Skulls

June 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 22 minutes, 17 seconds

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Before we get to the heart of the matter I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. I am the oldest son of a large family and I had spent my entire life in the same town in the North East United States. Forgive me for being evasive, but I have to be rather discreet about certain locations that feature in my story. I have also changed the names of the people involved so as to protect the innocent and avoid libel suits from the families of the not-so-innocent. We lived in a very small house on the edge of a forest and across the street from an abandoned rock quarry. I was also very active in the Boy Scouts. The isolation of my home and the various strange places my Boy Scout troop traveled, resulted in more than one unsettling run in with dangerous animals, whether they walked on four legs or two, so over the years I had developed a bit of a “Danger Sense”. Whenever I detected that something about a situation was a little bit off, all of the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck would spring to attention. Most off the time this Danger Sense was a false alarm, I soon came to hate deer, but every once and a while it gave me good advice and kept me from blundering into bears, rabid coyotes, pot farmers, and what I suspect to have been a serial killer. There were also a few stranger incidents but those are best left for another time. In short, I learned to be grateful for my subconscious. As I got to the end of my high school career I became eager to get out of the house and go to college. I loved my family dearly, but I was more than ready to be known as an individual rather than as a small part of a collective. I was also very socially awkward, particularly when it came to girls. I was looking forward to the blank slate that going away to college would provide.

As my senior year drew to a close I came across the campus that features into my story. Once again I am going to have to fudge the geography a bit, so I will limit myself to saying that it was a relatively small school somewhere in Ohio. From the moment I set foot on campus the cheerfulness of the students infected me like nothing else had in a long time. The other students’ enthusiasm for life in general was the main reason that I chose to go here rather than to a more inexpensive state school. I know some would say it was a waste of money to pick which college to attend on such details, but I still hold that there is more to attending college than academics. I decided to be an English major and off I went. My number of friends multiplied unbelievably fast it those first few weeks, and the three that became my best friends were Nick, Topher, and Robin. Robin was very emotional and was all heart with very little head. Nick and Topher were more logical, like me, although with Topher this made him rather eccentric and not that good with relating to other people. He was more happy blowing up stuff in the woods and hunting deer than talking to people. Nick was also an English major, and we spent many nights staying up late discussing The Lord of the Rings or classical mythology. During those first few weeks I also met Emily. She was, in my opinion, the most beautiful young woman God had put on this Earth. She had eyes as blue as the sun on a cloudless day, and her light brown, wavy hair brought back fond memories of the forests in early spring finally coming to life again after a long winter. Her smile could light up the room and her laugh was better than sunshine after a rainstorm. Not only was she beautiful, she was also one of the smartest and kindest people that I have ever known. Our philosophical discussions inside and outside the classroom usually left me with my head spinning, and yet she displayed an optimistic view about human nature that made it impossible for anyone to be pessimistic around her. I also had less of a problem with my social awkwardness around her. I may have had a hard time talking to girls, but Emily talked more than enough for the both of us. I wish I could say that I immediately swept her off her feet and we eloped the following summer, but that was sadly not the case. I was still awkward around women and for the longest time I had to settle for the position of being just a friend. But I digress, you all came to this pasta looking for a scary story and it is high time than I started to deliver.

As I mentioned, the students on our campus were perpetually cheerful. As time went on my fellow freshmen and I began to hear stories that suggested there was a karmic price for this happiness. Most of the time, when the sun was shining, life was good. But once the warm days of late summer went away, and the shadows began to grow longer and take on sinister appearances, we began to see a different side of campus. There were stories. At the time I was pretty sure that the stories were just attempts by the upperclassmen to scare the gullible freshmen, but during my years living on campus I have seen enough weird stuff to begin to wonder. There were the shadow-men who walked the hallways of the dorms on stormy nights and stood at the foot of students’ beds. There were the mysterious crying sounds of a baby in the student center in the dead of night. There was the wolf-creature that sometimes roamed the classroom buildings and was reputed to have chased one of our campus security guards through the stacks in the library before vanishing into thin air. Finally, there were the skulls.

In order to understand what I am about to tell you about the skulls, you have to understand the layout of one of our classroom buildings. Our drama and history departments have only a handful of students and are therefore regarded as the red-headed stepchildren of the various majors offered on campus. As a result, both of them are tucked away in the basement of one of our classroom buildings, Edward Hall. The theater where the drama department performed their plays was tucked away in the far corner of Edward’s basement. The only entrances, or exits, from the theater were the main entrance, which was where the tickets were sold and collected, and a staircase behind the stage which most people did not know existed. Right next to the theater was the storage closet that was shared between the drama department and the history department. I rarely saw the inside of the closet but I was more than happy to stay away from it. The various prop weapons laying everywhere unnerved me and there was a strange idol in the very back corner of the room which seemed to always be watching you, no matter where you stood in the room. If you came in the door the idol was sitting on its pedestal watching you. If you were working in the shelves you could usually see some part of the blasted thing over an aisle maintaining its silent vigil. The campus legend said that the idol was found in an Aztec temple many years ago with the skulls at its feet. Most historians bemoan the fact that Cortez dismantled a good portion of the Aztec culture when he showed up with his Spanish forces. I, however, had always had a quiet admiration for the man. When I looked up the Aztecs online, and saw all of the human sacrifices and cannibalism that they embraced, I became secretly convinced that Cortez had done the world a favor. I was not the only one who feared the idol. I once heard two of the professors talk in hushed whispers about destroying it. They eventually decided not to do so because, as they said, “at least now we know the genie is still in the lamp.”

In order to reach the theater you had to come down the main staircase which brought you right past the skulls. There were four of them, kept in a glass case just as you have doubtless seen in dozens of museums. Being a logical person, I was irritated by my irrational fear of the skulls. Something about them set my Danger Sense off every time I walked past them. Their hollow eye sockets seemed to turn to follow me as I walked past, even though I knew that to be impossible. Most unsettling of all was what would occur every long once and a while, when I had to walk past the skulls alone. On those occasions I could swear that I heard a very faint sound; click-clack, click-clack. My overactive imagination immediately assumed it was the sound of the bones grinding against each other. Needless to say, I did not go into the basement of Edward unless I had very good reason.

The urban legends of campus were a favorite late night discussion among my group of friends, and we all had different opinions on the various stories. Topher and I were in agreement that most of the stories were probably exaggerated beyond belief by stressed out college students, but we were open to the possibility that there may have been some sort of actual occurrence behind the stories. My Danger Sense, and a few previous encounters with things that could not be easily explained by logic, made me more likely to believe the stories, and I had long suspected that Topher had experienced something similar. Robin, of course, was whipped into a near panic attack every time the topic of scary stories came up, while Nick was by far the most skeptical.

“Look,” Nick would say, “all of these stories seem to happen at around three in the morning.”

“The Devil’s Hour,” Robin would murmur.

“That is the problem with this campus,” Nick would reply. “Everyone is so blasted emotional about their religious beliefs. They see angels in every ray of sunlight and demons in every shadow.”

“Think about it though,” Topher reflected. “If there was one place on Earth the forces of darkness would be more…theatrical…in their attacks, this campus would probably be it.”

“That is irrelevant.” Nick said. “As I was saying all of these things happen at three in the morning. At that hour even Lassie would look like the Wolfman. As for the shadow men, hasn’t anyone around here ever hear of sleep paralysis or waking dreams? This is just like BaronVonRuthless91 and his Danger Sense. I just read this book, The Gift of Fear, which says that your Danger Sense is really just your subconscious recognizing something is off when you don’t realize it yourself. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this.”

For most of the stories we heard Nick could come up with a ready explanation, but his theories did not quite ease my worries about the skulls and the Aztec idol. What happened in the fall of my Junior year during the semester’s drama performance only compounded matters. I was in the audience with Emily. She had mentioned that she was looking forward to the play and I had leaped at the opportunity to spend some more time with her. We had arrived at the last minute and so we had seats at the very back of the theater. I did not realize it at the time, but the only thing separating us from the storage room, and the Aztec idol, was a thin wall. The play went off without a hitch until the very end. As the climax approached and the murderer was about to be revealed there was a loud boom and the lights went out for a few seconds. When this occurred everyone had their attention focused on the right of the stage, where the detective was finally confronting the fiendish killer, and so there was no one looking at the aisles of the theater. Well, no one except for me that is. You see, Emily was sitting directly to my left and I had taken the rare opportunity that the darkened theater provided to admire the freckles around her nose, something I would not have dared do in the light of day or if her attention were not focused elsewhere. Yeah I know, I was head over heels in love. Sue me. Anyhow, as the lights came back on I was the only one who saw them. Four small round shapes seemed to skitter up and down the aisle for a second before disappearing. I also could have sworn that I heard a very faint sound coming from the shapes; click-clack click-clack, Instantly, any thoughts of Emily were forgotten. I had a sneaky feeling what those four shapes were and I was not about to mess with them. Behind me I heard a strange sound. The sound can only be described as what would happen if Darth Vader were to have spent a lifetime of chain smoking. Whatever the sound was, it seemed to take the form of a chuckle. It was at this point that I remembered that I was sitting against the wall. At the same time, I remembered what was on the other side of that wall. The realization made me practically leap out of my seat with a very unmanly squeak. Emily gave me a curious look and I tried to settle down for the remainder of the play.

As we left that evening I noticed that the skulls were not in their cases. I began to have a small asthma attack when I noticed this fact. Emily noticed the source of my discomfort. “Huh,” she remarked, “they must be cleaning them.” I discussed the matter with my friends when I got back to the dorm that night. Robin was all for calling in an exorcist on the spot, while Topher was all for booby-trapping the basement to capture the roaming skulls. Nick put the matter down to a combination of an electric malfunction and the overactive imagination of an English major, which he was very familiar with. He also suggested that it could have been a prank. I replied that if it had been a prank it had failed miserably. I had been the only one to notice what had happened. Ironically, the more immediate source of my peril was to come from a far more mundane source.

As my college career progressed I began to involve myself in various service projects the university offered. One of these service projects involved us visiting the local homeless citizens in the inner city next to our campus. I initially got involved with this service in order to fulfill some community service requirements for a class, but the people I was visiting slowly but surely grew on me. I enjoyed hearing the crazy stories that the old veterans told, and helping the men and women that had young children handle their kids. For once my experiences with my younger siblings proved to be useful. Overall, the homeless population were a lovable, if eccentric, bunch. Well, all of them except for Aiden. Aiden was an odd kid. He was about seventeen or eighteen years old and I never heard him speak above a whisper in all my time at the homeless shelter. He would spend his time sitting in the main room watching and doing little else. One day I convinced Emily to come with me and she went right up to Aiden and began to chatter away. I did not like the predatory look in Aiden’s eye when he looked at her and I moved Emily to another part of the room as quickly as I could. After this incident, he fixated on me. Apparently, he saw me as a threat to whatever he imagined himself doing to Emily. He would sit in the corner of the room muttering to himself and watching me. Nick had very good hearing and he came with me to the shelter on one occasion. He swore that Aiden was not muttering in English but in Latin. This was not reassuring. I began to notice Aiden on campus when there was no earthly reason for him to be there. I saw him duck behind a pillar as I left one of my night classes, and I once saw him standing around the student center vending machines on a foggy morning.

Then he disappeared completely. Just as suddenly as it began, the stalking stopped. It was as if Aiden had vanished off the face of the earth. Around this time Robin began to have night terrors. He would claim that he would wake up in the middle of the night and look out the window to see shadow men watching from the line of trees just behind our dormitory. As time passed the apparitions began to show up inside the dorm. Robin swore up and down that he would hear the shadowy figures whispering outside his door and trying the door handle to see if it was unlocked. Thankfully for Robin’s peace of mind, I was his roommate at the time and I had long made it a habit to lock our door at night, even though our campus had an almost non-existent crime rate. Topher had taken to setting up elaborate ways to show Robin that his visions were just vivid nightmares by spreading flour outside our door and having Robin place a stack of soda cans on top of the inside of our door handle so that they would fall if the handle were to be fiddled with. This was a source of great annoyance to our RA and eventually the shadow men stopped visiting. None of the alarms were ever tripped except for one time the soda cans fell off the handle at three in the morning, which nearly gave me and Robin a panic attack. We checked the flour but it was as smooth as ever. None of us thought that the shadow men might have been able to lean over the flour, but we didn’t suspect a great many things until too late. I would have brushed the incident aside completely if it hadn’t been for what Nick heard that night. He had been having a bout of insomnia and had been awake to hear the cans fall down in the next room. Shortly after this happened he thought he heard the front door to our dorm slam shut as if someone was leaving in a hurry. He used this fact to try and reassure us and, I suspect, himself. After all, shadow men do not need doors.

The events regarding my being stalked by Aiden, occurred at the very end of my junior year and Robin’s sinister visitors began to make themselves known early in our senior year. By Halloween, which also happened to be our fall break, matters had calmed considerably. The shadow men had seemingly given up their campaign against my roommate, much to everyone’s relief. I had other things on my mind at any rate. After three long years I was finally psyching myself up to officially ask Emily out on a date, and this was a far greater source of fear to me than Aiden or even the Aztec idol and its skull minions. I planned to make my move on the night before Halloween, which was our first night off for fall break. As it happened we were both staying on campus for the break, so we had a bit more privacy than usual. We had arranged to study together at nine o’clock that evening in a study lounge on the top floor of Edward hall. With a good amount of teasing from Nick and Topher, Robin had gone home for break, I left for the big event. The plan was for me to walk Emily back to her dorm after the study session and to ask her out there. Things did not go entirely as planned, however. We had been going over our notes on one of Shakespeare’s plays for about an hour, when Emily got a text from her roommate. Apparently she had cut herself bad enough to require stitches and she needed a ride to the hospital. I saw the opportunity to be the Knight in Shining Armor and offered to drive them to the hospital. As we walked down the steps towards the parking lot behind Edward, I briefly saw movement, as if someone had just ducked inside a vacant classroom. I thought nothing of it at the time.

Emily and I stayed in the waiting room of the hospital for several hours while her friend was being tended to. As she sat next to me Emily began to fall asleep and she laid her head on my shoulder. This momentous event drove my Danger Sense straight out of my mind, even though it had been twitching for several hours by this point. The shadow I glimpsed inside of Edward weighed heavily on my subconscious, although I did not realize it at that point. About two in the morning Emily’s roommate was done with her medical emergency, but the doctors wanted to keep her overnight. Apparently the injury was slightly more severe than we had realized. I walked Emily back to her dorm and as we walked from the parking lot to the residence halls, she very casually let her hand brush against mine once or twice. As we reached our destination she turned and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before telling me goodnight and that she would see me in the morning.

As I reached my room I got a text from Emily. In the confusion of the hospital visit we had left our textbooks at Edward and she told me that she was going back to get them. At this moment my Danger Sense returned with a vengeance, and I remembered the figure I thought that I had seen hiding in the vacant classroom. We had to get those books back as I was afraid that some goofball would steal them. The bookstore charged four hundred dollars for that Shakespeare collection and I was not about to let it go to waste. I realized that this was the setup for a bad horror movie, I am not entirely stupid, and so I recruited Nick and Topher to assist me in my mission. I had no intention of letting Emily wander around that building in the dark by herself. Topher was enthusiastic and insisted on packing a super soaker filled with holy water to fight off the shadow men. Nick was more exasperated, but he saw something in my eyes that made him refrain from making any sarcastic comments and he agreed to come along. A large bank of fog had rolled in when we reached Edward. The building was supposed to be locked up at eleven and it was now close to three, but Topher knew of a back door that the security guards usually forgot to lock. Tonight was no exception and, after meeting Emily, we slipped quietly into the basement of Edward. Thankfully, we were on the other side of the building from the theater, so I convinced myself we did not need to worry about the Aztec idol, although the wolf creature weighed heavily on my thoughts as we ascended the staircase. We did not know if there were any security guards roaming the building so we did not want to risk the noisy elevator. We reached the study lounge on the top floor and found our books. At this point Topher’s digestive system began to demand his immediate attention and so the rest of us waited outside the restroom while he took care of his business.

At this point I heard the sound; click-clack click-clack, coming from around a corner about fifty feet down the hall. I nearly jumped out of my skin and Nick noticed my reaction. He had heard something as well, but he had not had my experience with the Aztec idol and the skulls so he was slightly more brave about the situation than I was. After a whispered argument Nick decided to poke his head around the corner and see what was up while Emily and I waited. Emily also did not share my fear of the skulls. Her optimism refused to let her contemplate the existence of such things. I agreed as long as Nick promised not to leave my field of vision. As Nick slipped down the hall he had to pass one of the darkened classrooms. As he passed it he quickly glanced inside. When he looked inside he stopped in his tracks for about five seconds and peered into the room as if he had seen something through the window. He shook his head and went on. My Danger Sense was screaming as he reached the corner and looked around it. He looked back at me and shook his head. There was nothing there.

At this point the door to the classroom silently opened. Nick and I stood frozen in shock as the room loomed like the jaws of some great creature between us. For what was probably only half a minute but felt like hours everything was silent and motionless. Then, from the room, came a soft giggling sound and murmured Latin phrases. Aiden stepped out of the room and turned towards Emily and me with a huge grin on his face. I had never seen him smile before and I realized that, for some unknowable reason, he had mutilated his teeth so that they resembled fangs. Far more worrisome than Aiden’s teeth was the long knife that he held in his hands. For several seconds all was silent again and then all Hell broke loose. I finally regained control of my muscles and vocal cords and I screamed at Nick to run. I hoped that this scream would also alert Topher in the bathroom and that he would have enough sense to stay quiet. Nick vanished around the corner and I sprinted with Emily for the staircase at the far end of the hall. As I turned to go down the stairs, I caught a glimpse of Aiden moving down the hall. He was in no hurry. I had been running as fast as I could but Aiden seemed to be moving at a light jog, still with that horrific grin. Despite this relaxed pace he was gaining on me. I sped down the stairs so fast that I almost tripped and very nearly pushed Emily down the final flight. Finally we reached the bottom of the staircase and I ducked into the first door that I saw, pulling Emily with me. The room was pitch black and I dared not search for a light switch, so I had no idea where I was until I bumped into the first row of chairs. We were in the theater.

I heard our pursuer enter the room so I quickly ducked behind the furthest row of seats and began to pray as I had never prayed before and whispered to Emily that she should hide in the row behind me. I heard Aiden talking to himself in his usual Latin whispers. Apparently he could not find the light switch and was not completely sure that I had sought refuge in here. Emily was of the opinion that we should appeal to his better nature, but I did not share her optimism and I frantically tried to keep her from talking to loud and revealing us.

As our hunter prowled ever closer I heard a very soft shuffling sound from behind me. I put it down to an overactive imagination until I heard a distinctive CLICK-CLACK right beside my ear. I involuntarily lept to my feet just as all of the lights in the room came on at once, revealing us to Aiden. Apparently if the Aztec idol could make the lights turn off at a whim it could also turn them on again. Aiden saw me immediately and I saw no choice but to make for the main exit. I blew through the door like a bat out of hell, with Emily close behind, when I tripped. As I fell I heard the door to the storage room slide open. Emily saw the storage room and ducked inside before I could stop her. She had no fear of the Aztec idol, while her bubbly cheerfulness had finally given way to common sense when it came to Aiden.

Lying on the floor I quickly rolled underneath the nearby ticket table and tried to psyche myself up for what I knew I had to do. I braced myself. If I was found by either one of my nightmares I had no intention of going down without a fight. I heard the deep chuckle from the storage room at the same time as I heard a set of soft feet leave the theater. My thoughts began to wander. I wondered if Topher and Nick had escaped. If they had, and I died in here they would never be able to forgive themselves. I thought of Robin. If I were to die under these circumstances something told me his mental state would completely snap. I thought of Emily and I regretted that we were about to die just as she was starting to like me. I thought of my siblings and how much they would miss their big brother, and how much my parents would be devastated. The thoughts of my loved ones gave me courage and I prepared for my end.

At this point something happened that I did not expect. The author J.R.R. Tolkein would have referred to it as a eucatastrophe, an undeserved coincidence that saved the day when all seems lost. As Aiden reached the desk I was hiding under, something inside the storage closet shuffled. Aiden stopped and listened for a few seconds. Then, with a soft giggle, he vanished into the storage closet in search of prey. I followed him as quietly as I could. I could not have lived with myself if I had left one of the people I cared for the most in the world to be killed by a monster. I entered the closet and heard a muffled sob directly to my left. Emily had hid just behind the door and Aiden had walked past her in the dark. I quickly let Emily know that it was me and we silently moved into the hallway. We were barely outside the room when the door slammed shut with an almighty crash. We made for the stairs as fast as we could. As we passed the display case I noticed that the skulls were missing again. As we reached the top of the stairs I thought I heard a very faint muffled scream from the basement; but this may have been my imagination.

We made it to the door unmolested and found Topher and Nick waiting for us along with the security guard. It took a long time for him to make sense of our stories. I wisely decided the whole situation would be more plausible if I left out the Aztec god, and made it out that we slipped away from the Aiden in the darkness of the storage closet. The security guard decided to call for back up to deal with the intruder, and dawn was breaking as a SWAT team entered the building. Aiden was caught on camera entering the building and had a reputation for weirdness, so the officers were prone to believe our story. They found nothing. There was no sign of Aiden or the Aztec idol. Once again my pursuer had vanished from the face of the earth, this time for good.

Nick, Topher, and I still talk about that night sometimes, although we have decided to only tell Robin an edited version of the events. Nick is of the belief that Aiden stole the idol and escaped through some sort of trap door or ventilation shaft. The room was right next to the theater after all. I am not so sure. Part of me accepts Nick’s story, it does make a certain amount of sense, but part of me can’t help but wonder if the genie had finally found a way out of the lamp. Emily and I have been dating for several months now, and I am looking forward to introducing her to my family next weekend. The skulls still reside in that darkened hallway, and it seems that the university has had a donation. Where there were formerly four skulls in the display case, glaring at me as I pass, there are now five.

Credit: BaronVonRuthless91