Bound in Blood

July 19, 2014 at 12:00 PM
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“This can’t be the place they were talking about,” I said as I eyed the dingy antique store.

It was wedged between an old, closed movie theater and a barber shop. Its wooden, faded red sign read “Antique Bargains” and seemed it could fall off the storefront at any moment, crushing Morgan and me as gawked at the strange, rustic store.

My best friend Morgan and I were on the hunt for summer jobs, motivated by our desire to raise money for a spring break trip. We hadn’t had any luck until some of our friends told us about a “hiring” sign they had seen in the window of a “cute little shop.” From that description we had pictured a trendy boutique of some sort, not a suspicious, abandoned-looking shop.

“I guess it’s worth a try. But, Cassie, if this doesn’t work out, let’s head home for the day, okay?” Morgan’s shoulders slumped. She threw her long, dark hair over her shoulders. With her gorgeous, olive-toned skin and high cheekbones, she looked like a model even when she was exhausted. Morgan tired easily and I didn’t want to be a pest, but I had had a feeling that today would be the day I’d finally get a job.

“Yeah, okay.” I let out a small sigh and looked at my faint reflection in the store’s glass door.

My reddish blonde hair that had been neatly curled this morning was now disheveled. I had applied a modest amount of makeup to my heart-shaped face in an attempt to look presentable. I tried to smile at my reflection to prepare myself for the casual, friendly banter I knew was waiting behind that door.

I grabbed the cool, metal door handle and it felt like ice had shot through my veins. I gasped and let go for a moment.

“What was that? Did you shock yourself or something?” Morgan’s delicate features contorted with worry.

“It was nothing…the handle just felt really cold,” I said nonchalantly.

“Mhmm. I know the tough Cassie Warren better than anyone, you don’t squeal about little things. That’s my job. Maybe it’s a bad omen. Why don’t we go ahead and leave? We can grab pizza from Benny’s.” Morgan smiled.

“Don’t worry about it.” I laughed. “Come on, we’re not letting any bad omens scare us off.”

I pushed the door open and shuffled in with Morgan at my side. The musky smell of old books immediately assaulted our senses, provoking a small cough from each of us.

I glanced around and saw that the dimly lit store was home to hundreds of aging books, porcelain sets, and old furniture. In the far left corner, the cashier station sat unattended. Confused, I walked toward the station.

“Can I help you?” a faint voice whispered from behind me.

Startled, I spun around, heart racing. A slender woman with stringy, black hair stared into my eyes, smiling wistfully. Her tiny frame and pallid tone made her look like a skeleton- even her cheekbones jutted prominently from her face.

“Ah, yes, I’m sorry, you surprised me.” I laughed nervously.

The woman said nothing and continued to stare at us. Morgan shot me a nervous glance.

“Anyways,” I began awkwardly, “my friend and I were looking for a job and we saw that you’re hiring. Could you give us some details?”

The woman’s eyes lit up and she ushered us to the register.

“Of course! We are definitely looking for employees. How early can you start?”

“As soon as you need us!” I said enthusiastically.

“But don’t you want to interview us or have us to fill out applications or something before we’re hired?” Morgan’s voice was skeptical and it made me feel uneasy, especially considering the woman’s hasty job offer.

“We just had many people quit. They all moved far away. We’re looking for any help we can get. We’ll pay you well- ten dollars an hour, and you’ll only be expected to perform normal retail duties. We also allow you to be very flexible with your hours.” The woman’s energy increased as she talked, and she seemed very excited.

“Wow, that’s exactly what we’re looking for!” I grinned at Morgan. “Told you this would be the place.”

“It seems a little too good to be true,” Morgan whispered sharply, too low for the woman to hear.

I ignored her worry. Everything had fallen into place so easily. I knew this was the perfect job.

“Excellent. I just have a legal agreement you need to sign and everything will be ready to go.”

The woman handed each of us pens and forms with x’s that marked where we needed to sign. I clicked the pen with my thumb and cried out in pain at the same time Morgan did.

“Ouch! I think your pen stuck me.” I looked at the small pool of blood that formed on the tip of my thumb and winced.

“Sorry about that,” the woman murmured, seemingly preoccupied with something in the room behind the counter.

Morgan and I finished signing our documents at the same moment. As I set the document down I looked around for the woman, who seemed to have disappeared.

“Excuse me, m’am!” I called.

“Ha ha ha.” The woman’s laughter trickled from a closed door behind the counter.

She burst through the door and at first I didn’t recognize her. Her face was warped. It was as if her features had suddenly rearranged to the most grotesque position possibly. She was much thinner than before, and her black dress hung off of her like a sheet.

“It was exhausting keeping up that form for so long. Luckily you girls signed right on time.” She smirked and scooted toward us. “I didn’t think it’d be that easy. Most people are skeptical like Morgan.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on.” My voice was shaky.

“That’s not surprising.” The woman chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect you to realize that you signed your soul away for eternity.”

The seriousness of the woman’s voice juxtaposed with her ridiculous statement made me laugh hysterically.

“You had me worried I had signed something legally binding.” I laughed again as I headed for the exit. “Come on, Morgan, we’ll call it a day.”

Morgan hesitated for a moment and then followed me to the door. I looked back and the woman was still smiling. She snapped her fingers as if to signal someone.

“Agh!” Morgan screamed in pain.

Before I could comprehend what was happening, I felt sharp stings in my back, shoulders, and arms. I was tugged up in the air and the pain worsened. I glanced at Morgan to see that she was hoisted in the air by strings that had shot out from the ceiling. They were tied through glass shards that dug into her flesh, causing blood to trickle down her body.

I began to scream for help. I twisted my body, trying to rip out the shards, but they only dug deeper. My favorite teal shirt clung to my back, sticky with blood.

The woman watched in silence with an amused smile on her face. She waited until we had tired ourselves out and then launched into what she called our “orientation.”

“I’ve hired you onto my cult’s staff of eternal servants for the worship and comfort of our masters.” She smiled eerily. “Your bodies are bound to this through a blood contract. That pen drew your blood and filtered it into the ink. You literally signed your names in blood.”

I felt my eyes widen and I glanced at Morgan. She looked defeated as she gazed into the distance. I knew what she was thinking because I was thinking it too. This was all my fault.

“Every day you will spend your time doing tasks such as cleaning, performing ritual sacrifices, and maybe even luring in more workers like yourselves. Here, I’ll just give you a sneak peek of what’s in store!”

The woman pulled a lever by the register and the wall behind her started to shift. It opened to a room full of shackled workers. Some were making food, some patrolling the area with cleaning supplies, and some of them doing things even worse. One teenage girl with sad eyes cradled the bloody carcass of a dead lamb, carrying it to an unknown but surely awful destination.

“Don’t worry, this is only one area of workers! We’ve got dozens of other rooms you’ll be laboring in. I should also mention that you will be forced to attend our mass ceremonies, dedicated to our masters. These help keep our workers more… compliant with our ways. Oh, and one last thing. Our masters’ forms are a bit unsightly to newcomers because of their otherworldly nature. If you’re caught defaming them or expressing disgust in any way, your punishment will be much worse than hanging from these measly little threads.”

She reached around my back to strum one of the strings attached to me, sending a wave of fresh pain through my body. I bit down on my lip so I wouldn’t cry.

“Alright, time to send our newest little workers off! Good luck, ladies.” The woman waved and grinned again.

The strings tugged us toward the room like marionettes, shredding more of our flesh in the process.

“Morgan!” I yelled through the pain. “I promise you I will fix this. I promise I’ll find a way out. I just need you to hope with me, okay?”

I looked at her, hoping to find a hint of support in her eyes. Instead, she stared at me with accusation and hostility, tears forming in her eyes.

“It’s okay if you hate me. That doesn’t change anything, I’m still hoping for the both of us. I swear to you.”

My heart fell as our strings dragged us in different directions, pulling Morgan off to a place where I couldn’t protect her.

The strings finally unhooked from my back and dropped me to the ground in a dark room lit only by a single ceiling light. A mop and broom leaned against the peeling, off-white walls. I assumed that meant my duty was cleaning. I heaved the mop and began to mop in the center of the room where it was easy to see. I wasn’t quite sure why I was mopping- the tiled floors were surprisingly immaculate.

“Over here, child,” a chilling voice called softly from a dark corner of the room.

I squinted and realized that there was a faint outline of an inhuman figure squatting in the darkness. I remembered the woman’s warning and a shiver crept up my spine.

“I-I think I’m just supposed to be mopping. I’m not allowed to wander off.”

“Ha ha, I know that. I’ve left a mess over here that needs to be cleaned up. Don’t make me repeat myself.” The creature’s voice was unsettlingly soft. It reminded me of a cat’s purr.

“Ah, okay I’ll come get that. Sorry.”

I slinked over to where it was crouched and it took every ounce of willpower to keep from recoiling at the sight of what it wanted me to clean.

“Those… Is that-?” I stammered, unable to ask a question I truly didn’t want to know the answer to.

“Yes, those are the human remains of one of the workers here who was a little mouthy to me. Come to think of it, he was the last cleaner in this room. I guess you’re his replacement. What great timing.” Its chuckle was rough and gravelly. “So you can see what’ll happen to you if you don’t obey me this instant.”

“Yes, right away.” I hated the submissive tone of my voice.

I leaned in close enough to see the gelatinous substance that covered the dismembered body parts of the former worker. It looked like the creature had ingested him and then vomited the poor man onto the floor.

The smell and appearance were nauseating. While scooping a piece of torso up with a dust pan, intestines poured out of the gaping hole in the abdomen and I reflexively reached out to catch it. I squealed and dropped the squishy organs into the waste bag but my hand was covered in human tissue and the gooey substance.

The creature chuckled again. “Here, child, let me help you.” It started towards me and I backed up into the center of the room.

It followed and I gazed incredulously at its form in the light. Its legs were bent like a frog’s and they were thin and short with talons jutting out of its feet. Its body was massive compared to its legs. Its hulking shoulders and bulging chest connected to a short but wide neck that propped up its large head that resembled an anglerfish. It was on all fours, resting slightly back on its hind legs so it could extend its long, muscular forelegs.

I fought to maintain a blank expression, trying not to offend it. It leaned toward me and extended its pink tongue to lick the grime off of my left hand. It felt like sandpaper sliding across my palm. I smiled weakly.

“Thank you,” I managed to mutter.

The creature only smiled and crawled out of the room, its talons clacking against the floor, making the same sound as high heels strutting across the room, leaving me to clean up the rest of the remains.

*

“All workers must report to the room of worship immediately. It’s time for a mass ceremony.” The woman’s voice blared on the intercom system, startling me while I was cleaning another creature’s mess.

I had no idea how long I’d been in the building. The lack of hunger or fatigue made me think it had only been a couple of hours, but my intuition told me it had been much, much longer. I had cleaned several different rooms and ran into many more creatures, each of which always seemed to have a mutilated body for me to dispose of.

I hadn’t been to a ceremony yet, at least not that I could remember. My memories had begun to run together, leaving me with a fuzzy recollection of the past. I had only one consistent thought- escape.

I hadn’t realized how fortunate my cleaning job was until it dawned on me that I had to clean every room of the horrific labyrinth, meaning I was able to observe the patterns of the monsters’ and the cult members’ movements.

The monsters tended to cluster in the sacrifice rooms, which were also the messiest rooms. They gorged themselves on the sacrifices workers brought, occasionally growing bored and lurking the halls to taunt workers.

The cult members posed the biggest threat to my plans of escape. They were like security guards for the place, constantly patrolling to ensure that workers weren’t talking and that the monsters they worshiped were satisfied.

Once, I had encountered another worker alone in a room.

“Hey,” I whispered,” do you know anything about how to get out of here?”

The brunette female worker cowered away from me and refused to even look at me. After that, I assumed the cult had scared the workers into submission enough to make them afraid of each other. I noticed something else odd about the workers as well. They behaved like puppets- they were expressionless husks. I was on my own.

My thoughts returned to the announcement the woman made on the loudspeaker. If everyone was heading to the ceremony that would leave the exit wide open for me. The other workers were clearly bound by some power that inhibited their free-thinking, yet I still possessed full power over my mind. A thousand questions swirled in my head about why I was different. I pushed them aside. I had to hope that the cult members weren’t prepared for noncompliant workers like me. I prayed that they had left the exits unguarded.

I tiptoed into the hallway, walking softly across the long, weathered red rug that ran for what seemed like eternity. I reached its end and peaked around the corner, clinging to the peeling, puke-green colored wallpaper.

There was another long hall that led to a closed door marked with strange, red symbols. They appeared to be circles with different numbers of lines and dots in each circle. I began to round the corner until a cold hand closed around my wrist.

“Did you get lost little worker?” A male cult member in a black cloak said as he smiled at me. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or sarcastic.

He must’ve been my age, about twenty-one. He had short, wavy amber hair and a chiseled face. Another cult member with blonde hair walked beside him and smiled sinisterly at me.

“Elian, wanna toy around with her a bit? There’s punishments for getting lost,” the blonde man said in a hard voice.

My heart pounded at his suggestion. In a place like this, toy around could mean anything from mild harassment to brutal torture.

“No.” Elian’s voice was stern. “We can’t screw around with ceremonies. You know how important they are. She looks new too, that’s probably why she’s not in formation with the rest. Let’s just shoo her along.”

I sighed with relief.

“Okay, head on that way, it’ll take you on the path to the ceremony room. Got it?” Elian asked.

I nodded and headed back down the hallway I had come from, eager to escape the prying eyes of the two men.

I sluggishly wandered in an attempt to blend in until I found other workers heading towards the same room. Their blank expressions and delayed movements made them look like zombies.

The room we gathered in was a huge auditorium, filled with movie-theater style seats that we filed into. I struggled to the back to grab an open seat by Morgan, but there was pain in her amber eyes and she refused to look at me.

Strange, even if Morgan hated me, she wouldn’t be able to resist talking for this long. I searched for another seat in the crowd and saw Elian’s familiar wavy, brown hair. A seat to his left was open and I hopped into it, too curious to stay away from the only cult member who had showed me a modicum of kindness.

I settled into the scratchy fabric of my chair and watched several cult members dressed in all black come onto the stage. They began to chant in a language I couldn’t identify as they lit candles around the stage. Smoke poured through the room, low to the ground, creeping through the aisles. It seemed to affect everyone somehow and they began chanting the same language as the people in black. Confused, I looked across the room and saw that, to my horror, Morgan had joined in the fervent chants as well.

Frantically, my eyes scanned the crowd for someone who wasn’t chanting.

“You’re not alone,” Elian whispered.

Puzzled, I faced him and noticed he had resumed chanting with the others.

“Hey, why were you awake too?” I yelled over the roar of chanting. “And why did you save me earlier?”

Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, the crowd became silent and stared at me.

“Now you’ve done it,” Elian muttered under his breath.

“Done what?”

The crowd suddenly began to close in around us with outstretched arms and I thought of my zombie observation from earlier.

“Sorry,” I apologized nervously while eyeing the encroaching group of brainwashed workers.

“You can apologize later, right now we’re leaving!” Elian shouted and grabbed my arm.

He stuck his left shoulder forward and used it to barrel through the hordes of brainwashed workers. I sprinted behind him, elbowing and kicking anyone who got too close. We were fortunate that all of the monsters were at the stage along with the cult members. I couldn’t imagine pushing through hordes of scaly flesh and jagged claws. We burst through the auditorium doors and dashed through hallways and corridors until we finally arrived in a room I had never seen before. Its door glimmered faintly in the darkness as if it were radiating heat.

“What’s going on with the door?” I asked as we entered the room.

“This room has been shielded from the darkness of this building using the powers of my people,” the man replied while shutting the door behind us. “We can find refuge in here for a short time. In case you didn’t catch it earlier, my name is Elian.”

“My name is Cassie. Aren’t your people the other cult members? Why would you want to help me?” I looked around the room. It was the first well-lit room I had seen in a while and I had to squint. It looked the same as the various rooms I had wandered through in the building.

“I abhor these monster-worshipers. I would never be a part of them. I infiltrated this place so I could help liberate these workers. It has been the goal of my people for generations.”

“Okay who are these people and why should I trust you or them?”

“I don’t want to waste time with stories, but I can tell you a little. My people are a clan of warriors known as the Enochli. We are bound by blood to each other and protecting innocents. We use a simple, protection-based form of magic, much different from the dark arts they practice here.” Elian scowled. “Thousands of years ago when this strange dimension opened and spilled into the dimension that you and I call home, monsters poured out from it and attempted to subjugate humans. The monsters gathered human followers and taught them dark magic. These people eventually became the cult members you know today. However, some cult members escaped after they realized what they were worshiping. They taught others the magic they had learned, but only after they performed a blood oath to swear they would only use it to protect humanity. From this group, the Enochli were born and they forced the dimension into smaller and smaller factions. This place is one of the last rifts between dimensions. My people have observed it for generations, searching for a way to penetrate it and rescue the souls trapped here. I was the only one to make it in, posing as a cult member who escaped from another dimensional rift that had been closed.

“Why didn’t either of us fall under that trance? My friend Morgan and I haven’t been here very long but she joined in the chanting.”

“That is because of the prophecy written on a scroll that was stolen from us by this cult. One of my people used magic to foresee the fate of this place so that we could end it. He had a vision of a worker who would rise out of the fog of the spell that binds them and become immune to the trance that ensnares the others. This worker is supposed to be a descendent of the Enochli with our same magic bonds running through their blood. He claimed that if this worker made a willing blood sacrifice by signing their name in blood on the scroll that contained the prophecy, that would free the other workers and force the otherworldly creatures to flee this dimension. Because of the willing agreement that workers sign with the cult, another willing agreement to end the slavery is required from a worker. Unfortunately, the cult prepared for this and used dark magic to brainwash the workers so that none of them could ever use their free will. That is what makes you so special. You’re the only worker who can make your own choices. However, the scroll is hidden and locked by magic that, again, can only be broken by the blood of a worker.”

I nodded, soaking in the information, steeling myself for what I would say next. A part of me cowered at the uncertainty of it all. Exactly how much blood did a sacrifice entail? Enough for me to survive after? I pushed the doubts to the back of my mind and focused on my promise to Morgan. I vowed to free her.

“Sounds like I’m your willing sacrifice then. Where’s this ‘magic scroll’?”

“I’ve been searching for it for a while now, but I think I finally found it. Oddly enough, you managed to find it after only staying here for a couple of days.”

“The door with symbols at the end of the hall. I knew I was on the right track earlier. How do we get there without getting caught? Everyone must be looking for us by now.”

“Now that we have the time to draw a few runes, I can finally be of service to you. What good is an Enochli without his magic?”

Elian pulled several small stones from his cloak pocket, laying them on the floor. He withdrew a small knife and cut his thumb. He then smeared the blood across the stones in the same circular patterns I had seen earlier on the mysterious door.

“These aren’t much, just illusion runes. Hold onto them and they’ll make you look like a regular cult member. If you let go, the illusion is broken. Understand?”

“Yes. Let’s find that room. I’m ready to end this,” I said with newfound courage.

We walked swiftly into the hallway, following the red rug’s maze to the locked door. The halls were eerily silent until we neared the room. I saw the woman from the antique store, standing a few yards in front of the door, talking quietly with another cult member.

Panicked, I clutched the cool rune stones in my palm, and attempted to walk past her without drawing her attention. Elian followed me, staying back a few paces.

I made it to the door and stared at it for a moment. I had no idea how to open it.

“Take this,” Elian whispered as he passed a knife to me. “Cut your hand and turn the doorknob with it.”

I fumbled with the blade and dropped a rune stone as I cut my palm. The stone clattered on the floor. The woman looked directly at me for a moment and then sprinted at Elian and I.

“Go Cassie! I’ll take care of her,” Elian yelled.

I nodded and flung the door open. Before me was a set of wooden stairs. I sprinted down the stairs that creaked under my weight. As my foot left the last step I spotted a large, beautiful scroll on a pedestal in the left corner of the room.

The room had wooden walls and a low ceiling. The floors were wooden as well and nothing was in the room aside from the scroll.

I readied my knife to slash another wound across my hand, but a pained cry from Elian that echoed down the stairs stopped me.

I ran up the stairs in time to see the woman gouge Elian’s shoulder with a dagger. She kicked his body backward and he tumbled down the stairs, knocking me down in the process.

Struggling, I shifted Elian’s weight off of me and readied my knife. The woman came flying down the stairs, lunging at me with her arms outstretched, her nails elongating into claws.

I leaped out of the way but she hopped on top of me, pinning me to the ground. I flicked my blade up and stabbed her chest, spraying blood across myself.

“You can’t kill me, dear Cassie. You might as well give up now.”

I couldn’t kill her, but I could trap her. With my remaining strength, I grabbed her hands and forced her claws through her throat, pushing until about half a foot her claws stuck out from the back of her neck. Blood poured out of the wound like a geyser.

I shoved her into the wooden wall and her nails dug and lodged into the wood, trapping her.

I used my knife to slice my left palm and dipped my fingers into the blood, using it to write my name across the blank space at the bottom of the parchment.

As I finished, I heard a gurgling noise and gasped as I saw the woman dying. Her life must have been tied to the scroll. Signing my name had taken her life.

“Elian! Are you okay?”

He nodded weakly from the ground. The woman had wounded him more severely than I had thought. I helped him off the ground and checked to make sure his injuries weren’t fatal.

“I didn’t even have to die and everyone was still freed,” I said with a small smile.

Elian nodded encouragingly.

“I’m honored to be part of such a moment, Cassie. You made history here and I’ll make sure the Enochli remember you as a hero.” Elian’s face glowed with pride.

I smiled sheepishly. “Before we talk about future glory and everything, I have to find Morgan!”

We quickened our pace and encountered several former workers who were wandering about and looking disoriented. After pushing through the last wave of people, I saw Morgan’s confused face.

“Morgan!” I called and we made eye contact.

She ran forward and hugged me, muttering an embarrassed apology about how she had resented me.

“It’s fine, I am the one who got us into this. I think we should stick to your original plan and give up the job hunting for now. If this is what the working world is like, I can stand to wait until after college.”

Credit To – Rachel Campbell

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Sonnet of the Deep

July 19, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Kevin found it in his grandparent’s scummy old pond. He’d been chaining a pack of ten and watching the butts drift across the nebulous waters when he spotted it; dark and flat, floating motionlessly on the surface. Had it been there a moment ago? He must have missed it. Either way, it certainly wasn’t a piece of broken fence or a branch. There was no telling what that crazy bitch had thrown into the pond before she went AWOL. It could be something valuable.

He snatched up a long-handled net leaning against the nearby fence and fished the object out of the water. It was a box.

The surface was slick with slime and algae and the keyhole was clogged with silt and dirt, but he thought the craftsmanship looked fine nonetheless and decided to work on opening it later, providing the hinges weren’t rusted shut. He would have asked the old woman about it, but obviously that wasn’t possible: his grandmother was gone, most likely dead. He thought her only neighbour probably was too, judging by the dilapidated state of the only other house he’d passed on his way here. The damn roof had collapsed in on itself, for fuck sake.

Running the pads of his fingers across the box’s surface, he thought: I’ll ask granddad next time I visit, if I can get a sane word out of the old relic.

But he only visited the Blackwood Home, with its grimy walls, grim faced orderlies and iodoform scented corridors once a year – and only then if he could help it.

He hoped the old man would die soon; thirty miles was a hell of a trip to make every July. More to the point, he supposed, was that he was scared. Scared that one year, he would arrive with his customary cheap card and even cheaper present, only to find the old sailor lucid enough to ask him about that night. About the break in, and the masked intruder who had beaten an old woman unconscious before stomping on an old man’s head until it cracked like a rotten egg, until pieces of brain were splattered all over the linoleum like yesterday’s porridge.

Or ask him how the intruder had known to look for their jewellery and cash in the nook beneath the kitchen sink.

His grandmother had disappeared shortly afterwards, vanishing without even a single goodbye. Only now, seven years on, had she finally been declared dead in absentia.

He stowed the box in his backpack alongside the few odds and ends he’d found that looked remotely valuable: a gold (he didn’t know if it was real, though) plated fountain pen engraved with a date – 13-07-83 – that was meaningless to him; a pale-skinned porcelain doll in a frilled baby-blue dress with dirty golden ringlets, which he’d wrapped in an old t-shirt to hide its unerring grin; an elaborate silver frame containing a photograph of all the grandchildren and the smiling grandparents – he’d thrown the photograph away. There were other things, as well, but he wasn’t sure if they would be worth anything, and as such hadn’t bothered with them.

Mostly the house had been crammed with junk, sentimental shit acquired during his granddad’s naval career: boxes and boxes of washed-out photographs; amateur oil paintings of ships and lighthouses and anchors; pieces of driftwood lashed together and mounted on the walls; coils of rope thicker than Kevin’s leg; an enormous rusted anchor in the basement. How the latter had found its way through the narrow doorway and down the rickety flight of stairs, he didn’t know. His Nikes were still damp from slogging around up to his ankles in water while he was down there. Fucking foundations were probably subsiding by now.

A bird cawed overhead, snapping Kevin from his thoughts. He ran a tattooed hand across his shaved head, which was dripping with sweat. There was nothing else out here. He headed inside to dry out his shoes and eat. As he crossed the threshold, he thought he saw a drape in the hall twitch, and the scent of iodine seemed to linger in the air. But of course, that wasn’t possible, and seconds later the smell was gone.

~

Kevin was slouched in his granddad’s high-backed chair next to the patio doors with his muddy boots – he’d changed out of his Nikes – propped on the once-pristine coffee table and a greasy slice of pizza dripping between his fingers. Old sea charts and framed navigational maps, cracked and yellowing with faint blue ink barely visible, adorned every wall. A brazen brass telescope was mounted above the empty fireplace, and a score of wooden ships dotted the mantle. Pieces of rigging hung from the low ceiling, and fat black spiders made their homes amidst the dark wooden joists.

The whole place stank of salt and damp wood, and the wooden fishermen in every room, with their pointed beards and jovial eyes, were downright spooky. He’d turned three of them around to face the wall already, but there were dozens he’d missed. Mildew ran rampant in the corners and dark places of the house. He hadn’t expected to find any medals; he knew they’d all been revoked following the old man’s dishonourable discharge. Kevin didn’t really know all the details, nor did he care to. A bound man thrown into the Atlantic, another drowned just off the coast of China and a third keel hauled halfway across the Baltic Sea. His granddad had been implicated in all three, alongside six other men, although none of them had ever been formally charged. The whole thing had been swiftly hushed over.

Probably the old man got what he deserved. Unlike me, Kevin thought. So far, I’ve got shit all.

And that was when he remembered the box. He rummaged through the backpack with his free hand, upturning a nearby vase filled with wilted daffodils with his elbow before his fingers closed around the slimy surface.

He was still scraping the last of the muck from the lid using a blunted knitting needle some time later, when the last rays of the setting sun reflected off the pond’s surface, staining the garden an ominous reddish-bronze. The box was much more detailed than he’d first thought; it was definitely worth something. The sides were etched with waves and whirlpools of the minutest detail, from which vague suggestions of great serpents and other beasts emerged. And once the lid was fully uncovered, it proved equally breathtaking.

A raging tempest, painfully detailed, littered with hundreds of shattered galleons. In the centre, blackness: a perfectly circular piece of dark stone set into the wood. Kevin ran his fingers across it – it was cool to the touch, surprisingly so.

Still, there remained the problem of opening it. Kevin knew that he could force it, but that risked damaging the box and its contents. Because the box was heavy; it had real weight to it. There was something in there. He’d get some rest for half hour or so, and then have a look around for the key. Tilting his head back, he shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

~

Kevin dreamed of waves. He was adrift in a tiny rowboat on a black ocean that extended as far as he could see in every direction. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, and thunderheads the colour of bruises grumbled ominously. But wait, that was wrong. The ocean wasn’t black. There was something moving beneath his boat, an unimaginable mass that darkened the water and roiled the surface.

He felt the boat rise beneath him, and he was pitched backwards into the abyssal waters. He was sinking, sinking, sinking to the depths. And something was moving down there, rushing through the darkness towards him. He opened his mouth to scream and the water poured in.

~

The bright, white light hurt his eyes. Kevin blinked like a mole dazzled by a torch, and then the world swam into focus. He was hunched over in front of the tiny window in the attic, affording him a perfect view of the moonlit garden and the mirrored surface of the pond. Strange, how it looked so much bigger from up here; so much more…oceanic.

What the fuck was he doing up here anyway? And what was that noise?

Dee-dum-di-dum-dum-dee

A soft, mournful tinkling, like putting your ear to a seashell or standing on the deck of a fishing boat in a light autumn rain; it was beautiful, yet it chilled him to his very core.

Dee-dum-di-dum-dum-dee

The box lay open at his feet, illuminated in a small pool of moonlight. The inside was a single compartment of plain wood, completely devoid of any carvings or images. Something silver was rotating slowly in the center. He reached for it with a shaking hand, and that was when the surface of the pond began to move.

A score of ripples spread across the still waters. A huge mass began to coalesce, moving sluggishly beneath the surface. Something sleek and dark broke the surface, lashing out and decapitating a nearby stone cherub.

Kevin watched transfixed as a smaller shape crawled forth from the water, moving with hunched deliberation across the lawn. The moonlight threw too many details into stark clarity; blackened skin like worn leather, bedraggled wisps of hair; sagging, lichen-covered breasts and arthritic hands curled into claws.

His grandmother stopped next to the headless cherub and looked up at the window, her eyes flaring with a hellish intensity, and smiled. Her teeth were mossy gravestone nubs. The wrinkled grey flesh of her thighs gave way to yellowing bone. Long silvery worms slithered through the hollow places of her body, and something many-legged and glistening emerged from a hole in the side of her skull and skittered sideways across her chest. Something that looked like a starfish clung to the side of her neck. But starfish didn’t have mouths bulging with razor sharp fangs.

She crooked a gnarled finger at him. Come on down, sonny. Let’s have us a little chit-chat by the water’s edge.

Dee-dum-di-dum-dum-dee

Behind her, the pond had swollen to monstrous proportions, the banks having long since fallen away. Water was spilling across the grass and onto the patio, jetting forth in geysers from the rapidly collapsing lawn. The sort of fish he’d seen on Discovery’s deep sea programs were floundering on the grass: phosphorescent and eyeless, utterly hideous. A crab the size of an Alsatian scuttled across the lawn and disappeared into the shrubbery.

The night itself seemed to take a deep breath, and the stars were snuffed out like so many tiny candles. Something gargantuan beyond comprehension broke the water’s surface. Piscine and loathsome, it bellowed in atavistic rage. The sound was deafening, like a blast from a ship’s horn. He had the sense of something crossed between an octopus and a dinosaur. No, that wasn’t right. The anatomy was all wrong.

He felt his mind slipping away like an eel between his fingers. This couldn’t be happening. He was dreaming. That was it. Of tentacles thicker than tree trunks and long spindly arms, at least three times the length of a stallion’s foreleg and ending in webbed claws the size of car bonnets.

Then the poignant tang of iodine once more filled his nostrils, and he knew he wasn’t dreaming. Something shuffled across the floorboards behind him. Wet breathing, coming in short shallow gulps like a fish out of water, and the squeak of rusty casters across rough wood.

The horror outside seemed to grow dim as Kevin turned to face his granddad. The old man’s piss stained hospital johnny fluttered in the draft from the window, exposing the wrinkled flesh of his thighs and buttocks. An IV pole trailed behind him, the bags deflated and crumpled. Tubes hung like transparent veins from his forearms.

Despite everything that was happening – and just how the hell had the old man gotten out? – Kevin found his eyes immediately drawn to the side of his granddad’s head: the side that was misshapen and crumpled, like a trodden on tin can. There was no guilt: only remorse.

He should have done things properly. He should have hit him harder. He should have fucking killed him.

Kevin stumbled to his feet as his granddad advanced across the cramped attic. And the old man was grinning, his saturnine features more animated than Kevin had seen them in all the years he’d visited him at the Blackwood Home. There he’d merely lain motionless and slack-jawed, drooling into a pillow that Kevin longed to hold over his face and shitting himself on an hourly basis.

There was water dripping through cracks in the roof now, and Kevin became aware not only of a sudden sense of scrutiny, but of an enormous pressure bearing down upon him, a tidal wave crashing over a coastal city, a force of incomprehensible enormity.

The grinning spectre before him fell to its knees with a sickening crack, sending the IV pole clattering across the floor. Splinters of bright white bone jutted from the old man’s kneecaps.

Somewhere in the gloom, the music box continued to sing its funereal song.

Dee-dum-di-dum-dum-dee

For a second, Kevin could have sworn he heard waves crashing against the side of the house.

And then the light disappeared. The room was engulfed in darkness, total and complete, and he found himself unable to see further than the tip of his nose. He could hear the old man’s laboured breathing, moving closer now. The sickly sweet stench of rotten gums and decaying teeth filled his nostrils, accompanied by the grate of bone against wood.

In desperation he whirled towards the window. And discovered why the world had gone dark.

The thing from the deep opened a cyclopean eye, and the attic was bathed in ultramarine.

His granddad, from the darkness, a rasp more like a rusted chain being lowered than a human voice: ‘…et akhlish… Nisroch… chtulzra dhrazgh et Nisroch boolusch…’ This was followed by a wheezy chuckling, a sound like water on the lung.

Then the roof exploded in a shower of tiles and wood, drowning out the guttural intonation, and an unimaginable pressure seized Kevin about the waist. His ribs snapped like matchsticks as he was lifted into the air. Red water spread across his vision. Only it wasn’t water, it was blood.

Through a haze of scarlet, he beheld a maw dripping with brine that was large enough to swallow an estate car and change. The stench was almost as overpowering as the pain crushing his torso, a thousand dead gulls rotting beneath the summer sun.

There was water everywhere, gushing from the pond at an impossible rate, and the garden now looked more like a small lake. Through a curtain of pain he could vaguely discern his grandmother scaling the thing’s vast body like a withered brown spider.

Kevin understood, in his final moments, that there was truly a God. But He didn’t love, and He certainly didn’t forgive. He was an old God. A God of the deep, whose fury against those above would be both beautiful and terrible to behold.

He was death.

Kevin’s shoulders dislocated with twin pops, and waves of searing agony rushed over him. Then he was gone, lost in pain and darkness. He died slowly. He died without hope.

~

Nisroch dropped the shattered human into the rushing water, threw back its head and roared with the wind. Rain poured from the sky, a hammering deluge that would, in the weeks to come, become a global catastrophe. One of the Seven walked the earth once more, and it would bring with it an ocean unending and suffering unbound.

Rain poured through the space where the attic roof had been, beating a relentless tattoo against the wooden floor. A torrent of water smashed through the patio doors, flooding the lower floor of the house and gushing out into the road. And amidst it all, the music box continued to sing.

Dee-dum-di-dum-dum-dee

Credit To – Tom Farr

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The Bum

July 15, 2014 at 12:00 PM
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It will happen when you are alone. It can happen anytime, anywhere, it does not matter. You will be walking and will be in no great hurry. That is when you will meet him: The bum. The people who have met him have all described him with differing detail. Sometimes he is short, sometimes tall, sometimes of an average build. Sometimes he is old and fat and sometimes he is young and skinny. His age and appearance are of little circumstance as he is always a man of charisma. He will call out to you when you are walking. His voice will be charming and pleasant and if he should startle you, you will soon reconsider your fright. He is not aggressive, and he will not approach you. You must approach him. He will be wearing tattered clothes and will give you the impression that he is a homeless man down on his luck. In fact, it is you that will be down on yours when you meet him.

The man is witty, and knows himself to be so. He will grasp your attention with his charm and whatever thoughts you will have in your head previous to this encounter will be momentarily whisked away. He will proceed to introduce himself to you and will make pleasant small talk. You will not know it but he knows your life and your story. Talking to him will feel relieving, as if you are talking to your mother or a good friend. He will calm your anxieties, and with his wit and humour he will make you feel happiness. However, after a couple moments you will begin to wonder why he has called you to him and will wonder what he wants. He will begin to smile a clever grin and will instead inquire as to what it is you want yourself. This man, like most beggars and bums is in need, but his need is entirely in consequence to the needs of you. He will produce a match from his clothing or from whatever he is holding. He will strike it on a surface and its tip will flare a bright orange glow. The glow is entrancing and you will be drawn to its brilliant flame. The world around you will seem to fade away as you look into the blaze. The bum will speak to you, his face a shadow behind the flame in his outstretched hand. This is when it will begin. Amongst the fire in the match head, images will appear. They will be blurry but will still be easily recognizable. The sound accompanying the images will be faint and it will seem as if you are hearing it from under water.

In the match’s flame you will see the greatest pain that plagues you, and how it got to be there. You will relive the memories of that pain vividly, as if experiencing it again for the first time: A heart break, the death of a loved one, a rape, a mugging, a tragic accident… You will see the memory that is the most painful to you. You will act accordingly, with panic, anger, or sadness, but in the snap of his fingers the bum will put out the flame and you will be released into a calmer state. You will listen to his words as he consoles you with due diligence, and it is then that he will offer you a choice. The choice is perplexing, a choice like no other you have experienced before. He will ask you if you wish that painful memory of yours to be removed from existence, for it to never have happened. If you have lost your life to an alcohol addiction, he will make it so you would have never picked up a bottle. If you have lost a loved one to a car crash, he will make it so that they will have never been in that car in the first place. It will sound wonderful to you; your pain will be relieved in an instant, but it will come at a cost, for you see, what is taken must be given.

You cannot remove without adding something to fill the void. You can have your pain removed, but at the cost of inflicting it to others. If you lost your leg in a workplace accident, the bum can make it so this accident happened to another in place of yourself. If your spouse committed suicide at the end of a rope, the bum can trade your spouse’s spot on the rope with the spouse of another. The cost to this deal will mean nothing to you, as he will explain that if you accept his proposal you will be relieved of any memories of this event or any memories pertaining to the hardship he will solve. Thus, you must ask yourself if you wish to inflict pain to relieve yourself of it. It is a perplexing choice, one that you cannot comprehend the answer to if you are not in that moment, in front of the rag-clad bum and his smoking match. If you agree, he will answer to your command, and with a sinister smirk, will exchange what needs to be traded. However, if you decline his offer you will be persuaded to reconsider. He will tell you that there are no second chances, that this opportunity will never befall upon you again, and he is not lying. Forfeit this chance and you will never see this man again. If you insist upon abstaining the man will give you a cold and hard stare, his face changing from one of optimism and persuasion to one devoid of expression. He will stare at you for moments that will seem like hours, filling your mind with doubts of your conviction. For now, it is still not too late to change your mind. If, however, you remain persistent in your choice, the bum will merely flick the smoking match into the air and place its smokeless head back from where it came from. He will then depart in the opposite direction from which you came. He will walk slowly, as if unburdened by your choice. If you choose to follow him you will be ignored, and you will find that the moment your gaze departs from his body, he will have disappeared. If you chose this path and decline his offer, this will be the last you will see of him.

Credit To – 9753

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You’re Not Afraid

July 14, 2014 at 12:00 PM
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Dear Reader,
At the corner of Winter and Broad there is an abandoned house. Go into that house. The front door is closed but unlocked. Nobody lives inside, not even homeless people would dare stay in a place like that for more than a night. When you go in, you will hear the whispers. Don’t listen to what they say because they have more than just “a way with words.” They say things that your heart dreads. Things like, “I can see you. I can hear your thoughts in my mind. I’m going to use your secrets to ruin your life. The longer you stay here, the more I know.” It may not seem compelling now, I mean, why listen to some cocky little disembodied voices right? You’re not afraid.

No. Ignore the voices. There will be a lamp on inside. It’s always on so you shouldn’t worry about being able to see. The room inside is left precisely as it was. The table is still set for a meal, there are still six sets of silverware, six dishes and six crisply folded napkins situated at regular intervals about the table. The chair at the head of the table remains askew as though someone had stood up from it and left the room in a hurry. There are still old envelopes sitting in the fireplace waiting to be lit, addressed to the man of the house. There are still two tall candles plugged into their sticks, hardly used with droplets of wax paralyzed along their sides, their wicks blackened but still long. There is still a child’s toy truck lying on its side on the elegant oriental rug and a copy of Little Women is splayed on the seat cushion of the armchair, folded back at the spine. Someone’s reading glasses sit upside down on top of a newspaper from August 1923 and two broad yellow needles are tangled in the sleeve of a sweater. It’s as though the people who lived here are merely absent and could be back any minute. You might not think so if you were to enter the kitchen, which I would not advise. Still, you’re not afraid, right?

Disregard the voices. Disregard the state of this, what once was someone’s home. Don’t go in the kitchen. No. Take to the stairs. Be careful, for the owner of the toy truck on the first floor may have left one or two of his building blocks, one with a crimson letter A, the other with a viridian letter G, sitting on one of the steps. Ascend to the top of the stairs where you’ll pass the window as you round the banister and face the hallway. Do not open the burgundy velvet curtain even if you notice the tips of the shoes sticking out at the bottom. No you ought to completely disregard them. Not that you’re scared. There’s really not much of a view anyway. The voices will continue to whisper to you with their outlandish threats but you ought to simply proceed down the hallway.

You might look through the first door on your right, if you so desired. It will be ajar. The room is just a small one with an unmade twin bed, a couple of bookcases and a small desk with a typewriter on it. The beginning of a thesis on the Great War may still be sitting in the shaft. A small alarm clock that, if twisted twice, will be set to 7:30am sits on the bedside table and all of the clothes in the closet are meticulously hung, side by side, like uniform soldiers. There really isn’t much to see. Still it’s better than if you were to open the door on your left. The one with the broad wooden letters nailed to the door reading “Sam.” Nor would I suggest that as you take a step or two down the hallway that you open the door on your right with its own wooden letters, these delicate and italicized reading “Beth.” The door across from Beth’s room is the bathroom, which you might use if you absolutely couldn’t repress your bladder any longer and you didn’t mind doing your business as voices whisper absurdities into your ears. Just don’t pull aside the shower curtain to peer into the claw-footed tub. Not that you’re afraid.

It’s best if you just continue forward. You could glance into the last door on the left but all you’d find there is a king sized four poster and a vintage vanity mirror with some pearls strewn across the floor. Just don’t look in the closet. Not that you’re afraid. And neither are you afraid of opening the last door on the right. It’s just better if you didn’t. You wouldn’t want to see what was sitting in the rocking chair on the far side of the room between an ironing board and another four poster.

It’s best that you don’t look. And still the voices will whisper to you such peculiar things. But since I know you aren’t afraid, I know you will continue on to the door at the very end of the hallway. The black one. Open this door and the whispering voices will be hushed. Through the door you shall be greeted by a wall of shadow. The voices have been silenced to make way for the deep chuckling you will hear from within the room. However, I promise you, that this is just to deter you. But I know you will not be disheartened, because you are not afraid. You will courageously step forth into the darkness without hesitation. The shaft of light from the hallway will offer you very little breadth of vision but still you will step onto the first stair. Then the second. And the third. With each progressive step, the chuckle will become more and more audible. At first it will seem to be coming from the top of the stairs, but once you reach it, it will sound as if it is before you. Still I know you are without fear. You will disregard this voice as you did all of the voices before. The owner of this chuckling voice will always sound as if he is just before you, but truthfully he is just as ethereal as the other voices in the house. At times the voice will be distant as if he is pacing about the room. At times he will be so close that if it weren’t for the fact that you know your own voice, you might think that you were the chuckler yourself. But still, you’re not afraid.

Simply ignore the voice. Even as your hands grope through the darkness against the bureaus and boxes, old furniture and toys, you will diligently proceed. At some point your hands may find the waist of a dress form, once owned by the lady of the house. If you follow its delicate shape to the left shoulder, you may find a small chain hanging just above it. Do not pull this chain. It turns on the light. If you do so the chuckling voice will not remain disembodied, and you don’t want to meet the owner. Not that you’re afraid.

You must carry on through the darkness as you search for the leaden box. You will know it by its earthy metal chill on your skin. When you do, you may notice that the chuckler seems to have regressed to the far side of the room. You must open this box, for inside you shall find the key. As soon as you have it, you may leave the attic. The chuckler will rush up behind you, laughing hysterically, and you must escape the attic before you feel his hands upon you. Do not hesitate to slam he door behind you and use the latch below the doorknob to lock the chuckler inside. When you turn around, you will see that all of the doors that were closed are now open and the shoes below the curtain have disappeared. You have awoken the family and they are rousing from their beds in each of the six rooms that you passed. You must be swift. Close each of the doors as fast as you can, including the first one you saw, locking them as you did the attic. They will pound and kick against the wood of the doors from inside, but they cannot break through. If you accomplish this in time, you have done well. I know you can do it because you are not afraid.

Now, you have the key, the dearly departed have been locked in their rooms and you may proceed downstairs once more. The whispering voices will have returned but they will be even more adamant than before. They will hiss at you furiously, abandoning their threats and choosing to insult you profanely instead, but you must still ignore them. You have come so far because you were not afraid and neither are you afraid now.

When you return downstairs you ought to go into the kitchen. There is nothing to be found there now, you have locked her upstairs in her room. On the far side you will see a door, identical to the one through which you discovered the attic. Through it, you shall discover stairs going downward. The lightswitch shall be to your left and you may turn it on because there is no chuckler in the cellar. Enter and close the door behind you. You must follow the stairs down and cross to the far side of the room. There isn’t much in the cellar, some shovels, a rake and other gardening tools mostly. The floor is even earthen and there is a bulkhead leading out. This is your exit, but it is an old one, the door will not be easily opened. You will hear the banging continue from upstairs. Still, you’re not afraid.

At the far end of the basement opposite the entrance, there is an apparently blank wall but you will find a loose brick at eye level for someone who is about 5′ 9″. Take it out and you should be able to pull more out afterward. When you’ve pulled enough of them away you will find the hatch. The hatch may be opened with the key. However, by the time you have found the hatch, I imagine the family will have found their way out of their rooms. But still, you’re not afraid.

The sound of footsteps may sound through the house as the family comes in search of you. There are limited places you could be so you’d better move fast. Open the hatch with the key and inside you will find the safe. The combination is the date of the newspaper that was in the living room upstairs. You must turn the dial even as it becomes apparent that the family has discovered where you are. They will bang on the door to the basement and it will only hold for so long. Still, I know, you will not be afraid.

Once you’ve opened the safe you will find the briefcase. Don’t bother to open the briefcase there for the family will be on the brink of finding you. Even now they may have broken through the door. Grab the briefcase and run to the bulkhead. Shift the locking bar to the side. Use your strength because it is likely rusted in place. Push with all of your might to get the bulkhead doors open and run out into the night. The family will likely be on your heels but if you run with all of your strength they will not catch you. Run out through the surrounding buildings and lose them. Find someplace to hide. Whatever you do, escape them and don’t lose the briefcase. Even as Beth comes forth, the wound on her chest spilling blood out through her rosey dress, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you didn’t open Beth’s door? Even as Sam waddles forward, his collapsed rib cage forcing stomach fluid to spill out of his mouth, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you passed by his door as well? Even as mother rushes after you, the dent in her skull from the meat cleaver pulsing, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you didn’t enter the kitchen? Even as grandpa rushes after you, the glass sticking out from his torso forming a scarlet line around his waist, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you didn’t part the curtain? Even as Uncle Jonathan comes after you, drenched in water with the slit in his throat swollen from age, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you didn’t look in the bathtub? Even as papa comes after you, the bruises from the pearls and the burns from his necktie at the indent in his neck making his skin appear scaley even in the dim light, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you left the closet door shut? Even as grandma comes after you, her lims disjointed and her stomach emaciated from where she was left to starve to death, you will not be afraid. Aren’t you glad you didn’t go into the last bedroom? And even as the last man who tried to attempt what you will surely succeed in accomplishing, rushes after you, his eyes sunken and his hair white, his ribs visible even through his tattered rags, still laughing as if he has heard the best joke in the world, only God knows if he died of fear or madness, you shall still not be afraid. This I know. You shall run until they are far behind you, and then hide and wait for an hour. Once you’re sure that they are gone, you should find your way home. I know you can accomplish this because you’re not afraid.

At home, you ought to open the briefcase. You will find that it also has a combination lock but this is simply the address of the house. If you didn’t think to look you may need to return to the house the following night. I know you would do that because you’re not afraid. Once you’ve found the address and you open up the briefcase, you will find what I have sent you to look for and the reason for all of your trouble. It’s the deed to the house. The city cannot demolish the house without this document. Be careful with it as it is over a hundred years old. Bring it to the city and have them demolish the house. Once and for all, my family will be able to rest, and maybe this will be adequate repentance for what I did to them all those years ago. If you do get the city to demolish that house my family’s bodies will be interred in the rubble, finally at peace. If not, you left the front door unlocked, didn’t you? God forbid someone else enter that house by chance. But that doesn’t have anything to do with you. And anyways, they have nothing to fear, right?

Credit To – CousinSpookyNoodles

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Blood of the Swine

July 12, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you – Leviticus 11: 7-8

-

‘She is just around….’ Henrikkson lifted one hand from the wheel and twirled it slowly in the air, a puzzled frown creasing his broad features. ‘How do you say…twist maybe? Yes, that is it. Just around twist in trees, Mr Garett. She is not further now, five more minutes, ja?’ The man’s English was forced and stilted; Jake often had difficulty understanding what he meant. So instead of replying, he merely nodded and turned to gaze out of the rain-beaded window. The forest opened up briefly on his right, and he caught a glimpse of the Swedish countryside as it meandered past. Windswept and misty with rain, scatterings of spindly trees and mossy rocks marred an otherwise desolate hillside that stretched as far as the eye could see. Then it was gone, obscured once again by a great wall of black trees, leafless and densely packed, which ran the length of the rutted dirt track along which they now bumped.

Jake squinted into the murk, hoping to catch of glimpse of an elk, or perhaps even a wolf. Instead, his eyes found only long thin shapes stretching upwards into the withered branches. He frequently thought he caught glimpses of a dark bulk slipping between the thin trunks, seemingly keeping pace with the battered red Volvo as it snaked its way through the forest. But closer scrutiny always revealed nothing more than insubstantial shadows.

Henrikkson’s ‘’five more minutes’’ was closer to fifteen. The trail narrowed towards its end, and the foliage whipped at the windows, it scraped at the doors and snapped against the bonnet. Just how long had it been since the Swede had last taken a client to view the property anyway? Jake considered asking him, but thought better of it; it would only initiate another awkward conversation that he would have trouble understanding. Instead, he stared at his shoes, and wondered why he’d taken the time to polish them when he would no doubt end up traipsing through mud and who knew what else.

He glanced at his cell phone. No signal. No surprise really; it had been that way for hours now. The forest was silent around them; the only sounds the steady purr of the Volvo’s engine and his own heavy breathing. It was so isolated out here. Even with Henrikkson beside him, Jake felt completely and utterly alone.

Henrikkson looked at him curiously. Jake flashed the Swede a reassuring grin. It was an effort to mask his growing unease.

In truth, he was unsure why Mannsen & White, the London-based chartered surveyors he was interned to for the duration of the summer, had been so eager to fly him out to Strängnäs to view Brääkänburg Ranch. He’d seen a photo of the place – the one and only photo the company had on file – and the dark wood, sagging moss-covered roof and tiny shuttered windows had only served to heighten his confusion. Sure, the place was big, and there was the location to consider: the house was nestled deep within one of Sweden’s largest forests. But whether that last was a potential selling point or not, Jake didn’t know. He supposed it would depend on the client.

‘She is arrived Mr Garett.’ Henrikkson’s deep baritone voice interrupted Jake’s reverie. He looked up just as the car emerged from the ocean of trees into a relatively large clearing. The ranch slouched in the center; a dim, dilapidated structure that looked like it hadn’t been touched in a hundred years or so. It was comprised of two interconnected buildings: the main house, which consisted of two floors, and a narrower building of the same height, but with an overhanging and windowless upper floor. The structure joining the two was low and flat-roofed, only a single floor with one tiny window.

The sole window in the second building was unshuttered, the only one of its kind on the property, and as his gaze slid over it he felt a sudden awareness of scrutiny, as though unseen eyes were watching through that tiny pane of glass. Did the darkness suddenly become a shade lighter, as though a bulky shape that had been obscuring the window had just slipped away?

Off to the right of the house, an overgrown paddock teemed with leafy ferns and tall swaying grasses. Jake tried to imagine horses grazing there, but found he was unable to picture any animals in such a dreary environment. A withered tree was barely visible around the side of the house; small objects, shrivelled and brown, hung from its blighted branches.

A ramshackle, broken-down fence encircled the ranch. As the Volvo drove through the gate, which was hanging forlornly from one hinge, Jake was unable to suppress a slight shudder. It was as though they had left the real world, where cell phones worked and people actually existed, passing through into a forgotten place, forlorn and abandoned to the ravages of time.

‘Mr Garett?’ Henrikkson was holding the passenger door open for him. Jake hadn’t even realised they had stopped.

‘I’m sorry. I was lost in the…well, just lost in this place.’ The words sounded stupid even as they left his mouth, and he felt his ears turn red. Henrikkson, however, merely smiled and nodded his assertion. ‘Ja, she is…handsome, as you say in London England, ja?’

Handsome wasn’t the first word that sprung to mind for Jake. Neither was it beautiful or picturesque. As the Swede led him through the unkempt garden towards Brääkänburg Ranch, there was a single word resonating in Jake’s head.
Alone.

-

Henrikkson’s mother was dead. An eighteen-wheeler had lost control and ploughed through the front of a grocery store. She’d been killed instantly. He received the call – and how he managed to get a signal out here Jake couldn’t begin to fathom – about ten minutes after they arrived at the property, turning his red Volvo around and heading straight back to Strängnäs – without Jake.

The original plan had been to spend the afternoon mapping and extensively photographing the ranch’s interior. In the morning, they would have combed the property for structural defects or weaknesses before finishing up by photographing the exterior and examining the surrounding land and establishing the boundaries. Obviously things had changed now. Jake understood completely, and he almost accepted the distraught Swede’s offer to reschedule and return to Strängnäs.

Almost.

But his sense of responsibility prevailed, and he sent Henrikkson away with assurances that he’d be ready and waiting for the Swede to collect him at nine the next morning.

And then he was alone in that dreadful place. And it was truly dreadful. The interior was completely devoid of light, forcing him to rely solely on the thin beam of his LED card torch, and he was unable to force the shutters open, so damp-engorged and swollen was the wood.

The exterior was deceptive; the main house consisted of only two large rooms. The room on the first floor was empty save for three small box beds on either side, as well as a jumble of rags and sticks piled in one corner. A dark purple drape was drawn across the bed furthest from the staircase, but Jake couldn’t muster up the nerve to cross the somehow mournful room and pull it aside. Instead, he closed and latched the door – why was there a latch on the outside? – and returned to the ground floor room, which was furnished with ancient, rickety chairs and a long table that bowed in the center. There was another bundle of kindling stacked beneath it, bound in a tattered sheet. A closed fireplace was set in the far wall, and there was another box bed, this one larger than those above, on the left wall, with a dust-caked vanity and a small circular table nearby.

An ancient claw-footed bathtub nestled in another corner, the site of which made Jake uneasy. Something dark dangled over the lip, but he dared not look. He imagined shining the beam of his torch only to have it reflected back at him from a pair of jaundiced yellow eyes. He shuddered at the thought of something curled inside in that dreadful tub, waiting in silence and observing his every movement, with a single waif-like arm dangling over the edge. Just what had he seen at the window?

He hurriedly pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind before they could form, lest he allow his fears to fully take root.

Henrikkson had mentioned during the drive that they would be staying in the guest bedroom, which was apparently situated on the overhanging second floor of the other building. Even if it wasn’t, Jake would have rather spent a night in the forest than sleep in the funereal room above him, with its tiny beds and sombre drapes.

With that in mind, he hurried through the tunnel-like connecting structure, his shoes crunching on things he didn’t want to look at. Wooden crates were stacked all about him, and splinters tugged at the sleeves of his jacket like sharp fingers as he squeezed between them. The window here wasn’t shuttered after all, just thick with grime and dirt. Rubbing at it with his fingers did nothing except leave them stained black. At what he judged to be about halfway, he came across a stout wooden door. It looked out of place amidst the disrepair; the thick bar keeping it closed glinted in the torchlight, and felt smooth in his hands as he slid it aside.

He’d put the torch on a nearby crate to unbar the door, and as he snatched it up the slim beam slid across something huddled in the corner behind a stack of crates, an emaciated form crouched on stick-thin limbs. He screamed aloud and staggered away, the back of his legs colliding with a crate and sending him tumbling backwards.

The torch dropped to the floor, revealing the stack of crates and an empty corner.

He considered turning back, getting out of this terrible place before it drove him insane. He retrieved the torch, thankful that it hadn’t broken, and shone it on the closed door through which he’d entered. It seemed a mile away. No, to retreat through that oppressive darkness was unthinkable.

Come to think of it, hadn’t he left the door ajar? If so, why was it closed now?

‘Old houses,’ he whispered, shaking his head. The whole fucking place was probably listing. More than likely it was fit to collapse at any moment.

‘Fuck it.’ The loudness of his voice in the empty ranch surprised him, shocked him even. Unwilling to linger any longer in the lightless hell of the connecting building, he eased the door before him open and stepped through.

Jake flashed the torch across the walls and drew in a sharp breath, pressing himself against the door. A long, lupine skull snarled down at him from a hook above the window. On a three-legged table in the center of the room, the fleshless head of a great elk gazed impassively past him with empty eye sockets the size of snooker balls. Something brushed his shoulder, causing his heart to flutter like a trapped bird; a string of tiny, avian-looking skulls hanging from the doorframe.

In the corner to the left of the door, another of those curious piles of sticks and rags: this one was piled high and almost completely swathed in clothe, with only a two bone-white pieces of kindling protruding from the bottom. He gave it a wide birth as he moved into the room.

Then his gaze fell on the largest skull of them all, nailed above a lopsided doorway on the far side of the room: a monstrous boar, its snout ending in a pair of enormous yellowed tusks that curved upwards and out before turning back on themselves to point at the eye sockets. Dull snatches of light filtered through a small spot rubbed clean on the filthy window, throwing a dour grey blanket across the floor.

Something glistened wetly on the wood, a sporadic trail leading from the window to the doorway.

Jake approached the doorway, a listing frame curiously bereft of an actual door, fixated himself upon it, ignoring the hideous trinkets decorating the room. It led to an extremely narrow staircase; he would have been forced to stoop had he wished to proceed. That, however, was something he now had no desire to do. A rotten stench, a mixture of decay, urine and soiled hay wafted down, and the walls were curiously scuffed and chipped, as though something far too large for the cramped passage had regularly descended it.

Or ascended it, Jake thought. And perhaps whoever it was hasn’t come back down. Once again, he thought of the perceived shape at the window and failed to supress a shudder.

Then he noticed the book, resting on a battered stool in the corner of the room. It was thick and leathery looking, and as he approached it he realised it was resting atop something. He reached for it, wincing as his fingertips brushed the surprisingly smooth cover. The book felt…swollen, somehow. Like a latex glove filled with water.

What was beneath it caused his jaw to sag and his eyes to bulge: a cassette player. Blocky brown plastic with a pair of chunky headphones, it looked about thirty years old. But to see something even remotely technological, no matter how antediluvian, in this archaic place gave him pause.

There was a tape inside. If there had once been lettering on the buttons it had long since worn away, but his thumb lingered on one that was slightly larger than the rest.

Against his better judgement, Jake popped the headphones over his ears and pressed the button.

A chorus of shrill, inhuman shrieks howled in his ears, an impossibly fast rhythm accompanied by a relentless crashing and beating. It sounded like the world was tumbling down around him.

He was scrabbling to yank the headphones free, to silence the tearing dissonance, when the music slowed to a sonorous crawl. A voice, a deep baritone much like Henrikkson’s, began a slow intonation.

Jake’s Latin had been mediocre at best when he’d graduated university, and had only grown rustier since. But he was still able to recognise a couple of words being chanted, the pair preceding the main verse: terram porcum. Porcum was pig; that he did know. But terram…some reference to soil…to the earth perhaps?
A pig in the earth? Or a pig of the earth?

He looked down at the book in his other hand, clenched in a white-knuckle grip. He removed the headphones and set the cassette player back down on the stool without bothering to stop the tape.

Clamping the thin torch between his teeth, he stretched the strange cover taut to try and make out the tilted slew of lettering adorning it. His thumb brushed something in the top right corner. There was a number stitched there – how had he missed it?

3930.

Now what the hell did that mean? Jake returned his attention to the lettering. Even after stretching out the pliable cover, parts of the words remained missing, erased forever by time’s gnarled fingers.

Pulli eius la…ent sanguinem et ubi…ue cadaver fuerit …atim ade…

He flipped the book open to a random page near the middle and his jaw clenched, his teeth grating against the metal torch. The photograph was grainy and old, with yellowing corners and washed-out colours. But there was no colour anyway, not really, not in here, and its absence in no way detracted from the image – the main subject had been shot with unerring precision, and the angle was perfect.

Jake only wished it wasn’t.

The photograph had been taken in the room with the claw-footed bathtub. And now Jake understood why he felt such discomfort when gazing upon that battered relic, and more of its insidious purpose in the room.

Looking at the remains of her body, he thought the girl had been young; full breasts and shapely legs were stained with gore. Her arms were bound with a length of chain looped over a ceiling joist, from which she dangled above the bathtub. Matted ringlets fell to her shoulders, and her collarbones were sharp and pronounced.

Her face was hideously bruised and swollen. Had the photo been taken in better lighting, Jake was sure that her face would have been shaded all the hues of a setting sun.

But it was the ruin of her stomach that made him want to retch. It looked like a hollowed-out watermelon. Great chunks of flesh had been torn away, and pointed splinters of bone protruded from the remains of her abdomen.

The wound tapered inwards, as though whatever had inflicted this atrocity had been unable – or unwilling – to gnaw through completely. A memory of early childhood flashed through his mind. Standing in the rain, wearing his red wellingtons and holding his mother’s hand, watching as his uncle’s pigs wallowed in the mud. They’d been given pumpkins. The largest of them had gotten its snout stuck attempting to scoop out every last string of the gooey innards.

Then, they’d laughed until tears ran down their faces. Now, Jake wanted to cry for another reason entirely.

As if one spontaneous recollection of childhood had led to another, the meaning of the numbers on the book’s cover suddenly became clear. Staring at the gruesome photograph, unable to tear his eyes away, the verse ran through his head, the voice of his pastor reciting it like clockwork, again and again.

The book of Job, chapter 39, verse 30: Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

That was God, talking about one of his creations. But which one? Who? Jake couldn’t remember.

He slammed the book shut, unable to bear the thought of hundreds more terrible photographs crowding the flimsy pages. The feel of the binding made him cringe. It was so soft, so smooth. So…fleshy. The despicable thing fell from his suddenly limp grasp as waves of realisation and revulsion crashed over him.

The cassette player screeched in the background, but it was the erratic beating of his heart that seemed to deafen him. Something was terribly, terribly wrong here. He had to get out. Now. He’d start walking back to Strängnäs, and Henrikkson would come across him in the morning and drive him far, far away from this terrible place.

A faint glimmer of hope began to sparkle somewhere deep inside of him. He was getting out of here, right now. This was the twenty-first century. Things like tourists and foreigners being strung up and butchered by xenophobic locals just didn’t happen anymore, unless it was in horror movies like The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

In the room above, something snorted, and Jake’s hope guttered and died.

It was a soggy sound, like water-on-the-lung, ripping through the veil of silence like a sharp blade through damp cardboard. A great bulk shifted on rotten timbers. Urine ran freely down Jake’s leg, the smell of it mingling with the sickly odours wafting through the doorway. As if in response, something stomped hard on the floor above, dislodging swirling clouds of dust from the ceiling.

Jake slumped against the panelled wall. His body was shaking and numb with fear, and tears streaked his dusty cheeks. The book lay open at his feet, just as a muscular Caucasian hung above the bathtub in the dull sepia photograph. His innards were hanging from the rafters like tinsel. The cassette player continued to drone from its perch in the corner. Around him, the ranch groaned.

Clack clack thud. The hollow knocking from above continued, echoing through the empty corridors of the darkened house; the sound of a mallet slamming against wood, or the solid tread of cloven hooves on ancient boards.

A thick, wet snuffle, halfway between a snort and a grunt, rolled down from above. An animal. There was a wild animal up there. A hungry animal, one which he would do well to get as far away from as possible.

He turned towards the door and choked on his next breath. His torch, the previously bright LED flickering weakly, slid across a skeletal form rising from the corner. Jake caught the merest hint of paper-thin skin stretched taut across sticklike bones, and thin legs which bent the wrong way at the knee, before the shape slipped through the half-open door in a flutter of black cloth.

The piles of rags and sticks. All around him. All over the house. Oh God.

A metallic clunk announced the replacing of the metal bar.

He was trapped.

Demanding his attention, a coarse scraping emanating from the tilted doorway, bare flesh dragged across mottled wood. The barnyard stench hit him in waves; the same scent he’d noticed earlier, now sickeningly rich and overpowering.

The very timbres of the house bellowed in protest as something forced itself between the narrow walls and down the tiny staircase. Jake flailed in desperation, and the torch slipped from his sweaty hands, hitting the wooden floor with a hollow clunk. There was nothing, no way out. No escape. He was going to die here, torn limb-from-limb in this tiny, lightless box, alone and pissing himself with fear.

He scrambled for the fallen torch, although it would do him little good except to illuminate the thing from above. But before his fingers found the handle, his outstretched palm brushed against something circular: something metal. Keeping the hand in place, he used the other to grab the torch and direct the beam at a rusted handle, almost invisible against the dark wooden floor.

Under closer scrutiny, the sides of the trapdoor swiftly resolved themselves. It was narrow, and he’d barely be able to squeeze through, but at least whatever was having trouble passing down the staircase wouldn’t be able to follow him. He hoped.

He set the torch down on the floor and eased the trapdoor open, wincing as the hinges squealed in protest, a noise which was immediately drowned out by a frenzy of movement on the stairs.

A stampede of motion followed by a huge thud as something cleared the last stairs and moved into the slightly more open hallway. Bone clacked against bone as the thing drew closer; a thick wet squeal, followed by a series of snuffles and grunts announced its immediate presence.

Jake was through the trapdoor up to his chest now, supporting himself on his elbows. He reached for the torch and, in the scant few seconds before he dropped through the hidden door – completely oblivious as to what was below – the beam of light languishing on the twisted doorway threw into hideous clarity a thing that was horror and grotesqueness given corporeal form.

Its vast bulk filled the hall completely. A hulking bear was his first thought, enraged at having somehow become trapped within the close confines of Brääkänburg Ranch. Its shaggy haunches supported this theory; its legs did not.

Bears didn’t walk on trotters, didn’t sway on spindly legs that bent backwards at the knee.

And bears didn’t have bony arms, longer than those of an orangutan, which ended in pale four-fingered hands. Swollen, engorged teats dangled from the thing’s hairless underbelly, speckled with lichen and moss and dripping with brine. Its stiffened ears scraped the low ceiling.

It lowered its snout, and Jake glimpsed rows of yellow incisors protruding from beneath its upper lip. A pair of curved tusks jutted from its lower jaw, their surface chipped and gouged. Its face was too terrible to behold, and dark eyes glinted with a malign intelligence.

It came at him faster than he could have imagined, dropping its head and thundering across the room, kicking up huge clouds of dust in its wake and bellowing in primordial rage.

Jake dropped backwards through the trapdoor. The back of his head cracked against stone. His vision swam. Somehow, over the shrill, bestial squeals emanating from above, he heard the steady drip of water. He tried to stretch his arms, but found only hard walls on either side. The space was tiny; he was unable even to fully extend his legs. The unyielding stone was slippery and damp beneath his fingertips, buried beneath layers of moss and mould. Darkness encroached on his vision, mercifully obscuring the hellish snouted face peering down at him.

The last thing he saw was a pale white balloon, leaning over the edge of the trapdoor. Why, it looked just like –

-

‘Wake up.’ Henrikkson spat. It was refreshing, no longer having to feign ignorance of the English language, but it remained a barb in his heart that he was forced to continue speaking it; it sullied his tongue, left him unclean.
No matter. The Swine would cleanse his tainted soul, as She had done so many times before.

‘Wake up.’ This time he followed with a savage backhand to the Englishman’s face that sent bloody spittle flying from his lips. Henrikkson leaned in close, so that he was inches from the Englishman’s face. ‘Your time has come, Jake Garett. Mannsen and White send their regards – your internship is quite obviously at an end.’

He yanked the Englishman forward and looped the chain around his wrists.
‘Now your blood is for Her. The Sow Who Dwells Beneath the Soil. The Bloody Swine, come forth anew to baptize us with her divine filth.’

All around him, the hoarse whispers and laughter of Her disciples echoed in the darkness. Their ancient bones creaked with the exertion of frantic movement.

Something snuffling and wet pressed against the back of his neck. Her heavy musk filled his nostrils, and a limb filthy with bristles brushed the small of his back. Henrikkson shivered in ecstasy, rejoicing beneath Her unholy touch.
It was time.

-

Jake’s world was pain and darkness. His head throbbed like a tooth blackened by decay, and his shoulders felt as though they were on the verge of dislocation.

Because he was strung up by his arms – tight metal bit cruelly into his wrists. The floor was cold beneath his bare feet. No, not the floor: he was dangling above the bath, the balls of his feet barely touching the dirt-encrusted metal bottom.

Was that Henrikkson talking? If so, why was the Swede naked? Jake tried to call out to him, but found that his tongue was unwilling to cooperate. Something rattled in his mouth, and he tasted copper. His lips were crusted together.

The world swam again. Pain flared in his face. Henrikkson was standing before him, grasping Jake’s jaw with one hand and holding his own shrivelled penis with the other. The Swede grinned and fell to his knees, prostrating himself before some unseen deity.

Straw; filth; excrement: the barnyard scent hit him like a tsunami.

Thin forms scurried in the shadows, chittering and cackling but remaining always just out of sight, giving only fleeting glimpses of withered limbs and wisps of hair. He could barely hear their lunatic laughter over the high-pitched screams and violent shredding coming at him from a pair of battered speakers set up on the far side of the room.

Then he saw it rise from the shadows. It regarded him for seconds that felt like hours, snorting wetly and clacking its teeth.

It dropped to the floor with a thud that shook the room and came at him on all fours.

Its tusks gored his ribs, but he didn’t feel the pain. And by the time its damp snout snuffled against his navel, Jake didn’t even have the strength to scream.

Credit To – Tom Farr

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The Darrow Curse

July 10, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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This story was transcribed by Randy Baker, editor of Penguin Books, during an interview with comedian Becky Somers at 4 p.m. on October 31st, 2013. Baker was orchestrating an urban legend anthology for Penguin Horror, and sought out Miss Somers after hearing that she was knowledgeable about the little-known Darrow Curse of Wheatleigh, Kansas. The interview took place in her home in St. Louis.

“The Darrow Curse” was one of many entries cut from the final edition of the anthology, for reasons Baker never explained. He’ll decline to comment when asked about it.

Celts used to believe the dead walked the earth between the last of October and the first o’ November. They called it Samhain or somethin’, and it was a lot like Halloween as we know it, where people’d dress up like the dead and make asses o’ themselves. But the Celts had a good reason for it: dead folks leave you alone if they think you’re dead, too. The dead, accordin’ to the Celts, are somethin’ to be feared and respected.

Already told this story a hundred times to the police and the shrinks and friends and family. But it’s been years since last I told it, and it seems appropriate to have someone get it down on paper on the eve o’ November First.

At the time I was goin’ steady with a wonderful fella named Harley Davies. He had a big heart, Harley did, and he loved to have a good time, but he never said much ‘cept if he was alone with you. Harley was only comfortable with crowds when he was onstage. He had a little sister named Sage who was even less inclined to talk to folks ‘cos mentally she was basically a child. Their mom and dad died in a car accident when they was little and Harley’d been takin’ care o’ Sage ever since. She followed him around like a puppy dog. The three of us was real close and we went everywhere together: a trio of dumb, drunk, perpetually bored twenty-somethin’s.

We formed a dinner theater troupe with our friends Teddy and Enoch in 1991: melodramas, murder mysteries, and hammed-up musical performances. Mainly played bars and restaurants in Laclede’s Landing, but we’d play anywhere if the price was right and the crowds agreeable. People mostly came for Harley — you put Harley in front of a piano and he caught fire — but Enoch’s off-color jokes and my skeezy wardrobe helped bring ‘em back every night. Sage had nasty stage fright and refused any part we offered, but she never missed a show.

We had friends in Colorado who gave us a ring one afternoon — good friends from college we used to have insane Halloween parties with, and who now run a fancy club in Aspenvale — and said they wanted to get together with us and set up a regular gig. Enoch and Teddy had stuff to take care of in St. Louis first, so me and Harley figured we’d drive out ahead of ‘em, and we couldn’t leave Sage behind if we put her in cement shoes and locked her in the basement.

Road trip wasn’t supposed to be that long, ‘specially with me drivin’ — Harley useta call me Breakneck Becky. Turned out he didn’t take as much care of his truck as he thought; so on October 31st, 1994, we was stranded on the I-70 in the middle o’ nowhere (or Kansas, if you’d rather call it that). It was only an hour before some nice trucker stopped by to give us a lift to the nearest town, which happened to be a Podunk farmin’ community called Wheatleigh. You can’t see it from the road because o’ the golden wheat fields guardin’ it like a castle wall.

Wheatleigh looked like the late nineteenth century had kept it as a souvenir. There wasn’t one paved road or light pole anywhere. Their phones probably still needed a switchboard operator. They didn’t even have a town sheriff: everyone knew everyone, so nobody could get away with nothin’, I guess. Harley found a modern mechanic there and they went to get his truck. Me and Sage toured the town and got to know the locals while waitin’ for Harley to get back.

The people was real friendly to strangers. Everyone welcomed us with a smile, asked what brought us around their humble community, offered us food, beer, or both. Despite the small population, the place was always pretty busy. The streets was always bustlin’ with trucks and tractors and people luggin’ supplies to and from the town center.

Mrs. Winston, the stout old farmer’s wife in charge o’ the inn, was happy to tell us all about the town’s history. Wheatleigh kept its economy goin’ for over a century with wool and wheat — it got its name for the bountiful wheat crop it’s churned out since the first house was built there. I pointed my thumb toward the huge field we saw on our way in and said I wasn’t surprised, and complimented how healthy and beautiful it looked.

Mr. and Mrs. Winston frowned and looked at each other. Mrs. Winston cleared her throat and pointed opposite where I had. “The Edisons raise their wheat crop up that way. What you saw was the Darrow place. Nobody uses that crop.”

“Is it just for show, then?” I laughed. Mrs. Winston ignored me and went on about the Wheatleigh sheep herders.

Harley and the mechanic came back with the truck pretty quick. The mechanic told us it would be in the shop for twenty-four hours or so, but he could fix ‘er up for cheap. On our way back to the main road we passed a cluster o’ little houses what looked like their roofs would collapse any minute, with a couple goats munchin’ grass in the nearest one’s front yard.

A crude scarecrow was propped in the middle o’ the yard with its burlap head hangin’ low as if it was prayin’, its eye and mouth holes stitched shut with black thread so it looked like it was sneerin’ like a fox. In a morbid touch, around the scarecrow’s neck was a hemp noose — not attached to nothin’, just severed and danglin’ like a necktie. Seemed an odd place for a scarecrow, since there wasn’t no crops in that yard, and I never heard tale o’ crows eatin’ goats.

While tourin’ the rest o’ the town we realized everybody in Wheatleigh had one o’ those things planted on their property somewhere, or was in the process of plantin’ one. When Harley asked Mr. Edison about ‘em, he told us an interestin’ story.

In the nineteenth century a serial killer known as the Harvest Phantom terrorized Wheatleigh for several years: every harvest season somebody would leave their home to run errands, only to turn up dead in the street, usually chopped up with sickle and axe. The yearly death tally ranged from as few as one to as many as five. The Harvest Phantom was revealed to be Tommy Darrow, the son of the big wheat crop owner. They never found out why he did what he did — the town was too hasty to lynch him.

After Darrow died, a plague o’ misfortune swept Wheatleigh every October, usually at the end o’ the month. Darrow’s mother was found drowned in the bathtub one year. Mr. Proctor’s sheep got sickly and started dyin’ for no reason. Houses caught fire and children went missin’. And everyone who tried to take over the Darrow property died in freak accidents, almost always while in the wheat fields: heart attacks, strokes, fallin’ on dangerous tools, one gruesome incident with a combine. People said it was the ghost o’ Tommy Darrow exactin’ revenge on the town for not givin’ him a proper trial; they even said his specter walked the streets at night on the 31st of October — the night he was lynched — and anybody who stayed out after dark would never be seen again. Not in one piece, anyway.

So they started puttin’ effigies on their property to ward him off, made in a scarecrow’s likeness, ‘cos the Harvest Phantom wore a burlap sack over his head that made him look like one, himself. The noose around the neck reminded the specter he was supposed to be dead and sent him back to his grave ‘fore he could kill again. Durin’ the harvest season, everyone erected their effigies in their front yards, and barred their doors and windows at 9 p.m., and they didn’t let nobody in or out no matter what ’til the sun came up. Since they started doin’ all that, and since the Darrow crop was shunned by everyone, there’d been no incidents.

“In all the time since, you never once had a nighttime emergency?” said Harley. “Or gone out for a midnight stroll, even?”

Mr. Edison looked at his feet for a moment, then said, “I had a rotten day one Halloween when it was past curfew. Got to feeling spiteful and told Sarah I was going to work on the tractor to let off some steam, ghostly killer legends be damned. The panic attack this induced in my sweet little Sarah is something I never wanna see again.

“When she calmed down, she told me her great grandfather was once the town physician. The Proctors’ youngest son was sick with fever one Halloween night, and needed treatment. Doc gave them instructions over the phone, but they insisted on a house call; he decided the boy’s health was more important than some archaic superstition, so he packed up his little doctor’s bag, said ‘Be right back!’ to his family, and scurried out the door.”

Mr. Edison took a moment to puff on his pipe, never lookin’ any of us in the eye. When he was sure we was all listenin’ intently, he said, “They found him the next morning in front of his house, slit groin to throat and gutted like a hog. He’d died stepping out of his yard.”

Not believin’ a word of it, I made some dumb remark about hirin’ Mr. Edison as our troupe storyteller. We had a good laugh, then we left the Edison place in search of any ol’ way to kill the next sixteen hours.

Suffice it to say, there ain’t much to do in a podunk town like Wheatleigh ‘cept drink and fornicate, and with Sage taggin’ along, the second was outta the question. So around 7 p.m., when the clouds slithered ‘round the moon and strangled most o’ the light out of it, we found ourselves on the road leadin’ up Wheatleigh Hill to the Darrow house. It stood in front o’ the shunned field like a soldier guardin’ the gate to a forbidden castle. It was only a minute’s walk from the main road and Harley thought it’d be fun to go check it out.

Front door wasn’t locked, so we let ourselves in, hopin’ to find some creepy souvenir to show our friends in Aspenvale. All the furniture was intact like nobody’d touched the place for a century. We turned into children: ran up and down the halls, makin’ a mess o’ the place and scarin’ the piss outta each other. After a while we mellowed out, passed around a fat joint, shot the breeze, reminisced. Sage checked her watch and got flustered when she saw it was ten ’til 9 p.m., when the town would go into lockdown. We considered bein’ festive and stayin’ the night in the spooky ol’ Darrow house, but Sage didn’t like that idea one bit, so we raced to the Winston place.

We shacked up at the inn for the night and indulged ourselves on the free beer Mr. Winston was nice enough to offer us (that tall old fella was a spittin’ image o’ the one in that American Gothic paintin’). We didn’t get shit-faced exactly, but we was already high and gettin’ more obnoxious by the minute, be sure o’ that. God bless those Winstons and their kindness and patience, and their good humor when we joked to their faces about their town and the backwards yokels that lived there. They just smiled and laughed with us, like they’d heard it all before from the last dumbass city folk who’d passed through.

God bless ‘em for savin’ my unworthy ass.

It was MY stupid goddamned idea to show the populace o’ Wheatleigh how to have fun on Halloween. Thanks to their rigid superstitions about the harvest season, nobody in that town ever knew what Trick or Treats was, or at least never got to practice it. After my fourth beer I pitched the idea of goin’ door-to-door Trick-or-Treatin’, and scarin’ people, and makin’ a general nuisance of ourselves. Harley and Sage giggled like the hatter and hare at the thought of it.

We decided NOT to tell the Winstons, for fear they’d have heart attacks and spoil our fun before it started, so we planned to sneak out the kitchen door while they read quietly in the lobby. It was 10 p.m. when we was set to leave, and when my clumsy ass tripped and stumbled into the pretty potted plant in the hall between lobby and kitchen.

SMASH. Beautiful vase and moist dirt scattered in billions o’ little pieces all over the hallway.

Mrs. Winston was heartbroke: the vase was a gift from a great aunt she was real fond of, and though she insisted it was all right, I could see her eyes wellin’ up with tears as she knelt to clean up the mess. This was the cherry to top our sundae o’ callous rudeness and drunken stupidity, and I said so and apologized for what assholes we’d been. I insisted on cleanin’ it up myself and promised to make it up to her somehow. She wasn’t exactly touched, but she appreciated my sincerity (I ain’t the worst actress in the world, despite what the St. Louis newspapers say).

So Harley and Sage snuck off without me to get a head start, with my promise that I’d catch up as soon as I was able. They slipped out the kitchen door and onto the dark, abandoned streets of Wheatleigh. I figured it’d take a half hour makin’ that hall as spotless as we found it.

I wasn’t five minutes into my chore when someone screamed two blocks up the road from the inn — a loud, guttural, throat-tearin’ scream that sounded like Harley.

At the second scream I was on my feet and runnin’ to the kitchen door. Mrs. Winston was smaller and stouter than me, but she had a farmhand’s muscle and stopped me like a wall o’ bricks: she leapt between me and the door, threw the bolts in place, turned and held me fast with steel hands.

“Don’t you dare,” she said over the third scream. She didn’t yell or nothin’. She said it calm and cold like she knew I’d obey.

I kicked and twisted and writhed and screamed. I fought ’til I was exhausted; she was planted so firm it was like wrestlin’ a slab o’ concrete. “That’s Harley!” I shouted. “Lemme go! That’s Harley!”

“What the hell they doin’ on the streets this late?” said Mrs. Winston, her voice hollow now, her eyes bulgin’ in a mix o’ horror and outrage.

There wasn’t a fourth scream. The town was quiet ‘cept for the rustle o’ trees swayin’ in the wind and my own short, feral, sniffly breaths.

I was sober now.

“Nothin’ to be done,” she kept sayin’ sadly. “Just wait ’til mornin’. Nothin’ to be done.”

I backed away from her, pointin’ a finger at her like I could magically turn it into a gun anytime I wanted. “This ain’t funny, you hillbilly bitch,” I growled. “Joke’s over, y’hear me?”

“Nothin’ to be done,” she said, shakin’ her head, her face wincin’ in sympathy.

“You better hope my Harley and Sage ain’t hurt.”

“Just wait ’til mornin’, Sweetheart. Nothin’ to be–”

I stamped my foot on the floor and shrieked for her to shut the fuck up ’til I erupted like a sob volcano. She moved toward me to take me in her arms, still sayin’ that same line over and over.

“Just wait ’til mornin’. Nothin’ to be done.”

Mr. Winston was sittin’ in his chair in the lobby when I tore away from his wife and made a mad dash to the front door. I didn’t realize he’d moved there from the couch, where he’d sat readin’ before; and I didn’t notice the coach gun in his lap ’til he leapt to his feet and pointed both barrels right at my nose. I froze with my hand an inch from the door lock.

His gentle face was hard as stone now, his eyes red and hot. “Back up from that door, Miss,” he said, “and set yourself down.”

I musta looked like a big-mouthed bass just then, my eyes buggin’ outta my head, mouth openin’ and closin’ and nothin’ comin’ out. He told me again, and I stepped back three paces.

“You people are insane,” I whined. “What if Harley’s hurt? What about sweet little Sage? You gonna just leave ‘em there in the street?”

Somewhere out back o’ the house, another sound joined the rustlin’ of the trees: a hideous brayin’ sound that wasn’t quite breathin’ and wasn’t quite gaspin’.

We heard the kitchen doorknob rattle like someone was tryin’ to tear the door off its hinges. Then BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM as somebody’s fist pummeled the door in its frame.

Again. BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM.

The three of us stood there, not movin’. My feet started pointin’ down the hall, but my eyes went to Mr. Winston and his shotgun. Both was still watchin’ me hard.

The breathin’ faded away to silence as the source moved away from the kitchen door. It returned a few seconds later, louder and clearer as it approached the lobby door.

The doorknob rattled near outta its bolts.

BAM BAM BAM went somebody’s fist against the door. Now I realized what the breathin’ sound was: terrified, exhausted, inconsolable sobs.

I shouted Harley’s name and moved for the door, but Mr. Winston stepped between us, pressin’ the shotgun to my throat. His eyes was empty and dead like a doll’s. He’d blow my head off without a second thought.

“Please,” I almost managed to say without blubberin’. “Why’re you doin’ this? Let him in for god’s sake! He could be hurt!”

“Your Harley’s dead already,” said Mr. Winston.

“He’s right there on your doorstep!” I shrieked, spittin’ like a maniac.

“Right now that door’s a floodgate, and Tommy Darrow the flood. Understand? Better to have two dead than five.”

The sobbin’ continued as Harley clawed at the doorknob. I shot a pleadin’ look at Mrs. Winston, and it dawned on me that she’d been shuttin’ all the curtains in the lobby while her husband kept my attention.

A new rustlin’ sound, different from the trees: the Winstons had bushes lined up under the front-most windows of the lobby. Two windows left of the lobby door, the bushes rustled. Then there was a thud.

Harley’s grimacin’ face appeared at the bottom of the window, like he’d dragged himself to it. He looked right at me, his face splashed with red, his wet eyes bulgin’ out of the sockets with terror. He started bangin’ a blood-sopped hand weakly against the glass just as I ran to the window.

Mrs. Winston beat me there and grabbed me, wrestlin’ my hands away from the window latch. I started callin’ her every filthy name I ever heard at the top o’ my lungs.

She stumbled and lost her grip on my wrists; I threw her to the floor and clawed at the window latch, to fling open the window and drag Harley inside where he’d be warm and safe; to squeeze him in my arms and soak up all his pain and fear. I rattled off a chain o’ sweet, comfortin’ words through the glass, which mighta come out as utter nonsense, I’m not real sure. I was lookin’ at Harley again when I heard Mr. Winston shoutin’ his last warnin’ ten feet to my right, his coach gun starin’ right at my head.

I got a perfect moonlit view o’ the Winstons’ front yard through the window just as my thumb started to flip the latch open.

I still heard Mr. Winston’s voice echoin’ in my skull when I fainted, and later when I awoke at the Salina Regional Health Center — those words he’d spoke earlier, over the frantic bangin’ on the door and the ungodly sobbin’ on the stoop.

Your Harley’s dead already.

Standin’ over the windowsill, I saw Harley’s bloody face starin’ at my stomach, still bug-eyed, still grimacin’. I saw his left hand, still weakly rappin’ against the window, smearin’ blood all over it, the fingers limp.

I saw the thing that held ‘em both like cheap Halloween props as it squatted in the bushes, its burlap face grinnin’ up at me with a crooked, stitched-up mouth.

Credit To -Mike MacDee

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