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The Manor House

January 3, 2017 at 12:00 AM
Rating: 9.7. From 3 votes.
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Part 1: Discovery

Let me start by saying, I’m no professional writer. I just have a story to tell.

Every summer my parent’s would drive from our home in rural Lincolnshire, to our holiday home in a little village in the West Norfolk coast. I won’t say where exactly, but it was a beautiful village, a 10 minute walk away from the beach. All the houses were made from Norfolk stone and flint, quiet, picturesque and the kind of place where everyone knows each other; there was a real sense of community. I loved it there. My house was in the heart of the village, it was called Manor Lodge because it used to be living quarters for the servants who worked in the Manor House that backed on to my garden. The Manor House had been abandoned since I could remember. No one ever went back there and no one knew who owned it, so it was just forgotten about. Left to become derelict.

I would spend my time playing with my friends Dylan and Peggy, their parents had holiday caravans on the main site in the village so we spent a lot of time together in the school holidays. We would ride our bikes to the beach and play, or hang out in the park, typical things 10 year old kids would do. In 2001 it was normal for parents to let kids out unsupervised until dusk fell. That was our call to go home, before the darkness descended. And, seeing as we were in a safe village, no one really worried about us.

My story starts here. It was the beginning of the summer holidays and neither Dylan nor Peggy had arrived with their families for the summer. I had been at our house for a week already and I was bored so I went out into the garden to play. Our garden was fairly large, a few flower beds that my mum liked keeping herself busy with and a conservatory where my dad sat in a lounger and fell asleep in most days. The end of the garden was like a mini forest. Noting major, save for a few all trees that I could hide under, or make a den in. This particular morning I found the very end of the garden. A 6 foot wooden fence sealing off the boundary. It was quite rotten and was clear that no one had been back here to check on it for quite some time. Now, me being me, I thought it would be a wonderful idea to kick a hole in the rotting wood and see what was on the other side; I was quite a curious and inquisitive kid so I just went for it.

When I made a hole big enough I wasted no time in scrambling through. I found myself in a small, over grown field. Tall, yellowing grass and thistles dominated the expanse but it was quite easy to navigate my way through. I was tall for a 10 year old so I could see over the top of it with ease. The Manor House was on my right. I had to stomp down a path to the middle of the field before the surrounding trees subsided and the house came into view. It was huge, more of a Mansion than a Manor. Dark red brick, brown, wooden window panes and covered in thick ivy. I carried on making my path until the field ended and a gravelled driveway at the front of the house appeared. The front door was incredible. Painted black wood with cast iron decoration, it was like something out of a Harry Potter film. I noticed a small number 1 etched into the wood; I just assumed it was the house number.

I lifted the cast iron latch and tried to shove the door open but it must have been locked from the inside. On the right of the door there was a window that looked into what I though was the living room. I pressed my face to the glass trying to see inside. It was pretty much empty. Old fashioned wall paper had been ripped from the walls and there were crayons strewn all over the floor. It looked like a child had ripped the paper down so they could draw on the walls, but the room was so big I couldn’t quite make out what the drawings were. As I mentioned before, I was quite a curious kid, so I scouted the exterior of the house to try and find another way in. I carried on walking along the right hand side of the house when I came to a small side door over grown with ivy. We don’t have poison ivy in England so I knew I’d be ok pulling as much of it off the door as I could. You might think this was predictable, but this was genuinely what happened, as I pulled the ivy off the door I saw the latch was broken, it didn’t shut properly so it was ajar, ready for anyone to walk in.

Opening the door and stepping inside, I found myself in a small corridor that lead to the living room and what I assumed was the kitchen beyond. I wanted to see the drawings so the living room was my first stop. As I entered, a pungent smell hit me, stale and damp, like something had died in there. Holding my sleeve over my nose I walked up to the back wall where the drawings were and took a closer look. They were clearly a child’s drawings, simple but had enough detail to know what was happening. My eyes widened as I processed what it was I was seeing. They had drawn a story. A dark story. An expressionless, young girl, I think about my age, was pictured holding hands with a black silhouette of a man, he was terrifying. As my eyes scanned to the next drawing he was beating her with his bare fists, a punch reigning down onto her face, another showing him twisting her arms behind her back, her bones snapping like twigs; all the while the girl was completely expressionless. The last drawing was of the girl locked in a cupboard under the stairs. It looked like she was banging against the door, crying and trying to get out. It surprised me to see this was the only drawing she had an expression in; it was one of true desperation and fear. The man wasn’t in the last picture, but the child had started to write something in black crayon. The letters R U N were shakily drawn onto the wall, but before the child had a chance to finish the letter N it trailed off, the crayon mark furiously running across the wall as if being dragged away. I followed the crayon as it ran across and then down to where the wall met the floorboards. I wasn’t expecting there to be anything else but I was wrong. Splatters of deep red were at the end of the crayon trail as well as on the floor. It didn’t take a genius to realise what it was…Whoever drew those pictures died right after drawing the last one.

I ran. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, right back through the side door, through the field and back into the safety of my garden. My mum was in the flower bed and saw my disheveled appearance.

“Are you ok love? You look like you’ve seen a ghost back there!”

“I- I’m fine mum. I just got a bit too into the game I was playing, that’s all.”

I hurried back into my house and didn’t come out for the rest of the day. Something bad happened in the Manor House, and I wanted to know what… But there was no way in hell I was going back there on my own.

Part 2: Investigation

Dylan and Peggy arrived 2 days later. I hadn’t stopped thinking about what I saw in the Manor House. Who drew those pictures? What happened to them? Who was that man? These questions floated about in my head but I couldn’t figure it out with the little information I knew. I had to tell Dylan and Peggy, I wanted them to come with me.

The day after they arrived, they both came over to my house. “Guys, I have to tell you something but you have gotta’ promise not to tell your parents ok? Swear?” Dylan and Peggy both glanced at each other, obviously hooked on what I was going to tell them.

“Ok” said Dylan, “What is it?”

“The Manor House…” I told them, “I went there 2 days ago. I saw… Well, I don’t really know what I saw, this is why we need to go back”

Dylan was always keen for an adventure, Peggy not so much.

“Alice, what exactly did you see?”

Peggy asked, a little unsure of what I was asking her.

“This is the thing.” I replied, “I saw drawings, kids drawings, but they weren’t of dogs, or fairies, or anything like the stuff we draw Peg’s. They were… dark. The last one was just a word, RUN.”

My 10 year old self couldn’t quite describe the menacing, murderous drawings accurately. But Peggy understood.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asked both Dylan and I, “Won’t we get into trouble?”

“Oh come on, Pegs!” Dylan exasperated at her, “This sounds awesome! Don’t you want to explore?”

“Fine! I’ll go, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea” Peggy folded her arms and winced as she asked her next question.

“So, when are we going to do this?”

“Now!” I quickly answered back, “I need to figure this out guys and I don’t want to go alone. I’m scared.”

We walked down to the end of the garden, through the gap in the fence, followed the path to gravelled drive and walked to the side door I found 2 days ago.

“Through here, follow me” I beckoned to them. Both Peggy and Dylan followed and I showed them the drawings in the living room. “See?” I said, “What do you think?”

Dylan took a closer look. “I thought you said they stopped with the word RUN?” he said, confusion in his voice.
“It- it did”

Underneath the word there was a new picture. A little girl in a pink jacket was holding hands with the silhouette man. It definitely wasn’t there the day before.

“Alice, I really don’t like this. Can we go?” Peggy said this with unease, like she was truly afraid. I didn’t understand why until 2 days later.

We made our way back into the hallway, and there he was. A tall, black silhouette of a man stood at the end of the hall blocking access to the main entrance hall. All 3 of us froze, staring into the only part of him that had any features; his gleaming white, evil eyes. The form moved towards us with a jolt. We turned and ran.

Panicked and in shock we raced through the field and I lost Dylan and Peggy.
My parent’s weren’t home when I made it back to my bedroom. I slumped down onto the bedroom floor, my back pressed against the door and tried to catch my breath. I assumed Dylan and Peggy made it out of the house as I was certain I heard them running after me. Kid’s didn’t have mobile phones back then so it wasn’t like I could text them to make sure they were ok. I had to just hope…

Dylan finally showed up 2 days later. His mum saw what state he had returned back to his caravan in and thought he was ill so kept him in for a couple days until he appeared better. Neither of us had seen Peggy. We went to knock for her at her caravan but no one was home. Her parents were very sociable people so were probably at the beach or out with friends for the day so we didn’t think much of it.

Dylan and I played for most of the morning. Neither of us brought up the Manor House incident. I think we were both scared to even think about it, let alone talk about it. We were pretending like nothing happened and, to be honest, I was more than ok with it. This was probably the one time that my curiosity was curbed through pure, unadulterated fear.

As lunch time approached, Dylan was getting ready to go home. He left his bike in my back garden so went to go get it.

“Uh, Alice, is that Peggy?”

I squinted to the trees at the very back of the garden and sure enough there she was!

“Oh my god, Peg’s!” I cried out, “Where have you been? We called for you but no one was there.”

Peggy smiled. “I’m ok” she said, “I’ve been playing in the field. Come and play.”

Peggy disappeared back into the trees so Dylan and I followed, eager not to lose her again. We were all stood in the over grown field, unsure of what to do next.

“I keep thinking about the Manor House” Peggy casually told us, shocking both Dylan and I.

Peggy seemed so afraid the last time we went, and now Dylan and I were afraid too. How could she seem so nonchalant about what happened?

“Really?” I replied, “Why?”

“I don’t know. I just feel drawn to it. I want to go back inside. Come with me?”

She was very eager for us to say yes, so we reluctantly agreed. Were we mad?! 2 days ago we were running from an evil presence in that house and now we were going back?! It was classic, ‘Don’t go in there!’ horror story moment, but we stupidly did it anyway.

We slowly walked up to the front door and decided what to do next. I surveyed my surrounding again, familiarising myself with quick exit routes should I need to run again, when I noticed the number 1 on the doorway was scratched out, and in it’s place was a freshly etched 2. Weird, I thought.

I refused to go back into the living room so this time we chose to explore the kitchen. Peggy seemed a little more anxious now she was back inside the house, which although was a bad thing, it was more normal than her carefree attitude to the situation outside; that unnerved me much more.

The kitchen was tidy, no plates or bowls, kitchen equipment or anything like that left around, but an inch thick layer of dust coated the counters, cupboard doors hung off of their brackets and mice droppings everywhere. It looked like it hadn’t been touched for years. Strange considering someone must have been living here, I mean, who else could’ve added that drawing in the living room? Or changed the door number to 2?

We had a look in some of the cupboards, wiping away the dust but found nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. Dylan kept a look out for the silhouette man, but he never showed. Maybe we imagined it? As I was scoping out a cupboard that was full of canned food from 1902, Dylan called out to us, laughing.

“Guys, a crayon just rolled through the doorway…”

“Ha, we’re in a creepy house, you’d think something more frightening would appear through the door than a crayon!” I replied trying to stifle my laughs. Although I was scared, I took this opportunity to laugh down the situation we were in, make it appear like I was less frightened than I was, and to be honest, laughing at a crayon was helping.

I followed Dylan through the kitchen side door that led into the main entrance hall. It was a large room with a double staircase to right side, double doors that led out into a courtyard at the rear and the dark wooden door with the cast iron decorations to the front. The door was bolted shut from the inside; that’s why I couldn’t get in the first time I came here. Dylan was stood by the side of the stairs, holding the black crayon that rolled into the kitchen. The stairs cupboard door was open and he was transfixed on whatever it was that was inside.

“Dylan? What’s the matter?” I asked as I walked up to stand next to him. When I saw what was inside the cupboard under the stairs I gasped.

“What the-?”

The walls were covered with bloody finger nail scratches, like someone had desperately tried to get out. I instantly remembered the drawing in the living room of the terrified little girl locked in the cupboard under the stairs. This blood was fresh… The person’s fingernails had come off on to the wall they had scratched so much. It was a scene of absolute horror. In a state of disbelief I noticed something crumpled in a pile on the floor of the cupboard.

“Dylan, what’s that?”

Dylan bent down to pick up the heap of pink material and we realised.

“Wasn’t Peggy wearing this jacket when we came here the other day?” Dylan asked me.

She was. Peggy’s pink jacket was now on the floor of the cupboard under the stairs, soaked in still wet blood. And above it on the only clean patch of wall was a drawing of the silhouette man, his eyes boring into us like he was coming for us next.

A scream erupted throughout the house and that was all it took to jolt Dylan and I from our shocked states and once again run from the house. Dylan dropped Peggy’s jacket and sprinted to go back through the kitchen and out the side door, but our pathway was blocked.

Silhouette man was stood in the kitchen door way, this time grinning at us; he made no other movement which rattled me to the core. Why didn’t he come for us? Thinking quickly, I remembered the front door could be unbolted from the inside. Dylan followed me to the door and helped me with cast iron bolts. They were heavy and stiff, I couldn’t have moved them on my own. When we saw daylight again I was relieved. The house was so dark and dingy it was easy to lose track of what time of day it was, and something about the light felt safe. I didn’t look back until I was once again in my garden, Dylan behind.

“Where’s Peggy?” I asked, panting for breath.

“I don’t know” Dylan replied, equally as exhausted, “I thought she was following me, but I guess not.”

Just as he finished his sentence, my dad came out into the garden with Dylan’s parents and 2 police officers.

Part 3: Over-Active Imaginations

“Alice, Dylan. You need to come inside. Now.” My dad demanded.

We obediently followed, thinking we were about to get the telling off of our lives for trespassing, but when one of the officers opened his mouth and started talking I was absolutely dumbfounded.

“Alice. Dylan. I’m sure you are aware by now your friend Peggy Langdon has been missing for 2 days. Have you seen her in the last 48 hours?”

I literally couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“No she hasn’t…” I replied in confusion, “She was just with us. We were exploring the Manor House. I know we shouldn’t have been in there, but she was honestly just with us!”

Dylan nodded furiously in agreement as I began to explain everything to the police officers.

“I went exploring on my own about 5 days ago. I got a bit freaked out because I saw some weird drawings on one of the walls in the house. Peggy and Dylan came back there with me so I could show them and it freaked them out too. That’s when we saw him. The silhouette man! We ran and then we all didn’t see each other for 2 days. Peggy showed up this morning in my garden and she wanted to go back to the house. We found blood and fingernails and a pink jacket we thought was Peggy’s under the stairs. We got scared and ran again. We’ve all just come back from there… At least, I thought we all came back…”

I trailed off realising that when we got back to the garden Dylan pointed out that Peggy wasn’t with us.

“A pink jacket did you say?”

“Yes,” Dylan replied, “It was in the cupboard under the stairs, along with the blood and the fingernails. We thought Peggy must have dropped it when we ran away the first time, she wasn’t wearing it when we saw her today”.

“Children… Peggy was wearing a pink jacket the day she went missing. Are you sure she was with you today?”

I tried hard to think back to the first day we all went to the house; the day the police claim Peggy disappeared. And I remembered… As clear as day I remembered the new drawing in the living room. The drawing of the little girl in the pink jacket holding silhouette man’s hand. I remembered being freaked out that a new drawing had appeared. I remembered seeing silhouette man standing in the doorway of the living room, and I remembered me, Dylan and Peggy running. Peggy running in her pink jacket… Only, I lost them both when I returned to the garden.

“We were with her right up until I found the cupboard…” Dylan pondered.

I burst into tears at the realisation my friend was gone. It all added up. But I was JUST with her!? My mum enveloped me in a hug and tried to soothe me but I was just inconsolable.

“We need to investigate the house immediately. If what you are saying is true, then that blood may belong to Peggy Langdon. Thank you for your time children. I’m so, so sorry this is happening to you.”

The two officers left and within the hour there were more police officers with their sniffer dogs, forensic tents going up and men in white overalls flooding our back garden; searching the fence and the Manor House for any clue as to where Peggy could have gone. That evening, the tents were taken down as quickly as they were put up and the police left the area. I didn’t understand. Didn’t investigations take a lot longer than a few hours? I was playing with Peggy at lunch time and now it was almost 10pm and the police had pretty much left. All but 2 officers remained and they looked extremely irritated. There was a knock on our front door and my mum answered.

“Mrs Taylor, may we have a word with you and Alice?”

She called me down from the confines of my bedroom and the scalding began.

“Alice.” One of the officers addressed me. “Did you know it is against the law to waste police time?”

I obediently nodded and waited for him to carry on.

“Good. So you know that making up stories about your friend when they are missing is very wrong and scared her parents into thinking she was dead?”

At this remark a look of bewilderment spread across my face and I couldn’t hide it even if I tried.

“I wasn’t making it up! It happened! I swear it did! I was with Peggy at lunch time!” I couldn’t have sounded more exasperated if I tried. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t believe me until he spoke again.

“Alice, we searched that house for all the things you said. The blood, nails, even the drawings… There was nothing. Not a trace. We didn’t even find her pink jacket. There was no evidence to even suggest you, yourself, had been in that house.”

In frustration and anger I screamed and I cried. What was happening? My head felt completely scrambled and I couldn’t make sense of anything that was going on. Reality was a blur now and I didn’t know what to believe. The icing on the cake what when the officer continued,

“We haven’t been able to find Dylan since we spoke to you both earlier. His mum found a black crayon in his room, but nothing else out of the ordinary. Do you know where he is?”

I shook my head and tried to speak through my sobs.

“He- might- be- hiding- at- the- park. He – doesn’t- like- getting- told- off-“ I managed.

“Thank you Alice,” the officer replied, “And Mrs Taylor, I think your child may have an over active imagination. You might want to take her to see someone. Might be ADHD. You know what those kids are like…”

The officer shook his head at me then called his colleague to leave. I was still sobbing away in my mum’s arms. Fatigued and emotional my dad took me off of my mother and carried me upstairs to bed where my mum changed me into my yellow pyjamas. I drifted off to sleep quickly through sheer exhaustion.

The next day passed fairly quickly. I slept for the majority of the day and refused to talk to anyone or come out of my room. Every hour I’d look out of my bedroom window to the back garden and try to relive what happened. Try to make sense of it, but no matter how hard I tried to organise the events in my mind, I just couldn’t. It was impossible.

At 6 o’clock in the evening my parents announced they were going for dinner and tried to persuade me to come. I ignored them and after 15 minutes of trying, they left and told me to come get them if I needed them. They were going to the pub next door to our house so weren’t far away. To be honest, I was glad for the peace and quiet. I took comfort in being alone, adult’s were untrustworthy in my mind now and their presence disgruntled me.

7 o’clock passed and I did my new ritual of looking out of the window to try and piece my thoughts together, when I saw them…They were stood at the bottom of the garden waving at me, beckoning me to come outside. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and looked again. Dusk was beginning to fall and the sky was an incredible burnt orange colour, but it was still bright enough to make out who it was at the bottom of the garden. I sprinted out of my room, down the stairs and straight out the backdoor that led to the garden.

“Peggy! Dylan! I knew I wasn’t lying!”

I raced over to them but before I got there they ran into the trees and back through the hole I kicked in the fence. I chased after them in elation that I knew I wasn’t going mad, or fabricating stories about my friends. They were here, not missing, and I knew it! I knew it! I could hear Peggy laughing with delight, and I followed her giggles all the way to the front door of the house. The numbers 3 and 4 were now etched into the front door and I still couldn’t figure out why but at this point I didn’t care. I just wanted my friend’s back. I wanted to prove to everyone that I wasn’t lying. I hesitated at the front door a little while longer, remembering all the negative things that happened in this house until I was snapped back to reality by Dylan calling my name.

“Aaaliiccee!” he chanted. “Aaaliiccee!”

I took one last look at the beautiful summer night sky and proceeded to follow Dylan’s chant to the living room. No one was in there and the room fell silent upon my entrance. A wave of dread suddenly filled my body at the realisation I never actually followed them into the house. I was here on my own. Looking over at the back wall the drawings were there clear as day, except this time, another new drawing was added. The picture of a girl in yellow pyjamas with the number 4 scrawled above her head, holding silhouette man’s hand. It was me…

Part 4:The Legend Of Alice

“And that was the last time anyone saw Alice again.” Toby announced proudly as he retold ‘The legend of Alice Taylor’ to his little brother, Harry, and Lily his school friend.

Toby’s grandparents bought Manor Lodge, Alice’s former house, 5 years after her disappearance. Because of it’s background history his grandparents bought it incredibly cheap. They knew the full story but they weren’t worried. Their child, Toby’s mum, was grown up and had moved out with her husband so it was just his grandparent’s that occupied the house. That was until his grandmother got dementia and kept wandering off… It was then that his grandfather decided to move them to assisted living accommodation and passed the house over to Toby’s parents. And then along came Toby, then Harry 2 years later.

Toby was a confident 13 year old boy, he had a lot of friends and was well known within the village for being a bright, aspiring boy. The kids at the village school talked about Alice regularly and a few even claimed to have gone to the house but those kids were exposed to be lying when they couldn’t prove where they gained access. The house was well guarded with barbed wire fencing and ‘No Entry’ signs warning people away from the dangers the house might contain. Alice and her friends went missing roughly 20 years ago now and the village tried hard to forget. It was never brought up by adults and if anyone mentioned it, it was quickly shut down as a legend and untrue to protect the villages credibility and safety.

But Toby being Toby, had other ideas. He wanted to the top dog of the school, and by proving he had gone to Manor House, he could gain that status. It would be easy for Toby, his house backed onto the Manor House after all. If anyone was likely to gain access it was him.

It was Saturday morning, around 9am, and Toby, Lily and Harry stole a pair of wire cutters from his dad’s toolbox in the garage and made their way to the end of the garden. A thick wire fence sealed off the boundary which Toby was able to cut through with ease. His dad would be furious when he found out he ruined the fence; It was incredibly expensive to put up. But at this point, Toby didn’t care. They all scurried through, being careful not to tear their clothes on the freshly cut wire, and found themselves in the over grown field, just like in the legend…

“Ok,” Toby said with assertiveness, “We need to do what Alice did and make a path that leads to the middle of the field. Then we should see the house on the right. Ready?”

Both Harry and Lily shook their heads. They had heard the story countless times before on the school playground, and even though it was said to just be a legend, they still believed it enough to be put off from going there properly.

“Can’t we just watch from here?” Lily replied nervously.

Toby scoffed, “Fine, but I get to call you both wimps for the rest of the year!”

Lily and Harry were willing to take that risk. Being called a wimp was better than being arrested for trespassing. They helped Toby make a path to the middle of the field but stopped when they saw the house. Toby continued stomping down the grass, it was harder than it looked and he wondered how on earth a 10 year old girl could manage to do this on her own, let alone a 13 year old boy.

Eventually, he got to the gravel driveway and took a moment to catch his breath and take in the enormity of the Manor House. It was just like they described in the legend; dark and menacing. But this spurred Toby to investigate even more. He walked up to a window that caught his eye, something was glinting from inside. As he peered through he saw it was the kitchen, a steel saucepan hanging up on the wall glinting in the sun. On closer inspection Toby noticed drawings all over the kitchen walls. It looked like a kid had drawn them with crayon.

“Who uses crayon’s anymore? Haha!” Toby laughed to himself, it was all about gel pens in school now, crayons were lame.

But none the less, he wanted to see what the drawings were a bit closer up. In the legend the drawings were in the living room; maybe the legend was wrong?

Alice was stood in the corner of the kitchen, hoping with all her might that the young boy outside the window could see her drawings; could see that the drawings were of him, locked in the cupboard under the stairs. But he appeared to ignore her warnings.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you…” She whispered.

As Toby walked up to the huge front door he thought he heard a voice, but shook it off and told himself to stop being stupid. The legend wasn’t true after all. He stopped and took in the beautiful features of the door as he opened it. Dark slats with cast iron decoration and the number 5 etched into the wood…

Credit: Alice1nWonder

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A Madman’s Guide to the Unrecommended 2

January 2, 2017 at 12:00 AM
Rating: 8.0. From 1 vote.
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(EN – You may wish to read A Madman’s Guide to the Unrecommended before continuing)

Hello again, my friend. If you find yourself asking ‘why is this strange person calling me a friend?’ then you’re obviously a bit out of touch… Hello, I’m The Madman and I’m back for round two. I’ll admit that I left you in a rather awkward place, and I must apologize. But there’s something extremely important that I need your help with. It’s in your best interest, if that sweetens the pot.
Last time we met, you were in a different world and I was, well, escaping from it. I hope you woke up and found your way home alright, and if you feel deceived I apologize for the inconvenience. But it was what had to be done, you see. At the very least, my advice and guidance on the supernatural world was no joke or tomfoolery. I knew (and still know) what I was talking about, and I trust you made it through any demonic encounters safely.
I also hope you enjoyed the little treat I put with this book –dark chocolate truffles are your favorite, aren’t they? Look, I know finding a strange manuscript with a baggie of rather expensive Belgian candies in your home wasn’t how you expected your day to go. But as I said; this is very important.
Oh, alright. I guess it’s time to cut to the chase. You released me from a prison of sorts, but something else got out as well. Something very dangerous. If I were to call it something, I’d call it ‘The Devil.’ Don’t laugh. I’m being very serious.
Quincy had indeed found himself smirking in disbelief. He caught himself at The Madman’s words and looked around apprehensively. The Madman knew him a little too well. He shook off his unwarranted paranoia and glanced back at the parchment in his hands.
It’s the best name to give it, honestly. It embodies things you can’t even comprehend –which can be quite a bit many things, but this is just… evil. That’s quite a nice word that has been unfortunately turned to cliché: evil. Look, this thing that you –we– let out isn’t something unique. But it is something dangerous. I know this is all quite sudden, but you don’t have much of a choice. It might even be a bit of fun.
Quincy ate another truffle, beginning to feel a little uneasy. If The Madman was worried about something, that thing was something to be terrified about –but why did The Madman need him specifically?
I need you because you’re the one who was in my… prison with me. Not to get overly technical here, but it has to be you my friend. Please don’t worry; it won’t be very painful–comparatively. Besides, I’ll be with you every step of the way.
Quincy was beginning to feel thoroughly uncomfortable now. He hadn’t signed up for saving the world. In fact, he had resolved to take a break from demons and summoning and the lot. The whole affair had taken a toll that he needed a rest from.
Quincy left the book on his desk and went downstairs for a cup of coffee. The stuff helped him calm down, and a little calm was something that he most definitely needed right now. He went through the actions mechanically: put the filter in the machine, pour in several scoops of ground beans, pour in the water, close it, turn it on. As the machine bubbled and steamed, Quincy’s thoughts did the same. He knew that he didn’t want to get back in any mischief with The Madman, but he didn’t think he had a choice. He was also shocked at the intimacy with which The Madman had been addressing him. The taste of the delicious truffles was now sour and unpleasant. He had been in Quincy’s room. His innermost sanctuary had been invaded. Understandably, Quincy was quite shook up.
The final drops of coffee made their way into the pot. The machine gurgled happily, proud of a job well down. Quincy emptied the liquid into a mug and gulped it down black. The bitterness brought him back to his senses.
Of course he shouldn’t help The Madman. He should burn the book and forget any of it ever happened. He even considered taking out his arsenal of protective items from their hiding place. Maybe if a cold shoulder wasn’t enough to keep The Madman at bay, a sackful of salt was. Quincy set his empty mug down and trudged upstairs, dreading having to face the looming issue above him. He picked up the book, and, in a fit of frustration, threw it across the room. It bounced sadly off the wall and tumbled to land on Quincy’s unmade bed.
“Leave me alone!” Quincy shouted at nobody in particular. Over the next week, Quincy did his best to forget any of it ever happened. He hid the book under a pile of refuse in his closet and tried to remove the word “supernatural” from his vocabulary. The Madman would just have to find somebody else, he told himself.
But The Madman wouldn’t find somebody else. One dreary morning, exactly a week after Quincy had first found the book, The Madman returned. This time, it wasn’t anything as gentle as a note in a book. Quincy woke at the usual time of much-too-early o’clock and fumbled to silence his screeching alarm clock. The early morning glow filtered in through the window. Birds chirped dully outside.
“Hello!” Quincy jumped and fell out of bed at the sudden voice. He scrambled to his feet and backed hastily away from the bed. Looming over the bed was a man. He was tall and handsome, with piercing eyes and a devilish smile. He had a very sharp, handsome jaw line and flawlessly styled hair. “Hope I didn’t startle you,” The Madman said, his smile spreading into a grin. Quincy’s heart dropped to his toes.
“W-wha-” he stammered.
“You look startled –did I startle you?”
“You-”
“Yes?”
“It’s you! The Madman! It really is you!” Quincy managed to stop his stammering and fumbled for his phone. The Madman patted himself in mock surprise.
“It is? Oh, would you look at that! It is me! Good detective work, Quincy. Oh what are you doing?” Quincy had dialed 911 and put the phone to his ear.
“I need the police at-” Quincy didn’t even finish the sentence before the line was cut dead. Static filled Quincy’s ear as he dropped his phone and faced The Madman’s bemused expression.
“What did you do that for?” The Madman asked.
“I told you to leave me alone! I don’t want any part of it!”
“I didn’t want any part of being stuck in an interdimensional prison for six-thousand years, but it happened. Sometimes, things are unfortunately out of your control. This is one of those things.”
“I won’t do it!”
“Don’t be so selfish –this isn’t all about you, you know.”
“Why do you care so much, anyways? You never even told me what I have to do, or exactly what happened.”
“I thought I made it pretty clear!” The Madman carried a note of genuine indignation in his voice.
“‘The Devil’ followed you out of Hell? Clear as day, excuse my ignorance.”
“Yes, it is clear as day!” The Madman seemed genuinely confused.
“Well, not to me.” Quincy said, crossing his arms.
“You saw what demons can do,” The Madman said.
“Firsthand –you taught me how.”
“Yes, well, it’s not pretty, is it?”
“No,” Quincy replied, shuddering involuntarily.
“Well imagine something a thousand times worse. Something you really don’t want to mess with.”
“You’ve said it a hundred times. Why should I care?”
“Do you like living, Quincy?”
“Yes, I like living.”
“Then you should care. Because nobody will be doing much living if you don’t help me.” Quincy was about to reply when The Madman cut him off. “Oh, and it is sort of your fault.”
“What?” Quincy was outraged.
“Well, you know, you were the one who let me out.”
“Don’t you dare blame me! You tricked me! You’re the nasty, manipulative, conniving demon here!”
“Ouch. Harsh. But then again, fair point.” There was a long and awkward silence. “So. Are you in?”
“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
“Nope.”
“Can I at least get out of my pajamas?”
“As long as you get into something else,” The Madman said distastefully. “Besides, I have to do a little hunting. Be back soon!” Before Quincy could react, The Madman was gone with all the noise of a snowflake falling onto a feather pillow.
Quincy wanted to believe it was all a dream –just a fantastic, ludicrous dream– but he knew it wasn’t. With a sense of great and dawning responsibility, Quincy dressed himself appropriately for saving the world. Two old sneakers, one pair of jeans with holes in both knees, and a college football jersey later, he was ready.
The next step was to retrieve his protective items. Quincy opened his closet and withdrew the gimmicky wooden chest in which he had stuffed all the materials he needed for summoning. He laid them out carefully: a large Ziploc gallon-bag of sea salt, an assortment of red wax candles, and collection of heirlooms that served as items of power. Like a hunter choosing the perfect arrow, Quincy selected his item. It was a plain gold ring on a plain gold chain. A relatively unremarkable trinket to look at, but it had belonged to Quincy’s grandmother, and had been in the family for generations.
“Is that a Ziploc bag?” The now familiar voice cut through Quincy’s remembrance.
“You have to stop doing that! Learn to knock!” Quincy turned as he retorted to see The Madman looking down at him with amusement.
“Your salt. It’s in a big old plastic baggie.”
“Yes, so?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s just a little sketchy, is all.”
“It’s all I had!”
“If you say so. Ah good, your item of power. That’s a strong one –I can feel it from here.”
“Are you sure it isn’t sketchy?” Quincy said bitterly.
“What’s with all the attitude? I found us a lead, by the way.”
“That was fast.”
“Don’t insult me. Did you hear about any disasters lately? Any huge, extremely destructive, fatal disasters?”
“There was a fire in some shopping mall that was on the news. Lots of people died –why?”
“Well, that wasn’t coincidence. Up for a little field trip?” And with that, The Madman strode out of the room with Quincy jogging to keep up.
“I didn’t pack the salt!” Quincy complained as they bounced down the stairs.
“Do you really think a thirty cent bag of cooking salt will save you from the Devil himself?”
“It would have made me feel better!”
“Sorry. I don’t care about your feelings that much. Do you have a car?”
The drive to the burnt-out mall was a long, awkward one. It was extremely strange to see The Madman sitting in an old 2002 Toyota Camry, fiddling with the window. He didn’t seem to belong.
“Could you stop doing that, please?” Quincy asked in irritation after The Madman had rolled the window up and down for the hundredth time.
“Oh, is it bothering you?” Quincy gripped the steering wheel harder. “I’ll take that as a yes,” The Madman continued, rolling the window up pointedly.
“I can’t go any farther, there’s a police line.” Quincy stopped the car several feet away from the hefty fortification of yellow tape and white wooden barricades. There were several police cars parked with their flashing sirens spinning silently. Officers stood stolidly, barking at pedestrians and news crews to stand back. Beyond laid a scene of utter carnage: the old mall’s parking lot had been turned into a dead border between the charred and melted carcass of the building and the healthy land beyond.
Quincy had seen the mall on the news, but in person it was much more terrible. He couldn’t shake the knowledge that over a dozen people had been burned alive in the fire, their ashes mingling with the rubble of their tomb. ‘Faulty wiring,’ the news report had said.
The Madman stepped out of the car confidently and began to approach the police line. Quincy leaned out of his window and called after him.
“Where are you going?”
“Come on, we’re going to take a look.”
“But there’re cops-” The Madman ignored Quincy and continued walking. Reluctantly, Quincy followed.
“I don’t think I can even park there,” Quincy complained. Once again, he was ignored.
“Hello, officer.” The Madman had grabbed the attention of the nearest police officer.
“I’ll have to ask you to stand back, sir. The area’s not safe.” The officer’s tone made it clear that he didn’t want to be dealing with the Madman at that moment. He eyed up the strange man in front of him.
“Yes, of course. Just one thing, if I may.” The Madman put a hand on the officer’s shoulder. Quincy jumped in his seat and scrambled out of the car.
“Hey! What are-” Before Quincy could complete his sentence, the policeman was smiling at the Madman jovially.
“You take as much as time as you need sir,” he said, docking his cap. “Your friend too,” he continued, glancing over the Madman’s shoulder at Quincy.
“I wouldn’t say he’s my friend, but thank you anyway! Come on, Quincy.” The Madman swept past the officer and ducked under the caution tape. Quincy jogged to keep up. As he passed the cop, he noticed a dopey smile on the man’s face. His eyes were glazed over and skated over Quincy as if he wasn’t there.
“What did you do to that cop?” Quincy asked as he caught up to the Madman, who was gazing at the ruined mall pensively.
“Hm?”
“You did something to him, he’s all loopy now.”
“I did do something, you’re right. I don’t know how you’re always so observant Quincy.” The Madman’s voice was loaded with enough sarcasm to floor an elephant. Quincy gritted his teeth and glanced back at the officer.
“Will he be okay?” Quincy asked.
“Who cares? Look at those burn marks…”
“Will he be okay?” Quincy said again, in a more slow and pointed manner.
“Yes, he’ll be fine. You should be more worried about yourself. Have you seen that shopping mall?” Quincy turned his full attention to the destruction in front of him. Up close, it was an even more gruesome sight.
“Are those-”
“Body parts, yes. Ooh, look, somebody dropped something.” The Madman bent over and picked something up from a pile of shattered concrete and held it up. Quincy almost vomited –it was a human finger with a diamond wedding ring perched below the second knuckle.
“Put that down! God, show some respect.” Quincy turned his attention away from the Madman and attempted to find something to distract himself. “What are we even looking for?”
“Clues. We’re looking for clues.”
“Isn’t that what cops are for?” Quincy looked back at the officer, who was now loading and unloading his gun while giggling, as if he were a fascinated child. “Are you sure that guy will be okay?”
“Yes. And I dare you to go and ask a detective if he has any leads on the evil demon. I’m not stopping you.”
“Point taken. Have you seen anything?”
“Not yet. But almost…”
“You haven’t even moved, and I think we’re attracting attention.”
“I’m not looking with my eyes.” The Madman could sense Quincy’s question coming. “Don’t worry about it. Look, just keep everyone away. I’m almost done.” Quincy glanced nervously at the police line. A couple reporters were talking to the befuddled police officer, who had dropped his gun and was now chewing on his badge. At least they’re focused on him, Quincy thought. At least they had made a good news story. Quincy could imagine the next day’s headlines: “Police Officer Gone Insane at Mall Massacre.”
“Got it!” The Madman turned to face Quincy. He did not look very happy.
“You know where it is?”
“Yes.”
“What? Wasn’t that the goal? To find out where it went?”
“Yes, but it’s here.”
“Here?! What do we do?”
“Hold on! I’m trying to think. It must be in the wreckage, but why has it stayed?”
“Are you really asking me?”
“Of course not! Just shut up for a second, there’s more.” The Madman dashed closer to the ruined building, stretching his hand out searchingly. Quincy, shocked, remained rooted to the spot. His attention had been drawn by a scuffle over by his car. The officer who The Madman had touched was being brought to the ground by two of his fellows. They hauled him up and dragged him to a newly-arrived ambulance. He kicked and giggled loudly as he was thrown into the car. Three more officers came over, and attempted to disperse the agitated press. One of the cops glanced over towards the building. As he did, he spotted The Madman and Quincy.
“Hey!” the officer yelled loudly. He pulled his radio to his mouth and said something into it. The other two officers turned, startled by the cry. They saw Quincy and set off towards him, shouting at him to halt. Quincy swallowed hard and began running towards The Madman.
“Company!” The Madman saw the approaching men and cursed loudly.
“Now I have to kill them!”
“What? No! Let’s just go!” Quincy grabbed The Madman’s arm and pulled him towards the building. The Madman reluctantly broke into a run that matched Quincy’s.
“I don’t think you want to go in there,” The Madman said darkly.
“Better than being arrested,” Quincy replied, They reached the looming husk of charred metal that was once a pizza restaurant and entered. The building had collapsed in such a way that the interior of the shop was almost cave-like in nature. The outside light, though mere feet away, didn’t seem to penetrate very far into the inky gloom ahead. Suddenly, the sound of grating metal and cracking plaster came as the doorway collapsed. Unseen bits of dust and pebbles of concrete dribbled onto Quincy’s head. Instinctively, he reached out to feel for The Madman.
“Hey!” Quincy’s hand had connected with The Madman’s back. “Oh, it’s just you.”
“Did I scare you?” Quincy teased, trying to ward off a growing sense of terror. The Madman ignored him and instead muttered something under his breath. A spark flashed in the dark. It caught and exploded into a crackling orange flame, flooding the room with a warm light. Quincy could see that The Madman held the fire in his naked palm like a torch.
“You really got us into a mess here,” The Madman said drily. “Can you feel it?” Quincy swallowed hard and nodded. There was an overpowering sense of dread in the air. It was unnatural and off-putting. Quincy felt as if he was on the brink of bursting into shivers, or fleeing for any possible exit. Ahead lay only blackness; a darkness laden with an unseen horror.
“I feel it,” Quincy whispered.
“Stay close. Don’t trust anything you see in there, Quincy. Nothing.” The Madman raised the fire. They could see the door to the main mall space, which had been spared the fire’s wrath. Past the soot-covered entrance, however, nothing but silky black could be revealed.
“We’re going in there?”
“We can’t go back. It’s not letting us.”
“Why did you let me go in here if you knew this would happen?”
“Right, blame me if it makes you feel better.” Quincy didn’t reply. He was seized by another wave of anxiety and panic that he had to fight to control.
“Let’s just go,” Quincy said through gritted teeth. “Let’s just get out of here,” he continued, more quietly this time. The Madman took the lead, stepping one hesitant foot into the pool of ink ahead. The safe glow from his palm was almost useless; it was as if the tendrils of darkness were snuffing the flame like so many reaching, clawing fingers.
“Follow the light, and follow it close.” With that final vocation, The Madman disappeared into the void. The light, which Quincy had been looking at eagerly, was suddenly gone. Quincy’s heart dropped to his shoes. He took several steps after The Madman, reaching his hands out in a vain attempt to make contact.
“Hey! Wait up!” Quincy’s voice sounded faded and muffled. It was almost like he was surrounded by a thick curtain. He couldn’t see anything. “Come back!” Quincy’s voice broke. The cry was more of a plea –Quincy was beginning to panic. His resolve failed, and he decided to get back to the pizza restaurant. He had only taken a few steps into the mall, after all.
Quincy turned, took a step, and promptly ran into a hard obstacle. His forehead collided with a slab of concrete –a wall. A sob escaped him. That wall wasn’t there before, there was supposed to be a doorway. Had he gotten lost in the dark? He spun, hands grasping at the dark, hoping to find something –anything– that would bring him to salvation.
My phone! The revelation came like bolt of lightning. Quincy fumbled at his jeans, trying to fish his cell phone from his pockets. He grasped it, turned on its flashlight, and swung it up. As he did so, an unseen hand grabbed the phone and jerked it into the dark with inhuman speed. The light, like The Madman’s fire, was extinguished. Quincy’s heart stopped. He fell to the floor, breathing so hard and fast he thought his lungs would burst. What was that? What… what was..oh, God, what- His thoughts raced at an impossible tempo, leaving him incapable of rational thought. He remained there for what seemed like an eternity; hyperventilating on the cold floor, trying desperately to see what could not be seen through the shroud that covered his every sense.
Quincy had never experienced true terror. He was no stranger to fear, but what gripped his heart now was different than fear. He could feel it, taste it, smell it; a festering, ancient sense of utter dread. He was alone, oh so alone. A pattering of footsteps sounded from behind Quincy. They clicked and scuttled, thudded and squelched. It was almost as if each step belonged to a different creature. Quincy’s imagined what could be making the noises and began to shake violently. Cold sweat covered his entire body. The steps came again. They tapped closer and closer until they stopped just in front of Quincy. He whimpered involuntarily, trying fruitlessly to see what was in front of him.
Tap. The thing was coming. Tap. With each slow footstep, Quincy felt his sanity slip farther and farther away. He wanted to run, to stand, to kick out and yell, but he couldn’t move so much as a finger. Tap tap. It was right on top of him. Quincy squeezed his eyes shut instinctively, waiting for the moment of impact.
“Hey!” Quincy opened his eyes. He was met with a painful orange blaze. He shut his eyes again and put his hand up in front of his face.
“Madman?”
“I told you to stay close, what are you doing on the floor?” The Madman glared down at Quincy critically. Quincy fought down the urge to let out a sob of relief. He stood and dusted himself off shakily.
“I felt tired, wanted to take a nap,” he said, trying to distract himself from the shock of what had just happened.
“Get up, and don’t make jokes. This place isn’t very funny,” The Madman dragged Quincy up by the arm. Quincy was surprised at The Madman’s seriousness.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“Sort of, just follow me and don’t lose me this time. Hold my shirt if you have to.” The Madman began walking again, barely giving Quincy enough time to grab his shoulder and follow. They continued in silence, skirting any obstacles that they came to. Quincy felt much safer in the company of The Madman, yet he still felt the underlying unease that seemed to infest the entire building.
They walked for what seemed like an eternity. Each minute that passed felt like an hour. Quincy’s nerves were still rubbed raw, yet nothing else happened. The ruined mall was completely silent. Suddenly, The Madman stopped moving. Quincy bumped into him roughly and staggered back.
“Ow. What’s going on?” The Madman gave no response. “Hey, did you find something?” Quincy asked, louder this time. Again, there was nothing but eerie silence. Quincy began to feel scared.
“Quincy, isn’t it?” The Madman’s voice sounded bored, disinterested.
“What?”
“Your name, it’s Quincy. Or am I wrong?”
“No –are you crazy? What’s gotten into you?”
“Is that why they call me The Madman? Am I crazy?” Suddenly, The Madman whirled onto Quincy. He held the ball of flame out threateningly, illuminating his face from the bottom. Quincy stepped back in shock –The Madman’s face was contorted evilly, his usually handsome jawline was tightened and twisted into a leering snarl.
“Wha-” Quincy tried to speak, but fear closed his throat.
“Am I crazy?” The Madman repeated slowly, putting a dangerous emphasis on each word.
“No, I wouldn’t say so,” Quincy said nervously, taking another step back.
“It’s very scary in here, isn’t it?”
“If this is your idea of a joke, I want to remind you we have more important things to be doing,” Quincy finally found the resolve to feel angry.
“More important things…” The Madman repeated the words, musing over them thoughtfully. “Like hunting the Devil?” In an instant, The Madman was gone. In his place was an impossibly black silhouette. Quincy’s heart stopped. There was no way he should be able to see whatever it was that had taken The Madman’s place. The fire had been extinguished and there was absolutely no light, yet the thing before him was darker than the blackness that surrounded it. It was like a void, creating a stark contrast with the very fabric of reality.
“You’re not The Madman,” Quincy whispered hoarsely. He was at a complete and terrified loss for words.
“Did you figure that out yourself, Quincy?” The creature bent forward, lowering its ragged head to look Quincy in the eyes.
“Where is he?” Quincy said in an even meeker tone. He could sense an overwhelming power emanating from whatever was before him. He didn’t have to be told that he was completely powerless to protect himself.
“That is a good question. Why are you here, Quincy? What did he say to you to convince you to come here with him?”
“He said I had to, to save to world.” Quincy answered without thinking, like he was forced to speak.
“The entire world? He thinks rather highly of me… Do you think I could destroy the world, Quincy?”
“I don’t know,” Quincy replied truthfully, if not against his will. “What are you?” As soon as the words left Quincy’s mouth, everything changed to sudden brightness. The darkness that had so greedily clung to every available space was, in an instant, gone. Quincy found that he was standing in the middle of the destroyed mall. Large beams of sunlight spilled down from the ruined roof above. They gloomily illuminated the sad, charred, and empty skeletons of shops, fountains, and planters. Quincy automatically looked around for any of the horrors his mind had created earlier, but there was nothing to be seen.
“What am I?” The question drew Quincy’s attention back to the creature. To his surprise, the looming dark monster was gone. In his place sat a child, raven-haired and pale-faced. The boy looked up at Quincy and smiled hollowly. “Surely, The Madman told you what I am,” the child stood, smiling thinly at Quincy. As Quincy watched, the boy changed grotesquely, his spine arching rapidly and his short black hair growing and graying at an alarming rate. His face, once youthful, chiseled with age. Canyons of wrinkles now sprouted from the corner of his eyes and crept down his face to loose, thin jowls that hung off his tight lips.
“The Devil,” Quincy whispered, his voice muted with terror.
“No,” the creature crooned, its youthful voice now a wizened croak, “I’m your worst nightmare.” It took a step forward, smiling wide, wide, until half of its decrepit face was swallowed up in that evil smile.
“Cliché, boring –overall a 3/10.” The creature paused its charge. Quincy recognized the voice, but he dared not look away from that smile. The Madman stepped into view behind the creature, chin up, shoulders squared, and a look of refined smugness on his face. The creature’s eyes never left Quincy’s.
“I was about to have some fun,” it said with the tone of a child made to go to bed early. The change in voice was so sudden that Quincy nearly looked around for the newcomer. In an instant, the creature was a young boy again. “I was about to have so much fun!” It said furiously, whirling on The Madman.
“It’s time to go home.” The Madman said coolly.
“It’s time to go home,” the boy mocked. “Maybe it is time. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t!” The boy screeched like a banshee and leapt at The Madman like a crazed wolf. They fell to the ground together, writhing and twisting like a knot of snakes. Quincy watched, dumbfounded. He wanted desperately to run, but something kept him transfixed. He watched the bizarre fight: boy against man.
With a heave, The Madman threw the boy off, sending him skidding across the ruined tiles. The Madman reached into his jacket a pulled something out. It caught the light, Quincy gasped. It was the mirror which he had buried when he had read The Madman’s guide.
“Quincy, take this!” The Madman tossed the mirror to Quincy, who caught it with a fumble.
“What? Why?” Quincy glanced over at the boy, who was starting to get up. He was changing, growing taller and thinner as he peeled himself off the ground.
“No time for stupid questions! When I say so, break that mirror!” The boy was now fully standing, but he was a boy no longer. It was as if some great hand had stretched his pale limbs like taffy. His hands, attached to boneless wrists, coiled on the floor. His neck teetered under his head, which was now several feet higher in the air.
The monstrosity flailed its arms towards The Madman and screeched as it broke into a loping, uneven charge. The Madman met the beast at a full sprint. Once again they clashed, but this time The Madman was engulfed in a tangle of tentacle-like limbs. A series of cracks sounded, and The Madman yelled out in pain: “Now, Quincy! Break it now!”
Quincy brought the mirror down on the ground with all the force he could muster. It shattered into a million shards and threw them in every direction. Quincy looked up, only to see that the ruins of the mall were empty. The Madman and his assailant were nowhere to be seen.
A sudden flash of white-hot pain flashed behind Quincy’s eyes. He fell to the floor, clutching his temples and groaning. From somewhere floated an echo of a voice. Quincy looked around, trying to figure out who was speaking, but seeing nobody. The pain came again, this time greater in intensity. Quincy screamed out loud, scrabbling uselessly against his own skull.
“Dismiss me!” the voice came again, more clearly. It was The Madman, but it seemed to come from within Quincy’s throbbing head. “Say the words! Quick, Quincy, now!” The frantic urgency in The Madman’s voice goaded Quincy to his feet. The world around him spun, but he fought to keep his balance.
“I will you to leave this place! Go from whence you came!” Quincy yelled out into the ruined mall. Silence followed. It was a pure silence, like the calm that comes when the final raindrop has fallen, when the last bolt of lightning has been cast. Quincy dropped to his knees. “Madman?” he said weakly. There was no reply, and no more pain. Mercifully, Quincy fell into unconsciousness.
. . .
Quincy woke in his own bed. He thought about the strange nightmare he had just had. The memories trickled in slowly, still shrouded in obscurity. His heart began to hammer. None of it was a nightmare; he had been in that mall.
“Calm down, kid.” Quincy then noticed the figure in the corner of the room. It was The Madman, leaning against the wall nonchalantly. “You’re fine. It’s over.”
“The Devil, you fought it, you disappeared-”
“Yes.” The Madman was very matter-of-fact.
“That’s all you have to say? What the hell happened? Where is it?”
“It’s back where it was.” The Madman’s voice adopted a tone of sadness. “And, as it seems, so am I. You’re dreaming, Quincy. But you’ll wake up soon enough.”
“Why did you tell me to break that mirror? Are you going to tell me what really happened?”
“No, that’d take far too long and I don’t think you’d understand it. I’ll give you the quick version, though. When you read my guide and freed me from that painting, I became tied to you. It wasn’t that different from a normal summoning, really. The mirror was a part of the ritual; it was my anchor to your world. But the thing that followed me out, it was also tied to you –to the mirror.”
“Breaking the mirror broke the summons.” Quincy said, understanding. “That’s why I could dismiss you –both of you.”
“Yes.”
“But you’re stuck again, with that thing?”
“Yes.”
“Well way to waste my time! I went through all sorts of hell to get you out, and then went through some more just to put you back!”
“Go ahead, throw a pity party. You’re alive, at least.”
“Aren’t you upset? You know, being a prisoner again and all.”
“I shouldn’t have ever left. I have to be here. You wouldn’t understand why.”
“To keep an eye on whatever followed you out?”
“Yes, something like that.” The Madman crossed to Quincy and put out a hand. “We aren’t going to see each other again. I want you to burn my guide and forget this demon business. I have no idea how you’ve survived this long, but it would be a shame to see you die. You’ve been so very entertaining.” Quincy took The Madman’s hand and shook it.
“It’s certainly been something. Bye, Madman.” Quincy didn’t want to dawdle with pleasantries. He wanted to be home safe as fast as possible.
“Goodbye, Quincy.” With that, Quincy woke. He was still on the floor of the ruined mall, alone. Two police officers stood over him, shining their flashlights into his face.
“Kid, what the hell are you doing in here?” one of the officers asked.
“Long story,” Quincy muttered, vowing never to so much as say the word “demon” ever again.

Credit: Daniel Zaturensky

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Stonehenge

December 30, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Stonehenge is one of the great mysteries of our world. Erected almost six-thousand years ago, these ten-ton slabs of stone make up one of the seven wonders of ancient times. But how did it get there, and why?

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Nan’uk stepped cautiously on the grass, his footsteps carefully muffled. The lone hunter had been stalking his prey for hours, the animal still unaware of his presence. It gazed around the plains before returning to graze in the tall grass, its shiny coat shivering slightly as it did. Nan’uk crept ever closer, the grass making a soft shushing sound, masking his presence in the wind. The blazing golden-yellow of the grass seemed to shine under the harsh sun. He looked around before noticing a small bead of water running down his forehead. Sweat. He knew he had to get out of the plains and into the shade before heat exhaustion and dehydration wore him down, but it seemed such a shame to waste all that time tracking an animal just to give up. Just a little while longer; he had to get some food for his tribe. Coming home empty-handed meant that he wouldn’t eat tonight, making the hunt tomorrow even tougher. He grunted, venting out hot air from his nose. He would succeed today, even if it meant risking death to do so.

The animal had run to a large plain just over the hill. Nan’uk stalked it slowly, making sure to stay below the grass so as not to be spotted and ruin his chance of making the kill. The animal, only about a hundred meters off, would be spooked if he got too close. Simply going across this hill was probably be enough to scare it off, but he needed a clear shot. He drew his bow off his shoulder, and took out one of the few arrows he had. Coming to the breast of the hill, he nocked the arrow, and drew his bow. He breathed out, a long stream air blowing from his lungs, before letting the arrow fly. It made a whistling sound as it streaked through the air, and hit its target straight in the side. The beast fell over, a burst of blood discolouring the grass below. Nan’uk grinned, the adrenaline from a shot on target bursting through him. He threw caution to the wind, and sprinted down the hill towards his target. It would be easy to make a coup de grace this time, the animal was already beginning to die. He drew his spear, the bullreed strap sliding off him smoothly. His kill lowered its head as he arrived, and he decided that the final blow would be unnecessary. He grabbed its leg, and began to drag it off before he noticed something.

In the distance, about four or five-hundred meters away, there was a structure of some kind.

Ignoring everything else, he started off towards the monument, dragging his kill cumbersomely along behind him. The animal weighed more than it ever seemed to when it was alive, making the relatively short walk seem like a monumental hike, but hell if he were going to miss this. His footsteps making a soft shuk-shuk sound as he walked, he carried on to the monument. The grass swayed in the wind, though as he came closer, he noticed that the grass seemed to gradually flatten down, as if bowing down to a mighty being. He smiled, before setting down his prey and turning around; up close, the monumental structure seemed even more unbelievable than it had in the distance. He gazed upward at it, shielding his eyes from the blazing sun with his large, hairy hand. His jagged fingernails created a strange shadow over his face, as he held his ever wavering hand up to the light. The rock pillars of the structure glared dully down on him, as if to say ‘go away’. This palace, Nan’uk realized, was meant for something bigger. Ignoring this, and all other instincts telling him to run, in a haze of morbid curiosity, he stepped into the ring.

Inside, Nan’uk could see everything about this place. It was a large circle, its edges defined by stone slabs standing upright like dominos, holding up other slabs on top of them. The dark grey pillars cast glaring shadows down into the middle of the circle, making the shape of a crescent moon. He walked up to a single pillar, his eyes darting around the place, as if to watch for something that wasn’t there. The way the grass bent down towards the center of the circle before wholly disappearing, the way the sun seemed to brighten nearer to the middle of the circle, everything about it offset him… just a little bit. Still, he had to know more about this place, more about the way it worked, enough to explain away everything strange about it. He wanted, no, needed to know more. He came up to a stone pillar. The smooth stone seemed to glow in the mid afternoon sun, the heat almost radiated off of the stone. He looked at it, before cautiously reaching his hand out.

Then, he touched it.

Every bone in his body screamed out with pain, creating a single, wavering howl. He drew his hand away, and staggered backwards, the pain still wracking his body. Waves of it washed over him like seas washing over rock; the frothing agony viciously attacked him, making him fall heavily onto his stomach before losing consciousness. He closed his eyes for the final time before all the life drained away from him.

A mortal had desecrated their meeting place. They could no longer go where they had gone so many times to discuss great matters that a mind like that human’s could never understand. They had worked tirelessly for years upon years to put this planet in perfect balance, to try to help its pitiful creatures reach the pinnacle of art, philosophy and science, but that was all gone now. It was a shame to lose so much from a simple man, running his hand along a stone pillar. Ah, well. They still had many more tries to get this right. Time and nature would wear away this place now that it was no longer protected. It would be interesting to see where the creatures of this planet went without help, but that would be a matter for later. For now, they simply had to find a new place to go.

—-

Stonehenge. A meeting place of the gods. The great stone slabs decorating the land weren’t put there by mortal man, but rather by god. So why, you ask, do they no longer answer our prayers? That’s simple. They’ve moved on. We are but one in a line of many, and they have long forgotten us since.

Credit: Derpyspaghetti

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The Maiden and the Lost Villagers

December 29, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The young maiden knelt amongst the rubble and smoldering wreckage that was once her simple home. Smoke plumed into the sky and ash hung thick in the air. It stung her eyes, but that was not the cause for the tears streaming down her cheeks. She was in mourning. The day before last, she had departed the group of refugees and returned to her village, determined to find the bodies of her father and three brothers. It was her duty to anoint their brows with consecrated oil and bid them farewell into the afterlife. Her father and brothers were among the few who bravely stayed behind to hold off the enemy, providing precious time for her people on the East end of town to escape the massacre that fell upon the village. Her distraught heart was filled with confusion for, upon her arrival, not a single corpse was there to find.

The sacked village lay deserted and barren, smoldering from fire and flame. Although the smoke billowed over the ground, not a single body could her eyes see. The enemy had attacked from the North under the cover of night. They slaughtered everything in sight. Neither man, woman, or child was spared. Yet, no bodies laid on the ground. No crows feasted on the corpses that should be plenty. The words of the old widow Me’heethlo came to mind. She was fond of spinning tales about the enemy. Tales the maiden believed were meant to frighten young children into obedience once it was time to remain in bed.

She surveyed the ruins. It was dark and hazy with no hint of life. “Once a joyful habitat, this was,” She thought with sorrow. Curiously, she took notice of the grimy layer of soot that covered everything within the burnt-out village. She ran a single finger through the begrimed sludge and saw that it did not give the appearance of ordinary ash, but of mold that grew in the dark and damp places of old. “This is not of nature’s making,” she thought. “This is rot and decay I walk upon!”

The edges of the mold were of the deepest black with hints of green, but on top of its center grew white and gray fuzzy hair that vibrated ever so lightly. If it were not for the irritation from the smoke, she would have sworn the mold and mildew were growing and stretching out before her very eyes.

The crackling of burning wood filled the air, then without warning it vanished. All the surrounding flames immediately were extinguished as if inhaled by an unseen giant. The mold congealed upon itself forming vines and tendrils. They writhed on the ground before her feet, encapsulating and covering all within its reach. A soft hiss emerged from the ruins. A dense gas swirled and rose into the air from oval and lipped mouths that pimpled the surface of the thicker limbs. It flowed like a liquid upon the soil and clawed up the scorched beams like an animal searching for prey.

The maiden brandished her broadsword with speed and skill, for having been the daughter of a great blacksmith and the youngest sibling to three boys, she knew the ways of steel better than most. The hiss grew louder as it permeated the terrain. She backed out of the remains of her home, defenses at the ready and eyes keen to any movement in her field of vision.

Cracking and snapping broke the silence as the mist billowed and rolled. It reminded the maiden of the breaking of tree branches from the ice storms that raged during past winter seasons. However, this was different. These cracks and snaps were from something wet and moist. The snaps and splits grew more severe and frequent with every moment. It arose from all directions. It abruptly reached climax and then all was quiet.

The maiden gripped the hilt of her sword tightly. She held the mighty blade over her head in a defensive position, ready to take the head off any foe or adversary who would stand against her. She kept this stance in silence and stillness. The girl did not grow weary from the heaviness of the blade for it was the perfect weight for her. It had been a present from her father and created just for her and no one else.

Broken was the silence from harsh, raspy breaths of lungs filled with fluid and phlegm. The ground heaved upward and separated from wet hands that stretched up to the sky. The lost villagers had returned! Worms and maggot still feasted on the dead and rotting flesh. Scabs tore free from wounds that would never heal and spilled pus onto the ground. The poor creatures dragged themselves out from their resurrection holes. Disorientated, they tottered and stumbled, but the scent of the young girl quickly filled their nostrils and filled them with desire and rage.

Concealed within to burned wood, a lost villager fell upon the startled girl and bit down on her neck with a ravenous ferocity. To her surprise, its teeth did not tear her skin. The bite hurt terribly, but its teeth felt soft and mushy within its clenched jaw. Several more of the lost villagers slashed at her with thin, pointed fingers, and again they felt flimsy and lacking any rigidity in their blows. The answer to this riddle quickly flashed in her mind, “Newly risen are these foul beasts! Their hides had not the time to harden!” she thought.

In a high overhead arc, she cleaved the lost villager that stood before her in two with her sword. With the blade’s hilt, she struck the one that held her from behind in the throat and smashed its face into a stone wall. Another lunged at her and held her by the throat in an iron grip. She brought her sword up, twisted and separated its hands from its wrists. In one graceful motion, she twirled and took off the top portion of the creature’s skull. An unseen villager, a child, scurried on the ground and locked its arms around her leg. It bit down hard, and she shrieked in pain as she saw blood trickle from the decayed child’s mouth. She brought her blade down hard and drove its tip completely through the child’s head and buried it deep into the wooden floor.

Crinkling and cracking from drying skin and hardening hides filled her ears; she knew time was running out. The girl scanned the area for a means to escape. In the distance, she saw her only hope. An old windmill stood a short distance away. In the absence of any clear path to escape upon, its sturdy walls and a thick door would provide shelter for her immediate safety. She sprinted with all her might towards the haven. She would have made it too were it not for the ground opening up below her feet.

She fell hard, sword clanging out of her grip. Wet and cold hands clutched and pulled her deeper into the maw of the dark hole. Further and further she slid. She clawed at the edges of the hole, but the soggy soil slipped through her fingers. She turned, and four faces stared back at her from the shadow of the muddy pit. For the briefest of moments, she saw a familiar shade of green in each of its eyes, a shade of green, much like her own. There was such great sadness in those faces and a glistening of tears in each one’s eyes. As quickly as it had come, blackness and mildewed film consumed all hint of color and humanity. The grasps of those gnarled hands tightened, and the fair maiden screamed in terror.

High in the night sky, a strange, high-pitched whirring emerged from the night. The sound was melodic and beautiful. The struggling maiden turned from the dead faces and snapping jaws she held at bay and saw a twirling diamond of light approach from the corner of her eye. It streaked across the night, ricocheted off a heap of stones and shot towards the girl in a downward trajectory. It spiraled missing the girl’s neck by a hair and slashed through each creature without resistance, separating their heads from shoulder. The maiden followed the mysterious spinning diamond of light with her eyes. It flew high into the sky and began to descend towards the ground in a large arc until it came to rest in the hands of a boy.

The boy couldn’t have been more than fifteen to sixteen years of age. He stood gallantly, wearing thin and light silver armor. The object he held in his gloved hand was a diamond-shaped disk with three blades that retracted into itself. He secured the disk to his gauntlet and drew his sword. In that instant, it appeared the mist quivered at the sight of this mighty sword. She watched him run head-first into the approaching lost villagers. Her keen eye saw that the boy was well-trained, but lacked experience on the battlefield. Still, the lost villagers were no match for his blade and amazing diamond disk.

In the distance, she saw another young boy wearing the garb of a squire enter the town square. Accompanied was he by six fearsome warriors, four men, and two women. They raised their spears and blades high above their heads and charged forward with a loud and magnificent battle cry.

The young maiden recalled the stories from the widow and the songs from the minstrels and bards. “Could the tales be true?” she thought. All the whispers and songs retold and sung. Was there more to those words she pondered? Could it be true? The prophecy of the Day of the Worm.

From within the mist, hordes of decayed creatures descended upon the small band of knights. Hissing and spitting filled the air. The sharp clang of steel against hardened exoskeleton echoed across the barren village. The monsters fell upon the warriors from rooftops. They leaped into the air and crawled on the walls. The beasts flanked their victims with lethal precisions. The green mist swirled and surged, blinding all caught within its wake.

The young warrior approached the maiden. With a smile, he offered her his hand and said, “My lady, how did one so beautiful such as yourself come to find herself in such a dire predicament?”

She was dumbfounded and in shock at the massacre she just witnessed. She stood aghast at the nonchalant demeanor the boy displayed for the loss of his comrades in arms. She had never seen such disregard for life or such dismissal of loyalty those brave souls must have shown for this child. Puzzled, rage built within her soul. She shouted, “But..but your friends just perished before our very eyes, and you did nothing. Do you not have any…?”

His smile grew wider than before, and the boy said, “My dear, you lay before the Warriors of the Six Realms. The other was a squire to my father and champion to my mother. If any one of them were incapable fending off a pitiful pack of flaccid Deadlings, they would have no place at my side.” With a slash, the squire’s dagger slashed through the air releasing a burst of golden light. The malignant mist evaporated into nothingness underneath its rays. In the clearing, the squire stood brandishing a brilliant blade. By his side stood two young women of no more than twenty years of age. Each held a short sword in reverse grip and wore gauntlets of silver and blue steel. The four men guarded the rear—an elderly man, a slightly aged man, and two young twins. At their feet laid the slashed and cut corpses of the villagers.

A second wave of the Deadlings came at the Warriors like a black wave of water. Their hard skin was glistening in the moonlight. Each of the women warriors took on two foes, blocking slashes from lethal fingers with their gauntlets and stabbing decayed flesh with their blades.

The old man held a menacing dory spear, capped at the rear with a heavy spike. His hair was long, white and braided. Interwoven into the braided hair’s end was a silver marble. Swings of the spear and snaps of his neck severed heads and crushed skulls.

The twins each carried a sword. One brother bore a kopis—a thick, curved saber. The other carried a xiphos—a straight double edged sword. They guarded each other’s flank and worked as one, anticipating each other’s actions. The middle-aged man was blind and held a curved dagger in each hand. He slashed throats and severed limbs with the precision of any sighted soldier.

The young warrior spoke with a boyish playfulness and offered his hand to her once more, “Forgive me, my lady. I am normally quite shy about things such as this and find rejection quite devastating. However, in this case, I will risk the embarrassment and shame.”

With a sly grin upon his face, he held up her sword and said, “Would you care to dance with me?” The maiden saw the dark figures moving in the shadows; she looked into the eyes of this mysterious young warrior and felt a stirring she could not deny. She smiled and took hold of her sword and said, “Yes good sir. Nothing more would please me.”

The End

Author’s note: The Maiden and the Lost Villager is meant to be a companion to the story “Day of the Worm.” Although the plot of TMATLV is adequately contained in itself with hints thrown in at a larger world, it reads well as a stand-alone fairy tale. However, its true intent is to build upon the beautiful and rich world that was created in “Day of the Worm.”

Credit: Killahawke1

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It Followed Me Home

December 28, 2016 at 12:00 AM
Rating: 8.3. From 6 votes.
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It was no later than 3 am when I heard Chris knocking at the door again. Stumbling out of my sheets, I fought the urge to lay back down and just let Chris figure it out. This was the fourth time he’d come to my house in the dead of night, and as my eyes searched for a light switch through my 2-ton eyelids, I remember deciding this was the last time I’d be so willing to help him.

If you make me waste one more second of my goddam break after this, I muttered beneath my breath. I want to go just one night without thinking about my entry exam or your creepy family. Failing to find the switch, I gave up on lighting my way and made for the door at a crawl; the blue haze of our living room tv coated my path, pouring in around the end of the stairway.

On turning the corner I passed last year’s christmas tree, which was never taken down, a testament to my parents’ home that they left in mild disarray. I found my dad dead asleep on the sofa. I didn’t bother trying not to wake him, an effort which would have been betrayed anyway by more knocking from the front door. In nights prior I’d taken more care to be quiet; after the same routine three (now four) nights in a row, I threw open the lock, tossed the glass door aside, and cut straight to the chase.

“Where is she?” It seemed like Chris wanted to respond, but he noticed my expression and turned silently, walking with me to his porch.

“She’s getting better, I think,” Chris noted carefully as we went up his front steps. “She’s started laying down sooner. It shouldn’t take too long this time, I swear.”

“I need to sleep, Chris,” I commented. “This better be quick.” Sitting upright on the porch in her pajamas, her eyes closed as usual, was Chris’ younger sister. She was sleepwalking again; at the very least, Chris managed to keep her propped up in a chair long enough to come get me. “Remind me why you can’t take care of her yourself?”

“I mean, I don’t need you here, I just–” Once again my deadpan eye cut him off, and he continued. “Look, it’s really weirding me out, okay? I told you, she’s never done this before. I don’t want to be alone with her like this.”

“She really just started that earlier this week?”

“Yeah! It’s freaking me out.”

“Just take her to a doctor or something.”

“My dad doesn’t want to go through the hassle of an appointment just for a sleepwalking spell.”

“Christ.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just…” the 17-year-old girl was still upright, seemingly unconscious, and her brother was waiting anxiously for my decision. “…Just bring her inside.”

“Bradley, you’re my hero. Thanks man.”

Without another word we helped sleeping beauty to her feet and corralled her towards my house. Barely a few dozen feet separated our two homes, a walking distance that made us ideal childhood friends. The walk felt less like a friendship gap and more like a favor line these days.

Within a minute or two we’d already gotten the girl through my front door; with practice, we were practically expert sleepwalker shepherds. As if the ominous, closed-eye shamble wasn’t unsettling enough, the static wash of the local news channel added an eerie glow to her shape. We sat her down on a kitchen stool with the weather forecast as provided ambience.

“Are you sure we should wake her up?” Chris asked. His eyes were still locked in a nervous gaze. “I don’t know if that’s healthy. I read something about that online, I think. Something about waking them up being bad.”

“WebMD isn’t going to help,” I pointed out. “it’s just going to give you random symptoms to worry about. We might as well try something other than sitting and watching her all night. Besides–she’s in my house, we try my solution.”

“Yeah, sorry about bringing her over here, by the way. I don’t want to wake my parents.” I glanced at my dad, still unconscious on the couch.

“Ah. Your parents. Right.”

“Okay, I’m gonna to try and get her up. I don’t think talking to her will work though. See if you can find something of use.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, just something to try if I can’t get her awake.”

Abandoning Chris to his useless wake-up plan for the moment, I left him with his sister and went upstairs. I didn’t bother checking any bedrooms, and went straight to the bathroom. Water might work, I considered, feeling devious. I’d need a cup or something though. There was nothing in the bathroom, and the hall closet was equally fruitless, save a whistle which I thought might work. I collected the whistle and returned downstairs.

At first glance it seemed Chris and our patient were just as I left them; as I got closer, I found that Chris’ nervous watch had morphed into startled alarm.

“Bradley?” he called.

“Hm? What?”

“Her eyes are open.”

I assumed he was trying to tell me his efforts had not been in vain, until I walked around to see her face. The girl was just sitting there. Staring. Unblinking. Not moving. Was she still asleep?

“Did…” I began, “…did you wake her up?”

“I don’t know,” Chris answered. “I looked away and…” Several minutes passed. Naturally confused and, for some unexplainable reason, afraid to act, we stood quietly and watched, waiting for something to happen. I don’t know what we were expecting, but it never came. Then, we tried clapping; we tried shaking her; we even tried the whistle–nothing worked. For what felt like a lifetime, she simply sat there, watching the window.

* * * * *

About two days had passed when Chris’ sister went missing. The police came, but they couldn’t find anything. No evidence, no story, no sign of the teenager. Chris didn’t leave his house for almost a week; he locked himself in his room and only left for food or anything he needed. I could see him at his window, thinking, probably hoping that somehow and someway his sister would be found. But she never was. She never was, until the night before the storm hit us.

“I don’t trust anyone in here, man,” Chris attempted through wavering cracks in his voice and the cell phone static. He was practically on the verge of a breakdown. “Something’s not right. Something’s going on–”

“Chris, you’re hysterical,” I interrupted. If it weren’t for what had happened with his sister, I’d have assumed he was simply overreacting. “Shouldn’t you be worried more about your sister? You know where the rest of your family is, they should be the least of your concerns.”

“Dude, I’m telling you, there is something wrong with them. No one in my family has ever been sleepwalking before!” An unseen weight seemed to sink in my stomach. I sat up in my bed, making out the shape of Chris’ house in the dark. His light was on, the only light in his home.

“Wasn’t your sister the one sleepwalking?” I dared to ask.

“She was. She isn’t anymore, now they’re all doing it.” I didn’t understand. I needed someone to say something, anything to explain away what was happening. Maybe you just never noticed it before, or, it could be normal, maybe we haven’t seen this ourselves. Once that word entered my mind it kept repeating, and repeating, and repeating, normal, normal, normal, normal–

“There’s someone at my door,” Chris’ voice shot through the line, throwing me from my daze.

“What?”

“There’s someone at the door, I just heard knocking.” Peeking across the street, I could see Chris facing me through the window. His eyes were pleading for me to do something.

“Chris?”

“Yeah?”

“When’s the last time you talked to someone in your family?”

“I don’t remember… three days… I think it’s been three days since–” This time I heard the knocking as Chris stopped in his tracks, and turned to face what I assumed was his doorway. Several minutes trudged by, and Chris remained fixed, silently, in an ominous stare; through the phone I could make out more knocking, ringing under his quickening gasps. His eyes were locked on something.

“Chris?” No response. “Chris?”

“Bradley?”

“What, what is it?”

“My door is open.” Before I could respond my mind was already replaying the sight of his sister upright in her chair, eyes open, yet unable to wake as though she were dead. “Someone’s just standing there, knocking on the door. It’s open, Bradley.” His words kept my sights glued to his window. “I can’t tell who it is.”

Then the light went out.

“Chris?”

The call ended.

I waited a few minutes. Then an hour. Then a few hours. No matter how hard I looked at his house or how many times I tried to call him, I couldn’t make out Chris’ shape or get a hold of him. My phone history recorded my paranoia: nine outgoing calls, twelve unread text messages. What the hell happened? I don’t remember what I was feeling, or if I was even scared–I just needed to know what was going on.

Eventually, my exhaustion caught up to me. I tried to stay awake, to see what came next, but before I knew it I’d drifted off to sleep. How long I was out for is beyond me. All I know is that it was still dark out when my sister heard something shatter.

* * * * *

By the time I’d woken up, the police were already gone. Apparently I’d slept through most of the morning; when my sibling Carly got me out of bed, my phone read 2:38 pm.

“I don’t believe for a second you’ve been in this bed all day, what with all that’s happened,” she berated. “Where have you been, Bradley?” Clueless, I rubbed at my eyes to wear off the sleep, trying to make out the fuzzy shape of my older sister. I attempted a response.

“I… don’t know?” Apparently she didn’t like that answer.

“You need to go to the kitchen right now. Something happened last night, and there’s a detective who wants to speak to you. Dad does too.”

“A detective?” Before I got confirmation, Carly left the room. On entering the kitchen, however, I found my dad and an investigator waiting for me just as she’d said. Over the next hour or so I was made aware of what was, surprisingly, the strangest thing that had happened among recent events.

Carly had been awakened the night before by a series of startling events; a thunderous boom, a flash of light, and then a crash. on checking the commotion, she found that one of our downstairs windows had been smashed open. Not long after, someone else had called the police. It seemed that the body of a young girl had been found–I immediately understood who it was. What I didn’t understand though, was why Chris’ sister was found right by our house, next to the broken window.

According to the investigator, the incident was being identified as a shooting. I told the man everything I knew about the girl: her family, the sleepwalking, the disappearance–he didn’t seem interested in the sleepwalking part. I knew nothing about the body, but if it’s possible to know less than nothing, I sure did when he asked if I knew where it went. At some point before the police arrived the body had, from what this report the investigator read noted, ‘disappeared without a trace.’

My dad and sister left us alone while they went to examine the broken window. The man asked if I knew what happened to the window and, like Carly, didn’t really appreciate “I don’t know” as a response. At least, I think he didn’t, I couldn’t really tell; I was still trying to rub sleep out of my eyes. Eventually it became clear he couldn’t get anything out of me (I didn’t have anything to give, after all), but before the detective could make his exit I got in a question of my own.

“Have you asked Chris anything about this?” The man turned, a puzzled gleam in his gaze.

“Who’s Chris?” he questioned. “Is he related to the girl?”

“Yeah, he’s the girl’s brother.” The puzzle in his eye was clearly missing some pieces, and he seemed lost. “They all live at that house right across the street.”

“We knocked at the door, son. No one was home. If they’re out, we’ll check with them when they return.” With that, the private eye thanked my family for their time and went on his way. My dad left the house too, muttering something about not missing work. Though I felt alone, I could still sense Carly’s presence behind me, the two of us stuck in place by an awkward static. Finally, she broke the silence.

“Were you still asking your friends to come see you today?” It took me a moment to remember: I’d asked a few old friends to come by, friends I hadn’t seen since I started college. One of them, of course, had been Chris. Some part of me got a feeling he might not show up that afternoon.

“I’m still thinking about it, yes,” I answered.

“Well, tell them to be careful driving. A storm’s coming in, and they’re saying the roads might flood. If they do drop by, they might have to stay for a while.” She started to leave the room, but stopped to complete her thought. “I’m not going to be home tonight, I have to head to the airport. Dad should be home in the morning.”

* * * * *

It was around 7 pm when the guests arrived. They had called earlier, wondering if they should wait for calmer weather, but the drive isn’t far and I insisted against rescheduling. Through the maelstrom of sleet and pouring rain their car jumped onto the driveway. I watched from the door as they threw up an umbrella and made a dash for the house.

“Oh my god, Bradley!” Dan shouted, hardly letting me open the door. I called them in as cheerfully as I could.

“Dan, Maria! How are you guys?”

“What the hell, it’s been so long!” Maria added. “Come on, you have to tell us everything. What have you been doing all this time?”

“I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it,” I replied, narrowly surviving Dan’s bear hug. “Now get in here, before it starts hailing or something.”

While the night’s dinner baked in the oven, Dan, Maria and I went about sharing all the things we’d missed getting to be a part of in each other’s lives. A flood warning had been issued, and the guests were going to have to stay the night. The two of them got cozy nuzzling on the sofa, warming their hands in each other’s laps; I found a seat from where I could face them and the doorway.

At one point, Dan went to find the bathroom. Maria waited for him to leave, then leaned in to interrogate me.

“Alright,” she began. “When did you and Sylvia go out? You’re going to be trapped in this house with me and you’re not getting away until I know.”

“You know what,” I answered with a sigh, “fine. It happened over the summer, just after graduation.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I mean, I guess I hadn’t thought about it? I don’t know.” I scratched my eye while trying to remember. “It still doesn’t feel like it really happened.”

“How long were you together for?”

“Um… four months? Yeah, four I think.”

“Only four?”

“We weren’t exactly a match made in heaven, I guess.”

It was almost 8 pm at this point, and Dan returned from the bathroom.

“Holy hell,” he started.

“What?” Maria asked. “What is it?”

“Okay–wow–Bradley, your sister really scared me in the hallway. I thought she wasn’t home!”

Maria smiled. Dan smiled too. I smiled as well, even though I didn’t understand; my sister had already left for the airport. I tried to form some sort of an explanation, but got interrupted when the first bang shook the walls.

“Woah,” Dan stammered. “What was that?” The room fell silent for a moment.

“It wasn’t a gunshot, was it?” I interjected.

“Was it?” Maria worried. “It sounded close–” She’d barely finished her thought when a second shot boomed out, then a third. Another two went off in quick, shocking succession, as if whoever fired them was in a panic. Then, silence, save for the substantial rain battering the walls and windows; as if on cue, the storm was starting to really hit.

“Guys?” Dan broke into the ambience. I started to get up, but Dan gestured for me to stay put. “Bradley! You should stay away from the window.”

“Why?” I asked.

“What if there’s something going on, like a shooting?”

“I think Dan’s right,” Maria noted, “it could be serious.”

We sat still, listening. After what felt like a lifetime, our senses on full alert, we weren’t able to hear anymore gunfire. I got on my feet to peer out the window; Dan didn’t stop me this time. It seemed as though time itself held still while I opened the blind, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever awaited us in the rain. I couldn’t see anything through the downpour, and I was about to close the blinds when I noticed a shape lying on the driveway.

We leapt out of our skin when a knock came at the door from across the house. it came suddenly, without warning. I looked at Dan, then Maria, who was watching towards the entrance.

“Is it your dad?” she wondered aloud. No one answered as I made my way around the couch. Taking hold of the wall, I would lean into the hall through one of the doorways to see who was knocking; I feared it was whoever had been shooting, but some part of me was more afraid of what might have caused it.

Before I identified our guest, I checked one more time on the group behind me. Maria hadn’t moved from the couch; Dan was standing next to me, where he was when the shots went off. Another deep breath, and I was ready to find out who was at the door. I wasn’t sure what I was so afraid of. What if we were just overreacting?

It was clear we weren’t overreacting when I discovered the front door was open. Whoever’d been knocking was now in the house.

“Who is it?” Dan whispered from beside me. I tried to formulate a reply.

“…I’m not sure…” became my response. As I watched the door, something caught my eye. “Dan, did you leave the light on upstairs?”

“The light?” he repeated, unraveling. Walking over to see what I meant, he noticed the open door as well. It became clear he was getting nervous. At last, I decided I’d had enough, and went off towards the stairs. Dan called to me from the doorway, hardly at a whisper.

“Bradley, where are you going?”

“I’m going to figure out what the hell is going on,” I answered brashly, not stopping to face him. Instead, I rounded the corner and took to the stairs. Dashing up, I was ready to get some answers–I halted at the landing, realizing I might be running into danger with reckless abandon. The hallway, including the doors to my dad’s room and my own room, was just visible around the corner.

The bathroom door was ajar, and an orange ray poured into the unlit hall. Ah, ominous, I contemplated. Why not? Taking the final step onto the second floor, the doorway was now in full sight. I’d been hoping this whole thing was a strange coincidence, but my hopes were suspended when a shape in the cracked opening caught my eye. After everything that’d happened that night, I was a little unsettled; it was when I opened the door that I really became concerned.

“…Chris?” The words escaped my mouth as though they weren’t mine. Leaning against the sink, staring at his reflection in the mirror, Chris had appeared for the first time in almost twenty-four hours. At my exclamation, he turned to face me–there was a look in his eye I couldn’t quite place. We stood in a long beat of silence, until I broke from my trance to start getting some answers.

“Were you knocking on the front door?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he responded. “I was hoping you were home, but no one answered, so I came in to make sure you were okay.” Something about Chris was different, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Why are you in the bathroom?”

“I came upstairs to see if you were–”

“Why are you in the bathroom?”

“Alright, I know this seems weird Bradley, but I swear I have a reason–” I stopped him again with more questions, no longer able to contain my curiosity.

“What happened last night? Where did you go?”
“Bradley, if you’d give me a second to explain…”

I hadn’t interrupted him, but he trailed off anyway. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t looking at me. You know that feeling you get when even though you can’t see it, you know something’s behind you? However you describe it, that’s what hit me just before the bathroom light went off.

The next few seconds were a blur. There was a scream–I assume Chris–and I saw him holding something in the dark. On impulse I ran, and before I knew it my feet had carried me to the stairs; I practically tumbled to the bottom as I scurried towards the living room. At some point during my flight a series of ear-splitting booms shook the house, and I hadn’t even noticed the flashing light before I got back to the others.

“Holy shit!” Dan called down the hall as I fell through the living room doorway.

“Oh my god,” Maria cried while helping me to my feet. “What the hell just happened?”

“Someone attacked us,” I gasped, hardly believing my own words.

“What?” Dan shouted. “What do you mean someone–”

“I don’t know, the lights went–”

“Was that a gun?” Maria cried.

“That was a gun, Bradley,” Dan started yelling. “Did you–?”

It was chaos. Dan was almost screaming, and Maria was panicking, and I couldn’t finish a sentence, and someone walked past the room, and the rain was getting heavier; there was no calm in sight when we heard footsteps charging down the stairs. Chris halted at the top of the staircase–he brandished a handgun, pointed right at us. The panic got worse.

“Everyone shut up!” Chris exploded. We froze, encased in fear. “Nobody move!”

“Chris?” I dared a question. He watched me, letting me speak, but he was definitely on edge. I got the feeling he wouldn’t hesitate to gun me down the moment I made a wrong move. “Chris, what the hell is happening?”

* * * * *

We managed to calm everyone down enough to come together in the living room. Chris was still eyeing us, his gun at the ready; we all eyed him back, and he began to speak.

“Alright,” he started, “I don’t know what’s going on, but no one is leaving this room until we’ve figured something out.”

“Chris,” I interjected, “you’re hysterical.”

“Quiet, Bradley!” He kept the barrel leveled right with my head.

“Chris,” Dan spoke up. “Were you the one firing those shots earlier?”

“Outside?” Chris elaborated. Dan nodded. “Yeah… Yes, that was me.”

“Why?” Maria asked. She looked shaken, but she was holding together.

“…It was trying to escape.”

There was an uncomfortable pause at the word. For a moment, looks of terror turned to looks of bewilderment; we all exchanged glances, and I asked for clarity.

“It?” I repeated.

“Yeah,” Dan added in, “what is-, what is ‘it?'”

“I don’t know what it is,” Chris began to answer, “but it–”

“This is ridiculous,” I interrupted. “Do you realize how–”

“Bradley, I swear to God!” His grip on the weapon tightened. “Look, I’m telling you. Whatever got to my family, it’s probably trying to–”

“Your family?” Maria stopped him. Suddenly, Chris’ nervous fury melted a bit, and he was lost in thought; his grip loosened on the pistol.

“Chris,” Dan questioned, “Who were you shooting at outside?”

“It was my brother,” Chris admitted after a moment. Dan looked utterly confused. “Wait, no, it wasn’t him, but it-, it looked like him… but it was walking towards your house–”
“Chris?” Maria stopped him again. “What’s going on?”

It took Chris a few moments before he’d adequately come out of his trance. He spoke slowly, as if choosing his words carefully.

“Over the past few weeks,” he began, “I noticed something… was wrong with my sister.” Dan and Maria looked at each other, then at me as though expecting some kind of explanation–I had no words. Chris continued. “Soon enough, my dad was acting weird too, and then my mom, and my brother as well. I locked myself in my room and avoided them, and it might be the only reason I’m okay.”

“How do we know you’re okay?” I asked, sitting up in my chair. Chris, it seemed, had no idea how to respond; the longer he waited, the more Dan and Maria began to shift around. Finally, he thought of a reply.

“Would I want to kill it, whatever it is, if I wasn’t?” This seemed to satisfy the three of us.

“What happened to your family?” Maria inquired, not handling the suspense very well. Chris took an uncomfortably long time to answer.

“I… I killed them.”

Maria fainted. Dan jumped to his feet, not happy at all about his current situation.

“What the fuck do you mean you killed them?” He bellowed. Chris snapped to attention, readying his weapon.

“Jesus,” I remarked. As quickly as she’d gone out, Maria started coming to; Dan calmed as he tended to his girlfriend.

“Listen to me!” Chris tried to reason. “They weren’t human anymore!”

Any sane person would have thought Chris had lost his mind; we must have been crazy ourselves, because we started to listen intently. “After I… killed them… I took the bodies outside to bury them. That’s when I grabbed the gun.” I wasn’t sure what Chris had used before the gun, but the thought bothered me and I kept listening. “As I was taking them around the house, my… my sister showed up.”

“Last night?” I asked.

“Yeah. She was the first to act out so I knew she wasn’t herself anymore. I couldn’t trust her–so I shot her. After that I buried her body with the others.”

Maria wasn’t taking the story very well, and she was shaking all over; Dan didn’t take his eyes off of her.

“So why don’t you trust us?” I remarked. “I mean, if it was just your family, why would we–”

“Because after I killed her–before I got the body–something… something came out of her corpse.” Chris looked as though he no longer believed himself, as though the uncanny nature of his testimony was just starting to hit him. “I… I didn’t see it, but I heard it break through your window.”

All at once, everything added up.

“Oh my god,” I stammered. I was trying to process this, but it wasn’t long before Chris explained it to all of us.

“Bradley, either it’s in your house, or… or it’s already inside one of you.” Maria sat up; so did Dan; so did I.

“Well…” Dan pondered aloud, “…Well then it can’t be me or Maria. I mean, we just got here tonight. I–” He noticed Maria, who was watching me cautiously. Chris saw this too, and suddenly four pairs of eyes were locked on me.

“Whatever it is,” I stuttered quickly, “you and I were just attacked by it upstairs. It’s still on the loose!”

“If it’s been here since last night,” Chris calculated, “it could have gotten to anyone in this house. Has anyone been away from the group tonight?” The eyes all shifted to Dan, who had been in the bathroom.

“What?” Dan protested. “I was just peeing, okay? I was gone for like, three minutes, tops! But–” he turned to Maria. “–you were alone with him!” He pointed to me with his exclamation. Maria, shocked, defended herself.

“Well, something attacked Chris and Bradley!” she retaliated. “What if whatever it was got you while you were in the bathroom?” The couple was farther apart, physically speaking, than I’d seen them in years. While the group threw accusations left and right, a shadow caught the corner of my eye; I looked behind me, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

“I was gone for three! Minutes! What could have happened?” Dan railed on.

“That could have been enough time for it to copy you,” I noted.

“Copy?” Chris halted the witch trial to take notice of my comment.

“Yeah,” I explained. “You said it looked like your brother, right?”
“…Yes?” Chris confirmed.

“Did you bury your brother before you saw him near my house?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“Then I think whatever you shot wasn’t your brother.” I only saw Chris’ puzzled stare for a moment before the whole room went dark. Something turned the lights off.

Dan and Maria screamed as Chris fumbled for a source of light. He yanked out his phone and flipped the flashlight on, just in time to illuminate an unusual figure making its way out of the room.

“There it is!” He called, alerting the rest of us. “Don’t lose it!” The chase was on as Chris bolted into the dark. Dan and Maria went after him, and I followed. Chris flew up the stairs after the intruder, but our adrenaline ran out in the second floor hallway–as if by magic, the figure had disappeared.

“Shit,” Chris gasped. “Bradley, did you see where it went?”

“Huh?” I replied.

“Bradley, you were right behind me.”

“No, I didn’t see it.”

“Damnit.” Chris scratched his head, then began peeking into the rooms with his light. He checked my dads’ room: nothing. He checked my room: empty. He checked the bathroom: vacant. “Well… it looks like we lost it.”

* * * * *

“Here’s the plan,” Chris announced. We were in the living room again, and were devising a way to get out of our mess–preferably alive and unaltered. On a coffee table we’d laid out an assortment of tools to defend ourselves with. We had a kitchen knife, a hammer, a taser (from Maria’s purse), and the gun; Chris set it down to insist he could be trusted.

“Bradley, have you locked all the doors?”

“Yep,” I reported. “The key is outside. Someone will have to let us out once we’ve tracked down our intruder.”

“Locked the windows too?”

“Nailed shut. They can’t be opened without breaking them; I moved a cabinet in front of the one that broke last night.”

“Good, if we hear one shatter we’ll know where it’s at.” With that, Chris went about deciding how to divvy out armaments. We weren’t so worried about three of the weapons; the one we couldn’t decide on was Chris’ handgun. Eventually, we decided Dan was the least conspicuous and most capable of handling it, so the trust fell on him. With the firepower in his control, Dan was now in charge.

“Alright,” Dan began. “Like Chris said, whoever–or god forbid whatever–is in this house, it’s probably trying to get out by now. No one try the doors, no one sneak off, and no one check your phones. Got it?” We all nodded, and Dan seemed satisfied. “Okay, good. Now: let’s go find our guest.”

We searched the bottom floor thoroughly, before deciding to move on with no trace of it on the level. Upstairs, we split up–Dan with Maria, and Chris with me–and room by room we went; no matter where we looked, no nook, cranny, nor corner turned up a sign of the figure. By the time we convened at the stairs again, only my dad’s bedroom remained.

“Maria?” Dan addressed the girl, who was clutching her taser as though it were her child.

“Yeah?” She replied.

“I’m going to check the bedroom with Chris.” Chris looked just as confused as I was by this. “If the intruder is in there, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Well what should I do then?”

“Wait downstairs with Bradley.” Maria didn’t seem convinced by the idea, and watched me with suspicion.

“What if something happens down there?”

“Then take this.” Letting go of his own security, Dan offered the gun to Maria. “It’s much safer than a taser.”

“Dan, are you sure–?”

“I’m sure, darling. You watch Bradley, and I’ll keep an eye on Chris.”

“How do you know she’s safe to trust with that?” I pointed out, noticing a potential folly in the plan.

“Bradley,” Dan replied without hesitation, “she’s my girlfriend. I’d know if she wasn’t herself.”

Having no counter for that, I reluctantly agreed to follow Maria downstairs while the other men checked the bedroom. Maria made me walk ahead of her as we descended the steps; I had no doubts that she wouldn’t take any chances with me. We set foot in the living room once again and, after double-checking that we were alone, took a seat on the sofas.

“Maria,” I spoke, to break the silence. “Why am I the one you’re targeting?” She didn’t waiver, but held the firearm weakly. Unlike Chris, I could tell she didn’t want to use it.

“You’ve been here for weeks,” she reminded me. “Why should I trust you? Whatever’s going on, you’ve been around it this whole time.”

“Chris is the one you should be watching, not me. He was living with those-, those things! There’s no way that isn’t at least a little off to you.”

“He wants to stop it, Bradley. He had a point when he told us that. Why would he help track it down if it was him he was hunting for?”

“To avert suspicion, maybe? And besides, what if he’s really just trying to trap us all in here with him?”

“Well hey, he’s your friend, Bradley. Shouldn’t you trust him?”

“I trusted him when he wasn’t pointing a gun at my head.”

We waited there in silence. I thought about making another remark, but decided against it. A new thought had just come to mind when Dan came running through the doorway.

“Bradley, Maria,” he called, grabbing our attention. As he entered the room, I noticed he was carrying two weapons; moments later, I could just make out the sounds of banging and shouting from upstairs.

“Is that Chris?” I demanded to know, looking towards the sound.

“I, uh… I locked him in a closet.”

“What?” Maria questioned him, getting to her feet. “Why?”

“Guys, look–I do not trust him. I mean, it’s like you said earlier, Bradley, his whole family was acting weird or whatever the case was. How do we know he’s clean?”

“See, Dan agrees with me,” I quipped at Maria.

As we debated Chris’ credibility, I noticed the shouting from upstairs was beginning to stop.

“Dan, I still don’t know,” Maria said, conflicted. “He could really be on our side.”

It seemed like our argument had nowhere else to go when our trust circle was suddenly shattered by a cry for help–Chris was in danger.

“Shit,” Dan remarked.

“Why would you leave him alone?” Maria shouted. “Hurry!”

Lightly armed and hardly prepared, we took off for the second floor. We sprinted up the stairs, turned into the hall, and burst into the bedroom; to our surprise, Chris was not in the closet, but was standing in the open, breathing frantically.

“Chris?” Dan spoke, a bit confused. “How did–”

“It tried to get me!” Chris panted, trying in vain to regain his composure.

“You saw it?” Dan exclaimed. “Where did it go?”

“I locked it in there.” Chris found his footing and pointed at the closet. It seemed he’d gotten over Dan trapping him, and was now more worried about the intruder.

“Move over, Chris!” Dan gestured for him to step aside. It didn’t take long to spot Dan’s finger on the trigger, and he quickly ducked away from the closet. On Dan’s cue, I crept beside the closet, placed a hand on the handle, and flung it open.

Startled by the gunshot that followed, Maria ducked on the floor. Dan looked after her as Chris and I closer examined the closet. lurking in the dark had been the figure, who I could now identify for the first and last time–the convincing replication of Chris’ sister was crumpled on the floor. After escaping its original host, the intruder had copied her image perfectly; the only thing out of place was the hole Dan put where her eye had been.

“You were right about it making copies,” Chris noted. He seemed oddly unfazed at the sight of the corpse. “It looks just like her… Like she did, I guess.”

Dan took Maria downstairs to help her relax. Chris and I kept an eye on the body until Dan was sure the scarred girl was alright, and after a few minutes he came back up to the bedroom.

“I hate to break it to you guys,” Chris stated firmly, to our dismay, “but we still don’t know that we’re safe. If it can be that convincing, how do we possibly know for sure that none of us are one as well?”

“Chris,” Dan addressed him curiously, realizing something that didn’t add up. “How did you get out of the closet?”

“Well,” Chris replied, “I used the knife to undo the lock.” I turned to Dan, who was looking at me, a glint of uneasiness in his eye.

“But, I have the knife,” Dan informed us, exposing the lie.

The room fell deathly silent. We waited for an answer, a defense; Chris just stood there. Staring. Unblinking. Not moving. ‘Chris’ had made a mistake.

“Dan?” I stammered. “Where’s the gun?”

“Guys, hang on,” Chris spoke up, startling Dan and I. “Let’s talk about this.”

“I gave it to Maria,” Dan realized.

“We can figure this out,” Chris continued, scratching his eyes.

“Chris, don’t move a muscle, or we’ll–”

I fell to the floor as the impersonation moved its hands away, revealing empty orbs where there were eyes moments ago. It stared straight at Dan, and its jaw nearly unhinged; an inhuman, primal wailing escaped from its mouth. It took a single step towards Dan before we were all shocked by a deafening bang, and the false-Chris was no more. Standing over the lifeless creature was Maria, holding the smoking gun firmly in her hands.

* * * * *

The next morning, none of us spoke to the police. My dad arrived home to find us still awake in the living room, before discovering two ‘bizarrely disfigured human remains,’ as I would later find the report referred to them as. It took days for us to find the words to speak, let alone explain what incomprehensible events had taken place that night; none of us tried to tell the truth, and instead we agreed on an alibi, which would be broadcast on the news within a week: “The late Chris Mensworth, a 19-year-old college student from South Florida, was convicted of committing a murder-suicide, massacring his family before killing himself and his sister in the home of his childhood friend, Bradley Stokes.” Even as the newscaster read it, I still couldn’t comprehend that Chris, and his whole family, were really dead.

The rest of my holiday break was hardly festive. Christmas was quiet, and cheerful hymns were replaced with silent respects at church. Eventually, the time came for me to return to campus; After all, I told my dad, I still have an entry exam for next semester. With quiet packing and solemn goodbyes, I got in my car and drove north.

When I walked into my apartment, I was truly alone. With one friend dead and two others traumatized for life, I didn’t sleep at all my first night back on campus. It was still dark outside the window when my roommate came in.

“Hey man,” he said, taking a knee beside me. “I heard about what happened. Are you doing alright?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. He smiled, trying to comfort me.

“You sure you’re good?”

“Yeah,” I affirmed, smiling back. “Everything’s fine.”

Credit: Evan Spry

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