Category Archives: Season One Story

The Writer

Note: This story references many stories in Season One. I recommend reading the reason of Season One before this one.

My right hand shakes slightly as I take the bottle of aspirin out of the medicine cabinet.  I stare at it for a long moment as the tremor causes the pills to clink against one another inside of the plastic casing.  This is the worst that it’s been so far, and I have no doubt that it will continue to become more pronounced.

I sigh and open the bottle.  I tap two of the white tablets out into my palm before quickly swallowing them and chasing them down with a drink of water.  Experience has taught me that the aspirin won’t do much, but every little bit helps.

Closing the medicine cabinet, I hold up my hands and examine them closely.  I try not to look at them very often these days.  They’re extremely pale, and the fingers are gnarled.  I can no longer fully open them or curl them into fists without a struggle.  I have the hands of a person thirty years my senior.

I’m inspecting them now because the shaking has me worried.  I don’t know what will happen if they become unusable.  If I can’t physically continue to write, will that break the deal?

I sigh and shake my head.  There’s no point in dwelling on it now.  Being careful not to touch the tips of my fingers as much as possible, I slowly begin to unwrap the bandages.  They cover the space between the knuckle and the edge of the nail on each finger, and undoing them with my hands being so damaged is more difficult than it normally would be.  I finish the task and toss the bandages into the wastebasket.

I rub my palms together in an effort to warm up my hands.  Because of how tightly I need to wind up the bandages each time I apply them, my hands now have very poor circulation.  That leaves them constantly cold.  Just one more, shall we say, perk of my situation.

From downstairs comes the sound of a knock at the front door.  I jump at the noise before loudly cursing myself for doing so.  I hate that I’ve become so skittish.  Leaving the bathroom, I go into the bedroom and retrieve a pair of soft black gloves from the dresser.  I slip them on and head down the stairs.

As I descend the steps, I notice the sound of rain clanking off of the house’s tin roof.  A stray memory of Amanda and I sitting on the porch together during a storm comes to mind.  I allow it to linger for a few seconds before forcing it out.  There will be time to dwell on the things I’ve lost later.

Reaching the entryway, I unlock the front door and open it.  The visitor barges into the house the moment that I do, not bothering to observe any of the usual pleasantries before doing so.  She is tall and thin, with her blonde hair cut short.  Her face is angular, almost as if it was chiseled out of stone.  She is wearing a black suit with the matching tie undone and top button of her shirt open.  She smiles at me as I close the door behind her.

“Good evening, Timmy my boy,” she says merrily.  “How are you this fine evening?”

I don’t answer her.  I want to tell her to get the hell out of my house, to go back out into the rain and never step foot near me again.  I know better than to act on that impulse.

Seeming not to notice my disdain for her, she smoothly slips out of her overcoat and tosses it to me.  I catch it out of the air instinctively.  Although the rain continues to pour down outside, the coat is completely dry.  I hang it up inside the entryway closet while continuing my silence.

“How are the wife and kids?” she asks as she looks around.  “Still staying with her sister out west?  That’s a shame, Timmy.  You really should work things out with the old ball and chain.  You two make such a cute couple.”

I bristle but still manage to choke down a retort.  She knows that I hate being called Timmy, and she is very much aware that my separation from my family is a sore spot.  That’s exactly why she’s saying what she is.  I might not be able to be free of her, but I can at least take away any satisfaction she might get from my reaction to this particular game she likes to play.

“Enough of the small talk,” she says, clapping her hands together.  “Let’s go take a look at what you’ve been working on.”

Without waiting for an invitation, she turns on her heel and heads towards my office.  I follow reluctantly.  She isn’t really here to inspect my work like a grade school teacher reading a student’s book report.  She already knows exactly what I’ve written.  These little visits are to keep me intimidated and to make sure that I’m towing the line.  I know that, and she absolutely knows that I know.  Yet another game.

I don’t know much about her.  When she first introduced herself to me, she had used the name Lydia.  No last name.  Just Lydia.  I highly doubt that’s her real name, but there’s no way for me to know for certain.  At the time I hadn’t had any reason to doubt the authenticity of her name, but even if I had it wouldn’t have mattered.  She had been promising me the world at the time, and in my hubris I had thought that was all that mattered.

My office is barely large enough to qualify as one.  It was originally a small sunroom that my wife and I had converted into a combination office and craft room.  The crafting portion is currently boxed up in the garage and waiting to be picked up next week.  Amanda wants the supplies for the children.

Lydia walks around the side of the desk and runs her fingers over the large black typewriter sitting on it.  She smiles and closes her eyes as she does so.  I try not to let anything show on my face or in my body language, but the moment is profoundly disturbing to me in a way that I can’t quite explain.

“I see that you’ve been keeping it well fed,” she says as she raises one finger, displaying a smear of red on the tip.  “Good, good.  We wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened the last time that you didn’t.”

I look away.  I had tried to break the cycle a few months prior by refusing to write.  Everything had been fine until the nausea had started around the twelve hour mark.  Within eighteen hours it had felt like every nerve in my body was on fire.  I had finally had to accept defeat and do as I was supposed to, and the pain had gone away almost immediately.  I have no doubt that I would have been driven mad if I had let things go on much longer.

“So what is it that you’ve been working on, exactly?” she asks as she turns her attention to the stack of papers on the desk.  “Where the Light Fades Away.  The caligodemon, I take it?”

I don’t reply.  Instead of simply moving on this time, though, she stands up straight and looks directly at me.  As much as I try to avoid her gaze, my eyes lock with hers.  The look she is giving me is no longer one of amusement.

“This is the part where you answer me,” she says, her voice hard and cold.

“It is,” I reply immediately, my own voice betraying the fear that’s running through me.  “The caligodemon, yes.  Asguzol.”

“I’ve always liked his style.”  She’s back to her light and mocking tone again.  “He’s like a trapdoor spider.  He moves the door to that house of his whenever he believes he’ll catch a victim, then when they enter he makes the person wait until it’s dark and he comes out of his dormant state to feed on them.  You have to respect that kind of cruelty.  Which victim is it about?”

“Hayley Ferris.”

“Huh, never heard of her.  Must not be anyone important.”

“She was a-”

“Do I look like I care?  I assume not, because I really don’t.  You… things are all interchangeable.”  She smiles at me.  “Well, almost all of you.  Some of you manage to get a bit further up the Who Gives a Shit scale.  A bit.”

Lydia looks over my shoulder at the far corner of the room.  I don’t bother to turn to see what she’s looking at.  I know exactly what has her attention, and I don’t want to look at it any more than I have to.

“That is not Asguzol,” she points out.

“No,” I confirm.  “I finished that story two nights ago.”

“So this is a new one.  Interesting.  Have you done your writing for tonight yet?”

I hesitate.  “Not yet.  I was getting ready to start when you knocked.”

“Well then, don’t let me keep you.  Go to it.”

I go over to my desk and sit down in the chair.  As carefully as I can, I slip off the gloves and place them on the corner of the desktop.  I open a fresh ream of paper and flex my fingers for a few moments to get them working as much as I can.  Now isn’t the time to show any weakness, not with Lydia watching.

“Something on your mind?” she asks as I glance over at her.

“No,” I answer quickly.  “Well, um, actually, I was wondering if I could ask a question about our… deal.”

“Our deal.  What about it?”

“I was wondering…  How much longer do I have to do this?”

She doesn’t answer right away.  Instead, she sits down in the chair on the other side of the desk and folders her arms over her chest.  She watches me silently with an expression that conveys no hint of what she’s thinking.

I start to worry that I might have angered her.  The torture that I had gone through when I had refused to ‘feed’ the typewriter was nothing compared to what she can do to me if she wants to.  I have no doubt about that.

“You remember the agreement we made, correct?” Lydia asks.

“I do,” I reassure her.

“What is it?”

“I don’t-”

“Tell me the agreement.  Now.”

I nod.  “Yeah, of course.  You told me that you would open doors for me.  You’d make it so that I could support my family with my writing, make it so that I could provide them with a better life.”

“You wouldn’t have to work that asinine job that you were stuck in anymore,” she interjected.  “Instead of being a nobody in a sea of nobodies, you would be somebody.  You’d have the recognition that you craved so badly.”

I look down at the floor as I feel a twinge of shame.  “Yes.”

“And have I done that, Timmy?”

I sigh.  “Yes, you have, but-”

“But what?”  Lydia waves her hand dismissively.  “Everything didn’t work out the way you thought it would?  I did everything that I said that I would.  Nothing more and nothing less.  It’s not on me that the sudden recognition and financial benefits went to your head.  You’re the one that let your ego puff up.  You’re the one that let his family slip through his fingers when he wasn’t watching.  None of that is on me.”

I close my eyes.  “I know that.  I blamed you for a long time, but I know now that my mistakes were my own.  I’m just wondering when our deal will be completed so that I can try to clean up the pile of shit I’ve created.”

“You’ve only stated half the bargain,” she points out.  “My half.  What was your part of the deal?”

I open my eyes and turn my attention to the typewriter.  “Fine.  My part of the bargain was that I agreed to write stories for you.  I would start to get these…  You called them visions, but they feel more like waking nightmares.  I have to write the story that I’m seeing play out in my head, and I have to do it on this.”

I wave my hand over the typewriter.  When it had first been presented to me, I had thought that I was looking at a beautiful relic of a time long ago.  I had even been excited about using it.  It hadn’t been long before I had come to hate it, and even now I fear it.

“Very good,” Lydia says sarcastically.  “Now then, tell me, at any time did we discuss a termination date for the bargain?”

Deep down I had known that this was going to be the answer that she gave me.  I’m going to be held to our agreement until she sees fit to release me, and I don’t see her ever doing that.  I had allowed myself to feel hope.  That just makes it feel more hopeless now.

“Breaking our deal wouldn’t just take away what you’ve been given,” she continues.  “There would have to be other consequences for such a violation of my trust.”

“I understand,” I assure her.

“I’m glad to hear you say that.  I would hate to have to give you a real life example of what I’m talking about.  Something like, say, a few hundred malignant tumors instantly spawning in the brain stem of that little boy of yours.”

A shiver runs down my spine.  “I won’t break our deal.  I promise.”

“Good.  I believe you were about to start writing?”

I turn my attention back to the typewriter, grateful that the conversation is over.  It’s a fleeting feeling.  As it always does, the mere sight of the typewriter causes my stomach to tighten and my temples to throb.

On a very surface level, there’s nothing all that different about this typewriter than any other.  It’s definitely older than most, its design harkening back to at least the late 1800s, but it can easily be mistaken as a normal machine found at a thrift shop or flea market.  It stands on four metal posts, its keys extending outward on a slanted tray.  The metal type bars are exposed above them in a half circle.  The paper feeds in behind them so that they can strike it as the attached keys are pushed.  Everything is constructed of the same black metal that seems to absorb rather than reflect light.

It’s not a machine, though.  It’s a monster.  Or maybe it’s both, a combination of iron and animalistic hunger.

I feed a piece of paper into the roller and take a moment to compose myself.  There’s nothing that I want more than to stand up and walk out the front door, leaving both Lydia and this damned typewriter behind forever.  Placing my fingers lightly on the keys, I begin to type.

The pain comes immediately.  Each time a key is pressed, the circular top is pushed inward slightly and a razor-sharp needle in the center is exposed.  It pierces into my finger, causing tiny drops of blood to spill out over the metal.

The first page is always the most difficult to write.  That’s when I feel the pain of the needles the most.  Over time that pain goes from a stabbing sensation to a less pronounced throbbing as my fingers go partially numb.  It never goes away entirely, but it becomes more bearable.

I notice that it isn’t as uncomfortable this time as it has been in the past.  This lack of sensation worries me rather than comforts me.  My fingers have become more damaged from the constant bloodletting than I had thought.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the thing in the corner moving.  I purposely avoid looking directly at it.  I already know what it looks like because it’s what they all look like in the beginning.  They start off as a shapeless mass of black oil, only it isn’t oil.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly.  It’s like smoke made solid, which I realize doesn’t make any sense.

That’s how they start off.  How they end up is different for each one.  That’s completely determined by the story.

I don’t just write horror stories.  I create them.  My words give them form, and this unholy machine masquerading as a typewriter gives them life.  Together, we birth nightmares.

“There’s a little more to it than that,” Lydia says in a voice barely above a whisper, seemingly reading my thoughts.

She watches me type for a few moments longer before she continues.

“You give them form.  The typewriter gives that form life.  The part that you don’t know is that the people reading the stories give them power.”

“I don’t understand,” I admit as I continue writing.

“It isn’t enough just to be alive.  Babies are living beings, but they are fragile and weak.  When you bring these creatures into the world, they are weak and without purpose.  They lack a certain spark.  You might call it a soul.”

She taps the pile of papers on the desk.  “When someone reads the story, however, something happens.  The person begins to consider it.  The person begins to mentally create images of the events being described.  The person begins to believe, maybe not in the story itself but in the themes behind it.  Belief gives power to the subject.”

I stop typing and look over at her.  “How is that possible?”

Lydia shakes her head in annoyance.  “You humans have such a limited concept of what is possible.  There’s a very thin line between the mental and physical realms.  They aren’t these completely different concepts like humans seem to think.  Under the right conditions, that barrier can be pierced and torn.  Belief can become reality.  Conditions such as, say, hundreds or thousands of people reading the same scary story.”

I start to ask another question, but she cuts me off.

“People are always going on and on about how the world is becoming worse.  They ramble on about how things were safer and brighter and all sunshine and rainbows when they were kids.  It’s these younger generations that are fucking everything up.  Guess what, though?  You’re all making it worse without even realizing it.  All this technology that allows you to connect with everyone else around the world is spreading terrible things at a rate that no one could have dreamed of even thirty years ago.  New evils are being spawned every second of every day.  Everyone in this entire fucking is not only connected, but also complicit.”

I don’t know what to say to that.  I don’t know that there is anything that is an adequate response to what I’ve just been told.

“I think you’ve done enough writing for tonight,” she says as she suddenly stands up.  “You have yourself a good evening, Timmy.  I’ll see myself out.”

She’s changed the subject so quickly that it takes me a few seconds to catch up.  Sitting on the desk next to the typewriter is a small pile of papers that weren’t there when I started writing.  I can’t remember writing that much, but apparently I did.  An extremely quick glance at the creature in the corner confirms that it is much farther along.  I shudder and look away.

“I’ve left you a gift in the kitchen,” Lydia says as she passes through the doorway.  “Think of it as a reminder of your own small part in the ruination of your species.  Take good care of it.”

A moment later I hear the front door open and shut.  I close my eyes and force myself to breathe slowly to bring my rapidly beating heart under control.  This happens every time she visits.  Every single fucking time.

I stand up and leave the office.  Across the entryway is the doorway leading into the kitchen.  After a brief hesitation, I go through it and look around.

Sitting on the counter is a black metal cage.  Inside of the cage is a wheel, and standing inside of that wheel and staring back at me with large brown eyes is a small white mouse.  We simply look at each other for what seems like minutes before I notice the envelope in front of the cage.  I pick it up and struggle to open it with my poorly working fingers.  I finally manage to pull out the slip of paper inside.

I couldn’t fit the Rotten Man inside of the cage, the note reads.

The Rotten Man…

“I guess that means you’re Randy,” I say to the mouse.

It chitters back at me as it bobs up and down inside of the wheel.

Polar Night

Dear James,

I’m sure that this letter comes as something of a surprise.  We haven’t spoken in, what, three years?  Maybe four?  It’s been quite a while, and we didn’t exactly part on the best terms.

That’s a gross understatement, obviously.  We both made fools out of ourselves that day.  Our shouting match just went on and on and on until we stormed away from each other and never looked back.

I want you to know that I’ve felt bad about that day ever since.  For a long time I blamed you for that argument, but over the years I’ve come to realize that it was my own fault.  You simply wanted to discuss the possibility of starting a family, and I just sort of snapped.  I was so stubborn that I didn’t even allow a discussion to take place.  I should have sat down with you and explained why I was so against the thought of having children.  Instead, I just dug in for a fight.  Well, I got that fight, and it ended up costing me dearly.

So, yeah, I’m sorry.  It was never my intention to hurt you like that.  At least I don’t think it was.  There have been times that I’ve wondered if there was some part of me that tried to ruin things.  I’ve never been fully comfortable being happy.

A therapist would have a field day with me.

I’m writing to you to apologize for the way that things ended.  That’s one part of it, and the biggest part in my mind.  I’m also writing to you because I don’t know how much time I have, and I feel like what’s happened needs to be documented.  You’re the best reporter that I’ve ever known.  Sure, you’re the only one that I’ve ever known, but still, you’re amazing at your job and I know that I can count on you to take this seriously.  Anyone else would just laugh it away as some nightmare conjured up out of the depths of my imagination.

Around a year ago, I accepted a position at the Jarl Aurdal Observatory.  Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it before.  Pretty much no one has.  It’s a small space observatory located on the Svalbard archipelago between Norway and the North Pole.  It’s not nearly as well known as the Kjell Henriksen or Zepplin observatories in the same region, so most people don’t know that it exists.  We sometimes joke that even the Norwegian government has forgotten that we’re here.

There are so many observatories on Svalbard because of its special placement on the map.  From around the middle of November to the end of January, the entire region enters a dark season.  The pitch and rotation of the Earth keeps the area in perpetual night.  It’s called polar night, and it makes the region perfect for researching the atmosphere and the space beyond.

The darkness actually begins earlier than that, usually around the first week of October, but it’s during that November to January period that the sun is so low under the horizon that the region fully experiences the polar night.  The one happening right now is my first; I was brought into Jarl Aurdal just after the last one ended.  

That does mean that I’ve been through the opposite phenomenon, where the sun doesn’t fully set for months.  That was incredibly strange.  It screws with your internal clock in ways that you can’t truly appreciate unless you’ve experienced it.  You just feel weird and uncomfortable until your body adjusts, and even then it’s like you’re always just a bit off-balance.

I thought going through that would prepare me for the polar night.  I was very wrong about that.  Unlike the continuous light, the darkness almost feels like it’s a living thing.  It surrounds you in this oppressive way, and even when you’re sitting in a lit room you can sense that it’s still out there.  You know logically that the night isn’t alive, and it doesn’t have some sort of consciousness that’s making it creep in on you.  When you’re exposed to it for such a long time, though, you start to lose your grip on logic and reason.

The only thing that really helps is being around other people.  Four of us were assigned to work at Jarl Aurdal during this year’s polar night: astronomer Peter Boggard, telescope specialist Adnan Bhalla, computer scientist Bailey Miho, and myself as the team’s engineer.  We spent every moment that we weren’t sleeping or working together.  Now that I’m thinking about it, it was a lot like cavemen gathering around a fire for warmth and protection.

There were a number of days or nights or whatever you want to call them where the scientists couldn’t gather much data.  Svalbard is extremely far north, after all, and that means that blizzards are a common occurrence.  It’s tough to see out of a telescope when multiple feet of snow are coming straight down at you.  This is especially true during polar night.  The first of these heavy snows kicked up during the third week of darkness, and that’s when this all started.

The scientists might have been on break during snowfalls, but I wasn’t.  As the group’s engineer, I was constantly having to fix and maintain everything from the toaster to the facility’s many generators.  Jarl Aurdal is too far from the nearest town to be on a power grid, so all of its electricity is handled through a series of linked generators.  The night that the first snow began, one of those generators went offline.  I was notified of the outage by a blinking yelow light in my office.  I grabbed my coat and tools and headed outside.

A generator going offline wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.  They were constantly running, after all, and that kind of use would naturally cause mechanical issues over time.  The extreme cold didn’t help matters, either.  I got a good example of that chilled air as it blasted right into my face as I left the warm confines of the observatory.  I turned on the bulky flashlight I was carrying.  The generator shed was outside of the main building for safety and ventilation reasons, but it was close enough that I was able to cross the distance between the two structures within a few minutes even with needing to trudge through the heavy snow.

Although it was a short trip, I still found myself feeling uneasy.  The security lights on the outside of the observatory only reached about halfway, so for the second half of the walk I was surrounded by darkness.  I felt completely alone and isolated in the void, and the sounds of my feet crunching in the snow seemed to fade into nothingness.

I was only a few yards away from the generator shed when I noticed something strange about the snow.  I lowered the flashlight’s beam to get a better look.  I immediately regretted doing so.  A large section of snow was soaked in dark red blood.  It was smashed down like it had been trampled by some great weight.

I stood there staring dumbly at it for a long moment.  As the shock wore off, however, I pulled my eyes away from the blood and quickly looked around.  I knew that there weren’t any other people in the area besides the four of us at Jarl Aurdal.  All the deliveries to the observatory stopped during the polar winter, as the roads around it became impassable due to the snowstorms.  There weren’t any nearby towns, and even the always crazy survivalists avoided the area.

That didn’t mean that the area was deserted, however.  There was a surprisingly high amount of animal life.  Animals like reindeer, seals, and a variety of birds called Svalbard home.

The animal that I was worried about wasn’t one of those, however.  It was polar bears.  The region has one of the highest populations outside of the North Pole, and there are plenty of stories about them wandering into inhabited areas.  The ones that you’ve seen in zoos don’t do the wild ones justice.  Polar bears are huge, nearly half a ton of bulk and muscle.  They can tear a human in half without a second thought if they want to.

That’s ridiculously rare, but I wasn’t going to stick around to see if I could beat the odds.  I quickly crossed the rest of the distance to the shed and went inside.  I fumbled around in the dark for a moment before I was able to find the light switch.  I flipped it up and watched as the overhead lights began to come to life one at a time.

I felt a wave of relief wash over me, and it wasn’t just because I was safely indoors.  Just being under the lights was soothing.  They kept the encroaching blackness away.

It only took a few minutes to figure out which generator had gone offline.  It was Genny Five, the same one that I had been struggling with my entire time at the observatory.  It was one of the oldest of the group, and it had been repaired so many times over the years that I doubted that it still had any of its original parts.  The machine had become so unreliable that the only things it was assigned to provide power to were a few non-essentials like the observatory’s exit signs.

Even though it wasn’t crucial, I made sure that it was back up and running every single time that it stopped.  I knew that it might be needed for more than some signs if a real emergency came up.  It turned out that the only thing wrong with Genny Five was a damaged wire, so I was able to get the repair completed within minutes.

I went around the side of the generator to restart it and nearly slipped on something.  I looked down to find more blood and gore on the floor.  The wide streak ran across the floor and disappeared behind a large series of storage shelves.

I listened as hard as I could.  It was difficult to hear anything over the running machinery, and the wind whistling across the metal roof wasn’t helping matters.  There was just too much going on to make out any noises that shouldn’t have been present.

Coming to a decision, I crept towards the area of the shed that the blood was leading to.  You know those horror movies where someone hears a bang from upstairs and, instead of running the hell out of the house, stupidly goes to investigate?  In that exact moment, that was me.  There was a major difference, though.  If I left instead of finding out what was going on, I was either going to come back with the others or I wasn’t going to come back at all.  The first option would be putting more lives in danger, and the second meant running the risk of something in the generator shed being damaged.  Those generators were the only things that sustained us through the winter, and if they went down…  Well, we would be screwed, to put it bluntly.

The blood led further beyond the shelves towards the bay door.  When our supplier brought fuel, the driver would deliver much of it on pallets.  The tanks outside would be filled as well, but in the freezing cold of the arctic winter they would often become inoperable.  Smaller tanks were loaded on pallets to be kept indoors to make sure we were always able to keep the generators fueled up.

I could feel a cold wind as I came around the corner.  The bay door had been forced open on the right side, the metal crunched up above my shoulders.  Snow was blowing through the opening and forming piles against the walls.

Sitting in front of the door was the carcass of an adult polar bear.  Its chest had been torn open, exposing broken ribs and destroyed organs.  Its fur was stained red and black from its own gore.

The bear’s head was facing towards me, and I felt my stomach churning as I stared at it.  The head had been crushed, the skull almost completely flattened against the ground.  The animal’s tongue hung out of its mouth and against the concrete.  Its lower jaw had been nearly ripped off, and it hung at an awkward angle.  Its right eye was missing from the socket.

I jumped as a horrible sound came from the storm raging just beyond the door.  It was low and guttural, filled with hatred and hunger.  There was no doubt in my mind that what I was hearing wasn’t human, but it also didn’t sound like it belonged to some mindless animal.

I turned and ran.  I moved faster than I ever had in my life, racing through the generator shed and back out the front door.  The snow was coming down much harder than it had been when I had left the observatory.  The light from my flashlight barely penetrated the gloom in front of me.  My pace was greatly slowed by the accumulation, but I forced myself to keep moving as quickly as I could.

There was another howl from somewhere over my left shoulder.  I couldn’t tell if the creature was pursuing me, but I wasn’t going to stop to find out.  I almost slammed into a wall as I reached the observatory.  I had found the building, but I didn’t see the door.  It took me a few minutes to locate it; I had arrived about twenty feet to the right of it.  I went back inside and slammed the door behind me.

The others questioned me about what was going on, of course.  I must have looked like I was completely out of my mind while I stripped off my coat and boots, and my description of what had happened probably sounded like pure lunacy.  I was apparently convincing enough that Peter Boggard and Adnan Bhalla felt the need to go check for themselves.  

They retrieved two rifles from the gun locker.  None of us liked the idea of firearms being in the building with us, but it was a necessary evil.  We needed to be able to defend ourselves and each other in case of a wild animal attack.

The two men headed out towards the generator shed.  Bailey Miho and I watched the feed from the security cameras; the feed was mostly blocked by the falling snow, and they disappeared almost as soon as they appeared on the cameras.  The last image we saw was of them talking to one another as the darkness swallowed them up.

I was worried that something would happen to them, but they returned unharmed a short time later.  The polar bear carcass hadn’t been in the shed when they had arrived, but they had seen the damage to the door and they reported that large amounts of blood covered nearly every surface of the loading bay.  They had also heard the same bellowing that I had, but it had been further away and it had stopped after just a minute or two.

Bhalla also said that he had seen something as they had left the shed.  He hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but it had been big and definitely hadn’t been another bear.  Not unless one had learned to walk on two legs.

We were all on edge for the next few days, but nothing out of the ordinary happened.  The storm thankfully didn’t turn into a full blizzard.  It did, however, leave a large amount of snow behind.  We were forced to clear a path to the generator shed to make sure it was accessible.  Bhalla and Miho managed to get the bay door back into somewhat working order with a sledgehammer.

We didn’t talk about what had happened.  It wasn’t some decision that we all agreed on.  No one seemed to want to talk about it, though, so we didn’t.  It was like we believed that not discussing it meant that it wouldn’t happen again, and for a couple of weeks it seemed like that would be the case.  My three companions went about their research while I continued to make sure that the observatory itself was running smoothly.

On the Friday of the third week, I looked out of the window and found that the endless night wasn’t so endless after all.  The sky was finally clear enough for the aurora borealis to be seen.  The others were already at the door and getting dressed to go outside as I hurried down from my workshop.  Weeks of tension gave way to smiles and laughing as we rushed out into the snow like children on Christmas morning.

It might sound like we were being reckless, and maybe we were.  What you have to remember is that nothing out of the ordinary had happened after the initial incident.  We had been outside a number of times since then for various reasons without an issue.  We had become complacent.

I’m sure that you’ve seen pictures of the northern lights, but I’m here to tell you that those images don’t do it justice.  Bands of green and purple and blue wrapped throughout the sky, moving and pulsing like ethereal flames dancing for the amusement of the stars.  I wasn’t just in awe of what I was seeing.  The natural beauty was so incredible that I felt like I was having a religious experience.  I was aware that tears were falling down my cheeks, and I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of embarrassment.  I wish that you could have seen it.

I could have stood there in rapture for hours, but I was snapped out of my euphoria by the same deep growl I had heard in the generator room weeks earlier.  We all turned towards the noise.  A few hundred yards away, standing just outside of the ring of light created by the observatory’s security lamps, was a huge figure.

It had to have been well over nine feet tall, but it was hunched over so it was difficult to judge its full height.  It was wrapped in some kind of black cloak or tattered robe, with a baggy hood covering its head.  Its arms were disproportionately long, and its knuckles touched the snow.  The figure was holding a large object in its right hand, but I couldn’t tell what that object was from that distance.

As we watched, it lifted its head upward towards the aurora borealis and howled again.  It was a defiant roar, as if it was challenging everything in the heavens.  The hood slipped slightly as the creature bellowed, and I thought that I saw tufts of hair or fur sticking out.  They disappeared back beneath the cloth as the creature lowered its head once more.

It was moving towards us before we were able to register what was happening.  Its thick legs powered it towards us at an incredible rate, spraying snow off in every direction as they churned through it.  The creature grunted and groaned as it bore down on us.

Miho screamed and started towards the door.  Less than a second later Boggard and I were following, but Bhalla continued to stand in place.  His eyes were wide, and he had this expression on his face like he had no idea where he was.  I called out to him as Miho pushed the observatory door open.  My cries sounded flat as they were absorbed by the snow and the night.

The creature reached him and lifted the object it was carrying.  It was a huge wooden club roughly the size of a small tree trunk.  It was dented and splintered from use, and thick metal bands were tightly wrapped around its length.  The weight must have been incredible, but the creature hefted it like it had no weight to it at all.

Bhalla seemed to realize at the last moment what was happening.  He tried to back away, but the club was already swinging down at him.  It collided with his head and drove its way into his body.  The blow was so strong that it caused most of his upper half to erupt in a fountain of gore.  The creature kicked away his remains and turned towards the rest of us.

For a split second, my eyes locked with the creature’s.  They were the color of amber, and they glowed in the shadows of the hood.  I had never had anyone look at me with such unbridled malice.  The gaze was broken as Boggard pulled me inside the observatory and slammed the heavy door shut.

Miho attempted to radio for help, but of course there was no reply.  Jarl Aurdal was so remote that it was difficult to get in contact with someone even in the best weather conditions possible.  She didn’t give up, though.  She stayed at the radio for hours, sending out the same message over and over again.

I could hear her talking from down the hall as I sat in my office watching the security camera feeds.  One by one, the outside feeds went dark.  The cameras were still transmitting, but the lights near them were being knocked out.  A couple of times I was able to catch a glimpse of the creature as it used its club to shatter the bulbs.  Whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t some mindless beast.

I spent the time running through our options, of which there weren’t very many.  There was a small garage around the back of the observatory that contained a four wheel drive SUV that we could theoretically use to escape.  The problem was that the roads were likely to be completely impassable after the heavy snow.  It would also mean that someone would have to go out into the darkness to collect fuel for the truck in the generator shed.

As far as I could tell, our best bet would be to stay put and wait things out.  We had enough food to last until we reached the other side of the polar winter.  If we limited ourselves to a small section of the observatory and cut off the power in all the other areas, we would probably be able to keep lights and heat going without needing to refuel the generators.  It was fortunate that I had filled them the previous day.  Plus there was always a chance, no matter how slim, that Miho’s calls would be answered.  We had to avoid going back outside if at all possible to avoid falling victim to the creature like Bhalla had.

I’m finding it difficult to even write Bhalla’s name.  He was a good man, with a wife and kids waiting for him back in London.  For his life to be brought to an end so quickly and so brutally…  He didn’t deserve that.  No one does.

Boggard appeared in my office doorway as the last of the cameras went dark.  He was holding a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and by the looks of him he had already started on it.  He sat down in an empty chair and stared at the black monitors.  We were both silent for a long time.  I don’t think either one of us knew how to put our thoughts into words.

When he finally started to talk, his voice sounded heavy and tired.  He told me that his grandmother was originally from Longyearbyen, a small settlement in Svalbard and the world’s northernmost town.  She had moved to Oslo as a teenager, and it was there that she had met his grandfather when he had been stationed there in World War II.

When he was a child, she had told him stories about the jotnar, magical creatures that existed alongside mankind in Norse mythology.  From what he told me, it sounded like jotnar was the plural form of jottun, a sort of catch-all term for things like giants, faeries, and trolls.  The Scandanavians believed many of them to be extremely dangerous, and there were countless tales about humans coming to their ends at the hands of the jotnar.

One particular story that had always fascinated him was about a jottun named Krig the Darkborn.  The monster would mercilessly hunt down and kill anyone that entered his territory.  After he had slaughtered an entire village in a single night, the ancient gods had been forced to step in.  He had proven to be far more formidable than they had thought, however, and they were unable to slay him.  Instead, they had been forced to banish him to the far north, far beyond where the humans dwelled.

Boggard finished his story and took a final drink from the bottle.  He stood up and stumbled a bit as he went over to the door.  He looked back at me and said that he didn’t know if he believed his grandmother’s tales, but they were becoming more difficult to dismiss as fiction because of what was happening.  In any case, Krig was as good a name as any to call the creature outside the observatory walls.  With a mirthless laugh, he left and closed the door behind him.

I sat at my desk for a long time with my head in my hands.  While I was certainly scared, I was more numb than anything.  My mind didn’t want to accept what was happening.  I had seen Bhalla killed with my own two eyes, but it strangely felt like I hadn’t really experienced it.  It was more like something that I had seen in a particularly vivid dream.

The next time that I saw the others was when we gathered together for a meal hours later.  When there’s no daytime, it’s hard to know what to call a meal.  Is it really still breakfast when it’s completely dark out just because a clock tells you that it is?  Time seems to have almost no meaning when the skies remain black.

We decided as a group that we needed to be armed.  There were two rifles in the gun locker, and Boggard retrieved them using his key.  As I mentioned before, the weapons were kept at the outpost in the event of an aggressive animal.  The situation certainly fit that criteria.  Neither Miho nor I had any experience with firearms, so Boggard patiently went through the basics of how to handle and use them.

Since there were three of us and two of the rifles, I volunteered to go without one.  I’ve never been comfortable around guns.  The only time that had I tried using one was at a shooting range, and after firing a single shot I knew that I never wanted to touch one again.  

We began the long process of getting most of the observatory shut down.  To conserve as much fuel as possible, we would bring the heat levels down in the majority of the building, keeping it just high enough to prevent pipes and equipment from freezing.  All lights except for emergency lights would be shut off, and all of the computer and mechanical systems would be disconnected.  The only part of the facility that would still be up and running would be the living quarters, which included the sleeping area, kitchen, and bathrooms.  We would use only as much power as we needed to survive so as to put as little drain on the generators as possible.

It was my job to get the main dome shut down.  That’s the central part of the observatory, and it’s basically what you think of when you hear the word ‘observatory’.  There’s a high rounded ceiling made up of retractable panels over a large circular room.  Two giant telescopes sit on a rotating platform surrounded by rows of computer systems designed to process and analyze collected data.  Under normal circumstances, it is by far the area that uses the most power.

It took me about an hour to get everything turned off, disconnected, and covered.  When I was finished, I went over to a breaker box and turned off the lights.  I was suddenly surrounded by total darkness.  A shiver went down my spine, and I held my breath as I waited.  To my relief, the red security lights turned on, and I let out the breath with a nervous smile.

Since I was done with my section, I went to help Miho get the maintenance tunnels finished.  Jarl Aurdal sits on top of a large series of rooms and hallways that the pipes and electrical wiring run through.  They’re also home to the mechanical systems that allow the dome to open and close, as well as the hydraulics needed to raise, lower, and adjust the telescopes.  Miho had volunteered to go down into the tunnels to turn off the power to the nonessential systems.

I found Miho’s body at the bottom of the stairs.  When Bhalla had been killed, it had happened so fast that I hadn’t been able to process it.  This was different.  For what seemed like hours I stared at her remains, taking in every last detail over and over again.  When I close my eyes now I can still see it clearly.

I’m not going to go into too many details.  She had been torn apart, and there was no question that she had died in agony.  Her head was lying next to her body with a horrified expression on its face.  The rifle she had taken with her was broken into dozens of pieces scattered throughout the pool of blood.

I heard a rumbling noise, and I looked up from the body and down into the darkness at the far end of the tunnel.

The hulking creature that we were now calling Krig emerged from the shadows.  I don’t mean that he stepped out into the light.  I mean that one second he wasn’t there, and the next he was coming out of the dark like he was walking through a doorway.  It wasn’t possible, and yet I was watching it happen.  I have no explanation for it.

Krig’s glowing amber eyes were staring straight at me as he came forward.  For just a split second, the overhead lights managed to penetrate through the shadows created by the heavy hood.  Instead of a nose and mouth, he instead had a wolf-like muzzle.  Unlike a wolf, however, there wasn’t any fur, just leathery skin pulled tight against the bone.  Tufts of hair stuck out from below it.  He took another step forward, and his face was once again shrouded.

I turned and darted back up the stairs.  Just before I reached the doorway, I heard a loud wet noise from behind me.  I knew what I was hearing, but I forced it out of my mind.  Thinking about how he was stepping through the bloody remains of Miho wasn’t going to do anything except cause me to panic more than I already was.

I screamed for Boggard as I slammed the door shut behind me.  I inserted the small padlock into the latch.  I knew with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t matter, but in my panic I locked it into place anyway.  It clicked shut just as the astronomer came around the corner, his rifle gripped tightly in his hands.

The door was even more ineffective than I would have thought.  It burst open almost immediately, sending wood and metal flying outward as it was torn from its hinges.  Boggard raised the rifle and fired into the opening.  I felt like I was going deaf from the noise as I slapped my hands over my ears and moved away from him, the sounds of the shots echoing off the corridor walls.

Krig emerged from the ruins of the doorway.  He completely ignored the bullets that were pounding into his body.  They weren’t even penetrating his skin; I could see them scattering across the tiled floor as they practically bounced off of him.

The rifle clicked empty.  To Boggard’s credit, he immediately switched his grip on the weapon and swung it at the creature’s head.  It impacted hard against the skull, but Krig wasn’t fazed in the slightest.  He batted away the rifle, wrapped one of his large hands around Boggard’s head, and squeezed.  With his last breath, Boggard yelled for me to run.

I turned on my heel and did as he instructed.  I was no longer thinking clearly.  I was operating on pure instinct, and those instincts were telling me to get as much distance between the creature and myself.  With each step came the certainty that I would feel Krig’s fingers dig into my body and pull me off of my feet.

Somehow I made it to the living quarters and managed to slam the door shut and lock it.  I stumbled back into the wall and slid down to the floor as I tried to suck air back into my lungs.  I wrapped my arms around my knees and waited for a death that didn’t come.

I don’t know how long I stayed locked in the living quarters.  There wasn’t anything in that section of the observatory to keep track of the time.  I’m sure that it was at least a few days, but it could have been weeks.  I slept, I ate, I tried to keep my mind occupied, and I stared out the windows into the always present night.

I kept expecting Krig to break down the door and come for me, or for him to emerge from the shadows like he had in the maintenance tunnel.  There was no doubt in my mind that he could do so at any moment, and that I was going to meet my end when he did so.  For some reason that I didn’t understand, he left me alone.

With access to both food and water, I would be able to last until the relief crew arrived at the end of the polar night.  That was the morbid upside to my companions being gone: it meant that less power was needed, which in turn meant that the fuel in the generators was sure to last as long as I needed it to.

I occupied myself by trying to figure out how to warn the relief crew.  I didn’t know if Krig was still roaming around the observatory or if he had gone back out into the dark, but I suspected that he was at least nearby.  If that was the case, the crew would be doomed the moment they arrived.

At some point I noticed that the power was sputtering more than usual.  When you’re running exclusively on generators, you become accustomed to them choking from time to time.  The lights dim for a second before going back to full illumination, a fan stops and restarts before it can even slow down, that sort of thing.

That normal type of quick interruption wasn’t what was happening.  The sputters were coming more and more frequently, and they were lasting longer each time they happened.  Something was wrong, and it was clear that it was going to continue to get worse.  Either the generators were having issues, or something was causing problems with the electrical lines.  Both were equally bad scenarios for me.

That moment of realization was when I began to feel truly afraid.  You would think that would have been when Bhalla was killed, or when I first saw Krig down in the maintenance tunnel.  I had felt fear then, but nothing compared to the terror that was now threatening to overtake me.

I knew that if the power went out, that was it.  I was screwed.  I would freeze to death without the heater running.

My only option at that point would be to leave the living quarters.  I would then have to head to the generator shed to retrieve fuel before taking my chances in the truck.  The odds were ridiculously low that I would be able to make it to civilization, as there had been more than enough snow to block the roads by this point.  The more likely outcome would be the truck would get stuck, and instead of dying in the living quarters I would die out on the snow-covered road with the darkness all around me.

To even get to that point, the plan assumed that Krig wasn’t still around.  If he was, there was no way that I could get the fuel before he tore me apart.  It seemed beyond hopeless.

I curled up on one of the bunks and began to cry.  I cried so hard that I began gasping in the throes of a panic attack, but I just couldn’t stop.  All of the weight of the stress and fear that had been building since finding the polar bear in the generator shed collapsed in on me in that moment, and the weight of it crushed me.

It wasn’t my finest moment.  You know how much I hate not being in control of myself.  I think it was the creeping feeling of self-loathing that ended up allowing me to stop crying and lift my head out of the wet spot on the mattress that I had created with my tears.

Now that I had come out the other side of my momentary weakness, my mind was oddly clear.  I knew exactly what I needed to do.  Instead of waiting for the power to go out completely, I would make the attempt to refuel the SUV and escape before that happened.  That way I’d at least have a warm place to return to if things didn’t work out.  Maybe I’d even have time to figure out why the power was unstable and get it fixed if it came to that.  I might not have had good odds, but this would increase my chances.

I got up off of the bunk and got dressed in the warmest clothing that I could find.  Not knowing how long it would take to get to the nearest town, I packed a bag with food and bottled water from the kitchen and slung it over my shoulder.  I clipped a flashlight to my belt as I ran through a mental checklist to make sure that I wasn’t forgetting anything.  It was a good thing that I did, because I almost forgot to get the keys to the truck.  I retrieved them from their hook and put them into my pocket.

Taking a deep breath, I went over to the door leading out of the living quarters.  I reached out towards the handle and found that my hand was trembling.  I clenched it into a fist and waited until it was steady.  It eventually stopped shaking, and I unlocked and opened the door before I had enough time to talk myself out of it.

The hallway beyond the door was dark.  The only illumination were the red security lights, and the glow from them created large shadows across the walls.  I slowly closed the door behind me and stood still as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.  When I started walking, it was at a snail’s pace.

My shoulder brushed up against something.  I turned to find myself looking at several small white objects floating in the air.  I leaned forward and examined them closer for a few seconds before stepping back in revulsion.  They were pieces of bone suspended from the ceiling by what looked like thick hairs.

Forcing myself to continue, I walked down the hallway until I came to the point where it started to widen.  Up ahead was the large dome section of the observatory.  The building’s front door was just beyond it, which meant that I had to pass through it.  I would be completely exposed while doing so.

The light coming from the dome room was strange.  It was rhythmically pulsing like a heartbeat.  There was also a sweet smell in the air that was familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify it.  The windows on the outside wall were smeared in blood and some brown substance that I couldn’t identify.

I entered the dome room and nearly tripped over my own feet as I came to a halt.  The entire section had been completely transformed.  Boggard had once referred to this area of the observatory as a shrine to technology.  Computer terminals had formed a circle around the two huge cutting edge telescopes, and large monitors had lined the walls.

That shrine had been torn down and replaced with one far more primal.  The monitors had been torn from the walls and smashed into pieces.  The telescopes were both lying broken off to one side.  Symbols that I didn’t recognize were drawn in blood and more of that brown substance across the walls and floor.  Displays of skulls and bones were stacked and strung up throughout the room.  Some of the bones were from a variety of different animals, but many of them were human.  There were more of those than could have possibly come from my late companions.

Fires had been built in over a dozen places, their flames tinted red from the security lights.  The largest of them was a huge bonfire that had been built in the center of the room.  It towered over everything else, stretching upward for nearly two stories.  It crackled loudly as it released smoke up into the curved dome.

Directly behind the bonfire, the computer terminals had been split apart and shaped into a great throne.  Upon that throne of ruined human ingenuity sat the imposing figure of Krig the Darkborn.

The massive creature was sitting completely still, each hand gripping one of the arms of the metal and plastic throne.  I wasn’t able to see his glowing amber eyes, but I didn’t know if that was because of the distance between us or because they were closed.  Shadows danced across him as the fires burned.  Leaning up against the right side of the throne was the bloodstained club.

Seeing him like this as the unquestionable lord of Jarl Aurdal, I finally got it.  I wasn’t in the presence of some simple monster.  I now knew what it meant to be in the presence of a jottun.  This was a being that I could never fully understand.  I could never hope to truly define him.

He was Krig, master of the endless night and defier of gods, and Jar Aurdal was the great hall that he now ruled from.

Not having any other option, I slowly started walking towards the door.  I never looked away from him as I did so.  I’m not sure if I could have if I tried.

I was less than ten feet away when those horrible amber eyes opened and locked on me.   Whatever hope that I still had faded away.  He had known that I was there the entire time.  Of course he had.  He knew everything that happened in his territory, and things only happened in that territory when he permitted them to.  Without moving a muscle, he was letting me know that he had not granted me the right to leave.

I abandoned my plan and turned back towards the way that I had come from.  He watched me closely as I started walking.  His eyes didn’t close until I had reached the hallway.

I had been dismissed.

I returned to the living quarters, and that’s where I am now.  I apologize for the awful penmanship, but I can’t seem to stop shaking.  I can’t put into words how insignificant I feel.  A single look was all that it took to get me to put aside all my survival instincts and instead bow to his will.

I’ve come up with one last idea.  There’s an air vent in the kitchen that connects in with the other ductwork, and from there I should be able to find my way to the vent leading outside.  From there I can make a break for the generator shed.

It’s an all or nothing plan, and there’s a lot that can go wrong.  The duct in the kitchen is large enough for me to pull myself through, but I don’t know if the rest of the ductwork is going to be that large.  I also won’t be able to fit anything in there except my body, which means that I have to leave behind all my supplies and thick clothing.  Even assuming that I make it outside, I still have to get the fuel for the truck, go to the garage, refill the truck, and drive away hoping against hope that the road is clear enough for me to get through.

All the while I’ll be surrounded by the polar night.  I can’t risk using the flashlight.  I’ll have to make my way from building to building through the black void.  If my direction is off by only a few feet, I will likely wander lost in the darkness until my body succumbs to the cold.

Worst of all, Krig might come for me.  Like I said, I know now that nothing happens in his territory without his allowing it.

It’s a risk I have to take if I’ve got any hope of getting through this, though, and I guess that’s another part of why I’m writing this letter.  I may be dead within the next few hours, and I didn’t want to go without making a record of what we’ve been through.  There won’t be many people mourning me; both my parents passed away years ago, and I don’t keep many friends.  Bhalla, Miho, and Boggard all had families, though.  I need to know that there’s at least a chance of their loved ones finding out what happened to them.

I guess there’s no reason to delay this any longer.  If there’s anything that I want to leave you with, it’s that our years together did matter to me.  I loved you, and I still love you.  Please remember me fondly.  Without you, I don’t have anyone that will.

Kimberly Farrington

The Devil’s Tone

In early 2022, a reporter who will remain nameless requested documents from the United States government through the Freedom of Information Act.  When the reporter received these documents, they found that there was an additional unrelated memorandum included with the other papers.  This is that memorandum.

March 17, 2021


Subject: Project Fourier Field Tests, Williams, Arizona

  1. This memorandum serves as documentation of field tests of Project Fourier that have taken place over the past twenty-eight days in Williams, Arizona.
  2. Project Fourier was created to test the effects of sound waves on the human body and mind.  Laboratory testing on both human and animal subjects has shown that sound waves of various intensities and pitches can be used to cause different effects including nausea, pain, and changes in personality.  Dr. Dhaval Varadkar, the project lead, believes that he has found a way to produce a specific type of sound wave that makes test subjects more open to suggestion and obeying direct commands.
  3. When laboratory testing had finished and field testing was authorized, the town of Williams, Arizona was chosen due to its population size, population diversity, remote location, and the ability to control the testing site without interfering with the experiment.
  4. During February 2021, four radio towers were constructed just outside of the town of Williams, Arizona.  These towers were built according to the specifications provided by Dr. Varadkar.  The towers were concealed among local rock formations and flora, with one being placed at each corner of the town.
  5. A fifth tower was constructed the third week of February 2021 at the suggestion of David Pike, a contractor and expert in broadcast and receiving technology.
  6. At 6:15am on February 18, 2021, the towers were activated remotely by field operatives.  Each was set to a specific strength, frequency, and pitch per Dr. Varadkar’s instructions.  These parameters would be changed each time a new test was started.
  7. Hundreds of tests were performed over the next four weeks before culminating in what has been referred to as the Williams Incident.  The documentation and results of these individual tests can be found in the following report: Hobbs, Dr. Gloria.  “Williams, Arizona Testing Information: Compilation.”  31 July 2021.  Classified Location

Please find attached a transcript of the testimony of David Marshall Pike, obtained March 23, 2021 at Fort Huachuca Army Base, Cochise, Arizona.

Testimony of David Marshall Pike

March 23, 2021

Fort Huachuca, Cochise, Arizona

So there’s this story about an incident that happened at Disney back in the 1950s.

Yeah, I know, I’m not here to tell you ancient stories from the golden era of animation.  I get that.  I know exactly why I’m sitting in this chair with you three fine gentlemen looming over me.  Just indulge me for a moment, though.  I promise there’s a point.

Back in the 50s, Disney wasn’t the entertainment juggernaut they are today.  At that point, they were almost exclusively concerned with churning out cartoons.  Most people are under the impression that all of the company’s films were successful, but the truth of the matter was that Disney was in trouble.  A number of their films had failed financially, even some of the ones that are seen today as classics, and it was really the television and newspaper cartoons that were keeping the lights on.  Small film strips, too, the kind that used to play before the feature presentations.

A couple of cartoonists were working on a short when they realized that they needed a particular sound effect to make a scene work.  It wasn’t one that they had used before, and after going through the sound archives they didn’t find anything that was quite right.  One of them realized that they could get what they wanted by slowing down the noise of a soldering iron at work.  They tinkered around with it for a while and at one point put it down all the way to 12 hertz.

They didn’t understand what sound can do if you’re not careful.  The cartoonists were sick for days after they created the effect.  Rumor has it that Walt Disney happened to be there with them at the time and that he fell ill as well.  Having a 12hz sound run through your body is roughly the equivalent of sitting in an office chair and letting your coworkers spin you around for a few hours.

When the body is exposed to sound, just like when it’s exposed to anything else, there’s a reaction.  This is especially true with low frequencies, called infrasounds.  Our ears can’t hear them, but they can do a number on us.  Did you know that noise around 19hz can cause people to hallucinate?  That’s because it’s the resonant frequency for the human eye.  The vibrations can cause us to see all kinds of crazy things, and you know what they say.  Seeing is believing.

The real dangerous one is 7hz.  That’s the resonant frequency for your brain and other internal organs.  You crank that one up if you really want to get the party started.  Nausea, disorientation.  You start to get paranoid, like everyone in the world is watching.  Let it go long enough and your organs start to tear open.  Just a bit longer and that’s it.  The end.  You’re done.  Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

I’m telling you all of this because you need to understand that the science behind what Dr. Varadkar attempted was sound, no pun intended.  As much as it sounds like something that came out of a bad pulp science fiction novel, it’s actually based on a hundred years of scientific research.  That’s how he got the government to agree to the funding.

I wasn’t a part of that pitch meeting, so I can only imagine those suits licking their chops at what he was presenting them.  And it made sense, right?  If sound can be used to affect the human body, it should be possible to use sound to make changes to it as well.  With the right frequency, volume, and other conditions, it would be theoretically possible to make a person far more susceptible to suggestion.  Taking it a step further, it would even be possible to basically rewrite how that person thinks.  The human body is, for all intents and purposes, a biological machine, and sound can be used to hack that machine.

You know what happened next.  The committee approved Dr. Varadkar’s grant.  How could they not?  He was telling them that he was going to give them a way to directly influence each and every member of the population on a silver platter.  Even if they weren’t going to use that technology on American citizens, and let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that someone eventually would have tried to do just that, it would be one hell of a weapon.  Win a war without firing a single shot by making the enemy see things your way.  

Whether they want to or not.

The committee went one step further, though.  Varadkar needed test subjects.  Lots of them, and they needed to be highly varied.  Different backgrounds, different biological makeups, different diets, all of that.  Being able to adjust the thought process of a single person wouldn’t cut it.  He needed to make sure that he found universal sounds and frequencies so that anyone and everyone would be affected.

Because of this, the committee agreed to allow Varadkar to use an entire town as his own personal playground.  Even with everything that’s happened, that’s the part that I still can’t get my head wrapped around.  The United States government turned over an entire town of its own citizens to a single person so that he could poke and prod and experiment on it.  That pretty much sums up what our elected officials really think about us regardless of their party affiliations, doesn’t it?

The town that Varadkar chose was Williams, Arizona.  It was the perfect place for Varadkar’s experiments.  It had a varied enough population that it would present a wide range of test subjects, but it was also isolated from the main highways and had very little in the way of outsiders passing through.  Three thousand one hundred and eight brains to pump dangerous sounds into.  Three thousand one hundred and eight men, women, and children that didn’t have a choice.

The four towers that were constructed, one in each direction outside of town, were my design.  I even suggested the building of the fifth tower to fill out the coverage area gaps.  I didn’t know what the experiment’s true purpose was at the time.  In fact, it was explained to me as something much different.  

Varadkar had told me that he was working on a new warning system that could transmit a warning signal throughout a large area by using particular tones on specific frequencies.  That’s not anything that’s needed here, but it would be invaluable in places where groups of people lived that didn’t have the luxury of readily available cell phone service.  People could be warned about imminent floods in even the most remote parts of the Middle East, for example.  A specific sound would be transmitted over a much larger distance than, say, the sirens we use now to warn people about tornadoes.  It would completely eliminate issues like language barriers.  A person hears the sound, and they know to get somewhere safe.

Varadkar said that what he was working on was a series of tones that could be used as a universal system.  One tone for flood, another one for sandstorm, a different one for tornado, and so on.  He told me that once he had the system figured out, he was going to work with frequencies to increase distance and reception by the human body.  As crazy as it seems now, I actually did believe that I was helping with some kind of humanitarian project.

Part of the project was to conceal the towers from view.  I did find that odd, but it was explained to me that it was simply to not take away from the natural beauty around the town.  Yeah, I know, it was a bad reason and I probably should have questioned it further, but it really wasn’t that strange of a reason.  I’ve been contracted by countless people that want a system that works, but don’t want to see it when it’s doing so.  It wasn’t like I was unaccustomed to hiding some rich person’s giant satellite dish or transmitting towers in a stadium.

Varadkar and I got along well enough during the building stage.  Once the towers were finished, he asked me to stay on-site in case any mechanical issues came up.  I think it’s fair to say that my services are in high demand, so at first I turned him down.  When he showed me the figure that he was willing to pay me for a few months’ work, though, I decided that I couldn’t afford to turn it down.

This next part is what Varadkar himself ended up telling me had happened.  I didn’t find out about what he had really been up to until later, and as much as I’d like to say that I had a bad feeling or some sneaking suspicion, the truth is that I didn’t notice anything that made me question what I had been told.  What I’m about to tell you is what he told me, not what I witnessed firsthand.  So take that for what it’s worth.

Varadkar and his team started small.  They already had a number of frequencies that would make a person feel anxious or disoriented, so they tried to see if they could simply tweak those to make the test subjects more open to suggestion.

Nothing really happened for the first few weeks.  That may sound like a long time to be working on such a small range of sounds, but you have to understand just how precise of frequencies they were working with.  There’s a lot of room between, say, 8hz and 9hz.  Varadkar was testing frequencies out to over fifty decimal places.

The majority of the time the residents didn’t even realize anything was happening.  We can’t hear anything below roughly 20hz, and he was working in ranges much lower than that.  He was also just using short bursts in the beginning.  It wasn’t until he started to extend the broadcast times that things began to go downhill for the people of Williams.

The number of people going to the local hospital rose dramatically.  A lot of the people were complaining about feeling sick even though they didn’t have the usual symptoms of a cold or the flu.  There were several cases involving coughing up blood or bleeding from various orifices.  A few elderly patients suffered heart attacks.

Varadkar was aware of all of this.  Somehow he was getting all of the medical records that were processed at the hospital.  Either someone was getting the information to him, or he was obtaining it himself.  I’m not sure which it was.

Like I said, this is just what I’ve pieced together from what he told me and from things that I saw later.  I didn’t see Varadkar much during that time period.  Since the towers were working without issues there wasn’t much for me to do, so I spent the majority of my time in the trailer that I had been provided with.  Like the other trailers and the few buildings that had been constructed, it was heavily soundproofed.  I and all of the other staff on site would be sent a text message when a test was about to occur, and we’d go into our designated areas to wait for it to be over.

I don’t know what test number it was when things started to get out of hand.  My guess is that it wasn’t one single test, but a cumulative effect from multiple ones.  Dozens of assaults were reported to the local police within a three hour window.  We were located miles outside of the city limits, but I could still hear gunshots when I stood outside of my trailer.  I was listening to that distinctive popping sound when one of the guards came into camp with the news that a fire was burning on the east side of town.

Varadkar and his team came rushing out of the temporary metal building they used as their base camp.  I’ve never seen anyone move as quickly as they were.  He barked a few harsh orders to his team, and they piled into a group of minivans and left.  Once they were gone, he yelled at the guards to begin breaking down the camp.  He then hurried over to me and grabbed me by the shirt, demanding that I tell him how to turn off the towers.

I was completely baffled by his shouting.  I knew for a fact that he was aware of how to shut them down.  He had been doing just that at the end of each test.  I tried to explain that to him, but he kept saying that they were still on and that I needed to turn them off.  His eyes were wild, and there was spittle or foam at the corners of his mouth.  Normally he was calm and collected, but now he looked like a maniac.

He brought me into the metal building and once again instructed me to shut off the broadcast towers.  As calmly as I could, I told him that it was all done through the main power switch, which was on the main computer board underneath a series of a dozen monitors.  He sneered at me and pointed at the monitors, telling me that they couldn’t possibly be off if this was still happening in Williams.

I went over to the monitors to see what he was referring to.  I instantly regretted that decision, and I have every minute since.  The images depicted on the monitors showed what I imagine Hell to look like.  Citizens of the town were tearing themselves and each other apart.  The atrocities being committed…

It wasn’t a riot.  I know that’s the popular story, but I’m here to tell you that it most definitely wasn’t a riot.  As strange as this sounds, it wasn’t organized enough to be one.  It was like everyone had suddenly decided that it was every man for himself.

I watched as an older man of maybe sixty brutally club in the skull of a teenage boy with a tire iron.  I actually knew that man; I had gone into town on several occasions to get food or simply to stretch my legs when testing wasn’t happening, so I recognized him as the owner of a local deli.  It was impossible to tell who the boy was.  He just…  There wasn’t enough of him left to even call him a person anymore.

On another monitor, two women were slowly driving around the parking lot of a gas station in an old beat up station wagon.  A rope was tied around the back bumper, and at the end of the rope was a man with his neck tied in a noose.  He was screaming as he was dragged across the pavement, leaving smears of blood in a trail behind him.

There were countless examples of depravity on display, but there’s one that I just can’t get out of my head no matter how hard I try.  A woman was standing directly in front of one of the cameras.  No doubt it was hidden, but somehow she had managed to get into the very center of the frame.  She was just standing there in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, slowly peeling chunks of skin off of her face with an almost bored expression.

I tore my eyes away from the monitor as Varadkar once again demanded that I shut off the towers.  Feeling my stomach churning, I looked down at the computer board on the desk.  The light that indicated when the towers were transmitting was off.  I checked the logs and verified that there wasn’t even power running to them.  They weren’t sending out a signal, and they hadn’t been for several hours.

When I showed all of this to Varadkar, he sat down in one of the leather chairs and buried his face in his hands.  He looked tired, and he seemed older somehow.  I was close to panicking at this point.  I knew that what was happening in Williams had to be at least partially my fault, and I yelled at him to tell me what was going on.  He just pointed at a clipboard sitting on one of the tables.

As I retrieved the clipboard and started to read through the documents, Varadkar haltingly told me what I told you earlier.  The real intentions of the project, the committee meeting, and how the government had handed over an entire town to him.  He didn’t sound remorseful.  If anything, it was more like he was trying to convince me that he had done the right thing.

The papers were a listing of test numbers along with the results of those tests.  There weren’t any exact frequencies listed, but there were reference numbers that I assumed could be used to find that out.

The most recent test, the one that had happened a few hours prior, was detailed on the top sheet.  At first the team had thought that it was another failed test.  Nothing had happened immediately, and the people that they were observing didn’t seem to be affected by it in any way.

About an hour after the test, however, a man was observed hitting another man without any provocation.  More of these incidents had happened as time passed, until suddenly the entire town had erupted in violence.  Instead of things growing calmer the further out they got from the test, they had instead inexplicably ramped up.

There was a handwritten note at the bottom of the page that I read several times to make sure that I was understanding it correctly.  One of the scientists had found that the test frequency was still resonating in the brains of the subjects they had monitors installed in.  I have no idea how they got monitors into people’s brains.  I mean, there’s no way that the people knew about it, right?  They never would have volunteered for that, and Varadkar’s group wouldn’t have told them what it was for anyway.

Regardless of how they did it, the scientist noted that the resonance was actually growing stronger as time passed rather than fading.  That simply should not have been possible.  That’s not how it works.  If you take away the source, there’s nothing to continue to cause the resonance to happen.  There could be effects from the resonance, obviously, but it wouldn’t just continue on.  For it to keep getting stronger…  I don’t have an explanation for it.

There was more to it, though.  The vibration was actually passing on from person to person.  When an affected person was close to an unaffected one for a long enough period of time, the brain of the unaffected one would begin to display a synchronous vibration.  To put it simply, the madness was contagious.

I put down the clipboard and just stared at Varadkar for a long time.  I don’t know how long it was.  I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I mean, how do you put the feelings you experience from reading something like that into words?

Varadkar was the one that ended up speaking.  He raised his head out of hands and looked directly at me.  The expression on his face was one of someone that had completely given up.

“The Devil’s Tone,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice that sent a chill down my back.

Before I knew what was happening, he reached under his lab coat and pulled a gun out from his belt.  I hadn’t noticed it before with everything that was happening.  He pointed it at me.  I stood completely still, afraid that even the smallest movement might make him shoot.  Without even blinking he turned the gun, put it into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.  It went off with a roar, and his body slumped forward in the chair as pieces of skin and blood and bone splattered onto the wall behind him.

That’s when the guards came into the building.  You obviously know the rest.  I had a hood put over my head, and the next time it came off was when I got here.  Wherever here is.

Look, I don’t know what you’re going to do to me, and frankly, I don’t care.  I didn’t know what I was a part of, but I was still a part of it.  None of that matters, though.  The only thing that matters is that you figure out how to stop that resonance.  There’s no way that it is just in Williams at this point.  There were hours between the final test and the outbreak of violence.  How many people left town during that time period without knowing what they were carrying inside of them?  It’s impossible to know.

You have to figure out how to stop it before it keeps getting passed on and on and on until we’re all completely and totally fucked.  Do you understand me?  You have to stop it now, and when you do, you need to toss everything Varadkar worked on into a fire and burn it to ashes.  Slam this door to Hell closed and make sure it never opens again.

End of Testimony


It is my recommendation that the line of research pioneered by Dr. Dhaval Varadkar be continued through this department.  The results of the testing in Williams, Arizona suggests that weaponizing the specific sound (referred to in testimony as the Devil’s Tone) may be a viable and cost-effective solution to deployment of United States resources in a variety of hostile settings.  I further recommend that, due to Dr. Varadkar’s death, his lead assistant, Dr. Irene Coldwater, be promoted to the head of the project.  A new testing location should be located as soon as possible so that research can continue.

Containment protocols should be updated to avoid the possibility of the results of such testing spreading across United States soil.  While necessary, the military eradication of the so-called Devil’s Tone carriers in Arizona brought unwanted attention to the area that nearly exposed the classified project.

Phillip Gausal
Special Advisor, United States Pentagon


He sits alone in a dark room, the only light coming from the single bulb above his worktable.

On the table sits a head.  It was with great care that he had removed it from the body’s neck, making sure not to cause any damage to it.  The skin and muscle had put up little resistance against the knife.  It had been the bone that had slowed the work.  It would have been so much simpler to saw through the spine, but he isn’t interested in simplicity.  It is precision and, yes, perfection that he is after.  There can be no flaws in his art.

He had used a small pick and chisel to disconnect the skull from the spine.  The process had been agonizingly slow, but it had been worth it.  The head that sits on his worktable is pristine.

Plucking a scalpel from a small glass jar filled halfway with fluid, he carefully examines it to make sure that the blade is sharp enough to meet his standards.  He nods to himself in satisfaction.  He always makes it a point to keep his instruments in working order, but it never hurts to make a final check before beginning the more delicate steps of the process.

Placing the tip of the scalpel at the very edge of the hairline, he pushes just hard enough for the blade to penetrate through the skin.  There was a time that he would have likely scraped the bone underneath, but he has come a long way since those early days and he knows exactly how much pressure to apply.  With a steady hand he cuts an incision that follows along the hairline.  He stops to rotate the head slightly after every inch to ensure the line is as accurate as possible.

The scalpel finally reaches the point he had started at.  He places the instrument back into the jar.  The drops of blood that had formed on it swirl throughout the fluid, turning the clear liquid a light pink.  He uses a clean rag to dab away the small amount of blood around the incision.  He had drained most of it out of the body before he had begun, but it’s impossible to get all of it.

He takes a tuft of hair in each hand and carefully pulls up.  The disconnected portion of skin slides away from the rest of the face with a sucking sound, exposing the top of the skull.  He places the scalp into a plastic tray before picking up a drill.

The bit at the end of the drill is extremely fine; the holes it makes as it bores into the skull are barely visible.  He drills a dozen of the holes around the exposed bone before setting the tool back down.  He leans in and examines his work to make sure that each hole is right where it needs to be.

He opens a small box at the edge of the worktable and takes out a long wire with a loop at each end.  The wire is jagged, with hundreds of razor-like points across its length.  The tool is a Gigli saw, a surgical instrument designed to cut through bone with extreme precision.  He slips the wire through the holes and moves it back and forth, pulling just hard enough for it to penetrate and tear at the bone.  The cuts are smooth and straight as they connect the holes together.  Finishing the task, he returns the saw to its case and closes the lid.

The top of the skull comes off without any resistance.  A few quick cuts with a knife shears away the three layers of tissue below the bone level.  The brain is now exposed, and he stares at it in disgust.  Like the other body organs, he considers it to be useless.  It is merely a lump of tissue.  It cannot be carved or repurposed, and it only gets in the way of his work.  Using the scalpel, he severs the nerve fibers attaching it to the eyes.  He once again places the tool in the jar before lifting the brain and the attached brainstem out of the cranial cavity.  He drops the organ into a trash bag without giving it a second thought before sliding the eyes out of the sockets.

It takes a few minutes for him to clear out the fluid from inside the cavity.  He uses a small cotton pad to wipe the bone clean, making sure to get it completely dry.  He always finds this part of the process to be relaxing, even soothing.  He often wonders if other artists feel the same way as they set up a new canvas on an easel or clear debris off of a fresh block of stone.  It’s ritualistic, and there is comfort in that ritual.

Using a tiny chisel and hammer, he begins the long process of carving an intricate series of symbols and designs on the inside of the skull.  He is not naturally gifted as a scrimshander, and it has only been through intense practice over many years that he has been able to get his skills up to a level that he is satisfied with.  Still, this is the only part of the process that he dislikes.  If his hands slip even a fraction of a centimeter, the entire project will be ruined and he will have to start again with a new subject.

His fingers are throbbing as he finishes connecting the lines of the final design.  Bringing the head up closer to his face, he lightly blows away the flakes of bone that have gathered at the bottom of the skull.  He plucks a jeweler’s loop off of a hook on the pegboard hanging beyond the worktable and holds it up to his right eye.  He examines every single line that he has carved to ensure that they are perfect.

The work is satisfactory.

Using a strong adhesive from a tiny white bottle, he reattaches the top of the skull to the head.  He waits patiently as the adhesive dries.  With the bone locked once again in place, he uses the same substance to glue the removed scalp back over it, making sure to return it to the exact position it had been in when he had cut it off.

He lays the head down on the worktable so that the face is pointed up towards the light.  Now that it has been prepared, the real work can begin.  For a third time, he picks up the scalpel, the tip gleaming in the light.  Using the point, he cuts a line from the right corner of the mouth.  It runs down over the edges of the chin and across the underside of the jaw.  When he reaches the section where the neck had originally been attached, he goes back to the lips and does the same thing down the left side.

With the guidelines cut, he exchanges the scalpel for a saw.  It is roughly the length of his forearm, and the teeth are straight and sharp.  He follows the lines that he cut, being sure to apply enough pressure for the saw to grind through the jawbone.  The trickiest part, as always, is getting it past the gums in such a way as to not damage the teeth outside of the cutting area.

One final push of the saw moves it through the flesh and bone and into the neck hole.  Keeping one hand on the forehead, he grips the detached section of face with the other and pulls.  It breaks free of the skull with a sound like twigs snapping.  The tongue flops down through the new opening and onto the worktable with a wet thump.  He puts the rectangular portion of removed face into a bucket before cutting the tongue free from the hyoid bone and placing it into the same trash bag he had used for the brain.

He clears the tools he had been using from the worktable and stands up from his stool.  The room is dark, but he knows exactly where each item he needs is located.  He shuffles away from the light on his long thin legs and disappears into the gloom.  When he returns a few minutes later, he places four items on the side of the worktable: a jar filled with grayish white orbs floating in sickly brown fluid, a shoebox, a cup holding thick bolts and nuts, and a heavy hand crank drill.  He sits back down on the stool with a sigh.

He removes the lid of the shoebox and pulls it towards him.  Inside the box is a large block of wood.  It is solid oak, and it feels smooth to the touch as he removes it from the cardboard box.  Setting it down on the worktable, he takes a black case off of the pegboard and opens it.  Inside are a wide variety of woodworking tools.  He lays them out one at a time in a neat line in front of him.

Over the next hour, he skillfully carves the block of wood.  He works very quickly as he cuts and shapes the oak.  He doesn’t take his eyes off of it even when he switches tools.  There’s no need.

The frenzy of activity finally slows before eventually stopping.  In his hands is a perfect wooden replica of the section of head that he had removed.  Every detail is exact, right down to the chip in the lower right cuspid tooth and the small scar on the chin.  Nodding to himself, he rubs down the finished work with a piece of sandpaper to remove any remaining shards or splinters.

He inserts the wooden replica into the hole in the bottom of the head and aligns it properly.  The next step is to drill two bolts into the head through the cheeks, one on each side.  The old hand crank drill squeaks as he applies pressure and turns it.  The bolt turns clockwise as it cuts down through the layers of skin, then into the muscle.  There’s a loud crack as it pushes through the bone.  There’s more resistance now as it presses into the wooden replica, but soon he has the bolt in place.  He repeats the process on the other side of the face.

He is almost finished.  He unscrews the lid of the jar and takes one of the orbs out of the thick liquid.  He holds the preserved eye in his palm and examines it.  Normally when a person dies, the cornea of the eye clouds over after an hour or two, taking away that spark of life that not even the best artificial eyes can duplicate.  The eye then becomes flaccid before eventually decaying away.

Using just the right chemical mixture, however, he is able to preserve the eyes.  The solution he has created hardens them into a rock-like consistency while never allowing them to lose that spark, that indescribable something that makes them seem alive.  It had taken him a long time to work out the mixture, but the end result is worth it.

Being careful not to scratch the preserved eye, he places it into the head’s open right socket.  He makes sure that it’s facing straight ahead before taking another one out of the jar and pushing it into the left socket.  The head is finished.  He feels a sense of satisfaction as he sits up and looks down at the result of his efforts.

He reaches out into the darkness behind him and pulls on a beaded chain.  A second light bulb hanging from the ceiling comes to life, illuminating another section of the room.  There is one last task to perform.

In the center of the light, supported by a tall metal pole, is the body the head was originally attached to.  He has already taken care of the necessary alterations.  The body is now a combination of biological and wooden parts.  The hands and feet are flesh and bone, but the fingers and toes are the same oak as the lower mouth and jaw.  The elbows and knees have been replaced by wooden counterparts.  The connection between the waist and spine has been completely rebuilt.  Every joint is replaced with bolts and hinges.  

The result is that every moveable part of the body can now swing in any direction.  He has, in essence, created a human marionette.  It is dressed in a fine Italian suit with a small red flower in the coat lapel.

He slides the head onto the top of the spine and bolts it on.  There is a loud click as it locks in place.  He brushes a stray bit of string off of the shoulder before narrowing his eyes.

“Live,” he says in a voice that sounds like he’s breathing the word instead of speaking it.

The eyes turn slowly in their sockets and focus on him.  The new wooden mouth opens and closes on its hinges, as if the creature is trying to speak but cannot.  He reaches around the body and releases the hooks attaching it to the metal pole.  It remains silent as it watches him.

Almost before he is able to release the final hook, the door to the room opens.  Warm yellow light from the hallway streams in, and he turns towards it.  A short silhouette stands in the doorway, one hand on the frame.

“Is my new doll ready, Papa?” the girl asks politely.

“It is indeed,” he replies with a wide smile.  “I just finished.  What do you think of it, child?”

“Oh, it’s wonderful!” she exclaims, coming into the room to get a better look.  “I love it.  Thank you, Papa.”

“You are very welcome.  What will you name him?”

“I think I’ll call him Mr. Dobbs.  Is that a good name?”

“It is a splendid one.  Why don’t you take him to meet the others?”

“Yes, Papa.  We were just about to have a tea party.  Come along, Mr. Dobbs.”

The creature takes a step towards the girl obediently.  It walks oddly on its hinged legs, like a figure from an old stop motion animation film.  She holds out her hand to it, and it gently takes it.  They start to leave the room when the girl looks back over her shoulder.

“Papa?” she asks.

“Yes, child?” he answers.

“If you make me another doll, can it be a girl?  I’ve only got one of those, and quite a few boys.”

The Puppeteer nods, his grin widening.  “Of course.  I know just the one.”

I’m Lonely

For what seemed like hours, Harper Tully stared out the narrow rectangular window as she chewed on her bottom lip.

The focus of her attention was a small brown box sitting on the stoop a few feet away from her apartment’s front door.  It was an awkward angle, but she could just make out the top of the bag that was sitting inside of it.  It was well within reach if she simply opened the door to claim it.  She wouldn’t even have to step outside.

She noticed that she was nervously running her fingers across the thick curtain.  Frowning slightly, she released the cloth and stepped away from the window.  This was ridiculous.  She was acting like a scared child.

Harper unlocked the front door and placed her hand on the doorknob.  She curled her fingers around it with every intention of turning it, but instead she simply stood still and continued to chew on her lip.

On the other side of the door was the food that she had ordered an hour earlier.  The friendly-looking delivery driver had left it on the stoop just as she had requested in her online order, and he had waved pleasantly at her when he had noticed her looking out the window.  She had waved back politely and watched him walk back to his car before driving away.

He had been wearing a mask the entire time he was outside the apartment.  She had noticed that he had even left it on when he pulled away from the curb.  It was extremely unlikely that the virus could be transmitted on the box or bag, and she knew that the restaurant she had ordered from took the best possible precautions when preparing food.  There was absolutely nothing to worry about.

She closed her eyes.  She had never been prone to this sort of panic before the pandemic.  If anything she had been the opposite, rushing into things without fully thinking through the possible consequences.  Something had changed inside of her during the long months of lockdown.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she turned the doorknob and opened the front door.  A warm breeze blew in from outside, and the sensation of it washing over her skin made her panic start to rise.  She opened her eyes and quickly retrieved the box before slamming the door shut.

She tried to slow her breathing as she took the box into the kitchen.  Setting it down on the counter, she quickly washed her hands before also applying hand sanitizer.  She put on a pair of rubber gloves before laying out two rows of paper towels on the counter next to the box.

She removed the paper bag from the box and set it onto the paper towels.  Opening it, she pulled her sandwich out and carefully unwrapped it from the thin paper that covered it.  When she was finished, she put everything but the sandwich back into the box and tossed it into the trash can.  She sterilized the area of the counter that the box had been sitting on before getting a plate out of one of the cabinets and taking her food into the living room.

Harper sat down at her desk and started to eat, tapping one of the keys on the keyboard to bring her computer out of standby mode as she did so.  The screen turned back on and she was once again looking at the message board she had been reading through all morning.  A number of new posts had been left since she had stepped away, and she read through them all eagerly.

It didn’t take long for her to finish.  She set down the remainder of her sandwich on the plate and leaned back in her chair.  The only sounds in the room were the low hum of her computer’s fan and the ticking of the clock in the hallway.

She reached over and picked up a blanket from off of a nearby footrest.  She put it over her shoulders and pulled it tight.  As was becoming more and more common, the room felt large and empty even though that wasn’t actually the case.  She felt isolated and alone as she waited for a new post to appear on the message board.

Harper didn’t know most of the people that posted on this particular message board.  The ones she did know couldn’t be considered anything more than casual acquaintances, people that she had shared some online conversations with at one time or another.  That wasn’t all that different from her life before the lockdown had begun.  At work she had known many of the people she worked with but hadn’t been close to any of them.

At first she had only gone to the message board every so often out of mild curiosity.  Now, though, she was on it practically every waking moment.  There wasn’t anything special about it.  It was just one of those boards where people would chat about everything from the weather to politics to the ongoing pandemic.  It had become a familiar place, and it was the only thing that she had that was close to contact with the outside world.  She had felt that need for connection strongly, especially recently.

A notification that a new post had been made appeared on the screen.  Harper practically flung herself forward as she clicked on the button to refresh the page.  After a moment of loading the title of the post appeared at the top of the message board.

I’m Lonely.

She stared at the words for a long moment.  It wasn’t very often that she saw a post title that was that short and to the point, and it was rare that personal feelings such as that were discussed on the message board at all.  She opened the post and found that the full text was only two additional words.

Are you?

She shook her head.  It was probably just a spam post.  Those happened from time to time on the message board.  Usually it involved messages claiming that people could make massive amounts of money working from home, though, or the occasional statement touting the sexual performance enhancement of some wonder drug.  This one didn’t seem to have much of a point.

She made a face.  There was always the possibility that it was someone trying to find another person to hook up with.  Those kinds of posts were much more rare, as there were simply better places on the internet to go to for that.

The disgusted look slowly slid off of her face as she reread the words.  It could also be a real person that was really feeling that way and was reaching out to other people.  That would have taken a lot of courage to do.

Harper looked away from the computer screen as she mulled it over.  Coming to a decision, she turned back to it and hesitantly typed a response.

I am, too, she wrote.

She began to feel embarrassed the moment that she made the post.  If she could have immediately removed it she would have, but this particular message board didn’t allow for the deletion or editing of posts.  Her cheeks grew warm as she left the desk and went into the bathroom.

She splashed cool water on her face and looked at her reflection in the mirror.  The expression she saw on herself made her smile crookedly in a mixture of exasperation and amusement.  She had replied to an online post using a pseudonym.  No one would know that it had been her.  She was feeling self-conscious for no reason.

It was, however, time for her to start getting some work done instead of hanging out on a message board.  Working from home had a number of benefits, but one of the downsides was that she had a harder time keeping to a schedule than she did when she was still going into the office.  A large amount of documents had been emailed to her earlier in the day and they needed her attention.

Harper returned to the living room and sat back down at her desk, fully intending to get down to business.  She was immediately distracted by the sight of a notification that a reply had been posted to the message that she had left.  Her first instinct was to ignore it; not only did she have work to do, she was also still feeling a twinge of awkwardness for having responded to the original post.  Curiosity got the best of her, though, and with a certain reluctance she refreshed the page.

We don’t have to be.

She furrowed her brow.  They didn’t have to be lonely?  It sounded like a terrible pickup line.  It seemed like she had been right about the poster just looking for a random hookup.

She sat back in her chair.  Did that really make sense?  She hadn’t provided any personal information about herself.  Nothing about her location, or even anything about her gender and orientation.  Her screen name was vague enough that it didn’t give away anything along those lines.

The other possibility was that this really was someone that was looking for a way out of their loneliness.  In a strange way that made her feel more uncomfortable than if the poster was an indiscriminate pervert.  It struck a nerve.

Shaking her head, she closed the website and opened her email client.  If she didn’t get started on her work now she was going to miss the end of day deadline.  She brought up the first document and began to read through it.

She had only gotten a few sentences in when her mind wandered back to the message board conversation.  If the last post was meant to be taken at face value, what did the person mean when they said that they didn’t have to be lonely?  Were they suggesting that they strike up an online friendship like modern day penpals?  Or were they saying something else entirely?

Harper sighed.  It was impossible to figure out without knowing more details.  The only thing that was clear was that she wasn’t going to get any work done until she had some answers.  She closed her email and navigated back to the message board.

Nothing new had been posted in the last few minutes.  She reread the short message a couple of times before noticing that there was more in the post.  At the very bottom of the screen was a thin black line.  She scrolled down further and found that there was an image attached.

It was a handprint.  The image was a bit larger than the size of her own hand, and the fingers were stretched out rather than pressed together.  The shape and black color were formed by hundreds, if not thousands, of tightly wound spirals drawn around and on top of each other.  She had never seen anything quite like it before.

Without realizing that she was doing it, she reached out with her right hand and moved it slowly towards the screen.  It was like the person that had written the messages was reaching out to her in a way that was both figurative and literal.  Her fingertips gently touched the monitor and came to a rest over those of the handprint.

It was an oddly poignant moment.  Harper suddenly realized that this was the closest that she had come to human contact in over a year.  She felt her eyes begin to tear up as she kept her fingers pressed against the warm monitor.  She could almost feel the person on the other side of it experiencing the same emotions that she was.

She slowly took her hand away from the monitor.  As much as she wanted that to be true, it was just a picture on a computer screen.

Harper wiped at her eyes in annoyance as she returned to her work.  It was stupid to get so emotional over something as pointless as a post on a message board.  She had much more real things that she needed to attend to.

It took a few hours for her to get through all of the documents.  Two of them were rather complicated, and they had required research that had taken more time than she expected.  She just barely managed to get them finished and emailed back before her deadline.

Once she had finally finished, she raised her arms over her head and stretched.  Her entire body felt a little sore, but her neck in particular was bothering her.  She rubbed it with the palm of her hand as she stood up from the desk.  She was feeling hungry again.  She went into the kitchen to scrounge around for food.

“Hello,” a voice whispered in her ear.

Harper yelped and spun around, fully expecting to see an intruder standing behind her.  There was no one there.  Her eyes went over every inch of the apartment that she could see, but she came up empty.

She slowly went over to the front door.  A quick check verified that she had indeed locked it when she had retrieved the food earlier.  Taking an umbrella out of the stand and holding it out in front of her as a makeshift weapon, she quietly went through the apartment room by room.  The thought of someone being in there with her was horrifying.  To her relief, though, she found that she was alone.

The voice must have just been imagined.  Either that, or she might have caught a small snippet of a conversation from one of her neighbors.  The apartment walls weren’t nearly as thick as the landlord tried to make potential renters think.  The more she thought about it, the more that seemed like the most likely answer.

She put the umbrella back in the stand and returned to the kitchen, rubbing at her aching neck as she did so.  There weren’t many options for what to make, so she settled on making herself a sandwich.  That was two meals that day that consisted of only a sandwich.  As she chewed on the turkey she wondered just how many of the things she had consumed over the course of the pandemic.  There had been a time when she would only eat a sandwich as a last resort, but now she was basically living on them.

“Harper,” the same voice from before whispered.

She dropped the remains of the sandwich on the kitchen floor as she jumped.  She turned around to look behind her even though she knew it was impossible for anyone to be there.  She had been leaning up against the counter while she ate; the only thing behind her was the wall.

The ache in her neck intensified as a burning sensation ran up and down it.  She moaned in pain as she held a hand up to it.  There was something there.  She couldn’t tell what it was.

She immediately felt a sense of dread.  She had been so careful during the entire pandemic.  Was this thing on her neck part of the symptoms of the disease?  She couldn’t remember if growths were on the list or not.  There were so many damn symptoms that almost anything could be seen as one.

Forgetting everything else, she rushed through the apartment to the bathroom.  She turned on the light and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.  Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the mirror.

Harper stared into the mirror, the eyes reflected back at her filled with fear.  After a brief hesitation, she turned her head to the left to get a better look at her neck.  There was a long scar that ran from just under her ear to the top of her shoulder that hadn’t been there before.

The scar began to separate.  She gasped as she gripped the sides of the sink so tightly that her hands hurt.  The flesh opened to reveal a dark gap, and each side of the gap was lined with pointed white teeth.  Thin trickles of blood ran down between them and onto her shoulder.

“Hello, Harper,” the mouth said in the same whispered tones that she had been hearing.

She screamed.  Her shriek echoed through the small bathroom, coming back to her from many different angles and causing her ears to ring.  She continued screaming until she began to gasp for air and choke on her own saliva.  She coughed and wheezed while the mouth continued talking.

“It’s okay, Harper,” it said soothingly.  “I know that this is a shock to you.  I’m sorry for that.  It’s not my intention to frighten you.  Here, let me help.”

She felt something begin to move under her skin.  Turning back to the mirror, she watched as a long thin object pushed outward from the mouth and wound its way around the back of her neck and out of sight.  It was like watching a jellyfish’s tendril move in water, except that this was underneath her own flesh.

“This will hurt for just a moment,” the voice warned her.

“Please,” she managed to get out.  “Don’t do-”

She was cut off by a sharp pain at the base of her skull.  She cried out as it grew stronger.  Just when she thought that she would pass out, the pain was gone.

“There,” the mouth said.  “That’s better, isn’t it?”

Harper took a few deep breaths.  The… thing was right.  There wasn’t any more pain, and she was feeling more in control of herself and less afraid.

“What did you do to me?” she asked quietly.

“I made it so that you’re more comfortable,” it replied vaguely.

“How?  How did you do that?”

“I drilled a small hole through your skull.  That allowed me to adjust the parts of your brain that were causing your panic.”

“You…  you lobotomized me?”

“No, of course not.  I’ve only temporarily affected your system.  I wouldn’t do that to you, Harper.”

She stared at the mouth in the mirror.  She knew intellectually that she should be more angry and terrified than she was.  Those were the right things to be feeling in whatever this situation was.  While she did feel them, they were much fainter than they should have been.

“What are you?” she demanded.

The mouth didn’t respond.  Instead, she watched as another tendril began to snake out from it under her skin.  It continued down her shoulder and beneath her shirt.  She felt it go into her right arm, and less than a second later it reappeared from under the sleeve and stopped on the inside of her arm at the wrist.

A mass began to form at the end of the tendril.  It caused her skin to bulge outward, stretching and pulling as something moved beneath it.  As she watched the skin tore open, sending a spray of blood onto the bathroom floor.  Despite whatever the thing was doing to her brain, she felt sharp pain radiate out from the wound.

Fingers extended out from the tear.  They flexed as they pulled themselves forward and out of the gap.  They were covered in slick blood, but not as much as they should have been given where they were coming out of.  The flesh that she could see through the gore was pink and raw like a newborn baby’s skin.

Harper was paralyzed as she watched the fingers emerging.  She just couldn’t accept what she was witnessing.  It was impossible, and her mind reeled from it.

The fingers were followed by the rest of a hand.  It pressed up against her own, and she could feel the warmth of the skin and the stickiness of the blood.  For a moment the hand laid flat against her own.  Slowly, the fingers moved and intertwined with hers.

“I’m the reason that you never have to be alone again,” the mouth said.

A third tendril, this one much larger than the previous ones, appeared in her neck.  She could feel the heat from it under her skin.  It felt… good.  Comforting.  Her muscles started to relax as the tendril slowly began wrapping itself around her.  It wound around her shoulders before moving further down to encircle her waist.  It was a loving embrace, the kind that she hadn’t felt in far too long.

Her eyelids began to droop.  She was vaguely aware that dozens of smaller tendrils were now crawling under her skin and piercing through her skull as they made their way into her brain, but she didn’t care.  Nothing else mattered except that she wasn’t alone anymore.

She looked into the mirror.  Her right eye was beginning to change.  The round iris curled into the shape of a spiral, the same shape that the handprint on the computer screen had been made up of.  The vision in that eye warped and distorted before going black.  She was now blind on that side.  She vaguely wondered why she wasn’t upset about that before dismissing the thought.

“There are others out there that are lonely,” her loving companion told her.

“That’s… sad,” Harper answered slowly in a thick voice.  “We should do something about that.”

“That is a very good idea, Harper.  Why don’t you?”

She turned away from the mirror and left the bathroom.  Each footstep felt like someone else was making it, and the short trip from the bathroom to the living room seemed like a dream.  Sitting down at the desk, she tilted her head slightly as she looked at the monitor blankly.  After a few minutes she opened the message board, clicked on the button to start a new post, and placed her fingers on the keys, the second hand growing from her right wrist moving slightly to allow her to do so.

I’m lonely, she typed.  Are you?

Lunch Date

I can’t be the only one that feels like this is a very weird time.

I’m sure that there’s a better term to go with than ‘weird’, but if there is, it’s not coming to me.  We’ve been locked down for over a year thanks to coronavirus.  We’ve worn masks whenever we’ve stepped more than a few steps outside of our homes, and all of our human interactions, the real kind that doesn’t involve staring at computer screens, have come from an oh-so-intimate six feet away.  This was our reality for so long that sometimes it felt like it was always going to be that way.

Now that we’re getting back to the way things were before the virus, or at least some reasonable facsimile of pre-Covid life, it feels weird, right?  The masks were annoying, sure, but don’t you kind of miss them in a strange way?  It’s like a child being told that a nice soft safety blanket is no longer required.

Dating is probably the most bizarre thing now.  After sitting around in your home for a year eating nachos in your underwear and binging whatever cooking show happened to be streaming at the time, you’re suddenly back out in the real world in places you thought you’d never be allowed to return to.  To add to the awkwardness, you’re sharing this experience with someone that you barely know.

This was the position that I found myself in as I sat on a bench in front of an Italian restaurant waiting for my date to arrive.  More than once I caught myself bouncing my leg up and down nervously.  I had never been good on dates even before the pandemic, and after more than a year I wasn’t just rusty.  I was nearly hopeless.

A lot of what made me feel so inadequate was the conversation.  No matter how hard you try otherwise, the discussion always seems to come back to the pandemic.  How did you spend your time during it?  Did anyone you know catch the virus?  How strange does it feel being back out now?

You know what follows that line of conversation?  Silence.  Very awkward silence.  It’s tough to recover after going down that path.

I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I barely registered my date’s arrival.  We had never met in person before, having just communicated through texts and the dating app we had both used.  On the app she had gone by the name LostLuv, but outside of the digital world her name was Jenna Borden.

She was a good deal shorter than I was, with the top of her dark hair coming up to the height of my shoulders.  I felt like I was looming over her when I stood up to greet her.  Her eyes were bright blue with flecks of purple throughout, a rather exotic look that I had never seen before.  They peered up at me over the black facemask she was wearing.

There’s another thing that’s much more awkward now than it used to be.  We’re so programmed now to avoid human contact that greeting one another normally is nearly a foreign concept.  Not knowing what else to do, I raised my hand in a rather stupid wave.  She returned the gesture, looking just as unsure about what to do as I was.

“I don’t know what to do,” Jenna admitted in a pleasant yet nervous voice.  “I feel like I’ve just come out of a coma and I’m trying to figure out complicated calculus equations.”

I laughed.  With two simple sentences she had broken the ice.

“Do you do that often?” I asked.  “Emerge from comas with the express purpose of doing math?”

“Oh, all the time.  I’ve done it three times today already.  I hope you don’t mind the mask.  I’m still a little paranoid, you know?”

I shook my head.  “I completely understand.  I’ve been fully vaccinated for almost two months now, and I still carry one in my pocket just in case.  Is this restaurant okay?  We can go somewhere else if you want, somewhere with outdoor dining.”

“No, it’s fine.  I actually love this place.  Why don’t we go inside and find a table?”

It turned out that I had been worried about nothing.  Jenna was easy to talk to, and she seemed just as interested in avoiding certain subjects as I was.  Our personalities were similar enough for us to enjoy each other’s company without being so close that we agreed on everything.  I’ve always found that to be important, as it’s boring to be around someone that doesn’t have something new and different to contribute to the conversation.

She didn’t remove her mask during the course of the meal.  At first I thought that she was just going to wear it until the food arrived.  That was the common practice that many people followed, so that would have made sense.

When we got our drinks, however, she slid the straw up under the bottom of the mask and drank it that way.  When she finished with a sip, she slipped the straw back out and placed the glass onto the table.  I didn’t find that as strange as I once might have.  She had already told me that she was still worried about the virus, after all.  If anything it made me feel more self-conscious about not wearing my own mask.

She kept it on her face when the meal itself was served, and that struck me as odd.  Most people would have at least pushed up the bottom of the mask to expose their mouths so that they could eat.  Instead, she used one hand to pull the mask forward a bit, making just enough separation between it and her face to allow her fork access.  It seemed like a cumbersome way to eat.

I didn’t say anything to her about it, of course.  First of all it wasn’t any of my business, and secondly I didn’t want to make her feel as if I was judging her.  It had been a while since I enjoyed a first date to this degree.  I didn’t want to say or do anything to jeopardize it, especially over something like this.

We ended up forgoing dessert.  Although she didn’t say anything about it, I could tell that she was starting to get a bit uncomfortable being in such an enclosed space.  I paid the check despite her protests that she wanted to split it.  I very much believe in equality, but there are certain things that were ingrained in me as a child by my father, and being the one to pay on a date is one of those things.  I followed it up by applying another of those lessons and opening the door for her as we went back outside.

“So,” Jenna said as we stood on the sidewalk.  “What now?”

“I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead,” I replied sheepishly.  “We’re just a couple of blocks away from Pleasence Park.  We could go for a walk there.”

“Going for a casual stroll on a first date?  How very old school of you.  I think it’s a fantastic idea.”

We chatted as we slowly walked through the small downtown Blackwood area.  As we did so I kept finding myself glancing down at her.  There was a definite attraction.  I couldn’t quite tell if she was feeling the same thing, but I thought that she might be.  This was going much better than I could have hoped.

As we reached the final intersection before coming to the park gates, Jenna sneezed.  I turned towards her just in time to see an odd movement under her mask.  It was like it had briefly pulled tighter against something, or that something had pushed against it from underneath.  The movement was gone before I could even fully register what I had seen.  I quickly shrugged it off.  It had just been some trick of the light, or the soft breeze that was blowing through the streets had made it wrinkle and my eyes had misinterpreted things.

We crossed the street and entered Pleasence Park.  At the front was a playground filled with kids running around like maniacs while their exasperated parents attempted to maintain some semblance of order.  I smiled to myself.

“Do you like kids?” Jenna asked, noticing my expression.

“I do,” I answered.  “You?”

She nodded.  “Yeah.  Well, I like them to a point.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“For the most part I love being around them.  Playtime, meals, all of that.  I love that stuff.  I start to become less enthralled with them when it’s time for a temper tantrum or a diaper change.”

I laughed.  “I can’t argue with that.”

“You know what I like more than children?”

“What’s that?”

“Going down a slide.”  She pointed.  “And there just so happens to be an open one right over there.”

I watched as she hurried over to the tall slide and started to climb up the steps.  The pure joy she exuded was endearing.  It was also something that I could understand and relate to.  It wasn’t just a slide.  It was a symbolic return to a simpler time.

I squinted slightly as I chided myself for sounding like a first year college student that just had his first Intro to Poetry class.

For a brief moment I considered going up the stairs after her.  It had been at least a decade since I had been on a slide, and the urge to go down one again was strong.  I was quite a bit larger than I had been then, however, and a quick look was all it took for me to see that I wasn’t going to fit on it.  Instead, I walked around to the far side to meet her at the bottom.

As Jenna came down the slide towards me, I noticed the movement under her mask again.  This time it wasn’t just a small section of her covered face.  Odd ripples and waves ran across the entire area.  Her feet touched the ground, and as she began to stand up I saw that there were four bumps, each triangular with the longest points near her mouth.  They were moving in and out like they were pulsing.

By the time she was standing fully upright the lumps were gone and the facemask had returned to normal.  She looked up at me with an odd expression.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

I couldn’t explain away what I had seen this time.  There was no doubt in my mind that I had definitely seen something.  Something that wasn’t natural.

I glanced over at the children playing.  If there really was something wrong with Jenna, something dangerous, I couldn’t let on that I knew she wasn’t what she appeared to be.  Not here, anyway.  I couldn’t put the kids and their families at risk.  I mustered up the best smile that I could.

“Yeah, absolutely,” I replied.  “I’m just a bit sad that I’m too big to take a trip down the slide myself.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said with a tilt of her head.  “You look like you’re the perfect size to me.”

She started walking towards one of the nearby trail makers.  Pleasence Park was home to about a dozen hiking trails, each of which traveled through a different section of the dense woods.  Not many people used them during this time of day.  They were secluded and the perfect place to go when you wanted privacy.

I almost didn’t follow her.  My first instinct was to bolt back towards downtown, but I looked back over at the playing children again.  I couldn’t do anything that might put them in harm’s way.  Reluctantly, I went after her and we entered the treeline.

Jenna reached out and took my hand.  I smiled over at her, but all I could think about was how firm her grip was.  It was like a vice, as if she was making sure that I couldn’t get away.

“This is okay, right?” she asked.

“What?” I said dully as I was pulled out of my thoughts.

“Me holding your hand.  This is okay, right?”

“Oh, um, yeah, it’s fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

She was testing me.  Or maybe she wasn’t, and instead she was luring me in.  She must have realized that I was no longer at ease.  

Now that I knew something was wrong, I began to notice small things that I hadn’t before.  She kept sneaking looks at me as we walked, her eyes carefully inspecting me before turning back towards the trail.  Her walk was also just slightly odd; her steps were light and didn’t make as much noise as they should on the leaves and twigs.

“Did you enjoy your lunch?” she asked, her eyes returning to my face.

“It was good,” I said.  “How about yours?”

“Not bad.  I prefer my meat a bit more raw than they prepared the beef tagliata, though.”

“It looked pretty red to me.”

“What can I say,” she replied with a laugh.  “I like my meat bloody.”

Jenna turned her attention forward once again, and I noticed more movement under the mask.  The firm triangular objects pressed tightly against the cloth for a few seconds before retracting back towards her face.  My mind flashed to images I had seen of insect mandibles opening and closing.

I felt panic rising in me.  I forced it down.  Obviously I was in a dangerous situation, but the only way I was going to get through it was if I kept my wits about me.

We came to a narrow section of the trail.  The brush was thick enough on both sides that it only allowed for us to walk through one at a time.  I gave her a smile and motioned for her to go first.  It was, after all, the gentlemanly thing to do.  She released my hand and started through.

I let her get a few feet ahead of me before taking the knife out of my pocket.  Slowly unfolding the blade from the handle, I followed her down the trail, expecting her to turn and attack me at any moment.  This would be the perfect time.  We were all alone, and because of the dense brush I wouldn’t be able to easily escape.

Somehow I knew that I was out of time and she was about to strike.  It was now or never.  Gritting my teeth, I lunged and wrapped my arm around her shoulders.  Before she could even cry out in surprise the knife was cutting across her throat.  I shoved her forward so that the blood wouldn’t get on me.  She stumbled a few steps before collapsing face first to the ground.

Being careful not to touch the growing pool of blood on the dirt path, I rolled her over just in time to hear the final gurgling sounds come out of her severed larynx and see the light fade out of her purple-flecked eyes.  I ignored all of that and grabbed the mask with my right hand.  I ripped it off and stood back up.

Jenna’s face was completely normal.  With the exception of a small scar on her bottom lip, the skin was unblemished and there was no sign of any sort of abnormality.  It certainly wasn’t the face of a monster.

I sighed as I licked the blood off of the knife.  There was no point in beating myself up over it.  It was an easy error to make.  I had made it several times over the past year, and I’d probably do it again at some point.  Honest mistakes happened.

I grabbed the body by the feet and started pulling it off the side of the trail.  It was best to get rid of it before some hiker came across it.  Who knew how someone would react to seeing a dead body in the woods.  

The pandemic made some people act a little crazy, after all.

The Commitment of Charles Mayweather

As was usually the case during the winter, the rooms and hallways were absolutely freezing.  Kathy Turner retrieved a sweater from the small closet in her office and quickly put it on.  Making sure that her hair was still at least somewhat pulled back, she put on her lab coat and stuck her hands into her armpits in an attempt to warm them up.

It didn’t help that her office was the closest to the hospital’s main entrance.  Every time the doors opened, the cold air would blow right at her office door.  Even if it was closed the gusts would get in through the cracks and crevices to fill the space and drag the temperature down.

She made a face.  One of the many perks of being the newest doctor on staff.  Another one would be having to work on New Year’s Eve in the first place.  All of the other doctors were bringing in 1974 with their loved ones, and she was stuck here.

She sighed.  There was no point in complaining, even just to herself.  The building was quiet, and with the nurses handling most of the routine work she was getting off easy, all things considered.  She might even be able to finish the book she had been trying to get through for the past three months.

Before she could sit down at her desk, she heard the sound of the front doors opening.  Cold air washed in over her feet and legs from under the office door.  She closed her eyes and shook her head.  Lovely.

“Doctor Turner,” a man’s voice called from out in the hallway.

Kathy opened her eyes.  It was the voice of one of the security guards.  Whenever one of them came to get her, something was wrong.  She mentally gathered herself and left the office.

The guard was a giant of a man.  He stood nearly seven feet tall, and he was built like a linebacker.  He nodded as she joined him.

“The police are here,” he told her as they headed towards the entryway.

“Right,” she replied shortly, knowing that meant that she wasn’t walking into a pleasant situation.

A group of people were wrestling with a distraught man on a gurney near the front desk.  He was tied to it with the usual straps, but a long cord had also been wrapped around his chest.  His eyes were bulging and the veins in his neck were standing out.  He was speaking so quickly that Kathy couldn’t understand what he was saying.

“Is that really necessary?” she asked as she approached, pointing at the cord.

“You’re damn right it is,” a man dressed in a police uniform growled back at her.  “Where are we putting this nutjob?”

“He’s bleeding from his forehead,” she pointed out.  “He also has multiple contusions on his arms and legs.  You should be taking him to County General.”

“We can’t,” one of two paramedics told her in a much kinder tone than the office had used.  “There’s a major accident just outside of it.  At least a dozen cars.  No one can get in or out.”

“Besides,” the officer put in, “a nutjob belongs in the nuthouse.”

“We prefer to call this a hospital,” Kathy snapped, already tired of the man’s attitude.  She looked over at the nurse behind the front desk.  “Joanne, would you please show them the way to one of the rooms, one far enough from the other patients that they won’t be disturbed?  Seventeen is open, I think.”

The paramedic stayed behind while the rest of the group followed the nurse.  Kathy opened her mouth to say something, but he shook his head and waited until the others were out of earshot.  When he was satisfied he nodded.

“There’s one more wrinkle in this, Doc,” he said, running a hand over his face.

“I don’t even know what this is,” Kathy pointed out.  “Everyone just barged in without actually filling me in.  If I didn’t think that man would be safer away from that cop I wouldn’t have assigned a room.  What is going on?”

The paramedic hesitated.  “Maybe it would be best if you get that from the officers.”

“Oh, yeah, they seem really inclined to give an unbiased account.”

He smiled slightly.  “You’ve got a point.  The patient’s name is Charles Mayweather.  He lives over on Sixth and Pennington.  You know the neighborhood?”

She nodded.  “Yeah.  Pretty upscale place to live.”

“Maybe not tonight.  From what we can tell, Mayweather just sort of… snapped.  He tried to kill his kid tonight.”  He looked away.  “Eight years old and his dad tried to strangle him.”

“Jesus.  Why?”

“I don’t know.  You heard him ranting and raving, right?  He’s been doing that since we got on the scene.  One of his neighbors called it in.  Apparently the screaming was so loud they could hear it two houses over.”

Kathy mulled it over for a moment.  “It could be stress related.  Maybe his family is prone to mental disorders.”

“Yeah, maybe.”  The paramedic turned his attention back to her.  “He went completely off the deep end with those cops before we got there.  He even bit Office Sunshine on the arm.  But listen, Doc, there’s that wrinkle I mentioned.  We’ve got the kid with us.”

She blinked.  “You brought him here?  Why the hell would you do that?”

“We didn’t have a choice.  Child services couldn’t get there for hours because of the storm, and both us and the cops are going to be out most of the night with all the wrecks.  Drunk people and ice don’t mix.”

“What are you going to do with him?”

“Philip.  His name is Philip Mayweather.”

“Fine.  Philip.  What are you going to do with him?”

The paramedic smiled crookedly and shrugged.  “We were kind of hoping that he could stay here until the social worker picks him up.”

Kathy shook her head.  “We’re a hospital.  No, you know what?  Let’s cut the crap.  We’re an asylum.  This isn’t a place for a kid.”

“Neither is out there,” he pointed out.  “We haven’t been able to track down any family, and we’ve got to get back out there.  He’s got nowhere else to go.”

She sighed in frustration.  As much as she didn’t like to admit it, he was right.  The child couldn’t go back out into the storm with the police or paramedics, and at eight years old he certainly couldn’t just wait alone at his house.  She grudgingly nodded once.

“Okay, fine,” she agreed.  “It’s just a few hours, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the paramedic said with noticeable relief in his voice.  “Just until child services gets here.  He’s a good kid, too.  Polite and everything.”

“Yeah, yeah, you can stop the hard sell.  Hand him off to Joanne when she gets back, okay?  I have to go get Mr. Mayweather checked in.”

Kathy went over to the front desk and dug a clipboard out of one of the drawers.  She was glad to find that admission paperwork was already fastened on it.  With a final nod at the paramedic she headed down the hall towards Room Seventeen.

The second paramedic and the two police officers were just coming out of the room as she approached.  They walked past her without a word.  It was rather rude, but she actually preferred it that way.  The officer she had briefly spoken to had rubbed her the wrong way, and she didn’t have time for people like that.  She childishly hoped that the bite on his arm was still hurting.

She entered the room’s open door without pausing.  Although she was still in her first year at the hospital, she had seen her fair share of disturbed individuals.  A surprisingly high number, in fact, when she took into account the small population of Blackwood.

Joanne was in the room talking to the patient in soothing tones.  Mayweather didn’t seem to be responding to her.  He just continued to rave at high speed while struggling against the bonds that kept him tight against the gurney.

“Mr. Mayweather,” Kathy said to him, loud enough that she knew he could hear her voice over his own.  “My name is Dr. Turner.  May I speak with you?”

He continued on as he had been.  She motioned for Joanne to come closer, and she relayed that the son would be waiting for her in the entryway.  The nurse nodded but didn’t move as she continued to watch the man.

“I’ll be fine,” Kathy assured her.  “Just have one of the guards standing by in the hall, okay?  Oh, and have one of the other nurses come in to treat these wounds.”

Joanne left the room.  She observed Mayweather for a few moments.  He was straining against his bonds so hard that she started to worry that he would give himself a heart attack.  Coming to a decision, she went over to the side of the gurney and gently placed her right hand on his shoulder.

“Mr. Mayweather,” she said, keeping her voice calm and friendly.  “You need to settle down before you hurt yourself.  I want to get this cord taken off of you, but I can’t do that if you’re pulling against it like this.”

The man turned his eyes towards her.  They looked surprised, like he hadn’t even realized that she was in the room with him.  His rantings slowed down and grew quieter until they stopped entirely.  He fell flat against the gurney and ceased struggling against the restraints.

“There, that’s much better,” she told him with a smile.  “Thank you for letting me help you.”

She set down the clipboard on the room’s only chair and knelt down to get a better look at the cord.  It was an extension cord, the kind that you could find at any hardware store.  She shook her head in revulsion.  No matter how difficult he had been, this was bordering on inhumane.

It took her a few minutes to undo the knot.  It had been tied tight, and the end had been looped through multiple times.  She eventually managed to get it to come free and unwrapped the cord from around his body.

“There,” she said as she tossed it on the floor and retrieved the clipboard.  “That’s much better, isn’t it?  I know the straps aren’t very comfortable, but that should at least give you a bit more breathing room.”

Mayweather stared at her for a long moment.  She returned his gaze as she waited to see what would happen next.  She would eventually have to go through the standard admission forms, but she wanted to give him some time to process what was happening before getting into that.

Truth be told, she was feeling a bit unsure of herself.  The man that had been dragged into the room acting like a lunatic had been someone that she was used to.  Not him in particular, but she had seen patients in the same kind of mental state before.  Now, though, he was acting completely different.  It was like he was another person entirely.

“The others,” he half spoke, half whispered.

“The other straps?” Kathy asked.  “Those can come off when I’m sure that you’re not going to be a danger to either me or yourself.  I’d like to talk for a while and see how that goes, and we can go from there.  Is that fair?”

He nodded his head once.

“Okay, good.  Let’s start over.  My name is Dr. Turner.  Yours is…?”

“Mayweather,” he replied after a moment.  “Charles Mayweather.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Mayweather.  May I call you Charles?”


“Good.  Charles it is, then.  Now, are you on any medications that I should know about, or any-”

“Philip,” he interrupted sharply.  “Where is he?”

Kathy blinked.  “Philip?  As in your son?  He’s safe.  He’s with one of the nurses right now.”

Mayweather’s face grew pale.  “Keep him away.  Keep him away.”

“Why should we do that, Charles?  Are you afraid that you’ll hurt him again?”

He surprised her by laughing loudly.  It was a cynical laugh, one that didn’t have any mirth behind it.  The sound was cut off as he began to cough.

Kathy tried asking more questions, but Mayweather either refused to answer them or he was no longer processing that she was even speaking to him.  Telling him that she would be right back, she left the room and made sure that the door closed behind her.  Logically she knew that he’d never be able to get out of the restraints, but something about the looks he had given her and the way his voice sounded made her want to take every precaution.

She wasn’t going to be able to get through to him when he was like this, and it was very possible that he would injure himself if he was allowed to remain in such a state.  After motioning for the security guard in the hallway to stay near the room, she hurried down the hallway to a locked door at the far end.  She fished a key out of her pocket and unlocked it.  Inside was the hospital pharmacy.  

Normally she would have opted for the less intrusive option of pills, but she doubted that she could get those down Mayweather’s throat.  Instead, she went over to a cabinet and retrieved a syringe and two small glass bottles.  She put them  into her right lab coat pocket and hurried back to her patient’s room.  He was still caught up in a fit of laughter.

“I’m sorry about this, Charles,” she said as she stuck the point of the needle into the first bottle and pulled back on the plunger part of the way before doing the same with the second bottle.

Kathy inserted the syringe’s needle into the man’s arm and pushed down on the plunger.  When she had empted the syringe, she leaned back out of the room and tossed it and the empty bottles into a wastecan in the hallway.  She waited patiently for the medication to take effect.

After a few minutes, Mayweather’s laughing subsided and his body relaxed.  She waited longer to make sure that it wasn’t some sort of ruse.  She doubted that he was in any condition to come up with anything like that, but there was no point in taking chances.

“There now,” she said finally.  “Feel better?”

“I’m… a bit light-headed,” Mayweather answered slowly.

“That’s a side effect of the tranquilizer.  Nothing to worry about.  Now that you’re calm, I have some questions that I need you to answer.  Can you do that, Charles?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Good.”  She paused to gather her thoughts.  “Can you tell me what happened tonight with your son?”

“That… that thing is not my son,” he spat back with such hatred that she was momentarily taken aback.

“How do you mean that?  Who is he?”

He laughed again, but this time it only lasted for a few seconds.  “What’s the point?  You wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

She arched an eyebrow.  “Try me.”

Mayweather was silent for a long moment.  At first Kathy thought that she had lost him again, but as she watched him closely she could tell that he was internally struggling with something.  He chewed on his lower lip as he stared up at the ceiling.

“You’re a psychiatrist, Dr. Turner?” he asked.

“I am,” she confirmed.

“I figured by the room decor.  It’s funny, my wife used to joke that someday I’d be dragged kicking and screaming to the looney bin, and here I am.”

“You’re married?”

“I was.  Doreen passed away five years ago.  Wait, no, it’s six now.  As of this past November.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not as sorry as I am.”  He sighed.  “Anyway, as a psychiatrist, you must have some experience with recurring dreams.”

She nodded.  “Some, yes.”

“I’ve been having the same dream every night since the day my wife passed away.  The exact same dream, down to the smallest detail.”

Kathy furrowed her brow.  It was rare for someone to have a recurring dream that frequently.  Usually a person would have them sporadically rather than over and over again.  She sat down in the small uncomfortable chair and crossed her legs.

“What happens in this dream?” she asked.

“I’m standing on a beach filled with white sand,” Mayweather began.  “In front of me is a vast ocean.  It stretches from horizon to horizon.  The water looks gray in the pale light, and its surface is completely undisturbed.  It’s flat and unmoving, without a single wave.

“I look out over the water for what feels like hours.  It could be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer.  I just wait on the beach for something to happen.  I don’t know what will, but I can feel it in my bones that something is going to happen.”

He licked his lips.  One of the side effects of the tranquilizer was dry mouth.  Kathy stood up and retrieved some water from the room’s sink in a small paper cup.  She helped him take a few sips.

“Thank you,” he said gratefully.  “After what seems like an eternity I can just make out a figure walking on the surface of the water.  At first I think it’s some trick of the light, but as it draws closer I can see that it’s definitely a person.  When it reaches the water’s edge I see that it’s Doreen.”

“Your late wife?” she asked.

“Yes.  She’s wearing this long flowing white robe, and she looks like she did when she was in her twenties.  She smiles at me, and all that I want to do is run to her.  Somehow I know that I can’t do that, though.  I can’t leave the beach.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know.  I just can’t.  It’s like…  It’s like there’s this invisible barrier.  I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.  I can’t go into the water and she can’t come up onto the sand.”

“So there are… rules in this dream.”

“I guess so.”  Mayweather grunted uncomfortably.  “Can I at least have the strap around my head taken off?  My neck is killing me.”

Kathy went over to the gurney and undid the restraint.  He sighed in relief and moved his head from side to side.  She could hear his neck crack as he did so.

“Much better,” he muttered before he began to describe his dream once more.  “Doreen and I stare at each other for a long time.  I don’t know if you’ve ever lost someone that you love, some that’s your entire world, but you lose some of yourself when you do.  Seeing her, even like this, makes me feel whole again.  It’s a feeling that you don’t want to end.”

He stopped talking and stared off into the distance.  His eyes were wet, and Kathy could tell that he was struggling to continue.  She patiently waited until he started to speak.

“Eventually Doreen reaches out one hand.  I think that she’s trying to touch me, but she’s actually pointing.  I turn around, and right behind me is a metal contraption.  A machine.”

“A machine,” she repeated.  “What kind of machine?”

“In the dream, she calls it the Stygian Machine.”  He sounded almost wistful as he spoke.  “An instrument that can pierce the veil between life and death.  She tells me that if I can build it to the exact specifications, she and I can be together again.”

There was a scream from out in the hallway.  Mayweather’s head snapped towards the sound, and the blood rushed out of his face.  His breathing became hurried and shallow.

“What was that?” he asked sharply.

“Just one of the other patients,” Kathy assured him.  “The nurses will get it taken care of.  Tell me about this machine.  What does it look like?”

“It’s three pieces,” he replied, his eyes still locked on the door.  “There are two platforms and a large ring.  The ring sits on the platforms, and they supply power to allow it to spin.  On all three pieces are these markings that I don’t recognize.”

“Describe them to me.”

“They’re…  I don’t know.  They look kind of like Egyptian hieroglyphs, but not quite.  They’re carved into the metal on nearly every square inch of the machine.”

“If I unstrap your hand, can you draw some of them for me?”

Mayweather furrowed his eyebrows.  “Well, yes, but is it important?”

She tilted her head slightly.  “It could be.  Symbols in our dreams can represent important messages that the subconscious is trying to pass on to the conscious.”

Being careful not to get in reach of his fingers, Kathy carefully undid the strap around his left wrist.  He rotated it a few times, most likely to get the feeling back into it, but he didn’t make any move to grab her.  She carefully slid her pen into his hand and held up the clipboard so that he could draw on the paper.  When he was finished, she retrieved the pen and looked carefully at the symbols.

“Tell me the rest of the dream,” she instructed.

“There isn’t much more to tell,” Mayweather said.  “I look at the machine for a while, and then I wake up.  But here’s the thing.  When I wake up, I know exactly how the Stygian Machine should be built.  I know exactly where every bolt should be and exactly how tight it should be tightened.  I know that I can build it and get it working.”

Playing on a hunch, she stated, “So you built it.”

His eyes narrowed as his head nodded ever so slightly.  “I built it.  God help me, I built it.”

“And you used it.”

Before he could reply, there was another yell from outside the room.  This one only lasted for a second before it cut off in an odd gurgling noise.  He opened his mouth but Kathy was already continuing on.

“You built the Stygian Machine and you used it,” she said.  “You got the plans for it in your dream and, not knowing exactly what it did or what the symbols meant, you built it and flipped it on.  Does that pretty much sum it up?”

“It wasn’t that simple,” Mayweather countered with sudden anger.  “The machine took me years to build.  Everything had to be exact.  Every single night after my son went to bed I’d go down into the basement and work on the blasted thing.  I had to custom make most of the parts.  It cost me nearly every penny that I had.  And do you think that I liked killing those people?”

The words were barely out of his mouth when his eyes opened wide in shock.  He stammered incoherently as he shook his head slowly.

“Why did I say that?” he asked in a confused voice.

“Who did you kill?” Kathy countered.

“Nobody.  Just some hitchhikers I picked up on the highway.”  The answer was automatic, and he didn’t seem to have any control over it.  “What the-”

“Why did you kill them?”

“I had to.  The machine runs on human flesh and blood.  Please stop, I can’t-”

“How many people did you kill?”

“Eleven, maybe twelve.  I lost count.  What did you do to me?”

Kathy set the clipboard down on the chair and reached up behind her head with one hand.  Using two fingers she took out the band holding her hair up, allowing it to fall down onto her shoulders.  She brushed it away from her eyes before looking back at Mayweather.

“Sodium thiopental,” she told him.  “I filled the syringe with medication from two bottles, remember?  The first was a tranquilizer, like I said.  The other was sodium thiopental.  We use it mainly as a general anesthetic, but at the right dosage it can make a person very compliant when answering questions.  You might have heard it referred to as truth serum.”

Mayweather stared at her uncomprehendingly.

“You built the Stygian Machine,” she continued.  “You carved the symbols into the metal.  You fed it victim after victim to give it the strength to work.  The whole time you thought it was just some… how did you put it?  You thought it was just some contraption.  Never once did you realize that you had created something alive.  Made of metal and oil, yes, but alive nonetheless.”

She leaned in close to him.

“And then a miracle happened, right?  The machine actually worked.  It shredded time and space to create a gate between this world and… somewhere.  Only it wasn’t your wife that came through.  It was something else.”

Tears were streaming down Mayweather’s face.  He was on the verge of breaking down entirely.  It was a bit surprising that he managed to choke out words around the sobs.

“It… it came through and…”  He sniffed loudly.  “I thought Philip was in bed.  He…  must have heard the noise from the machine, and he was at the bottom of the basement stairs watching, and the thing went into him…”

There was a hard thump against the door.  It was quickly followed by a second, and then a third.  When the fourth one came a thick red liquid sprayed against the small window that allowed hospital staff to look into the rooms from the hallway.  It ran down the glass in wide streaks.

Kathy shook her head in a mixture of annoyance and amusement.

“I can’t believe you’re the one that did this,” she said.  “Then again, maybe I can.  You’re the perfect puppet, aren’t you?  An idiot that’s easily manipulated.  You didn’t even think that much about what you were doing.  You just followed an empty promise.  You brought a god into this world without even realizing it.  Then you, what, tried to kill it?  As if you could.”

She absently smoothed a wrinkle out of her lab coat.  “You asked me if I had any experience with recurring dreams, and I told you that I did.  You see, Charles, I have one myself.  There’s a great darkness surrounding me, and a thunderous voice proclaims that I will be the first to greet the bringer of the world’s end.  When this voice speaks, you believe it.  Now that day has finally come, and in a way that I never could have imagined.”

Kathy reached out and opened the door leading to the hallway.  Standing just on the other side of it was an eight year old boy.  He was wearing plaid pajamas; they were soaked in blood, and flecks of skin and gore were stuck to it and tangled throughout his light brown hair.  In the hallway behind him body parts were strewn across the floor and blood was splattered across every surface.

The boy took a step forward.  There were small protrusions coming from underneath his eyes, thin translucent tendrils that moved across the surface of his eyeballs.  He opened his mouth, and four tentacle-like appendages emerged.  Saliva dripped from them as they curled and writhed.

“Charles Mayweather,” Kathy said with a twisted grin on her face, “please allow me to introduce you to the son of your blood, your labor, and your sin.  He is Ancient Erra, Akkadian God of Violence and Plague, and the end of all things.”

The boy came into the room, and she slowly closed the door behind him.

Mayweather screamed.

Where the Light Fades Away

Taking a deep breath in a futile effort to calm her nerves, Haley Ferris carefully maneuvered her car into the only open parking space and turned off the engine.

It had been a hectic morning.  Not thinking that she had anything pressing going on that day, she had turned off her usual morning alarm so that she could sleep in.  Because of this, she hadn’t seen the email that had come in from Harris & Sterling until nearly two hours after she had received it.

Harris & Sterling was one of the most prestigious law firms in the city.  She had applied for an internship fully believing that she would never hear anything back.  Each year the firm brought on one or two interns at most, and the ones they did were the best and brightest.  The diplomas of those interns usually featured names like Harvard or Yale on them, not colleges like Ohio State.

Haley had been shocked to find a request for an interview waiting for her in her Inbox when she woke up.  The request had been for less than forty-five minutes after she had managed to roll out of bed.  Normally she would have simply replied and asked to reschedule, but this was Harris & Sterling.  She couldn’t risk someone interviewing before her and landing the internship just because she had chosen that particular day to be lazy.

She had quickly accepted the interview request and practically thrown herself into the shower.  Within twenty minutes she was dressed in her best suit and racing down the three flights of stairs from her small apartment to the street.  Her car had amazingly decided to cooperate that day, and to her relief the engine had turned over immediately.

When she had arrived at the law firm, however, she had found a sign hung on the front door stating that, due to construction in the lobby, all staff and visitors would need to use the rear door.  She had gone around the building and down a tight alley before arriving at the back parking lot.  Finally at her destination, she got out of the car and smoothed the edge of her suit coat with her hand.

There were two doors on the brick wall of the building, one on the left side of the parking lot and the other on the right.  Neither of them was marked, and there was no window on either one of them for her to look in.  For a long moment she looked back and forth uncertainly between the two, not sure which one she was supposed to use.  She hoped that someone would come out of one of them to solve the dilemma.  When that didn’t happen, she quickly checked her watch and went over to the one on the left.  There was no point in standing around like an idiot by her car.  If it was the wrong door, she’d simply go over to the other one.

Haley turned the knob and opened the door.  She peered into the building beyond, but the sun was high in the sky and the brightness made it difficult to see anything inside.  She hesitated for just a moment before nodding to herself and stepping through the doorway.

As her eyes adjusted, she found that she was in the wrong place.  The room she was standing in was empty.  Feeling slightly embarrassed, she turned on her heel to leave.

It took her a moment to comprehend what she was seeing.  The door that she had come through was gone.  The wall where it had once been was completely blank, like it had never been there in the first place.

She suddenly realized that she must have come through some sort of one way door.  She had seen them before in offices, although admittedly none of those had been doors coming into the building from the outside and had instead been privacy doors acting as one way access into a room.  Reaching out to touch the wall, she ran her fingers along the surface in an effort to find some sort of edge or seam.  She didn’t find anything.

Haley didn’t allow herself to panic.  Taking one last look at the wall, she turned on her heel and glanced around the room she was standing in.  There wasn’t much to see.

What there was, however, was an arched doorway leading further into the building.  She quickly crossed over to it and passed into the next room.  If she wasn’t able to go out the back, she would just have to find and exit through the front door.

The second room was just as devoid of furnishings as the first had been.  Two windows adorned the wall opposite where she was standing, but there was no door to be seen.  To her left, a wooden staircase led up to the second floor.  With the exception of it and the doorway she had just come through, there wasn’t any other way in or out.

She hurried over to one of the windows and looked out.  The glass was so dirty that she couldn’t see through the panes.  No, she corrected herself.  It wasn’t dirty.  She peered closely at it.  There was some sort of coating on it.  It was some kind of heavily frosted glass.

Stepping away from the window, she walked over to the foot of the stairs.  She peered up.  After a dozen steps or so the staircase turned to the left before continuing on.  There was light coming from around that corner.

Haley hesitated for a moment before calling out, “Hello?”

Her voice echoed up the staircase, but there was no answer.  She tried again and was met with the same result.  Not sure what else to do, she began to slowly ascend the stairs.

Even on her best days she wasn’t very good at walking in heels.  She had only gone a few steps up when her right foot slipped on the wood.  She swore as she barely managed to catch herself on the thin railing.  After less than a second’s consideration she went back down to the bottom and took off her shoes.  Placing them on the first step, she turned back around and continued up to the second floor.

There was only one room at the top of the stairs, an attic with a sloped roof.  Haley wasn’t very tall, but she still had to bend over to fit beneath the low beams.  Like the rooms downstairs it was empty.

A single round window was fitted into one of the walls.  She carefully crossed over to it to get a better look.  The panes were stained glass, and they formed the image of an orange orb that she assumed represented the sun against a blue sky and above a green hill.  The light streaming through it filled the room with spots of color.  She wasn’t able to see through any of the panes.

She went back down to the first floor and leaned up against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.  It was time to swallow her pride and admit that she couldn’t find a way out of the building.  She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and pressed a button on the side to turn the screen on.

The screen was completely white.  Hayley stared at it in confusion for a long moment.  She had never seen it, or any other phone for that matter, do that before.  She held down the power button to turn off the phone in an attempt to reboot it.  Nothing happened.

She returned the phone to her pocket.  As she did so she noticed that her hand was shaking.  A few minutes earlier she had forced herself to remain calm, but now the panic was starting to rise once again and she was having difficulty keeping it contained.

Just as she thought that she was starting to win the internal battle, she opened her mouth and yelled for help.  She jumped at the sound of her own voice.  She hadn’t realized that she was going to cry out.  For a brief moment the panic had won out over her reason and she had acted through pure instinct.

The fear was suddenly replaced by anger.  She hadn’t felt like this since she was a small child hiding under her blankets and hoping that it was one of the nights her mother passed out in the living room instead of coming into her room in a drunken rage.  She had promised that she would never allow herself to feel that out of control and powerless again, and yet here she was doing just that.

Hayley called out again.  This time she kept her voice strong and steady as she did so.  She waited a few moments for an answer, and when one wasn’t forthcoming she tried once more.

No one replied, but this time she noticed something.  Her voice sounded different somehow.  It took her a few seconds to work out that there hadn’t been any echo.  She was shouting in an empty building.  Her voice should have been bouncing off the walls and ceiling, but instead it wasn’t coming back to her at all.

She placed her hand against the nearest wall.  It was warm to the touch, and she idly wondered if there were pipes carrying hot water behind it.  Pushing that pointless thought out of her mind, she curled her hand into a fist and knocked on the wall with her knuckles.

She could hear the impact, but it was much more muted than it should have been.  She placed her ear against the wood and knocked again.  She shook her head slowly as she stepped back from the wall.  It was like the entire room was soundproofed.  If it was, though, it was the best soundproofing job that she had ever seen.

Not sure what to try next, Hayley slowly walked back into the room she had first entered from the outside.  She drifted over towards one of the windows and tapped it with one finger.  In addition to being translucent, it was also extremely thick.  There was no way that she would be able to break it.

She paused with her fingertip still on the glass.  Had this window always been here?  She couldn’t remember for sure.  She had thought that the wall had been featureless when she had first come into the building.  Obviously she was misremembering.

Hayley took a single step back and let her hand fall to her side.  She was sure that she was right.  When she had arrived in the parking lot she had been forced to choose a door at random because there hadn’t been a way to see inside the building.

She ran her hand over her face.  The circumstances that had brought her to this point had clearly started to take their toll.  Windows didn’t just magically appear out of thin air.  The logical explanation was that she had simply not seen it while she was in the parking lot, or maybe she had and had instantly dismissed it due to not being able to see through it.

The light coming through the window dimmed slightly, as if a cloud had passed over the sun outside.  Hayley felt a chill run through her.  She suddenly had the feeling that she was no longer alone.  It wasn’t a feeling that she could explain.  She hadn’t seen or heard anything that would have given her that impression.  No matter how hard she tried to shake it, though, the feeling remained.

It took a lot of effort for her to turn away from the window.  Every instinct was telling her that there was someone or something right behind her.  Swallowing hard, she forced herself to turn around.

There was no one there.

She swore under her breath.  Of course there wasn’t.  She was once again being childish.

The feeling of someone’s presence remained, however.  Trying to prove to herself that there was nothing to be afraid of, she moved away from the window and back towards the doorway.  When she reached it she stopped.  Part of her wanted to burst into the next room to prove her bravery, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it.  Instead, she stepped off to one side to conceal most of her body and craned her neck around the corner of the doorway to look out.

She felt her breath catch in her throat.  A large chair made of dark wood and cracked leather sat in the center of the room.  The wood was covered in ornate designs of what appeared to be roots and vines winding their way up and around the chair.  The leather seat and backing was a faded red.

Sitting in the chair was something that she couldn’t quite wrap her head around.  Its shape was human, but it was completely featureless.  Every inch of it was covered in a smooth gray material.  She was reminded of an unfinished clay statue.

Hayley pulled her head back away from the doorway and put her back to the wall.  She closed her eyes and clamped her hands over her mouth as she began to breathe heavily.  The figure didn’t have any ears, but she was still afraid that it would somehow hear her.

She jumped as something thumped against the floor upstairs.  Her nerves were already frayed, and the noise caused her to lose what little control she still had over herself.  She began to cry as she sank down to the floor.  Her hands remained over her mouth in a vain attempt to smother her sobs.

It took a while for her to get ahold of herself.  Eventually she was able to stop crying, and she used the back of one hand to wipe the tears off of her face.  Although she wanted to stay right where she was instead of facing the figure again, she knew that she couldn’t.  She didn’t know what was happening, but she was certain that she needed to find a way out as quickly as possible.

She stood up and ran a hand through her hair and nodded to herself.  Before she could talk herself out of it she stepped through the doorway into the other room.  The figure was still sitting in the chair the same way it had been when she had first seen it.

There was another thump from upstairs.  Without taking her eyes off the motionless figure, she slowly walked around the perimeter of the room until she reached the stairs.  She wrapped her hand around the banister and began to slowly ascend the stairs.  She kept watching the figure as she did so.  It wasn’t until the staircase wall blocked her view that she turned her attention upward.

The attic was different than it had been when she had left it a short time earlier.  It was darker inside, still bright enough to see but dim enough to cast shadows along the floorboards.  A long bookcase sat against the far wall, its shelves empty.  A dust-covered pedestal with an open book was in the center of the room.  She started towards it but stopped again when she noticed the window.

The image in the stained glass had changed.  The sun was lower than it had been, and instead of the sky being blue it was now light pink with hints of orange and red.  The grassy hill was a darker shade of green.  Instead of the sunny day the window had originally depicted, it now showed a sun setting.

Hayley noticed an odd sound.  It was extremely quiet, so quiet that she could barely hear it over the sound of her own breathing.  She listened intently, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.  She tried to ignore it as she went over to the book.

A few sentences were written on the open pages.  They were messily written, like they had been scribbled onto the paper by a child.

In the dark you face your plight

As he comes for you in the night

None shall hear your screams or cries

As the light fades from your eyes

Hayley glanced back over at the stained glass window.  Maybe it was her imagination, but it seemed like the sun had sunk just a bit lower.  She returned her attention to the book and flipped through the pages.  All of the others were blank.

There was no doubt in her mind that the nursery rhyme-like lyrics were referring to the figure downstairs.  She had no idea who had written them, but it didn’t matter.  She needed to get out of the building before she lost the rest of the light.

With one last look at the window she hurried over to the stairs and went back down them.  When she reached the bottom she stopped and bit her lower lip nervously.  The room had changed again.

The figure was still seated in its chair in the middle of the space.  The chair now stood on a thick red rug with gold patterns that were the same as the ones on the chair itself.  Three paintings were hanging on the wall across from it, and below those was an ornate fireplace.  The logs inside were unlit.

She examined the paintings.  The first showed a child sitting in a rocking chair clutching a small stuffed bear.  A large black shape loomed over the child, and although it didn’t have much detail she could make out the shapes of two large curved horns extending from its head.

The second painting was of a man on his knees praying at a white altar.  Blood covered his brown robe and dripped from his clasped hands.  A broken rosary laid on the ground in front of him.

The final painting was of a waterfall.  Instead of water, blood poured out over the rocks and into the lake below.  A woman stood under the waterfall, her face upturned in rapture as the liquid flowed over her.

Hayley felt sick.  She turned away from the paintings and back towards the figure.  It hadn’t changed its position in the chair.  The light was rapidly fading, however, and she was having a harder time making out details.  She had to hurry.

She crossed through the doorway into the other downstairs room.  This room had changed as well, and she let out a brief yelp before she was able to catch herself.

In the center of the room was a large table.  The dark wood was extremely thick.  The top was covered in thick dried blood and gore.

Above the table hung a series of chains.  They ended in razor-sharp hooks with barbed ends.  Attached to one of the hooks through a hole in its handle was a cleaver the size of her forearm.  The blade was discolored and was chipped in several places.

Just beyond the table was the door.  It had reappeared and was right where it had been when she had entered the building.  She felt her heart leap.  Being careful not to touch the table, she hurried over to it and grabbed the handle.

It wouldn’t turn.  She put all of her strength into it, but she couldn’t force it to move.  In frustration she slammed into the door with her side.  There was no give, and pain flared in her shoulder.

Ignoring it, she knelt down and examined the handle.  It had grown so dim that she couldn’t see it well, so she reached into her pocket and took out her phone, pressing the button to turn on the screen.  It was still blank, but the white had faded to a dull gray and it barely illuminated the handle.

There was a lock that she hadn’t seen before.  She lowered her head and closed her eyes.  Her whole body shook in fear and exhaustion.

Hayley banged her hands down on the floor so hard that it hurt.  She refused to give up like this.  If there was a lock, there had to be a key for it somewhere.

As she forced herself back to her feet, she noticed that the noise she had first heard upstairs was louder and more distinguishable now.  It sounded like a group of voices all whispering at the same time.  She couldn’t understand what they were saying, but she didn’t have time to worry about that.  Quickly looking around the room to make sure that the key wasn’t there, she left and once again found herself looking at the figure in the chair.

It had grown darker, and the room had changed once more.  Now a chandelier was hanging from the ceiling, and more paintings had appeared on the walls.  A mirror, its glass smeared and cracked, adorned the wall behind the chair.

Hayley’s body ran cold.  The figure was no longer featureless, at least not entirely.  It had a mouth that was partially open, revealing rows of silver pointed teeth.  There were two small holes above the mouth, and a pair of narrow slits where the eyes would be on a person.

Her eyes fell on the figure’s right hand.  The fingers now had definition, and they ended in points.  Grasped in the closed digits was a key.

Not having a choice, she slowly approached it.  She kept her eyes on the figure, but it didn’t move as she drew closer.  Being careful not to touch the hand itself, she reached down and tried to pull the key free of the figure’s grasp.  It’s grip was impossibly strong, and she wasn’t able to budge it.

She backed away.  There was another possibility, but it was so distasteful that she was surprised that she had even thought of it.  Knowing that she was almost out of time, she hurried back into the other room to retrieve the cleaver.

The light had almost completely faded.  Unable to see the table in the darkness, she tried using her phone to find it.  The screen remained black.  She tossed it away and continued forward with her hands outstretched.

After a few steps her fingers touched the hard wood.  She carefully pulled herself up onto the table, trying to ignore the feeling of the gore smearing against her.  She reached up with one hand to grasp blindly for the cleaver she knew was hanging somewhere above her.

She swore as one of the hooks dug into her palm.  Instinctively she snatched her hand back, and the chain clanged against the others around it.  She clenched her teeth together and tried again.  No matter where in the darkness she felt, she couldn’t seem to find the cleaver.

There was a noise from out in the other room.  It was the sound of leather adjusting as weight shifted it on it.  No longer able to keep a grip on her fear, she stood up and flailed around looking for the blade.

Her foot slipped on the slick table surface.  She fell hard onto her back, her head slamming against the wood and the air whooshing out of her lungs.  Sparks seemed to fly in front of her eyes, and she felt like she had been pulled underwater.  She shook her head in an attempt to clear it as she struggled to pull in a breath.

Hayley felt the air shift on her face as the figure reached the table.

The whispering in her ears was so loud that it hurt.  It was a chorus of hundreds of voices, all of them chanting the same word over and over again.  She closed her eyes as tears began to fall from them.


Mr. Gangly Walks the Halls

Dearest Margaret,

I hope that this letter finds you well.  I’ve missed you greatly during the entire time away from you, but these past weeks have been especially difficult.  While we were busy pushing from Normandy it was easier to keep my mind occupied on other things.  Now that the Germans have left France, however, I’ve had a lot more time to myself and, as always, my thoughts have turned to you.

I have good news or bad news, depending on how you look at things.  As you’re an optimist by nature, a very glass half full kind of woman, I’ll give you the positive spin first.  You and I are going to be reunited sooner that we thought.  I’ll be shipping off to the good ol’ US of A within the next few weeks.

No matter how optimistic you are, however, you’re also a realist, so here’s the bad news.  The reason that I’ll be coming home to you so early is because I have been injured.

Now, there’s no need for worry, as I’m going to be fine.  Once the bullets stopped flying in France, my unit had been assigned to deliver cargo to Évian-les-Bains.  You’ve always been more of a scholar than I am, so you may be familiar with the town.  I had never heard of it before.

There were only three large crates, so Mark Johnston and I volunteered to make the delivery.  I’ve written to you about him before.  He’s the soldier in my platoon that has a wife and young son in Kansas.  All of my fellow soldiers are brothers, but he’s one of the few that I can honestly say is a friend.  

The round trip between Paris and Évian-les-Bains would take a few days, and we figured that the fresh mountain air would do us some good.  We never spoke about it, but I think we both were feeling that we needed to get out of Paris, even if only for a little while.  

When you see pictures of Paris in books, it looks like this grand place.  You can practically feel the magic in the air right through the page.  It conjures up images of long walks along the Seine River, or maybe ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower to look out on the lights of the city.  You and I even talked about visiting it someday after we’re married.

I think that’s how the city once was, and maybe it will be like that again.  In the here and now, though, the magic is gone.  The Nazis did all that they could to stomp out the spirits of the people that live there.  They never fully could, but you can tell that the occupation left its mark in more ways than just those damn red and black banners hanging from buildings.  The enchantment and wonder of the city is gone for now, replaced with an iron resolve and a righteous fury.  The longer I stayed there, the more that I could feel the violation Paris had suffered through, if that makes any sense.

Is it any wonder that Johnston and I jumped on the opportunity to run a shipment through the countryside?  It was supposed to be a simple delivery.  As everyone in the world knows, though, there’s nothing simple about this war.

I don’t remember the moment that the truck’s rear tire struck the mine.  It must have been left over from the German retreat, or maybe it had been planted by the French resistance when the Nazis were using that particular road.  Whatever the case, the explosion flipped the truck completely over and sent us off the road.

I only know this because it was told to me later.  I remember sitting in the passenger seat while Johnston drove, idly flipping through a Captain Marvel comic book that I had traded a small bottle of half-drunk whiskey to a private for.  I’m not much for comic books, but there was something about it that made me feel like…  I don’t know.  It made me feel like I was holding a piece of home in my hands, I suppose.

After that, my next memory is slowly waking up.  I was lying on something soft, and my body felt oddly cold.  Instinctively I tried to sit up, but the worst pain I’ve ever felt went through my body like electricity.  It felt like someone was forcefully pushing down on me while trying to set me ablaze.

I shook my head in an effort to clear it.  I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet and I was already feeling dizzy.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a woman’s voice politely but firmly told me to calm down.  As I managed to get my eyes open and squinted against the bright light, she went on to explain that I had been in a mine explosion and to assure me that I was going to be okay.

My vision returned to normal after a few minutes and I was able to look up at the speaker.  She was dressed in the white uniform of a nurse, with red curls peeking out from under her hat and freckles dotting her nose.  She smiled down at me kindly and told me that her name was Ruth.

I tried sitting up again, but it had the same result as before.  Ruth informed me that I had suffered a fractured sternum when my chest had impacted with the front portion of the transport truck.  It sounded serious, but she told me that I just needed rest and it would heal naturally.  Normally ice would have been put on my chest to help with the swelling and lessen the pain.  There wasn’t any access to ice, however, so she was using rags soaked in cool water instead.

Along with the fractured sternum, I had suffered a painful bump on the head and a sprained ankle.  I had managed to escape in surprisingly good condition, all things considered.

Johnston hadn’t been so lucky.  He was lying in the bed next to me, unconscious and his body wrapped in bandages.  Every so often I could hear a gasp as he sucked in air.  The gasps sounded wet, like they were filled with water.  The nurse told me that they hoped that he would recover soon, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasn’t hopeful.

Over the next few hours, Ruth sat and talked with me.  Well, she did most of the talking.  Even getting a few words out made my chest hurt, so I mostly just sat there and listened.

She told me that we were in an old château known by the local people as Château des Espirits.  It had been the home of a wealthy but eccentric landowner who had died at the beginning of the war.  He hadn’t had any children or family, so the mansion was converted into a temporary hospital.  Most of the doctors and nurses were French, but Ruth was a volunteer with the Red Cross that had been sent to assist due to the place being woefully understaffed.

She eventually left my side to tend to other patients.  As I stared up at the ceiling, a stray thought entered my head, and despite my condition I found myself smiling.  It was a crooked sort of smile.  Can you imagine, Margaret?  Here I was, relaxing in a fancy château in the French Alps, and I couldn’t even get out of bed to enjoy a moment of it.

I have to admit that I tried not to look at Johnston.  Every time I glanced in his direction I felt an awful stab of guilt.  I had survived the explosion and would be back on my feet soon.  Meanwhile, he was fighting for his life.  It wasn’t fair.  Even though I kept my eyes off of him, I could still hear him wheezing and drawing in those wet breaths.

Evening came, and Ruth returned to help me eat my dinner.  It wasn’t much of a meal, just broth and small bits of potato, but I was so hungry that it felt like a banquet.  When I had finished, she changed out the rags with freshly soaked ones and put the used ones in a small bucket.

Have you ever experienced the kind of moment where it feels like the very air in the room has changed, Margaret?  That was what I experienced once Ruth finished her tasks.  Her entire demeanor went from warm and friendly to something much more serious.  The smile was gone from her face, and her eyes were uncertain.

What wasn’t uncertain was her firm instructions that, even if I found myself able to get up, I must not leave the room during the night.  I pressed her as to why, of course, but she simply shook her head and turned to leave.  Ignoring the pain, I grabbed her wrist and asked once more.  She hesitated before gently removing her hand from my weak grip.

“Monsieur Gangly marche dans les couloirs,” she said quietly in French before leaving the room and firmly closing the two large doors behind her.

Mr. Gangly walks the halls.

I stared after her for quite a while.  To say that I was confused would be an understatement.  I was fairly sure that I had understood her correctly, but as you’re well aware I’ve never had much of a head for languages.  It wasn’t hard to convince myself that my poor French simply wasn’t up to the task of properly translating her statement.  With that settled in my mind, I quickly drifted off to sleep.

My hand just started shaking so badly that I needed to take a few seconds to steady it.  You and I have known each other since we were small children.  We started school together.  You know me better than anyone else, and I’m still afraid of what you’re going to think of me when I tell you what came next.

You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind.  I don’t see how anyone could think otherwise.  I swear to you, Margaret, I’m not mad, and what I’m about to tell you in the honest to God truth.  I need you to believe me.  No one else ever will, but you’re the one person that has to.


I don’t know what time it was when I woke up.  The room was dark and still.  I knew immediately that something was wrong.  I had the same feeling in my stomach that I had gotten during lulls in battles throughout the war.  Sometimes the guns would go silent, and an eerie silence would fall over everything.  Instead of being happy for the reprieve, you start to feel sick to your stomach because you know that something even worse than what you just went through is about to happen.

That was the same feeling I was having as I laid in the darkness.  Something was about to happen.  I was so sure of it that I ignored the pain and forced myself up onto my elbows in an attempt to look around.

I couldn’t stay in the position for more than a few seconds before I collapsed back down onto the bed.  Less than a heartbeat after I had done so, I heard a soft click as the room’s doors began to swing open.  I craned my neck as best as I could and turned my eyes towards the sound.

There was just enough light coming in through the windows for me to see the figure enter the room, but not enough that I was able to make out many details.  It was well over eight feet tall, and it had to duck under the top of the doorway to enter the room.  It was wearing a black flowing robe that covered most of its features.  As it came forward it stayed hunched over.  It moved with an odd gait, swaying slighting back and forth as it walked.  Even though it was the largest creature I had ever seen, it made barely any noise as it moved across the wood floor towards the beds, like it had very little weight to it.

I knew immediately that this giant wasn’t human.  I know how that sounds, Margaret.  This is why I’m afraid that you’re going to think that I’ve been driven mad by the war.  If you do indeed love me as you say that you do, though, I need you to take what I’m saying at face value and put aside your skepticism until you finish my story.

Because of the creature’s size, it only took a few steps for it to reach the foot of Johnston’s bed.  It was starting to lean over him when I closed my eyes as tightly as I could.  As I write this I can feel the shame rising in me.  This… thing was going to do God knows what to a man that was closer to me than my own family, and there I was, keeping my eyes clenched shut like a frightened child trying to hide from a shadow on his bedroom wall.  What kind of a friend, what kind of a man, does that make me?

I laid as still as I could for what seemed like hours, but all that I heard was silence.  Curiosity started to win out over the fear.  I slowly opened my eyes.

The creature was still looming over Johnston, but it was completely motionless.  Its arms were extended towards his face.  The robe’s sleeves were pulled back enough that I could see the limbs.  In the dim moonlight they looked almost white, so white that it was like a single drop of blood had never run through their veins.  They were also extremely thin.  No, that’s not the right word for it.  They looked emaciated.

Its hands were attached to the arms at a slightly odd angle.  I had seen something similar before, when a private had dislocated his hand from his wrist in a bad fall.  Its fingers were long and boney, and they reached out towards Johnston’s face.

The hood of the robe was up over its head, and at the angle I was seeing the creature from its face was completely blocked off from view.  It was hard to tell in the dark, but I got the impression that the head was too large for the body.  The width wasn’t proportionate with the arms and legs.  Everything about the creature was wrong, and I felt a sense of revulsion as I watched it.

Johnston coughed once.  The creature pulled back slightly, but when he didn’t make another sound it drew closer once again.  It reached out with one finger and touched him lightly on the forehead.  He made a soft choking noise but remained unconscious.

The finger moved down his face, tracing down the nose, across the lips, and over the chin.  It stopped when its tip was touching Johnston’s neck.  The man’s entire body had stiffened as if the creature was sending a live current through him.

I wanted to yell out to him, to warn him about what was happening.  My mouth remained closed.  I was already trying to justify my lack of action to myself.  There was no pointing in letting the creature know that I was watching when Johnston was too injured to hear me anyway.  That was what I told myself over and over again.

The truth is that I was paralyzed by fear.  In the moment that my friend needed me most, I proved myself to be a coward.

The creature’s hand opened, and it wrapped its fingers around Johnston’s neck.  He whimpered quietly.  The whimpering soon turned into gagging as the fingers closed tightly.  I tried to will myself to somehow intervene, fear and fractured sternum be damned.  Instead, I just laid there watching.

The figure held up one finger on its other hand and placed its point between Johnston’s clavicles.  It lingered there for a moment before pushing down harder.  The finger sank into and through the skin.  He started to thrash, but the creature simply held him by the throat as if it was no effort at all.

The finger slowly started to make its way down his chest.  Skin, muscle, and bone all parted as if it was being cut with the sharpest of surgeon instruments.  When it reached the top of his stomach area it withdrew.  Blood covered it, and droplets dripped down onto the man’s body.

What came next has played over and over in my head ever since.  The creature reached into the hole in Johnston’s chest and pulled the opening wider.  The snapping of bone filled the air as his ribs were easily separated.  The arm jerked slightly to one side, and a moment later the hand rose out of the open chest cavity holding a misshapen lump.

Johnston stopped thrashing.

I must have made a sound, because the creature turned its head towards me.  The hood still covered its face, but I knew that it was watching me closely.  Instead of closing my eyes, however, I looked right back at it.  It wasn’t some act of bravery or defiance.  I was just too scared to think of anything else to do.

It moved to the side of my bed.  The gory mass it had taken from Johnston’s chest was still clutched in its right hand.  I couldn’t see exactly what the object was.  I was and still am thankful for that.

The creature regarded me for a long moment before reaching up with its free hand and slowly pulling back the hood.  I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out.  I was stricken voiceless by fear.  It was all that I could do to simply keep breathing.

Instead of being rounded, its head was elongated, with malformed protrusions sticking out of the back.  It was hairless, and like its arms the flesh was pale to the point of nearly being translucent.  It looked at me with lidless eyes, the pupils locked on me so intently that they appeared to be vibrating.

The creature’s face was vaguely human.  The best way that I can describe it is that it looked like a person whose skin had been pulled back so tightly that it had begun to tear off of the skull.  The large teeth and gums were exposed in a hideous grin, one so large that it ran past the mouth towards the back of the elongated head to show the bone beyond.

It tilted its head slightly.  I wasn’t looking at just some hideous monster.  Its eyes stared at me with intelligence.

It opened its mouth slightly as it regarded me.  Just beyond the first row of human-like but oversized teeth was a second row of them.  These were smaller and spaced wider apart.  Its thick black tongue sloshed around back and forth in its thick saliva.

“Gute nacht, Herr Lewis,” the creature said in a raspy voice, the words coming out as if it was exhaling them rather than speaking them.

With that, the creature turned and left the room the same way it had come in, closing the doors behind it.

I must have passed out.  The next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness in a  room filled with sunlight.  I quickly looked over to my right at Johnston’s bed.  The spot that the bed had once occupied was empty.

Ruth came in a few minutes later.  I demanded to know what had happened to Johnston, and she told me that he had died from his wounds a few hours earlier.  I knew that she was lying, of course.  I had seen the creature tear him open and end his life.  I continued to press her, and as I did so I so she grew more and more uncomfortable.  She repeatedly tried to tell me that I must have dreamed the entire thing.

I became more and more agitated, and finally she relented.  She leaned in as if she was telling me something that needed to stay between the two of us even though we were the only ones in the otherwise empty room.  Every so often she would glance over her shoulder at the doors as she spoke.

She told me that Johnston’s body had been taken down to the makeshift morgue to be disposed of.  When I started to object, she shook her head firmly and told me to remain quiet.  The official record would say that the body was incinerated due to concerns of a possible disease.  That way no one would know about the damage the creature had caused to his body.

No one but me.

She warned me not to let anyone else know that I had seen the creature, which she again referred to as Mr. Gangly.  The few outside the hospital staff that had tried to tell others what they had seen had all died under mysterious circumstances.  I needed to remain silent for my own safety.

At first I refused, but something in the way that she was looking at me made me stop.  I got the feeling that she wasn’t just looking out for my safety, but also her own.  I began to understand that her current position at the château wasn’t entirely voluntary.

Still trying to wrap my mind around everything that I had seen and that she was telling me, I questioned her about Mr. Gangly.  What was it?  How long had it been at the château?  Why had it killed Johnston?  The questions spilled out of me as if they would never end.

Ruth didn’t have any solid answers to give me.  All of the doctors and nurses at the hospital seemed to have a different theory.  Some said that Mr. Gangly was an experiment that had been conducted by German scientists during the occupation.  Others said it was actually a German scientist itself, one that had done things to himself for some unknown reason and was still conducting experiments on the patients in this new grotesque form.  She had been told by one doctor that he believed it was a demon that had been summoned by Nazi occultists.

I mulled it over.  Mr. Gangly had spoken to me in German.  Hesitantly, not sure that I really wanted to know the answer, I asked how it had known my name.

Ruth looked surprised and regarded me curiously.  As she opened her mouth to speak, the doors opened and a pair of soldiers entered the room.  They told me that I was being transferred to a hospital in Paris immediately.

And that’s where I’m writing to you from now, Margaret.  I’m sitting at a small table in a private room of one of the dozens of medical facilities in Paris.  It’s been dark for some time, but I can still hear the sounds of talking and laughing coming up from the streets through my open window.  

Medically I’m doing much better.  My fractured sternum is almost fully healed, and I only have slight discomfort from it when I move around.

Mentally, I’m not really sure how I’m doing.  I have trouble sleeping at night, and during the day I feel like I’m walking through a dream.  Sometimes I think about how I failed Johnston and feel a mixture of remorse and anger, and other times I realize that I haven’t thought about him in a while and for some reason that makes me even more angry.

There are times that I debate with myself whether I should write Johnston’s wife and tell her what really happened to her husband.  Each time I decide not to.  Even if I could figure out how to begin to describe Mr. Gangly and what it had done to him, how could her knowing the truth be of any comfort to her?

I’m scheduled to ship out for the United States two weeks from Tuesday.  As I come to the end of this letter, however, I realize that I can’t come back home to you yet.  Even if you somehow found a way to forgive my cowardice, I would never be able to.

God help me, I have to go back to Château des Espirits, where Mr. Gangly walks the halls.

I love you, Margaret, and I’m sorry.

Always yours,
Corporal Peter Lewis, United States Army
October 14, 1944

A House

In a small town, nestled in an old quiet neighborhood, there is a house.

On the front lawn stands a white sign with metal stakes.  The words painted on it announce to the few cars that pass by that the house will soon be for sale.  Many of the properties in the neighborhood have the same kind of sign in their yards.  The block was once filled with the sounds of children playing.  The smells of outdoor cooking wafted through the air on warm summer evenings, and cheerfully twinkly Christmas lights illuminated the deep snow during the long winter nights.  Now there is only the rustling of dead leaves and the whistling of the wind between the buildings.

Three stone steps lead up from the overgrown sidewalk.  A rusting metal screen door is leaned up against them, its hinges broken and an empty space where the handle once was.  When the police arrived they hadn’t been able to get it open, and they had been forced to tear it free from the doorframe.  The weeds growing in the flowerbeds have begun to claim it.  They grow not only around it but also through the small gaps in the screen.

The house’s front door is closed.  The white paint is peeling from the wood, and the two rectangular windows are smeared with grime too thick to be seen through.  Sections are splintered outward or otherwise warped.  The door had withstood the battering it had taken from inside the house, but it hadn’t escaped destruction without its share of scars.

The realtor purchased the house for next to nothing at a bank auction last month.  She hopes to be able to flip it for four or five times her investment.  She’s hired workers to perform repairs and updates next week, and the first thing they’ll be doing is replacing the front door and removing the screen door entirely.

Beyond the front door is the living room.  It’s dim inside even during the day despite the blinds having been torn from the windows.  The light that does manage to penetrate the gloom casts shadows across the floor and walls.

The walls and ceilings have brown stains in many places.  The stains resemble an abstract created by a manic painter.  When they were fresh they had been a combination of bright and dark red, but as the thick blood had seeped into the wood and dried it had slowly turned brown.

Next week, the blood will be covered with two coats of fresh paint.  The paint will be a bright color, one that is inviting and pleasing to the eyes of the people that tour the house.  Light blue, maybe, or perhaps something with a hint of green.  The realtor hasn’t decided yet.

The carpet was originally light gray.  It is now almost black from the dust and decay.  Large areas are rotted.  Multiple places are stained with the same color as the walls, and those sections of the carpet are hard and stiff instead of soft like it was when the family had lived there.

One spot in the middle of the carpet is different from the rest.  It has miraculously avoided most of the dust, and the original color can still be seen.  This is most likely due to a slope in the floor or some trick of how the air flows through the room.  Someone with a romantic streak and knowledge of how the bodies were found, however, would be quick to note that this is the same spot where the man and woman’s fingertips had been touching from their final act of reaching out to one another.

The carpet will be completely replaced next week.  The new carpet will be very similar to the old, just clean and fresh.  There won’t be a single hint to prospective buyers that two people had died in the room.

A doorway leads out into the kitchen.  More of the stains can be found here, although they are fewer and farther apart than the ones in the living room.  The dust-covered counter is missing large chunks along one side.  A long crack runs down one section near where the oven used to stand.

The hardwood flooring has a series of deep scores leading away from the counter and towards the glass doors overlooking the backyard.  They had been gouged into the floor when the oven had been torn from its place and thrown across the room.  Two indentations mark where the appliance had come to a stop.

Less noticeable is a small gouge in the flooring in the corner of the kitchen.  It is barely an inch in width, but it goes nearly twice that far down into the wood.  Bits of sharp metal from the tip of a carving knife are still embedded at the bottom of the gash.

The realtor got a good deal on a new countertop and flooring at a local supply store.  The store was going out of business due to the owner’s retirement, and everything was heavily discounted.  She had to pay retail for the oven, however, and she still isn’t happy about that.

Half a dozen carpeted steps lead down from the kitchen into the family room.  The walls lining the stairs are covered in scratches.  The over two hundred pound man had tried to brace himself against them as the small girl had dragged him with one hand up the steps, the fingers of her right hand digging deep into the flesh under his chin.  It had been in vain.  The only results of his attempt at stopping the inevitable had been the scratches on the wall and broken fingernails.

Scratches on a wall are easily repaired, of course.  A small amount of spackling paste applied with a putty knife, some time to let it dry, and some light sanding is all that it will take to get the wall ready for repainting.  Half an hour’s worth of work to hide all evidence of a man fighting for his life against the impossible strength of the girl.

The room at the bottom of the stairs was originally a basement, but the family had turned it into a family room soon after moving into the house.  The air smells musty and stale, and dust hangs in the air in the feeble light let in by the half window near the ceiling.  The carpet is hard from absorbed moisture and crunches loudly when weight is put on it.

The walls appear black from a distance, but they are actually a deep red.  They are stained like the walls in the living room, but unlike those they are completely covered.  It is so thick and uniform that it looks like the blood was applied with a paint roller..  They have absorbed so much of the ichor that they remain red rather than fade to brown.

It was in this room that the house had wept blood.  The thick liquid had run down from the ceiling and along the walls in wide streaks, coating and violating everything that it touched.  The smell of iron still saturates the room.

This room will be the most difficult for the workers to prepare.  The blood has tainted the walls too completely to cover up.  The workers will remove the existing drywall and install paneling instead.  The paneling won’t be as sturdy as the removed drywall, of course, but most of the potential buyers won’t notice the difference and it will save the realtor the additional cost.

Once that is done, the workers will replace the trim along the bottom of the wall before stripping out the carpet and replacing it as well.  The smell will be an issue.  The scent of blood tends to linger.  It will take several days of airing the room out to be rid of it.

The door on the far side of the family room connects the inside of the house with the garage.  Seven concrete steps flanked by a wooden hand railing lead upward to the ground floor.  The garage is large, wide enough for two cars to be parked inside and still offer storage space.  The realtor considers it to be one of the house’s biggest selling points.

The chain from the automatic garage door opener hangs down from the track.  It is looped in the shape of a noose.  The skin that had been stuck between a number of the links was removed by the police as evidence, but there are still a few individual hairs that were missed.

The workers won’t need to do much to get the garage ready.  They’ll reattach the chain to the opener, sweep up the scattered nails and broken glass, and make sure that the electrical box in the corner is up to code.  At the end of each day they’re on the job they’ll meet up in the garage to smoke and drink beers, and none of them will notice that a small section of the concrete floor to the right of the stairs is just a bit darker than the rest.

In the living room is the final set of stairs in the house, the ones leading up to the second floor.  These are the steps that the woman was thrown down as she begged the girl to stop.  Her body was thrown so hard from the top that she missed the steps completely and landed with a sickening crack in the living room, so there’s nothing that needs repaired.

The upstairs hallway appears to be in good condition.  Behind the walls and under the flooring, however, are countless cracks that hint at the structural damage it has suffered.  As the woman backed away in horror towards the stairs, the hallway twisted and contorted as if it was a living thing trying to envelope her.  The realtor doesn’t know about this damage, but even if she did she wouldn’t want to spend the kind of money it would take to repair it.  There’s a reason the house will be listed “For Sale, As Is” when it is officially put on the market.

There are four doors in the upstairs hallway.  No matter how many times the realtor has opened them, they are once again closed when she leaves and comes back.  She’s sure that it’s due to uneven flooring, and she’s made it a point to pick up door stops before the first scheduled open house.

The room closest to the stairs on the right is the bathroom.  The workers will need to treat it for mold, as there is some growing at the base of the bathtub and along the bottom of the sink.  The seal around the toilet will also need to be replaced.

Water had flowed from the sink, toilet, and bathtub.  It had gushed out with great force, like a geyser bursting forth from the bathroom.  The water had been dark and murky, filled with sewage and oil.  It had splashed up onto every surface, and it had shorted out the electrical outlets just below the mirror.  The realtor had needed to call in an electrician to fix the damage before she had been able to schedule the workers.

The second door on the right side of the upstairs hallway leads to the missing boy’s room.  Although it’s now very faint, a hint of the smell of rotten eggs still permeates the room.  The realtor is hoping that it will be completely gone by the time the workers arrive, but if it isn’t, she’s going to have them scrub the room floor to ceiling.  Nothing turns off potential buyers like a bad smell.

The workers will need to clean at least the ceiling even if the scent has dissipated.  Black markings resembling giant cigarette burns cover it.  They form an intricate pattern of interwoven circles and triangles.  There’s something disconcerting about the designs.  Looking at them too closely makes a person nauseous.  Both the realtor and the police have experienced that firsthand.

The workers will wash off the markings as best as they can before painting the ceiling.  Once the paint has dried, they will apply stucco over top of it.  That will help conceal the burn marks that remain.

The master bedroom is through the first door on the left in the hallway.  This is the strangest room in the house.  The paint is missing from the tops of the walls, but it covers the wall trim and the edges of the floor.  It gives the impression that it had somehow slid down the wood, or perhaps melted right off of it.  The realtor has no explanation for it.

The pair of windows are permanently fogged over.  Although at a first glance it looks like they’re simply covered in a filth, it’s the glass itself that is too hazy to see through.  The frames are warped to the point of not being able to be opened.

Black handprints are visible in multiple places throughout the room.  They are the hands of a child, small and thin with short fingers.  Many of the handprints are smudged, but a few of them are so intact and perfect that all the lines and curves can easily be seen.  Even the spirals of the fingerprints are exact and unblemished.

The walls will be repainted.  The windows will be replaced.  The handprints will be scrubbed off.  The wood will be swapped out as necessary.  Nothing will be left to suggest that anything out of the ordinary had ever happened.

The final hallway door opens into the girl’s bedroom.  Unlike all the other rooms in the house, there’s nothing that can immediately be pointed to as being out of place or in need of covering up.  It’s the smallest of the bedrooms and it can feel a bit cramped, but otherwise it looks just like any other bedroom in any other house.

Against one wall was where the girl’s bed had once stood.  She had loved to jump up and down on it even though her parents had told her a hundred times not to.  Next to that had been her little two drawer dresser; the unicorn lamp that had been placed on it was her favorite thing in the whole wide world.  A pile of stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes had stood against the opposite wall.  The largest of the toys had been a pink elephant that her father had won for her at the fall festival.

Inside the closet had been her nice clothes.  Her mother had referred to them as the girl’s fancy clothes, the ones that she wore only on nice occasions.  She had enjoyed the feeling of the soft dresses with the flower patterns, but her fancy shoes had pinched the sides of her feet and she hadn’t enjoyed wearing those.

During the day her mother had played tea party and dolls with her.  Each evening her father would tell her a story before kissing her on the head and tucking her in.  Her brother hadn’t come into her room often, but when he did they would give the stuffed animals silly voices and take them on even sillier adventures.

There had been happiness in this room.  Laughter had bounced off of its walls.  Smiles had been housed beneath its ceiling.  Love had been shared.

Just beneath the room’s single window and nestled under a removable floorboard, inside of a metal box with a broken lock, is a book with a black cover.  There are markings cut into the cover with a razor-sharp blade, markings that form shapes and objects that are both nonsensical and meaningful at the same time.  Some of them are similar to the pattern of burn marks in the boy’s room, but most of them are different, more complex.  

The material of the cover is torn in places.  The pages are yellowed and crackle with age as they are turned.  The book has been in the house for decades, and it was written much, much longer ago than that.

It is a book that should never have been opened, especially by little fingers.

In a small town, nestled in an old quiet neighborhood, there is a house.

It is a house of madness and death.

In two weeks it will look like any other house, and it will be for sale.