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It all began the night the man in the black coat came to Graybark Drive.
Looking back, Harrison Naylor might have found that odd, because it was also the night that the Collins’ house burned to the ground. But no, when he peeked through his blinds that night, all he noticed was the great hulking man, dressed in shadow and radiating an aura of fear. Oh, he could see the fire well enough, but only because it illuminated the man in the coat. Harry only looked for a few seconds — any more than that and his hair would have turned white — but he swore the man had more than one shadow. More than he could count, dancing in the firelight like an army of shifting, churning nightmares.
The man looked neither right nor left. His gaze was fixed firmly on the burning house at the end of the street. And yet, when Harry dropped the blind and stepped back, he swore that the man had not only seen him, but measured, evaluated, and judged him in a split second— and found him utterly contemptible He sat down on the edge of his bed, and jumped when his wife’s hand alighted on his shoulder.
“What’s out there?” she whispered. Her face was pale and her eyes wide, and she hadn’t even glimpsed the man outside. Harry had, and he couldn’t imagine how he must look.
Harry looked at her, then at the window, and shook his head. “Nothing.” He said it again, to convince himself, “Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
And so it was that Harrison and Meredith Naylor ignored the flickering orange light shining between their blinds, ignored the screams of their neighbors, and went back to sleep. They wouldn’t find out until the next morning that the same could be said for everyone on Graybark Drive. At least one person in every house had looked outside and seen the man in the black coat, and yet not a single one of them had stepped out of their doors to help the Collins, or even called the fire department. And when they closed their eyes, they all dreamed of a living nightmare dressed in a black coat.
The next morning, everyone emerged from their homes like mice afraid that the cat might be hiding nearby, and together they made their way to the Collins’ house. There was almost nothing left, just a couple walls and some charred ceiling beams— and the Collins themselves. Victor lay in the living room, his corpse stripped of flesh by the flames. His wife, Trisha, was by the front door. Gooseflesh rose on Harry’s arms when he saw her. She was facing the wrong way, as if she had gotten out of the house and then run back inside.
Of their baby son, Porter, there was no sign.
Finally, everyone simply turned and went home. Not a single word was said the entire time, nor did it occur to anyone how strange it was that nobody had gone to work or school that day. Everyone was home, every last man, woman, and child. The crowd slowly thinned as the residents returned to their homes without even a wave or a nod goodbye. Harry held the door open for Meredith, and as he closed it behind him a strange sensation washed over him. A feeling like he was standing on a beach, watching the waters recede. He knew there as a tsunami in the distance, but there was nothing he could do to stop it, nowhere he could run to hide from it. He could see in his wife’s eyes that she felt the same way. And still neither of them spoke a word. Harry tried to watch TV, but every channel brought him nothing but static. He considered calling the cable company, but the phone line was dead. Was that the work of the fire, too, somehow? He didn’t know, but he got the feeling it didn’t matter.
It was too late for that already.
The rest of the day went by in a blur, as if the sun was in a hurry to get Graybark Drive out of its sight, and the entire time Harry could feel the tidal wave getting closer and closer. Finally, the sun set, the moon rose…
And it began.
Though it made no noise and didn’t disturb a single blade of grass, Harry could feel the whatever-it-was crash over his neighborhood like a gust of wind that should have blasted each and every house off of its foundations. He and Meredith exchanged worried glances. Yes, she had felt it too. And so, for the second time that day, everyone peeked their heads out of their front doors. At first nothing seemed to be amiss. It was just another late spring evening, with a cool breeze wafting through the woods. It wasn’t until the moon had climbed higher over the horizon that anyone realized what was wrong.
“The stars are gone!” at least twenty different people whispered at the same time, breaking the seemingly impenetrable silence.
Harry refused to believe it at first. It was impossible. The sky must just be covered by clouds. But as the moon continued to rise, completely unobstructed, he realized it was true. The stars had simply vanished from the sky.
“What does it mean?” someone asked. “What’s going on?”
Nobody had an answer. They all stood outside and stared at the empty sky for over an hour. They were waiting for something to happen, Harry knew. He knew because he was waiting for it as well. The tsunami had struck, and the stars had vanished. He wanted to believe that was all that was going to happen, but he couldn’t. This was only the beginning.
Suddenly, he became aware of the frantic beating of his heart, and the cold sweat on his forehead. Harry had gone from feeling nervous to terrified without even realizing it. His fear only increased when he realized he recognized the feeling. It was the same aura that the man in the black coat had radiated the night before. The man whose presence had made the suffering and death of his neighbors seem downright trivial by comparison. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as unseen eyes crawled all over him. Judging by the way his neighbors’ eyes shifted left and right, they could feel it too.
He grabbed Meredith’s hand in his own. “Inside,” he said.
She didn’t argue as he dragged her across their front yard. His lawn, his pride and joy that he fought tooth and nail to keep free of invasive feet, was trampled without hesitation. All around him, doors were slamming as everybody else hastened to get inside as well. Once he and his wife were through, he did the same, latching it behind him. He could hear Meredith breathing so heavily behind him that she was almost gasping.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“I- I don’t know,” Harry answered. He didn’t even know what was going on. How was he supposed to know how to fix it? Still, for her sake, he turned around and tried to look brave. “I think we need to—”
Before he could finish, Meredith’s face went white as paper and she pointed behind him. Harry froze, ice in his veins, and then spun around to see that someone was at their door.
Ding donnnnng went the doorbell.
Their front door had a large half-circle of frosted glass, and through it Harry could see a great, looming shadow. It had the vague shape of a man, but it was gigantic. Over seven feet tall, with shoulders that would have brushed both sides of the doorframe. Harry knew who was out there even before the wave of sheer terror came blew through the solid door like a winter wind. He backed away.
“Harry, who is it?” Meredith asked. She was terrified too, and she was looking to him for answers. Answers he didn’t have. He fumbled with one hand, unable to look away from the door, until he found hers and began to pull him backwards with him.
“Who is that?” his wife demanded, growing more frantic. “Harry, who is it?”
“I don’t know!” he yelled back.
Ding donnnnng went the doorbell— and then the doorknob began to turn. Harry and Meredith gasped in unison. Harry had locked the door. He knew he had! And yet, the doorknob turned, and the door swung open to reveal…
Harry and his wife both stood there, their backs pressed against the wall, staring at their empty front porch.
“Wha- What…” Meredith stammered. “What was…”
It was the last thing he wanted to do, but Harry uncurled his fingers from his wife’s wrist and crossed the living room to the entryway. His heart pounded inside his chest as he slowly poked his head out and looked right, and then left. Nothing. Nobody.
“There’s no one here,” he said, as much to calm his own nerves as Meredith’s. When she didn’t reply, he said again, louder, “There’s nobody out here!”
He grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door closed, turned around— and found himself alone. Their living room was completely unchanged, save for the fact that his wife was no longer in it. Where she had just been standing, now there was only a picture hanging from the wall.
“Meredith?” he asked nervously. No answer came. “Meredith?” he asked again, more loudly.
The picture frame shook a little bit, as if someone had just slammed a door too hard. A chill ran down Harry’s spine again, and it was with slow, frightened steps that he crossed his living room again. As he drew nearer, his eyes grew larger. It wasn’t a picture he had ever seen before. It was of Meredith, but she stared back at Harry with a look of pure horror on her face. Her eyes were pleading, begging him to rescue her. On her shoulders were a pair of hands, blackened as if they, alone, were plunged in shadow.
“Meredith!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. He spun around, looking desperately even though he knew she wasn’t there. Behind him he heard a snap and then a crack. A glance backwards revealed that the picture had fallen from the wall and broken in half, a jagged crack going right up the middle. From somewhere deep within the house came a dark, cold, evil laugh. Harry’s mind went blank with terror. Not knowing what else to do, he turned and ran for the door that led to the master bedroom. Maybe Meredith had taken refuge in there. Maybe…
He threw the door open, but what waited for him on the other side wasn’t his bedroom. It wasn’t even his house. A long hallway stretched out in front of him, at least fifty feet long, with doors every few feet on both sides. What looked like gas lamps lit the corridor in between the doors, but even with that dim light Harry couldn’t see what waited on the other end. He stepped through without thinking, and immediately spun around to go back. He had no idea what was going on, but he was smart enough to know nothing good would come from going down that hallway.
But the door was gone.
Gasping, Harry put his hands on the smooth, bare wall. He was going crazy. Had gone crazy. If he just felt around, he would find the doorknob and be back in his living room. There was nothing there but what his eyes could see. No, no! This was all wrong! He had to get—
“Harry?” asked Meredith.
Harry froze, and slowly forced himself to turn around. Meredith wasn’t there. The hallway was empty.
“Harry?” she asked again. Her voice came from the shadows, sounding as casual as if she’d come to tell him dinner was ready.
Maybe I am going crazy, he thought, staring down that long, empty corridor. Maybe I’ve finally gone senile. Maybe I’m still sitting in my chair in the living room, drooling, and Meredith’s going to have me put in some nursing home and—”
“Harry, are you there? Will you please hurry up?”
With that, Harry began to stumble down the hallway, toward his wife’s voice. His legs were weak, his knees shaking, and he had to put a hand on both walls to keep his balance. At one point his hand touched one of the doors, and…
Harry jerked his hand away, heedless of the way he collapsed on the floor, eyes open wide with horror. He hadn’t seen anything when he’d touched that door. He hadn’t heard anything. But what he had felt on the other side, lying in wait… pure, unadulterated evil, so powerful that he was afraid it might have infected him just by touching it. And, just like that, he felt like he knew where he was. The man in the black coat… this was him. His true form, underneath his human mask. Living, breathing, thinking fear. Terror given physical form. And Harry was inside it. Swallowed whole.
Sensing his realization, the voice from before laughed again.
“Harry, dear? Are you out there?”
Meredith’s voice reached his ears like a speck of light in a dark tunnel, and he scrambled to his feet and chased after it. The doors flew by him, and the gap between lit lamps grew wider and wider by the second, until he was plunged into pitch black darkness. And still he ran. The laughing voice propelled him from behind, and his wife’s called to him from in front. He knew which one he wanted. Meredith. In his fevered state of mind, he became convinced that if he could only just find Meredith, all of this would cease to exist. The hallway went on and on, though, with no end in sight, and his wife’s voice never grew any closer.
Then a dark blue glow lit up the darkness. It was so unexpected that Harry dug in his heels and skidded to a stop, almost falling over again. It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the light, but when he did he stumbled backwards in horror.
Just like he had hoped, Meredith was waiting for him at the end of the hallway, but this as not the Meredith he knew. She was… massive. All he could see was her head, like a grown woman pressing her face up against a dollhouse— and he was in the dollhouse. Her skin radiated the eerie blue light he had seen. Her eyes rolled to stare up vacantly at the ceiling, but a wide, half-dead smile stretched across her cheeks.
“There you are, dear,” she said, voice booming through the narrow hallway. “I was wondering if you’d gotten lost.”
“M- M- Meredith!” Harry stammered, staring at her in horror. “What happened to you?”
She didn’t respond immediately, and when she did speak it was as if she hadn’t heard him. “Are you all right, dear? You look terrible!” She wasn’t even looking at him. “Come, come. I’ll fix you right up!”
She opened her mouth unnaturally wide, the tendons in her cheeks creaking from the strain, until it was big enough for Harry to walk into. Thick ropes of saliva dripped from her jaws, and out of her mouth she breathed the most horrid, putrid scent that Harry had ever smelled. He trembled, nearly putting his hands on the wall again for support, and fought not to throw up. The hallway was dark, but Meredith was giving off just enough light that he could see what was waiting for him in the back of her throat: a door.
“No,” he moaned, shaking his head. “No, please!”
There was no doubt in his mind what he was supposed to do now. The only way out of this hellish place was in front of him. But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t!
“Haaaaaaarry?” Meredith called to him without moving her lips.
He shook his head. “I won’t do it!”
Harry froze, and spun around. There, in the pitch black hallway he’d just come down… was him. Right down to the clothes he was wearing and the way his hair was combed, it was a second Harry Naylor.
“Dinner’s ready, Harry,” Meredith answered.
No, Harry realized. This wasn’t a perfect copy of him. This Harry’s face was grinning in a way that wasn’t humanly possible, its eyes open so wide that his eyeballs would have rolled out if he’d tipped his head forward. It was like someone had hooked a fishing line in every crease and wrinkle in Harry’s face, and then stretched it out, tying all those lines in a knot at the back of his head. Those eyes stared forward, unseeing, like glass marbles.
“Wonderful,” the new Harry said. His lips didn’t move— they probably couldn’t move, the way they were stretched out. “Coming, dear.”
His arms rose up in front of him, stiff like they were made of wood… and then he flew at Harry! It was like he was wearing roller skates, the way he glided right over the hardwood floor. An ear-bleeding screech rang through the hallway, though the real Harry couldn’t tell if it was from his copy, from Meredith, or from him. All he could see were those sightless, glassy eyes coming for him, those dead, unmoving fingers reaching for him. All his inhibitions were immediately forgotten, and he turned and ran into the giant Meredith’s mouth.
“Oh please, oh please, oh dear God in heaven, please!” he begged as he fumbled with the doorknob. It was covered with his wife’s saliva, though, and he couldn’t get a good enough grip on it. He could hear the inhuman shriek getting closer, closer. With one last sob, he put his hands underneath his shirt, grabbed the knob, and threw all his weight to the side. He collapsed onto Meredith’s tongue, coating his entire left side with her spit, but he didn’t care because he was rewarded with an audible click, and the door swung open.
He scrambled to his feet, nearly slipping and falling again, and threw himself through the door. He turned around, and saw just in time his grinning copy hurtling toward him, and he slammed the door. The scream cut off immediately as if it had never been there. Harry waited for the gruesome thing to hit the door, but the impact never came.
He didn’t know how long he stood there staring at the door, but eventually he forced himself to turn away and look around. What he saw was even worse than the endless hallway from before. Now he stood on a rusty catwalk, so old that the rust had eaten holes straight through the floor in several places. All around him was a tunnel of wet, glistening, pink muscle. It throbbed and pulsed rhythmically, the way he imagined the inside of a snake would look to something it had swallowed whole. Was this… had he actually gone inside Meredith when he’d gone through that door? No. No, this wasn’t his wife. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he was more certain of that than anything else in his life.
This was the inside of the beast that had swallowed him. The man in the black coat.
For a minute, Harry considered just lying down and staying right there for the rest of his life. Surely it wouldn’t be that long, and giving up sounded more appealing than seeing whatever horrors were waiting for him the further he went down the creature’s throat. Instead, he forced his legs to stop shaking and began to walk. He couldn’t give up. He wasn’t alone here. Meredith. He had to find Meredith, get her out if he could.
The journey down the catwalk took less than a minute, and longer than eternity. Harry wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he got the inexplicable feeling that the rules of the world he knew didn’t exist in this place. If there was any such thing as reality in here, then it was a slave of the man in the black coat. Eventually, the catwalk came to a sudden end, though the fleshy tunnel extended on and on in front of him.
“Hello?” Harry didn’t know who he expected to answer, and was afraid to find out. “Wh- What now? Are you done? Let me and my wife go!”
Another gust of that rancid wind blew from the tunnel, nearly making Harry vomit, but no answer came. Then a footstep came from the catwalk behind him. Trembling, holding the rusty handrail for support, he turned around…
And found himself in a church. The transition was so sudden that Harry fell to his knees. The floor beneath him was polished white marble, and on top of that was a red carpet that led up the pathway between the pews to the altar. Whitewashed walls rose up dozens of feet, and then narrowed to a point. The sun shone through stained glass windows, making colorful patterns on the floor and walls. The catwalk, the living tunnel, everything from before was gone. When Harry glanced behind him, all he saw was a massive pair of wooden doors that led out of the chapel. He looked forward again, but closed his eyes. The scene was comforting in every way he could imagine, but he didn’t buy it for one second. It was a trick. It was trying to put him at ease so that whatever horrible surprises waited for him would shock him even more.
It was Meredith’s voice again, and, despite himself, Harry looked up. There was someone at the altar, now. A figure clothed in a long, white dress and veil. When it saw him looking, it reached up and pulled the veil away to reveal his wife. Harry’s heart leaped into his throat. He didn’t know why, but he could tell that this was really her. Not another nightmarish illusion, that was the Meredith he knew and loved!
“Harry, what’s going on?” she asked. Tears were running down her cheeks. “Is it really you?”
Harry got back to his feet. “It’s me,” he answered. “Are you all right?”
She shook her head. “Harry, I’ve… I’ve seen the most horrible things! Please, you have to—”
“Ah, ah, ah!” a new voice crooned. Harry jumped, and Meredith spun around to find someone standing behind the pulpit who hadn’t been there a moment before.
The man in the black coat.
“The bride mustn’t show her face before the wedding,” he said. His voice was as smooth as oil, and he reached out and put the veil back over Meredith’s face. “Now, shall we begin?” He looked to Harry. “Harrison Naylor, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“Meredith!” Harry screamed at the top of his lungs. To his surprise, his legs filled with strength and he sprinted down the aisle like a man half his age. He waited for something to stop him, but he reached his wife without obstacle. The man in the black coat looked down at him, grinning like a predator, as Harry took his wife in his arms— and she fell to pieces. Bones. Bleached white and bare of any flesh, they clattered to the floor all around him, falling from her dress as if he’d upended a bag. Her skull rolled forward, a few strands of her graying hair still clinging to the scalp, and bumped against his face.
The man in the black coat chuckled. “I didn’t say you could kiss the bride. But who am I to stand in the way of love?”
Forgetting his fear for a moment, Harry glared up at him. His long brown hair and nearly trimmed beard belied the primal sense of terror that radiated from him. “What did you do to—”
The man in the black coat reached for him, and his arm grew to gigantic proportions. A hand large enough to hold a car collided with him, and pushed him back up the aisle. The wooden doors flung open to reveal blackness on the other side. Harry had just enough time to scream before he was propelled from the church. Then he was falling… falling… falling…
He never felt himself land, he merely had the sudden realization that he wasn’t falling anymore. Darkness was all around him, so thick that he felt his lungs must be turning black from breathing it in. A glimmer of light appeared in the distance. He stopped, looking at it.
“Nope,” he decided, and turned and ran the other way. He had the creature’s plan figured out. Lead him by the nose from one horror to another, and then… he didn’t want to think of what its end goal might be. All he wanted was to get out. The laugh echoed through the darkness to taunt him again, but Harry ignored it. A laugh couldn’t hurt him. He just had to keep going.
He stopped without meaning to. It sounded like the wind itself was whispering his name. Was it Meredith? The beast? The beast pretending to be—
“Look down, Harry.”
He did, and nearly fell over with shock. Though the ground beneath his feet was as solid as stone, to his eyes he was standing on thin air. Below him was a maze. Vast, almost eternal, yet by this place’s insane laws of physics he was still able to see it all. Just like he saw Meredith running through it, heard her screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Meredith!” Harry shouted, but she didn’t hear him.
She wasn’t alone. All throughout the maze, Harry could see things moving. Gliding along the ground without moving their legs. His heart sank into his stomach even before he got a good look at them, and his suspicions were confirmed when Meredith ran right beneath him. The copy of himself he had seen earlier, with its painful grin and outstretched arms, was in pursuit. Only now there wasn’t just one of them, there were hundreds. Thousands. As Meredith ran, her path was cut off by two more rounding the corner in front of her. Their arms shot up, and they sped toward her, giggling like toddlers chasing candy.
“Meredith!” he screamed again, and dropped to his hands and knees. He began to pound the ground with his fist. “Let me in! Let me—”
Whatever invisible floor was holding him up shattered, and he tumbled down into the maze as well. Pain lanced through his old bones, but he forced himself back to his feet. He had to save his wife before those- those things caught her! He had seen which way she’d gone, and so he limped after her as quickly as his tired, sore, old body could carry him. He passed several of the copies of himself, and though they grinned at him they didn’t give chase. He would have been comforted by that if he hadn’t known why. They weren’t here for him. This maze was for Meredith.
A scream tore through the air, and Harry spun around. It had come from that way! He took off down that narrow corridor, praying that there wouldn’t be any branching paths to throw him off course again. There weren’t. After fifty feet, the path angled left. Thirty feet later, it turned left again. Then again fifteen feet later. Then five. He was going in a big spiral. And then, at the center of the spiral, he saw his wife.
She was in a big open square, more than thirty feet across, and a dozen of the Harry copies were surrounding her. She was standing in the exact center, hands clasped over her mouth, tears running down her face.
“No, no, no,” she was moaning, shaking her head as if that would wake her up from this horrible nightmare.
The Harrys grinned at her, arms reaching out, and slowly they began to glide toward her. Inch by inch, the circle shrank. Harry’s pulse spiked. He had to do something, but what?
Before he could move, a grinding sound, like nails on a chalkboard, filled the air, and the floor beneath Meredith’s feet began rise. One block rose two feet, another four feet, and the one she was standing on rose six feet. Stairs, though not enough of them to escape. Meredith screamed again, but fell silent when they stopped moving. The grinning copies continued to draw closer. Harry watched, afraid to do anything else.
A single toll of a bell rang through the maze, and with it something fell from the sky. Long, thin, and reaching all the way up into the darkness above them, dangling just a few inches in front of Meredith’s face, it ended in a loop just big enough for…
“No!” Harry screamed. He ran into the square, heedless of the copies of himself that he had to squeeze between, and stopped at the first step. “Meredith!”
She spun around when she heard his voice, and took a step back.
“Stay away from me!” she yelled. “Get away!”
He shook his head. “No, Meredith, it’s me!” He stepped onto the second step. “I’m the real—”
“GET AWAY!” she screamed again, louder than ever.
Harry stopped. “Meredith, please. You have to listen to me. I don’t know what’s happening, but we have to work together to escape from this place. Please, just…”
He reached out his hand, but Meredith looked at it like it was the most disgusting thing she had ever seen. She cowered away from it, and in doing so her head bumped the noose.
“Get away,” she said. Her voice was low, now, like she was threatening him. “Go away. Leave me alone!”
Her hand reached up to grasp the rope, and Harry froze like his feet had been cemented to the floor. He told himself he had to move, tried to force his legs to obey, but he couldn’t. All he could do was watch as his wife, terrified out of her wits, slipped the rope over her head.
“Meredith, no,” he begged her. Tears were running down his cheeks. “Please!”
“This…” her voice was shaking. “This is my escape!”
She stepped over the edge of the platform, fell less than a foot, and came to a sudden stop. Harry heard the snap, heard her last few breaths gurgle out of her throat. Her feet twitched for a few seconds, but then fell still.
GONNNNNNNG. GONNNNNNNG. GONNNNNNG.
The unseen bell tolled the death of his wife, and Harry fell to his knees.
But then another sound came, so loud that it even drowned out the death knell above him. The ground beneath Harry’s feet began to tremble. He couldn’t bring himself to care. Whatever happened next couldn’t be worse than what he’d just seen. Meredith’s body shook on the end of the rope. And then, with a deafening CRACKLE, the maze collapsed. Stone by stone, it dropped into the empty blackness below. Harry found himself a single drop in a storm of Harry Naylors, all of them plummeting down, down, eternally downwards. He couldn’t even find it in himself to scream. There was a flash of light, Harry closed his eyes, and…
Found himself back in his own living room.
He was in his armchair, in front of a TV that hissed with static. He looked around. Everything was exactly…
…how it should have been. Not a speck of dust out of place. Had it been a dream? No, he shook his head. It hadn’t been a dream. It was real. All of…
…it. With a trembling hand, he felt his shirt, still wet from when he’d run into the giant Meredith’s mouth. With a gasp, he sprang to his feet. Meredith! If he was here, then did that mean…
He paused. What was that infernal noise? His and Meredith’s house was old and far from quiet, but he knew each and every sound it made. The hinges squeaked, the vents clanked, and the wind rattled the windows. But creaking? That sound was new. Almost like someone was swinging from the…
With a gasp, Harry spun around to see that he wasn’t alone in his living room. The man in the black coat sat in the corner of the room on a wooden stool, his coat enveloping his massive frame like a shadow given form. Meredith was there too— hanging by her neck from a rope that had been tied to rafters up above. She swung back and forth like a pendulum in the world’s most gruesome clock. The rafter creaked with every swing. Her dead eyes stared at her husband. And every time she swung close to the man in the black coat, he would give her an absentminded push, making sure she never stopped moving.
“Very few people survive what you just went through,” he said. He wasn’t looking at Harry. Instead, he was staring at Meredith’s corpse, as if the gentle swinging had hypnotized him. “You have earned your freedom.”
Behind Harry, he heard his front door click as it unlocked, and then swung open. A cool breeze blew against his neck, but he ignored it.
“So…” His voice was shaking, and he made himself wait until he could control it before continuing. “So that’s it, then? You come here, kill my wife, and then just let me go?”
“Your wife killed herself, old man.”
There was a hint of a smile on the man’s face, but Harry ignored it. “Why are you doing this?”
Creak… Creak… went Meredith’s corpse as the man in the coat pushed her, like a child on a swing. Finally, he turned to look at Harry and got to his feet. Even from across the room, he towered over Harry, and the shadow he cast was longer than it should have been, casting Harry into darkness all by itself. Once again, that wave of terror washed over him, like someone else was pushing their fear onto him. He found himself trembling.
“Because,” the man in the black coat said, “I can’t let my little secret get out, can I?”
“W- W- What secret?” Harry stammered. “I don’t know what you’re—”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence, because that was when his mind went blank. It was like an explosion of fear inside his body. Icy cold terror, blood freezing horror, like nothing he had ever felt before. Fear the likes of which he’d never even thought existed. It wiped all rational thought from his mind, and in that instant he became an animal. There were only two things in the world now: terror, and escape. Rather than stand there and endure the man in the black coat’s attack, whatever he was doing, Harry chose escape. With a scream that tore his vocal chords and made blood ooze down his throat, he turned tail and ran through the open door of his house, into the street.
And then, just like that, the fear vanished. It went away so quickly that Harry collapsed in the middle of Graybark Drive, his head striking the pavement so that stars danced in front of his eyes. Panting, he forced himself to get to his knees. He was in the middle of the road, staring straight down to where it ended at the ruins of the Collins’ house. Shame clawed at his heart now that the fear was gone. He hadn’t been able to save his wife, and now he had left her body in the house with that… whatever it was that disguised itself as a man wearing a black coat. And the worst part was that he knew he’d never see her again. Because as horrid as he felt, he couldn’t go back into that house. Not now, not ever. Meredith—
Harry’s heart began to race as something stirred in the ashen remains of the Collins’ house. A shape, barely visible in the starless darkness, rose up. Slowly, it began to draw closer to Harry. A steady click, click filled the air, as if someone was tapping sticks on the road. The figure came closer, and Harry recognized its human shape. Not the man in the black coat, it was far too thin and short to be him, but then who?
Slowly, like it was moving through deep water, the thing came close enough for Harry to see. Startlingly white in the near-pitch black darkness, and so thin Harry could almost see through it… no, he really could see through it! With eyes that moved as slowly as the thing in front of him, Harry looked at it from its bony, fleshless feet, to its bare ribcage that he could look through and see the Collins’ house, to the toothy grin beneath two black, empty eye sockets. It stopped in front of Harry, as if it hadn’t expected to find him there. The bones were blackened in places where the fire had scorched them. It carried the smell of smoke. Harry didn’t need skin or clothes to know who was standing in front of him.
“V- V- Victor?” he stammered.
The dead man moved. With creaking joints and a clatter of bones, it held out its hand and reached toward its former neighbor. Harry couldn’t move, and sat there trembling. Its fingers brushed the old man’s face, and…
Harry died. He went without a scream, or even a whimper. When he felt those dry, skinless fingers brush his face, his heart simply stopped, and he fell forward, face down in the street. Victor’s corpse stood motionless for a minute, as if unsure what had just happened, but then it lowered its hand and began to walk. It walked up Graybark Drive, neither looking left nor right. Its pace was shambling, but determined. Nobody looked out their windows to see it. Soon, it was swallowed up by the starless night, leaving Harry’s corpse alone in the middle of the street, where it remained until the sun finally rose that morning.
It was Harry’s across-the-street neighbor that discovered him. Doug Runner, who had known Harry and his wife for nearly forty years, found himself strangely unsurprised to see Harry dead in the middle of the street. Just like one could predict rain by looking at the sky, so everyone on Graybark Drive had been able to predict death by the ominous, creeping sensation they’d all felt that day. Even so, he ran out his front door to check on him. No pulse, but no wounds to give a hint as to the cause of his death. Nothing except the look of terror frozen on his face.
Harry’s front door stood wide open, and Doug, against his own better judgement, decided to go check on Meredith. Horrified though he was, he was even less surprised to find Harry’s wife hanging by her neck from the ceiling. Her body rotated slowly on the end of the rope, and her empty, glass-eyed stare seemed to be both condemning and warning. Condemnation for not being there to help. Desperately warning him that the same would soon happen to him. Doug knew he ought to do something, call somebody, but all he could think about was getting the hell out of that house. Just like Harry had done the night before, Doug turned and sprinted through the front door, and didn’t stop until his own door was slamming firmly behind him.
He never noticed the second shadow that followed him inside.
Credit: Adam Bolander