Estimated reading time — 22 minutes
It began with a smell of thunder.
The night had settled into the empty spaces of the house as Malcolm made his way through to the living room, turning on lights as he went. He dropped into his armchair and opened his laptop to read the news, but the sound of tapping keys against the heavy silence unnerved him – like breaking the sacred silence of a church. Instead, he flicked on the radio, welcoming in the tinny drawl of the local station. It had been like this for months since his wife died and he needed the sound of imaginary company. Marriage at the end of a long life always boils down to an unspoken coin toss; who will die first and leave the other to struggle on for the remaining years, hopelessly attempting to fill empty rooms suddenly too large for a single occupant.
He had been the quiet one, content to idly flick through the newspaper or stare out the window with his binoculars from his armchair whilst Claire filled the house with the sounds of clinking spoons in cups of milky tea, and marathon conversations over the kitchen phone. The absence of those sounds made it seem that the house itself had died – that he was living in the belly of a corpse. Malcolm’s aching knee shook him from his stupor and, rubbing it grimacingly, he reached over to pour a glass of his favorite medicine. He had gotten awfully fat in recent years and could barely make the short walk into town for the weekly bread, milk, and whiskey. Now he spent most of his time surveying the landscape outside his hill-top window or sleeping either in bed or in his chair when his creaking bones and wheezing breath protested the prospect of climbing the stairs. Truth be told, he didn’t like sleeping in bed regardless; the empty acres of mattress and pillows that Claire used to occupy were too large for him to fill. Maybe that is why he had become so fat recently.
The night air was stagnant and heavy outside, and Malcolm sat dozing with his medicine balanced in his lap. Above him there was a noise, like a sharp intake of breath; something dislodged itself and plopped down into his drink. He snapped awake, resisting the muscle memory urge to take a swig as he usually did upon waking, and stared blankly at the bottle in his hand. A cricket stood drowned in the narrow neck of the bottle; from its head a thin elongated thing like a multi-knuckled human tooth protruded, weakly curling and uncurling against the slippery surface of the glass. He dropped the bottle, the enameled finger tapping against the glass as it rolled out of sight. It thudded against the wall and came to a stop, the tinkling sound of the insect Morse code continuing its rhythmic tap under the sofa. Behind him, the radio squealed in volume; in a metallic voice the late-night presenter chirped away in forced cheeriness: “Well folks, you’re listening to KBF-FM and we’re just so glad to have you with us tonight. On beautiful clear nights like this it’s important to look up occasionally and appreciate the stars. Who knows what you’ll see if you look hard enough”.
The morning came like an exhaled breath, bright frosted edges of grass leaning in the pallid sun. At some point the rain outside had eased, but nevertheless his night had been spent in a tangle of bedsheets and dark thoughts. The dream snapshot of Claire baking bread in the kitchen. Smell of iodine and the touch of a bony hand clutching his desperately from a hospital bed, his fingertips fumbling around the awkward shape of the IV trailing from the center of her hand. He awoke and lay in the afterglow of his fever until noon, finally rising with sleep-gritted eyes and popping joints from sweat-stained sheets. When he finally made his way downstairs, he thought he smelt the faint hint of baking bread. The whiskey bottle lay where it rolled under the sofa, the cricket still where it drowned, its chitinous finger curled limply against the glass. He tossed the bottle in the garbage and, donning his jacket, made out to grab breakfast in town. The outside was clean and fresh at midday, a lone cloud hanging heavy against an otherwise clear sky. The mountain air shook the cobwebs from his mind, the cabin fever dissipating along with the previous night’s thoughts. He needed to see another living person’s face; the loneliness and isolation needed to be swept back.
“It’s this sort of shit that makes me seem extreme, right? Like, my views are the same as they ever were, but everyone else has shifted and suddenly I’m the fringe minority”, Carl ranted, pointing for emphasis with his coffee cup from across the table booth. Malcolm mm-hmm’ed acknowledgement as Carl continued. He regretted leaving the house, but Carl was one of the few social contacts he kept up with. He had grown accustomed to these conversations; Carl was the in his late sixties and was well consigned to working himself into a fury through constant consumption of the 24-hour news cycle. Malcolm reaffirmed his satisfaction at not having bought a TV for his cabin and refusing to learn how to use social media. He wasn’t sure how Carl had dragged their conversation to this point, but he knew he was resigned to ten more minutes of playing the friendly ear, forced to nod and interject with occasional approval as Carl rattled off his latest political manifesto.
“You know what I mean? said Carl, his eyes narrowing behind his red swollen nose. “Yes, it’s dispiriting” replied Malcolm flatly, cradling his coffee between his hands. “Why do they still lie when they already have the power to do what they like? I want to know that” Carl muttered, slipping into a pause of internal machination over whatever conclusion he had brought to himself. Malcolm used the opportunity to glance down at his watch, and then out the window as Carl resumed talking, not noticing the loss of his listener in the moment. Outside, Malcolm’s eyes passed over the groups of families, dog walkers, and shoppers shuffling their way through the midday weekend. He was reminded of the lack of children, most having moved away as the town receded into the state of an expansive retirement home. He imagined changing the name of the town to ‘Shady Pines’ or some similarly saccharine title that communities of the elderly and infirm inevitably inspire.
As his gaze settled upon a well-dressed man in an archaic suit crossing the street with a peculiar gait, a bird crashed into the window, shattering his daydream in a smear of blood and clotted feathers. Even Carl was broken from his monologue, bellowing a “holy shit!” as he sloshed coffee into the air. The puff of dust and drifting feathers settled as they both stared blankly down at the creature. It lay broken at its center, as if it had been clotheslined by a garrote wire. “What in God’s name was it doing?” Carl queried, eyeing the prismatic sheen that covered the bird in a membranous film of gelatinous gasoline. It twitched spasmodically, spluttering for breath behind the thick rainbow slime. The men got up and left soon afterwards, unable to continue their conversation or breakfast whilst the bird-maintained eye contact from its greasy puddle beneath the window.
When he finally broke away from Carl, with the reluctant promise to ‘pick up again later’, Malcolm took an aimless wander through the afternoon streets. He had not chosen this town for his retirement and still considered himself a new arrival, though three years had passed. Claire had supported the move out here that his son had instigated, determined to reconnect with the countryside she grew up in. But kids from the country leave home far more than kids from the city, and with Claire gone it had dawned on Malcolm that despite his desire never to end up in such circumstances he had cornered himself in a community whose average age flickered somewhere between ‘golden years’ and ‘resurrected corpse’. Ideally, he should take advantage of the idyllic postcard surroundings, fishing on the lake or hiking in the serenely forested hills. But Claire had been the outgoing one, and his arthritis precluded any prancing through the trees. Instead, Malcolm contented himself with reading the morning newspaper or the laptop he had finally familiarized himself with, and occasionally emerging from his home to shuffle about town on aimless excursions. He had taken to forcing himself out often, having run out of topics to regale in his emails to distant relatives and absent friends. Although he welcomed this modern communication, Malcolm was content in his own anachronistic time. So it was that he found himself in front of the antique store.
Malcolm pushed his way through the enclosed dusty aisles with the cultivated half-interest of a pretender connoisseur. He would stop here and there to stroke his chin stubble over a baroque wooden table or a stack of CDs, teasing a potential sale to the store owner who stood off to the side. Were CDs already consigned irredeemably to the dustbin of history? It seemed like a personal attack upon his inability to keep pace with the modern world. Between racks of faded pastel dresses and a crude sculpture of an African tribesman of the type seemingly present in all antique stores, a motif began to emerge. Miniature idols, etchings and photographs depicting the same image of a saintly figure robed in statuesque repose. Sometimes he was depicted with a group of followers, sometimes alone on the summits of distant hills or shorelines. Yet in every image, the figure’s face was never depicted, appearing instead as a melted smear, with a long hanging jaw that extended past his neck almost to his chest. Malcolm instinctively thought of how such a figure might look and sound if it ever opened such an enormous mouth.
The storekeeper had seemed to materialize out of nowhere beside him whilst he was lost in himself, enquiringly leaning in anticipating questions. “Ah you’ve a good eye sir, bit of a local historian are you?”, the storekeeper chirped, adding a conspiratorial note at the end of his sentence in recognition of someone he obviously thought shared particular knowledge on the subject. Pointing to a little framed photograph depicting the faceless man amongst a group of children that looked to be from some distant century, he said, “Ol’ Shadrack Ireland – queer name I know. Leader of a self-proclaimed breakaway group of Christian fundamentalists calling themselves ‘The Immortalists’ back in the First Great Awakening of the 1730’s. They practiced what was known as Perfectionism, something Shadrack cooked up after suffering some kind of divine intervention that affected a change in his mind and body, which he believed had made him perfect.”
Malcolm leaned forward to listen closer; after spending time with Carl, this was the most interesting conversation in weeks. Both men were now huddled together as if sharing a secret as the storekeeper continued, enjoying his rapt audience. “They say after this rendezvous that Shadrack broke ties with the Christians altogether, although the authorities who chased him and his followers out of Massachusetts couldn’t figure out what exactly he had converted to. They built a structure they called ‘the Square House’ and began digging a series of tunnels in the basement, searching for something. They say when Shadrack died he instructed his followers not to bury him, believing he would be resurrected to lead them all to eternity. His corpse lay in the cellar for a year before his followers lost hope and buried the foul remains. Most of them joined the Shakers afterwards, but the rest left New England altogether and ended up around here. They were a novelty for a time, but now that’s all forgotten and all that’s left is what you see before you”.
The storekeeper stopped to cast has hand dramatically over the collection of knick-knacks, before continuing in a salesman’s climax. “The last mention of them that I’m aware of refers to some kind of factional split over the issues of the tunnels they had been digging. Saying that they had gotten it wrong were in fact themselves the objects to be dug up by some grand deity that would whisk them all away to perfection”. The storeowner pointed upwards for emphasis and both pairs of eyes followed the gesture up towards the ceiling. Malcolm remembered himself and coughed to cover his embarrassment, crossing his arms in mock dismissal. The storekeeper was undeterred. “So, would you like -” he began before Malcolm interrupted by taking the photograph from the wall. He figured 20 dollars was a good price for the story alone, and the storeowner beamed as he bagged the photograph, satisfied that he hadn’t lost his touch for embellished storytelling.
The grainy image looked out at Malcolm from its new perch amongst his collection of curios beside his armchair as he ate his dinner. Frozen fish two days too old from his last trip to the lake; he would have to call Carl and organize another trip. The texture of slime clung to the meat, and he overcame the taste by washing it down with a glass of whiskey. Clare was no longer here to provide his dinners or reign in his drinking, and lately his reliance on his own fishing had removed him yet further from his limited interaction with the outside world. He grumbled at himself as he ate; it had been silly to let himself be suckered into buying the photograph on the basis of some snake oil story about local folklore. However, Malcolm had conceded that his encroaching arthritis entitled him to the occasional knick-knack to decorate his armchair, should he be ultimately destined to be confined there. The doctor had told him to maintain his daily routine – to not feel like he couldn’t do all the things he wanted. The unfortunate reality was that he unable to do nor even know what he wanted, and thus spent his evenings sifting through the inventory of his life in search of flecks of meaning and activity to sustain himself.
He had just finished his evening call with Carl arranging their morning trip – one finds that old men who have outlived their wives tend to rely on each other to fill time – and was beginning to settle in for the night. He had dumped the plate of fish into the sink and, refilling his glass, moved over to the armchair and the comfort of the radio; the evening news and weather report signaling the end of the day. He didn’t need the radio to tell him the weather; his aching knees always signaled the onset of rain. The signal for KBF-FM squawked to life, the friendly cooing of the DJ chiming into the room, halfway through a news report delivered in a characteristically upbeat cadence:
“… the crowd was described as one of the largest in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, an unidentified man fired at police from a window, before shooting himself dead. Later, at a downtown café, a man got up from a table, shouted a phrase that onlookers could not describe later, and then stabbed himself. In other news, we appear to be in for some unsettled weather over the coming days, as a bank of cloud moves in from the North. Finally, in local news, a mass shooting has occurred at a church gathering near main street. No word on the number of casualties yet, but we advise anyone driving to take an alternate route to avoid unnecessary delays. Now, back to the music!”
Malcolm eased forward in his armchair to look out the window; a bank of clouds was indeed settling outside. On the opposite hilltop, he saw the porch lights in his neighbor Dorothy’s house switch on. Something in the garden had triggered the sensor, caught unaware in the spotlight. Summoning the suspicion that comes when seeing something unexpected in a landscape one has grown accustomed to, Malcolm reached for his binoculars on the side-table. Pressing the twin lenses against his eyes, he leaned in his chair for a closer look at the silhouetted figure. Its thin frame resembled a woman, hunched low at the edge of the porchlight, although he couldn’t tell if it was Dorothy through the shadows of the evening light. She was wearing some sort of elaborate costume or backpack, the curve of her spine bristling with indentations like the spines of a glutted porcupine. She – or it – jerked about in deliberate movements, gesticulating as if in heated debate with someone unseen, and then pirouetting away from the edge of the light cast from Dorothy’s window. Malcolm imagined he saw that it was naked, despite the chill of the night, throwing its smooth arms open to the night sky and freezing in place like a dancer expecting applause.
As if suddenly aware of his presence despite the distance between them, the thing suddenly dropped to a crouch and bounded away from the exposed side of the hill, up the incline towards the sphere of light cast from Dorothy’s house. Skirting around the light in its jittery gait, it slithered beneath the kitchen window and splayed itself against the timber wall. In the shadows, the distant head turned to regard him, twin orbs narrowing to peer through the lens of his binoculars. Keeping the binoculars to his eyes, Malcolm reached for the telephone beside him and dialed Dorothy’s house, keeping his gaze fixed on the figure. As the dial tone held in his ear, he half-imagined he heard the corresponding ring from Dorothy’s phone on the rival hilltop. The thing seemed to be startled by the sound and arced its head toward the clattering old landline behind the window just above where it waited. After a pause, the crackle of an answer broke the silence, and after a pause he heard breathing at the other end. “Hello, Dorothy?”, Malcolm stammered. A faint combination of chittering sounds filtered down the line, the rustle of insect wings and the grinding of teeth; the rhythmic tap of fingernails on wood seemed to carry over from some distance. Suddenly, a shattering screech blasted through the earpiece, throwing Malcolm back against his armchair and sending him clutching at his chest. In the moment of panic that he fought for breath against the pain in his chest and the thumping of his heart in his ears had, he heard a familiar voice thinly crackle from the other end of the line, “you shouldn’t stare sweety”. It sounded like Claire.
The ground was soft and heavy outside a minute later as Malcolm pulled on his jacket and trod out in his half-laced boots, desperately trying to recall the military training he had received in another lifetime. He was still clutching the binoculars as he left the open door of his house, its light beckoning in the nighttime cloud of insects. He would have to wade into that grey ocean of mist, trekking down the dirt road snaking the hillside and, upon reaching the main road, back up to reach Dorothy’s house. He had made it to the end of his driveway before doubling over, clutching the front gate, and heaving from his lack of breath. This was stupid, he thought. I’ll either break my leg in the mist or pass out halfway up the hill. In a moment of futility, he raised the binoculars again and peered into the formless void. As his vision scanned about uselessly, his nose perked up in attention. A pungent sweetness languidly licked about him, and beyond a steady rhythmic grinding sound. Whatever dormant military backbone he had summoned for the moment buckled, and he half-ran-half-tumbled back towards the warmth of his own house. As he crossed the threshold of his doorway and turned to slam the door, the smell and sound snapped out of existence with the thump of the latch. He slumped against the door, head down against his chest and struggling for breath. When he opened his eyes, he saw between his legs the smashed carcasses of a half dozen insects that he had trampled coming through the door, each upturned and stretching their limbs towards him.
“You were only fucking drunk, you paranoid old coot”, Carl cackled as he leaned in for emphasis from the other end of the boat through the cloud of his cigarette smoke. The movement sent the raft shuddering in the waters of the lake. “You’ve run out of things to occupy yourself, and now you’re casting about for an adventure or a mystery to fill your time. I went through the same phase when Heather passed. But if you get caught spying on the neighbors there’ll be hell to pay – you’re already a pariah”. “I am not a pariah”, grumbled Malcolm, setting another maggot on his line. Those ten minutes he had left his front door open the previous night had invited in enough insects to last him a dozen fishing trips. “When was the last time you talked for longer than five minutes to anyone other than me or yourself?”, retorted Carl, casting his hand over the empty waters around them in demonstration. The wind seemed to whisper through the distant pines in agreement. Malcolm threw out his line wordlessly, and sank back in his seat without reply, silently holding Carl’s eyes and setting the rod between his arms. The plop of the maggot sent ripples out around them, disturbing the tranquil silence of the omnipresent fog. “Alright then” Carl finished, cocking his head back and turning the palms of his hands towards Malcolm. “I’m sorry – I’ve offended you; I can see that. I apologize, ok? Tell me about it again from the top.” He offered a thermos of whiskey-laced coffee as a peace offering to Malcom, who accepted it with a nod.
A long time passed before the men spoke again, each idling away in his own head as they waited for a bite. Eventually, Malcolm spoke up. “I’ve been using the computer to look for answers to what I saw. I didn’t get very far, but I did come across an online library of old mythology. Did you know the Celts believed that bodies of water were portals to the Otherworld?”. “They weren’t half wrong”, replied Carl half-heartedly, not looking at Malcolm but rolling another crooked cigarette. The ripples from their lines had settled, and the lake was a plate of clouded glass beneath their frozen boat. “If I was some half-naked bearded tribesman and came upon this place, I would certainly think it was holy, or cursed or something anyhow.”
Malcolm ignored Carl and continued, “The thing is they never refer to them as metaphorical or spiritual portals, but as physical windows to the other side. Like if they looked long enough into them, something would swim up and gaze back”. “… And whisper through the glass”, added Carl earnestly, leaning forward and fixing Malcolm with a pale gaze. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “I’d say you were a big hit with the kids at Halloween! Stop all that shit talk about monsters and whatnot and let’s discuss something else. If it’s scary stories you want, how about the upcoming elections?” Malcolm sank back in his seat in resignation. Carl gargled and spat as he cleared his throat for another political treatise, sending a glob of phlegm sailing out into the abyss of the morning.
They divided up their catch on the shoreline, Carl flinging handfuls of guts into the reddening froth as Malcolm continued at his fish with a pocketknife. A dozen mournful eyes looked out from the icy beer cooler towards the water they had been unceremoniously pulled from. When they were done, Carl slammed shut the trunk of his car and drew another cigarette. “Try not to get whisked away by the Loch Ness Monster on your way home!”. “Yeah yeah, fuck off you comedian”, Malcolm retorted, already walking back to his own car, adding that he would see Carl at the regular time for their weekly cup of coffee.
Malcolm’s mind was unquiet as he drove home; the sense of expectant dread clung about his mind in a jumble of unassembled jigsaw pieces, mocking his inability to connect them. The phone was already ringing when he opened his front door, startling the crickets outside. Malcolm hurried to pick up the receiver, holding it instinctively at a distance after his last experience. He had to collect himself before he could summon the effort to speak, as if the power of language had left him for a moment. He absently swept back the few coils of sweat-straggled hair that clung to his skull with his free hand, and finally the words returned to him.
“Hello”, he seemed to croak rather than speak the words. “Malcolm!”, the note of panic in Carl’s voice set the hairs on the back of Malcolm’s neck on end. Rolling waves of static drowned Carl’s words as they thinly crackled down the line from some distant time and place. Isolated snatches rose above the tangled static, though they described things that made no sense. “Can you see me?”, Carl’s voice rose to comprehension. Malcolm brought up the binoculars from their perch on the side-table and cast about. The lights from town below waned from between the peaks of the surrounding hills as he followed the distant black artery of the main road towards the lake. The two pinpricks of Carl’s headlights sped down the empty stretch of road. “I’m driving on the main road – can you see me?!”, Carl pleaded. “I see you, what the hell are you doing out there?”, Malcolm barked.
Nothing seemed amiss about the car except its terrible speed, careening dangerously down the country road in a single-minded effort to reach the lights of town. “All around me! I can’t see the road! I’m rising!”, Carl’s voice was a hysterical babble. All at once the car seemed to distort, as if passing through cracked glass. Malcolm put down the phone and quickly adjusted his binoculars, checking for damage or a faulty lens. Bringing them back up, he reached for the phone and found it silent. In the distance, the car had limped to a halt on the side of the road, marooned just outside the sanctuary light of the town. A minute passed. Malcolm’s eyes fixed on the driver of the vehicle, a vague silhouetted smudge in the distance. After a pause, the car slowly revved its engine and returned to the road, puttering its way along at a relaxed cruise. After the fifth attempt, Malcolm knew Carl would not answer his phone, but in the grip of that night the old man felt like he didn’t know what else to do.
When the morning came, it found Malcolm still in his chair. The night’s events had held him paralyzed until succumbing to a stupor. Groggily he peered through his binoculars and saw Carl’s car parked back at his house. Again, Malcolm reached for his only line of communication and called Carl. The dial tone hung for a frozen moment before someone picked up the other end. Carl’s cheerful voice boomed out of the receiver, “Morning Malcolm!”. “Carl?” Malcolm stammered, “what happened?”. Carl sighed abashedly, like someone apologizing for a drunken embarrassment the night before. “Yeah, sorry about all that nonsense. I was just having an off night. Chalk it up to a few too many nips of the flask behind the wheel. Apologies again for disturbing you – Jesus, an old fella like me shouldn’t be looking for attention!”, a self-effacing laugh crackled through the receiver. Malcolm persisted for a time, but finally resolved himself and accepted Carl’s apology. Deflated, he put down the phone and shuffled off for some breakfast. After scrounging together a barren slice of toast topped with a lonely cube of butter pocketed from the diner, Malcolm stood over the kitchen counter wiping the grit from his eyes. He turned on the radio whilst waiting for the coffee pot on the stove to boil. The tinny exchange was that of a call-in show; people asking after lost dogs and complaining about loitering kids and strangers from out of town. Half-listening, Malcolm returned to buttering his toast.
“… and I just think it’s awful that someone thinks they have the right to intrude on another person’s privacy”, an elderly woman’s voice hoarsely droned. “I mean someone has to do something about this Peeping Tom looking into people’s windows with his binoculars.” Malcolm’s eyes snapped open. “And what did you do then?”, the talk show host inclined. “Well I shut my curtains, what else could I do? Now I’m not one for causing a stir, but a woman of my age should be allowed to go about her business without some voyeuristic recluse peeping at her.” The lump that had grown in Malcolm’s throat during the monologue would no longer allow toast to be swallowed. He stood clutching the countertop until the interview ended, feeling suddenly as small and alone as he had in a long time.
Malcolm sat dejectedly in his chair; he needed to talk to somebody – anybody – except Carl. An attempted call to his son had not raised Malcolm’s spirits. Too busy in the distant city to talk to the old basket case. He had tried to rattle off his experience, but the resounding “that’s interesting dad” had killed any hope of actual connection. Now he sat back in his chair, unable to do anything else but the routine he had trapped himself in. He would call Carl for their usual evening chat, but something compelled him against talking to his alleged friend. So here he sat, with nothing but the usual binoculars, the radio, and the table of knick-knacks. The radio announced that it was 9:35pm – the photograph he had bought in the antique store stood as if listening. Suddenly silence. The typical nighttime cicada had ceased, and the air held its breath. Malcolm compulsively reached for his binoculars, unsure of what exactly he was looking for. Scanning the horizon, he passed over the milky yellow lights of the houses below; he passed over Dorothy’s house and saw someone framed against the light. Someone was standing there, with their own binoculars focused on him. Eyes widened, he saw that other houses had the same shadow stark against the light, each fixed in his direction. Finally, his panicked lens settled over Carl’s house; in the window of the bungalow a figure was dancing.
It had been a week since the last incident. Since then Malcolm had withdrawn from the world altogether, barring the door against the bundles of letters, medical requests, and written invitations which had suddenly begun piling through his door each morning. Apparently, there was a harvest festival that he was insistently requested to attend. The radio buzzed about the weekend fishing and preparations for the festival, but Malcolm saw no activity in the town through his binoculars. He had heard people outside his house and, once, the voice of Carl calling for him from beyond the threshold. Imprisoned in his chair, he had uncovered his army-issue pistol from the attic, though he didn’t fully trust himself and kept it at a distance. At night the trees brushed his window, and in the morning, he found the latches loose. The same familiar whisperings in the corners of his mind in the snatched periods of sleep he could manage sounded like Clare demanding something from him, though he could not understand what it was. He had tried to call someone but didn’t know who would answer; one morning he found the line was dead.
The final morning began with a bang. Malcolm had been stirring under the blankets bunched up over the chair when the window beside him had exploded in a shower of glass. In a moment, his shaking limbs had momentarily regained the strength of youth and he was up with the pistol, pulling the trigger and sending a blast into the empty darkness. Nothing replied from the breach as the old man held himself on one knee aiming the smoking gun through his shattered window, curtains billowing in the breeze. Then a faint screech sent him spinning around, gun cocked towards the living room wall. Beneath a greasy impact trailing from the yellowed wallpaper, the broken body of a raven twitched on the carpet. Its eyes – what passed for eyes – held his gaze, broken pupils dilated between protruding nodules of human teeth. All across its body, the creature sprouted numerous colonies of bristling teeth that shivered and groped about independently. They reached and probed for him as he scooped the creature into the garbage.
That evening, from between the slits of duct tape he had bracketed the ruined window with, Malcolm braced himself against his impromptu barricades. This night was different, the lights of town more aglow than usual and devoid of all sound. Across the valley, the pine trees upon the hilltops shivered, buffeted by a non-existent solar wind. Against the weakening light of the evening sun, doors began to unlock as each household emptied into the street, a procession slowly forming towards the center of town. Some were dressed in nightgowns, some half-dressed, and others completely naked. From where he stood, they looked like a lynch mob, converging in silent determination upon the central promenade. When it seemed that every resident had gathered, a priest-like figure emerged from the mass to address them. He looked familiar, and Malcolm recognized the outdated suit of the man from the café the previous week. Malcolm couldn’t hear what was said, but all at once a wave of excitement swept through the crowd, a shiver or vibration of unison as the figure swept back its downcast head to reveal a face that was not a face. The priest pointed once towards the sky and opened his titanic mouth, disgorging a pale blue light upon the crowd. He leapt from his pedestal, and madness ensued.
Imprisoned behind his barricades, Malcolm could do nothing but watch the pandemonium outside – separated from it by the lens of the binoculars. All across the promenade, people began dancing and shrieking, tearing at themselves or falling into seizures upon the ground. Pale flesh glistened in the glow of blue flame that began to rise from every corner of the valley, illuminating distorted creatures that either ran or stood erect towards the sky, presenting their own twisted appendages in mocking prayer. They raised their limbs together and appeared to stretch out from their proportions, elbows extending past sleeves as furtive fingers brushed past powerlines and rooftops. In a moment, every face was a mass of spasming distorted muscle, pulled upwards towards a tapering set of wailing painted red lips. The lips of each figure opened, and a glistening tendril of flesh burst forth into the night sky. Unblinking eyes dislodged themselves and wound their way up the growing stalks of flesh unravelling from the collapsing bodies. Some dropped to their knees on shriveling limbs as the ropey vines continued to wind their way upwards, each topped with a spark of the same blue fire that issued from the unhinged mouth of the priest. At their tips, each unwinding filament seemed to vanish at a point in space suspended above the town, snuffing out the pinpricks of light.
As this crescendo of sound and viscera peaked, and each dancing figure was reduced to a jerking semi-transparent face peeking mask-like from piles of clothes littered across main street, the gossamer threads broke free from each pair of lips and wound upwards towards the invisible point in space. When the last had slithered free, another constellation of supposedly distant stars shifted. From the space reflected above the lake, a vantablack chameleon monolith of titanic size shivered in satisfaction and sluggishly withdrew from across a cosmic ocean abyss, reeling in its catch that stretched incalculable distances to an earthly shore. Malcolm felt a twinge like a hair plucked from his head, and a whipcrack at the back of his throat as the air was pulled from his lungs and toppled to the floor. His left side had gone numb and he couldn’t lift his arms to reach for his gun, or even to cover his ears or eyes. The wall of duct tape burst open into a frenzy of flailing strips, and a wave of merciful unconsciousness broke over and consumed him.
It had been some time since the events of that night; how long Malcolm did not know. He had been able to recover himself enough to crawl back into his chair but had not regained the use of his arms. Since then he had been entombed in his body, unable to rise to eat or drink. That was alright, he didn’t need to anymore. He had sat unmoving in the empty house for what felt like weeks – although in reality it may have been centuries – his sunken eyes fixed upon the empty streets of town. No cars had passed through and no alarm had been raised. Indeed, he doubted that if he could muster the strength to leave, he would find anything beyond the hills of town, the road ceasing at some predetermined point in the fabric of reality. He was in its realm now, in this gilded cage of its own creation. His mind had begun to think thoughts not his own, and occasionally he felt a hair or tooth suddenly jerk upwards, reminding him of the tether that now shackled him. Each day his knees hurt a little less and he regained a morsel of strength. His fingers had begun to twitch again, his hair to darken, and he felt his wrinkles recede. Yet his mind never recovered, and indeed seemed a little less whole each morning. Once he had tried to leave but found himself yanked back by an invisible force tied to the base of his neck, a long leash that stretched away towards the point in space which had consumed his world. It was a hole, he had come to realize, a hole cut into the Antediluvian ice of our temporal cosmos through which something unknowable had set its hook.
He wondered how long it would be before the last vestiges of his mind dripped out and evaporated in the abysmal non-reality of this thing’s realm, and his deranged husk would be returned to his world to act as bait for its bidding. From the memories it had amassed it had come to understand the concept of God and preferred that he refer to it as such. When he did not, it sent pulses of mind-wrenching pain down the wire tethered to his psyche. He had begun to grind his teeth, finding them suddenly too large in a mouth that was becoming too wide and eager to proclaim nameless sermons transmitted down the line to his imprisoned consciousness. At this thought, the shackle at the base of his neck shivered in pleasure and knowingly tugged in response.
From the corner of one frozen eye, Malcolm pushed out a tear and thought of Claire.
Credit : Fitzroy Lagan
Reddit : https://www.reddit.com/user/Fitzroy_Lagan/
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