just south of downtown. The kind of place where the carpet in the halls is stained all over with god-knows-what, the paint on the walls is chipped and peeling, in many places the ceiling is just a collection of exposed pipes, the elevators make odd noises like they’re straining on even the lightest load, and the whole place carries the heady bouquet of booze, cigarettes and weed. The power’s gone out before. The last time it happened, it didn’t come back on for two days. I had just gone grocery shopping the day before. Sucks having to throw out stuff you just bought.

So, when I woke, my first feeling was irritation. “They had better not take forever getting it back on this time,” I muttered. Now, where you live, the power probably mostly goes out only after a storm, fire or heavy snowfall. In my building, with wiring that was probably installed during the Ford administration and hadn’t really been upgraded since, the power could go out at any time of the year, and needed no outside catalyst to do so. So it never crossed my mind to wonder why, on a wet-but-not-stormy day in April, the power would go out like this.

I opened all my windows for light, but it didn’t help much, as it was pretty grey outside. The weather had been cloudy all week, with a few light showers, and even with my largest window open, I still couldn’t see much in my house, and my bathroom, which had no windows, was darker than a crypt.

My alarm clock was dead, of course, so I checked the time on my phone. I swore and leaped into the shower, not caring that the water was ice cold, and that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Even if I walked out the door this very minute, I was going to be an hour late for work. I hate being late. I usually try to be at least fifteen minutes early. It’s a weird side-effect of introverts that we’re usually pretty anal retentive about being on time.

Throwing on some clothes, I bolted out the door, headed for the elevator. Mid-stride, I turned for the stairs, remembering almost too late that no power of course meant no elevator.

Now, this is probably when I first felt it; that sense of unease. I did my best to ignore it, because I wasn’t a child anymore, and feelings like that are just your mind running away on you. But it was hard to ignore, and not just because of the total darkness of the stairwell. It was because I realized at that point that I had not seen another human being that entire morning.

This, by itself, was not an alarming thing. I had often made it to the elevator before without seeing another person. However, while descending into the dark, holding my phone before me, LED light shining, I realized a couple of things that seemed out of place. First, I heard no noise coming from behind any of the other apartments’ doors, which I should have considering the air was off. Second, I was late. I usually left for work before the rush, but today I was leaving at the same time that a lot of other people should be. On an ordinary day, maybe some of them took the elevator and few took the stairs, but today, they all should be on the stairs with me.

When I got to the ground floor, things got even stranger. When I had first opened my windows, I had failed to notice just how still the morning was. But I noticed now.

The only cars on the street were parked. Not another soul was in sight. The businesses at street level didn’t appear open or closed; they were just dark and empty. I swallowed the lump of fear that was rising in my throat and told myself that there had to be a good reason for this. But my mind was refusing to accept that. It was 8:30 AM on a Tuesday. The streets should be deluged with cars, the sidewalks filled up with people. There should be noise, there should be life. But the only sound was the light wind that wailed between buildings.

The power was out on the block. That had to be it. Everyone was inside still, waiting for the power to come back on.

Well, I thought. If they can all wait inside, so can I. I went back into the building and stood in the dim gloom of the lobby as I called work.

One ring. Two. Three. Several more. Then voice mail. My boss’s bored voice saying “please leave a message” was the first voice other than my own that I had heard all morning.

I opened up a browser and started checking local news. But there wasn’t anything new since yesterday. In fact, my connection was sluggish and eventually dropped out completely. I tried calling a co-worker, the only co-worker whose number I had. He had been the one to offer it to me. Others were always trying to reach out. That wasn’t something I did.

He didn’t answer either. I began to wonder if the power outage was affecting the cell towers in the area. Could the power really be out for that wide an area?

I went back to the stairs, phone LED light on again, and began climbing. My apartment was on the eighth floor. I’m not in the best of shape, and my legs were starting to ache by the third flight. It was the fourth flight, though, when the light on my phone began to fade and then went out completely.

“No, no, no!” I whispered. I thumbed the home button. I then remembered that the phone had not charged during the night as it normally would have. There would have been just enough power left for the one phone call and momentary surfing, plus these trips with the light on. I must have ignored the low power warning, and now it was too late. The phone was a paperweight. “Piece of shit,” I muttered. Somehow I already knew to keep my voice to a whisper. I put the phone back in its clip and stood on the stairs for a moment, calming down.

That’s when I heard it. The sound of another set of footsteps, coming up the stairs behind me.

You’d think I would be glad to know that another person was still around. You’d think that after noticing how empty my world was all of a sudden, that I’d be relieved to know that I was not alone. And for a moment, I tried to tell myself that I was.

The footsteps were slow, inexorable. They echoed through the darkness like the slow drumbeat before a death march. They were somewhat soft, at first, though I could tell the feet that made their tread was heavy. But they were getting nearer. From their sound, they were less than two flights below me.

I didn’t think. I bolted up the stairs. I paused at the top of every flight to listen. They kept coming. I thought of calling out, but every instinct said that would be foolish. I tried telling myself it was just my misanthropy rearing its ugly head again, but this feeling wasn’t a mere wish to be by myself for a while.

Every sense I had told me that in this unnatural stillness, this unthinkable emptiness, that nothing should be moving. I had not heard so much as the bark of a dog from within this building. But something else was here besides me. I knew, at the core of my being, that it wasn’t supposed to be there.

I reached my floor and headed out into the hallway. I paused at the door after pulling it closed and listened. Those footsteps continued, not even having increased their pace. They sounded much closer.

The hallway was empty, as I knew it would be. I pulled myself away from the door and listened. My own heartbeat, hammering in my ears, and my heavy breathing were the only sounds I heard. There was a window at the end of the hallway, letting in dim grey light, but it was still hard to see. I began walking left. The hallway had an intersection up ahead. I turned right, the direction of my apartment, and kept walking.

Behind me, I heard the door to the stairwell open. The footsteps, still slow but unrelenting, started down the hallway. I waited. Maybe they had turned in the other direction. But no, they were getting louder. Coming toward me. I turned and walked quickly in the direction of my apartment. I didn’t run. If I ran, I would make more noise. I tried to keep my breathing quiet as well.

I reached my apartment, but still heard those footsteps behind me. At any moment their owner would turn the corner. I reached for my keys, but a new thought struck me.

The footsteps sounded close enough that this…person…could turn the corner just as I was closing the door. Then my one safe hiding place would be exposed. Thinking quickly, I turned and ran as quietly as I could in the same direction as before, heading for the other stairwell on this floor.

I made it there, and felt a moment’s elation as I realized that the sound of the footprints had receded somewhat. I could still hear them, but they were fainter, as though whoever this person was had become confused in their pursuit, or had headed in the wrong direction.

I quietly opened the stairwell door and pelted down the first flight, heading out into the hallway of the seventh floor. My plan was to circle around, head back up the other flight, and make it to my apartment while the owner of those footsteps was looking for me in the wrong place.

And then I began to feel a little silly. After all, why was I so convinced that this person was pursuing me? I was the only person I had seen today, but that was the unnatural thing, not the sudden appearance of another person. Somehow, some incident, a disaster or abduction or rapture, or whatever, had emptied my neighborhood, but left me behind, and if I was still here, why would I assume that no one else was? This person could just be someone else who lived on the eighth floor, likely just as confused and terrified as I was.

I shook my head and laughed at myself, but I stuck with my plan. I circled around the building, headed for the other stairwell. Reaching it, I began to climb up…

And I heard those steps again, coming down. They had found me.

I instantly flew back down the stairs and back into the hallway, running full tilt for the very stairs I had just come down, bolting back up them. I cautiously opened the door back on my floor, listening. No steps as of yet. All thoughts of the footsteps belonging to another confused, frightened person had left my mind. Those heavy treads did not belong to a person who was in the same situation as me. They did not sound frightened, or confused. They were purposeful. A purpose that I knew could not be good.

This time, I reached my apartment and managed to get inside. I locked the door, the deadbolt, and secured the chain on the door. I stood there for a second, feeling like that wasn’t enough, and finally put a chair under the knob. Then I went into the living room and huddled against the large window.

For a very long time, nothing happened. And then I heard them again. There was no doubt in my mind now that the footsteps were coming for me. They trod, persistently, inescapably closer, starting to slow further as they reached my apartment door.

They stopped. Just on the other side of my door, something waited, possibly listening for me, but knowing beyond a doubt that I was inside. I thought I could smell something from the hall. Something that smelled…hot. That’s the only way I can describe it. It smelled hot.

I waited. It waited. The silence was palpable. I felt that the air between us had solidified, waiting, as the world did, for the inevitable.

My doorknob rattled. First a little, then vigorously. I sat there, numb, my breath coming in short gasps, my heart beating so fast it felt like a continuous pressure in my chest.

Finally the rattling stopped. I slowly pulled myself away from the window and fired up my laptop. Unlike my phone, it had not been on all night and the battery was still fully charged.

As I have written this, the rattling at the door has returned three times. The last time was the most insistent, and was accompanied by a loud banging.

I don’t know if anyone is still out there to read this. I don’t even know how long the internet will continue to work. I never needed people before today, but I sure need them now. Being a misanthrope has its oddities, but no situation I’ve been in has been more odd than this.

I was alone, and did not want to be.

Now I’m not alone, and I desperately wish I was.

Credit To – WriterJosh

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Shut That Damned Door!

February 12, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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My parents died in a car crash when I was fourteen.

Don’t feel bad for me or anything. I’ve made my peace with that years ago. Life with them was never great, but I do miss them. It’s just that if they taught me one thing it’s to not sit around wallowing in self-pity.

I just wish they hadn’t sent me to live with my Aunt Louise.

Anyone have that one family member that’s just a little strange, a little cut off from the rest of the family? Aunt Louise was ours. She was also our closest living relative. Dad’s family lived on the other side of the continent. Mom’s parents were both dead and she was an only child. Aunt Louise, her mother’s sister, actually, so my great-aunt, lived just an hour from where we did.

When my folks were alive, we rarely visited Aunt Louise, and to be perfectly honest, I half expected her to refuse to take me in. I was fully prepared to become a ward of the state, or move across the country, as soon as I heard that Children and Family services had contacted her about taking me in.

But she accepted. I’m not sure how willingly, or graciously, because I wasn’t privy to the phone conversation where she agreed to take me. I was surprised, though, at how nice she was to me the first three days I was there.

I want to make something clear; while Aunt Louise was cranky, odd, eccentric, uncouth, and several other less-than-flattering adjectives, she wasn’t a complete bitch. She had a rather abrupt, even abrasive, way of speaking, but she wasn’t cruel. I had never taken the time to really get to know her during my initial fourteen years, but I could tell that she mostly kept to herself and didn’t particularly like people, so naturally I assumed that she was a reclusive, curmudgeonly bitch.

Really, what surprised me most when I first moved in, it was how normal everything seemed. At least at first. Aunt Louise cooked, cleaned, watched TV, talked to neighbors on the phone, etc. just like anyone else would, and she told me right away that she had little in the way of expectations from me, or at least, none that my parents wouldn’t have; don’t stay out too late, let her know if you’re going to be late coming home, finish your homework before you watch TV, clean up after yourself, etc.

There was one rule, however, that was strange. And it stood out from the other rules in how strange it was. At first I tried not to worry about it; old people sometimes have peculiarities. I initially thought that was all this was. I was wrong.

She insisted that any time I entered or left a room, I was to shut the door behind me right away. It didn’t matter if I was only going to be in that room for a few seconds. If I entered a room, I was expected to immediately shut the door, and the same was true if I left it.

I often forgot this rule in my first week or so there. She never failed to remind me of it. “Shut that damned door!” she would yell, any time I forgot. It never seemed to matter where she was in the house, she could always tell when I had not shut a door just after opening it.

Her house was old, and my understanding is that she was not its first owner. She had lived in it since Mom was a girl. I had no idea how old it was. It could easily have been over a hundred, judging by its design and layout. It had two floors, a basement and a sub-basement. That last floor threw me for a bit of a loop when I discovered it existed. I was washing a load of my clothes when I noticed a door, closed, naturally, in the far wall of the utility room. The basement was unfinished, with mostly dirt flooring and bits and bobs stacked or piled or shelved everywhere. The only room you could really walk through without fear of stepping on something or knocking over a stack or pile was this laundry room, which was also the only tiled floor down there

The door I found in the basement had a board laid across it, easily moveable. It was as if Aunt Louise wanted a border there but not one that she couldn’t get past, if need be. My curiosity overtook me the second time I saw it, and I slid the board away from the door and tried it. It was locked.

This didn’t strike me as all that strange right away. That is, until I realized that this was the only room in the house, other than the doors leading outside, that Aunt Louise kept locked.

I asked her about it one day. She was cooking.

“The door in the basement?” she answered. “That’s the sub-basement. Not much down there. I mainly keep my preserves down there. It’s cool enough for them to keep.”

“Right,” I answered. This didn’t really explain why she kept it locked. “So if I ever wanted to take a look around down there…”

“For the love of Christ, boy, why would you want to do that?”

I noticed with that response that her face had changed. Aunt Louise mostly wore the same expression; a scowl like someone had just tracked mud onto her freshly-shampooed carpet. Again, she wasn’t as nasty as her expression indicated, but it was the expression she was most used to making, apparently.

But when she responded to my desire to see what was behind that door, her eyebrows raised and her mouth quivered for just a second before answering. It was so slight, others might not have noticed it, but by that time, I knew enough about Aunt Louise to equate that with a scream of horror.

I knew then that I had to see what was behind that door.

I’ve always been a curious type, you see. I’ve never been able to stay away from something that aroused my curiosity, even if my good sense told me better. I wanted nothing more after that than to see what was in that sub-basement.

But how was I to get around the lock? That was going to be an issue. Aunt Louise kept all her keys on a single ring. There weren’t that many of them, but I figured if the door to that sub-basement was anywhere, it was there.

I just had to find a way to take it from her.

This turned out not to be so simple. For one thing, it was not possible to get around the house without being heard. I couldn’t sneak from my bedroom to hers in order to sneak the keys without opening and closing all doors in between us; mine, the door in the far part of the hallway, and hers. Believe me, even if I simply left all doors open, she somehow knew. I once had to go to the bathroom in the night, and I forgot to close the hallway door. I had just made it to the bathroom when I heard her yell, even while asleep, “Shut that damned door!” I hurriedly turned back and went to close the hallway door, forgetting to close the bathroom door, and I heard it again: “Shut that damned door!”

For that matter, Aunt Louise’s room had a squeaky door that also had a catch to it, so when she opened it, it sounded like a choom-creeeeeeeeeeeeak. There was no opening of her door without her noticing.

So I forgot about the sub-basement door for a while. I placed my curiosity on the back burner and just tried to get along with the taciturn old woman for a while. Life got a bit easier. As long as I remembered to keep all doors shut at all times, the two of us got along famously. She didn’t get in my face about things, and I didn’t get in hers. It was a pretty silent house, but one that I got used to living in. I didn’t even think it strange anymore that every part of the house that one accessed through a door always had its door shut. It would have struck me as more odd if any doorway was ever left open.

Which brings me to the day Aunt Louise fell asleep while watching The Price is Right. It was a summer day, and pretty hot. Louise was slightly less worried about windows being open than doors, but she still tended to only open one at a time, and today she had just one open, one that wasn’t doing much at all to cool down a boxed-in house that had zero room for airflow thanks to Aunt Louise’s chief eccentricity. So, naturally, she fell asleep. And I saw my chance.

Her purse was at her feet. I was sitting in the chair directly beside hers, reading an Avengers comic book and trying to ignore the repeated calls of “Come oooooooon doooooown!” from the TV. I looked over at her, and saw that she was in a deep doze. Her hearing wasn’t the greatest even when she was awake, though she was far from deaf, but I figured in her snooze, there would be little chance she would hear the tiny noise of me rifling through her purse.

I found her keys almost immediately and headed for the stairwell. If she woke up when I opened the door, I would just claim I was doing a load of laundry. But she was unlikely to wake up unless I forgot to close the door, which by now I never did.

I headed down the stairs, for some reason tip-toeing even though I wasn’t yet at the place I had been shut out from. I felt absurdly guilty, despite the fact that Aunt Louise had never expressly forbidden me from doing what I was now doing.

The door to the basement was closed, of course, but unlocked, as always. I ducked through and closed it, waiting a few minutes, listening for a shifting of Aunt Louise’s frame in her chair, indicating she was getting up, or perhaps her voice calling to ask why I was in the basement.

Quietly, I crept for the laundry room, opened the door and closed it just as quick, slipping inside. I felt for the chain-pull for the light and pulled it. Low, eery light flickered through the room. I had never thought of the lighting in here as eery before, but I did now. There was something about this entire endeavor that felt wrong.

But my curiosity overrode my sense of caution. I crept toward the door and slid the board away from it. Aunt Louise had apparently put it back in place after the last time I had done this. The question of why she had done so played in my brain for a moment, but I ignored it and brought out the key ring.

I found the right key on the third try, and heard a loud chuck of the lock sliding away. I froze, heart beating in my chest, waiting to hear a cry from upstairs. Nothing.

The door opened silently as a ghost. There wasn’t any light to illuminate the staircase beyond. I didn’t even see a chain-pull for a light on the stairs. My brain was screaming at the rest of my body to turn around and forget this little adventure, but I paid it no heed and crept down the stairs, feeling along the wall for guidance.

It turned out there was a tiny amount of light, coming through vents in the ceiling. It wasn’t much, but I could see that there was a pull-string light, just a few feet from the foot of the stairs. Stupid place to put it; it should be right at the landing. But I walked down what appeared to be a fairly compact hallway and pulled the string. If possible, the light that flickered on was lower than the light from the laundry room. I could barely tell I’d turned it on.

I looked around and saw that, indeed, Aunt Louise did have rows of preserves down here. I was somewhat disappointed at the mundane answer to the mystery. For a moment, it seemed that the secret sub-basement was exactly what it was supposed to be.

Except…I could feel a puff of a warmish breeze that should not be possible down in the hard-packed earthen walls and cooler, subterranean air. The sense of wrongness was still there, and still strong, and I realized that the long row of shelves holding jars ended in a doorway at the end. A doorway that didn’t have a door.

I crept forward, arms in front of me, stepping carefully. The room beyond the door was dark and smelled musty. I couldn’t feel a source of the slightly warm air that was brushing against my skin. But I was noticing that the closer I got to that room, the warmer the air became.

By the time I was at the mouth of the tunnel (somehow I had started thinking of this place as a tunnel by this time), the air wasn’t just warm, it was humid. Fetid. The smell went from musty to moldy, to something even worse. I was assailed by that sense of wrongness stronger than ever. I had to get out of here. Why was I walking even closer?

There wasn’t much light, but I could see the outline of another door on the other side of the room. It was ajar. Seeing a door ajar in Aunt Louise’s house was like seeing a shattered window in anyone else’s. It was wrong. It was not meant to be. But then…I wasn’t precisely in Aunt Louise’s house anymore, was I? This tunnel was not built for this house. I knew that in my soul. It was here before. Long before. This was a place that had only become attached to Aunt Louise’s house by short-sighted builders, unaware of what they had unearthed. What they should have left buried.

It took me a moment to realize that the room beyond, the very room I was about to step into, was moving. The light was too dim to really see what was happening, but there was motion beyond it. Unceasing, slow, lazy motion. All along the walls, the floor. I could hear a slight squelching noise from its every corner. Things were crawling, expanding their pulpous flesh.

And looking at me. Daring me to cross that floor and shut the door on the far side, forever closing out what might be coming through it. I heard sucking sounds. Some formless, gelatinous presence stretched and flexed in the darkness.

In that moment, a sense of understanding came to me. I was not the first person to stand at this door. This door that could not be closed. Not the first person to see that other door, the one that was not meant to be, standing open on the other side, and knowing that it always would, until someone worked up the courage to cross the threshold and close it.

Aunt Louise had not had the courage, so she had fled, and kept every door in her house closed at all times, hoping against hope that keeping her doors closed at all times would alert her when whatever was beyond that damned door finally came for her.

I didn’t have the courage, either. I turned and fled, and never looked back. When I was sixteen I moved out of Aunt Louise’s and into a Halfway House. Once I was eighteen I got a job upstate, and moved there. I never went back to Aunt Louise’s and never called her, tried hard to not even think about her.

But I haven’t been successful. I still think back to the day I stood at that doorway, about the squelching, wriggling things that waited in the dark. And I wonder if Aunt Louise ever found the strength to cross the room and shut that damned door.

Credit To – WriterJosh

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Los Perdidos

February 7, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The broken blade flashed as it streaked above the desert, circling end over end then striking the rocky ground with a clink. It lay there gleaming in the slanted rays of the sun like lost treasure. The other half of the blade remained lodged firmly between spiky ranks of spines in the barrel cactus, only an inch of the cleanly snapped edge protruding.

Alex would have cried in despair and fury if he’d had any tears left but they were long gone, his eyes as dry as the sandy soil he knelt on. His head pounded and his muscles cramped anew, aggravated by the effort required to fling the knife away in disgust. It was late afternoon on Sunday. He’d run out of water 24 hours ago, every cell in his body aching for replenishment. Though his meager supply of food was a distant memory, driving thirst had long since made him forget the hunger pangs. A long-forgotten scene had pushed to the forefront of his brain: someone in a nameless movie – a Western – cutting into a barrel cactus and drinking the life-saving reservoir of fluid inside it. Hope had briefly seized him, but that hope shattered along with his cheap pocket knife. His swollen tongue clumsily maneuvered a small, smooth pebble around his mouth in an attempt to generate moisture, but it was akin to coaxing water from a bag of cotton balls.

Friday morning had been the start of a well-deserved four-day weekend. It was early May and warm, but still weeks away from the brutal heat of true summer. On a whim, Alex stuffed his sketch pad and pencils, a granola bar, an apple, and a liter bottle of water into his backpack, threw the lot into his pickup truck, and hit the road. He’d wanted to take a day trip west of Tucson since he and Jenna had moved there nine months ago but day-to-day life kept intervening. Envisioning a peaceful morning of hiking and sketching the desert landscape, he sought the most uninhabited and undeveloped area possible. Leaving the city far behind he drove still further, signs of civilization vanishing bit by bit, and was delighted to finally discover an unmarked dirt road well off the beaten path. Without hesitation he turned onto it and bumped along its twists and turns for uncounted miles and minutes until the road became little more than a trail, small desert shrubs and grasses whipping the sides of his truck as he drove.

Carefully coaxing the reluctant truck up a small hill, steering through an obstacle course of large rocks and gaping crevices, he navigated a particularly primitive stretch. The reward at the top of the rise was a stunning view of unbroken miles of Sonoran desert, its rocky ground green with spring and surmounted by an impossibly blue sky that wouldn’t know clouds until the monsoon season started in July.

With the engine idling and both windows rolled down he paused to take in the view, crunching the apple. Dry desert grasses waved gently in the warm breeze and a profusion of spring-green leaves sprouted from a nearby ocotillo. A noisy dispute between two cactus wrens caught his attention and so absorbed was he in his surroundings that he didn’t at first notice the small flames licking the right side of the truck’s hood. By the time the dancing motion of the fire registered in his peripheral vision, small flames had become large ones, hungry for more fuel and sending searing feelers up the windshield. He stared in disbelief for a second then in a panicked single motion grabbed his backpack, flung open the door, and fled, his discarded apple rolling down the dirt trail in his wake.

Assisted by the breeze and the open windows, the engine fire swiftly and greedily spread to the cab, gradually petering out and dying after a brief but savage feeding frenzy. When smoke ceased belching from the engine, Alex cautiously approached and surveyed the ruins. His truck was a useless, smoking lump of metal, the ignition melted and the engine fried. Burned scraps of his jacket littered the blackened passenger’s seat like confetti and his phone – his lifeline – lay shattered and warped on the dashboard next to the now defunct GPS system.

He took stock of his situation: he had no transportation, no phone, and no real idea of where he was. Jenna was in Ohio visiting her family for the first time since the couple moved to Tucson and she wasn’t expecting to hear from him until Monday afternoon. He wasn’t due back to work until Tuesday morning and in any case, he hadn’t told any co-workers about his excursion. The odds of encountering someone else traveling the rough, overgrown road anytime soon seemed infinitesimally remote.

“Stay with your vehicle.” He’d read that somewhere and so he stayed for a while, but the charred interior offered little shelter, no resources, and no hope of rescue. Mentally replaying the miles of dry, uninhabited nothingness covered to reach his current location, he realized that retracing that path was an impossible task. Heading northeast across the desert as the crow flies, however, he’d eventually intersect with the highway – a long hike, but better than the alternatives. With a resigned sigh, he pried his dead lump of a phone off the dashboard with a stick, adding its still-warm carcass to the backpack on the off chance it might magically return to life. He then strode off with a granola bar, three-quarters of a liter of water, and the expectation that he’d be home before evening.

As he strode through the morning and early afternoon, he reflected that his faithful gym attendance and regular morning runs were paying off: he was in good enough shape to handle a long hike. Even so, he found it uncomfortably warm, the temperature having risen to the mid-90s, causing his throat to prickle with thirst and the level of water in his bottle to diminish as though it had sprung a leak. A pair of rugged ravines and a thick patch of prickly pear cactus forced detours, and with the sun directly overhead it became more difficult to tell what direction he was headed.

By late afternoon he’d walked through miles of desert with no hint of human presence. The breeze blew effortlessly across the landscape, unimpeded by any man-made obstacles. When at last the sun dipped low on the horizon behind him and there was no sign of the highway, he felt his heart pound and his chest heave as he tried to squelch feelings of panic. As darkness finally fell so did tears of frustration and disbelief. Sticky all over with dried sweat, stabbed by hunger pangs, his fair skin burned sunset red, he shouted futilely for help but received not even an echo in return.

The quarter moon rose, going about its business as it had for millennia. Alex soldiered on in the dim light for a time on that first night, his heart jumping into his dry throat when the dark shapes of roosting birds exploded out of a bush he floundered into, their shrill alarm calls ringing in his ears for minutes afterward. The light breeze rustled clumps of dried grass, making a whispering sound like a conversation just out of earshot, and his footsteps sounded freakishly loud on the hard, gravelly ground. He could swear that when he stopped, the sound continued for a split second as if someone were following behind him in lockstep, mimicking his every move, stopping just after he stopped. Glancing nervously behind him, he stumbled on the uneven ground and pitched forward, sandblasting the underside of his right forearm as he landed.

Defeated by the darkness, he sought a resting place for the night. A rock outcropping near a large creosote bush beckoned and he settled there, his back against the rock wall. How could a short day trip have become a night spent alone in the desert? He shook his head, incredulous. Nearby the skeleton of a long-dead saguaro glowed yellow-white in the pale moonlight, casting a faint, ominous shadow. Beyond that the landscape was amorphous and obscure in the darkness, its nocturnal occupants moving unseen and mysterious about their affairs as they did every night, always. To soothe himself he conjured up fond memories of family camping trips in the woods when he was a child, and thoughts of sleeping bags and s’mores settled his nerves for a short time. Then veering off track like a derailing train, his mind abruptly fixed on the ghost stories they’d told around the campfire. Frowning and cursing himself, he silenced the memories as best he could. He was jumpy enough without thinking about spirits and boogeymen. Famished and exhausted, he ate half of his granola bar then tried to sleep.

Sleep did not come easily. The arid, hard desert ground cannot retain heat and as soon as the sun sets, releases its warmth to the night. Though it had been uncomfortably warm during the day, the temperature plummeted to the lower 50s at night. Wearing just a T-shirt and jeans and hugging his backpack for warmth, Alex shivered himself awake each time he managed to drift off and twitched nervously at each unfamiliar night sound. Surfacing into consciousness for the umpteenth time he gasped in momentary terror as a pale, ghostly figure glided silently above the desert floor some yards away, his tired brain unable to interpret the shape for a moment. Owl, he realized, finally. The snuffling pig-like sounds that came later were impossible for him to place and kept him still and frozen, pressed against the rapidly-cooling rock wall for what seemed like hours before he at last drifted back into a fitful, fearful sleep.

He awoke on Saturday morning with the first light of dawn, his fleeting hope that the whole excursion had been just a bad dream dashed as soon as he opened his eyes. His water supply rapidly diminishing, he devised a new strategy: he would travel during the cooler part of the day and rest in the afternoon. But surely he would find the highway before noon. Yesterday was discouraging but the new morning gave him a burst of optimism.

The day was a blur of walking and resting, the beauty of the landscape and the clear cerulean sky long since lost on him. Evening found him painfully thirsty and hungry after another hot day, and eventually forced to numbly accept that he would be spending a second night in the desert. The bottom of a small, rocky hill near a shallow ravine became his resting place for Saturday night. The now-empty water bottle rattled hollowly against the melted phone as he dropped his backpack and settled in with his back to the stony hillside. Now desperate for water, his thoughts were becoming disordered and unfocused and his eyes and skin were sandpaper-dry. He gingerly prodded the abrasions on his right arm. They’d been screaming for attention all day, red, angry, and starting to swell. As darkness encroached once more, he used his small pocket knife to pick cactus spines out of his jeans and hiking boots, his mind wandering in a near-dreamlike state.

His blurred sight turned creeping shadows into dreadful stalking beasts with shaggy manes and long legs skulking behind the stunted desert plants, circling him on the fringes of his vision. The high-pitched yammering of a pack of coyotes reached him from a far distance. If they came closer, would they pass up an easy target? As his eyes began to feel heavier with the onset of sleep, a sudden, loud shriek pierced the air close by, sending tingles of alarm through his body. Holding his breath, he sat perfectly still in the dark, waiting. The same shriek sounded twice more, farther away. A night bird of some kind, he hoped.

Jumping at every sound and shaking from the cold once again, Alex at last drifted into an uneasy sleep – and dreamed an uneasy dream. He was at work late in the evening, long after everyone else had left. Parched with thirst, he left his office to walk to the break room for a drink. The building was still and silent and all the offices but his dark as tombs, their identical doors shut tight, their contents cryptic. He squinted to find his way, the hallway lighted only by tiny, dim, far-flung nightlights with long stretches of pitch black in between. Twisting and turning, it wended its way for what seemed like miles with no end in sight and he took to walking hastily through the dark stretches, more fearful with each moment that one of the doors would open of its own accord as he passed, revealing a horror behind it. When he looked back, there was no sign of his office now: just a tunnel of thick, sooty blackness.

Gradually he became aware of the faint sound of sobbing coming from each office he passed, accompanied by muffled whispering from the far reaches of the hallway behind him, the words incomprehensible. He quickened his pace to a jog, eager to reach the safe haven of the break room. For miles and miles he jogged, the sobbing and whispering now gone, hearing only his own wheezing, gasping breaths. Finally winded and with his lungs aching, he was forced to stop – but only for a moment. Louder but still inarticulate the whispering began, the sobbing soon following. Closer now, they issued from all of the offices at once. As terror began to overcome him he broke into a run despite exhaustion, like wounded prey in a final life-or-death effort to evade a predator. Rounding a bend in the hallway he spotted a bright light in the distance and though struggling for breath managed a burst of speed toward it, revealing it to be the break room at last, awash in bright light and lined with dozens of vending machines containing bottled water and cold soda of every sort imaginable. It was directly across a wide hallway that formed a T intersection with the one down which he fled.

Some primitive instinct stopped his headlong rush just in time. He skidded to a halt at the edge of the hallway a dozen feet across from the break room and looked down. There was no floor, a drop into an obsidian-black, apparently bottomless chasm between him and salvation. As he stood there panting and helpless, the now-ceaseless sobbing escalated to a wail of agony and he heard the office doors for miles down the hallway begin to rattle violently in their frames.

He awoke with a start in the early dawn of his third day in the desert.

Sunday proved to be as fruitless as its predecessors and walking ever more taxing. After failing to cut into the barrel cactus in the early evening, Alex trudged to a nearby dry wash to seek a place to spend the night. The wash stretched on endlessly in both directions, a broken promise of water. A high rocky cliff formed a wall on the far side some yards to the right, a handful of gnarled mesquites in front of it. Completely drained, he dropped where he stood, no longer caring to find a more suitable spot. As the sun began its descent and a chilly breeze sprang up, he fumbled his sketch pad and a pencil from the backpack and wrote a short, shaky note to Jenna, telling her that he loved her. Returning the pad and pencil to the backpack, he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, in spite of the cold, his aching thirst, and the throbbing pain in his arm.

His muddled mind couldn’t process the sound that stirred his unconscious and woke him. Half-awake, he waited for it to repeat.

“¡Hola!”

After a minute, “¡Hola, amigo!”

A human voice came from the direction of the rock cliff on the far side of the wash. Snatching up his backpack, Alex struggled to his feet and staggered several yards to his right, closer to the source of the sound. His view of the cliff, dim at best in the moonlight, was further obscured by the clump of mesquites in front of it.

“¡Aquí!” the voice entreated.

Climbing down the insignificant bank and crossing the wash revealed a shallow cave in the rock cliff only a few feet above the wash bed. A ridge of dirt and rock extended several feet in front of the cave entrance making a natural walkway, and on that walkway stood a dim figure – by its voice, a man – waving his arms above his head.

Hallucination? Dream? Either was possible. Alex tentatively called, “Hello?”

“¡Hola!” came the reply.

Not completely trusting his eyes and ears Alex closed the remaining distance to the rock cliff, scrambled stiffly onto the walkway, and approached the figure cautiously, fearing it would dissolve into nothingness, a figment of his imagination. As he grew closer, the moonlight brought to light a man of small stature and slight build clothed in well-worn blue jeans, a light brown T-shirt, and a black windbreaker with neon-green stripes starting at the neck and running the length of both arms. His dusty, scuffed boots had seen many miles of travel by foot. Jet black, wavy hair merged into the black of the cave interior behind him and from what Alex could tell, his eyes were equally dark. An oval, silver pendant hung around his neck, gleaming faintly as it caught the light.

“¿Tiene agua?” questioned the man, with hope in his voice.

Alex knew only a handful of Spanish words. Agua was water, the lack of which he felt keenly.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head, his swollen tongue making speaking an arduous task.

“¿Un coche?” the man asked next.

Seeing the confusion on Alex’s face, the man mimed steering a car.

“No. I did, but it doesn’t run anymore,” Alex responded, then realized the man probably couldn’t understand him. “Do you speak English?”

A flash of white teeth appearing in a slight smile, the man lifted his hand, holding his index finger and thumb close together. “Little,” he responded. He then thrust his right arm out, inviting Alex to shake hands. “Me llamo José Luis,” he offered.

Alex shook hands, introducing himself. Gesturing toward the interior of the cave, José Luis invited him inside out of the cool breeze. The cave was little more than a hollow scooped out of the cliff in some distant era, wide but not very deep, with a ceiling that sloped downward as it reached the back. When his eyes adjusted to the dark interior, Alex could just make out a battered backpack, a baseball cap, and two empty milk jugs lying on the left side about halfway back – evidently the only possessions José Luis had carried with him across the border. The milk jugs, he guessed, formerly held water.

Hardly daring to hope, Alex asked, “Do you know how to get to Tucson?”

José Luis nodded with a slight smile. “Si. Voy a Tucson para encontrar trabajo,” he replied, pronouncing it Took-sahn.

Whatever that meant, Alex didn’t think it answered the question and so tried again.

“Which way is Tucson from here?” Alex pointed first one direction then another and gave an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders. “Umm…donde Tucson?”

Moving to the front of the cave, José Luis turned to the right and with no hesitation or sign of doubt, pointed northeast.

Relief flooded over Alex for the first time since Friday as he envisioned himself setting off at the first light of dawn with a guide, finally sure of the way home – to water and help and civilization. Interrupting this reverie, José Luis abruptly stood and beckoned Alex to the walkway in front of the cave. Alex followed, curious, as he stepped off the walkway and moved a short distance down the bank of the wash to the left. A rough square of fabric – perhaps a piece of a waterproof jacket or a light tarp – stretched on the sandy soil there, held in place by seven or eight rocks placed along its edges. The fabric sagged in a slope toward a small pile of pebbles in the middle as if it were suspended over a hole in the ground.

Grabbing Alex’s sleeve and pulling him closer, José Luis pointed to the fabric and stated, “In morning…agua.”

The crude device must collect condensation during the cool night, yielding drinking water, Alex realized, nodding and smiling in understanding. There wouldn’t be much, but even a thimbleful would be a blessed relief.

A sudden loud rustling out of sight down the wash bed caused both men to flinch, then stand stock-still, barely breathing. When the noise didn’t recur after some moments the pair relaxed, though José Luis glanced nervously around as if trying to scan the opaque shadows in the desert beyond.

“Hay fantasmas en el desierto,” he whispered uneasily.

“Fantasmas?” Alex repeated it in his head, his tired, fuzzy brain trying to work out an English equivalent. “Fantasmas…fantasies?” Then, “Phantasms…phantoms. Ghosts.”

José Luis clutched the silver pendant he wore. Alex could make out a winged figure on it – an angel.

“San Miguel me protege. He protect me,” the man said, his voice now louder and more sure.

Alex was past worrying about ghosts, but nodded his understanding.

The two returned to the shelter of the cave. Pressing both of his hands together and placing them alongside his face, José Luis shut his eyes and feigned sleep for a moment to communicate his intent to Alex. He then moved to the left wall of the cave and lay on his side with his back against it, his backpack serving as a pillow. Alex followed suit, his limited reserves of energy used up despite his renewed hope. Lying against the opposite wall of the cave all he could see of José Luis was a vague, dark shape and the dim glow of the neon-green stripe on his right sleeve. A muttered prayer in Spanish was the last thing he heard before drifting off into the soundest sleep he’d had in days, free of dreams and filled with a cautious optimism.

He awoke just before dawn, his memory of the previous evening returning in a flood. A glance across the darkness of the cave showed the dark outline of José Luis still sleeping in the spot he’d occupied earlier. Alex’s first and most pressing thought, before he was even fully awake, was of water. He rose and stumbled to the location of the water pit just down the wash bank, the weak hint of daylight not yet any brighter than the murky moonlight had been. A dozen steps should have brought him to the pit, but he was unable to spot the fabric that covered it even when he retraced his steps several times, deviating first to one side then the other.

Dropping to his hands and knees to better see the ground, he noticed a darker, oval patch just a few feet away and crawled to it, his injured arm aching. A shallow pit occupied the space but no fabric covered it. The rocks that had held the fabric in place were disordered and scattered, a tattered strip of fabric under the remaining rocks along one edge. Carefully probing inside the pit with his hand, Alex discovered a small collection of dried desert plants, several pebbles, and a ragged piece of cloth, all half-buried under dust and sand. As he attempted to pull the piece of cloth out of the dirt, it crumbled in his grasp, brittle and fragile.

His heart pounded. Had he walked the wrong way down the wash bank? He was certain he hadn’t. Had José Luis risen earlier, taken the water for himself, and destroyed the pit? Then why would he have showed it to him in the first place? Distressed and bewildered, Alex sat cross-legged next to the pit until the first feeble rays of the morning sun showed themselves. He would confront José Luis and demand to know what happened to the water, he decided.

Using what limited strength he could muster he returned to the cave, crossing the sand-strewn threshold then approaching the still-sleeping man.

“José Luis!” he called from the middle of the cave, but there was no response.

Louder this time: “José Luis!” Again the man didn’t acknowledge him or even move.

Alex took several steps forward and stooped over, stretching his right arm out to grab José Luis’s shoulder and shake him awake, at the same time allowing a patch of the pure, newborn morning light to streak into the cave. His hand an inch from the green stripe on the black windbreaker, he froze.

José Luis’s left arm bent in front of his body, his hand resting on the ground in the spotlight of sun. Patches of brown, leathery flesh, withered and mummified, covered it and the bones of several fingers showed through. In the dirt nearby was an old pendant with an image of Saint Michael, long since broken away from its frail chain. On a dilapidated backpack, hollow, empty eye sockets stared from a skull adorned with thick, black hair, long dead – years dead – and covered in dust.

As Alex sat in the cave, staring into the distance, the sun ascended and the desert inhabitants went about their business as they had for millennia.

Credit To: bansidhe

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