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Soldiers of Misfortune

February 12, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“We knew we were scouting for caves, but didn’t have an exact search location. The Sarge had us pair off and reconnoiter in all four directions. Bradley and Jones were the first ones to lose audio contact, although we could still track their movements on our grids.”

“Munch and Green were next to go. Same pattern, loss of audio, but still registering on the O-watch grid. Everyone seemed to be converging in one place. Charley and I then changed direction to meet them.”

The man in the chair was speaking quietly to his superior. He didn’t keep the fear from coloring his voice or causing it to quaver.

The Captain, himself, was conducting this interview with the Corporal. He wanted to hear first hand of how the death of five of his elite fighters came about. He studied the survivor across from him, letting the man talk freely.

“We were operating under the assumption they had found the caves, and they had. We followed their tracks inside. That’s when we realized we too, had lost audio contact.”

Corporal Bryce’s skin was as gray as the chair he sat perfectly upright in, a testament to his training. There was a glass of water and a pack of Marlboro Lights set in front of him, on the table. He had been given permission to smoke and so far had ignored the cigarettes, though the Captain knew he was a two pack a day man.

“Truth is, we weren’t prepared, sir. It would’ve been nice to know just what we were up against. Bravo company was nearly wiped out because higher brass didn’t give a shit about a buncha grunts. No offense sir, it’s just the reality!”

The Captain noted the bitterness in Bryce’s voice, but gestured for him to go on.

“No one told us these… creatures … were fast, and I swear Captain, I’d never been so afraid for my life as when I first saw one of those… things … hunting me and Charley.”

“It sucker punches you twice, when you recognize they were once human. The shock of it nearly got me killed. As it was, they took Charley, sir, just up and snatched him.”

Bryce was wearing a pair of protective eye gear, making it tougher for his superior to ‘read’ his face. Since being retrieved from the mountain, Bryce began suffering from photophobia. It had worsened quickly.

The docs, finding no reason for it, thought it might be psychosomatic. The trauma Bryce had gone through, whatever he had witnessed in that warren of caves, was too much for his brain to process, so he went ‘blind’.

Bryce’s rasp of a voice broke into the Captain’s thoughts as he started speaking again.

“I’m not ashamed to say it sir, but I ran then, loosing a hail of gunfire as I went. When I reached the mouth of the cave, I rolled out of the entrance, turned, knelt, and brought my scope up to look through the infra-red, primed to fire. One of those ‘things’ had been chasing me, but I couldn’t see it.”

The Captain could see Bryce was struggling with the memory. He waited patiently for Bryce to continue.

“I… I couldn’t see it, because it was clinging to the ceiling, Captain.”

Bryce stopped a moment to let the shock of that statement settle. He seemed to gather himself, squared his shoulders and continued on.

“That was when I began to hear it. It was soft at first, more a vibration you feel in your gut sir, you know? Rather than hear.”

The Captain had heard of some odd reports from other companies. Their scouts telling of hearing ‘music’ before they went missing. Bryce was the only one to come back, having experienced it.

“It was… haunting. Hunger and longing, promising you fulfillment.”

Bryce seemed to smile slightly, almost wistfully, before speaking again.

“It was torment, but so sweet it made you crave the caress of it in your mind. To want a consummation with it so deep it bleeds your humanity dry, turning you into a husk of need.”

Bryce spoke with such undisguised lust, that the Captain barely stopped himself from recoiling in disgust.

“It became everything I ever wanted, and was secretly wishing for.”

“It compelled me back into the cave, sir. I don’t know when I had pushed the panic button on the O-watch. Must’ve been on the roll-out. Glad I did though. Especially after I found what was left of Charley.”

Bryce hung his head in solemn remembrance of his friend.

He reached for the water and changed his mind, letting his arm drop back to his lap, after a moment his hoarse voice went on.

“I don’t remember much after that. Couldn’t tell you how I got the punctures in my leg. Doc said they were at the femoral artery too. If the Sarge hadn’t found me, I’d be a goner along with Charley and the rest.”

“Sarge said I was crumpled there, just barely outside the mouth of the cave, lying on a pile of rock, bleeding out. They found Charley and the rest further down in a strange dirt chamber.”

“Too late though, they were all corpses.”

Corporal Bryce stopped then and looked up at his Captain, his face wearing an unfathomable expression.

Bryce started to rapidly transform. His whole lower jaw unhinged, displaying razor sharp teeth. He reached up and ripped the eye gear off. His eyes, now blazing red orbs.

The Captain’s disbelieving brain was too slow in warning, as Bryce leaped across the table…

“Why don’t you join them?”

Credit: D. L. Henry

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The Cabin

February 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I awoke this morning head pounding, stomach turning; most likely from the copious amounts of Whiskey I had consumed hours prior. I stumbled from bed wearing the same clothes I had worn the previous day: a heavy winter’s coat, thick gloves, waterproof pants, and snow boots. I made my way to the den where the fire sat, blazing from last night’s use. I rubbed my temples and focused hard on the roaring flames. It was as if the dancing orange inferno was aching to tell me something, undoubtedly about how disturbing my actions were the evening before. My eyes widened and began to water as I held them open in a futile attempt to win this staring contest with the combustion reaction of elements and water vapor. Liquid began to pour from my eyes, yet I couldn’t make out what the fire was so desperately trying to tell me. It’s murmur in too soft of a pitch for my hung-over ears to detect. How I envied that fire, able to see what crimes I had committed in my intoxicated state, able to listen to my incomprehensible rambling of inebriated solitude, and able to watch as any ethical percentage of human decency I had left shrink into nothingness.

I turned from the whispering flames, eyes glossy and thoughts as unclear as they always are the morning after my monthly rampages, which had recently come about more often and closer between than 30 day intervals. I grabbed a few pain medicine tablets that I had strategically placed, at some previous time, near the empty glass bottle that encased the liquid version of my personal downfall. I popped the pills and thanked my former self for being so thoughtful and well prepared. My bloodshot eyes shifted toward the ground of the foyer, moments later my brows furrowed in confusion. My blurry vision focused on the shiny surface of the large dining room candlestick which sat on its side a few inches from the front door. Its golden shaft stained with red as it lay motionless in a puddle of blood, as if it had been murdered.

This wasn’t the most unusual thing I had observed the day after a drunken stupor, an inanimate object falling victim to the unspeakable crime of homicide. In fact, I had previously woken up to witness much worse: broken glass from every mirror scattered across the cold, hardwood floors, blood oozing from some self-induced gash that insisted on immediate medical attention, even to ex-partners screaming of abuse and fits of psychotic rage. The last of which happened to be the main factor that led to my condemned state of isolation deep within the mountains, divorced and alone. But women never made me as happy as booze did, so carefree and comfortable in my own skin. Regret was only felt the morning after, and it lasted only as long as it took to pour myself another drink.

I examined my clothed skin. No sign of an exit wound where the blood on the floor could have expelled from. I felt no stinging beneath material that rubbed at my flesh as I walked. I glanced at the doorknob leading to the frigid temperatures of the outside air. It, too, was masked with dry blood and not fully latched. The entire door sat crocked on its hinges and open several centimeters. This was truly the only occurrence that struck me as odd. My curiosity about the death of the candlestick was quickly exchanged for alarm. The door had been slightly damaged since I bought the cabin a year before. It had to be lifted into its deformed wooden frame to latch shut. As far as I knew I was the only one who could properly do so, due to endless attempts when I first moved in, being that I was both too cheap and drunk to fix it properly. Yet, after each blackout I would awaken with the door not only shut, but locked. Even deep within my own frightening oblivion I knew bears were a serious danger. This led to a question that sent chills up my spine, was somebody else here last night?

I grasped the door handle and flung open the large hunk of wood. Last night’s snowstorm had blanketed the ground for as far as the eye could see with the purest shade of white. I stepped onto the front porch while plumes of carbon dioxide became visible from each exhaled breath. I looked down. Small footsteps led from my porch to a wooden shack that sat thirty feet from my own. This wasn’t an unusual sight. My cabin was only a fourth of a mile from a popular trail and stragglers came and went as often as the wolves. But these were different. They not only came obviously from within my home, but had minuscule spots of blood between each light footfall.

I traced each previously laid step. The drips of blood slightly melted the snow from their warmth and grew in size as I progressed towards the shack. My footsteps sunk much deeper into the snow and sat closer together than the first set, making me think the individual who had left them had been running. In twenty seconds I stood at the shacks door. My heart began pounding. I felt beads of sweat being birthed from each pore on my forehead and stream down my face. I could feel my palms begin to clam up from beneath each glove, and every worst case scenario cascaded through my thoughts. Bears, monsters, aliens, serial killers, all flashed before my mind’s eye. Fear established itself deep within my gut, and then ran through each vein until I was filled with numbing adrenaline.

I swung open the door of the shed. I gasped in horror. An unconscious woman, half naked and spotted with cuts and blood, lay sprawled across the floor. I ran to her side and knelt before her. I spoke harshly to awaken her from slumber and shook her aggressively, but to no avail. I pulled off a heavy glove to check her pulse.

I froze.

Dried blood crusted over the epidermis off my hand. My eyes flew to woman. I held my hand above a bloody hand-print on her arm, it belonged to me.

At this moment I only knew two things for sure: one, the footprints leading from my door belonged to this woman, and two, I had killed her.

Shaking my head, I stood and walked to the woman’s feet. I bent my knees slightly and gripped her left ankle. Leaving the shack, I began to drag the limp body behind me. Her dead-weight sunk into the fallen crystals, exchanging snow white for blood red as I heaved.

Looking down I knew one thing for sure: I’ll have dinner for at least a week.

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Love

February 1, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This is not meant to scare anyone.

Calling it a creepy story would be a bit of an insult, because it isn’t one. This is an expression of gratitude toward a friend, a friend who was always there for me. He watched over me as I was growing up and was the best friend any kid could ever have.

Even if I didn’t recognize it at the time.

He was always there, even though I couldn’t see him, and he was always acting in my best interests, even if I couldn’t understand. I’d like to take some time to share with you our story, because if you’re lucky, you might have a friend like this too.

I think I should let you read his letter first. In May of 2010, I bought a new computer and took my old one to the shop to have everything backed up. I’d brought the new computer home and had begun restoring my files from my portable hard drive and reinstalling programs when I noticed that there was a file in the Misc. folder that the shop’s technician had created for files with no other place. It was called HappyBirthdayBaby.txt.

Initially I thought it was a message my mom had written for me that I’d never read as intended, but I opened it, and this is what I found:

You might find this one day… I’m not great at this computer stuff, but I’ve watched you tinkering with this machine lately, and I think I know how to save this so that you’ll find it. Seeing as it’s time for me to go, I want to leave you this last little message.

I know you never met your father, but to me he was Col. Marcus Andrew Stadtfleld, as I’m sure your mother told you. He was a good man, one with the pride of a lion, the strength of a bear and a heart of pure gold. Truth is, I was almost like his son long before you were born. I was his second in command and served with him for three years.

I watched as your mother wept when she heard the news, her belly swollen with your soon-to-be debut into this world, and I stayed with her every second of every day. That was, until the day you came into the world- then my focus shifted to you.

I watched as they cleaned you and handed you to your mother, and she seemed to look right at me with a knowing eye as I stood over the both of you, almost as if she’d known along, and I’d be willing to bet my last penny she did. I’ve watched you grow and I remember everything, even the things you don’t. You always were such a happy baby and you had seemed to have inherited your father’s sense of humor. When you were getting to be four months old, you would do just about everything to hinder your mother’s attempts at changing you, laughing all the while. You were a wild one at heart, just as you are today.

Just like Marcus.

When you were about six months old we would play all the time. We had one game in particular, where I would grab your toes and tickle your belly. You would love it, though when your mother came in l’d have to stop, and it always perplexed her as to why you’d abruptly start crying- after a while, she seemed to think you didn’t like her, which is when I realized that I had to back away some.

When you were one year old you seemed to develop a sixth sense for me and although you couldn’t really see me so much or so well anymore, you knew I was there. I couldn’t play with you as much as before because I knew it would only hurt you in the long run, but I always kept guard. I knew you remembered seeing me because you had a way of testing my presence, you’d throw toys into the corner where I stood and then wait to see if I would play with them. Now, I know you won’t remember this, but once you threw a bear and a ragdoll at me, and because your mother was busy in the kitchen making dinner, I kept you entertained by putting on a little show. It was nothing special, I just made them dance a little. You were laughing loudly and your mom came in to see what was so funny, but when she saw, she wasn’t laughing. I bet you could mention the bear and ragdoll dance even today and the colour would run right out of her cheeks, but do me a favor and don’t. I think it would be kinder to ask if you ever threw the toys into the corner, that isn’t quite as bad a memory for her as the dancing is.

Do you remember your first word? I do… “Love.” Hahah. your mother made damned well sure you knew just how much you were cherished by her, every moment of every day and she would always say, “Love you baby…” I remember you tugging at my heart strings something awful once, when your mother was changing you in the bathroom this one time. You seemed to have caught my reflection in the mirror behind her, and you pointed and said Love (well, more of a wuv, but your mother knew), and she laughed and affirmed it. It was your only word for a time, but as I walked out of the reflection you started getting restless and I knew again that I had to be more stealthy. You were growing more and more every day now, and I couldn’t afford to break my promise to your father, which is why I would have to retreat yet again.

I broke the rules many times to protect you, for that promise to your father was everything to me. I remember when you were three and had mastered walking, you were a regular little scout, hahah. You could never keep still- those little legs had opened up a whole new world to you and you weren’t shy at all about exploring it. One day you were with your mother in the market, and a lady with a shiny purse caught your eye. You went running after her, just as another shopper was running with her trolley in front of her, coming the other way. She didn’t spot you, and because you were running after the purse, you didn’t see her either.

Breaking the rules was not allowed, but allowing you to get hurt wasn’t permittable either. By the time you noticed her it was already too late, and you fell on your bottom before you could scamper out of her way. Left without any other option, I sent that trolley flying Into the side of a freezer and as it crashed, that woman screamed blue murder, “A-A-A man in a uniform!” she screamed. You simply giggled as the crowd gathered and your mother came running. When she found you at that scene you were safe and sound, and you pointed to the trolley that had smashed the freezer window. You know what you said to her then? “Love mommy.” I was hiding by then, embarrassed to have created such a scene, though I have to admit I was laughing on the inside.

As you grew and became more aware so did I, and I finally knew when I could and couldn’t intervene. Doing too much would hurt the both of us, so I chose my moments carefully. You were a smart kid, just like your father, and most of the time knew how to handle any and every situation. If there was an option, you took it, though I slipped up a few times as you were growing up, I do think I did well to keep an eye on you. It was just the little things to make your life a bit easier, things you probably won’t remember, like putting your piano music sheets into your bag at night, turning off your television when you fell asleep, pulling the sheets over you on the colder nights, sorting your drawers, setting your alarm clock, closing your windows and door… You caught me doing one or two of these things a few times, and I want to take the time now to apologize for scaring you.

This one time you were doing your homework and fell asleep at your desk, so I filled In all the answers for your math quiz. You’d made such a fuss to your mother earlier about how strict the teacher was about homework and I knew you knew the answers anyway, but you suspected more than ever when you woke up and found that whole half a sheet you left incomplete was done. You were older and had forgotten that we were friends, things you saw in the media about ghosts scared you- and you had every right to be afraid. I just want to say I’m sorry. I never meant to make you cry. If only I had taken a little extra care you’d never have known. I just wanted to keep you safe and happy.

As you matured you began to take form as a little lady and as such, and you began to know the evil of men. Though you had your wits about you, you were always taking stupid risks, and watching over you became a little more of a worry for me. Gradually, I had to expose myself more and more, most memorably that night when that no-good boy you brought home started putting the moves on you. Your mother was at work, he was only after one thing, and although I knew it wasn’t my place to choose for you, you were still only a baby girl, just fifteen years old… As he got on top of you and started undressing you, took his top off and began whispering those sweet nothings, your face said it all.

You were scared. And when you told him to stop and he wouldn’t, and when you tried to push him off and he got angry, when he struck you and finally tried to put his hand up your skirt, all the evil I kept inside of me broke free at that moment and it was something I couldn’t control. My rage boiled over as I began to growl, the lights flickering, the TV volume rising, the doors and windows crashing open and shut. The keys on your piano began to rattle and with your fathers roar, I yelled, “Get out of the house boy!” He ran out of that room and you tried to follow, but I slammed that door in your face and wouldn’t let the handle go until your mother pulled into the driveway… I’m so sorry kid, that whole thing traumatized you for a while… You became more frightened of me than ever, having such an experience, and I knew from then on in spite of how much I loved you, we could never be friends. Not after what I’d done.

Some nights you used to sit awake late into the evening, watching for me, and I’d have to sit in the darkest corner, looking right back at you, unable to reassure you that I wasn’t here to cause you harm. You used to scream, “I hate you! Get out! Leave me alone!” And just as you used to do as a toddler, you would throw things into my corner, only instead of toys for me to play with, this time it was heavy books, CD cases, anything you could get your hands on to get me to move. You used to sit in your bed watching that corner… I always felt terrible about what I did. I’d almost broken that promise to your father- but more importantly, I’d almost broken the personal promise I’d made to you.

It was like that until the night you tried to make peace with me, that night you sat up in your bed and said, “If you’re here, I’m sorry, you were only trying to stop him…” I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t, even as you shuffled around nervously and called, “You’re here right? Could you show me a sign?” I wanted so badly to give you something, anything to show you I was there and that I’d heard that, but fearing that you would lose it if I did, I kept silent and just nodded, in that dark corner where you couldn’t see me.. You have to know I was never mad at you, you were just a little girl and that little prick tipped me over the edge… Promise me you’ll never do anything like that again, won’t you?

It’s your eighteenth Birthday today, which is exactly why I’m writing this to you. I want to wish you a happy birthday. I’m sure your dad’s getting sick of keeping that bar stool open for me. Live a good life, try not to forget about me, and know you turned out great.

Your father would be so proud of you.

This letter is my present to you, and don’t you worry about the spooky corner anymore, my final order is complete. I don’t know about you, but I think this trooper deserves a drink; you sure were a handful, hahah!

If you find this one day, try calling out to me.
Take care, be safe, and live a happy life.

Love,
Lt. Ashley Gilchrist.

PS. If you call out my name, call me what you used to call me as a kid, that always got me to come running.

I was gobsmacked when I read this letter; everything finally made sense. All the things that happened when I was growing up. I’d always thought I was seeing things until that day when my ex-boyfriend almost raped me. I’ll be the first to admit that I was scared of him, because I didn’t understand what he was, why he was there or what he was after, but now I see that I had it all wrong.

A few days after reading the letter, I asked my mom a few questions about the spooky things that happened when I was growing up. She was very nonchalant about the whole thing- until I mentioned what happened in the market. There, she stopped cleaning, set down her cloth, turned to me and smiled. “You always had a guardian angel watching over you, honey. I don’t know if it was your father or not, but who or whatever it was, it made sure nothing bad ever really happened to you.” As she turned around and began cleaning the dishes, she asked, “So I guess you met it then, right? Your spirit friend?”

“Not exactly, he left something for me.” I went upstairs, brought my laptop down and showed her the letter on my computer. My mother was crying by the time she finished and she told me all about my dad’s friend…

“He was a kind boy… Marc brought him home once to meet me and he had a certain thing about him. That man was as loyal as a dog to your father, he had a love and respect for him that even I was intimidated by at times… When he came to our home on leave, Marcus nearly had to order him to make himself at home, and he even had to be asked to take his uniform off. He looked up to Marcus almost like a boy looks up to his father. I don’t really know his background but I remember your father telling me that he was a good drinking partner, a fine soldier, and an invaluable friend.”

She took a deep breath and choked back a few of her tears before continuing on.

“They found that poor boy and your father all alone in a building that had been overrun by their enemy. They’d been out on recon, and their team got separated when they came under fire. The rest of the boys on your father’s team survived, but those two weren’t so lucky… The way they found them was peculiar,” she swallowed heavily, looked me right in the eye and said, “That boy was found on top of your father, riddled with bullets… he was shielding him right up until the moment he died. He could have gotten away but he refused to leave your injured fathers side.”

With that we both burst into tears… Love. That’s exactly what he was, he was a guardian. I’d never had any reason to be afraid of him, and I’d have given anything just to tell him I was sorry and that I loved him back. I had no right to have done all those terrible things I did to him at the end, I realized, and I realized that he had loved my father so much not even death could keep him from that promise he’d mentioned in the letter. When I asked what the promise was, my mother looked at me and with tears in her eyes said, “It was made in this very house while they were setting up your room, it was just-”

“No matter what happens, promise me you’ll watch over my daughter.”

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The Heights

December 19, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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When I was in junior high I had an unusual hobby: breaking into people’s homes. I didn’t do it for money; in fact, I never stole anything at all. I left no sign of my presence. I did it for one reason: the thrill of being on the edge of disaster; to test the limits of what I could get away with. So sometimes I would go out at night or skip school and ride over to The Heights to see what kind of mischief I could muster. The way I saw it, there was no harm in it (as long as I never got caught).

Had it not been for the unique characteristics of the place I lived at the time, it would never have occurred to me to start sneaking into people’s houses. My family lived near a neighborhood we called The Heights that, for half the year, became a ghost town. The area consisted almost entirely of vacation homes which were only occupied for a few months in the winter for skiing and in the summer for hiking and recreation of that sort. In the off seasons, the place was almost entirely empty, apart from landscapers and some other maintenance and construction crews.

When I was around eight, when people began to build the mountainside homes, I would go check them out after the builders had finished for the evening. They were interesting houses. Some were three or four floor homes with incredible views of the ski slopes. I never got to see the inside of a finished one until much later, however.

One day when I was thirteen I was out walking alone through The Heights, enjoying the strange tranquility of a world conspicuously absent of other people, when the idea to let myself into one of those vacant constructs popped into my naïve brain. It seemed a shame to let them go to waste. “I would just be putting the places to good use; they were made to be enjoyed after all,” I remember thinking.

Most of the time when you have a bad idea, you don’t know it’s a bad idea until things don’t turn out the way you hoped they would. This wasn’t one of those times. I knew this was risky and stupid, and that was the reason I found it so enticing. I got my hands on some lock picks and started practicing on several different locks. By the time fall had arrived, I felt I was ready to move onto my first break in.

For my first time, I went under cover of night. The neighborhood was deserted, as usual, but I felt highly exposed as I crept through the streets. Nervous, I found a target at the far end of the neighborhood, near the end of a street that was fairly dark and isolated. There was a for sale sign beside the house. I figured I would start with something that was as safe as it could get. I checked to make sure there wasn’t a security system, at least as far as I could tell, and I approached the back door. Having no experience with this, I didn’t know if I was being far too cautious or if I was actually in over my head. My heart pounded out of my chest as I got out my lock picking tools and went to work. It took me a minute, but, just like that, I picked the lock and went inside.

It felt so deliciously diabolical of me to set foot in someone’s home uninvited. Though the thrill was appealing, criminality didn’t really come naturally to me; this was the first really illegal thing I had ever done, and I took the possibility of getting caught extremely seriously. I didn’t stay very long, but I made sure to take a tour and enjoy the adrenaline. I exited the same way I came in, and made my way home undetected. Never before had I felt so alive.

And so it went: from there I continued to hone my skills and push the envelope of what I would break in to. As I got more comfortable, I had to increase the risk in order to feel the rush again. I soon realized how safe I really was on my first undertaking. Eventually it got to the point where I felt comfortable breaking in to houses in broad daylight after I witnessed the residents leave. I was always able to escape, admittedly sometimes quite narrowly, before anyone came in and saw me. The seasonally occupied homes practically ceased to scare me at all; oftentimes I would do my homework in these houses, spend an hour watching TV, and then leave without anyone noticing. It felt almost like I owned all these houses— like the entire complex known as The Heights was my home.

Over the next couple months, I started spending so much of my time there that my girlfriend Amy started asking me where I was going all the time. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to let her in on the secret. After all, she was my girlfriend, and I trusted her not to rat me out. Well, as it turned out, her ratting on me wasn’t the thing I had to worry about. The problem was she really wanted to come with me, and I didn’t know how to say no, even though the window of the spring season was nearing its end.

Early on a Saturday morning, I planned to take her to a place I had been to before; a really nice place with a log-cabin sort of appearance on the outside. As I remembered it, most of the house was on a single floor, with a wide open floor plan I thought she’d appreciate. We met beforehand at my house. She showed up wearing jeans and a blue and grey plaid shirt over a navy tank top. Blue converse. She was wearing the necklace I gave her last valentine’s day. It was a little black stone in the shape of a heart on a silver chain.

“Hey, you!” I said and spread my arms

“Hey” she said in her soft cute voice

After a quick hug we set off on foot. On the way I tried one last time to talk her out of it. I told her how risky it was, asked her to imagine what would happen if we got caught, reminded her the spring season was almost over, yada-yada. Eventually she had heard enough. She leaned in close to my face and cut me off by licking my mouth while I was mid-sentence. It caught me off guard and I almost fell over in shock and started laughing. When I recovered I did at least get her to promise to take what we were about to do seriously. From my backpack I handed her some sunglasses and my black Yankees cap. We didn’t really need disguises but I thought it might get her in the right frame of mind. We kept walking, and when we could finally see the house I turned to her and said, “This is it. From here on, you need to be alert at all times.” She gave an affirming nod. We approached the side entrance of the house and I quickly picked the lock and we slipped inside.

From the moment I stepped inside that house with her, I was consumed by apprehension. Something didn’t feel right: maybe it was the time, maybe it was her attitude, but whatever it was that caused my worry, I decided to ignore it. I tried my best to sound relaxed as I gave her a tour of the house.

There was no garage but the driveway in front was wide enough to fit three cars or so side by side. We entered through the left side of the house when viewed from the street. Through the side door you are greeted by a tiny mud room with a closet for coats and a shoe rack on the left side. Straight ahead is a hallway with two doors on either side: “The left two doors are an office and a bathroom, and on the right we have two children’s bedrooms” I said as I started down the hallway.

“This is so crazy.” Amy remarked. It was the first of several remarks of this sort she made as we made our way throughout the house.

The office on the left was spotlessly clean. It looked like it was rarely used even when there were people staying there. There was a dark stained wooden desk with nothing on it and a black leather office chair. The room had tan shag carpeting and on the far wall was a fully stocked bookshelf and a window. Like the office, the bathroom was kept practically empty and meticulously clean. There was nothing but the sink, toilet and shower. The two kid’s rooms had a single twin bed in each, and one further from the door had a small CRT TV. They were both somewhat messy unlike the office and the bathroom, and both were decorated as little girl’s rooms.

“And here we have the beautiful open living area.” I said as I left the hallway. At the end of the hallway the house opened up to an expansive living room area with fifteen foot ceilings, which was open to the kitchen off to the right and semi-open to the dining room to the left, which was only separated by a large curved archway. The living room had a box of children’s toys on the floor where a throw rug sat covering the well-kept hard wood floors. A few of the toys were lying out on the ground. Besides that, the living room consisted of three seats: a couch, a chaise lounge and an armchair, which were all very fine if a little worn. There was also a large and dramatic fireplace in the center of the room. High above hung a large ceiling fan with wooden blades. The kitchen was bright from the big windows above the counters, and boasted a dark marble counter-top and first-rate appliances. There was another half bathroom on the way to the master suite, which was down a short hallway to the left of the fireplace. As I reached for the door handle to the master bedroom. Amy latched onto my arm, “I can’t believe we’re really doing this!” She sounded more giddy than frightened. This time I let the room speak for itself. On the wall above the bed hung an enormous canvas with a mountain landscape in oil paint. The floors were a lighter stained hard wood than the living area. The bed frame was made of wood left to look natural; the four bed posts were like trees rising up from the floor almost to the ceiling. The bedspread was a marvelous white which seemed to glow as the natural light poured in from the large windows on the far side of the room. Two light wooden end tables supported clay-colored lamps with white shades, and inset light fixtures adorned the ceiling. “Wow, this place is incredible! That painting…” she approached the bed. We both started to let our guards down a little. I finished up the tour with her and then we settled down in one of the little kid’s rooms. It was safer there where things weren’t kept so neat like the master bedroom. Less likely to leave a trace.

Amy started perusing the girl’s closets. She found an odd assortment of clothes, in an even stranger assortment of sizes. She pulled out one outfit that looked like it belonged to a five year old. It was a tiny red dress with a white flower on the bottom right. Then she grabbed out some pajama pants and a shirt that would fit her. I guess when you only show up twice a year to a place, you don’t necessarily remember to clear out your old clothes. Then she found this silly purple pageant dress that she insisted I let her try on. To this day, I have no idea why I agreed. She actually looked pretty good in it, but then again I thought she always looked good. She kept it on as she turned on the TV and plopped herself down on the twin bed and I joined her there.

We were lying together watching cartoons for a while, when I heard something. I didn’t know what it was exactly, a car door maybe, but I knew someone was coming. The TV was off instantly, I exploded out of bed, made a hard left down the hallway and was halfway out the door before I knew what I was doing. Then I stopped and went back for Amy. She must have stopped to change out of the crazy dress she tried on and never changed out of. But there was no time. I stared down the hallway toward the opening into the living room, praying that Amy would emerge from the bedroom before anyone appeared there. I heard the front door open and someone hurriedly drop their bag on the floor as they entered. I floated silently back into the room with Amy and closed the door most of the way. It slid closed smoothly without a sound. Amy had finished changing. I gestured her to stay quiet. Only a few seconds passed before disaster struck. I had my back to the door as it flung open.

I turned around and saw a tall woman with blonde hair in her late thirties. You can probably imagine the look on her face when she saw us. At first she jumped out of her skin. Then she looked at us with an expression of having been thoroughly violated, as though she would never feel safe again. Before she could speak I blurted out, “We didn’t steal anything.”

“We didn’t do anything I swear,” Amy echoed.

I remember thinking we had horrendous luck. Why, when arriving in their vacation home, would an adult enter alone and immediately head for the children’s room?

Amazingly the woman’s expression seemed to soften slightly and she spoke. I guessed she must’ve thought we were just kids and didn’t feel threatened. “What the hell are you two doing in my house?”

“W-we just wanted to see what it was like. We didn’t touch anything I promise” I said as I pushed past her, dragging Amy behind me. The woman didn’t offer any resistance as we left. She had a dumbfounded look on her face now. We ran out of the house and down the street back in the direction of my house. When we were out of earshot of the house I screamed “What the hell Amy? I told you you gotta be ready!” but of course I was the one to blame here.

She didn’t answer and we just kept running until we got tired, my anger at her had faded, and it was replaced by a deep desolation. It was over. All of it. My world was spinning. I realized how lucky we were that there was only one woman and she just let us leave. I tried to tell myself we might not even get in trouble for it. Like I could believe that.

“What do we do now?” Amy asked, plainly. She appeared calm. Placid even— No, she was not okay. Maybe she was in shock or something.

“I dunno, I dunno, uh— shit. Let’s just both go home. Call me okay? It’s gonna be fine. We’re still alive, we’re gonna be okay. I’ll talk to you soon. Just run home and it’ll all be good.” I didn’t believe it and neither did she, but maybe just saying it enough times would make it true.

“Okay.” We went our separate ways and when I got home I desperately awaited her phone call. My family grew concerned as I waited by the phone, no doubt with a look of despair smeared across my face, but I told them to mind their own business and they didn’t prod me further. I waited and waited, but her call never came. So I called her. No answer. I called again later and her dad picked up. I thought maybe she told her parents what happened and she was grounded or something. Not likely. That wasn’t something she’d do. She had looked pretty shaken though.

“Uh hello Mr. Ferris, is Amy there?” I remember saying in as polite and innocent a way as I could muster.

“I thought she was with you, I was beginning to worry about her. You don’t know where she is?”

Unbelievable. She had never come home? “No sir I don’t. I haven’t seen her since eh— since lunchtime. We had lunch at my place and then she took off. She said she was going to call me when she got home and she never did, so I called her and got you.”

And then he said something about how I don’t deserve her and that he was going to make my life hell if anything happened to her and so on. I hung up the phone. I would just have to talk to her on Monday at school.

Only she never came home Saturday night. Her dad called the police, and the whole town got involved in the search for Amy Ferris. Including me. But I kept Saturday’s events to myself. I didn’t want to tell the police what we had done Saturday if I didn’t have to. I hoped Amy would turn up somewhere and all would be well again. But that was just wishful thinking.

When they finally found her, she was dead. I couldn’t believe it. The feeling of sickness I felt when I heard the news is indescribable. She was found in the woods. She had been stripped and stabbed to death. But she wasn’t the only one they found that day. She was buried alongside twenty other girls, age 4-14. Out of all the remains of girls the police unearthed, she was the only one that had been stabbed to death. All the rest appeared to have been poisoned. Amy was buried with her shoes, sunglasses, hat, and necklace beside her. The other girls had similar possessions uncovered along with their corpses.

Since it was too late anyway, I still didn’t go to the police with my information. Instead I went back to that blonde woman’s glorified log cabin by myself. The lady was gone. I broke in through the side door again, and started walking quietly down the hallway. I turned right, into the second bedroom. I opened the closet door and my greatest fears were confirmed—

The closet was completely empty.

Credit: M4Z3

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Safe

December 8, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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My mother loved me.

From my first memory she was always there, pulling me out of harm’s way. I was a curious child, and was constantly reaching for the hot stove or wandering outside unsupervised.

Sometimes the harm she protected me from was my own father. Everything I said and did seemed to irritate him and any loud noise or even a single word he perceived as disrespectful could earn a back hand across the face, or a swift kick in the back to send you flying down the steps. I clung to her tightly in those years, as she was the only constant, never angry or impatient with me, but full of love and hope. She stood in between his hand and my fragile body, and I’m ashamed to say that I ran and hid more than once, as he took his anger out on my dear mother.

My grandparents lived across town and were anxious for me to get of an age where I could spend the weekend or the summer. Most little boys would be excited about a weekend at his grandparents, but I feared the time when I would be forced to endure the hard back breaking summers my older cousins had seen.

The grandparents thought that hard labor was the only way a boy would grow into a strong man. As they had a large farm to tend to, they made use of their grandsons by “raising “them for the better part of their childhood, usually starting around 5 or 6, depending on the constitution of the boy. My cousins slept in the leaky barn out back, and existed on whatever scraps were thrown out at the end of the day. By the end of the summer they permeated an odor that may never wash off, an odor of sadness and pain. My female cousins lived inside the house, and would never speak of the horrors they endured. Women weren’t valued much in my family, except for one thing.

When I was barely five my mother woke me up in the middle of the night, covering her hand across my mouth and signaling for me to keep quiet. Her bruised face was wet from tears, and her hand shook as she silently begged me not to do anything to attract the attention of my sleeping father. Without a sound we snuck out of the house, taking only my stuffed teddy bear, leaving behind everything I had ever known.

My mother and I kept to the back roads as we made our journey across several states, to the house on the river where her brother lived. Her brother made his living as a teacher at the small schoolhouse in town, and was a widow with no children of his own. By the time we arrived at his door we were weak from hunger and exhaustion. My mother hadn’t stopped to sleep the whole way, too afraid that my father or his family would catch up with her unaware. My uncle hadn’t always lived here, had arrived here only a few short months before, and as my mother had not been permitted to keep contact with her family, she knew of his location only by the chance meeting of a distant relative while selling some items in town.

Even at my young age, I was able to understand that this meant we were safe. They couldn’t find us here! Suddenly my world didn’t look so bleak and depressing. I would no longer suffer my father’s wrath for playing too loudly in the backyard, or getting up to get a drink of water after I was supposed to be asleep. I suppose that given my history I should have been wary of this new man, but he exuded a calm demeanor, and my natural instincts told me that he would never hurt me.

For two years my mother and I lived in peace in my uncle’s house by the river. My mother started working at a small shop in town, and I went to school with my uncle. At night we would eat dinner in the small kitchen and talk about our day. I spent my summers down by the river, fishing or watching the grass grow. I developed a fast friendship with a boy down the road, and we never spent a weekend apart, riding bikes and playing in the woods. It was a sweet time, the best of my childhood memories.

But nothing good lasts forever. My mother took ill in the winter I was 7. I was looking forward to Christmas and the break from school, and sleepovers and late night marshmallow roasting. But then my mother was sick and everyone got very sad. It seemed only a week passed where she went from happy and rosy to pale and withdrawn in her bed. On the morning of the parade in town I begged her to take me. My young mind didn’t understand real sickness, I had recovered nicely from the years spent with my father, and was now blessed once again with the innocence and selfishness of youth.

Mother pulled herself together and off we went. She held my hand and bought me caramel popcorn at the stand. We laughed and giggled for a few minutes she appeared healthy and whole again.

Then she fell. Right there at the parade in front of everyone my sweet wonderful mother who always protected me fell to the pavement, and I only stared in confusion.

My mother was rushed to the hospital in the next town, and I squeezed into a corner and cried silently. When the nurses came to me and asked me who my father was, what possessed me to utter his name? Why wouldn’t I say the name of my quiet uncle, at home at his house on the river? Shock, perhaps and confusion. I didn’t understand that they were asking WHO TO CALL, no I answered honestly and off they went.

The nurse pulled me into my mother’s room and quietly told me my father and my grandparents were both on the way to claim me, my father to comfort me and my grandparents to take me back to their farm to stay. “What a lucky boy you are, to have so many people who love you. You’ll be just fine. But now you should stay with your mother for a few minutes, and say your goodbyes, they will be here shortly.”

Inside I screamed in terror, wanting to run and hide, get away, get away from the miseries that were soon to come. But I couldn’t leave my mother; I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.

As I held my mother‘s hand a let a silent tear fall, she opened her eyes. She smiled so sweetly at me and said two words before she passed from this world. “You’re safe.”

My mother passed at the stroke of midnight December 18, the year I was 7. I curled up next to her body and didn’t wake when my uncle scooped me in his arms and carried me home. I didn’t know that day what had happened to the two different cars traveling towards me in the night, to take me away to a terrible place. But I knew I was safe, because my mother had told me so.

I grew up in that house by the river with my sweet sweet uncle. When I was 10 he met a nice lady from town, and they married and had two children of their own. I was raised as another son, and I was always loved and cared for. Although my new aunt could never replace my darling mother, she took care of me throughout my childhood, and never was a word spoken in anger. Never did I sleep in the barn or live on scraps. Never did I have to duck to avoid the fist coming at me in the dark.

My first year in college, I became curious about what had happened to change the events that were unfolding in my life on that awful night. I did some research and this is what I learned:

At midnight, on December 18, the year I was 7, my father was traveling from one place in his old blue pickup. He had been working out of town when he received the message that his only son had been found. The pickup was old and in disrepair, still it was a surprise that at the stroke of midnight his truck suddenly swerved into the path of an oncoming semi, killing him instantly. The driver of the semi walked away with barely a scratch.

At midnight, on December 18, the year I was 7, my grandparents were traveling from their farm across town in their new car, purchased in the last year with proceeds from the farm, and apparently the prostitution of several of their own granddaughters. They were at home when they received word that their grand son had been found. The car was new and not the cheapest model, therefore it was a mystery why at the stroke of midnight the car suddenly pulled to the right while on a mountain road, causing the car to go through the weak fence, and down into the ravine. My grandparents were killed instantly.

There were investigations, even into my sweet calm uncle, as it was found to be a little odd that both of these events should happen at the exact time my mother passed from this world. My uncle never worried me with it, and the investigators finally gave up, as no one could ever prove how it happened.

I know how it happened. My mother told me when she uttered those two words. “You’re safe.”

Credit: RACHEL CHENEL

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Crippling Debt

November 7, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The first phone call came as we sat down to dinner.

I had been expecting calls from potential employers or recruitment offices, so I was excited when I heard the ring tone. I was nine months into the job search and our savings were running dry. Though it was six in the evening where we lived, it was only three on the west coast and I had sent my resume everywhere. My stomach gave a small lurch as I looked at my phone and read the word UNKNOWN across the screen. The only phone calls I had gotten from unknown numbers over the past months had been bill collectors or people trying to sell me solutions to debt or upgrades to my internet service.

“Should I take this? It’s an unknown number, but maybe it’s important,” I asked my wife, Caroline.

“Two minutes, Tom. I’m serious,” she said.

I touched the accept button.

“Hello?” I said.

For a moment, the line was almost quiet. There was some distant sound, like a record player or a crackling fire, but I blamed poor reception.

I looked at my phone to make sure it was connected, which it was, and almost tapped the End Call button at my wife’s insistence, until a voice came through the speaker, high in pitch and business like.

“Hello, Mr. Hanshaw,” said the voice.

“This is he. Not much time to talk. Who is this?” I said into the receiver, admittedly coming off as impatient.

“Oh, this isn’t that kind of phone call, my good sir. There was no question mark at the end of that sentence,” the voice replied.

“Well, there was one at the end of mine. Dinner is getting cold, the wife’s stare is colder, you understand. I’ll ask again. Who is this?” I tried to sound firm, but I was tired and I sounded it.

“It may be best to have your wife eat without you. We have a few things to discuss. Cold supper should be the least of your worries,” said the voice.

“If I owe you money, I’m doing my best. If this is a prank, you need to do better than that. Have a great night,” I said.

I touched the End Call button on my phone sat down to eat so my wife would stop rattling her finger nails on the table.

“Obviously that wasn’t a job offer,” she asked.

“Unless the job is sniffing out bullshit, no. I’m afraid not,” I replied, deadpan. I couldn’t even be disappointed anymore. It had become the status quo.

“Tom, we are going to be alright, aren’t we?” Caroline said.

“Of course we are. This is just poor timing. I just got my master’s degree. I’m stuck between overqualified and under experienced and I just need to meet with the right people,” I repeated for what had to be the hundredth time that month alone. Her eyes rolled the same way they had every time I said it.

“I hope you find them before the bank sends a moving van and locks us out of our own house,” she said.

She spooned peas into her mouth, her face contorting to one of hatred (though hatred of me or another leftover meal, I didn’t know). It amazed me how quickly love didn’t matter when everything else went to hell. Happily ever after wasn’t a real thing, but in my case, tolerable for a while was pushing it. The problem wasn’t that we hated each other. It was that we didn’t want to, and neither of us knew how to prevent it from constantly poisoning every fucking discussion we had.

The phone rang again. I had set it next to me on the table. My wife gave me a look that said she would be happy to throw the fork across the table and eat with her hands if I delivered any more bad news. The screen said UNKNOWN again, so I didn’t answer.

The ensuing silence lasted long enough for each of us to take a bite of the leftover chicken ziti her sister had given us the night before. It had become a habit to accept any offer of a free meal, served with a side of sarcasm and dirty glances from her sister for not taking care of her sister.

Before my wife could swallow her first bite, my phone rang again. The volume grew with each ring until the sound was deafening in the small dining room. Caroline’s hands flew to her ears as she screamed something I barely heard. I tried tapping the decline button enough times to make my finger numb, but it wouldn’t stop ringing. My wife ran across the room. I was able to make out her words as she passed.

“I’m not even hungry anymore. The last thing you need is a broken fucking phone when we can’t even make a car payment, Tom, so fix it or shove it up your ass so I can’t hear it!,” my wife screamed, approaching the stairs.

I stuffed the in my pocket to dull the noise. I had kept my voice mail empty, paranoid I would miss a message about a job lead or offer, so I knew that it should have clicked over at some point. The ringtone kept getting louder.

Grumbling to myself, I separated the back plate from the face of the phone and removed the battery. At last, the ringing stopped, though there was a ringing in my ear that wouldn’t go away. I put everything in my pocket to leave the table technology free, the way Caroline had insisted it should always be before the credit collectors had started ruining every second of our lives with phone calls and endless e-mails. Just in case she came back into the room. No need for another fight over something stupid.

I kept eating the now-cold dinner, lulled into a mechanical dance of scooping cold ziti into my mouth as I reveled in the silence, until the phone ring again, not bothering to slowly build to full volume this time. The sound was deafening in the small dining room. I inhaled and nearly choked, but was able to cough up the pasta. It took a moment to realize that the phone in my pocket, sans battery, wasn’t the one ringing. I crossed the room to my wife’s small purse, which was dancing across the kitchen counter with the power of the vibrations, and pulled out her phone.

The screen said UNKNOWN.

I clicked accept, ready to yell at whoever was on the other line, my last straw reached.

The voice didn’t wait for me.

“Hello, Mr. Hanshaw. It was very rude of you to hang up on me without hearing what I have to say. I abhor rude people, so I will say this just the once. If you hang up or otherwise find a way to interrupt this call again, I will take something from you,” said the voice.

“What do you want? I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with prank calls. Have some empathy. Please, save it until I have a job again before I end up sleeping on the couch,” I said

“Mr. Hanshaw, what on earth makes you think this is a prank?” the voice said, half laughing.

I started to take Caroline’s phone apart to remove the battery, same as I had done with mine. Like my wife, I no longer wanted food. Just five minutes of peace. I planned to call the phone company to figure out how to block unknown numbers the next morning.

“If you do that, I will have to take something from you, Mr. Hanshaw. I would highly advise against…” the voice cut off as I removed the battery and tossed it and the dead phone on the kitchen table. Frustrated and ready for the day to end, I tasted none of the food as I shoveled it into my mouth.

Whoever was trying to contact me was out of phone numbers. There were plenty of people who knew how to reaching us both it wasn’t hard to hide a phone number from caller ID, but whoever was doing this was in for some advice on their people skills and an evaluation of our friendship. Every person who mattered in our lives knew what we had been dealing with. I didn’t recognize the voice. The harassment was unnecessary. When our shit was in order, I would find out who was responsible, and one day, they would regret it. One day, I would…

The phone began vibrating on the table. I froze, colder than the remnants of the food stuck to my fork. There was no ringing, but the way the table shook made the phone seem…I don’t know…angry.

All the anger that had been building up drained away. When the phone started vibrating without a battery, I became scared. When the phone answered the call without my assistance and put itself on speaker, I could barely breathe.

“I warned you,” said the voice, much deeper than it had been the previous two times.

I wanted to speak. I truly did. The food in my mouth, half chewed, might as well have been cement. I couldn’t open my mouth at all. My eyes, however, were wide open.

“I don’t know why it is you people find it so hard to answer a simple instruction. You are all entirely too rude. And now, I have to take something from you, Mr. Hanshaw. I really don’t want to. I sincerely mean that. But you must take me seriously or this is all for naught. So, which bitch will it be? Zelda or Caroline?” the voice asked.

That broke the spell. I kicked the chair backward and stood, sweeping my head around and looking for an intruder, a face in the window, something…anything…to lead me to whoever was taking this sick joke one step too far.

“If you wait too long to make a decision, I will be happy to make it for you, Mr. Hanshaw,” the voice warned. “Just think about who you love the most. Everybody else in a person’s life is usually expendable. How about thirty seconds? Thirty. Twenty-Nine.”

“You think I’m a naive asshole?” I screamed, regaining both my anger and the use of my mouth. “Oh, big man, you know the name of my wife and dog. As soon as I found out who this is, you won’t have a job, either. Then we’ll see who is laughing!” I screamed.

“Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.” The voice continued to count down.

Scary stories weren’t like real life. Even at that moment, as I ran to the front door and threw it open with a shout, hoping to find some past co-worker or a close friend trying to take my mind off of the terrible situation I was in and the crippling debt that was destroying my family from within, I had no notions that this was something beyond an elaborate, albeit convincing and offensive, prank.

Until the voice reached zero and the lights went out.

Until, in the darkness, I heard a crash from upstairs and a light laugh from the phone on the kitchen table.

I ran towards where I knew the stairs to be, knocking the knick-knacks and paintings we had wasted so much of our depleted earnings on to the floor as I rushed my way through the blackness, all the while screaming for my wife and my dog. I heard Zelda bark and it calmed me down enough to stop screaming. I heard some other sound too, something muffled and frantic. Probably Caroline wanting the dog to shut up while she drank away her sorrows.

I tripped in my scramble to climb the stairs. Instant pain shot up my shin and stopped my ascent for a moment.

The lights returned shortly after that. They didn’t flicker or buzz as lights tend to do after a power outage. One second it was black, the next I was nearly blinded as I limped my way up the rest of the stairs.

Zelda met me at the divider gate we kept at the top of the stairs, jumping up and down and licking my hand as I reached down to pet her. As soon as I opened the latch and stepped through, she sped off towards the bedroom. I took a couple of breaths before I walked into the room, knowing how angry Caroline must have been to ignore my screaming during a blackout.

Those deep breaths are the only reason I didn’t pass out when I entered my bedroom.

Caroline lay face down on the floor. That isn’t entirely accurate. A pile of clothes at the foot of the bed must have tripped her during the black out, and her back was to the ceiling, her face wasn’t exactly on the floor. Half of the bottle had disappeared down her throat. Her mouth had been stretched so wide by the bottle that the corner of the lip I could see had torn. The blood seeping down the bottle and onto the carpet had mixed with wine and something that looked thick and snotty. Tears trickled from her bloodshot eyes. The top part of her body rested at an unnatural angle as her head balanced on the wine bottle, which rested perfectly upright on the floor save for the person choking on the upper half of it. Zelda lapped at the frothing mixture like a doggie cocktail. There was a disgusting bulge under the skin on the back of her neck.

As disturbing as all of that was, the single blink of Caroline’s visible eye was what caused me to drop to my knees and vomit. Zelda was quick to run over and begin her second barking course of the night as tears and snot streamed down my own face.

“Now, I’m sure this is something of a shock to you, Mr. Hanshaw, but I gave you a warning and told you my terms in plain English, the same as your creditors before me,” the voice said from my pocket.

The phone hadn’t bothered to ring this time.

I pulled my phone out, my voice catching on the sobs and whimpers in my throat. The screen no longer said UNKNOWN, but had instead opened up one of those video chat apps. My vision was blurred from the tears, but what silhouette I could make out made me think that was for the best.

Caroline made a coughing noise and her body jerked. I cringed.

“Don’t be such a baby. Those kind of spasms are completely normal. It’s not like you’d hear a death rattle, right? If you think that’s bad, wait for the bowels to let loose!” the voice chided.

I grabbed Zelda and ran from the room. The last memory of my wife was going to haunt me long enough. I didn’t want to be in the room while my dead wife shit herself.

I locked Zelda and myself in the bathroom. She whined some, but only because I hadn’t let her finish snacking. That thought would have made me throw up again had anything remained in my stomach.

“I’m going to give you exactly two minutes to compose yourself, Mr. Hanshaw. After that, we will resume the intended conversation. So that you know, this is an attempt to collect on a debt. I hope you realize that any further attempts to delay or avoid this conversation will result in…similar consequences. Get your shit together,” the voice said.

The next two minutes might as well have been an eternity, though looking back I wish I had just washed my face and waited for the call.

As soon as the screen went black, I reached into my pocket and grabbed the battery. I pushed it into the phone and held down the power button, waiting for it to turn on and cussing at it under my breath for wasting time. Zelda sniffed under the door and scratched to be left out, sick and tired of being cooped up.

I opened the door and let her out, not wanting to deal with the distraction. Beyond everything that happened, I regret that the most. It was the only time that night I feel I had any real control, and in my panic I reacted how I would have on any other normal day.

By the time the phone loaded, nearly a minute must have been wasted. I called 911, fulling expecting something crazy to prevent the call from going through, but they picked up after a ring.

“911, what is your emergency?” the operator asked.

“My wife is dead. Someone is attacking us,” I answered.

“Are you in any immediate danger?” the operator asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

She started to ask me to describe my assailant, but I cut her off, knowing time was short.

“He will be back in less than a minute. He killed my wife. I don’t know who he is or what he wants. He says he is a debt collector. Please send help. My address is 932…” I was cut off.

“Salvador Street, Mr. Hanshaw? Obviously, I know where you live. Technically you did nothing to prevent our conversation, so I suppose I can’t fault you for keeping your wits after such a traumatic experience. To be honest, I’m impressed you were able to think at all! Are you ready to talk?”

I was done. I had reached my limit. I had wasted whatever wits left on a failed 911 call and had nothing left to maintain my composure. I proved it by tossing the phone in the toilet and holding down the flushing handle. I thought it would just sit at the bottom of the bowl as the water flowed over it, but it was small enough to disappear from sight.

I cried then. I leaned against the wall, ignoring the painful jab of the towel rack and Zelda scratching to be let back in to comfort me, and cried in loud, heaving sobs.

I wasn’t a bad person. I hadn’t done anything illegal. I lost my job at an inopportune time and had shitty luck, but I was trying as hard as I could. I loved my wife despite her criticism and resentment. She had a hard time understanding that trying hard didn’t always equate to results. Her anger was understandable. I had insisted on going for my Master’s degree, sure that it would take us to that next level of financial stability, and every failed interview and missed opportunity I blamed on that degree was me hating myself a little more for how much of a failure I had become.

Through all the anger and resentment, Caroline had stuck by me and put up with my self-righteous bullshit. She was my best friend, and now she was dead. If the voice on the phone was to be believed, it was just as much my fault as the debt that had caused him to call in the first place. Zelda’s scratching and whimpering grew louder, so quieted my sobbing until she let a bark of boredom and moved on.

That’s when I decided to end my life. My reason for living was dead in our bedroom. Whether all of this was a bad prank mixed with worse coincidence or the act of some crazy individual out for blood, better to die by my own hand than by that of whoever that voice belonged to.

I opened the bathroom door to call for Zelda, planning on leaving her in the neighbor’s fenced in yard with my suicide note tied to her collar. She didn’t come. All it took was a downward glance to realize that she hadn’t been scratching at the door to try and comfort me.

Zelda, both halves of her, lay dead at the foot of the bathroom door. Blood had soaked so deeply into her white fur and the carper that it was hard to tell the two apart, save for the collar around the lump on my left. Much like my wife’s final blink, some part of Zelda let out a final wheeze that sounded like a weak bark.

Zelda was like our child, and though I had no illusions that we would outlive her, I cannot explain to you what seeing something so brutal done to something you love so much does to you. What happened to my wife could have been a fucked up accident. Somebody had torn Zelda in half.

I felt nothing as I walked to my bedroom, stepped over Caroline, and stepped into the closet. I unlocked the combination safe and grabbed the gun from top shelf, not bothering to close it afterwards. I stuffed the gun into the back of my pants and grabbed the blankets folded at the end of our bed. I used one to cover Caroline as best as I was able without looking, and the other to cover Zelda, hoping they would appreciate the gesture if they had been able.

I walked down the stairs, slow and deliberate, almost too carefully for a man on his way to swallow a bottle of cheap vodka and a bullet. At the foot of the stairs, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t surprised as I looked towards the door. I knew exactly what I would see through the cloudy, decorative glass of our front door.

The same silhouette that had been on my phone screen.

The voice spoke to me through the door. I pulled the gun out of my pants and walked towards it, hearing every word, defeated.

“Now that we can avoid further interruption, Mr. Hanshaw, let’s discuss business. It’s very simple. You owed money and services to some very impatient people. I am more dedicated than most when it comes to collecting on those debts, and so people of such influence tend to come to me when all else fails. Why, you ask? Because instead of waiting for a peasant like you to pay installments, I pay your debts in full. Call it pre-consolidation. Now the only person you owe is me,” the voice informed me.

“I don’t have the money. I don’t have anything left!” I cried, leaning my head against the door and placing the gun against my temple.

“I don’t need your money, Mr. Hanshaw. Money is paper. Paper can be recycled. I only require one thing to clear your debt. Something invaluable. Just one little thing, and we can both move on from this. Open the door and give it to me. Trust me when I say that the gun in your hand won’t save you. There are plenty of things left I can take from you. You just don’t have the imagination in you to know what they are,” the voice said through the door.

“Just take it! Take what you want and leave me alone! What the hell do I have left to give?” I screamed, slamming my head and fists against the door, letting every emotion hit me at once.

“Your soul,” replied the voice.

Then, a sharp pain struck me in the chest and I was on my back, with bright light blinding me and demons screaming and scratching at my arms, turning me on my stomach and whipping me, pulling on my, beating me.

Through it all, I was content, because the voice was gone.

It was over.

My debt had been repaid.

****************

The image of Tom Hanshaw’s calm, smiling face froze on the screen.

The man who had paused the video read from a sheet of paper, his voice unnaturally deep and clear.

“When this was filmed, Mr. Hanshaw was free from any drug or alcoholic influence. It was filmed three days after Officer Stevens and Officer Norman entered the home, by force, in response to Mr. Hanshaw violently banging on the door from inside. Due to the nature of the emergency call, they thought Mr. Hanshaw was being attacked. Instead, they found him holding a gun and dazed from being knocked to the ground when they entered. Nobody can be sure rather or not the 911 call was meant to lure in further victims or bring someone in to clean up the mess he left behind. Thankfully, he was restrained and taken into custody without a single bullet being fired. He had rested and eaten before filming his confession, assuring anybody who would listen that he wasn’t worried as his debt had been repaid. He requested this confession and signed forms claiming he was within his right mind while delivering his confession. He assumed he would be free to leave afterwards. That was a year and a half ago,” he said.

The recent testimony they had all been privy too was entirely different. Tom had been frantic and weeping. Though his state appointed lawyer had adamantly warned against it, Tom Hanshaw wanted to tell his side. Anti-psychotics and trauma prevented him from saying anything helpful. The gaunt man was barely able to string a legible sentence together as he cried out that his debt had been repaid and that he should be free.

Due to the lack of witnesses and scant testimony, all they had to go on was evidence from the crime scene, expert testimony theorizing what led to the break, and Tom’s own poor excuse to defend himself. Some of them were unwilling to condemn a man so broken and driven to insanity by debts of the system when he was barely able to tell his side of the story, so they requested a review of his confession tape, filmed three days after his arrest at his own request.

The man set the paper on the table and spoke to the men and women before him.

“The man on that tape is not the man we have seen in the court room over the past few weeks. His sanity has been cleared by multiple professionals, meaning Mr. Hanshaw believes what he is saying is the truth and may be a functioning sociopath. Comparisons to Ted Bundy, while not relevant, seem accurate at this point. Now that we’ve seen the tape, I think it’s safe to say we can reach a fair, unanimous decision. We may never know whether it was an insurance ploy or an argument over finances gone wrong. What we do know is that Tom Hanshaw blamed murdering his wife and dog on calls received from two cellular phones that evidence shows had been disconnected weeks prior to the event. Difficult as it may be, we have a decision to make.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the options are as follows. Option one, the real Tom Hanshaw is the cold man we saw on that tape, and we condemn him to a guilty verdict and the death penalty. Option two, the real Tom Hanshaw is the man we saw in the court room, though still guilty, and we condemn him to a live out his life in a high security psychiatric facility. Option three, the real Tom Hanshaw is both men at different stages of grieving, is telling the truth, is not guilty, and should go free. The verdict must be unanimous. Are we ready?”

He let the question hang in the air for a moment, giving everybody a chance to digest the weight of the question with murmurs and head nods.

“Very well. Now then, all those who think Tom Hanshaw is guilty, please raise your hand.”

Moments later, the man walked to the door and informed the guard that a unanimous verdict had been reached. The jury was ready to inform Tom Hanshaw whether or not his debt had been paid after all.

Credit: Rob E. Nichols

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