Audra

Audra forgot to lock her laptop that morning. We had been dating for about four years, and living together for three. I was happy, had been happy, and I truly thought everything was fine. She left for her Saturday run in the park, and I stayed behind, content to play video games on my lazy weekend morning. When I went to the kitchen, my cat, which had been sleeping on the laptop keyboard, got up and meowed at me. I noticed then that the screen was unlocked. I pushed the cat out of the way, and sat down, thinking I would ensure the cat hadn’t made a mess of anything. Then I noticed an instant message window. “I love you too!”

That was strange. She would say that to me, but I had not used my computer that morning. I didn’t recognize the name, either. Maybe it was her mother? A cousin? As I scrolled through the chat history, my world fell apart. Audra had been cheating, secretly dating a coworker, a married coworker, for over three months. Sometimes they met at work, in the parking garage, but they always saw each other on Saturdays, when she went for a run. They laughed together, at me, in their instant messages, at how easy it was for her to slip away.

I stood, in shock. I felt like someone close to me had died. In a sense, it was a death: the death of our relationship. I had to get out of that house. Suddenly, I felt her everywhere. No, I felt him, smelled his lousy cologne, saw his tie in her car two weekends ago, that she said must have been mine even though I knew it wasn’t, saw the red mark on her neck that she claimed was from her messenger back, saw the bruise on her pale thigh and the line in her chat message “you were too rough last time. you left a mark. he cant find out.” Moaning, or screaming, or crying, I staggered to my car, and I drove.

I may never know how I ended up in that cemetery. I remember driving out of the city, past the suburbs, through desolate country back roads, turning again and again, onto roads that hardly deserved the term. I saw the cemetery gates by the light of the dying sun, the high metal fence glinting through dense hedge like a hidden jewel. I had stopped at a disused railroad crossing in some place that may have once been a town, but had since become overgrown by vines and weeds as to nearly merge with the scrubby forest it inhabited. I parked the car in the dense weeds by the roadside, got out and walked to the gate. Thick vines had woven through the metal bars, but the gate opened readily enough when I pushed.

The cemetery was beautiful, those last red rays of sunlight splashing upon the mausoleums and statues and stones in a watercolor wash. Row upon row of tombstones spread before me. For all the overgrowth outside, the grounds were well-kept, ornamental shrubbery sculpted and lawn trimmed. In that moment, I forgot about Audra, about her infidelity, about my pain. I was in a place of beauty, and I enjoyed it. I walked down the central pathway, stepping over buckled cobblestones pushed up by hundred year old oaks. I knew a bit about architecture, from my college years. Here was a many-columned mausoleum in the Greek Revival style, and there was Egyptian Revival, with its wings and sphinxes. The stones bore the names from a hundred other cemeteries: Smith, Hardy, Robertson.

As I continued down the path, the stones and mausoleums became less grand, more crude, and their dates grew older. Instead of 1920s and 1900s, there were 1880s and 1860s. There was a stone marked 1843, its top half crumbled away, and its inscription worn away. The statues were smoothed and hunched, covered in moss. I noticed another mausoleum, this time a stack of rude brick, set with the massive metal door that appeared to be mostly rust. Its only marking was the date: 1775. I thought this was passing strange, as I did not think this part of the country to be settled that long ago, but entranced as I was by the scenery, I dismissed the thought with a shrug.

The many paths of the cemetery converged ahead of me, against a tall hillside bluff at the back of the place. The sun had truly set and night was upon me, yet I was still able to see in that dim dusk light. I reached the end of the path and gasped. Before me, set into the raw rock of the bluff was a statue of a woman, a beautiful woman, her stone arms slightly reaching out as if to console or comfort. The pain came back at once, crippling, suffocating. In my grief I collapsed there in the path, wracking sobs echoing against the still stones. It began to rain as I wept, softly. After some time, I stood, wiped my face, and looked at the statue.

“No, it can’t be.” I walked closer to the statue, straining my eyes in the dim light.

“Audra?” The statue’s face was clearly hers. I noticed then how still the cemetery was, and how dark. I turned and looked behind me, up the path. It was black as pitch. A low, sliding sound came from behind me. I turned. The statue was clearly looking at me. It was looking at me with Audra’s face. Audra’s lips turned up slightly, knowingly.

I ran. I ran mindlessly through the dark, hands outstretched, without thought. My shins met the top of a crumbled gravestone with a blinding crunch. Momentum carried me forward and over the low stone, and down I fell, face first into the mud at the bottom of an open grave. I lay in the muck with the fetid earth pushing into my nostrils. The rain tapped softly on my back. I could see nothing in that pit, but I could hear the grating slide of stone against stone.

Her cold hard fingers found my legs first, grasping them in a short, sharp shock. I screamed and kicked, flipping onto my back. I kicked again with all my might. She lunged forward and seized me in an impossibly strong embrace. Her harsh stone lips pressed against mine. Her tongue forced my jaws open, grinding sharp against my teeth. Sand, or dust, trickled down my throat, gagging me. I thrashed for a last breath of air, but she held firm. After a time, I relaxed, and let go. The rain pooled in my open eyes, and I was still.

It was dawn when I climbed from that grave. The statue was gone. I did not look for her, as I knew she was back in her shrine, watching over her domain. The pain was gone. She had taken it away, and filled me with stone. I closed the cemetery gate with a smile. I knew what I had to do.

I needed to pay Audra a visit.

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The Witches and The Circle

My great-aunt had died the year before. Her house was locked up in probate until issues of inheritance were settled. My father was acting as caretaker of the property, which meant I took care of the place while my old man bought booze with my great-aunt’s money. I didn’t mind; it got me out of my place, away from my old man, and it made a nice place to have parties and hang out with my friends. My friend Chris loved the place. I think he also needed a place to hide, somewhere away from his own house with all of his dead mother’s things lying around, right where she left them, before a sleep-deprived truck driver snuffed out her life like a candle on a store-bought birthday cake.

Our big plan was to host a Halloween party, just for our small group of friends. Chris quickly latched onto the idea of having a seance, and spent a lot of his time at the library, or at some of the local used book stores, researching. I told him it was no big deal, that it was just a stupid party trick, but he insisted on getting it ‘right’. I guess Chris was messed up about his mother’s death. I should have thought about that, about why he was so concerned with contacting the dead, but he didn’t talk about her very much, and as I’ve said before, I was stupid. There are things that happen when you are nineteen that stay with you. You don’t think they will, but they do. If that’s not the definition of haunted, I don’t know what is.

I met Chris as he was walking back from the dollar store that evening. He was carrying several bags of Halloween candy, some chips and a few bottles of soda. He climbed into my car, and I drove us on to the house. He dumped the candy into a large plastic bowl, and smacked my hand when I tried to filch some. “That’s for the trick-or-treaters, jerk,” he said. As the afternoon faded into evening, the trick-or-treaters did show up, giggling in their Spiderman and Incredible Hulk masks. I doled out candy, while Chris ordered pizza and set up the food on the kitchen table.

Pete, Liz, and Sophia arrived by eight. I was excited that Sophia had shown up; I had been crushing on her for months, but at six four, one forty, and bright red, curly hair, I looked like a scarecrow that tried to dress up like Ronald McDonald. Sophia was tiny, cool, beautiful, with jet black hair and skin that may have never seen sunlight. She was my secret reason for having the party. I didn’t stand a chance, but a guy could hope. Liz was Pete’s longtime girlfriend. She was almost as tall as me, with a shaved head, several piercings, and full sleeve tattoos on both arms. I’m pretty smart, but Liz was a genius. She aced every exam without trying, and was taking college level classes in ninth grade. We had been friends for several years, and had shared several classes at high school until she dropped out halfway through twelfth grade. The vice principal told her in no uncertain terms that she would not allow a “tattooed freak” like Liz to represent the school as the Valedictorian. Liz broke the woman’s jaw in two places, and that was pretty much it for Liz’s public education.

Pete was wrecked when he walked through the door. I had been friends with Pete since we were toddlers; his mother had worked with mine at the same hospital, before my mother left town. I loved Pete like he was a brother, but he had several bad habits, self-destruction being high on the list. He nodded his hello, then staggered to the cabinet where my great-aunt kept her liquor, and liberated a bottle of peach schnapps. By nine Pete had retired to the monstrous old red couch in the living room, cold cloth over his eyes and a bucket by his side.

“Why’s he over-indulging?” I asked Liz, as we shoved the furniture out of the way. Chris and Sophia rolled up the large area rug, exposing the hardwood floor beneath.

“Failed his driver’s license exam,” Liz said, rolling her eyes.

“Again?” Chris said, brushing his thick brown hair out of his eyes. “This is what, his fifth time to take it? I thought they just gave it to you out of pity after five tries.”

“At least he didn’t vomit blueberry pancakes on the instructor’s shoes, like he did last time,” Sophia said.

The heavy old grandfather clock in the living room bonged ten times. Chris stood up. “OK everybody, let’s get started.” Liz tried to get Pete to join us, but he was fast asleep. Chris returned to the room carrying a large wooden box. He opened the box, and removed a small jar of salt, and several candles. He motioned for us to sit in a circle, and he poured the salt in a double ring around us. He poured another, smaller double ring a few feet away, in front of the fireplace. He then carefully taped down several pieces of paper, onto which he had previously drawn strange geometric symbols. I took the candles and positioned them at points around the circles, then lit them with my Zippo.

Chris motioned for us all to sit within the larger circle. He dimmed the lights and joined us. We took our positions around a small wooden tool box. The circle was small. When Sophia sat next to me, her knee touched mine. I tried to concentrate on something other than her perfume. Chris folded open the top, and removed a metal bowl, which he placed onto a metal stand. He pulled some pieces of wood from the box, put them in the bowl, and lit them. He pulled a fabric-shrouded object from the box, and placed it in front of him. The dark cloth revealed a book bound in black leather, and when Chris opened the yellowed pages, instead of being brittle, they turned with an odd ease. Chris flipped through the pages, and when he stopped, the sallow pages lay slackly open, without a hint of curling. He began a low chant, in a singsong rhythm. While chanting, Chris dropped wads of dried herbs into the metal bowl. Heavy, acrid yellow smoke billowed up, stinging our eyes.

“Ancient spirits,” Chris said, as we stared at him with rapt attention, “Ancient spirits, hear us. We beseech you. Ancient spirits, hear our call. Ancient spirits, answer us. Ancient spirits, come to us. Ancient spirits, the way is open. Ancient spirits, take this offering, and come to us.” Chris ran a scalpel, a scalpel that none of us had seen, across the palm of his hand. Liza recoiled in shock. The blood sizzled as it met the flames in the bowl.

“Jesus, Chris!” Sophia said. He shushed her with a glare.

“Ancient spirits!” Chris called. “Hear us! The way is open! Answer our–”

The doorbell chimed.

We all jumped, including Chris. The doorbell chimed again. Through the door, we heard muffled voices. “Trick or treat!”

Sophia huffed and rolled her eyes. “The ancient spirits are here, and they want candy. I thought you turned off the porch light?” She stood up, and walked to the door. She flipped on the porch light, and opened the door. Two little kids were standing there, both dressed like witches, with pointy hats and green masks. They giggled, shoved their widespread pillowcase sacks towards Sophia, and yelled “Trick or treat!” at the tops of their lungs. Sophia looked around for the candy dish, then saw it on the kitchen table. It was empty, save for some wrappers.

“Sorry kids. We’re all out. That’s what it means when the porch light’s off.”

The kids looked at each other for a moment. “Can we come inside for a minute, ma’am? My sister really has to go to the bathroom.” Sophia nodded, and stood aside as two little pointy witch hats bobbed past. As the shorter of the pair went to the bathroom, the taller stood near the couch, next to Pete. She said nothing, and was very still. I found myself sneaking glances at her mask. It seemed far too elaborate for a child’s mask, and the black pits that hid her eyes seemed to drink in the light.

There was a crash from the hallway leading to the bathroom. Chris and I jumped to our feet, and ran to see what had happened. The smaller of the two children kneeling at the entrance to the hallway. “I’m really sorry. I broke the mirror on the wall. My hat is too big and it must have caught the frame. I tripped. I can’t see where I’m going.” She tilted her head down, and began to cry, softly.

“It’s just a cheap old mirror,” Chris said. He extended a hand — his cut hand, I thought to myself, without knowing why — and pulled her up. “It’s getting late. Your parents must be worried.”

“Yes, it’s almost midnight. Sister, we should be going.” We turned to see the sister leaning over Pete’s sleeping form, green mask pressed close to his ear.

“Hey, what are you doing to Pete?” Liza said. She stood and walked towards the taller child.

“He was sleeping,” the taller witch said, shrugging. Her rubbery, pointed green nose bobbled. “I was telling him to have sweet dreams.”

The two children left, clutching their pillowcase sacks and jostling each other as they walked down the sidewalk. I watched them go, and as I saw them turn the corner, I think that I may have seen them both take turns licking at the smaller one’s hand.

We shut off the lights, bolted the front door, and re-lit a few candles that had gone out. Chris picked up his book again as we rejoined him inside the salt circle. “Ancient spirits, hear us!” he cried. “Ancient spirits, we call you. Ancient spirits, hear our call. Ancient spirits, answer us!” The old grandfather clock began to toll, the first of twelve. Chris sprinkled more sage into the redly-glowing metal bowl. “Ancient spirits, we beseech you!”

A candle went out.

Sophia snorted, and put her hand on mine. My heart slammed to a stop — then I realized that she was only trying to pull the Zippo I had been fidgeting with out of my hand. She winked, then reached over to light the candle. Another candle went out. And another. The room was plunged into a murky darkness, only lit from the flickers of the coals in the metal bowl. “O-ok,” said Chris, with only a slight tremor to his voice. “The ancient spirits have heard our call and have responded.” He shifted slightly, and closed the box. On the top of the box was an ornate inlay of letters and numbers, in the style of an Ouija board. Chris drew a small white planchette from his shirt pocket, and beckoned for us to place our hands upon it. We moved the planchette on the board in small, slow circles. “Ancient spirits, are you here with us?”

Something crashed in the kitchen.

I made as if to get up, and Chris motioned for me to stop. “Don’t leave the circle,” he said. “Stay inside the circle. Never break it. Nothing can harm you if you don’t cross the boundary.” We placed our hands back on the planchette.

“Ancient spirits, are you here with us?” Chris asked again. The planchette slowly moved to a corner. YES. Boards creaked in the darkened room around us.

“This is too spooky, Chris,” Sophia said. “It feels like something’s watching us. It — oh.” Sophia looked down. In the twitching, red glow of the flames, a shadow seemed to spread across Sophia’s chest. She looked up at us and opened her mouth to speak. A flood of blackness flowed out of her mouth and down her chin. She slumped forward, knocking over the metal bowl. The burning coals scattered.

“Sophia!” I lunged toward her. A smoldering coal burned my hand, but I didn’t feel it. I could only think about Sophia’s beautiful hair. It was on fire. “Get the lights!” Chris yelled, standing. He shoved me off Sophia, out of the circle. I scrambled to my feet. I could see nothing in the inky blackness. Liz was screaming, over and over. A wall should have been inches away, but I felt nothing. I reached out frantically. My fingertips caught something, the sleeve of a shirt? It jerked away. There was a blinding, burning pain on my arm. I fell flat and away, clutching the wound. Blood soaked through the sleeve of my shirt. I crouched low, trying to see something, anything. I turned back to the circle. Liz’s face, mouth an O of suprise, jerked backward. Her slashed throat sprayed blood across the room. It smelled like copper.

I turned to the right, arm out. I ran. My hand slammed into a doorway with force. A fingernail peeled back. I dropped to my knees, then crawled forward. My fingers met the cold steel of the refrigerator. I flung the door open. Light flooded the kitchen. I huddled in the corner, shaking. I heard a racking scream from the other room. Chris! I snatched a heavy, cast iron frying pan from the stove. Heavy pan raised high, I stood to the side of the doorway. Blood trickled into a pool in the elbow of my shirt. I heard the slow slide of footsteps. There was a low whispering breath. I was paralyzed. What if it was Chris? Or Sophia? Light glinted off of the butcher knife.

I swung as hard as I could. My lips peeled back in a rictus grin, I grunted an involuntary “HAA!” The edge of the cast iron pan caved in Pete’s face as if it were a Sunday morning egg. He went down in an untidy heap. I swung and swung, bashing his head until it was a lumpy mess. Until his body stopped twitching. Still clutching the pan, I ran for the front door.

It took me an hour to reach the front door. The front door could not have been farther than fifteen feet away. It felt like miles. As I stumbled and crawled to the door, terrible things whispered to me, laughed at me, mocked me. I saw the dim shapes scuttle away as I looked, eyes straining to see my attackers. They darted in and gouged my flesh with claws and hot, grasping hands. I flailed blindly in the dark with the frying pan, but they only laughed. When I did reach the door, it was locked. I smashed the antique stained glass with a blow, then climbed through it, lacerating my hands and arms more in the process.

The official police report states that Peter McCaulty, 19 y.o. Caucasian Male, several priors including vandalism and possession, was under the influence of a large amount of controlled substances (traces of Adderal, Effexor, PCP, psilocybin, and certain other unidentified), experienced a psychotic break, and killed several people. Initially I was suspect number one. A police officer found me walking down the middle of the street, covered in blood and bleeding from dozens of cuts, fist clenched tightly around a cast iron pan. The police took a dim view of my story, and once it was determined that drugs had been involved, they ignored it completely. As far as the cops were concerned, a bunch of kids took some acid on Halloween. They played at a ‘Satanic’ ritual, then one went off his rocker and killed a few of the others. It happens every Halloween.

I was remanded into psychiatric custody for two weeks. It was only after I was released that I found out that the police had only recovered three bodies, not four. They never found Chris, or any trace of him.

I have never gone back to that house. I think about going back, every night. I take my meds, meds that make me forget, mostly, and suppress the whispers that I hear in those long black hours before dawn. But sometimes, I still hear them. Every year, as Halloween approaches, the voices get louder, even if I up my dose. They tell me terrible things. They tell me it was my fault. They tell me I was the one with the knife.

The Gap In The Wall

My name is China Westerson. China, like the country, not the dinnerware. I am nearly nineteen, and I am haunted. You might think it strange that I say that I am haunted, instead of saying, perhaps, I live in a haunted house, or I have seen a ghost. There’s a difference. When you’re haunted, it follows you.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, in my great-uncle John’s ancient Greek Revival, and it was a haunted house. Nothing too impressive; objects would move when you weren’t looking, doors that you had closed on the way out would be open upon returning home. We liked the ghosts of that house. They seemed like family, and according to my great-uncle, a few were. Old houses always have ghosts, he said. They have ghosts just like they have wood rot, plumbing problems, and bad wiring.

This is not to say that new places don’t have ghosts. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

I moved to Florence, Alabama, to attend the University of North Alabama. My mother is a teacher, my father is a teacher, and I knew that I wanted to teach since I was six. Although UNA isn’t the best school in the state, it is a very good teaching college. Besides, my great-uncle, grandfather, and mother are all alumni, so it was practically required that I go there.

My first college apartment was at a newly-opened complex at Irvine and Pine street. Some member of my family had pulled strings, again, and I found myself in a beautiful one bedroom wonder, full of light and the scent of new paint. It was an easy walk to class, which meant I never had to fight for parking. As the first few weeks of college passed, I made new friends, and had them over, and each one professed jealousy of my fabulous new apartment.

My friend Marcia complained about the flies first. “Close the windows, girl. You’re letting flies in here,” she complained. I blinked. I honestly hadn’t noticed anything, but Marcia was right. There were several flies buzzing around. We checked the windows, but they were all closed. I checked for gaps in the sliding glass door, and around the front door, but they were new and looked fine.

“Maybe they got in during construction, like, as babies,” Marcia said.

“Flies don’t have babies. They have maggots.”

“Ew gross! Hey, maybe this is it,” Marcia pointed at the far corner of the living room, past the sliding glass door, behind a beat up old rocker I found at the thrift store for twenty bucks. (I call him Eddie Money, ha ha).

“What … the …” I shoved the rocking chair aside, and peered up at the corner of the living room wall. There was a gap.

“Well there’s you’re problem,” Marcia said, making a walrus mustache with her fingers. “If that leads to the outside, that’s where your bugs are coming from.”

“How the hell did this happen? This is a brand new apartment!” I growled. I dragged one of many of my unpacked heavy boxes of books over to the corner, and stood on top of it. The gap ran from the top of the corner to the bottom. It was barely visible at the bottom, near the floor, but was nearly an inch wide at the top.

“Gotta love Alabama building codes,” Marcia said. “Ew, don’t stick your fingers in there!”

“I think I see light coming from the other side. That sucks. It goes straight through the wall to outside. No wonder there’s bugs in here!”

I called Maintenance for the complex after Marcia left. Before I could get to sleep that night, I shoved some wadded-up paper towels into the gap.

When I got home from class the next day, there was a note from Maintenance on the door, saying they had fixed the defect and sorry for any inconvenience. I went inside to find the gap sealed up and painted over. I checked the rest of the apartment, and everything seemed fine. Even the flies were gone.

A few weeks later, Marcia and I were studying for an exam, and she looked over at the corner. “I thought you said they fixed that gap.” She was right. The gap was back, a small dark line zigzagging down the corner between the two walls. Marcia handed me her cellphone, which had a fancy light on it. I stood on the same box of unpacked books, and shined the light on the gap.

“Those lazy jerks from Maintenance didn’t fix anything,” I said. “They just squirted some caulk in here, smoothed it down, and painted over it.”

After the exam, I went back to my apartment to meet with Hector, the head of Maintenance for the complex. Hector was short, stocky, nut brown and had the largest teeth that I had ever seen. He seemed very concerned about the gap, and promised to fix it as fast as possible. He radioed another member of the Maintenance staff, and soon there were two other guys shoving my furniture around, walking in and out of the sliding glass door that led to the small back patio. I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. As I was eating, I heard several raised voices, arguing in Spanish.

I walked back to the living room. “Is there a problem?” I asked.

Hector turned away from his argument with the two other maintenance men, and smiled at me. “No ma’am. We’re just having a … technical discussion.” One of the men, looking unhappy, said something in Spanish.

“So there is a problem,” I said.

“The measurements… they don’t add up,” Hector said. He pulled out a tape measure, and walked to the corner. “On the outside, this is four feet, three inches, from the stud to the edge of the door.” He extended the tape, and ran it along the inside wall. “On the inside… it’s four feet, five inches.”

“Dos,” said one of the workmen, shaking his head.

“Two inches,” I said. “Two inches bigger on the inside than on the outside. Maybe the angles are off?”

“No ma’am. I’ve been checking with a plumb bob and a level,” Hector said, pointing at a pile of gear on a sawhorse table nearby, “and everything checks out. I even drilled two holes all the way through the wall and out the siding. One here by the door, and the other down at the end by the corner. It’s one and a quarter inches’ difference between those two holes, inside to outside. It’s the damndest thing.” Hector glanced up at me. “Pardon my language, miss. This thing, it worries me. I worry about some sort of foundation damage, or even a sinkhole, that might be causing the walls to lean, and that’s messing up my measurements.”

The complex management moved me to another apartment in a building on the opposite side of the neighborhood. It looked exactly the same as my old apartment, but the light was different, and it was closer to the football stadium, so game nights were pretty loud. As the nights got longer, classwork, exams and research papers loomed over me, and I buried myself in work, shunning my friends in favor of studying for exams and completing papers.

Just before Halloween, the college had a mid-semester break. Classes were dismissed on Thursday and Friday, giving us a four-day weekend. Of course, all my professors scheduled mid-term exams on the Monday and Tuesday before the break. When I stumbled out of the last exam, I was ready for some relaxation. Marcia picked me up at seven, and we went to the annual Halloween party at the Kappa Sigma frat house. The Kappa Sigs might be a bunch of nerds, but they have a certain affinity for alcohol.

Early the next morning, head still numb from Kappa Sigma booze, teeth chattering from the cold, I let myself into my apartment. I staggered to the bathroom, fumbled for the light, and scared myself silly when I saw my reflection in the mirror. My zombie makeup had not held up very well over the night. I washed my face, twice, brushed my teeth, peed, then went to my room and collapsed into bed.

When I woke, it was still dark. I felt the somehow familiar creak of the bed as someone sat on the side of the bed behind me. I felt the pull and tug of the covers as someone slid into bed, and heard the faint whisper of breathing beside me. I slowly opened my eyes, and looked to my right. In the bed next to me lay a large man, or maybe a woman, although he seemed male to me. His lank black hair lay tangled on the pillow next to mine, and his pallid skin almost seemed to glow in the dim light of my bedroom. His mouth was a horror of metal and leather, shuttered by a bit of some sort, bolted or fastened to the skin. His jaw fluttered and twitched, and I could hear the faint noise of his teeth as they ground against the bit. His eyes were fixed straight ahead, on some undefined point above us.

I tensed, heart racing, and began to sit up and away from him. His arm shot out across my chest, and held me down. I opened my mouth to scream, but only a few whimpers emerged. He snapped his head towards mine, and fixed me with his terrible eyes. They were quite clear, even in the darkness of my room, and I can see them still, pale yellow, circles moving within circles. He raised his other hand to his face, extended a finger, and said “Shh.” He turned his eyes back toward the ceiling. I quit fighting, and made no more sounds. We lay like that for hours, or decades, and I finally fell back asleep.

When I awoke, he was gone. I vividly remembered the experience, but I was skeptical enough to dismiss it as a particularly horrific episode of sleep paralysis, perhaps brought about by too many tequila shots. I laughed at myself for checking under the bed and in the closet, then opened the bedroom door.

There were flies everywhere.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of dead flies littered the apartment floor. A few live ones buzzed lazily around the hallway, but most were dead. My slippers crunched on insect bodies as I dazedly walked to the living room. My heart had already confirmed what I would see, before I saw it. There was a gap between two walls, in the corner of the living room. It was wider then, at maybe an inch and a half. I walked slowly towards it, disturbing a few living flies such that each of my steps was accompanied by a slight buzzing noise. When I reached the wall, I stopped. I stared at the gap. With a deep sense of dread, I saw my arm raise, and saw my hand put my fingers into the gap. Why did I do that? My fingers brushed the broken plaster at the edge, and I felt, more than heard, a deep, growling roar. The wall shuddered as if struck by a massive blow. I jerked my hand back, and ran out of my apartment.

Maintenance never found any flies. That was the line the apartment complex management gave me each of the six times I called. I demanded they send an exterminator, and they agreed to send someone to look at it. I called back to check, and they told me the head of Maintenance had investigated and found no insects in the unit. I asked to speak to Hector, but they said Hector was no longer employed with them.

I refused to go back to that apartment. I waited in Marcia’s car as she went in to retrieve some of my essentials — clothing, toiletry, homework.

“There’s no flies in there, honey,” Marcia said, with a concerned look on her face. “I saw two dead ones in the bathroom sink, but not bunches all over.” She looked at me. “I bet that new maintenance guy came in and cleaned it all up, cos he’s new and it made him look bad.”

When I called Uncle John, he promised he would fix everything. He called me back later in the day to say that the apartment complex management agreed to let me break my lease. He had found another apartment, in a tower a few blocks away, and I could move in immediately. Later I found that my uncle had made some fairly severe threats, such that the complex management admitted there was a small crack in the wall due to “settling”, but refused to acknowledge any major structural anomalies, and flatly denied any insect infestation of any sort.

Marcia and a few other friends of mine put my few belongings into the bed of a pickup truck and moved me into my new apartment. It was on the fourteenth floor of a building in Florence’s downtown, and turned out to be a three-bedroom corner apartment. I love it. The light is great, and it has a beautiful view.

But.

There are six cracks in the ceiling. Six.

There are two hairline cracks in the bedroom wall, one lateral, extending eight and three quarters inches from the window, and one vertical, extending twenty seven inches from the left-hand power outlet.

There are four small cracks in the long wall in the living room. 38 5/16. 42 1/2. 16 1/4. 33 9/16.

There is one long crack in the kitchen wall behind the refrigerator. 48 5/8.

There is a gap in the bathroom between the tub and the tiles. This is the one I am worried about. I didn’t measure it when I moved in because I have been very tired and have not slept very well. Which was stupid. I should have measured it. I know better. But the gap is very small. It is really too small to use U.S. customary measurements.

I may have to switch to metric.

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The Thing On The TV

When I was about thirteen, I stayed at my uncle’s house over the summer. I didn’t know it, but my parents were getting divorced and they wanted me to have a fun summer without dealing with the stress of moving. I loved my uncle’s place, so I was thrilled to find out that I would get to stay there all summer.

My uncle’s house was not very pretty, a big old farmhouse with peeling yellow paint, but the farm was amazing. I was from the city, and my house barely had a yard, much less twenty acres of fields and forest, and a creek that ran through it all. At first, my favorite thing to do was to simply run through those fields, as hard as I could, until I was so hot and exhausted I thought I might pass out, then jump into the cool waters of the forest-shaded creek.

In the evenings, my uncle would go out. He was divorced, and preferred to spend a few hours across the county line at his favorite watering hole. Neither of us felt unsafe about me staying alone. It was a small community of neighbors, and there were quite a few loaded guns around the old farmhouse. As dusk fell on those long summer days, I would climb into my uncle’s beat-up old recliner, and watch his old TV until I fell asleep.

Late one evening, I started having problems keeping the TV tuned to the right station. I crouched in front of it, slowly turning the fine-tuning ring. The TV was built into a huge wooden cabinet, but had a relatively small screen. This was long before the days of digital tuning, so picking up broadcasts from far away was often an exercise of patience and of amateur radio skills. I was desperate to see an old re-run of ‘Lost in Space’, so I kept fiddling with the tuning dials in the hopes of picking up audio, and more video than a fuzzy, rolling outline. In a fit of frustration, I spun the knob far to the left, and stomped off to the kitchen to make a sandwich.

While I was making my sandwich, I heard a sound from the living room that made me pause. There is a sound that a person makes in a room, an absence of absence, rather than any real noise. I spun around, butter knife clutched tightly in my hand. There was nothing there. I cautiously walked back into the living room, where the TV sat showing snow and hissing quietly. Nobody. Weird. I went back to the kitchen and finished my sandwich. As I opened the refrigerator for a can of soda, I heard another sound. “Aaaahhh,” it sighed.

I was alone in the house, but I refused to be a chicken. I thought the TV must have finally started to pick up some channel. “Oh, yeah,” I said, as I remembered. Old TV’s, like my uncle’s, could sometimes receive radio stations, or even shortwave. My uncle showed me that trick last year. “Maybe that’s what it is.” I took my sandwich and cola back into the living room, and put them on top of the TV. As I reached for the tuning knob, I saw something on the screen. I blinked, and moved back away from the screen.

The white and black dots of electronic snow danced on the screen, accompanied by a low whispering hiss. I stared at the screen for a second, two, three. Nothing. I laughed. “Now you’re seeing stuff. And talking to yourself.” I looked away for a moment, and something caught my eye. I looked back at the screen. There, in the bright swirl of dots, was a shape. I don’t know if the shape had been there all along, or if it had simply taken my mind a few moments to see it, like those dot-pictures at the mall. I stared, eyes riveted to the screen, as an image resolved. In the static, I began to see the sweep of a brow, the slope of a nose, the curve of a mouth and chin. The screen rolled once, black bars slipping down, and the static faded away.

I was looking at the face of a girl, dark eyes, black hair curly and cropped at the shoulders. Her face briefly filled the screen, and then grew smaller as she stepped away. I realized with a shock that I was looking at my uncle’s living room, at my uncle’s chair. I saw myself on the screen, and I saw the girl walk towards me. I looked around wildly, but there was nobody in the room. I looked back at the TV. She was standing right next to me. She looked directly at the screen. I watched, on the TV, as she took my hand. My hand began to burn with cold, and I saw her smile the most terrible smile.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

I ran, as fast as I could, through the nearest doorway, into my uncle’s bedroom. I slammed the door and flipped on the lights, then jumped onto his bed. I sat there, on his bed, watching the occasional headlights splash through the large windows, until he came home. I tried to tell him what I saw, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it. He was mostly drunk and just wanted to go to bed. The next morning, he had me nearly convinced it was just a dream; that perhaps I had fallen asleep in his chair, and had a nightmare.

I went home the next weekend, to a house that I’d never seen before, and to a father who had moved to a different town. I mostly forgot about the thing I saw on my uncle’s TV. I thought about it when I overheard my mother and my aunt talking in hushed tones about a terrible thing that happened at my uncle’s place — a tenant family had died, in bad circumstance. I thought about it more recently when my mother told me the house had burned down after a car came off the curve and crashed into the side of the place.

I think about that summer a lot now. We don’t have analog TVs any more, and I never listen to the radio, so I never hear static. But sometimes, in the white noise of a thunderstorm, or even in the stillness of my own room at night, I hear her voice.

“I’m still waiting.”

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The Side Tunnel

I hated that town. Sprawled across the rotting foothills of a dead mountain chain, the city was a mass of Old South racism and corruption, filled with inhabitants too poor or too sentimental to leave for someplace better. The city sweltered in the mid-summer heat, smog from traffic mixing with lethal amounts of pollen and dust to form a soup that killed asthmatics as effectively a whiff of mustard gas.

I had acquired a sum of money from a job a few months back, and my needs were modest, so I had nothing better to do than hang out at the fountain downtown, or at the coffee shop nearby. I met Charlie first, when I noticed some truly phenomenal photographs on his laptop. They were all of beautiful, decayed structures, some of which I had seen around town. Charlie never made eye contact as he explained, in his mild, halting speech, that he didn’t take the photos, those were Jack’s, but he handled setting up Jack’s website.

A few evenings later, I was sitting on the floor of Jack’s tiny apartment, drinking beer and talking with a small group of kids that were most excited by abandoned and condemned buildings, fire hazards, and other signs of urban decay. They called themselves urbexers, or urban explorers. The leader of the group, Jack, was passionate about his photography, and was working his art into his college thesis. Jack was tall, with a surfer’s build that could have landed him a contract to model for Abercrombie and Fitch, if it weren’t for his shock of unruly blonde hair. Jack’s girlfriend, Annie, at first seemed to perform no function asides from looking very good and hanging onto Jack. I asked Charlie about her once, and he said that Annie was a very good listener, which is what Jack seemed to want.

Shane was huge. He topped four hundred pounds, standing well over six feet tall, with thick slabs of muscle overlaid by thicker slabs of fat. He was from some no-name community in the forested hills of middle Alabama, and he dressed as if he was prepping for a deer hunt. For all of his size and massive presence, he was calm and very quiet, perhaps in response to Jack’s constant diatribe about the architectural methodologies of whatever.

The last member of the group was Petya. She was a transplant from some formerly Soviet-bloc country, uprooted from all that she knew and rudely shoved into the semi-rural Alabama soil, watered a bit and told to deal with it. Lucky for her, Petya was tough as a weed, and thrived. She was short and hard, looking more like a thirteen year old boy than a nineteen year old woman. She had discovered country music early after her move, and took to it with a passion that verged on neurotic, to a point that her speech was a heavy Southern drawl punctuated with weird Slavic inflections.

Jack’s obsession was photography, specifically taking pictures of decaying urban structures. If given a chance, he would talk at great and exhausting length about the ‘moral imperative’ of photographing ruins, as we ‘owed’ the original laborers and craftsmen some of our attention to the artisanship of their hard work. Jack met Charlie in high school. Over the next few years the pair developed their infiltration skills and expanded their group to encompass others with similar interests. Jack seemed to be the idea man, and had an uncanny talent for finding unexplored sites all over the area. Once Jack had located a site, Charlie would come up with a way to get in. Not only was Charlie an expert locksmith, he had made friends with many of the librarians and city records-keepers in the area, so he was often able to provide historical maps and records for the sites.

We bounced along a poorly-maintained road in Shane’s van, listening to Jack crow about our target for the night. Shane did not appear to be a very smart person, given his size and usual closed-mouthedness. However, it was his idea to buy a white panel van and affix official-looking “State Department of Infrastructure” decals to it. He had mounted yellow bubble lights to the top, and black and yellow caution tape around the bottom. When we stopped, he pulled a few orange traffic cones off of a metal mount on the front of the van and placed them in front and behind the van.

“Isn’t that kind of conspicuous,” I asked.

Shane smiled. “Yep. Ain’t no ‘damn hooligan kids’ want to be conspicuous. So the van must be here on official business.”

“Here it is, man,” Jack clapped me on the back. “Holy of holies, the Water Works Tunnel. Half a mile straight through a mountain. And Charlie can get us in.”

I turned, and looked at the small metal door set into the side of a hill. “It doesn’t look like much. And I didn’t think it was that hard to get into.”

“It’s not,” Charlie said, “But we’re going into the Side Tunnel.” Charlie walked around to the rear of the van, and pulled out a pickaxe.

I would not have been more shocked if he had pulled out a severed head. As a rule, urbexers greatly disapprove of any actions that change a site. They don’t litter, they don’t graffiti, and on some message boards there are long-running arguments about even using chalk to mark for wayfinding.

“What’s the Side Tunnel?” I asked.

“You’ll see soon enough,” Petya said, handing me a head-mounted flashlight.

I grabbed my backpack, which was heavy with gear: snacks, extra flashlights, and water bottles. Jack grabbed a shovel from the back of the van, and Shane another pickaxe. Moments later the van was closed and locked, orange cones glowing in the dim light. Charlie produced an actual key to the lock on the metal door, and hauled it open. He caught my look, and said, “Helps to have friends at City Hall.”

One by one, we walked single file through the door into the Water Works Tunnel. Petya closed the metal door with a grunt, and the boom echoed through the darkness. The Water Works Tunnel was much like every other tunnel, low, cramped and moist, with an unpleasant smell. Dirt caked the exposed brickwork, and in some places iron piping lay exposed.

“Back like a hundred years ago, when the Dunn brothers built this thing, there wasn’t a good way to get water from the Cahaba river into town,” Jack said. “So they bored this tunnel right through the mountain, out the other side to where the river is. The Side Tunnel, though –”

“Please be quiet,” Charlie said, “I’m trying to count.” We had been steadily making our way down the tunnel. The darkness before and behind was absolute. I had been in darker places, but the close confines were beginning to make me anxious. Jack moved away from Charlie, back to me.

“Anyway, like about halfway through the mountain, the Dunn brothers got to a spot that they couldn’t get through. They had to bring in heavier machinery, some kind of steam drill rig. You see how tight it is in here, man? They dug a tunnel off to the side, then they expanded it. They were under a deadline, like nearly about to lose their contract, so they made the miners work day and night. They actually set up a small camp in the Side Tunnel. There were like sleeping areas with beds built right into the walls. They even had a small camp store. Eventually, the miners got through the tough spot, and the Dunn brothers just walled up the Side Tunnel. Nobody’s been in there since.” Jack’s words echoed sibilantly down the tunnel.

“Nobody until us,” Shane laughed.

“Is bullshit,” Petya said. “Is no such thing as Side Tunnel. Is Jack being full of the shits again, like with that room under the fountain down town.”

“Hey, that was real,” Annie said. “He couldn’t get the –”

“Please be quiet, guys,” Charlie said, playing his flashlight around the floor and sides of the tunnel. “Help me look for an iron valve or gear or something.”

We stopped talking, and began looking around the tunnel. I followed the large iron pipe for a few feet, and said, “Hey, is this it?”

Charlie shined his light on the valve, then on a folded back photocopy of his map. “Yeah, that’s it. Now, Shane, try that wall right there. Right across from here. See if it’s brick, behind that dirt.”

The pickaxe was incredibly loud in the tunnel. “Good thing there’s a mountain between us and anyone that might hear that,” I said, holding my hands over my ears. Petya smirked and handed out ear covers from her backpack. Shane bashed the wall with the pickaxe a few more times, then scraped at it with the side of the axe.

“Yep, that’s concrete over brick, right there,” Shane said, pulling a crumbling red brick loose with his pick. Jack eagerly grabbed the sledgehammer. He and I took up positions on either side of Shane, and we began to hammer away at small spots on the wall. Several minutes later, Jack’s sledge punched through the wall a few feet farther down the tunnel.

“I’m through!” Jack yelled, “Come help me!” Shane and I moved near him, breaking the hundred year old brickwork. Annie made a few feeble attempts at moving bricks out of the way, until Petya shoved her aside.

“You might break a nail,” Petya growled, and began stacking the rubble into two careful piles on either side of the widening hole in the wall. Charlie donned gloves and helped, and soon we stood before a small hole that appeared to open into another larger chamber.

Charlie handed Jack the large spotlight. “After you, sir,” Charlie said, bowing slightly and extending his arm towards the hole in the wall.

Jack grinned, and ducked into the hole, followed by Annie, Charlie, Shane, Petya, and finally, me.

From the other side, the bricked-over section was much larger than the small opening we had made, at nearly six yards across. There were a few wooden crates stacked on the sides of the tunnel, covered by dirt and dust-covered tarpaulins. The tunnel was narrow at first, but seemed to widen at some distance away. Its walls receded into the gloom, out of the reach of the small bright beam of light cast by Jack’s spotlight. Jack moved the light around slowly, illuminating the Side Tunnel for the first time in over a hundred years.

“How big was this tunnel supposed to be?” I asked.

“According to the map, maybe thirty feet wide and two hundred feet long,” Charlie said.

“It’s a hell of a lot bigger than that,” Shane said, staring off into the darkness. “I think it gets a lot wider down there.”

“Ok guys, let’s get what we came for,” Jack said. “Annie, hand me my camera bag. We need to document this as we go through it, so we can have photos of the tunnel in its pristine state.” As Jack set up his photography gear, we dispersed, each of us shining lights around the first part of the tunnel. I noted to myself that none of the group seemed particularly willing to go farther down the tunnel. Jack began snapping photos, the flash flaring like lightning.

“Hey guys, look at this,” Shane called, from farther down the tunnel. The light from his flashlight made him seem small in the darkness, and his voice echoed strangely. Charlie, Petya and I walked down the tunnel to where Shane stood.

“This isn’t supposed to be here,” Charlie whispered. I had heard that line before. Hell, I’ve said it before. Suddenly, I was gripped with a panicky certainty that I should leave. Drop my pack, ditch these fools, and run all the way to the doorway in the mountainside, open it, and keep running. Maybe all the way to the ocean. I shuddered once, swallowed, and pushed it down. I had a job to do.

Shane was standing in front of the first building of what seemed to be an abandoned town. I counted over eight buildings, on either side of a smooth dirt ‘street’ extending down the tunnel. The buildings were rudely finished, with unpainted grey boards cracked and warped with age, but mostly whole. The cavern in which they stood was quite large, but the roof was low enough to see by flashlight.

“Jesus,” Jack said, startling all of us.

“Quit that, asshole!” Petya growled, punching Jack in the arm. “You scared shit out of me, standing here in scary tunnel with ghost town.” She got closer to him, with a finger in his face. “You are full of shit again, Jack. You set this up to pull prank on this new guy, yes? Ya’ll knew this was down here!”

Jack backed up a step. “Hey, man, back off. We had no idea this was down here. Are you serious? We had to break through a damned wall. How could we’ve known this place was even down here?”

“The news articles I found did say they built a camp for the miners,” Charlie said. “This whole area was sealed up until we knocked a hole in the wall, and it seems pretty dry down here, so the buildings were basically mummified.”

Petya rolled her eyes. “Is exactly what we need. Mummy buildings.” She slugged Jack on the arm again, and stomped off.

“Yeah, a camp, Charlie,” Shane said. “This ain’t a camp. This is a whole town. There’s what, a dozen old buildings down here?”

“I want to get out of here, Jack. Take me back to the van,” Annie said, and leaned on Jack in such a way as to press many exciting parts against him.

Petya rolled her eyes. “We’re not going back now, Annie. We just got here. If Jack is right, we’re first. We’re never first at anything.”

That seemed to steel Jack’s resolve. “She’s right, Annie. This is the type of thing that lands me a National Geographic deal.”

Charlie glanced at Jack. “Us, Jack. All of us.”

“Of course, man. We’ll all be famous. Let’s get a shot of that building there,” Jack said, with the distracted look that indicated he was no longer thinking about the current conversation.

Annie and Shane cautiously investigated the shack on the opposite side of the tunnel. Petya and I walked down the tunnel, past the first few buildings, to a larger clearing. The center of the clearing held a large stack of ancient, mostly-burned wood in a circular fire pit. A few rusted metal cans lay scattered around the pit. To the left and the right of the fire pit, tunnels extended and disappeared into the darkness.

I had done my research for months, looking in the basements of dusty college libraries and used book stores, scouring thrift stores, yard sales, and once I got to Birmingham, reading the papers, looking for reports of the missing. I had more doubts than clues, with only the scars upon my face as evidence that the thing that I sought was real, and not a paranoid fantasy of my own making. I knew I was in the right place when I saw what lay in front of us.

At the end of the Side Tunnel, carved into the raw rock wall like some hillbilly Petra, rose the face of a large building that could only be a church. The carvings had a crude look to them, columns and lintels hammered out of the stone with miner’s chisels by men who might have seen a drawing of a Roman column in a newsprint. Crosses decorated the facing at various points, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the symbol above the only door. I recognized the symbol’s loops and angles, but only in reverse, as I have only seen it in one other place: my own mirror, as a faint white tracery only visible now under the bright glare of the light reflecting off the scarred skin of my forehead.

At that moment of recognition, as if in sympathy, my scars began to itch. Faintly, but the itch was there, a subtle warning. Get out. I knew I should listen, but it had taken so long to catch the faintest trace of the trail.

“Hey, look, a cave. I wonder what’s inside?” Petya said, with a knowing smirk. She shouldered her pack and walked into the doorway. I had no choice but to follow her. The doorway opened into a small, low tunnel, carved out of solid rock. After a few feet, the tunnel turned sharply left, and turned again to the right, then opened into a larger room with a downward-sloping floor. The remnants of wooden pews sat rotting silently on either side of the narrow aisle leading down to the front of the room. At the front of the room, a few large leather sacks leaned against a round structure that appeared to be an altar.

As we moved closer, Petya let out a stifled squeak, and stopped. She glanced at me, but I already knew. The leather sacks were in fact the desiccated remains of three people, hunched, headless and kneeling at the altar. I stepped closer. What I had originally thought of as an altar was in fact a pit, or a deep well, its bottom hidden far below. “Bodies?” Petya said. A sidelong glance at her face showed me the shocked, bruised look about her eyes. She grimaced, then shouldered her pack. “Jack will not be happy about this.” Urbexers hate finding bodies. At the least, bodies are creepy and unpleasant. At the worst, they can entangle a crew in months of police investigations, red tape, and possible trespassing charges.

“Let’s try to steer Jack away from this for now,” I said. “In fact, let’s head back.” Petya nodded, and we left the church, Petya glancing over her shoulder at the well.

When we arrived back at the clearing, Jack was missing. Annie was furious, eyes rubbed red and raw, upbraiding Charlie and Shane. “That’s rule number one, Shane! ‘Stick with your buddy.’ You guys act like I’m just eye candy, treat me like I’m Jack’s Barbie doll who can’t do anything, but I’ve been on more crawls than either of you two in the last year! Where were you, Shane? What were you doing?”

Shane stared at the ground, scuffing the dirt floor of the tunnel with his work boots. “We … were just..”

“We were making out,” Charlie said. “It happens.”

Annie whirled on Charlie. “Oh for Christ’s sake, Charlie! Couldn’t you have kept it in your pants for an hour? You both have jobs to do!”

“The same goes for you, Annie. Where were you? What were you doing? You’ve been stuck up Jack’s ass all night, so we figured he’d be fine,” Charlie said. In the glow of the flashlights, Charlie glanced at Petya and I, and blushed. “Look, this isn’t helping. We need to find Jack. He couldn’t have gotten far. He’s probably down the tunnel, taking pictures. You know how he gets when he’s found a good subject.”

We spread out. Annie ran to the entrance, but saw no sign of Jack. I checked a few of the wooden structures, but found nothing. When we reached the end of the Side Tunnel, in front of the church, Charlie wanted to check inside. “Petya and I just came from inside there,” I said. I glanced at Petya, who shook her head. She knew as well as I that the revelation of the three mummified corpses in the church would send the rest of the crew into a panic. “If you want, I’ll run in and check. Go look in these other buildings. I’ll be right back.”

Charlie rounded up the others and walked down the tunnel to the right, calling Jack’s name as they went. I turned, and walked back into the church. As I followed the tunnel’s turns, I noticed light shining from the well room. Dreading what I would find, I walked into the small room, and found it as Petya and I had left it: empty, save for the three mummified bodies clustered around the well. And Jack’s large spotlight, positioned at the top of the well.

“Well, shit,” Shane said, in that peculiarly Southern way that splits a single-syllable word into seven or more syllables. He peered into the well, but his flashlight was unable to pierce the gloom at the bottom.

“Looks like Jack is exploring without us,” I said. “We should probably go down after him.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, man,” Charlie said. He was visibly shaken. The whole group was. The three headless, mummified corpses squatting near the well did not help ease the tension in the room, and the group was decidedly angry at Petya and I for not mentioning them.

“You’re going in there after him, Charlie,” Annie said. “You owe it to him. And if you’re too pussy to go in, I’ll go.”

“We all go,” Petya said. “I have seen the scary movies. We don’t split up. Splitting up is when monsters get us.” She shoved Shane out of the way, adjusted her headlamp, and began the descent. Annie followed, then Shane, and then Charlie. I climbed down the well shaft after the others, leaving that strange church in near darkness, illuminated only by the cold green glow of a few long-duration chem-lights left at the top of the well. I have been lost in the dark before, and a little extra light can make all the difference.

The tunnel at the bottom of the well smelled like blood. The others noticed it, and Charlie began some tentative explanation about the amount of iron ore in the walls, but then trailed off. They could sense the wrongness of this place. Under the pervasive smell of rust and blood, there was another, fouler stink. It was not so much a scent, but the memory of a scent, a recollection of the odor of something horrible that once passed this way and might yet come again.

When we reached the first intersection, Charlie asked us to stop. He fished in his backpack and pulled out a can of highly-reflective spraypaint.

“Charlie,” Shane said. Urbexers don’t leave traces. Worst case, they use chalk, because it washes away with water. They don’t spraypaint anything.

“Fuck this place, man.” Charlie popped the top, shook the can, and sprayed a large arrow on the tunnel wall, pointing back to the well. “Fuck it in the ear.”

Petya startled us all with her cackled laughter. “In ear. Good one, Charlie!” That set the rest of the group off, and for a time, eased the growing fear. We turned to the right and followed the new tunnel, periodically calling for Jack. The tunnel forked, split, and forked again.

“There’s miles of tunnels down here,” Shane said. “How are we gonna find Jack in all of this? He’s not leaving any markers, and the floor’s too hard to see his footprints.”

“We’ll find him,” Charlie said. “These tunnels have to go somewhere. What I’d like to know is why they’re here. At first I thought this was a coal mine, but there’s no bracing like I expected. So I thought maybe it was a saltpeter mine. That would explain the lack of bracing, and the crazy tunnels, but I haven’t seen niter on any of these walls. None of this makes any sense.”

Annie, who had been quiet for a while, stopped. “Guys, I saw someone up ahead! Jack!” She yelled, and ran forward. We followed, running in a stooped half-run so as not to hit our heads on the low tunnel ceilings. Annie called for Jack as she ran, gradually outdistancing us with her frantic pace. Up ahead, in the gloom, we saw her pause, turn her head to the left, then lunge down a tunnel branch.

“Annie, slow down!” Shane yelled. Even though the air was cool in the tunnels, sweat beaded his face. We heard a thin shriek, and then sobs. “Annie!” Shane yelled again.

We found Annie sitting on the floor of a room, the first of its size that we had encountered. The floor was hard-packed earthed, like the rest of the tunnels, but there were a few old wooden boards scattered around. Her pack was open in front of her, and she was muttering a quiet stream of obscenities. She had removed a boot and was wrapping her foot in gauze from a first-aid kit. “Sorry, guys. I tripped over a damn board. I guess I was going too fast, and didn’t watch where I was going.” Shane and Charlie hurried over to her, clucking like upset hens. Charlie pronounced Annie’s ankle sprained.

“I guess we should take a rest break,” Shane said. “What time is it?”

“About three in the morning,” Charlie said, looking at his watch. “It feels like we’ve been down here for hours.”

“We should go back,” Petya said.

Annie shook her head firmly. “No. I’m not leaving without Jack.”

“Look, Annie, I know you thought you saw him …” Shane said.

“But we don’t even know if he’s down here,” Charlie said.

“Yes he is! We saw his spotlight at the top of the well!” Annie said.

“I know, but that’s just it,” Charlie said, taking a bite of a protein bar. “Jack’s a pro. He wouldn’t come down here without us. I’ve been thinking, what if we have it wrong? What if he left the spotlight behind while he went to find us, and we somehow missed him?”

“Oh my god,” Annie said. “I bet he’s terrified. Someone needs to go back, and leave a note or something!” As she tried to climb to her feet, her ankle turned, and Shane and Charlie both caught her.

“You’re definitely done exploring,” Shane said. “Okay, I’ll take Annie back to the van. We’ll leave notes for Jack along the way. And Charlie,” Shane looked down. “I think it’s time to call the cops.”

Charlie blew out a compressed breath. “Jack’s gonna be pissed.”

“Yeah, he will, but he shouldn’ta run off like this. And there’s bodies down here. And we have an injury. You wanna keep goin’ on these field trips, we better play by the rules.”

“Give us three more hours, Shane,” I said. “If we can’t find Jack by dawn, no problem. We’ll pack up and head to the entrance, and we’ll call the cops. But I think we’ll find him before then.”

“And call Roberto,” Charlie said. Shane tightened his jaw. Roberto was Shane’s ex, and they’d had a bad breakup, but Roberto was a long-term detective on the city’s police force, and could smooth things over for the group. “I know you’re still pissed at him, but we need his help.”

Shane helped Annie up, and she leaned on him as they staggered out of the room. I could tell from the set of Shane’s jaw that he was pissed, but I knew Annie would make him call the cops. So. I had three hours. Maybe less. I hoped it would be enough time. I knew I might be able to break back into the Side Tunnel in another month or so, but my guess was that the site was about to become very popular with a lot of different people. I clenched my fists. I was very close, closer than I had really ever been. I was not about to let the opportunity slip away.

I stood up, dusted off my jeans, and gathered the few items I had pulled from my pack. “Time to go find Jack. There’s a lot of branching tunnels down here, so remember to mark them, Charlie. I think we missed a few when we were running after Annie.” I turned to Petya. “You’re the best mapper we have. Do you have any idea of where we are?”

“Yep,” Petya said, “We are about half kilometer from the well, in pretty much straight line from there. Plenty of places for Jack to be. I say we do maze-logic, pick right-hand wall and follow it until it ends or loops back. We go for ninety minutes. If no Jack, we head back to well.”

“Surely we’ll find him before then,” Charlie said. “It’s after three in the morning. He has to be tired. There couldn’t possibly be anything that interesting –”

Charlie stopped. Turned his head. Then I heard the screams.

Mentally, I was prepared for this. I knew that I had made a conscious decision to lead these kids into a trap, and to use them as bait. I rationalized that by putting a few people at risk, I would be ultimately protecting many more. I knew that was just rationalization. In truth, I didn’t feel guilty about putting my friends in danger. I felt guilty about not caring about them at all, when endangering them put me closer to my goal.

“Annie!” Charlie yelled. We ran out of the room and down a tunnel towards the sound of her voice. I saw her first, lurching against the tunnel wall, dragging her injured foot, eyes deep-socketed and huge in the bleached white mask of her face. Her shirt was splattered with a spray of blood.

“Shane,” she said. “It got Shane.”

“What got Shane?” Petya asked.

“I … don’t know. We were close to the well. Shane kept saying he heard something walking behind us, but when we looked, there was nothing there. So we kept walking. And then, there was something there. And it took him.” Her face crumpled in grief. “It just pulled him right out of my hands. I don’t.. I don’t know if he knew what happened. His face… He just looked so confused..”

Petya took Annie’s hand, and Annie clung to her, sobbing. I knelt with my pack on the tunnel floor, and rummaged through it. When Charlie saw the gun, he stepped back a pace.

“Jesus. Fuck. What the hell is that thing?”

“It’s a shotgun revolver. Six chambers, all loaded. If you have to use it, be really careful. It’s got no safety to speak of.” The gun scared the shit out of me. It was huge, making Dirty Harry’s Magnum look like a squirt gun. It was heavy and unwieldy, and hurt like a bastard to fire, but it was shorter than a shotgun and took shot shells. Which was useful, as I had hand-loaded every shell. I had no idea what might kill, or even hurt, the thing I hunted, but I had my hopes. Buckshot mixed with either rock salt, silver shot, gold shot, mercury, garlic, or finally, Communion wafers and holy water. If that didn’t work, I had some hollow-point solid rounds that I could use on myself, if it came to it. I pulled out two long hunting knives that I had hand-silvered.

“Why would I have to use it?” Charlie asked, pushing his glasses up and blinking rapidly.

“In case the thing down here with us gets me before it gets you.” I handed the two knives to Charlie and Petya. “Careful with those, too. They’re sharp. I electroplated them myself.”

“Will they work?” Petya asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “I picked most of this stuff up by watching Supernatural reruns. I’m making the rest up as I go along.”

“We are so fucked,” Petya said, and shook her head.

“I think they’ll work. Worst case, it’ll drive the thing off for long enough that we can get away.”

Annie, who had been very quiet, looked up at me. “You knew.” She lunged forward, and punched me hard in the side of my face. I fell back, and cracked my head on the tunnel wall. “You knew! You knew something was down here, you bastard. You led us all down here as –”

“Bait,” Petya said, and sighed. She stood up from her near crouch, and eyed me with contempt.

I got up, rubbing my throbbing head. “Look, I’ve been hunting this thing for a long time. It’s killed people, and … and it’s my fault. I let it out, so it’s my responsibility to take it down.”

“And you’re the one with the gun,” Charlie said.

“Right. I’m the best chance any of you have of living through this. And I think that if there’s anyone with a chance of hurting this thing, it’s me.” I stood and put the gun into a holster, and put two moon clips each into my jacket pockets. I shouldered my pack. “Let’s go. Annie, take us back to where it got Shane. Everyone stay behind me.” I pulled out the gun again, and we started walking back down the tunnel toward the well.

The trek back was far worse. Charlie’s markers glittered like cats’ eyes in the distant gloom, and we all kept seeing shadows at the corners of our vision. Twice I nearly wasted ammo on a slight imperfection in the tunnel wall. The weight and bulk of the shotgun pistol made it extremely uncomfortable to carry for any length of time, so I eventually settled for keeping it in the holster, pulling it out any time I thought I saw something.

We could see the handholds of the well when we reached the area where Shane was taken. There was a great deal of blood splashed on the wall, and more trailed off down a tunnel that forked off from the main one. “There’s the well,” I said. “You three take the knives, climb up and get out of here. Call for help. I’m going after the thing that got Shane.”

“I’m not leaving without Jack,” Petya said. She looked at Annie, then looked away. I remembered the way Petya looked at Jack, when she thought nobody was looking at her. Fair enough.

“I think we all know Jack’s not … Jack didn’t make it,” Charlie said, wiping his eyes. “But I’m not going without Shane. Or at least finding out what happened to him.” He turned away, weeping silently.

“We’re coming with you,” Annie said. “I’m not leaving without Jack either … or at least without knowing what happened to him. And like Petya said, we don’t split up. You saw what happened to me and Shane when we went off on our own.”

I looked at all of the blood on the ground. “Nobody knows we’re down here. They might find the van, but they won’t find the entrance to the Side Tunnel. I’ve been in this type of situation before. Things change when the cops show up. There will be a cave-in, or a flood, or the cops will walk all down the length of the Waterworks Tunnel and they simply won’t see the hole we made, because they can’t. Or because they really don’t want to. If you follow me … I am probably not going to survive this. So you won’t either.”

Annie took a step closer to me, and shook a fist in my face. “You can get off your white knight hero horse now, asshole.” She grabbed my collar and began to punctuate her sentences by shaking my head. “Find. My. Boyfriend. NOW.”

I stepped back against the wall, and pushed her away. “Fine. So be it.”

We followed the spatters and smears of blood down a long tunnel that snaked and twisted and sloped downward, gently at first, then more steeply. My scars had been itching faintly since I climbed down the well, but the itching had increased to a shrill, insistent whine against the nerve-endings of my skin. I could feel the looping scrawl of each scar, so faint as to be invisible in daylight, etched into my face as if held in place by a net of white hot wires.

The air in the tunnel began to thicken with moisture, the walls shining wetly in the reflected beams of our lights. I stopped, holding up a hand to warn the others. “I see light from up ahead,” I whispered. Somewhere down the tunnel, a pale golden light flickered. I pulled the revolver from its holster, cursing its weight for the hundredth time. We continued down the corridor, cautiously and slowly, partly due to fear, and partly due to the floor, which was very steep and slick with moisture.

The tunnel ended abruptly at a thin ledge that bordered a space, wide and open and chaotic with shapes. At first I could not make sense of what I saw, the lines and forms overlapping and merging, like looking skyward at the moon through an ancient tree. We all stood on that ledge for a moment, gasping, maybe making some small sounds, as our minds fought to process that view. Gradually my eyes traced the subtle lines and edges of structures, clustered against the walls in claustrophobic clots and knots like a type of architectural tumor. The walls of the cavern receded out and away, plunging down into mist-shrouded depths, fading from my view. The structures were lit from indeterminate light sources, limned in a dim gold light that did more to cast shadow than to reveal. As I stared, I began to notice the crumbled ledges, the blank and open entryways, the empty areas on distant walls where whole sections of the buildings had sloughed off and fallen into the pit far below. I noticed the stillness, the silence of the place.

“It’s a city,” Charlie said.

“A dead city,” I said.

“How can it be a city?” Annie asked. “There’s no streets. Those doors open out onto thin air. That makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense, if you have wings,” I said. I gestured at a brighter area down the ledge to our right. “That’s where we’re going.” The ledge was smooth, its surface glassy but not slick. It seemed to emit a faint gold light that was only visible from the corner of my vision. We crept down the ledge for a few hundred yards, reaching a wide platform. Against one low wall was a large seat of sorts, and in front of that seat was a long, rounded metallic table. Shane’s corpse glistened wetly on the table, chest cracked open, ribs splayed wide like two open, skeletal hands. The top of his skull had been removed, and a mass of black tubes snaked from the opening down to the table.

“Nooo!” Charlie wailed, and ran to the table.

“Charlie, don’t!” I yelled.

Charlie reached the table, and stopped. He reached out an arm, and gently touched Shane’s bloody face. Shane’s eyes snapped open. I could see his lungs flutter in the raw cavity of his chest. His mouth worked silently, lips pulled back in a rictus grin, tongue thrusting against his teeth. His body began to twitch and spasm, then the black tubes penetrating his skull writhed and pulled taut, and the spasms ceased. Shane’s eyes rolled up in his sockets, and his eyelids closed, almost peacefully.

Charlie whirled to face me, face contorted with rage and grief, silvered hunting knife held in a murderous grip in his hand. “What did this? What the fuck did this to him?”

As if in answer, the thing hit him so fast it was a blur. Charlie let out a brief scream as he was hooked high up into the air, then screamed again, in rage. I saw Charlie plunge the knife deep into the thing’s abdomen, pull it out, and plunge it in again. The thing let out an ear-splitting shriek, and let Charlie go. Annie, Petya and I watched as Charlie fell, tumbling over and over, into the depths. The thing crashed to the floor, and skidded to a stop against the cavern wall.

“Shoot it!” Annie yelled. “Kill it now!”

The creature stood as I raised the gun with two shaking hands. The thing was huge, standing over twelve feet high. It took a staggering step forward on curiously back-bent legs, then another. It shuddered, and I could see a milky, iridescent fluid seeping out of a wound on its belly. Its head snapped up and forward, and its eyes — there were so many — focused on me. I felt a disorienting tilt in my perspective, as if I were seeing myself, and the room, and Petya, and Annie, and the creature, all at once. I felt a curiously mechanical ticking, and felt that the size of the thing was a mistake. It was much, much larger than it appeared. The creature spread its wings, two or four or six, feathered and broad and black and leathery, tipped with hooks and talons, and flapped them once. Its scent billowed over us all, the scent we smelled in the tunnels, acrid and dry like oranges rotting in the desert sun. It came closer to us, and I felt it outside my mind, a pressure that was immense and cold and horribly, inhumanly logical. I waited, even though I could still hear Annie and Petya screaming behind me, screaming for me to shoot the thing. My scars were now twisting and rippling on my skin, white hot and reaching a point so far beyond pain that I could not name it. I focused on that sensation, and steadied my aim.

The gunshot thundered deafeningly loud in the silence of the dead city. The shotgun revolver kicked viciously in my fist, and I nearly dropped it. The creature had closed nearly half the distance between us. It stopped, and some of its eyes seemed to blink. One of its wings seemed to droop, and I saw that my first round of rock salt and buckshot had punched a small ragged hole through its leathery membrane. I braced and fired again. The creature recoiled with a scream, as the silver shot ripped open a jagged swath across its chest. I fired again, and was rewarded with another scream. It was so close that its stink was suffocating. I fired again and again, the thing reaching out for me with so many arms, its wings fluttering so fast they were a blur. Then it had me.

Two of its arms clutched me around the waist, and pulled me up and close. Two more arms reached up with taloned hands, black and scaly, crusted with impossible jewelry, and clasped both sides of my face. It turned my head from side to side, almost gently, and then looked deeply into my eyes. Of the many things I saw in those huge golden orbs, with their rings within whirling and spinning rings, the worst was recognition. The pressure outside my mind intensified, and I felt a snap, like a greenstick fracture from a short, sharp fall, and it came flooding through. It spoke to me then, not in words, but in a purer, an older, style of communication. It thanked me for bringing it more meals, and thanked me even more for bringing it information about the world from which it had been away for so very long. It promised that I was its favorite, and I would be rewarded in some incomprehensible, impossible way. I felt a deep and loathsome love welling up in me for the thing, as a dog would unconditionally love its master. Then the creature screamed, shrieking in real pain, and it was gone from my mind. I felt it recede like a tide, and missed that presence, hating myself for feeling so. I fell to the ground in a heap as the creature stepped back, arms raised to its head.

Petya had leaped upon the creature’s back, and was stabbing her long, silvered knife deep into the creature’s eyes. The thing scrabbled its many taloned hands at her, leaving deep scratches on her arms, but she dodged and kept plunging the knife into the thing’s eyes. Finally, with a deep, guttural bellow, she slammed the knife with both fists deep into the center of the creature’s skull. The wings stopped fluttering, and the thing toppled forward to the floor.

Petya untangled herself from the thing’s bulk, and half-stumbled to where I was sitting. Her face was ashen, and she held one arm with the other, blood oozing from long scratches on both. Annie shook herself and ran to Petya, dropped her backpack and pulled out the first aid kit. Neither of them looked at Shane. Once Annie had bound the worst of Petya’s wounds, Petya stood up and walked over to the still form of the fallen creature. She kicked it, savagely, once in the head. She stooped to remove the knife.

“Leave it,” I said. She turned to look at me. “I think it’s better off where it is.”

“It’s dead. I killed it,” she said.

“For now. But it might not be later. And that knife might postpone later for long enough. It’s time to go.”

Annie gestured at Shane’s body. “What about him? We can’t leave him here.”

“I know we can’t,” I said, “But none of us have the strength to carry him out, and we don’t know if that thing is going to wake back up. Or if there’s more of them.” That seemed to motivate Annie and Petya. Annie packed up her first aid kit, and we left the dead city by way of the tunnel from which we entered. I thought I saw the dim golden light growing fainter as we left, and that made me feel a slight bit of hope.

The walk back to the well was long, far longer than I remembered. The lower tunnel floors were sloped upwards, and slick. Annie and I both fell at least twice, which did nothing to improve my headache or Annie’s sprained ankle. Petya had lost a shoe in the fight, and had kicked off the other one before leaving the cavern. I thought about that shoe a lot while walking out of those tunnels. I wondered what some future explorer would think upon discovering that platform in a dead city of angels, and on that platform, the creature’s corpse, and a single shoe.

When we reached the well, I realized something had changed. I could see light at the top, much brighter than the few chem-lights I’d left behind. Annie saw the light and began to shout for help. A familiar voice sounded down the well from the top, and a silhouette of a head blocked the light. “Annie! What are you doing down there?” Jack yelled.

After much hugging and crying and kissing and a fair amount of punching, we got out of the well, and back to the entrance of the Side Tunnel. Petya was unable to climb, due to her injured arm. Jack and I helped get her out of the well using a Swiss seat he fashioned out of rappelling rope. Annie was able to climb out of the well on her own, putting minimal weight on her injured foot.

According to Jack, he left his spotlight at the edge of the well as a light source for some incredibly amazing photographs. Midway through, the ‘cheap’ Zeiss lens somehow fell off of his camera, and shattered on the stone floor. In a panic, he ran to the tunnel entrance to find a replacement, only to realize he had left his case of spares back at the van. Thinking he wouldn’t be long, he ducked out into the Waterworks Tunnel and ran back to the van.

“Yeah man,” Jack said, “This was totally stupid, guys. It was dark, and I was in a hurry to get back. So like, I got my spare case, and shut the back doors, and locked the van, and like, ran around the side of the van. You know those big mirrors on that thing? That stick out like three feet on either side? Yeah I clocked myself bigtime on one. I think I tore it off the mount. Anyway that like, knocked me totally unconscious. I woke up maybe half an hour ago with a killer headache, my face was all bloody, and it was light outside, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I got my shit together and came back down here, but couldn’t find you guys. It’s spooky as shit down here when you’re alone. I was about to freak out until I heard some noises coming from the well, and then I was really gonna freak out.” He paused to take a breath, and a sip of water from a bottle. “Man, Shane’s gonna be pissed when he sees what I did to the van. Hey, where is Shane? And where’s Charlie?”

Jack wanted to go back immediately. Neither Annie or Petya would allow it. He swore he was going to get a group of people together to find Shane and Charlie, or at least their bodies. He said he would call in every favor he was owed, do whatever it took. His first call would be to Shane’s brothers, both of whom were even larger than Shane, and both of whom owned enough firepower to take over a small country. I agreed, and promised to help, but I was already planning to slip away as soon as I could. Jack’s search party might find the Side Tunnel, but the entrance would be collapsed. Or the tunnel would be there, and even the buildings inside, but the the well would be full of dirt, or simply missing. No amount of drilling, or explosives, or ground-penetrating radar would ever uncover that dead city.

Annie and Petya both hugged me, to my surprise, as we stood in the parking lot across from Jack’s apartment. I shook Jack’s hand, and promised to call him after I got some rest. I put my gear into the trunk of my old, battered blue Toyota Corolla. As I was driving away, Annie embraced Jack again. His eyes caught mine, over her shoulder. Then one lid drooped, in a slow, lurid wink. And in that moment, in the late morning light, the other eye flashed gold, like gold rings spinning inside gold rings. Then it was gone. It could have just been a trick of the light.

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Delivery

I saw him for the first time in the freezer. It was late on a Friday night, really Saturday morning, and I was moving food to the cooler for the morning crew. I pulled a box from the shelf and turned, and there, right there by the door, he was standing. A dark shape — no, a dim shape, fuzzy in those few seconds of vision, my eyes not quite certain if they were focusing on the freezer door or this thing in front of it. Pale arms outstretched and raised towards me. Hollow eyes black against a pallid face, and a mouth that opened as if to speak. I heard the click and slide of tongue on teeth, underneath the low wheeze of the freezer fan. And he was gone.

I stood staring at the door for a moment, heavy box of frozen food in my hands. I wasn’t sure what I had seen, or if I had seen anything. My heart rate was up, and I was sweating lightly, even in the chill. I blinked a few times, and looked around, even though I knew the freezer was too small to contain another person. I pushed open the door, and looked outside. Nothing. I cautiously opened the cooler door. Still nothing. I put the frozen box inside, and shut the door.

I had been working at a chain pizza place for a year or so. I had a car, a valid license, and a good memory for roads, and I was always available to work, so the manager soon let me pick my own shifts. I would usually work open to close on the weekends. I made great money, but had no social life. There was not a lot of people willing to hang out after two in the morning, so my friend circle diminished to include only the manager of the pizza shack and a few other drivers and cooks who worked the late weekend shifts.

I woke up thinking about him the next morning, thinking about those black eyes. I shook off the thought, showered, and went to work. The days passed quickly, and as memories of circumstances that don’t fit in with normal experience often do, the memory faded.

A few weeks later, we were in Saturday night rush, doing two hundred pies an hour, my car packed with pizzas destined for games and parties. It slowed down by about nine, so I started cleaning the front. The phone rang at about nine fifteen, and I answered it. “Donkeynose Pizza, will this be for delivery or carryout?”

“Delivery.” Great. A kid.

“What’s your address and telephone number?”

“217 Maple Street. 593-3309.”

“And your order?”

“I want a large pizza with pepperoni and onions.”

“Ok, that’ll be $10.50. It’ll be out in half an hour.”

I hung up the phone, and turned to Susan, the manager. “The Maple Street Kid again.”

“Do you want me to make the pizza?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I like pepperoni and onions.” Susan laughed. “Really, go ahead and make it. I’m gonna deliver it this time, because you know he’s just going to call until we yell at him or until I drive out there.”

The Maple Street Kid was one of a few regular pranksters that we dealt with. He was fairly consistent, always ordering a large pizza of some sort, and always ordering it to the same address, 217 Maple Street. The problem was, there was no 217 Maple Street. It was a short-block street, amongst a forest of other tree-named streets, close to the downtown section of our small town. The house numbers started on the right-hand side at 201, then 211, then jumped to 221, and ended at 231. There was nothing between 211 and 221 save for 211′s driveway. I knew that because every newby delivery driver got sent out to 217 at the first opportunity. The owners of 211 and 221 (and 220, across the street) were quite used to lost delivery drivers tromping through their back yards, pizza hotbag in hand, looking for 217.

Our theory was that the Kid lived in one of the houses on or near Maple Street, and would peek out his window to watch the victims of his prank. All of the delivery drivers had tried desperately to catch a glimpse of a twitching curtain or hear a kid laughing behind some shrubbery, but as far as I knew, nobody had ever caught him.

Fifteen minutes after the call, I was on the road, pizza in the hotbag, new KMFDM cassette blaring from the tape player, windows rolled down to let in the moist summer night air. I crossed the train tracks, and turned onto Maple Street. Heat lightning flashed in the distance, dim and purple, with a low rumble that could have been thunder, or a train, or a distant jet. I slowed down to a crawl at the beginning of Maple Street, looking at each window for the pale peeking face of the Kid. I passed 201, then 211, and slammed on my brakes.

There, just past 211, was 217 Maple Street.

I stared for a moment. Bad industrial music blasted out of the tinny second-hand speakers I’d installed into the doors of my ’81 Datsun, echoing hollowly off the sides of the houses along Maple Street. 211 Maple Street looked the same, a 1950s brick bungalow with a gravel driveway on the side. 221 Maple Street also matched memory, another 50s bungalow, with ugly green shutters and terrible lawn art. Between the two, where there should have been nothing asides from a narrow old fence, stood a narrow white farmhouse. It looked bland and boring, with black shutters, a green tin roof, and a porch swing. Painted on the curb, and in matching numbers on a support column, were the numbers ’217′. The porch light was on.

I jerked the parking brake and got out of my car, carrying the pizza with me. I wasn’t terribly concerned for my own safety; I was wearing heavy steel-toed Doc Martens and packing a 9mm in my belt pouch (totally against Donkeynose Pizza’s regs, of course, but after a coworker got jumped in Oakhurst Estates I was taking no chances). I stomped my big clunky boots down the short concrete walkway, and up the steps. Rang the bell. Heard footsteps on hardwood floors, and the dry clicking of fingers against a chain lock.

The door swung open, and a kid stepped out into the porchlight. I flipped open the hotbag, and pulled out the pizza. “That’ll be $10.50,” I said. He thrust a wad of bills at me. I took them, counted thirteen dollars. Made as if to hand him back two dollars.

“No, keep it. Thanks,” the kid said. He took the pizza, turned around and went back inside, pulling the door shut. I heard the bolt click and the scrabbling sound of the chain lock.

I clomped back to my car, and looked back at the house. It was still there. The porch light flicked off. I put the car in gear, and drove to the end of the road. Sighed. Turned around, and drove back to 217. It was still there, porchlight off, old white paint green in the glow of the streetlights. I sighed again, and drove back to the store.

“You’re shitting me,” Susan said, as she cleaned the counter with a cloth. Susan was about forty, stocky, and married to her job. Everyone thought she was a lesbian until that vampire movie came out, the one with Brad Pitt, then all she would do was talk about how hot Brad Pitt was, and the various things she would do to him if she ever got him alone. It was not the best mental picture, and we ‘assisted’ her by plastering her office with little Brad heads.

“I swear to God I’m not!” I said. “Seriously, I really wanted that pizza! Now I’m hungry!” I washed my hands and began making my own pizza.

“So you actually delivered a pizza to 217 Maple Street. A house that doesn’t exist, and hasn’t ever existed. I’ve driven out there a dozen times trying to catch that little fucker, and I know damn good and well that there’s no 217. The numbers skip right over it. Every street has skipped numbers — there’s a lot more numbers than houses in this town,” Susan said. She was clearly expecting some elaborate prank on my part, like the time when someone put the condom over her tailpipe, or the the time when someone plastic-wrapped her truck. If she didn’t see it, I didn’t do it.

“Fine, I’ll watch the store and you go look for yourself,” I said.

“No, I’m not going anywhere. For one, I can’t leave the store. For two, I’m sure you’re lying, and you’re waiting for me to leave so you can do something horrible to my office, or something.”

“Let’s go over there after we close. I’ll drive. I’ll bet you ten bucks it’s there,” I said. That seemed to appease her.

“Okay, what did The Kid look like?” she asked.

“That’s funny, I didn’t really think about it. He looked normal. A little fat. He was wearing a striped shirt. Dark hair,” I said. “He looked like a normal kid. The house looked normal too.” It wasn’t until later, washing dishes in the back, that I realized why The Kid had looked so normal, so familiar to me. I had seen him before, in our freezer.

We got busy again, as usual, around 11 P.M. I took quite a few runs, some all the way out to Red Apple, and didn’t get back to the store until nearly 1:30 A.M. Susan sent the other driver home, and all I had left was to wash a few dishes and wait for her to finish her count the register totals. I was arm-deep in soapy water, scouring a stubborn pan, when I heard something SLAM! behind me. I spun around, only to see Susan standing there, grinning.

“Time to lose ten bucks, kiddo,” she said. “You’re opening tomorrow, so leave that pan for the morning. Let’s go!”

We left in Susan’s truck. She had a thing about riding with her drivers, saying that she “knew how we drove.” The truck bounced across the railroad tracks, then lurched onto Maple Street. The wind had picked up, and the first fat drops of rain began to splat against the truck’s windows. The heat lightning I had seen earlier was turning into a full summer storm. Susan stopped the truck in the middle of the street.

“No. Fucking. Way.”

Lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the plain pallid face of 217 Maple Street. Susan’s mouth hung open. A hand stole up to pull at one of the curls of her hair, mousy-brown going prematurely grey. She did this when she was stressed, or worried. “This isn’t possible.”

She turned to me. “Mark, I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I know it like the back of my hand. Give me any address in our delivery area, any one, and I can tell you the color of the shutters, what they normally order, and if they tip. This house can’t be here. There’s no goddamn 217 Maple Street.”

“Right, now pay up,” I said, sticking my hand out. She swatted it away.

“Later. I have to see this place up close. This is bullshit.” She pulled the truck up to the curb and parked it. She got out of the truck, and began walking down the concrete walkway to the house.

“Susan!” I hissed. “Susan! Stop it! It’s two in the morning. They’re gonna call the cops!” She waved her hand at me, motioning for me to shut up. I got out of the truck as she climbed the stairs of the porch.

“The door is wide open,” Susan said.

“Don’t go in there!” I yelled, as she stepped across the threshold into the house. The door, as I knew it would, as I knew it would for days and weeks and certainly from the moment I saw the house that night, slammed shut behind her.

“Fuck,” I said. I ran up the stairs onto the porch, and tried opening the door. No joy. It was stuck fast, and the knob was so cold it burned. I released it, hissing, cradling my stinging palm. I ran down off the porch, and around the back of the house. The rain was coming down harder, the wind whipping it into stinging missiles against my skin. I hauled open a wooden gate and ran into the back yard. It was pitch black, lit sporadically by the flashes of lightning. I climbed a short wooden staircase to the back door, and hammered on it.

“Susan! Can you hear me? Come back out of there!” I beat the door with my fist, only stopping when a sharp spike of pain made me pull back. I had cracked a small pane of glass in the door. My blood looked black in the dim light. I kicked the door out of frustration, then ran back down the stairs. I shoved the gate open, and skidded to a stop. There, in front of me, was the small dark figure of The Maple Street Kid.

“Why did you come back here?” he asked, walking towards me. “What do you want?” In the green streetlight, his face looked gray, eyes hollow pits and mouth full of blackness. Thunder rumbled, and I heard a thin scream come from inside the house.

“Susan!” I yelled, turning towards the house.

The Kid looked at the house, then back to me, features twisting into anguished horror. “Oh no. Oh no oh no. You let someone go inside?” He plunged his hands into his black hair, wringing and pulling it. “Oh no. You weren’t supposed to be here. You weren’t supposed to come back!” His figure shifted, shimmered in the flashbulb lighting of the storm. “You need to get out of here! You need to run NOW!” With that last shout, his mouth opened hugely, showing nothing inside – no teeth, no tongue, only a blackened pit dark as pitch and yawning wide as the night.

I ran. I ran without a thought in my mind until I stumbled and nearly fell over the railroad tracks. I stood there for a moment, in the sheeting torrents of freezing rain, and then I ran back to Maple Street.

Susan’s truck was gone. I could see where it should have been from the corner, and it was clearly missing. As was 217 Maple Street.

I walked the two miles back to the store, and climbed into my car. I changed out of my sodden uniform into my regular clothes, and dried off with a towel I kept in the car to manually de-fog the windows. I drove back to Maple Street, just in case.

217 was still missing. Between 211 and 221 stood only a weatherbeaten wooden fence. There was no sign of Susan, or her truck. Suddenly, I was immensely tired, and needed to go home.

The cops didn’t question my story very much. I told them we closed the store as usual, and we parted ways. The owner, Brian, was more suspicious. Normally managers made night deposits after they closed, and they had a driver follow them to the bank. Susan hadn’t made hers, and I couldn’t explain why she hadn’t asked me to follow her to the bank that night. Everyone — and Brian, in particular — assumed that Susan had stolen the night deposit and ran. Nobody questioned why someone as dedicated as Susan would do something like that. Nobody questioned where someone would go with a measly five thousand dollars, much less why. Brian took over Susan’s shifts for a while, until he promoted one of the shift leads to her position.

Susan’s family posted a reward for any information about her whereabouts, but nobody came forth. I knew what happened, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I knew that, at best, they would think I was crazy, or on drugs. At worst, the cops would decide it was a homicide, with me as suspect number one.

Besides, I knew where she was. A month after Susan disappeared, on a Saturday night, one of the new kids took an order for delivery. It was 217 Maple Street, for a ham and pineapple pizza. Susan’s favorite.

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The Mug

“Whose mug is this?” Becky asked. 

“No idea,” I replied. “What are you talking about?”

“This mug right here,” she said. I leaned back in my chair and craned my neck to see. 

“I’m trying to watch this show,” I said. “What’s the big deal about a mug?”

“I’ve never seen it before,” Becky said, getting that tone in her voice like I was about to be in trouble.

“So what? You collect cups and mugs like most people … er, don’t,” I said. If I was going to be in trouble, I might as well go for broke.

“Well, look at it. It’s weird. And I’ve never seen it before.”

Becky shoved the mug at me, as if the mug was some particularly grievous offense for which I was to blame. The mug was tall, for a mug, made of a cracked and glazed ceramic that had yellowed with age. It looked like any of a dozen that we had in our over-stuffed cabinets, received as white-elephant Christmas gifts, on sale at Tuesday Morning, or otherwise somehow ending up being filled with coffee or tea or hot chocolate. 

“It’s a mug. I fail to recognize its relevance to the TV show that it is currently interrupting,” I said. 

Becky made a clicking sound with her tongue, and the I-Want crease between her eyebrows deepened. I was treading on thin ice. “Look at the painting on the side, jerk.”

I sighed and put on my reading glasses. The scene on the side of the mug was a Norman Rockwell-style winter scene with capering animals and laughing children. “It’s a Christmas mug,” I said, and took my glasses off.

“That’s not Christmas,” Becky said, hands on her hips. “I know Christmas, and that’s not it. Look closer, right there in the middle.” She pointed at the central figure in the painting. I put my glasses on again, and looked. The middle of the painting showed what appeared to be a winged man standing in front of an oval pool of water, attended to by several smaller figures wearing red cloaks. This scene was bordered with elaborately decorated Christmas trees, garlanded and ornamented. A laughing child was standing by each tree. I then saw that what I had mistaken for animals were in fact elves or fairies, playing amongst running children. 

“Ok, you’re right. That’s pretty weird. It’s still a Christmas mug. Those are Christmas trees, and that’s an Angel. The Christmas Angel,” I said. 

“Let me see it,” Becky said. She had found a magnifying glass from somewhere. She peered into the magnifying glass at the mug. “I don’t think those children are having a good time,” she said. “Look here, at this tree. I thought this kid was wearing a belt, or funny clothes, but it looks like it goes around the trunk of the tree. Like the kid is tied to the tree.”

“You’re pranking me. You got this off the Internet, didn’t you?”

Becky, holding the mug, opened her mouth to say something. Closed it. Put the mug down on the table. “No, Richard. I swear to you, I have never seen that thing in my life. It’s not a joke.” She turned and walked away, towards our bedroom, with the tight, clenched movements that loudly indicated that she was no longer speaking to me.

I picked up the mug from the table, and looked at it. She was right, it was pretty creepy. The little animal-elf creatures’ painted eyes were narrow in a way that suggested slyness, or malice, and the children’s expressions of laughter and glee could just as easily have been grimaces of fear and shrieks of pain. I shuddered, and realized I had been staring at the mug for several minutes. I stepped on the pedal of the waste bin, and dropped the mug into the trash with a satisfying clunk. “And that’s that,” I said, and went to my bedroom, hoping to grovel my way back into my wife’s good graces.

The mug was back in the cabinet the next morning. “Did you fish this out of the trash?” I asked, as Becky stirred her eggs. 

“What?” she asked.

“That damned mug from last night.”

“No, I didn’t know you threw it away. Maybe one of the kids found it.”

I turned to the table, and cocked an eyebrow. The kids were busy eating cereal and fighting amongst themselves. Brent, the oldest, said, “Nope. Not me.” 

Richie, my younger son, said, “Eew! Why would anyone take stuff out of the trash? That’s gross!” 

Hanna, my daughter, began to chant “Gross!” at the top of her four-year-old lungs. Richie decided to copy her, and Brent tried to police them both. 

“Maybe I’m mistaken,” I said. “It’s trash now, so I expect none of you to go rooting through the garbage for it.” I took the mug out of the cabinet, and held it for a moment. The painting on the side seemed different, somehow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different. I stared at the central figure, hands raised as it stood near a dark pool, wings rising high above its head. I heard something then, a whisper, some word whose shape I could not quite discern. Something touched my arm then, and I jumped, defensively jabbing my elbow backwards. I heard a thin shriek from behind me. I turned to see Richie, clutching his nose, blood pouring down his face and shirt. 

“Oh, crap, Richie! Are you ok?” I asked. Richie stood there in shock. “I swear I had no idea you were back there, honey. Let me take a look at it.” 

Becky declared nothing was broken, but allowed Richie to skip school for the day, much to Brent’s dismay. Richie over-acted his injury, insisting that his mother bandage his head to the point that he looked like a mummy from an old movie. Hanna found this to be amazingly funny, and took every opportunity to try to insert tiny dolls into the bandages. 

Our house is several miles from town, nestled in a sheltering cove. The property is relatively large, and mostly covered in pine and spruce. Becky and I chose the location for its remoteness and privacy, but we knew the kids missed not having any neighboring children for playmates, and in ten years we have had a total of two trick-or-treaters. 

On the drive to work, I kept thinking about that damned mug. The large, straight trunks of age-old pine trees flickered past as I made my way down the dirt county road that we think of as our driveway, because ours was the only residence along it. I found myself going over details from the painting on the side, and in particular the  little creatures with their red capes and hats and their sly expressions.  In the flickers of dawn light streaming between the darkened pine trunks along the road, I imagined I could see red cloaks slipping behind trees just before I looked at them, and that I could hear them laughing and cavorting just on the other side of that tangle of undergrowth. I shook my head, and laughed to myself. Definitely trying to freak myself out. 

I am a manager at a construction company that specializes in building houses in the Rockies. I say building, but we mostly prefab the houses at one of our two plants, load the pieces onto trucks, and assemble them at the house site. In most areas of the country, prefab houses are either looked down on as cheap, or are far more expensive than site-built houses. In the mountains, however, there is not a lot of room to move, and there is a severe shortage of construction labor. 

It was a Friday in late October, so my work load was light. Snow is always a possibility this time of the year, and that plays havoc with most construction, so most of our projects had wrapped up. The small office was mostly vacant after noon. I walked to the break room to brew a fresh pot of coffee. I flipped on the light switch, and froze. The mug was sitting on the table, right in front of me. I stared at it for a moment, heart pounding. I took a step towards the table, and realized it was just an ordinary white coffee mug. I laughed, and gave myself a mental shake. It did not occur to me to wonder why, moments before, I was completely terrified of an old mug. 

Snow began to fall around three, and had lightly dusted the near-empty parking lot when I left at five. Becky had texted me to pick up milk, bread, cereal, and other staples on my way home, in case the storm became as bad as the weather forecast predicted. By the time I turned onto the long mountain road to our house, it was past six, and full dark. The snow had lessened for an hour or so, but then blew in stronger than before. I have lived in these mountains for years, so my truck was well-equipped for those conditions, with snow tires, fog lights, and an extra light bar on the roof. I was lulled to a false sense of security by the blowing, fluttering snowflakes, when, in a flash of red and shadow, something darted in front of my truck. I felt a sickening thud, and heard a scream. I panic-braked, the truck slewing around on the icy road before skidding to  a stop. 

I shoved open my door, and jumped out onto the roadway, nearly slipping on the ice. “Hello!” I called out. I walked to the front of my truck, nausea creeping up my throat for what I knew could only be a scene from a nightmare. In the harsh glare of the headlamps and fog lights, there was nothing. Snowflakes ticked down onto the unmarred white of the road, and steamed against the headlamps. Frantically, I scrabbled for the large flashlight I keep next to my seat. I fumbled it on, and flashed it around underneath my truck. Nothing. I walked around the truck to the rear. Still nothing. Movement caught my eye, and I turned to look down the road to my right. There, on the snow-covered road, was a pool of blood, nearly black in the dim light. I took a step towards it, and the red pool moved. It moved a second time before I realized the red was a ragged swathe of cloth, wadded and partially frozen into the snow and ice on the road. I kicked at it with my boot, just to be sure, and it rolled limply away at my touch, flapping in the storm’s stiff wind. I let out a breath that I had been holding for hours, passed a shaky hand across my forehead, and walked back to the truck.

I saw them moving amongst the trees the rest of the way home. In my mind, Every time a cloaked figure darted alongside the road, my pulse quickened and my hands clenched the wheel, until I drew close enough to see that the shape was only a bobbing tree limb or swirling snow. I cursed them under my breath anyway, knowing full well my mind was playing tricks on me. 

Becky met me at the front door with a worried look. “You’re over an hour late. What took so long?”

“Deer jumped out in front of me,” I lied. “I thought I hit it, so I got out to look. I didn’t see any damage, so I must have grazed it.”

“Oh… dear,” Becky said, with a serious look upon her face. 

“Ha ha, you should take up a career in comedy.”

Becky burst out laughing, and we went to the kitchen and sat down for dinner. The mood was light, and the children were excited about the snow. “Daddy, the weather man says it’s gonna be a blizzard!” Brent said. I cast an inquiring eye at Becky. 

“That’s what the weather man says. Earliest blizzard in twenty years. Might be a long weekend,” Becky said. 

“Those weather guys can’t predict yesterday’s weather. It’ll blow past tomorrow. You’ll see. By Sunday, we’ll all be outside in our swimming pool, complaining about the heat.”

“We don’t have a swimming pool, Daddy!” Richie said. 

“We don’t?” I asked, with a mock-serious expression on my face. “Did someone steal our swimming pool?” The children laughed. “Someone call the pool police!”

After dinner, the children rinsed their plates, and put them into the dishwasher. Brent pointed at my hands. “I thought you said that was trash, Dad.” I looked down, and realized I had been holding the mug. Rubbing its sides with my fingers. “Yeah, buddy. I need to throw this away. Again. Thanks.” When I reached the trash can, I felt a small rattling vibration from the mug, as if there was something inside it. I shook the mug, and heard the rattle again. I peered into the mug — did it seem deeper now than earlier? — and saw something. I turned the mug, and shook a small white object into my hand. It was a tiny tooth. I looked at the tooth for a moment, then threw both the mug and the tooth into the trash. 

The next morning, Brent was missing. Becky woke me, panicked. We checked the various hiding places within the house, but stopped when we saw the tracks leading through the snow. 

“Maybe he just went out to play in the woods,” I said. 

“He never does that. Not without telling us. And not without his brother,” Becky said. 

“You stay here, in case he comes back. I’ll go after him.” 

I shrugged into my heavy overcoat, and my waterproof boots, feeling the tendrils of a bad headache slip around my brainstem. If anything, the storm had strengthened during the night, and visibility was poor in the woods. Over thirty inches of snow had fallen in the night, and drifts were as high as five feet in some places. If he had fallen into a drift — but I couldn’t think about that. Not with Brent.

The tracks led deeper into a forest landscape made alien by the snow. The forest was alive with the crashing sounds of snow falling from trees, and the cracking of branches unable to bear the additional weight. It sounded, at times, like a low chuckling laughter. I crested a small rise, and saw a splash of red in a low clearing below me. For a moment, I thought it was one of the creatures from the mug. As I drew closer, I saw it was Brent’s red toboggan. 

“Brent!” I called. He moved, turning towards me. He was sitting on a small tree trunk, huddled against the cold. “I hurt my ankle, Daddy,” he said, face upturned to mine, lips purplish. 

“Can you walk on it?” I asked, and he nodded. “Why in the world were you out here? You could have died, son!” I asked, as we slowly hobbled back to the house. 

“They wanted to play, Daddy.”

“Who wanted to play?” I asked, knowing, and dreading, the answer.

“There was a bunch of kids outside this morning. I saw them through my window. They waved at me. They asked me to come out and play, so I did. I followed them out to the woods, but I couldn’t find them. They were just gone!” Brent started to cry. “I’m scared, Daddy. I got all the way out here and twisted my ankle, and when I sat down on that log, I looked around for them. They were there, but there’s no tracks in the snow! How could that happen, Daddy?” 

I stopped, just outside view of the house. “I don’t know. Maybe you were still half-dreaming. Maybe they had on snow shoes. I do know one thing — don’t tell your mom anything about this. Keep it between us. Tell her you just decided to go play in the snow. And don’t go outside any more. Not alone, not with your brother or sister, unless I’m with you.” Brent nodded his understanding. 

Becky expressed her anger with Brent quietly when we arrived at the house. She checked Brent’s ankle, declared it sprained, and sent him straight to his room with a firm grounding — no electronics, no books, sit on the bed and be bored. Brent shuffled meekly upstairs, and Becky glared at me, as if it were my fault. “He said he just went outside to play,” I said. 

“It’s in the middle of a blizzard, Richard. He’s old enough to know better. The weather guy says it’s the worst early fall storm in ten years. I don’t want them going outside at all. It’s too dangerous. You can’t see farther than your fingers out there.” I nodded, but didn’t share my own reasons for agreeing with her. 

The power went out around noon. The lines to our house were buried, but some of the larger lines weren’t, so power outages were an expected part of winter in the mountains. I had bought a nice diesel generator from a liquidation auction a few years ago, and had installed it in a shed behind the house. I keep a week’s worth of diesel fuel in a tank near the shed. The property counts as a farm, and so long as I don’t put the specially-dyed ‘farm’ diesel into my truck (and get caught), I pay about half what I would have to pay at a regular pump. 

The switchover to generator power was manual, but not terribly difficult. After the lights had been off for an hour, Becky and I decided they weren’t coming back on for a while, so I bundled up and trudged through the ever-deepening snow drifts to the shed. The generator coughed into life on the third try, and I winced as my head throbbed in time with the noise. I checked the fuel level, the exhaust vent, and the breaker panel. I turned to walk back to the house, but when I tried to push the shed door open, it wouldn’t budge. I pushed harder, and the door opened slightly, letting in the dim white light of the blizzard. I heard a childish laugh, and saw Brent run past the slitted doorway. “Hey! Brent! Quit screwing around! I have to get the power on in the house!” More laughter. My headache roared into life, intensified by the racket of the diesel generator. I slammed my shoulder into the door, opening it by a few more inches. I reached my hand through the opening, and could feel a chunk of wood braced against the door, but I couldn’t move it. I slammed the door with my shoulder again, and Brent laughed from the other side of the door. The door shuddered as he kicked it back at me, hitting me in the face. I pulled back in shock for a moment, and then the red fog of my temper overtook me. 

I am not a violent man. This is due to years of patient, studied effort. When my temper does break, it breaks hard. I didn’t control it as well when I was younger, which ultimately landed me in a jail cell for a night after a drunken brawl when I was in college. I have lost my temper with the children at times; they drive you to it, with their testing. But not like this. The cold, the headache, the worry, and ultimately the deep sense of unease sent me over the edge of control. I roared in my rage, and slammed my body against the door. Some part of the wood or hinges snapped, and the door swung open. I looked around, but saw no sign of Brent, but I did see his tracks in the snow, leading back to the house. 

I kicked the shed door shut, and stomped up the path to the house. Once inside, I flung off my heavy coat, and climbed the stairs two at a time. When I reached Brent’s room, I flung his door open so hard that it rebounded from the adjacent wall. “Brent!” The sneaky little turd was laying on his bed, pretending to be asleep. “What the hell were you playing at, Brent?” 

“Wha-what?” Brent exclaimed, eyes wide, scrambling back away from me. 

Crack! I slapped him, hard, across the mouth. “Outside! Locking me into the shed!” 

Brent started to cry. Sissy. “Oh, suck it up, son. If you’re going to dish it out, learn to take it.” 

“I didn’t do anything!” he wailed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” 

“I saw you out there! I heard you laughing!” I raised my hand, curled into a fist this time, ready to do some damage. 

“RICHARD!” Becky shouted from behind me. 

I stopped, the rage draining from me, leaving only the whirling daggers of the headache, stabbing into my skull. I lowered my arm. “He wedged the shed door shut. I saw him, Becky.”

“I did not!” Brent shouted, still crying. 

“Richard, he couldn’t have. I was downstairs the whole time, and I never heard him go outside. And look, his clothes are dry,” Becky said. 

I blinked, and looked around. Brent’s boots were on the floor, dry from when he had toweled them off earlier that morning. Brent cowered on the bed, knees drawn up to his chest, face reddened from the slap. That was bad. Worse was the look in Becky’s eyes: anger, and concern, and a little bit of fear. Avoiding both of their gazes, I mumbled something in the way of an apology, and about getting the power back on, and fled the room. 

Dinner was tense. Brent had lapsed into a pubescent teenager sullenness, and wouldn’t look at me. Becky kept watching me as if I might fly into a homicidal rage any moment. Richie and Hanna were confused, both seeming to know that something was wrong, but not understanding what it was. I had shut off nearly half the breakers in the house, so as to make the generator fuel last longer. We ate quietly, in the sparse dim light. Afterwards, Becky suggested everyone go to bed early, and as a true sign of something being wrong, nobody complained.

I awoke with a start from some vague nightmare of something reaching towards me with terrible fingers, drenched with sweat and wrapped in layers of sheets and blankets. I lay there for a moment, pulse racing, trying to remember the dream. I rarely remember my dreams, and the last memorable nightmare I had was prior to Brent’s birth. I rolled over, and tried to go back to sleep, but realized I had to pee. I staggered to the dark bathroom by feel and memory. I made my way back to bed, and froze. Laughter, thin and childish, coming from upstairs. 

I heard the laughter again, as I quietly climbed the stairs to the second floor.  ”Hannah, what are you doing up?” I asked my daughter, somehow knowing the answer, and dreading it. She giggled, and looked up from her spot on the floor. 

“The little people’s funny, Daddy!” she said, and smiled at me. In her outstretched hands was the mug. 

“It’s way too early to be up and playing, munchkin.” I gingerly took the mug from her hands, and put it on her dresser. I picked her up and put her back in her bed, and kissed her forehead. “It’s still sleepy time, so you be a good girl and go back to bed.” 

“Night-night, Daddy. I love you!” she said, as I closed her door. I carried the mug downstairs, opened the back door, and stepped out into the drifts of snow on the back deck. Murky, uncertain moonlight filtered through the low clouds, casting the forest into a chiaroscuro landscape of snow and shadows. The snow stung against my feet, melting into a slush that quickly soaked into my socks. I flung the mug as hard as I could into the nighttime forest, and waited for a few moments until I heard a distant thump that I imagined could be the mug landing in a snow drift, or perhaps shattering against the trunk of some lonely forgotten pine. The shadows clustered just outside the reach of the wan moonlight burst apart, each one resolving into a running, cloaked figure. There were hundreds. 

I stepped back with an inhaled breath, and a fist involuntarily drawn back to my mouth. The figures stopped, and turned to me, each as still as stone, watching me in the darkness. The rage returned then, welling up like blood from a wound, old and unhealed. How dare they. This is my house. This is my land. How dare they. I shoved my feet into boots, and threw on my heavy overcoat and gloves. I grabbed my rifle, a long, heavy thing with enough power to take down a bear, and left the house. Snow crunched and squeaked as I made my way towards the forest’s edge. The figures had dispersed, but I saw one moving away from me at the top of a rise. I tightened my grip on the rifle, and followed. 

Minutes or hours passed. I cannot rightfully say how long I stumbled along those snowy paths in the darkness. At some point I realized that I should have brought a flash light, I should have told Becky, I should have stayed at home. Whenever those thoughts came to me, they were quickly banished by a cloaked figure, beckoning to me from behind a tree, and later, after I fell in a snowdrift, laughing at me, kicking me in the ribs and dancing just out of reach. When I reached the clearing, I was exhausted, soaked with sweat, and freezing. My vision blurred, two scenes superimposing themselves, until I admitted to myself what I was seeing: the clearing, and the pool, was the scene from the mug. An array of short conical spruce trees stood at the edge of the clearing. In front of, and between, stood ranks of small figures whose cloaks appeared black in the silvery moonlight. Yet I knew those cloaks were red, red as blood.

The dark figures standing at the edge of the pool did not frighten me as much as the pool itself. It was small, and appeared shallow, but its black waters should have long frozen at those temperatures. I trudged forward, using my rifle for support, past caring about the snow and dirt fouling the barrel. When I reached the pool’s edge, and saw its dark waters slowly lapping at the edge, I realized that despite my fear, I was very, very thirsty. I looked to my left hand, where the white mug hung. I sighed, and sank to my knees. Sunk the mug, which was rattling again, into the gently moving waters. Filled the mug to the brim, brought it to my lips, and drank deeply. It was fantastically refreshing. I scooped more water from the pool, and drank again, and again. On my fourth drink, water dribbling from my chin and soaking my nightshirt, a chance break in the cloud cover allowed light from the gibbous moon a direct path into the pool, illuminating what lay beneath the surface. The twisted and hacked limbs looked blue in that light, dead eyes reflecting the moonlight almost as clearly as the surface of the pool itself. 

I recoiled from the pool in horror, and began to notice the smell of the clearing. The low temperatures had greatly dampened the odor, but there it was, the green and dripping odor of rot and putrescence, the faintly fruity odor of decay. I tried desperately to expel the fouled water that I had ingested, but my throat and stomach rebelled. I shoved two cold-numbed fingers into my mouth, but small hands grabbed my arms, and pulled them back. Other hands shoved me back to the ground, kneeling on the snow, and yet others entwined themselves in my hair, pulling my head back so that I might see what resolved itself at the other end of the pool. The cold winter darkness stretched there, like the skin of the world was being pushed at by some wet thrashing thing trying to push its way through. 

I awoke, or perhaps became aware of myself, some time later. I was sitting on my front porch, in the dark. I was very cold. I stood up, brushed the snow off of my pajama pants, and went inside. I took off my boots and overcoat, and turned to walk upstairs, when my foot clinked off of something on the floor. The mug sat on the floor, smooth and dry, glinting in the dim light from the kitchen.

I picked up the mug, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I found Becky’s magnifying glass in a drawer, and looked closely at the figures on the side of the mug. Their crude lines flowed and circled as they danced and ran in the snowy woods, chasing and herding children into the central clearing. While they ran, they told me things, in their small voices. They told me of how great He was, and how powerful, and how the world would tremble at His power. They showed me the sacred ceremony, how the children were tied and bound to the trees, and how the children’s living organs garlanded the trees as an offering to His Majesty, to quicken His arrival. 

I understood, finally. I was filled with awe at His might, and humbled that He and His children had chosen me to be His emissary, to be His Mid-Father that welcomed Him to the world once again. I understood what I had to do next. I was saddened, yet joyous. I chose the sharpest knife. 

The mug must be filled.

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