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Short story 40

Discussion in 'Off Topic' started by inayat, Dec 24, 2021.

  1. inayat

    inayat Head Game Master Moderator

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    This is going to be a compilation of stories to enjoy during the holidays when you have some time to read.

    Story1:

    I had just sat down for my ride home on the late charter bus when I felt something odd under my seat. It was like sitting on a lump, it wasn’t too big but it was definitely uncomfortable.

    Instinctively I reached under to try and remove the object and my hand touched something familiar. The small size and glint of plastic told me it was a smart phone but not a brand I was familiar with.

    someone must have left it here by accident I thought to myself.

    Since I had a little time until my stop I unzipped my backpack and took out my portable charger. As luck would have it, the plug fit and immediately the phone began to charge.

    I watched it the way you might a kettle, waiting for it to boil. I don’t know why. I didn’t really expect to be able to unlock it, but part of me was hopeful there wasn’t a passcode.

    Five minutes later, it powered up and made a grinding noise like an old modem would. I grabbed it up and waited to see what secrets were within.

    The screen was completely black, no background at all; and the time was definitely off as though it hadn’t been updated in some time. Even the year was wrong.

    How long had it been here?

    There was no reception and it didn’t look like I could unlock it so I just set it back down and focused on my own phone.

    Then I heard the distinct sound of a text message notification.

    Coming from the older phone…?

    But that shouldn’t have been possible I thought as I picked it back up and saw in short succession there were dozens of messages. All from the same person apparently.

    Immediately I did my best to read them in rapid response.

    "Where are you?"

    "Why aren’t you responding?"

    "Is everything okay?"

    "Don’t go through with it."

    That message stuck out to me as I kept reading and scrolling toward the beginning of the story, to try and figure out exactly what was going on.

    Hey, glad we could finally exchange numbers. Call me anytime! Anna.

    Thanks for actually responding. I was beginning to think that no one actually saw me these days. Craig.

    Anna and Craig. These two sounded like lovers and I was about to get all the juicy details of their relationship I thought. This must have been Craig’s phone. And he kept everything about Anna on here.

    I saw that he had no other contacts in his phone, which was a little strange.

    Next I decided to check pictures.

    There were several taken at strange angles, all on the same day of the same person.

    It looked like he had taken the photographs on his phone right here on this bus.

    Did he frequently travel this route too?

    It felt strange to imagine sitting where someone else had and knowing exactly what it was they had been doing.

    Instinctively I glanced up to see if maybe the woman in the pictures was on the bus today.

    I’m not sure how freaked out I would have been if that had been the case but I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized besides myself and a few other riders, the bus was empty. And none of them resembled the woman in the pictures.

    As I scrolled back in time on his phone I saw that he took at least a hundred pictures of her, maybe more. This was bordering on obsession.

    And then I saw in his notes things that he said about how he felt about her.

    Even before they actually exchanged numbers.

    This is what the phone’s notes said:

    *I saw a woman on the bus today, something about her stood out as different than any other I have seen before.

    Have you ever heard of soulmates? I guess I got a funny feeling when I saw her and I’m wondering if maybe it’s that. She’s very beautiful, so much so that I doubt she would want to be with anyone like me.

    I know that you would say I should take a leap of faith, but look where that got me. What if she rejects me? Or worse, decides to not respond.*


    I paused there in the notes wondering who it was that Craig seemed to have faith in. There was scarce else to find on the phone. It was too old for there to be social media or anything like that and besides the myriad photos of the woman the only thing I hadn’t really checked was his call log.

    Of course the thought of it made me feel like I was already invading this stranger’s privacy too much. But something about this conversation was intriguing. I needed to know what had happened.

    I pulled up recent calls and saw that the same number had tried to call him over and over.

    Then it finally hit me how long this phone had apparently been sitting here.

    Six years. It seemed impossible. But what happened next was even more so.

    The phone let out a ping again. A new message? How could that be?

    I slowly reached for it.

    UNKNOWN

    *Do you think you know me?*

    Again I felt uneasy even reading the message, or daring to respond. It was a private number so I figured that it was pointless to do so and I immediately put the phone down, trying to ignore the next message coming in.

    *Maybe you should keep reading. See what happened with Anna.*

    I went back to the text messages. My eyes nervously scanning the bus. Was Craig on the bus watching me?

    The notes continued:

    *I finally worked up the nerve to get her to notice me. We hit it off immediately! I’m so excited. We exchanged numbers. This is exactly the lucky break I have been looking for. At last patience has paid off.*

    The text messages also seemed to show a story of a despairing man that didn’t get recognized for anything.

    "Hey Craig are you doing okay? I wanted to invite you to drinks but I wasn’t sure if you had the time."

    *I appreciate it, Anna but I really can’t go. I have a lot of work to catch up on.*

    But his notes told a different story.

    *How I wish that I could have a life with her. The things we could do together. But that isn’t how it’s meant to be. She won’t understand the things I have to do. You would understand of course. You always knew what I was capable of.*

    What exactly was Craig planning?

    Another message chimed in from UNKNOWN.

    *Please tell me you have seen where this is headed. I can see the worry on your face. You think I hurt her.*

    This time I decided to respond.

    "If you didn’t hurt her then why are all these text messages sound so obsessed with her? And the pictures? You were stalking this woman! And if I didn’t know any better I would think you are stalking me!"

    *Don’t be ridiculous. You are nothing like her. True you will be just as interesting to follow and watch but Anna was special. She really wanted to help me. *

    “What are you?” I dared to ask. I knew there was no way this old phone should have been working or providing messages without service. But the texts had already convinced me this was not an ordinary conversation. Something beyond the realm of my world view that was now creeping to the forefront.

    I went back to the text messages. The more I read the more disturbed I was by Craig.

    "I’m worried about you Craig. I always see you sitting alone on this bus. If it wasn’t for that phone I would think you were dead."

    *You don’t need to worry. I’m fine. But I appreciate the concern. It’s been a long time since anyone really worried about me.*

    "You promise me that you are okay?"

    *Of course. I will be fine now that you are with me.*

    "The only time I’m with you is when we travel on this bus together! Why don’t you ever want to come with me?"

    *I told you before that I can’t. Why don’t you just leave it alone?*

    "I'm starting to think you are trapped on this bus."

    *If that were true my only concern would be to get out of here. I wouldn’t be wasting my time getting to know you.*

    A few more days of messages like that scrolled by, Anna growing more concerned. and then an awful truth started to come to light.

    "Craig, how long have you been searching for someone?"

    *What do you mean?*

    "I was doing some research on this bus… trying to figure out why you were so familiar. I realized I read your story when I was a little girl."

    *Anna stop. Stop talking about this.*

    "No. I need to know. Are you… are you dead?"

    I froze, rereading the message. Maybe she had misunderstood?

    Then he gave a reply.

    *Of course I am gone. That’s why it’s been so difficult to explain things to you. I don’t want you frightened.*

    The moment I read the message a mirror image of that same message popped on screen. Craig was repeating what he said to Anna.

    *I don’t want you frightened.*

    Too late for that. I was terrified because of the fact that I was now apparently texting a ghost.

    "What do you want from me?" I asked.

    *The same thing I wanted from Anna. I needed her to leave this place. But she wouldn’t listen to me. Maybe you will….*

    I took out my phone and quickly did a search history on this bus the same way Anna had.

    Specifically I was looking for tragic events surrounding this route.

    It didn’t take long to find one from only six years. The same time as the text messages.

    Local woman jumps from a moving bus.

    Anna Fitzgerald; a local real estate agent has been found dead near the corner of Fourth and Pine. Witnesses claim they heard her talking to herself or to an unseen person she frequently told to leave her alone before she leapt from the bus to her death when it was moving at approximately 75 miles per hour.

    I texted Craig.

    "Did you make her jump?"

    *Of course not! I didn’t want that. But once she understood that I was going to try to be with her… she overreacted.*

    "You were going to be with her… you mean possessing her body."

    There was a long pause and I got a chill in the air.

    The phone was how he found his victims. I understand that now. He left it here for a curious passerby like me to find.

    I stood up and pulled for the cord that would make the bus stop. The phone pinged again.

    *You can’t leave me here on this bus… I won’t let you. I have been here too long!*

    I tossed the phone down and tried again to get the bus to stop. It only sped up.

    I felt something overpower my body. I knew it had to be the spirit from Craig trying to enter my very soul. We were coming up to a curb. If I timed it right I could jump and survive.

    I moved toward the front of the bus as it began to slow down to pick up passengers. Now was the chance to escape. I rushed to get off even as the spirit overwhelmed me and I fell down, slamming into the concrete.

    But somehow I made it and I was free from this strange encounter.

    I stood up and wiped blood from my lip as I turned to watch the bus roll off. The passengers had all acted like they couldn’t see me, likely a side effect of this demonic influence.

    But as it turned away I saw Craig’s ghostly presence standing there, glaring at me. Somehow I was lucky to survive.

    I saw him pick up the old phone in his hand and then slide it under another seat. Waiting for another victim to be curious enough to find it....

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 2

    It wasn’t until I found myself standing on the deck of an unnamed military ship, sailing out into the middle of the ocean, before I finally started to question the mission I’d signed up for. The exceptionally large sum of money had been the initial hook, but the allure of a top secret mission was not something I longed for. Still I had to ask: why had they chosen me, and where were we actually going?

    “A good soldier keeps his fucking mouth shut,” I remembered my Seargent yelling at my face more than a decade earlier. Things had been so simple then, I followed orders and never questioned whether or not our actions were inherently good. In my eyes, I was doing the right thing, but the line between good and evil quickly blurred as I’d gotten deployed.

    “I know they told you not to talk to the crew, but I gotta ask, what in God’s name made you sign up for this mission?” a man asked as I stared out at the ocean. He was well built, clearly a soldier based on his posture. Though his outfit didn’t match the rest of the crew.

    “I fit the profile,” was all I responded.

    “Do you even know where we’re heading?” he asked.

    I shook my head.

    “That’s probably why they chose you. The name’s Ulrich, I’m the leader of this mission,” he said.

    I looked over at him. I wouldn’t have taken him as the man in charge, he looked more like an enforcer, a man with more power than brains. His age fit though, and his cold, emotionless demeanor was enough to tell me he’d seen a thing or two.

    “I’m Shaun. I’m guessing you’re going to tell me where exactly we’re heading?” I asked.

    “Down there,” he said as he pointed to the cold, blue ocean.

    I chuckled. “I’ve never served aboard a submarine. If you think I can aid you in underwater warfare, you’ve chosen the wrong man.”

    He smirked in return. “That ain’t it, Shaun.We’re going deeper, all the way to the bottom.”

    I had to admit that the man had piqued my curiosity more than the initial briefing.

    “Why? What’s down there?”

    “Atlantis! What else?” he exclaimed as if announcing a long awaited reveal.

    “The mythological sunken city? That’s a real place?” I asked, still awaiting the punchline.

    “No, of course not, at least not in a historical sense. The Atlantis we’re visiting is a base built shortly after the second world war. In anticipation of nuclear war, a lot of rich bastards wanted a safe place to hide. They decided the bottom of the ocean would fit. It had to be kept a secret, of course. Only a handful of government employees ever learned about the project, and they’ve since taken the secret to their grave.”

    The look on my face must have been enough, because I didn’t have to ask another question before he started talking.

    “The base remained a secret until a few documents resurfaced a couple of years ago. Apparently we lost contact with the base in the eighties, alongside all the science put into the base. Can you imagine the kind of things they kept down there?”

    “No,” I said.

    “That’s why we’re going down there. We’re going to get the station back up and running, and retrieve as much information as possible…”

    Two other men joined us, both clearly military. They were Jacon and Benjamin, the combat engineers meant to accompany us on the mission.

    As the ship finally stopped, Ulrich led us to the starboard side where a strange vessel had been prepared. It looked more like a lunar landing probe than a sub, one with an exceptionally thick hull.

    “Ever been in the depths?” Jacob asked as we were escorted inside.

    I shook my head, as did Benjamin. The truth was that the four of us were all strangers carrying only fragments of information. Due to the risk of leaking top secret information, I half worried we’d be executed upon completion.

    The vessel shook as they dropped us into the ocean, but as soon as we’d fell below the surface, an odd sense of peace washed over us. The descent itself was rapid, with light quickly giving way to infinite darkness as we sunk into the depths below.

    A few instances of small-talk broke up, but we quickly fell silent again with each creak of the outer hull, settling under the immense pressure of the ocean. I felt tense the entire ride, and it wasn’t until I felt an abrupt stop, before I realized we’d reached the bottom.

    “I guess this is it,” I said.

    “Alright. Jacob, initiate docking procedures. The rest of you gear up, I don’t want anyone leaving this vessel without their atmospheric suit. You take point, Shaun,” Ulrich ordered. I nodded in agreement, and Jacob made contact with the docking station without much hassle. From there, we could connect to the station’s monitoring systems.

    “Looks like the pressure inside is fine. Life support is partially broken though, only a few sections still have oxygen. We might be able to get them back up and running, but I can’t promise anything,” Jacob said.

    “Any sign of life?” Ulrich asked.

    “Couldn’t tell you based on this alone, but without oxygen what could there possibly be?” Jacob asked back.

    “Still, stay alert. Let’s get this over with,” Ulrich said.

    My ears painfully popped as the doors opened. I raised my rifle and took the first step inside Atlantis. The station was running on its emergency backup systems, supposedly fuelled by underground volcanic activity, but it meant we had little more than emergency lights to guide our way.

    The rest of them followed closely. As we exited the airlock, we found ourselves in a neatly decorated hallway that was more reminiscent of a fifties hotel than a submarine base. While the metal walls still stood exposed, they’d clearly put a great deal of effort into making the place feel like home.

    On each side of the hall were several, metal doors, each marked with simple numbers and letters. Between each door hung a picture of one of the inhabitants; most of them scientists, some military.

    “I don’t see anything,” Benjamin said.

    “Neither do I,” Ulrich agreed. “The coms should be in section 7H alongside the control room, somewhere in the center of the base. We should deal with life support first. It should be right around the corner in 3C.”

    The decoration made the station seem more gloomy rather than making it feel like a home. I supposed times had changed since then, but I couldn’t help but feel like we were walking through a graveyard.

    “This is the one,” Benjamin said as we opened the door to the life support systems. Unlike the neatly decorated hallways that room was little more than a generator room with machines and metal walls. It produced oxygen directly from water through electrolysis, essentially an infinite source of breathable air.

    There was also a map of the station on the wall, each showing habitability and biological activity. “No signs of life at all. I guess we’re safe for now,” Benjamin said.

    I lowered my guard ever so slightly, while still staying alert.

    “Shouldn’t be too hard to fix this,” Benjamin said. “Almost looks like someone purposely sabotaged it, but they didn’t do a very good job.”

    “Alright, we’ll go ahead and repair the coms. Are you fine on your own?” Ulrich asked.

    Benjamin nodded.

    “Then let’s go.”

    Leaving one of our engineers behind, we kept moving towards the control room.

    “So if the station went dark, but no one ever left, where are the bodies?” I asked.

    “Who knows if they got out. Might have fled and stayed under the radar,” Ulrich said.

    On the way, I took a peek inside a few of the already opened doors. They were bedrooms and offices, all neatly decorated to look like home, with personal effects and unmade beds. If the crew had left, they clearly didn’t bother to take anything with them.

    By the time we reached the central hub, about twenty minutes had passed. The station was massive, large enough to house at least five hundred people, all of whom had just vanished without a trace.

    Then we walked by a door marked differently than the others. “Z9,” it read, a massive jump if the rooms were marked alphabetically. In addition, the room was labelled “laboratory.”

    “Should we check it out?” I asked.

    “Later, we need to fix the coms and upload the data,” Ulrich ordered.

    But as we tried to proceed through into the control room, we were met with a sealed door that had been fused shut.

    “Someone really doesn’t want to let us through here,” Jacob said as he put down his bag of tools. “But I can get through, just give me ten minutes.”

    “I suppose we could check out the lab in the meantime. There might be some valuable information there,” Ulrich said.

    The two of us entered the lab. It was impressively large with rows of tables and hundreds of vials and equipment neither of us could recognize. There were a few typewriters and what looked like ancient computers probably only meant to decipher messages.

    The tables themselves were empty, except for one occupied by a lump hidden under a large, plastic cover.

    Ulrich went to gather documents, while I went to the occupied table. I had to take a few steps back in pure shock as I dragged the sheet away. What lay beneath it was a disfigured being I couldn’t even begin to recognize. It was about the size of a human with pale, smooth skin. In place of its head it only had a hole with numerous, long teeth that resembled blades more than chewing components. The only other appendages were four, thick legs that ended in spiky bones, and multiple holes all across its body that resembled gills.

    But what truly worried me was the multiple gunshot wounds it had suffered, all of which only penetrated an inch deep due to its thick skin. The actual cause of death appeared to be a massive hole in its abdomen, but what had caused it I didn’t know.

    “What the hell is this?” I asked.

    Ulrich turned around, holding onto a bunch of papers. His face lit up with confusion as he saw the horrific creature, but he didn’t seem all that surprised.

    “Listen to this,” he began. “19th of October, 1978. The runners have infiltrated sector A and B. We’ve managed to seal off the sections, but it’s not going to hold for long. Ballistic projectiles have little effect, seeming only to briefly slow them down. The railgun has proven to eliminate the runners with moderate effect, but with only one still operational, we can’t hold them all off.

    We’ve retrieved one of their bodies. Preliminary findings show that they’re airless creatures. They filter oxygen directly through their multiple gills, and have thick skin and unbreakable bones that…” he trailed off. “It just goes on to describe their anatomy, but check this out:

    They only flee when the Secutor appears. As far as we know, there’s only one of them, but it has proven impervious to all weapons. Should it break through the lockdown, we need to evacuate the station.”

    He finished reading, and just stared at me. “What the hell is the ‘Secutor?’” he asked.

    “I don’t know, but we-” before I could finish that sentence, the sounds of fans broke the otherwise silent atmosphere. And with that, our radios lit up.

    “Hey, it’s Benjamin. I got life support working. Don’t take off your masks, it’s going to take a few minutes until the air is breathable.”

    “Alright, meet us at the control room,” Ulrich said.

    We covered the mangled creature back up, and went to meet Jacob who’d already managed to break through the containment. The control room was a circular area with tons of radio equipment and workstations. The floor was littered with small pieces of what looked like old wood. I bent down to pick one of them up, only to realize they were shattered, human bones.

    “Eh, guys. I think I found what remains of the crew,” I said with a nervous voice.

    “What the fuck?” Jacob chimed in.

    “We’ll be fine, the creatures have to be dead by now. Attach the transmitter to the coms, and let’s upload all the data we can get.”

    Jacob went to work with Ulrich as I guarded the room. I kept thinking back to the creature on the bed. Based on the log, it had already been there for decades. But if that was the case, why hadn’t it decomposed, and where were the others, what was the Secutor?

    I took a peak at some of the documents Ulrich had taken with, but a section stood out to me, one on the very last page.

    30th of October 1978. They’ve broken down our evac systems. The handful of survivors that still remain are trapped. We’re trying to send out a distress signal, but the surface isn’t responding. The only solution we’ve found is to flood the station with carbon dioxide. It doesn’t kill the creatures, but it seems to put them into an indefinite stasis. Our engineers are already on route to destroy the life support systems. The control room runs on a backup system, so we should be fine until help arrives.

    Based on the bones on the floor, it seemed like rescue never came. I listened to the fans humming, and thought back to the fresh, but ancient corpse. Just as I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together, another call came through the radio.

    “There’s something in here with me, I can hear them in the walls!” Benjamin called out.

    “What are you talking about?” Ulrich asked back.

    “As soon as the oxygen rose, I started hearing knocks inside the locked rooms and walls. I thought it was the pipes or something at first, but then they started growling, and- wait, what the- oh, God, I see-”

    A brief scream was heard before the radio cut out, and Benjamin went dark.

    “Shaun, you’re coming with me. We’ve got to help Benjamin,” Ulrich ordered.

    But before we could even get going, we heard muffled growls coming from within the hall, and some coming from down the hall. Whatever Benjamin had seen, it was coming towards us en masse. Then a few holes in the wall blew open without damaging the outer hull, and the first of the horrific creatures emerged.

    “We’ll hold them off. Jacob, get those coms working, now!” Ulrich yelled.

    “I’m on it!”

    Ulrich and I took position in front of the broken up door and raised our rifles. A dozen creatures came running down the hall, with more emerging from the holes in the walls. Their gills pulsated as they inhaled the fresh oxygen that was being pumped into the station. Before we could even open fire, the hallway was full of monsters.

    “Where the hell did they come from?” Ulrich asked.

    “They were sleeping. The air woke them up. We did this,” I said.

    We unleashed a hail of bullets, most of which hit the creatures, but some went too far, forming holes in the wall. Luckily the outer hull was far too thick to be penetrated. Our weapons were significantly more powerful than those used by the former inhabitants of the station, able to maim the creatures enough to render them harmless.

    “There’s too many of the fuckers,” I yelled over the sound of gunfire.

    “How much time do you need?” Ulrich asked.

    “It’s already uploading. Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Jacob yelled.

    But escaping was easier said than done, and before long we had been overrun by the creatures. Jacob joined in and emptied a magazine into the horde with little effect. One of them managed to get through, and bounced off the wall to pound Ulrich. With a single bite, it ripped the flesh from Ulrich’s arm. He let out an agonized yell as he fell to the ground. I walked straight up and put a bullet in what I assumed was its brain, which flung it to the ground.

    With that, every single creature froze in place. For a brief moment, the entire station had fallen into deafening silence. Then we heard it, a sickening, guttural growl coming from the distant hallways. It sounded almost human, but far too low pitched, emitting a mixture between agonized pain and anger. One the echo stopped, each and every one of the pale creatures retreated into the various holes and rooms of the station.

    “What the fuck was that?” Jacob asked.

    “The Secutor, I take it,” Ulrich groaned as he tried to stop the bleeding with a makeshift tourniquet. “But let’s not stick around to confirm it.”

    We quickly moved back towards the airlock, planning to destroy the life support systems before leaving for good. As we turned the corner, we found long streaks of blood that presumably belonged to Benjamin, along a few bullet holes in the walls.

    “Where did they all go?” I asked.

    The station had fallen eerily silent in the wake of the creatures. We stopped for a moment just to get our bearings, when the silence was broken by a sickly crack that vibrated through the air. Though the echo made it heard to locate, it seemed to come from the direction of the airlock. We raised our rifles, and proceeded with care. As we turned another corner, we found dozens of the creatures, all dead and torn to shreds. At the end of the hall stood a large, humanoid figure with its back turned to us. It was the Secutor.

    It held one of the creatures in its unnaturally long arms, which ended in little more than bony knives.

    Jacob tried to point his rifle in its direction, but I signalled for him to stop. Based on the notes we’d read, bullets wouldn’t do a thing to it. But despite our silence, the creature somehow seemed to sense our presence. It turned around, still holding onto the pale creature. Its face held little more than two, massive, black eyes and a poorly formed opening for a mouth. Covering its entire body was clearly visible, red veins.

    It let out another growl as it ripped the runner to shreds, before it dropped the pieces of flesh and started rushing in our direction. Jacob raised his rifle for the second time and started fireing while Ulrich and I retreated deeper into the station.

    “Jacob, for fuck’s sake, run!”

    But he was frozen in shock, only able to keep his finger firmly pressed on the trigger until the magazine had emptied. By then the creature had already reached him. It dug its hands into his torso with little effort, and raised him into the air.

    Jacob let out a brief whimper, but had died before he even realized what was happening. Still his death provided little more than a minute distraction for the creature, giving us almost no time to flee. We weren’t going to be able to outrun the Secutor, and we both knew. As we passed one of the open rooms, Ulrich grabbed onto me with his remaining, functioning arm.

    “Get out of here, bomb the shit out of this place,” he said before pushing me into the room.

    With that, he too opened fire, hardly hitting anything other than the wall, but he wasn’t aiming to hit the creature, he just wanted to draw its attention.

    “Run!” was the last thing he said as he started retreating away from the airlock, luring the creature away from me. I’d been given a chance at escape, but it had come at the cost of Ulrich’s life.

    I only allowed myself a second of hesitation before spurting to the airlock and our escape vessel. I sealed the hatch, and tried my best to get the submarine moving with my limited knowledge. I took one final peek through the miniscule window, wondering if Ulrich had already been killed, then I left Atlantis alone.

    The trip back was filled with a silence only interrupted by the settling hull of the vessel. The mission had been completed, but so many questions still lingered, and I feared answers would be scant.

    At the surface I gave my mission report, and was paid handsomely as promised. Ulrich, Jacob and Benjamin all died at the bottom of the ocean, all for a bit of intel that will remain classified until the end of time. I recommended they drop a nuke down there, but a part of me fears that we were never sent down there to retrieve research, but to confirm the existence of these horrific creatures.

    What they have planned for the future, I don’t know. But I fear by delving down to the bottom of the ocean, we’ve awoken creatures that were never meant to be found, and if they are brought to the surface, that will be the end of life as we know it.

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 3

    The front door tore open as the first rumblings of thunder burst through the early evening air. I could barely say hello before my mom threw an arm around my shoulders and tugged me inside.

    "Burt, Hallie's finally home!"

    I laughed as she pulled my bag from my hand and started fussing over me; brushing my hair back, squeezing my cheeks together. It was a habit I'd always hoped she'd grow out of as I reached adolescence, but after seven long months away I had to admit that it made me feel right back at home.

    "Mom, stop, I'm fine," I insisted half-heartedly.

    "You're late." She stuck one of those fingers right in my face and wagged it around. "Dinner's been done for half an hour." Her eyes flickered to the front window, where the first droplets of rain had begun to spit from the sky. "And it's about to storm."

    "Of course it is." I shook my head and chuckled. It was a running joke in our family at this point. Every year on my birthday it rained. Without fail. For as long as I can remember birthdays were marked by gathering around our dining room table, eating cake and opening presents. All while watching the world drown from out the side window.

    Thankfully, birthdays were always family events. There was always time for friends, my parents told me. But I only had so much time left to spend with them.

    "Let me put my stuff away. I'll be down in a second," I said, starting up the stairs. With each step my head throbbed like an over-inflated balloon. My early birthday celebration the night before had been a success, but the hangover left in its weight was particularly wicked.

    My bedroom sat at the end of the hall, untouched since I'd left for college in the fall. It was a strange little time capsule of old friends and faded memories that by now felt like another lifetime. I smiled and tossed my backpack on the bed.

    Something delicious tickled at my nose as I made my way back downstairs and headed toward the dining room. My mom's famous jambalaya was another birthday tradition. It sounded like the perfect thing to settle my stomach.

    And my nerves.

    My dad was already seated at the head of the table, a tumbler of scotch in hand that he raised in a toast as I rounded the corner.

    "And there she is!" He boomed, his thick brown mustache bobbing over his lips for dramatic effect. "The prodigal daughter returns!"

    "Oh, shut up!" I laughed and headed over for a quick hug.

    Soon enough we'd settled in and all had an overflowing plate in front of us. They wasted no time before falling back into their familiar routine of grilling me on just about every subject they could think of. Grades, friends, my new part time job. My parents have always been...involved to say the least. It was another one of those things I'd only been able to start appreciating with time.

    "How's that dorm life?" my dad asked as my mom hopped up to start scooping dessert. "That roommate of yours still stealing your clothes?"

    "That's...well, that's actually something I wanted to talk to you guys about." My stomach sank to the floor and blood rushed my cheeks.

    "What's that?" asked my mom.

    "Well, you guys know I had such bad luck this year with her. It really interrupted my studies," I stressed.

    "You didn't tell us that!"

    "Well, it did. So...that's why me and Brian decided next semester that we're going to move in together."

    The silence that fell was bitterly cold. It froze both of my parents in place, mouth agape, waiting for me to say the punchline. Seconds ticked by before, all at once, they exploded back to life.

    "Like hell you are," said my dad.

    "You've got to be kidding me," said my mom.

    "Dad, I-"

    "You're nineteen years old, Hallie. You're way too young to be shacking up with some loser-"

    "Dad, I'm an adult. You can't just-"

    "Oh, are you adult enough to pay for school on your own?"

    We went back and forth for a while, voices steadily rising as the cherry pie on our plates got cold and thunder shook the windows. I'd known they wouldn't approve, but this was worse than I'd ever imagined. Mom stayed quiet, caught between us like a hostage negotiator, begging with her eyes for us to calm down.

    "Go ahead then!" I shot up from my chair, sending it crashing to the floor behind me as I slammed my hand on the polished tabletop.

    "Cut me off. I'll drop out and wait tables the rest of my life. Either way, I'm moving in with him. End of story."

    "Hallie, you sit your ass down!"

    His shouting grew distant as I turned and stormed back down the hall and up the stairs, eventually slamming my bedroom door behind me. It was juvenile, perhaps, but it still felt good to make the frame quake behind me as I took to pacing the room. Frustration bubbled under my skin like a shaken soda bottle, ready to burst.

    How many fights had ended this very same way? How many times had my parents put their foot down when I tried to establish the barest hint of independence?

    Too many to count.

    I was sure mom was rubbing dad's back by then, assuring him I'd come to my senses. He wouldn't apologize. He never did. Instead, he'd wait for me to sulk back with my tail between my legs, ready to apologize and give in to whatever he decided was right for me.

    Fuck that.

    I slung my backpack back over my shoulder and grabbed my keys. I'd drive fifteen more hours if it meant I didn't have to look at his smug face waiting for me to cow.

    I heard their voices muttering from the dining room as I swung the front door open. The mossy smell of fresh rain hit me like a brick, while the chilled breeze washed down my lungs like a glass of ice water.

    "Hallie!" my mother screamed from the other room. Pulling the hood of my jacket snuggly over my head, I darted off the porch.

    A wave of pain exploded in my body, so intense my vision went black for a moment, so consuming I couldn’t tell right away where it had come from. Before I knew it I was being lurched backward by something wrapped tightly around my neck. I hit the porch with a thud. The pressure eased. My mother knelt over me, eyes wide as dinner plates.

    “Oh god,” she whispered.

    The pain. It was still there, burning, spreading. It prickled along my cheek and my hands. I moaned, a low and keening noise that I almost didn’t recognize as my own. And then I lifted my hand up in front of my face.

    A sob tore from my lips as I caught sight of it. It was like acid had been splashed across my skin. Gelatinous clumps of flesh had melted away, dripping down to my wrist and coagulating on the sleeve of my hoodie. It was still going, a bubbling liquid eating away everything in its path.

    Even worse was what lay underneath it.

    Instead of the pearly white bones I might expect jutting out from the mess of ruined flesh, something else sat there instead. They were fingers, sure. My fingers, given how they clenched and moved in turn with the waves of pain that coursed through me. But they were as black as the night around us, made of hundreds of delicate, intertwining bones that reminded me of birds' legs. They joined at the top into a vicious point.

    A scream bubbled up in the back of my throat, trapped there as tear streaked eyes darted to my mothers worried face. She barely glanced at my misshapen hand, though did reach down to give my covered shoulder a comforting squeeze. Her eyes turned to find my father shaking in the doorway.

    “Burt,” she gasped, raising her free hand to cover her trembling lips. “They’re going to find her.”

    My dad sprung into action, our argument from moments before a long forgotten memory. He hooked his arms under my shoulders and dragged me back inside. I hung limp like a ragdoll, tears finally breaking through the barrier of shock and disorientation that had held them at bay.

    My mother slammed the door shut behind us, clicking the deadbolt and sliding the chain into place.

    “I’ll get the bags,” she announced. My father gave one quick, grim nod.

    “I’ll get the car ready.”

    “What’s happening?” I groaned from the floor, cradling my ruined hand in the other. Some patches of flesh had burned away on it, as well, but altogether it was in much better shape. It still looked like mine. It still looked human. I could even still see the scar from Seventh grade where Preston had stabbed me with a pencil.

    “We don’t have time, sweetie,” he said. “We have to move.”

    He disappeared down the hallway and I heard the door to the garage crash open. I was left alone to hiccup and cry on the foyer floor until I’d finally calmed enough to pull my unsteady feet back underneath me.

    My face still burned. I staggered into the living room where an oversized ornate mirror hung behind the couch. Everything in my body screamed that this was a horrible idea. That I didn’t want to know. But I had to see...I just had to.

    Even still, I gasped. Spots of disintegration were speckled across my face. The tip of my nose was gone, my left cheek was hollowed out like a pumpkin. Underneath sat those same spindly, paper thin bones. Millions of them. In the overhead light they had an eerie, incandescent glow. But wait, were they...were they moving?

    Thunder ripped through the sky outside. My body shook right along with the frame of the house. Realization struck just as lightning lit the front yard. The spots on my body that were injured were the areas uncovered by my jacked or my clothes. My exposed skin...it was where the rain had touched me.

    No, that made no sense. I’d been out in the rain plenty of times in my life. I’d walked home in it after school. Came home drenched one night after sneaking out with my friends. In fact, I was quite fond of the rain, despite the fact it had always seemed to unsettle my mom. It made no sense.

    Another crashing sound thudded through the house, almost mistaken for another round of thunder. The storm was right on top of us now, roaring and ripping all around. But no clap of lightning followed. Seconds later…

    Bang!

    I jumped back, glancing toward the ceiling. Upstairs my mother raced back and forth drawers squeaked open and closed. But no, that wasn’t it.

    “Dad,” I called in a hushed tone down the hall. There wasn’t an answer. I couldn’t hear him past the hum of the storm.

    Movement caught my eye in the mirror. I searched for it once. Twice. Nothing.

    A car drove by on the street outside, headlights cutting through the inky darkness of the street. There, palms outstretched on the front window, stood a massive shadow. I spun around. The light quickly flickered away, bathing it once more in darkness, but now that my eyes had found it I couldn’t possibly look away.

    It wasn’t a shadow at all. Just a mess of dark, delicate bones. It’s eyes glinted beyond the glass, a deep intoxicating violet. As it watched me something on its face stretched wide. More darkness lingered in its open mouth. But I could tell...it was smiling.

    I screamed, all the horror that had welled up inside me reaching a shrill, piercing crescendo. My father barreled around the corner but jerked to a stop when he saw the creature out the window. It's long spindly fingers curled into a fist and beat against the glass.

    "She's ours!" my father shouted. "Leave us alone!"

    He wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me back into the foyer. My mother was just descending the stairs, bags in hand. The glass above the front window exploded inward, showering us with crystalline shards.

    All three of us darted for the back door. Adrenaline dulled the pain in my hand to a distant ache. My parents SUV was already running, the backseat piled high with totes and bags previously tucked away in the garage. I'd never asked what my dad had kept stored out there, why the garage was the only room in the house perpetually cluttered…

    I hopped in the backseat while my parents climbed in the front. I huffed as my father adjusted the rear view. I could see his veins bulging in his arm, my mom's tear-stricken face glancing behind us.

    "Now, Burt." Her tone was solemn, resigned.

    My father clicked the garage door opener and shifted into reverse. The door hummed and then kicked to life, groaning as it inched up off the ground. The sound of rain still dancing along the roof above us. I turned in my seat to stare out the back window. We all held our breath.

    The door was about three feet high when the first dark figure wrapped it’s hands around its base and shoved upwards. Metal squealed against metal as it was pushed further up into the ceiling. My hands darted to my ears...and then I caught sight of my own blackened fingers and they fell back down to my side.

    Another figure darted in, skittering against the cement, jumping up to rest on our bumper. Behind it was a third, this one more cautious, peaking in under the door and smiling its predatory grin.

    “Now!” my mom shouted.

    My dad slammed on the gas and the Ford flew backward. The door hadn’t fully ascended. The two creatures still back there jumped to either side. The roof of the vehicle scraped the aluminum door, sticking for a few long, painful seconds before we burst free into the night air.

    The last creature clung on for dear life, hands digging into the side of the vehicle, feet slipping against the now slick bumper. It’s black teeth gnashed against the glass. It’s purple eyes were wide, hysterical.

    It looked...pained?

    Terrified?

    Sad?

    My dad hardly slowed as we pulled out onto the street and kicked it in drive, even as the tires screamed underneath us. As we lurched forward it struggled against the vehicle, eventually losing its grip and tumbling away. I watched it hit the wet cement behind us with a thud. The others weren’t far behind. Both stopped to pull it back up to its feet.

    We ripped through our quiet suburban neighborhood, twisting and turning until we reached the exit for the highway. The creatures faded behind us, yet still I found myself staring out into the pouring rain, hand stinging in my lap. Finally, I was pulled from my daze by the jarring flash of headlights behind us. I turned back around to my parents.

    “Mom,” I said. “Dad. What’s going on?”

    They exchanged a long glance. My mom shook as she reached out to turn down the radio. I hadn’t even noticed it humming in the background.

    “We should have told you, Hallie,” she whispered, shaking her head. “We were foolish to think we...we were foolish to wait so long.”

    I stared down at my torn hand, the same delicate, alien black bones of the creatures that had attacked us. Was I…?

    “You shouldn’t have tried to leave, sweetie,” added my dad. I’d never heard him sound so small, so helpless. The disappointment in his tone was nothing like his rage-fueled rants of disapproval, but something far more visceral. “Now I don’t know if we can protect you.”

    “Don’t say that!” my mother snapped. I leaned back into the plush grey seat, exhaustion sinking me down into the headrest. I caught a glance of myself in the review, my burn-speckled face looked pale, sickly. The blue of my eyes looked darker, deeper.

    “Protect me from what?” I asked.

    A sob shook my mother’s chest. She turned toward the window and buried her face in her hands. My dad’s eyes rose to meet my own in the mirror, brows hanging over them like thick branches bowing in the wind. Something deep in my gut already knew the answer, but even still I needed to hear him say it. I needed to know.

    "From your family."

    We drove for hours in silence, my father staring solemnly out into the road. My mother, sniffling and hiccuping next to him. After the adrenaline of our escape wore off, I curled up in the back row of seats and did my best to let my mind drift off into a welcome oblivion.

    The sting in my hand had worn off several miles out of town. When I realized the pain was gone I'd lifted it to my face to inspect it further. My human fingertips brushed against the melted skin and it flaked away underneath like a bad sunburn. I grabbed a bit of it and tugged. It pulled away in a long, gooey string that stuck to the seat underneath me.

    “Don’t do that,” my mother snapped. I hadn’t even noticed her looking.

    It all started shortly after they were married, my father had said, back when they’d just begun to dream of the wonderful little family they would have together.

    “I’ve heard this story a thousand times,” I’d told him, huffing in frustration. “You and mom wanted a dozen kids, at least. But no matter what, it never seemed to happen. You nearly gave up, but the week after mom’s doctor told you it was hopeless, she got pregnant with me.”

    “No,” he’d said. “We never told you she got pregnant.”

    I quieted down and let him continue.

    “We’d tried everything at that point. Doctors, of course, but more than that. Faith healers, shamans. Wishing on shooting fucking stars. It seemed like every culture around the world had their little spells and charms to help with fertility, but at the end of the day most of them were full of shit.”

    “Until one wasn’t,” my mom whispered.

    “It was the strangest thing. Back before we moved here we lived in this tiny little town called Saint Janes. Down the block from our apartment was a widow, Mrs. Danby. She was a strange woman, kept to herself. Every single window to her house was covered in blackout curtains. I only ever saw her sitting on her porch when I left for the hospital before the sun rose. Or got home in the wee hours of the morning. She always waved, but...but she never said hello.”

    “We never told her anything,” my mom interjected. “Like he said, we never talked to her. I hadn’t told her about my issues with getting pregnant. I hadn’t told anyone, not even grandma and grandpa. I just felt so...useless…”

    “Margaret.” My dad’s voice softened, he reached out to squeeze her leg. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

    “But one day,” she continued, “the old woman showed up at the door. Dad was at work, and the sun was still high in the sky. In her arms was a dark purple blanket wrapped in a tight bundle. Whatever was inside was moving, squirming-”

    I swallowed down the lump expanding in my throat. “It was me?” I asked.

    She let out a long, shaking breath. "Yes. It was you."

    Road signs had flickered past the windows at that point, announcing our departure from town. Rain continued to beat heavily against the windows, blown from wind almost as chilly as the silence between us.

    My mother cleared her throat and continued.

    "She said she'd known of our struggles, how badly we wanted a family. That while she couldn't make our dreams come true, she could give us one. Just one. A child of our own.

    I was terrified. I thought she'd gone off her rocker for good. I thought she'd kidnapped a baby or something. But I was sort of mesmerized by her, too. I looked down at the bundle and even though I couldn't see anything inside, I could just feel it, you know? That child, that you, were ours."

    "I don't understand," I said, only for my father to snap back at me.

    "Just let your mother finish."

    "I invited her inside," she continued, "and she locked the door behind her. She ushered me back into the bedroom like she'd been there before, like she knew exactly where it was. She told me to keep quiet, to listen, or for as long as I lived I'd never hear the laughter of a child. I didn't even question it. I just believed her."

    "She pulled back the blanket and...and I," she wavered, gripping hard at the center console. "I didn't know what I was seeing. It was tiny and black as coal. I thought it was something dead, and then it started to coo.

    She set it down on the bed and it stretched its little arms, wiggled it's toes. Despite how strange it looked, it was clearly a baby.

    She took my hand in hers, squeezed it like a vice. It was ours now, she told me. Ours forever. As long as we protected it. As long as we loved it. I promised her we would. That it was all I ever wanted. When I looked back, its black little bones were gone, covered in soft pale flesh, red round cheeks…"

    "We do love you," my father added. Guilt swam in his voice like a koi fish. "You know that, right?"

    "She squeezed my hand tighter until I looked back over at her. Tears were streaming down my face at that point, but her eyes were hard as steel. She leaned in close. Her breath smelled like...menthol and incense…

    There was one rule we couldn't break if we truly wanted this child to be ours, she said. Once a year on the anniversary of that day, it would rain. It would rain all day and all night, until the ground flooded and trees fell, and no matter what we could never let that particular rain touch her skin. If we did, the illusion would be gone."

    "And the creatures that she came from," my father finished. "Would find her."

    A million questions filled my head, but as soon as each occured they drifted back out like a wave receding from the shore. It was too much for my mind to grasp. Somewhere along the line, exhaustion took me and I drifted off into a fitful sleep.

    Sometime later I started back awake only to find the air filled with my mothers soft snores My dad still stared vigilantly ahead of us. I couldn't recognize where we were. As I searched the dark night for a clue, I swore I could see shadows flickering along the tree line in the distance.

    "Dad," I muttered, pushing myself up from the seat with my skeletal hand. The pain had all but vanished. It felt stronger somehow, vibrant. Like a current of energy zipped up and down the length of my fingers. "Where are we going?"

    For a moment I wasn't sure he would answer me, too lost in his own grim thoughts and the all encompassing darkness ahead. Finally, he sighed, glancing back at me through the review mirror.

    "We're going to Saint Janes, Hallie. We're going to get some answers."

    The town sat several miles off of the highway; a small decrepit place one could easily pass through without realizing it even existed. The gas station on the its outskirts was the only lit building I saw. Otherwise, the dim glow of street lamps in the distance looked more like dying stars hanging close to earth, ready to fall.

    My mom started awake as we pulled to a stop. In a flash she’d taken in our surroundings and I could see the apprehension well up in her puffy cheeks.

    "Are you sure she's still here, Burt?"

    My father snorted. "Where else would the old hag go?"

    I stayed quiet in the backseat, ducked down with my hood pulled tightly around my head. I couldn't imagine how the woman was still alive, if she'd already been old when I was a baby. My father seemed confident though. What room did I have to argue?

    My mom darted off to use the restroom and outside the opposite door my dad fiddled with the gas cap. The storm had finally calmed into a half hearted drizzle around us, bathing the cement in a glossy, dazzling sheen.

    They knew I was close. That I was coming home. They didn't have to search for me any longer.

    Soon my parents packed back into the car. Even from behind them, I could practically feel them buzzing with trepidation, feel the hair on the back of their arms rising from the chill of the air. Large round drops of water pooled on their raincoats, so close I could reach out and touch it.

    The car jerked into motion and we pulled back onto the road. The town ahead inched closer as my dad stepped on the gas. For most of the trip I’d been tired and dazed in the backseat, but now I sat ramrod straight, attention held raptly by those lights in the distance. The tingling in my veins turned into a full on itch. It was all I could do to keep it at bay.

    Out of nowhere I lurched forward, forehead colliding with the back of the driver's seat before the suddenly tightened seatbelt made me gag from its pressure. I lifted both hands up to protect my face, to try in vain to push myself back up. The car was spinning, I realized, skating on the wet cement as if it were a roller rink, the tail end skidding to the left.

    “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” my mother chanted like a prayer. And then the impact hit and quieted all of us.

    Seconds crawled by like ants through molasses. I raised my clawed hand to my head and retracted it to find fresh flowing blood. The window next to me was cracked, one large round point of impact that spiderwebbed out in delicate patterns throughout the entirety of the pane. To my right the car was crumpled like an old candy wrapper, folded around a massive tree trunk.

    My mother was groaning, pawing at her right elbow. My father was slumped down in his seat.

    I leaned forward to peer over the center console. The headlights still illuminated the murky night ahead. Four lanky shadow figures stood vigantly in the distance, their bodies swaying and pulsing with unspent energy.

    Bang!

    I jumped as something collided with my side of the car. A hand I realized, pounding against the glass of my fathers window. A hand that was black as night, composed of delicate, spindly bones and a nineteen year vendetta.

    Something landed on top of the car and another hand pounded against the windshield.

    Neither of my parents had come to yet. My mind raced, trying to remember where my father had stashed the gun, turning over the possibility of us getting the car moving again even if we tried. Every train of thought only led back to one cold, hard reality: I couldn’t protect them. Not here. Not like this.

    In the distance, the others began to approach. I snatched my hoodie back over my head and pulled the strings to tighten it as far as it would go.

    My hand wrapped around the door handle. In front of me small pieces of glass chipped away from the rest of the pane on the driver's window and flew toward my fathers face. I took a deep, slow breath to steady myself.

    And then I shoved my door open.

    In seconds I was darting away, wincing as the dripping rain met my skin and sent short sizzles of pain searing through me. I shoved my hands in my pockets, which threw me off balance but at least kept the worst of it at bay as I made it one yard away. And then two.

    On the road there were more of them. One was collapsed on the ground, it’s long skeletal leg jutting off at a severe sort of angle with two more trying to pull it to its feet. From behind me, a screech filled the air, alerting the others to my presence. I swerved to avoid them and headed for the trees in the distance.

    I let out a pained cry as I broke through the forest line. My clothes were growing heavy with the weight of the water soaking into them, shaken off of the overhanging leaves. As it pressed against my skin the brief bursts of pain turned into a full-on blaze. It was as if boiling water or acid had seeped into my hoodie and jeans and clung like static against my skin.

    The pain quickly got the better of me, leaving me staggering, jerking my hands out of my pockets just in time to brace against a tree as I started to lose my balance. Its bark bit at my hands, rubbing away the delicate false skin that clung to it.

    My vision swayed, nausea bubbling in my stomach like a fizzy drink. I clawed desperately at the base of my jacket and the tank top underneath. Anything to make the burning stop. I pulled them up and over my head, crying as my skin clung to them, sloughing off my bones like a layer of dried glue.

    I glanced down at my body, I couldn’t help it. Somehow I still expected to see red, pulsing organs, pearly white ribs. But there was nothing of the sort. Only midnight dark bones, hard and protective like an exoskeleton.

    I fumbled next with my jeans, hands shaking in anticipation of the pain that would follow. Already the searing sensation from my torso had turned into a dull ache that I longed for across the rest of my body, skin be damned. Everything around me tilted and shivered, but as I kicked off my shoes and shoved the denim down over my ankles, movement from up ahead caught my eye.

    I stumbled out of my pants and fell backward, hitting the wet grass with a thud. Up ahead of me was one of them, standing regally against the trees. Another emerged from the shadows, and then another. I twisted to look behind me. Three more were already there.

    “Don’t hurt them,” I begged. My own voice was unfamiliar to me, filled with gravel. “Please, don’t hurt them. I’ll do anything, I-”

    “Why would we hurt them, dear?” A voice spoke from somewhere ahead of me. I looked back and forth between the creatures, trying to make sense of where those sweet, matronly words had originated from.

    From behind one of the trees another figure appeared, short and stooped, shuffling carefully over the uneven ground. Her grey hair stood out like a beacon in the dark night, yet the trees above cast ghastly shadows into the deep set wrinkles of her face. Her grin was sinister, yet nothing else in her posture suggested a threat. The creatures, my...family, parted to let her through.

    “All they want is for you to come home.”

    One of the creatures approached me. It was slow, hesitant in its movements. It reached a tentative hand out to brush against my cheek. I flinched, but forced my gaze up regardless to meet its violet eyes. I could swear I saw tears welling up in the corners.

    Two others moved forward, offering their hands to help me to my feet. Together, we stumbled after Miss. Danby as she turned and headed deeper into the forest. Behind me, the injured creature was helped along by the others and we kept a slow, steady pace with one another.

    In the distance, I could hear my father screaming my name.

    The forest was deeper and darker than I would have imagined, growing thick around me with each treacherous step. My feet caught in the underbrush, but for every trip and stumble the creatures stood patiently by my side as I recovered.

    Up ahead of us, Miss. Danby moved through the trees with startling ease despite her advanced age. Her and her companions nearly blended in with the wilderness, an extension of the gnarled bark and twisting branches around us. The thought comforted me, and then instantly filled me with unease as I realized how preposterous that was.

    Family or not, I didn’t belong here. The farther we went, the more I had to keep reminding myself.

    I’m not sure how long or how far we walked before the old witch finally came to a stop. I could barely make out a line of stones on the ground before her, jutting off in either direction and disappearing into the thick foliage. The creatures that had accompanied her continued onward, stepping over the rocks and flickering out of view. The group with the injured member soon followed.

    I blinked, and then squinted against the darkness. They hadn’t just tucked themselves away in the shadows. They disappeared entirely, as if the forest itself and sucked them back in. My gaze dropped back down to the stones for a moment, before rising to see Miss. Danby’s grinning face.

    “I found them by accident,” she explained, gesturing toward the towering trees behind her. “Many years ago, I lost my husband and daughter in a car crash. Overnight, I was left all alone. I took to wandering the forest. I’d walk for hours on end, listening to the wind and the birds, imagining I heard their voices whispering just under the surface. I was probably mad with grief, but it was like I knew if I just kept walking I might find them again.”

    “But you didn’t,” I said, taking a step closer to her. I understood the pull my mother felt to this strange, mesmerizing woman. Even though she spoke in a hushed, intimate volume, each word seemed polished, grand, rolling off her tongue with a conspiratory flourish.

    “Of course not,” she huffed. “They were dead.”

    It was her turn to move forward, floating past me to stop in front of the towering monster to my right. The one who’d brushed my cheek, looked at me with so much longing that it made my stomach twist. The old woman smiled at it and reached out to clutch it’s hand, giving it a small, loving squeeze.

    “But I did find them.”

    “What are they?” Finally, I felt something stirring within me, a hint of the dismay that I should have been feeling all along.

    “You mean,” she corrected, dropping the creature’s hand to point a finger in my direction. “What are you?

    My gaze dropped to the front of my body, the twisted black bones that had been hiding just below the surface. There were still spots of flesh speckled along my legs and torso, but even that was starting to curl around the edges and flake away. Soon, there’d be none left at all.

    “They don’t have a name,” she continued. “At least not one that humans would understand. They’re simply a part of the forest. A part of nature. They always have been. They live here. Tucked away safely behind their barrier.”

    The stones, I realized. They kept them hidden from the world.

    “They can’t leave unless it’s raining,” I said, voice breathless.

    Miss Danby nodded, pleased with my assessment. “No, they cannot.”

    That twisting feeling in my stomach became a full on lurch, visions of my life at home flashing before my eyes as if on a projector screen. My dorm room, messy and cramped, but filled with laughter and all-nighters. A year's worth of independence. Brian, with his boyish smile and crooked front tooth. On our third date he’d asked before he kissed me and brushed the hair out of my face. Mom and dad, all of our many battles contrasting against how fiercely they loved me, how proud they were of every accomplishment.

    “I can’t leave,” I continued. “Not once I’m past the stones.”

    Her grin faltered, though I suspected that was only for my benefit. Despite her compelling performance, empathy wasn’t a look that she wore well.

    “No,” she confirmed. “You cannot.”

    “Why?” I snapped, stumbling backward, away from them. The two creatures left moved toward me, tension rippling through their taut bodies. “Why do I have to go back?”

    “It’s your home,” she answered calmly, despite the hint of hysteria escalating in my voice. “It’s where you belong.”

    “Then why did you take me away? Why did you give me to my parents in the first place?”

    She sighed, a wrinkled hand raising to rest on one of their shoulders. “They’re a powerful species. I’m sure you’ve seen evidence of that. Unlike any other being on this earth. Unfortunately, they’re ill-equipped to take care of their young. In the past they lived alongside humans. They had an understanding with the local tribes in the area. The humans raised their young, and they offered them protection. When I found them, there were only a handful left.”

    “You tricked my parents. You preyed on their desire for a child. That’s sick!”

    My heart quivered like a rabbit in my chest. The creatures sensed my panic. One opened its mouth and let out a garbled roar. It seemed pleading, pained. Pity cooled the rising tide of my anger. At least until Miss Danby opened her mouth again.

    “Normally, they can’t keep them out of the rain so long. Your human family did an admirable job with you.”

    My fists curled at my side. I could feel the newfound power that resided within them. It pulsed, begging to be released. I imagined grabbing the old widow by the collar, darting off into the trees. Sinking my teeth into her skin…

    Bang!

    The noises of the forest came to an unsettling halt as the sound echoed off the tall trees surrounding us. I looked between the creatures in confusion, before my gaze fell on Miss. Danby. Her eyes were wide. Panicked. Looking down, a gaping whole in her chest leaked blood down her torso.

    Behind her, my father trained his gun on one of the monsters.

    In a flash they turned to him, screeching. One pounced, pinning him to the ground. The other knelt beside Miss. Danby, warbling as it tried to cover her wound. The shock rooted me in place, at least until another of them emerged from the stone barrier. And then another. They darted off to join the battle.

    “Dad!”

    He screamed as claws dug into his shoulder, sinking through like warm butter. In a flash the long black arm jerked back, pulling his shoulder along with it. Gore exploded from the wound, sinew stretched and did its best to hold on until my father’s arm was separated completely. I stumbled forward in a daze. “Stop,” I begged them. “Please, stop!”

    The creature at Miss. Danby’s side rose to face me. I cowered as it stepped closer, the warmth of tears stinging my bony cheeks.

    “Don’t let them kill him. I’ll come with you. I’ll do anything.”

    It tilted its head. Despite the fact they didn’t speak, I knew intrinsically that it could understand me. If only I could say the same about it.

    It glanced back at my father, now surrounded by four of them. There was so much blood, too much blood. I couldn’t tell what they’d done to him. His screams had grown quiet, weak. A sob shook my shoulders.

    The creature moved like a flash of lighting bursting through the sky. It wrapped it’s willowy arms around me, scooping me up against its chest. “No,” I gasped, beating my fists against it. “Put me down!”

    It turned, and darted off into the forest. Away from the rocks.

    It moved quickly, weaving with expert precision through trees and over stones. If the others noticed, if the others followed, we had enough of a head start to outrun them. Rain still leaked out from the sky above, but would soon end. The creatures wouldn’t be able to leave, not for me. Not for another year.

    When we emerged out onto the darkened street I found my mother sitting on the dented hood of the car. It was running, somehow, pulled back and away from the trunk it’d slammed into. She had her hand raised to her mouth, chewing anxiously at her nails, her eyes stained red. The creature lowered me to the ground and my mother gasped as she noticed me.

    She rushed toward us, only to falter as she got close enough to see the creature up close. I covered the distance instead, stooping to throw my arms around her neck.

    “You’re father,” she said. “Is he…?”

    “Gone,” I mumbled, sniffling. “He’s gone.”

    She nodded, and stepped back from me. “Get in the car, Hallie.”

    I stepped forward, and then paused. The creature stayed put behind me, watching wearily as it’s daughter left it for the second time. This time of its own volition.

    I met it’s purple eyes, glossy and filled with grief. I knew that it wouldn’t be back to chase me down in the coming years. The same couldn’t be said for the others. Whatever this creature was, whatever I was...it loved me.

    “Come with us,” I said. I could hear my human mother sucking in a startled breath behind me. She didn’t argue though. Didn’t question it. She, of course, loved me too.

    The creature hesitated, glancing back at the forest that was it’s home, taking in the chirps and warbles and the chilly, refreshing breeze. This was where it belonged, and we both knew it.

    That’s what made it so surprising when it stepped forward toward the car.

    We packed into the backseat, huddling together as my mom pulled back on to the highway. The rain had slowed into an unenthusiastic drizzle. A purple-pink sunrise peaked over the skyline. I smiled at the creature next to me and reached out to grab its hand.

    My Family was going home...

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 4

    Back in the long forgotten year of 1988, I was thirteen, spending my first time going on an overnight camping trip. Back in those days there was limited options for entertainment. My parents were going to go crazy with me running around the house for the entire summer. They put together some money to send me away for a trip to the lake for three days. I packed my bags right away feeling excited I was finally being trusted going somewhere overnight without my parents.

    The group was made of six girls all around the same age with two adults as supervisors. They held three-day camping trips every weekend in the summer and normally had a bigger turn out. For whatever reason, we had a smaller group. Which was fine by the two adults taking care of us. Herding six barely teen girls around the woods was a hard enough job. The first day went smooth, despite our bursts of energy threatening to sabotage the trip.

    We each got into pairs as a tent buddy. We needed to set up pour tents on our own, or mostly on our own. Katie was my tent buddy. We started off strong setting up but needed help putting the last few poles into the packed dirt. I knew Katie from school but wasn’t in the same class as her. She was a shy girl, still we got along just fine. The other girls started to tease her because Katie was the youngest yet the biggest girl of us all. In that moment I decided to defend her during the weekend and we kept working away at the tent ignoring the other girls until they lost interest. Proud of our work setting up our tent, we treated each other to treats we stashed away in our bags. After lunch was finished and cleaned up, the groups went down to the lake to swim. Hours went by. All six of us started to get along and by the time we needed to return to camp for dinner we were all so exhausted we let the adult supervision teach us important facts along the way. Things like what poison ivy looks like, how to know if some wild animals are in the area. Stuff that we should know, but was always good to be reminded even if summer wasn’t for learning.

    Drew wanted us to roast hotdogs for our dinner. He was finding it difficult to light a fire used a flint kit. He wanted to teach us a new skill. After a few minutes of a pack of hungry girls complaining he gave up digging out a lighter instead. Stacy was our other supervisor. She was a pretty girl only about twenty. When you’re thirteen, that seems pretty old. Her nails painted cute colors us girls loved. She didn’t seem to be the outdoors type of girl. Drew might have needed help keeping all the girl in check and called in some back up. Drew was a youth pastor and the Church ran the camping trips. Even so, he did not make us say grace before eating or even have any religious activities planned for us. He let us stuff ourselves and when dark came, we told some scary stories around the fire. It was only nine PM when he made all of us go to bed but from the active day our little bodies felt like it was much later. Each of us went to our tents with almost no complaints about bed time.

    I’d fallen asleep very easily. Only an hour passed before Katie woke me up by nervously shuffling in her sleeping bag.

    “Are you alright?” I asked her in a low whisper.

    “Sorry, did I wake you up?” She replied back in the dark.

    “Nah.” I lied. I wondered if she needed to go to the washroom. A porta-potty was set up pretty close by. “Do you need to go pee?” I asked her.

    I couldn’t see her face in the dark. I rustled around looking for my flashlight. I didn’t need to go but I didn’t mind walking down with her if she was scared.

    “Yeah...Do... Do you think that story Drew told had any truth in it?” She asked sheepishly.

    “The Smiling Man in the woods? Nah. He’s just making stuff up. If the woods were dangerous our parents wouldn’t let us go.”

    I heard her head move against her sleeping bag nodding at my words. Turning on the light, I helped her out of the tent for a quick pee run. Some giggling came from the tent beside us. Jane and Betty talked nonstop all day. They might chat all night if someone didn’t stop then. I was tempted to jump at their tent to scare them but left it alone. They would regret staying up all night tomorrow morning. And I didn’t want to get in trouble for pulling a prank. Katie was still scared. I took her hand and held the flashlight in the other. I even stood guard outside the porta-potty while she took care of her business just in case. Katie had older siblings but I didn’t. She seemed lonely and homesick already. I was trying my best to act like an older sister to comfort her.

    In the brush I thought I saw yellow eyes flicker looking at me. Shining the flashlight in the direction of the eyes I saw nothing. Just forest animals wondering what we were doing. I was a little scared of coming across a bear or something along those lines. Ghost stories or crazy serial killers in the woods didn’t scare me in that moment. The forest sounded like how a forest should at night. Spooky trees creaking and all. Just as Katie came out ready to head back a scream cutting through the night made us freeze in fear. It came from the direction of the camp. The low fire gave us enough light to sort of make out the tents and a dark figure stalking around our campsite. Watching in horror the figure went over to Drew’s tent, ripped it open and dragged Stacy out by the leg. I grabbed Katie holding her close to me terrified at what was going on. Stacy fought the figure with everything she had. She thrashed and tossed anything within arm's reach towards the figures face. Drew came out of the tent, tackling the person, or thing off of her. Stacy got up and ran. At first, I thought she left everyone behind, Instead, she found the axe for firewood using it on her attacker. It was too much for me. I turned my head away, body shaking unable to keep watching the horrible sight. Katie was crying as we held each other waiting for an adult to come and tell us everything was alright. We had only been gone for a few minutes. How did everything go so wrong so fast?

    We both screamed went we heard footsteps come close a few minutes later. Opening my eyes, I saw it was Stacy, black staining her shirt. She smelled like ten-day old rotting fish and it made me gag. In her hand was the axe covered with more of that rancid smelling black liquid. Betty And Jane beside her, holding each other while crying and shaking like me and Katie.

    “Come one. If we follow the trail, we’ll hit Mr. Bobbi’s farmhouse. He has a phone.” Stacy said trying to sound strong but her voice came out weak and shaking.

    “Where’s Mr. Drew? And Nina... And-” I started to say the other names of our missing campmates but my throat closed up and only a sob came out. I knew what happened to them. I just couldn’t say it.

    “They’re gone. Come on.”

    Using her free arm Stacy scooped it behind us to get us to start walking down the trail as fast as our small legs would carry us. Once we started walking Stacy kept both hands on the axe, and I was in front both hands on the flashlight guiding our way as Katie kept her arms around my waist. Betty and Jane still sobbed behind us no matter how hard they tried to choke it down.

    My hands shook. Every sound made me think something was just beyond the trees waiting to jump out and take us. My eyes darted around trying to see everything at once making me dizzy. The farmhouse was a half an hour walk away at the best of times. Drew’s car was closer and I wondered why Stacy wasn’t leading us there. I assumed Drew had his keys on him when the figure took him, or Stacy didn’t want to stay at the camp long enough to find them. When you’re so young and scared you don’t think about other escape plans. You only accept what the adult tells you. I got another whiff of the horrible rotten fish smell when the wind shifted. Gagging and eyes watering I refuse to stop.

    Minutes passed and the smell decreased enough to make me stop choking on the bile rising in my throat. It was only then I noticed Betty was the only one still sobbing. Stacy noticed it at the same time. We both turned to look, only seeing the small brown-haired girl and Jane just gone without a trace.

    “Run!”

    Stacy’s shout got us moving. She grabbed Betty roughly dragging her along by her arm. The girl screaming in fear. Katie was the slowest of us. She was dragging me behind. Still, I kept one arm around her, trying my best to get her to go a little bit faster. When another dark shape came out of the trees directly in front of Stacy, she didn’t stop. She let out a startled scream, swinging the axe at the figure’s head. I saw a flash of glowing yellow eyes before hearing the awful crack of the axe connecting to its skull. It collapsed to the trail. Stacy wasted no time yanking the blade out that was stuck in the thing's skull.

    I shone my flashlight trying to get a better look at the figure. Black blood like oil oozed from the head wound. The face was pitch dark and flat with no nose. It’s skin so dark and wet looking. More of that smell came drifting over causing Katie to start gagging this time. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t human. That much I knew.

    We didn’t even have time to guess at what it was before another came out of the trees. Stacy clipped it with her axe, making it scream and dart away. She was breathing hard. If more of these things came at us, I didn’t think we would make it. Stacy was only one person and she had to defend three scared girls. Even so, she looked ready to do it. Another creature came at us. Sadly, while Stacy was dealing with the first one, two more came. In seconds they grabbed Betty, dragging her screaming into the woods. Stacy screamed and cursed at them, pain across her face that she didn’t keep the girl safe. More and more of those creatures started to appear and poked their heads from the trees in front of us. She gave us a look. No words just a look and I knew what it meant and what to do.

    She ran towards the monsters, axe in hand and me and Katie ran back down the trail towards the camp knowing we would never get passed the wall of pitch-dark monsters. Stacy gave us some time and we weren’t going to waste it. Running hard, Katie kept up with me. Tears pouring down her face. I wanted to cry but knew if I gave into that I wouldn’t be able to keep going.

    Lungs burning, we ran until we saw the orange light of the fire. I planned to get the hotdog pokers, or well, anything I could use as a weapon. For a half a second, I felt almost safe. Maybe if I found the keys, we could find the car and hide inside if we couldn’t drive it. Maybe, just maybe, Stacy would get away and we could all go together. All my hopes were crushed when Katie stumbled, falling hard. I was running so fast I accidentally left her behind for a few paces before skidding to a stop to go back for her. A dark monster took it as a chance to swoop in trying to drag her away. I went by Stacy's example. I let out a war cry that would have sounded funny in any other situation. Jumping on the creatures back I hit it with my flashlight as hard as I could as many times as I was able aiming for its head. Our struggling only lasted a few seconds. I was tossed off its back, onto the hard ground. Looking at me with yellow eyes set in a dark face, it decided we weren’t worth it and sulked off.

    I’d saved us for the moment. I needed to get Katie up and moving back into camp and get a better weapon. My stomach turned when I looked at her. A long gash on her stomach was pouring blood onto the ground. I shook my head to clear it, refusing to give up. Grabbing her under the arms I started to drag her back towards camp and towards the dim orange light of the fire. I knew some basic first aid but already was sure this was far beyond what I could help with. Leaving her behind was not an option just yet. Horrible wound or not, I needed to at least try and help her.

    I was sweating and panting by the time I got her by the fire. I kept repeating how sorry I was that I needed to drag her and hurting her while doing so. She was very brave and kept her sobs very low for my sake. Digging around in Drew’s ruined tent I started to look for anything of use. Just normal camping gear. No weapons I could see and no car keys. I grabbed the first aid kit, another flashlight and some scissors. I was hoping to find a knife of some sort. No such luck. I avoided the other tents. I could smell the blood mixed in with the fishy rot and didn’t want to know what horror waited for me inside.

    I tried cleaning Katie up a little but was well over my head. I didn’t want to hurt her by touching her o much. Seeing that amount of blood nearly made me sick. I didn’t even know of the fact I felt faint seeing blood until that point. I was so stressed I wasn’t even aware of someone walking up to our camp until they were just outside the light of the embers. My body jolted into action as I grabbed the scissors in one hand and hotdog stick in the other. The black blood-soaked axe came into view and for a brief moment I thought Stacy made it back. That was not the case.

    A man came into the light, dressed in baggy clothing that hung loose on his thin frame. Long straight white hair was halfheartedly pulled back into a low ponytail but most of it still stayed in his face making it hard to see his features.

    “Who...?” I choked.

    “Two left? Good for you. “

    Ignoring me, he sat down next to the fire pit and started placing wood onto trying to get it going again. I was so shocked at his calm manner I couldn’t react. A soft cry from Katie brought me back to my senses.

    “I need help! My friend is hurt, and there are things in the woods eating everyone! Stacy had that axe is she alright?! Did you see her? Please tell me something. No, please help Katie first she’s really hurt and I’m so scared there is a lot of blood and I don’t-” Once the words started, they just kept coming. They poured from me without any thought of what I was saying. I was having a meltdown.

    As I kept talking the man started to stiffen at the sounds just pouring out towards him. He raised a hand to make me stop speaking and the other to his forehead as if in pain. When I didn’t stop pleading, he snapped first.

    “Stop talking!”

    His voice was so loud it kept echoing through the woods for a few seconds. I was frozen in fear by the sound and dropped all my makeshift weapons. I’d never had an adult just snap at me like he just did. A tense second passed between use. Rubbing his temple, I saw regret flutter over his face from getting angry with me. It only lasted a second before he regained his tired worn-out look.

    I went over to Katie about ready to burst from stress when he also came over. He held a hand over her wound. I looked in amazement as most of her blood just faded with a wave of his hand and her gash closed a little. Not much but it looked better than before.

    “Who... What...?” I asked in a very small voice just in case he would yell again.

    With a long-suffering sigh, he went back to the fire back turned to me.

    “I have a migraine... Your friend may last through the night if she’s lucky.”

    “What about Stacy? Did you see her?”

    “You don’t need to worry about her anymore.”

    His cold tone nearly brought me to tears. I wanted nothing more than to just start crying and shouting but Katie still needed me. This man might be able to help us. Breaking down wouldn’t help us get out of there. Glancing up I saw yellow eyes in the dark and I trembled. The creature saw us, head poking out from the trees a few feet away, drool dripping from an open mouth of sharp teeth. When it saw the man next to the fire, it’s eyes widened in fear and darted back into the woods.

    “Those monsters are scared of you...” I stated after I saw the strange sight.

    Looking over his should at me his eyes narrowed. He didn’t want to talk and he didn’t want to hear me asking questions. Until I got some answers one of those things was going to happen.

    “I'm like, their boss. They need to follow certain rules and they broke the first one. Only seven of them should be in this area. It was ten but I cut the number down as a punishment. I’ve killed the extras so right now, seven are in the woods.”

    He explained. He sounded tired for how young he looked under his bleached white hair. I wondered if he was sick or something.

    “The other rule is they can only kill one human per night. So, seven of them can kill seven humans. So far they’ve killed six.”

    My throat caught again. Gripping Katie’s hand, I hoped it comforted her enough to calm her down after hearing such news. We were the last two left of our group. Fear seeped into my bones making me feel cold even as the flames started to rise in the firepit.

    “They can still kill one more, right...?” I asked hoarsely.

    He didn’t reply. He only gave me another look over his shoulder to confirm that fact. Even after it sunk in, I felt a little sense of relief. The monsters wouldn’t attack us. I could just stay there or around the man and be safe. Looking back down at Katie my hope fluttered away. Unless he could heal her more, there was a very big chance she won’t make it through the night. I needed to get to the farmhouse and to a phone for help.

    “Can you carry her for me? We need to get out of here! She’ll die if I don’t call someone to help her and I can’t go alone through those woods with those monsters!” My voice started out strong but soon it went back into a begging and pleading tone.

    “I’m staying here all night. My head is killing me.”

    My eyes darted to the axe tempted to threaten him with it until he listened. If he could kill those monsters in the woods, I had no chance of getting him to go along with my plan. If I went, I might die before I got help. If I stayed Katie might die before sunrise. The world was so unfair at that point. I held her hand so tight it must have hurt my new friend but she didn’t complain.

    “Stay here with me.” Katie said finally in a weak voice.

    I looked down at her really wanting nothing more than to do just that. Staying meant risking her life. I wondered if she was considering that when she asked me. She might have just wanted someone by her side while she was scared and in pain.

    “Please, can’t you heal her?” I begged once again.

    “I’ve done as much as I can. It’s not my job to help humans. I don’t care which one of you lives. Only that those creatures don’t break their last rule and I'm forced to kill them.”

    “You should kill them all! They, they killed-” I couldn't get the words out. I thought of Stacy and Drew and the girls I spent the day with. They were gone and there was nothing I could do about it aside from hate the ones who murdered them.

    “It’s just their nature. Although that fact might be impossible for a human to understand. You have been on top of the food chain for so long you think it’s a tragedy when one of you dies when in any other species, it’s just how life is.”

    My gut stirred with a white-hot rage. I wanted to attack the man in front of us whoever he was. I knew giving into my emotions wouldn’t help. I just let myself cry and hold Katie’s hand hoping it felt like she had a sibling with her in that moment. I knew what my decision was and needed to get all the crying out before I followed through on it.

    “You could kill her you know. That way you would-”

    I didn’t let him finish. I tossed whatever was close to me at his head. He raised a hand to deflect the attack making the scissors fly off into the darkness. I thought he would be angry at me but he just looked at me a little stunned at my reaction.

    “I'm not killing her! Katie is a sweet girl who is going to live a long life and do so many good things! She’s not dying tonight and I’m making sure of that!”

    Standing up I went over to the axe wrapping a hand that could barely fit around the handle. It was heavy for me but I would need to manage. Rubbing the tears from my eyes, I looked around for the flashlight ready to leave to the farmhouse. Grabbing it, ready to go the man stopped me by standing in my way.

    “What’s your name?” He asked and it made me stop and blink.

    “Savanna...” I told him not knowing why he asked.

    “I’m Learin. I’ll give you a little bit of help.”

    “Earing?” I misheard his name.

    “No, Lea-never mind let me borrow the axe.”

    I pulled it away from him defensively. I didn’t want to trust him after he treated us but didn’t have any other options. Letting he take the axe, he held in in one hand. In the other he ran a fingernail across his thumb hard enough to make it bleed. Pressing the thumb to the axe handle the wood faded turning a solid silver. The black blood disappeared off the weapon until it was a pure and glittering in the dark. When he gave it back to me, I found the now silver axe light enough for my small body to handle.

    “This is all I can do. You have to fight through this on your own. You may have a weapon now to increase your chances but don’t get cocky out there. And... I know this is hard to ask but please don’t kill those monsters if you don’t need too. I don’t like it when my creatures have senseless deaths. Killing for food is one thing but...”

    Gripping the new weapon in one hand I found it suddenly felt heavy. Learin, whoever he was cared about these creatures. He didn’t want them to die if he could help it. He must have a rough time being the one to kill them when they broke their rules. No wonder why he looked so tired and pained. I nodded at him and looked over at Katie. She still hadn’t sat up. I wasn’t even sure if she was aware of what was going on. If I died and she lived she would never forgive me for leaving her. I just needed to make it for her sake.

    Giving them both one last look I ran off back down the trail new flashlight guiding my way. I didn’t know where the farmhouse was but I remembered hearing I just needed to follow the trail out and I would see it. I used up a lot of my strength running for a few minutes. Forcing to pace myself I slowed down while looking out for yellow eyes in the dark not feeling safe in the slightest. Shortly I passed the spot where Stacy made her last stand. Tears threatened to make me stop. I didn’t see any traces of her, only the bodies he left behind. Stepping around the scattered remains I breathed through my mouth trying to get over the smell.

    When I get a few feet away from the area I heard a crunching noise behind me. Turning and shining my flashlight back I gasped seeing four creatures in the middle of the trail. Long fingers snatching up pieces of the fallen and sharp teeth tearing apart the dark flesh. They looked at me but didn’t stop eating. If the four stayed there, I only had three more to worry about somewhere in the woods.

    Quickening my pace, I went on. Every sound put me on edge. Sniffing the air to see if I could smell if any more of those monsters were coming closer to me. Ten minutes passed without any issues. I thought I saw some yellow eyes watching in the woods but they didn’t approach. The silver axe might be keeping them away. After all, they had the bodies of my campmates and their fallen to eat. Why go for someone with a weapon when they had some free meals all over the place? I thought I was in the clear when a figure came out of the trees stopping in front of me.

    I knew which one this was. It was the bastard that hurt Katie and the one I smashed my flashlight on. One eye was closed and the other looked at me with such hate. I knew he wanted to eat my guts for the damage I'd done to it before. It bolted towards me before I could move. A clawed arm grabbed my shirt lifting me up just as I swung the axe down into its shoulder. Letting out a scream it tore the axe out tossing it aside, then or some reason it tossed me as well. I sat up feeling bruised to see where I struck it the wound was burning and flaking the dark skin. I scrambled in a panic to where my axe was. Without any rational thought I darted off into the woods with the thing screaming following behind.

    I’d dropped my flashlight and ran blind into the woods without any idea of what I was doing. I should have stayed on the path but it was too late now. The thing was chasing me wanting to kill me. It was injured but I still didn’t have much of a chance against it.

    I ran feeling as if my legs would give up on me at any moment. Tears stung my eyes and branches cut my face. I still ran for Katie's sake. The thing behind me stopped screaming but I knew it was still after me. My heart leapt into my throat when I thought I saw something in front of me through the trees. A beam of light moving confusing me on what it could be. Over my own breathing I didn’t hear any other noises but my brain clicked into the fact I just saw some car headlights. I was near a road! I ran chest threatening to burst. I tripped over a branch and rolled into the ditch along the side of the road I was so thankful for. Every muscle screamed at me as I got up and crawled out of the ditch towards the highway. It was late but I knew this was a popular route for truckers. One would stop for me if someone would just, please drive by.

    When I stood it felt like I twisted my ankle. I dragged my body almost passing out from the effort. Axe still in hand I looked up and down the road frantic.

    A blow to my back tossed me rolling into the middle of the lane. I gasped for air and stared at the monster that just kicked me aside. My axe dropped too far for me to reach in time. It got on all fours, blood pouring from its wounded shoulder. I stared in horror knowing this was the end for and just wait for it to come at me. yellow eyes glaring it let out a long scream of hate at me it dug its claws into the ground ready to pounce. I couldn’t move my ragged body and did the only thing I could think of. I screamed right back at it. Getting up on one elbow I emptied out my lungs in a screech that made the thing not only stop from attacking me, but take a step back. We both stared each other down for a few seconds. Those few seconds might have saved my life.

    A blaring truck horn came from down the road. The creature looked over seeing a transport truck coming right at it. Giving me one last look, it skittered back off into the woods.

    The next few hours were a muddled frantic blur I still don’t fully remember to this day. The driver stopped to get me off the road and down to the farmhouse and to a phone. He went with the farmer into the woods to check on Katie while I stayed at the house with the farmer's wife going between crying and sleeping. Morning came around when I woke up. Dragging my tired body to the porch I saw emergency crews scattered on the driveway and officers going onto the trail. Someone told me Katie was already on the way to the hospital and let me sit on a chair on the porch until another ambulance came for me. I sat watching everyone run around trying to get a search started for the missing girls and Drew. I didn’t know why no officers started to question me yet. I might have looked too out of it to be of any help.

    Someone did sit beside me to talk with me though.

    “I wasn’t expecting so many of you to make it.” Learin sat next to me, silver axe resting against the wooden rocking chair he was in.

    “I...” I wanted to speak but was too tired to say anything.

    “I’m taking this axe with me. No offense it’s too powerful to leave it with you. Unless you want my job.”

    “Pardon?” I asked directing my heard towards him trying to see if he was joking.

    “Kings only last for ten years. More if they’re really strong. They need to switch bodies before it breaks down. I’ve been doing this job for five and I would like to pass the crown onto someone else. It’s too tiresome. I don’t know why I agreed to doing this in in the first place. It’s also too much of a brother to set up tests for other candidates so I'm just asked anyone who survives a supernatural encounter if they want the gig.”

    I stared at him not believing the words coming out of his mouth. I didn’t want to come across another monster or creature of the dark ever again. Having his job was way out of the question. This guy really needed to get some standards too. He was asking a thirteen-year-old girl to take over such an important position. How lazy could one person be.

    “If I could move, I would punch you for asking.”

    I heard a small sound that was almost a laugh from him.

    “I should have expected that answer. At least you don’t need to worry about monsters bothering you again. Any King Candidates are off limits. If you weren't one, you’re guaranteed to be killed by something supernatural someday because you encountered some.”

    “But I refused...” I started and shutting up too late.

    “That doesn’t matter. You’re still an honored human the King recognized. If you don’t want my job, you can become a Knight. It would mean you would turn into some sort of creature but you wouldn’t be under such strict rules about protecting humans as I am. You friend Katie accepted that offer to turn when she’s eighteen.”

    I shot my head up. Katie agreed to be tuned into something horrible like those things that attacked us? Like the things that killed everyone right in front of us? My knee jerk reaction was anger but the reason why she would agree to such a thing came to my mind. She was hurt badly, nearly died and powerless to help me as I risked my life to save her. She might have wanted to get some sort of strength to ensure she never felt like that again.

    “You don’t need to answer right away. Hell, you can ask to become a Knight or the next King right before your death. So, just let it stay in the back of your mind.” He stood up from the chair axe over his shoulder and stretched. “I’m leaving and I hope I never see you again.”

    It wasn’t the nicest goodbyes but I appreciated the thought behind it. Standing up I was ready to talk to the cops even though I didn’t have a good story for them. I stopped when Learin looked over towards the trail and gave a small impressed whistle.

    “Looks like I miscounted last night. What an embarrassing mistake.”

    What I saw made me run past him and down the dirt driveway. Stacy was out of the trail coming out of the trail being guided by officers and wrapped in a blanket. She looked beat up but still alive and walking. I didn’t care about supernatural kings or knights. I only cared about getting to Stacy and hugging her for fighting so hard to save us.

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 5

    “So, is there, like, a list of weird rules I have to follow or something?” I asked, because I can be kind of a smart ass sometimes.

    “Only one rule on this job, kid,” Stanley said. “Don’t die.”

    He wasn’t joking.

    Stanley handed me a heavy, three cell Mag-Lite and wished me luck, before pulling the security gate down over the abandoned hospital’s entrance and locking it.

    “Listen,” he said before turning away. “It’s not a rule, just some good advice; try to stick to the upper floors. The hallways are narrower and ceilings are lower. That’ll give you a little bit of an edge.”

    “What? What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, but he was already hobbling down the hospital’s front steps to the company truck idling at the curb.

    “You’ll be okay,” he called over his shoulder. “I got a good feeling about you.”

    I didn’t want this job. Fact is, I didn’t want any job. My father says I’m shiftless and lack ambition. He never says that to my face, but he never bothers to check the room to see if I can overhear him, either. Mom claims that I just haven’t found the right spirit guide to illuminate my life path. She’s really into all that New Age stuff. My girlfriend (I should probably say ex-girlfriend, since she’s been ghosting me for the past five days) thinks I’m depressed.

    I used to work in the mailroom at an investment firm downtown. To me, it was just a job, not a career. I was pretty ambivalent towards stocks and bonds, the market, and getting promoted to an office upstairs. While the other mailroom employees were networking, building relationships, and going the extra mile to get noticed, I just dropped envelopes off at people’s desks. A smile and a nod was pretty much all the social interaction I could handle. Then the pandemic hit, and I was laid off.

    My roommates made the most of it. Anita delivered for GrubHub and learned to play guitar online. Sanjay worked from home. He actually wore pants to his Zoom meetings. Me? I sat in my room, listening to creepypasta narrations on YouTube (which is where I got the idea for the “weird rules” joke that Stanley didn’t get), and, every-once-in-awhile when I was feeling particularly motivated, I’d play a couple levels of Candy Crush Saga. I never wore pants. If it weren’t for the home screen on my phone, I wouldn’t have even known what month it was, let alone what day of the week. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t do anything. Sometimes, I would check my own pulse, just to see if I was still alive. The only way the level of suckitude in my existence could increase was if I had to move back in with my parents. That became a real possibility when they started lifting the pandemic restrictions and my unemployment benefits ran out.

    I didn’t get my old job back when the firm re-opened. HR sent me a text, telling me they were downsizing the mailroom. I was too busy wallowing in inertia to care, but my roommates didn’t take the news well. The first time I couldn’t come up with my share of the rent, Anita and Sanjay gave me an ultimatum; find a job and kick in by the time the next month’s rent was due or get out. They were not amused when I told them that I expected my investment in scratch off tickets to pay big any day now (like I said, kind of a smart ass).

    The prospect of moving back in with my parents, living with my father’s disappointment and my mom’s pity, was what finally got me off my ass. Of course, I started with Craig’s List.

    The night watchman gig seemed ideal; low effort with no education or experience necessary, perfect for a low energy, uneducated, inexperienced type like me. And they had an immediate opening. I figured I’d be sitting in a booth somewhere, playing around on my phone all night and getting paid for it. I called the number and was asked to come down for an interview immediately, so I showered for the first time in days, and threw on some semi-clean pants. They even sent an Uber.

    The company was in a storefront. There was a sign in the window, you know, the old fashioned kind where they paint it backwards on the inside of the glass. The ornate script was chipped and faded, but it wasn’t Sharpie scrawled on cardboard, so I figured it must be legit. Inside, I was met by a man who looked to be in his fifties, with receding hair and a good start on a pot belly. He introduced himself as “Stanley.” Walking with a pronounced limp, he led me to his office and motioned me to a chair.

    The interview wasn’t at all what I expected. He didn’t seem to care about where I went to school, my job history, or what qualifications I might have. Mostly, he wanted to know about my situation; was I close to my family? (not really), did I have a lot of friends? (no), was I dating anyone? (it’s complicated, but probably not), stuff like that. It threw me off a little, his line of questioning, but then he asked about my size. I told him I was 5’5” and 130 lbs. He smiled big, clapped his hands together, and said “Excellent!” So, yeah, that was pretty weird.

    “One last question,” he said. “You a good runner?”

    “Runner?” I asked, not sure what he was getting at.

    “You know, running.” He pumped his arms at his side, miming a jogger. “Are you fast? Got any endurance?”

    I shrugged. “I lettered in cross-country in highschool, but that was five years ago.”

    “It’ll do,” he said, scribbling an address on a Post-it note and handing it to me. “Meet me here no later than ten forty-five tonight.”

    “Aren’t we going to discuss pay and benefits, stuff like that?”

    "Let's see how things go tonight. If you still want the job in the morning, we’ll talk about pay and benefits then.”

    He walked me to the door, smiling ear to ear. “I got a good feeling about you, kid,” he said, shaking my hand.

    I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I was about to be kidnapped by some weirdo with a fetish for chasing short people. I know, because I was thinking the exact same thing. At ten twenty-five my Uber showed up for the ride across town. I almost didn’t go, but the thought of moving back into my parents' basement convinced me to take a chance. Besides, even five years after my last cross-country meet, I was pretty sure I could run faster scared than Stanley could run horny. Fifteen minutes later, I was dropped off in front of St. Luke’s Memorial Hospital.

    You’d think that a creepy, abandoned hospital would have some stories floating around, but I didn’t even know the place existed until the car pulled up in front of the building. The hospital, set back from the street a hundred feet or so with a semicircular drive leading to the entrance, was in a neighborhood of walk-ups with a few ground level storefronts. Stanley sat in a company pick-up truck by the front steps.

    The building itself had two wings, one on either side of the main entrance. It was five stories tall, with a flat roof, and was constructed of poured concrete with yellow brick accents around the windows, you know, like those ugly, old high schools from the seventies that you see in your parents’ yearbook photos. The windows were all covered by ornate iron bars. A high brick wall, topped with spikes in the same style as the window bars, hid the rest of the grounds.

    “So what exactly am I supposed to be doing here?” I asked, as he ushered me up the front steps.

    “You just stay inside and keep an eye on things until seven AM. The water is still on in the main building, in case you need a drink or to use the bathroom, but there’s no power.”

    “Okay, but what do I do if somebody tries to break in or something? Call the police?”

    “Your phone won’t work inside, all the rebar in the concrete blocks the signal, but don’t worry. Nobody ever tries to break in. Just do what you need to do to get through the night. I’ll be back at seven.”

    There were red flags popping up all over the place, but, instead of paying attention to them, I was too busy being disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to watch YouTube. That’s when I decided to be Captain Smart Ass and ask about weird rules.

    The first couple hours were uneventful. I spent them wandering around the hospital, shining my flashlight into dusty exam rooms and empty offices. The main part of the building was a drab square, its floors covered with murky gray linoleum tiles, the walls a neutral beige. Even without the years of grime and dust coating every surface, this place would have been lifeless. It occured to me that if my existence could be translated into architecture, it would look a lot like this. A hallway beside the reception desk led deeper into the building. Beyond a defunct pair of elevators and the central stairs, was a cafeteria, kitchen, a couple of administration offices, and a waiting room. Most of the furniture and equipment had been removed, but there were still some odd and ends lying around, empty desks, file cabinets, and a few office chairs, you know, stuff like that. In the waiting room, I found what looked like upside down traffic cones made of brushed aluminum. I had no idea what they were, until I took a closer look and saw that they were filled with sand and cigarette butts. This place must have closed before I was born, because I can’t ever remember a time when people could smoke in hospitals.

    The wings on either side of the main building had a central hall, with emergency stairways at each end. The halls were lined with doors to offices, probably for all the doctors that had worked here. The doors were all open and the glow from the street lights outside filtered through the grimy windows. It was enough that I could make my way around without the flashlight, but I used it anyway.

    Something I should’ve noticed much sooner was the lack of vandalism. No one had tagged the walls with graffiti or smashed the windows. There were no crushed beer cans or empty Mad Dog bottles, no used needles or busted meth pipes. I did find a couple of rooms where it looked like someone had kicked the doors off their hinges. Inside each were broken furniture and deep gashes in the plaster walls. More red flags that I ignored.

    By about two-thirty in the morning, I was actually starting to get into the job. For the first time in recent memory, I was actually engaged with the world around me instead of being lost in my phone screen. There was this low grade buzz in the back of my head. It kinda reminded me of the way I felt running a new cross country course at an away meet, or going on a first date, when everything is new and fresh and maybe a little bit scary. Describing a hospital that’s been abandoned longer than I’ve been alive as “new and fresh” is crazy, I know, but that’s how it felt.

    Then I heard the crash.

    It was far away and faint, but noise carried on the dead air hanging in corridors. It sounded like it came from below. I had seen a sign for the basement back at the central stairwell, a diagonal arrow pointing downward with the words LAUNDRY, STORAGE, BOILER, and MORGUE beside it, but I hadn’t been down there. As much as I was digging the whole “explore an abandoned hospital” vibe, I wasn’t ready to go poking around in an old morgue yet.

    Just about the time I had myself convinced that a stack of junk somewhere had finally lost its battle with gravity and toppled over, I heard more noises; thunks, bangs, and scrapes. I was standing in the corridor of the North Wing, maybe twenty feet from the junction with the main building. Past the entrance lobby and reception desk and around the corner, were the central stairs and basement access that I had seen earlier. That’s where the noises seemed to be coming from.

    “Stanley? That you?” I called out into the darkness. My voice was a weak, dry croak. The beam of my flashlight trembled. “Hazing the new employee, huh?”

    At the far reaches of my flashlight beam, spindly fingers, like the legs of an enormous spider, curled around the corner of the hallway beside the reception desk. Slowly, a head emerged into view, high enough above the ground that it nearly brushed the ceiling. It was elongated, with skin the color of mouldering leather stretched tight over skull-like features. Stringy hair, dark and tangled, hung from its scalp like diseased Spanish moss. Its eyes were two coins at the bottom of a stagnant well, reflecting dull silver in the beam of my flashlight.

    Then, it smiled, revealing row upon row of jagged, serrated teeth.

    “Geezofuckinsonofabitchshit!” I screamed as I turned to flee. I remember that distinctly. Weird, the stuff that sticks in your head when you're terrified.

    I ran in a blind panic, with no plan or purpose other than to put as much distance between me and that monstrosity as possible. It pursued, of course, because why wouldn’t it? That’s what monsters do; they pursue people and then kill them, usually in the most horrible and painful way possible. I could hear the staccato clacking of its talons or claws (or whatever nightmarish appendage it had for feet) on the linoleum tiles behind me. The sound grew louder, but I didn’t dare turn to look. At the end of the hall, I slammed through a door and found myself on the emergency stairs. There was no place to go but up. By the time I reached the first landing, marked by a sign reading “SURGERY,” the thing crashed through the access door below. I flung myself into the second floor hallway, dodging a few wheelchairs and gurneys that had been left behind as I bolted back towards the main building. Halfway along the corridor was a nurses’ station. I dove under the counter and turned my flashlight off, just as I heard the creature burst through the stairwell door.

    The sounds of the creature’s pursuit slowed, claws or talons still clacking against the linoleum, but at a deliberate, more measured pace. Street lights shined dimly through the dirty windows, casting the creature’s shadow in soft relief on the cabinets and decaying cork boards behind the nurses’ station as it approached. It stopped, just on the other side of the counter from me. Only a thin sheet of veneer covered plywood separated us. Its spider-like fingers curled around the edge of the chipped formica worktop, spiked tips tapping impatiently on the underside of the counter just inches from my face. My skin tingled and I could feel the blood coursing through my veins. I covered my mouth with my hand. It sounds insane, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to scream or start giggling. Before I could lose control and find out which noise was building inside my chest, the creature snorted and moved off along the hallway.

    When the sounds of its feet on the tiles grew fainter, I chanced a peek around the edge of the counter. The creature had moved down the hall, almost to the juncture with the main building. It was vaguely human in shape and so gaunt that its bone structure stood out in knobs and jags beneath its skin. And it was enormous, at least ten or twelve feet tall. It was bent almost double, shuffling awkwardly, to negotiate the hallway and all the abandoned clutter. Now I understood Stanley’s advice about sticking to the upper floors with their narrow corridors and low ceilings. If that thing had been able to stretch out and run, I wouldn’t have made it two steps.

    As I slipped out from behind the counter, to sneak off in the other direction, the Mag-Lite in my hand bumped into the wall with a soft “clunk.” It wasn’t much of a noise, but it was enough. The creature whirled, spotting me, shrieking as it charged. I sprinted back to the stairwell. It was my only choice. Taking the stairs two at a time, I ran through the door marked PATIENT WARD and into the third floor hallway, ducking into the first open room.

    It was empty except for two bed frames and a dusty vinyl privacy curtain hanging between them. There was a window over each bed, but both were barred. Behind me, I could hear the monster’s heavy footfalls coming up the stairs. There was nowhere to run, no time to barricade the door, and nothing to barricade it with. I threw my back against the wall between the bed frames and wrapped myself in the folds of the curtain, like a little kid, hiding under the blankets from the boogeyman.

    Just as soon as the curtain stopped rustling, the creature shoved its way into the room, snarling in frustration when it didn’t immediately spot me. It smashed one of the bed frames and then swiped its stiletto tipped fingers through the curtain just above my head, severing it from the rod. The curtain crumpled to the floor. I crumpled with it. While the monster smashed the other bed frame in a fit of rage, I laid very still. I didn’t move or make a noise, even when the end cap came off one of the bed posts and struck me in the temple hard enough to make me see stars. The creature huffed and snorted for a few moments, before forcing its way back out into the hall. I remained on the floor under the curtain, still and silent, sipping air through my teeth, suppressing the urge to either scream or giggle.

    I stayed under the curtain until I was sure the creature had gone away. For all I knew, it could be lying in ambush somewhere out in the hallway, but I needed to move. My body was literally thrumming with energy and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stay still. I needed to find someplace to hide until morning, or better yet, maybe I could get to the roof, above the concrete and rebar that was blocking my phone signal, and call for help.

    The glow of the street lights filtering through the windows was dimmer up on the third floor, but still bright enough that I could make my way without bumping into or tripping over anything. The stairwell, however, was pitch black. I had to use my flashlight, but I hesitated, sure that as soon as I turned it on, I would see those dull, silver eyes reflecting in the beam. Taking a deep breath and holding it, muscles coiled to bolt in any direction, I clicked the button. The stairwell was empty; nothing above or below. I made my way upwards, creeping past the fourth and fifth floors.

    At the top of the stairs, I found the roof access. The door was chained and padlocked. I checked my phone. Still no reception. Nothing to do but go but back down.

    About five steps below the fifth floor landing, I heard it; a soft scrape, the sound of clawed feet brushing against a concrete stair, coming from the darkness beneath me. I shined my light over the railing. Two floors down, those dull, silver eyes fixed on me. The creature made a ticking growl that sounded almost like laughter then scrambled up the stairs. I tripped twice on the five steps it took to reach the fifth floor hallway.

    I didn’t need any signs to tell me this had been the mental ward. Most of the rooms were padded and I even saw one with what I’m pretty sure was an electroshock machine (again, so weird the things that stick in your head when you’re running for your life). I sprinted down the corridor, heart bashing against my ribs, and into the main building, as the sound of the monster’s pursuit got louder and louder behind me.

    I was headed for the central stairs, but even in my frenzy to escape, I realized that was a bad idea. If it was gaining on me running hunched over in the narrow hallway, I wouldn’t last long in the open stairwell. I ducked into the first room I saw with a sturdy looking door and slammed it behind me. It was the only choice I had. There was a deadbolt just above the knob. I threw it.

    It must have been a janitor’s closet. The shelves lining the walls were empty, but there was a galvanized mop bucket with a wringer and a couple of push brooms in the corner. A laundry cart sat against the back wall. None of it was of any use to me.

    The boom of the creature’s first impact against the door was deafening in the small room. Bits of plaster sprinkled down from around the frame. Another boom, and I thought I heard the crack of splintering wood. I grabbed the mop bucket, brooms, and laundry cart and shoved them all against the door. Stupid, yeah, but I couldn’t think of anything else. I tried to pull the shelves down, too, but they were bolted to the wall. The sound of cracking wood was unmistakable on the third impact. I didn’t have much longer. I cast the beam of my flashlight desperately around the room, looking for something, anything, and that’s when I spotted it. A sliding panel on the back wall, maybe two feet square. I grabbed the handle and yanked it up. It was a laundry chute. Behind me, the closet door burst inward, smashing the cart, brooms, and bucket against the wall. I dove into the chute headfirst.

    About six feet down, I stopped abruptly, then started to rise. Shining the flashlight between my knees, I saw the creature’s arm. It had reached into the chute up to its shoulder and managed to snag me by the heel of my sneaker. I wedged my back and arms against the walls, trying to pull away, but it was too strong. No matter how hard I fought, I was dragged upwards, my sweaty hands and arms squeaking against the sheet metal of the chute. Curling my shoulders inward and tucking my chin to my chest, I was just able to grab my dangling shoe lace with my fingertips and pull. It came untied. My foot slipped out of my shoe and I plummeted downward.

    I managed to slow my descent a little by pressing my hands and feet to the walls, but not by much. When I hit the unyielding floor of the laundry room five stories below, I hit it hard. The world went black.

    When I came to, I found myself at the far end of a large, rectangular room. The walls on either side were lined with industrial sized washers and dryers. The door at the other end was open to the rest of the basement. From the darkness beyond, I could hear the creature prowling around, coming closer. I was trapped again. My only choice was to hide. Pulling open the door on one of the front loading dryers, I saw that the basket was big enough for me to crawl into, but the door itself was glass. The washers were the same, and I had no doubt that those dull, silver eyes could see just fine in the dark. That’s when I noticed the space between the wall and the back of the machines, just wide enough for someone to squeeze in to service the water hookups and dryer vents. I clicked the flashlight off and sidled in behind the dryers.

    It wasn’t long before the monster showed up. The first thing it did was yank open the doors of each washer and dryer, peering into the baskets. I would have silently congratulated myself for my own foresight, but at the time I was busy pinching my nostrils shut. The dust and lint was tickling my nose and I felt a sneeze building in the back of my sinuses. Hiding behind the washers would have been the better choice. The creature reached the end of the row and seemed to deliberate for a long moment, while I stood, holding my nose, unable to even breathe. About the time my chest started to spasm, the thing snarled and stomped off, backhanding washers and dryers as it went. It smacked the dryer I stood behind with enough force to send its upper edge crashing into the wall. If I hadn’t ducked in time, it would have crushed my skull.

    Working my way out was tough. Doing it quietly was even tougher. Some of the dryers were still tilted back against the wall from the impacts, and I had to get down and crawl underneath on my side to get past them. By the time I reached the end of the row, I was completely covered in dust and lint. Judging by the sounds coming out of the darkness, the creature had left the laundry and gone off to the right. I went left, another mistake in a night filled with them.

    The hallway dead-ended at a door. Even before I covered the flashlight lens with my hand, clicked it on, and let a sliver of light slip out between my fingers, I knew what the sign would say.

    MORGUE

    It was the last place I wanted to be, and when I sneezed, it became the last place I was most likely ever going to be.

    Some dust or lint must have drifted up from my shirt. The sneeze came so suddenly that I didn’t even have a chance to try and stifle it. And, of course, it was loud, because that’s just how my night was going. Off in the darkness, the creature snorted and charged back in my direction. There were no low ceilings or narrow hallways to slow it down. I yanked open the door to the morgue and ducked inside. I had no other choice (are you seeing a trend here?).

    I’ve watched enough crime scene shows to recognize an autopsy room when I see one. There were three stainless steel tables evenly spaced in the middle of the room. Above each was the dish of an examination light, hung from the ceiling on an armature, all of them dripping cobwebs. Behind the tables, the walls were lined with cabinets and worktops, still cluttered with all the tools necessary to carve somebody open and figure out what killed them. What I had never seen in a crime show morgue was a half dozen human skulls, decoratively arranged on a work table like trophies. I had to blink, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, but the one in the middle had a samurai sword shoved through its temple with the ends bent upward like rabbit ears.

    “Oh, this is bad,” I moaned.

    At the back of the room, another door, thick and insulated, stood open. It led to the walk-in freezer, a dead end to the dead end. The sounds of the creature’s approach were getting louder and there was no place else to go. Once I stepped inside, I realized that I had just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

    In the back corner, across from a wall of storage drawers for bodies, was an enormous pile of old fiberfill and shredded foam. The thing must have dragged evey mattress left in the old hospital down here and torn them apart to make a pile that big. In the center was a depression, which I knew intuitively was just the right size for the monster to curl up in. This was its nest or den or lair or whatever the hell you want to call it. I was trapped in its bedroom. My heart pounded in my chest. No need to check my pulse to see if I was still alive; I could feel the blood coursing fast and hot through my veins. Running out of time, I gave the freezer door a quick glance. It had no lock and opened outward, so there was no way to bar it. I yanked on the handles of a couple of the body drawers, but they wouldn’t budge. Whether there was some kind of catch that I didn’t see or they were rusted shut, I don’t know. I spun in a frantic circle, waving my flashlight beam spastically around the room. There were no counters to hide behind, no privacy curtains to cower under, no laundry chutes to dive into. I was well and truly screwed.

    I don’t remember when or how the idea occurred to me, I don’t even remember thinking about it, I just did it. I dove into the fiberfill where it lay piled against the wall, and burrowed as far back as I could. The stench was awful. I had to grit my teeth against my gag reflex. Just as soon as I clicked my flashlight off, the creature announced itself with a low growl and the clack of its claws on the tile floor.

    It paced for several seconds, breathing heavily, before I heard the sound of screeching metal. It was ripping open the body drawers looking for me. That went on for several moments, before its footsteps retreated back to the autopsy room. Even under all the shredded mattress stuffing, I could hear it rummaging around, making frustrated chuffs and snorts.

    The rummaging sounds didn't last long (there really wasn’t a lot to rummage through out there) and the creature returned to the cold storage room. It paced for a while, the ticking of its claws on the tiled floor almost becoming monotonous. Then, I actually heard it yawn. A moment later, I could feel the mattress stuffing being displaced by the weight of the monster as it crawled into its nest, fluffing and tamping the fibers until it got comfortable. Soon, it was snoring.

    I’m the thing under the monster’s bed, I thought, and came dangerously close to bursting out in laughter.

    I waited, biting my knuckle, still fighting that insane urge to giggle. My heartbeat roared in my ears. Muscles coiled under my skin, ready to explode with kinetic energy. My whole being was energized to fight or flee. Inch by inch I dug my way out from under the mattress stuffing. Once free, I looked back over my shoulder, toward the sound of low buzzing the creature made as it snored. There were no windows in the room, and there was no way I was going to turn on the flashlight, so, other than the glimpses I caught running from it, I never did get a good look at the monster.

    Crawling on my hands and knees, carefully sweeping the floor in front of me with my fingertips for obstructions, I made my way out of cold storage, through the autopsy room, and back into the basement hall. With the door to the morgue quietly closed behind me, I finally felt safe enough to turn on the flashlight. By now, the batteries were getting weak, but they lasted long enough for me to find the central stairs and make it up to the corridor leading to the main entrance. The first rays of the rising sun were streaming through the windows as I jogged past the reception desk and through the lobby. When I yanked open the frosted glass front door, I came face to face with Stanley. In one hand he held a cardboard tray with two styrofoam cups and a paper bag. With the other, he lifted the security grate barring the entrance.

    “Rough night, huh?” he quipped, looking me up and down. “What happened to your shoe?”

    I swung the blunt end of the three cell Mag-lite at his head. He deftly blocked the blow.

    “I brought coffee and donuts,” he said, holding up the cardboard tray.

    I swung the flashlight again. He blocked it again, this time twisting it out of my grasp and stuffing it in his back pocket.

    “Stop that!” he scolded. “You’ll make me spill the coffee.”

    I screamed an incoherent string of obscenities in his face. My voice echoed in the empty building behind me and I suddenly realized how much noise I was making. I scrambled out the door and around Stanley, only stopping to look back when I was halfway down the steps.

    “Oh, don’t worry. It’s asleep by now,” he said, pulling down the security gate and locking it. “You know, sometimes it doesn’t come out of its nest for days, weeks even, but you got your cherry busted on your first night and survived! Good job! I had a feeling about you.”

    “What the hell, dude!? You know about the monster?”

    “Well, yeah. That’s kinda my job; finding people to keep it occupied.”

    “You mean to feed it!”

    Stanley limped his way down to where I stood on the steps, handed me a coffee and sat down, motioning for me to join him. Not knowing what else to do, I did.

    “There’s cream and sugar if you want it. They only had glazed donuts. I hope that’s okay.”

    I gave him a hard glare as I poured four creams and six sugars into my cup with trembling hands. I’ve never been a coffee drinker, so I didn’t really know what I was doing. Stanley just watched with raised eyebrows.

    “What?” I asked.

    “Nothing,” he grinned. “Take as much as you want. I drink mine black.”

    The first sip of my coffee was disgusting. The second was delicious. I grabbed a donut out of the bag and stuffed half of it in my mouth. I’m more of an avocado toast kind of person, but that donut was the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

    Stanley sipped his coffee, grimacing at the taste.

    “We’re not so much feeding it as keeping it entertained,” he said. “I mean, yeah sure, every-once-in-awhile somebody gets killed, but we try to avoid that. The goal is to keep it occupied. Somebody has to be in there every night, just in case the creature wakes up, so it has someone to chase around. Otherwise, it gets bored and starts looking for a way out. That’s a bad thing, if it gets out. We’ve got a regular crew to ‘run the halls’ as we call it, but Russo had an unfortunate accident. That left a last minute vacancy on the schedule and I had to find a replacement.”

    “By ‘unfortunate accident’ you mean ‘got eaten.’”

    “Nah, she got hit by a car. Broke her pelvis.”

    “And you just grabbed the first idiot that walked through your door and applied for a job.”

    He shook his head. “There were three other applicants. I picked you because I thought you had the best chance of survival. And, if things didn’t work out, you'd be the least likely to be missed.”

    “Hey! I got parents! I got roommates! If I disappeared, they would notice!”

    “Yeah, sure, but would they miss you?”

    He had me there.

    “You could at least be a little more specific in your help wanted ads.”

    Stanley snorted at that, almost shooting coffee out of his nose.

    “Yeah, right!” he held up his hands as if framing a newspaper headline. “Help Wanted: Monster Bait. Competitive Pay and Benefits. No Experience Necessary.”

    I shrugged and ate another donut. I guess he had a point.

    “What happens?” I asked around a mouthful of sugar and carbs. “If it gets out, I mean.”

    “You ever hear of the Mill St. Massacre?”

    It sounded familiar; something that happened when I was in middle school, or maybe my freshman year, but I had only vague memories of the incident.

    “Wasn’t that when a drug cartel hacked a bunch of people up with machetes in some kind of turf war or something?” I asked

    “That’s the story the papers got, but it wasn’t a cartel and it wasn’t machetes,” Stanley said, nodding towards the hospital entrance with his chin.

    “So, if this thing is that dangerous, why doesn’t somebody just kill it?” I asked.

    “Oh, people have tried. Guns, fire, electricity, crossbow bolts dipped in holy water, you name it. Never turns out well. Last one was a guy named Duane. He’d been running the halls for about six months. Showed up with a samurai sword one night. A samurai sword! Can you believe that? I tried to talk him out of it, but he was in no mood to listen. Never saw him again. Usually, when the creature gets someone, we find bits an pieces in the morning. Not with Duane. Always kinda wondered what happened to him.”

    I opened my mouth to tell him about the skull I’d seen in the autopsy room, but decided against it. Instead, I grabbed another donut (my third) and tore a chunk out of the ring with my teeth. We sat quietly, while I noshed on glazed dough and Stanley sipped and grimaced.

    “Nobody knows how to kill it. We don’t even know what it is,” Stanely spoke, staring off into the distance. “Some say it’s a demon, others a genetic abberration. I think it’s the physical manifestation of negative energy. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me, but I can’t claim it’s better than anyone else’s. What we do know is that it’s been around for the better part of a hundred and fifty years. The earliest reports come from just after the Civil War. We also know that destroying its nest is a bad idea. It just moves somewhere else and a lot of people get killed before we track it down and find a way to keep it occupied again.”

    “Then why don’t you--”

    Stanley held up his hand and shook his head. “Trust me, kid. We’ve been doing this a long time, longer than I’ve been around and I’ve been around for a while. Everything you’re going to think of on how to do things better has already been tried. We do it the way we do it because that’s the way that works.”

    Stanley paused to sip and grimace, before continuing. “The job pays two grand a week, full benefits, and we match contributions to your 401(k). You’ll work two to three times a week. I don’t like to schedule people to run two nights in a row, so I won’t need you back here until Thursday.”

    “Are you insane!?” I sputtered, spraying half chewed donut with each word. A soggy crumb landed on the bridge of Stanley’s nose and stuck. He brushed it off with his thumb. “No way in hell I’m going back in there! You need somebody to play hide-and-seek with a monster, do it yourself! Or are you too scared?”

    “I ran those halls for eight years, kid.” He reached down and pulled up the cuff of his chinos, revealing the titanium shaft of a prosthetic leg. “Things went sideways one night.”

    “Oh, sorry,” I muttered.

    Stanley shrugged. “The company promoted me to supervisor. We try to take care of our people. It’s not nearly as exciting, doesn’t pay as much, and, yes, occasionally I have to send people to their deaths. It sucks, but somebody gotta do it.”

    We sat quietly, me shoving sugar glazed dough into my mouth while Stanley sipped and made faces. I was starting to suspect that he didn’t really take his coffee black. After a few minutes, he checked his watch and stood, limping down the remaining steps before turning to face me.

    “Well, I gotta get to the office. Paperwork, you know. I’ll see you Thursday night, ten forty-five. Don’t be late.”

    I shook my head in disbelief. “Dude, I’m not coming within ten miles of this place ever again.”

    “You’ll be here,” Stanley chuckled. “I got a feeling about you.”

    “What feeling? What feeling do you have about me?”

    “You liked it. First time you’ve felt really, truly alive in years and you liked it. Tell me I’m wrong.”

    I wanted to, but I couldn’t. God help me, I couldn’t

    “Welcome to the crew. See ya Thursday,” he said, before wrestling himself into his truck and pulling away in a cloud of blue tinged exhaust.

    I’ve been thinking about it a lot these last two days. Maybe I’m an adrenaline junkie and never realized it, or one of those people who gets off on being terrified. Maybe it’s just that, for the first time in my adult life, I have a sense of purpose. I don’t know and I don’t care. I’ve hardly touched my phone, I’m spending time out of the apartment, and I don’t need to check my pulse anymore. Seems I’ve found that spirit guide to light my path that mom always talked about, and it’s a twelve foot monstrosity that shoves samurai swords through people’s skulls.

    It’s ten fifteen on Thursday night. I’m waiting in front of my building for the Uber to take me to St. Luke’s. I guess Stanley’s feeling about me was right after all.....

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 6

    “The storm is getting worse. Do not go outside under any circumstances. If you need assistance, dial 911.”

    I plopped down on the couch with a bottle of wine. “We certainly picked the right time for a honeymoon, huh? We’re going to be snowed in for days.”

    “I don’t mind,” Daniel said, with a wink.

    “No, seriously! I picked this cabin for the view. Pines for miles, with herds of deer and wild turkey. Now it’s just – this.” I gestured to the window. It was all white, save for the fuzzy gray outline of a few trees.

    “Come on, it’ll be a funny story to tell our –”

    Crack.

    A sharp crackle of static on the radio, followed by the announcer’s hurried voice –

    “Close all curtains and blinds. I repeat, close all curtains and blinds.”

    I shot a glance at Daniel. He shrugged back.

    “If you have any windows without blinds – including cellar windows, glass insets on front doors, and mail slots – cover them with a sheet.”

    “That’s weird.”

    “I bet it’s because of snow blindness,” Daniel said, pouring himself a glass. “You know, they don’t want anyone looking out their window, and getting blinded by the sun reflecting off the snow.” He stood up, and slowly lowered the blinds, until we were left in shadowy darkness.

    “I’ll get the lights,” I said, standing up.

    Click.

    Darkness.

    “The power’s out?!” I yelled. “No wonder it’s so cold in here! And how are we supposed to watch Game of Thrones? Or charge our phones? Or –”

    “Rebecca, it’s okay. Here, sit, and drink the rest of your wine. I’m going to find some matches; then I’m going to chuck that stupid radio out into the snow, and we’re going to sit in front of a roaring fire. Okay?”

    “Okay, fine.”

    He disappeared into the kitchen.

    The light through the blinds was fading, now, and the room was steadily getting colder. The wooden bear in the corner – that I thought was cute and rustic, when we arrived – looked ready to attack us. And the antlers hanging from the walls looked no better than sharpened spikes, ready to impale anyone who dared to walk by. “Hurry back,” I called, pulling the blanket up to my neck. “It’s cold without you here.”

    “One final warning.” The announcer’s voice came over the radio, muddied with static. “Do not go outside – do not open the door – no matter what you hear. And don’t –”

    Static.

    I grabbed the radio, shook it, and sighed. “The reception’s gone!”

    “Good!” he called back. “And I think I found some matches!”

    I clicked the dial forward.

    A cheery voice came on, clear as day.

    “We are handing out free supplies at the edge of the forest on Maple Street – bottled water, canned food, blankets, and battery packs.”

    Daniel rushed back in with the matches, looking confused. “Wait – I thought they said –”

    I turned up the volume.

    “Come out and get yours as soon as you can – there is limited supply."

    The firelight flickered across the cabin. The shadows jittered and jumped, as if they were alive. The chill settled in, and I pulled the blanket tightly around me.

    “So every phone number goes to voicemail. Including my mom’s, and she always wants to talk to me.” I swirled the dregs of wine in my glass. “And there’s no mention of anything on the news. Where does that leave us?”

    “Stranded?” Daniel said, with a dry laugh. “Dead?”

    “Daniel!”

    “Kidding, kidding! Here, let me see if I can’t find anything online about it.” He pulled out his phone; the blue glow contrasted sharply with the fire. “Instead of looking on news sites, I’m going to just Google with wild abandon. Let’s see… ‘Minnesota’… ‘radio broadcast’… ‘put sheets over windows’… ugh, page loading, we’re down to 3G.”

    The fire crackled and hissed.

    “Aha!” he said, thrusting the phone in my face. I took it and began reading.

    queenofthenorth89

    Hey, anybody in C___, Minnesota? We just got a really weird radio broadcast. They told us to lock up and shut our blinds, but now other broadcasts are saying to come out and get supplies on Maple Street. Anyone know what this is about?


    CrazyCatGuy

    The second one’s fake. It’s been playing on repeat, on every local station in range, for the past six hours.


    excalibrrr

    Guys, I did a lot of research, and a similar thing happened back in the ‘70s. YOU WILL BE OKAY, if you follow these rules:

    • Don’t look at them. Don’t let them see you.
    • Even if you’re camping in a tent, or sleeping in your car, you can survive. Just be sure to cover any windows and apertures with something opaque.
    • Keep all pets (and other animals, even livestock) inside. Don’t put out the garbage. Don’t light a fire. They can smell from miles away.
    Daniel and I looked at each other –

    And then at the roaring fire.

    Thud.

    I jolted awake.

    The blanket was tangled around my feet. My neck ached, and my hands were cold as ice. The cabin was pitch-black now, save for the dying embers in the fireplace.

    “Daniel?”

    He only snored in response.

    “Daniel!”

    “What? ”

    Thud.

    “Did you hear that?”

    “Probably just a branch, or something. Don’t worry about it.”

    Thud! Thud, thud, thud!

    The thuds echoed across the cabin, coming from every direction – even the roof. Daniel jolted awake, threw on his glasses, and sprung off the sofa.

    “What in the hell –”

    Thump! Thump!

    A sharp knock at the door.

    “Don’t answer it,” Daniel whispered, standing between me and the door.

    “Of course I’m not answering –”

    “Hey, open up!”

    A man’s voice, loud and clear through the silence of the blizzard, called through the door.

    “Police! Open up!”

    Daniel hesitantly stepped towards the door. “What are you doing?!” I hissed.

    “It’s the police, Rebecca.”

    “It’s a trap!” I leapt up and chased after him, as he slowly walked down the hall – away from the fire, away from the warmth. “They said don’t open the door for any reason, remember?!”

    He stood in front of the door, frozen.

    A shadow fell across the sheet we had pinned to the door. At a first glance, it looked like the silhouette of a normal person – a normal policeman. But the longer I stared at it, the stranger it looked. The neck was just a hair too short, the legs too long; and the head was cocked at an unnatural angle. “It’s the police! Open up right now!” he boomed.

    “We have to let him in,” Daniel said, staring at the covered window.

    Staring, staring…

    At the corner of the window, where part of the sheet had come undone.

    I darted in front of him. “Do not open the door, Daniel! It’s not the police! It’s them – whatever they are!”

    “Rebecca, it’s the police!”

    He darted his hand under my arm, past my waist –

    And yanked the door open.

    “No!” I screamed.

    For a moment, time froze.

    The silence of the blizzard filled the cabin. Wayward flakes floated in, landing softly on the wooden floor. Daniel stood still as a statue, right on the threshold, gazing into the storm.

    But my mind was racing. He let them in. There’s no coming back from this, no way to save us now. We’re going to die, right here, before our marriage has even begun.

    But then I realized what I had to do.

    I leapt up, and in one, violent motion –

    Smacked the glasses right off his face.

    Clack.

    As the glasses fell from his face, the scales fell from his eyes. His placid expression was now cut with terror. He grabbed the edge of the door, and with all his might, pushed it shut.

    Or tried to.

    “Shut it! Shut it!” I screamed.

    “I can't!” he yelled back. "It's pushing back – I'm not strong enough –"

    Crash!

    The sound of breaking glass, from deep inside the cabin.

    “It’s too late!” I screamed, tugging at his arm. “They’re inside!”

    “Close your eyes!” he yelled.

    “What are you doing?!”

    “Just trust me!”

    Creeaaak! Thump, thump, thump!

    I heard the door fly open – and the sound of rapid, heavy footsteps.

    Daniel grabbed my wrist and yanked me forward. I felt the wooden bear poke at me, the antlers scrape against me, and various other obstacles bump against me.

    Some of them felt uncomfortably warm.

    Ting, ting.

    The jingle of keys.

    And then I was yanked out into the cold. The flakes stung my face; my ankles burned in the snow. I stumbled through it, crying and terrified; but pushed forward, until I felt the familiar leather seats under my hands.

    “I got you,” Daniel said, hoisting me into the car.

    Slam.

    The engine rumbled underneath me. The car jerked forward, and then swerved unto the road. “Good thing we have four-wheel-drive,” he said. “Oh, and you can open your eyes now.”

    “But – won’t I see them?”

    “I don’t see any on the road,” he said.

    I opened my eyes.

    The scene wasn’t much different from the dark of my eyelids, save for the headlights. The night was pitch black, only broken by the white of the headlights. Black trees flanked the road, stretching up towards the starless sky. And a myriad of snowflakes glittered in the light, hovering in the branches, as if miraculously suspended in mid-air.

    No – not snowflakes.

    Eyes.

    Hundreds of eyes, watching us from the treetops.

    Thump. Thump.

    Shadows dropped from the trees, like raindrops falling from the sky. The car lurched forward, flying over the blanket of snow.

    “They’re in the road!” I screamed.

    “What? Where?!”

    “Everywhere! Can’t you see them?!”

    “Of course I can’t see them! I can barely even see where we’re going! You took my glasses, remember?!”

    The shadows came closer, flitting into the headlights’ beams. I closed my eyes tightly shut. We’re safe, I thought. We’re in a car. Protected by layers of glass and steel. Even that Excalibur guy on the internet said you’re safe in a car.

    The car swerved again.

    But that’s if they haven’t already seen you.

    The car swerved violently. My head glanced off the window. The engine roared, as Daniel muttered under his breath – “come on, come on…”

    “Why are we slowing down?!”

    “I don’t know!” Daniel said, his voice starting to quaver. “Everything’s working fine. I don’t think the snow is deep enough to stop us –”

    Rrrrr-rrr-rrrr! – the sound of wheels, spinning against the snow.

    “I think they’re stopping us.”

    Even with my eyes closed, I could feel them. Their eyes, that glittered in the headlights like the freshly-fallen snow. Their silhouettes, that were little more than shadows, or wisps of smoke. And – after they killed us – their new forms, shaped into eerie, uncanny versions of us.

    Tap-tap-tap. They were at the glass, now. How long did we have until they broke through, just like they did in the cabin? Minutes? Seconds?

    The wheels stopped spinning. Click – Daniel shifted into park.

    “What are you doing?”

    “I have an idea.”

    I opened my eyes, shielding my gaze from the forest with my hand. Daniel reached into his pocket, and pulled out the book of matches.

    Fzzzssshhh.

    He struck the match. The flame fizzled and glowed, and small wisps of black smoke floated towards the ceiling.

    “Wait – isn’t that going to attract more of them?”

    “Exactly,” he whispered.

    No.

    My heart began to pound.

    I trusted him. I let him pull me across the snow. Pull me into the car. Pull me to my death, trapped here as they closed in.

    It wasn’t him.

    It was one of them.

    “What did you do to Daniel?! You killed him, didn’t you?!”

    “What are you talking about?!”

    “You’re leading them right to us! You said so yourself!”

    “Not leading them to us! Leading them to this.” He took a piece of paper from the glove box, crumpled it, and held it to the match. The flames crawled over it, curling the edges of the paper. “I’m going to throw this out the window. Hopefully they’ll follow it.”

    “…Oh.” I shook my head. “Wait, that makes no sense. Won’t the wind extinguish it?”

    “You got a better idea? If we stay here and do nothing, we’ll both die.”

    The metal groaned and screeched, as they worked to pull it apart. The tap-tap-taps echoed across the glass, like the ticks of a clock.

    And I knew he was right.

    He rolled down the window. In my peripheral vision, I saw the orange ball piercing the darkness; heard the movements of the creatures, thumping over the car, over the snow –

    Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

    A shrill screech.

    And, involuntarily –

    I looked up.

    The figures weren’t running towards the fire.

    They were running away.

    In seconds, the silence of the forest returned. Snow slowly drifted to the ground. The trees were still as statues. And the branches above were dark – no glittering, white eyes.

    “They’re afraid of fire,” was all he could choke out.

    After holding him for what felt like an eternity, I realized how little sense that made. “But wait. That Excalibur guy said that they were attracted to fire – attracted to the smoke. Why would he say that?”

    “I guess he didn’t know.”

    “Or –” My voice faltered, as the realization sunk in. “Maybe he had seen one of them. Maybe he was speaking for them.”

    “But then why would he tell everyone to stay inside and cover their windows, too?”

    “Maybe we weren’t supposed to stay inside. Maybe being trapped inside our houses, waiting out the storm, is exactly what they wanted.”

    Daniel looked at me, his eyes wide in the darkness. “What are you saying?”

    “I’m saying that maybe… the second radio message was the one we should have believed.”

    We raced back to the car. I thrust the keys into ignition, and the car rumbled to life.

    “We’re going to Maple Street.”

    When we turned onto Maple Street, a strange sight greeted us.

    A small house sat on the edge of the forest. It was surrounded by dozens of small fires, their trails of smoke merging into one large pillar that reached up towards the sky. Several people stood in the yard, and a few started pointing to us as we approached.

    As we entered, a black-haired woman ran over to us. “Stand over here to the side, please. We need to test you first.” She picked up her handheld radio. “Two more just arrived.”

    “Test us?”

    “We need to make sure you aren’t compromised, ma’am.”

    We awkwardly stood in the yard, the fire hot against our backs. “Maybe this was a bad idea,” Daniel whispered. “Are we sure that –”

    “Hey!” A burly man walked over to us. He wore tattered jeans, and an ill-fitting flannel shirt with a large slash across the chest. “Let me just test you guys, and we’ll be good to go.” He slipped a flashlight out of his pocket, shined it in our eyes, asked us a few questions, and then called over: “Hey, Nancy, they’re good!”

    She motioned for us to come inside. “Please, make yourselves at home. Eat some dinner, take supplies – we have plenty. Not many have come by… we were too late in intercepting the alert, it seems.”

    “What are they? In the forest?” Daniel asked.

    “Are we safe here?” I added.

    She didn’t reply. Instead, she led us to a table of sandwiches, and hurried away.

    Daniel and I took plates, some sandwiches, and joined one of the tables. Across from us sat a teenager – chin resting on her hand, pushing the cole slaw on her plate in circles.

    “Why won’t they tell us anything?” I said to Daniel, my voice low.

    “And how did they set this up so fast?” Daniel said. “Firewood, an external generator for power, tons of food – it’s almost like this has happened before, and they were ready.”

    “It did happen before.”

    We looked up. The teenager was staring at us, her lips curled into a small smile. “My dad told me it happened back in the ‘70s, during a really big storm, and they’ve been prepared ever since.”

    “So – what are they?” Daniel asked, a little too loudly. From across the hall, the burly man shot us a disapproving look.

    “I’ve heard the name ‘ice shadows’ thrown around,” she replied, shrugging. “But who knows what they really are? Shape-shifters, phantoms, demons – we could really call them anything.”

    “What I don’t understand,” Daniel started, after a long slurrrp of coke, “is why they wanted us to cover the windows. Don’t they want us to see them?”

    “Windows covered or not, they’ll find a way to lure you out. They’re really good at that. We had one outside the bedroom window, talking in my mom’s voice, telling dad she wanted to get back together. Thankfully, I barged in before it got to him.”

    “But why cover the windows?”

    “Oh, well the sun burns them up, just like the fires do. That’s why they come out in the blizzard, too.” She lowered her voice further, and glanced around the room. “They want the house to be totally safe for them. Because after… they want to live in it. Breed in it. Make it their own little den.”

    “But why?” I asked.

    “This is just my theory, but – I think they don’t want to be confined to the forest. They want to take over this whole town, one house at a time. Spreading from house to house under the cover of night, until the whole thing’s taken over. And then –”

    But at that moment, the burly man stormed over. “Kendra, that’s enough,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. He looked at us, and rolled his eyes. “She likes to tell tall tales, this one. Sorry if it caused you any trouble.”

    “No trouble at all,” I said, with a smile.

    Kendra sighed, and rose from the seat. Mark took his hand off her shoulder. His shirt shifted, causing the slash to open, and exposing some of his chest.

    My heart began to pound.

    Underneath was a tattoo.

    A tattoo of a sword, stuck in stone.

    Of Excalibur.

    “He’s one of them.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “He’s the Excalibur guy! The guy who said they’re attracted to fire. He had a great big tattoo of a sword in a stone on his chest.”

    “But he can’t be one of the ice shadows. We’re surrounded by fire.”

    “He isn’t. He’s under the influence of one.” I stood up, and scanned the room.

    Wait –

    Where had he gone?

    Kendra was standing by the food table – arms crossed, leaning against the wall. But she was alone, and there was no trace of dear old Dad.

    “Kendra! Where’s your dad?” I called, running up to her.

    She shrugged. “No idea.”

    “This is really important –”

    “We think he may be compromised,” Daniel said, without any hesitation.

    “What?!” she said. “No. Absolutely not.”

    “Kendra, this is really important –”

    The anger flared, and her voice grew to a shout. “I saved him. When I came in, he was going to look out the window – but I stopped him! Just in time!”

    “Maybe he already looked out,” I said.

    She hesitated. Fear flashed across her face. But then she shouted: “Stop making things up! My dad is fine! Absolutely fine!”

    “Rebecca!”

    Daniel was pointing at the window.

    Outside, the orange glow had faded. Where fires once stood, there were only dark shadows of ash. Over one of the remaining fires hovered a figure, holding something large and shiny.

    A bucket.

    Hisssss!!!

    Water splashed over the fire. It sputtered, sparked, and faded to nothing.

    The shadows started to shift and swirl, racing closer to the house. One leapt forward, mouth stretching larger and larger by the second –

    “They’re coming!” I shouted. “He put out the fires! They’re coming!”

    In one, swooping motion, it engulfed Mark in black smoke.

    As quickly as it happened, the smoke dissipated. Mark stood stiffly by the fire, his head hanging to one side. Then he began walking towards the house, his feet moving mechanically across the snow. They bounded after him, following him, their faces –

    Daniel yanked the curtains shut.

    The silence of the house grew to a roar of chaos. Footsteps thundered, plates crashed, people screamed.

    And a strangely familiar sound joined the din –

    Tap, tap, tap.

    They were here.

    And we were in chaos. Running, shoving, screaming. We were all going to die here, in this hut, if someone didn’t take the lead…

    “Follow me!” I called out, into the pandemonium.

    I raced to the basement door. The thumps of footsteps followed me, shaking the staircase.

    The damp air blew over our faces, dusty and stale. Click. A lightbulb flicked on overhead, and we were all bathed in a dim, yellow glow.

    “What’s the plan?” Daniel said to me.

    “We’ll wait here until morning.” I took off my sweater, and hung it over the tiny window. “The storm will be gone, and the sun will be out.”

    “Yeah, unless they get to us before then,” Kendra interjected. Her eyes were wet with tears; her voice shook. And why was her head tilted like that? “You saw what they did… to Dad…”

    “Trust me,” I said. “This will work – I promise.”

    But now others had overheard, and panic rippled across the room. “Tha’ woman is right,” someone called out, from the gray shadows of the basement. “If they get in upstairs, they’ll easily break down this ol’ door. And then, we’re trapped here, like pigs ready for slaughter.”

    “They won’t break down the door. They can break through glass, sure – but not a solid wooden door.”

    “Rebecca, if they can stop a car,” Daniel whispered, his face hidden in the shadows, “don’t you think they can break down a door?”

    Another voice jumped in, coming from the silhouette of an old woman. Her back was strangely crooked, and her eyes glittered in the dim light. “We’re sitting ducks. We need to go back upstairs!”

    “Yes! We have to go back upstairs –”

    “Absolutely!”

    No.

    They must have seen the shadows.

    All of them.

    “We need to stay here! Don’t you get it?!” I screamed. “This is where we must be!”

    A silence filled the room.

    Then Kendra lifted her arm –

    And pointed straight at me.

    “She saw them, didn’t she?”

    Daniel stared at me – tears welling in his eyes, glinting off the dim light. “I thought I pulled the curtain in time. But I – I must’ve been too late.”

    Someone grabbed my arms. Another thrust my face under the light. Kendra bent over me, her face contorted in a frown.

    “Her pupils aren’t contracting with the light. That means… I’m so sorry.”

    I pulled and wriggled, trying to escape their grasp. “Let me go!” I cried. “Please, let me go!”

    Click. The door opened. They hauled me upstairs. “Wait – where are you taking her?!” Daniel yelled. “You can’t do this! – There’s a way to break the trance, isn’t there? She did it with me! Took off my glasses, and –”

    “Sure, if you wanna cut out her eyes so she ain’t seein’ no more,” the man holding me spat.

    “Daniel! Don’t let them take me! Please –”

    Thump.

    My eyes fluttered open.

    Pitch black.

    Those men must’ve thrown me in the forest. And I’m here, in the darkness, with the ice shadows. My heart started to race. Am I one of them, now? A flitting, demonic shadow, with glittering white eyes?

    No. Wait. The last thing I remember was someone talking about cutting my eyes out –

    A sliver of light appeared. And the door creaked open.

    “How are you feeling?”

    “Daniel!” I tried to stand up –

    And failed.

    “Sorry about that,” he said. I looked down; thick rope wrapped around my body, tying me to a chair. “They were going to throw you outside the house, but I – uh -- persuaded them to lock you here instead.” He rubbed his knuckles.

    “Is everyone okay?”

    “Yeah. Except for Kendra’s dad.” He bent down, and began working on the knots. “The sun came up a few hours ago, and it looks like the shadows are gone.”

    “But what about – everything –”

    Kendra poked her head in. “The people want to talk to you,” she said to Daniel. “Oh, Rebecca! You’re okay!”

    “I am,” I said, smiling at her. “Wait – what people?”

    “Some official government-looking people. They drove in this morning, said they’ll be ‘cleansing’ the area. I think that black-haired woman is one of them.” The rope unraveled, and I stood. “They’re making us sign all kinds of forms, too. Saying we can’t talk to the press, and the like.”

    “I don’t think I want to talk to anyone for a while.”

    He laughed. “You and me both.”

    Later that afternoon, we drove the six hours back home. We spent the rest of our honeymoon indoors – catching up on sleep, rest, and quality time. Life has been pretty uneventful since then, and we’ve been having a fantastic time.

    Except that, sometimes –

    I see two glittering eyes in the forest behind our house.

    And I have the urge to open the door.....

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 7

    I´m writing this so that people will know what happened, and what drove me to do what I did. I´m writing this as a warning, so that no one else will follow in my footsteps.

    It began last week. I had recently inherited some money, not I-never-have-to-work-again-money, but still, a good amount. I instantly knew what I wanted to spend it on. I had always wanted a small cabin in the woods where I could flee the everyday stress, the city, all the shit that we all have to deal with on a daily basis. A place just for me, where I could kick back by the fire and just recharge my batteries.

    So a couple of weeks ago I´m browsing the internet for cabins not to far away from where I live, and my curiosity was peaked by an ad on one of all the websites with houses for sale. A small one story wooden cabin, situated right by a medium/large lake in the middle of the woods, not another house for miles in any direction, and only about a two hour drive from my home. It looked exactly like the cabin I´ve always seen in my mind whenever I´ve been daydreaming about having my own place like that. Now, it did seem to be a bit run down, but the price was almost to good to be true, I just had to see this place with my own eyes. I called the agency that was in charge of selling it and set up a meeting with their agent, we decided that I was going to drive up to their office on Tuesday last week.

    So come Tuesday, I´m super exited all day and feeling real good about this place. Two minutes after I got off work I´m in my car, typing in the address to the agency in my GPS and of I go. The office was located in a small town not to far from the cabin, about 30 minutes by car. The town itself was you typical small community, with small shops and stores that looked like they had been owned by the same families for generations. A small church, kids playing in their yards with the fallen autumn leaves on the ground, it seemed to be a quiet peaceful place to live. A typical everybody knows everbody-place.

    The not so gentle GPS-voice abruptly adviced me that I was coming up to my final destination in a couple of minutes, I took a turn and saw the sign for the agency on the other side of the street. I turned my car around at the next intersection and when I came up to the place a man was standing outside with a briefcase, constantly checking his watch, clearly waiting for someone to arrive. I parked my car and got out to go over to the agency when the man looked over my way.

    • You´re here for the cabin, right? - he said with a classic sales smile on his face. The cabin by the lake?

    • Yes, yes I am, I replied.

    • Alright, well lets get going! he said while shaking my hand firmly. Before we loose the last daylight.
    He got into his car that was parked down the street and asked me to follow him in my car. We drove out of the small town and was soon driving on twisting and turning small roads through the woods. The trees were exploding in autumn colors, yellow,orange, red, it was mesmerizing. After driving about 30-40 minutes in this gorgeous scenery the agents took a sharp turn down a small dirt road. If you didn´t know it was there you probably never would have seen it. It was overgrown with high grass and a pretty bumpy ride. Luckily we only had to drive down it for about 10 minutes. Then I saw it, the cabin. I couldn´t wait to go inside and check it out, I was so exited!

    I parked my car next to his and got out. So here we are! He said. Indeed! God what a beautiful place, I whispered to myself while looking around.

    The cabin looked just like in the ad, a small dark wooden house right next to the lake. The lake looked a lot bigger than it did on the small photos I had seen. The surroundings were all forrest, everywhere you looked all you saw where these giant ancient majestic trees reaching for the skies, now full of colors. The ground was covered with the fallen leaves from the trees and you could really smell the fall in the air.

    • Should we have a look? - I heard him say.

    • Yes, yes of course, show the way! - I said smiling.

    • So this cabin is old, really old, the agent said while slowly walking towards the front door. In fact, we don´t know who actually built it and when, - he continued, but for as long as we have had a town record, this cabin has been here, and we´ve been keeping record for about 140 years. Now, of course the cabin has seen a couple of different owners over the years, and most of them has modernized the place in some way or another when moving in. For instance there is running water, an indoor bathroom and electricity. There is however no landline telephone and the cell-reception out here is sketchy at best.

    • Ah no worries, I said, my plan is to come out here to get away from all of that anyway, so that´s actually just good, gives me another reason not to check my emails every five minutes!

    • Ha ha, yeah I know what you mean! Come on, lets go inside, he said.
    The front door opened straight into a large living room, on the wall to my right there was a big stone fireplace, and opposite it to my left was a door to the bedroom, and next to that, the door to the bathroom. On the far side of the room there was three big windows with an amazing view of the lake and the surrounding forrest. It wasn´t much more than that, which was perfectly fine by me, I certainly didn´t need any more than this. I could already see myself sitting in front of the fire with a glass of scotch and nothing on my mind. This place was perfect. I was so into it that I at first didn´t even reflect over the fact that it was furnished.

    • Yeah the previous owners left everything behind it seems, I cant for sure tell you what happened to them, I just know we got a letter from them including the keys to the cabin, saying they had to move and that we should contact them when the place got sold to wire them their money. You can keep the furniture if you want, or replace it, whatever you want.
    Weird, I thought, but not unheard of, people can have to move in a hurry for any number of reasons. I looked around and the furniture really did go well with the place. Big strong wooden tables, a leather sofa that looked to be really comfy. Bookshelf's, lamps, it really gave the place a nice ambiance. I´ll probably have to buy a new bed though, I thought.

    I went over to the big windows to take another look of the amazing view, the last rays of the sun gently kissing the lake and the woods. It was first then that I noticed an opening to my right, on the same side as the fireplace. It led into a small kitchen, it had all the basics, nothing fancy, but just what you needed. There was also a back door from the kitchen leading out to the backyard, right by the lake. I was looking through the drawers and cabinets when I noticed that the floor sounded differently in the middle of the kitchen. There was a small carpet there, and when I pushed it away with my foot it revealed a hatch underneath. I looked over to the agent who was leaning against the wall by the kitchen entrance.

    • Go ahead! He said motioning with his head towards the hatch. I leaned down and grabbed the handle and pulled the hatch towards me. It creaked and groaned like it hadn´t been opened in over 50 years. The deep dark empty space beneath stared back at me as I was trying to see what was down there. A steep wooden staircase with questionable stability led down into the darkness. I looked around for a flashlight and, like he was reading my mind, the agent came over and handed one to me.

    • Here you go, he said with a smile. I always keep one on me whenever I go into the woods.
    I started to descend the stairs with one arm firmly gripping the wall and the other holding the flashlight illuminating the steps in front of me. About fifteen steps down I made it do what looked to be a classic dirt cellar, like in the old days when you needed somewhere to keep you food from spoiling if you didn´t have access to a refrigerator. This dirt cellar however, was a bit different. It looked like someone had used it as an office of some sort. There was a desk, and two big bookshelf's along the walls packed with books of all sizes. What an odd place to put an office, I thought. I shined the flashlight around the small space and saw that there was an old oil lamp hanging from a hook in the ceiling, I took it down and brought it with me back up to the kitchen.

    • I got to say, I really really love this place, but I´ve got to ask, why the cheap price? I asked the agent.

    • Well to be honest, we´ve had this place on the market for quite some time now without any luck, I really don´t know why ´cause as you´ve seen yourself it´s a beautiful and well maintained place, hell if I had the money myself...

    • It really is something, I said, slowly looking around. You know what, I´ll take it! Where do I sign?
    I didn´t think he could possibly smile any wider than he had done this whole time, but when I said I wanted to buy the place I swear I thought his face would crack from how wide his smile was.

    • Right here! He said while opening his briefcase that he´d been holding on to. He tossed it up on the kitchen counter and opened the clasps on either side and pulled out a stack of papers. He had the contract drawn up and ready to be signed.

    • Sign here, here, there, initials there, and there... He looked almost like someone who had 9 out of 10 lottery numbers down and just waited for that jackpot number. I put down my last initials and noticed how he was breathing heavily and had started to sweat a little.

    • There you go! He almost shouted, you´re officially a cabin owner! Congratulations!

    • Thank you very much I said, but..what about the money?

    • Oh theres an account number in there somewhere he said while pointing to my copy of the contract, just wire the money when you can, I trust you!

    • Ok... Yeah I´ll do that as soon as I have access to the internet again!

    • Perfect! Well.. I´ve got to go, I have a long drive home and it really is getting dark out there he said while walking to towards the front door.

    • Yeah me as well I said, following him. He suddenly stopped and turned around.

    • You mean you´re not staying here tonight?

    • No no, I have work tomorrow and need to get some stuff from home before I can stay the night here, I´ll probably drive up this weekend to get settled.

    • Oh... I see, he said, looking almost disappointed, well, drive safe and don´t hesitate to call if you have any questions!
      And with that, he was out the door and withing minutes driving down the dirt road again.
    I took a last look around and then locked up and went out to my car to drive home. It was completely dark out by now and I had to take it real easy to find my way out to the main road again, quietly reminding myself that I needed to look over that dirt road and clean it up a bit. I had been driving for about 10 minutes on the main road back, twisting and turning when I came up to a sharp right turn. The second I came around the corner I all of a sudden saw a person step out of the woods right in front of my car. I slammed on the breaks but it was to late, The person in front of me turned her head and looked me straight in the eye. It all went so fast but I could clearly see that it was an old lady, she was smiling ear to ear. I closed my eyes waiting for the unavoidable impact, but it never came. The car slid to a halt and I slowly opened my eyes again, my heart beating like crazy. I was breathing so hard I almost passed out before I could calm myself down. I looked around me but couldn´t see anything outside, so I got out of the car and looked around, there was no one. I was sure she had been there just seconds ago, I could still see her old creepy face in front of me, had I fallen asleep? After a while I got back to my car and drove all the way home without anything else happening.

    So Wednesday & Thursday came and went, I had put the incident with the car behind me and wrote it down as stress or sleep deprivation, and was so ready to get back up to my cabin to spend my first of many weekends there. My bags were packed and already in my car. I hadn´t had time to look for a new bed yet but figured that I just throw some blankets over the existing one and make it through the first couple of nights like that. I sat at my office and counted down the minutes, slammed my laptop together, packed my stuff and took the elevator down to the garage, got in the car and took a deep breath, finally, I was on my way!

    I got up to the cabin around 6 pm, the sun was slowly setting and the trees looked just as beautiful as a couple of days ago. After unloading my stuff I immediately got a fire going in the big fireplace and filled up a big mug with fresh brewed black coffee. I started to look a bit more closely on the stuff that the previous owners had left behind, there was some real nice things here, and old 50´s radio, you know the one that takes up half the room, a type writer, some figurines. I started to go through the books on the bookshelf and noticed that they all had the same theme. They were old books about spirituality, religions, dark magic, crystals and stuff like that. I had never been interested in any of those things but I got intrigued. I pulled one of the books out and sat down on the couch skimming through It wile sipping my coffee. I can´t understand how people still can believe in this stuff, I thought to myself while flipping through the pages.

    I went to put the book back when I noticed the painting hanging over the fireplace, how had I not noticed this before ? It was a big oil painting, a painting of this very cabin. It looked really old but the cabin basically looked the same as it did now. The quality was amazing, so many details, small differences in the colors of the wood on the house, the hundreds of leaves on the trees, each carefully painted, the way the sun broke through the clouds in the sky and reflected on the lake, the lady in the window. Wait, what lady? I looked again, there was no one in the window. I swear I saw someone there just now... I must be getting tired, and hungry, I could hear my stomach growl, I hadn´t eaten since lunch. I brushed away the unsettling feeling of the painting and went into the small kitchen.

    Damn! I was supposed to stop and buy groceries on my way up, I totally forgot, I had literally nothing to eat. I best drive into the small town to get some food, I though while putting my jacket back on. I got out to my car and started to drive away when I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the exact spot that the painter must have been standing on, I could swear I saw someone in the window, if only for a split second, I stopped and turned around to get a better look, there was no one. My mind is playing tricks on me, I really need to eat, I thought and kept driving.

    I got into the town and parked my car and started to walk around, it really was a small place, one main street and I couple of smaller streets with mostly homes of different sizes. I found a small grocery store and went inside. There wasn´t much to choose from so I got some basic stuff and went to the register to pay. The owner was an elderly gentleman with a white beard and round glasses, he reminded me of Santa I remember thinking. He looked at me with a suspicious look.

    • You´re not from around here, are you? He said while starring me right in the eye.

    • No, no I just bought a cabin up here, actually, out by the lake. Spending my first weekend out here as a matter of fact, I said with a smile.

    • Cabin by the lake ? Huh.. he said while slowly registering my purchase.

    • Yeah, just a small place.

    • I see..he said, and... this is your first night?

    • That´s right, just needed to get some food out there, I responded while pulling out my wallet to pay the old man.

    • Mister! He said firmly. If I were you I would get in my car and drive back to wherever you came from, he said.
    I just looked at him, dumbfounded, I didn´t really know what to respond to that so I just grabbed my grocery's and started to walk towards the door, casting one last look back at him before I opened the door.

    • I´m serious, he said when I turned back to him. Forget about the cabin, go home!

    • Wh..Why ? I heard myself ask.

    • That place isn´t right, I know what cabin you mean. Stay. Away! Go back home and forget all about it. He said.

    • I laughed a nervous laugh, Yeah I think I´ll be alright I said.

    • Yeah thats what they all say, the old man muttered. Don´t say I didn´t warn you.
    I slowly walked out of there and closed the door behind me. That was weird, I thought. I started to walk down the street and realized I was close to the agency where I had met the agent on Tuesday. But when I came up to where I had met him, the place was all boarded up, and what was odd was that it looked like it had been like that for some time, the wood on the boards looked old and weathered, like it had been nailed to the wall for years. There was no sign of having had any business in years, let alone three days before.

    The growling sounds from my stomach brought me back to my senses and I slowly started to walk back to my car. On my way I remembered that I still had the agents number in my list of recently called numbers on my phone, he did say I could call if I had any questions.. I called him up to check what had happened to their office, but as soon as I hit dial I got the familiar tone of a number that had been disconnected. That´s odd, I thought, I´ll try him again tomorrow.

    The whole drive back I couldn´t shake the comments from the old man in the grocery store, he really sounded like he meant what he said, he sounded almost scared for my well being. Like he knew something I didn´t. Should I go back and talk to him? What did he mean by “That´s what they all say” ? Who? I decided I would speak to him again next time I got into town. When I got back to the cabin, I parked the car and went inside. I was so hungry I was about to pass out. I went into the kitchen and found a saucepan that didn´t look to nasty. I cleaned it up as good as I could and started to fry some eggs and bacon, the best I could find in that small store. I noticed the old oil lamp on the kitchen table that I had brought up from the dirt cellar. I wondered if the old owners had left any lamp oil laying around, and started to look around the kitchen shelves. After moving some stuff around I found a bottle with some left in it and filled up the lamp and lit it. It gave a real cozy light and a nice smell, I left it on the kitchen table while finishing making my late dinner.

    When I sat down to eat I started to think about the cellar, it really was a strange place to have an office. No windows, cold, dark. I needed to check it out some more. I finished my dinner and placed the dishes in the sink. Before I checked out the cellar I had to put some more wood on the fire, you could really start to feel that this was an old place, not great insulation. If the fire went out it would get real cold in here, real fast. I went out into the living room, the fire was almost dead already, it was dark. In the window by the front door, the same window that you could see in the painting over the fireplace was an old ugly lamp, I went over and turned it on, it flickered a bit but lit up after a while.

    I went over to the fireplace and found two big logs in the basket next to it, these will do fine I thought and tossed them on the fire. I turned to go back to the kitchen and the cellar when out of the corner of my eye I saw the painting, there is a light in the window I remember thinking. I did a double take and looked over there again. No, theres no light, there´s no woman, and no light. My mind is playing tricks on me again I thought. Must be all this fresh air, or internet abstinence, or something...

    I got back into the kitchen and rolled up the carpet to reveal the hatch. I grabbed the handle and opened it up again. This time I didn´t have the agents flashlight to guide me, I had to take the oil lamp with me. It didn´t light up anywhere near as well as a flashlight, but it was better than nothing. I got down and started to look around. The desk was an old massive wooden desk, oak, I think. How on earth did they get this down here through that narrow hatch and that steep staircase? The floor was basically just packed dirt, the walls was made of wood, the same kind as the rest of the cabin. Two big bookshelf´s stood to my right, packed with books. They were all in the same category as the books upstairs, crystals, demons, witches, stuff like that. Some looked extremely old with cracked spines, leather bound. I pulled one of the older looking books out and blew the dust of the cover. There was a faded image of a mountain top in the foreground with what looked like a fire behind it, I flipped through the pages, it was written in some foreign language I couldn´t understand, it looked like nothing I had ever seen before.

    I put it back and continued to check out the books. I thought I could see something behind some of the older books. I removed them and held the oil lamp up to get a better look. There, in the back of the shelf was another book, but this one seemed to be a bit newer than the others, there was no title, no image on the front. In fact it looked more like a diary than a book. I got intrigued. It was to dark to read down there, so I went to bring the book with me upstairs again. The second I sat foot on the first step of the staircase the hatch above me slammed shut. I got so startled I dropped the book and almost dropped the lamp as well. I rushed up the stairs and tried to open it but it wouldn´t give way. It lifted a few inches than slammed shut again, almost like someone was standing on it above. I swear I heard a giggle. I started to freak out and was about to yell out for help when I realized there was no one around for miles. But as quickly as it had started, it stopped. All of a sudden the weight lifted and I could open the hatch again. I quickly went down and got the book back up from the floor and rushed back upstairs again where I just threw myself on the kitchen floor and lay there breathing for a while wondering what the hell just happened. I got up and closed the hatch and went in into the living room and sat down in the leather couch in front of the fire.

    Alcohol, I need alcohol I thought and remembered that I had packed a bottle of scotch in one of my bags. I got it out and found a glass in the kitchen. I gave myself a real generous drink and went back to the couch and took a big sip. Was it all in my head? Was I imagining , was I freaking myself out with all these incidents, the painting, the agency being boarded up, the old man, the hatch, all the weird books... I had another sip, then I turned to the diary. I opened it up and read the first to sentences:

    “I´m writing this so that people will know what happened, and what drove me to do what I did. I´m writing this as a warning, so that no one else will follow in my footsteps.”

    I continued... “But if you´re reading this, chances are it´s already to late for you. If you have come so far as to have found the cellar, and the diary, then you probably already have signed the contract.” I looked up, I had the strangest feeling of being watched. I looked around but I was alone, I went back to reading.

    “If you have signed the contract it´s to late, you have already given yourself to her, you probably already know who I mean. You´ve seen her out of the corner of your eye, maybe in the cabin, maybe in the woods, maybe even in the god damn painting over the fireplace.” I looked up at the painting, no light in the window, no woman. I kept reading.

    “ That damn painting is cursed, I threw it on the fire only to find it back on the wall the next day. And that was just the start, I tried to get away, but it was pointless, no matter how I tried, I still ended up where I had started, in that fucking cabin. I have now realized that there is only one way out. Tonight I´m going to hang myself in the cellar. I wont let her win, she can´t have me, or my soul, or whatever it is she wants from me. I´m going out on my own terms. I´m sorry to say, but if you´re reading this, you probably want to do the same, soon”.

    I shut the book hard. Fuck this, I said out loud, - I´m going home. I grabbed my jacket and bolted out of the door and got into my car and turned the key, it wouldn´t start. I tried it again, and again and again, no luck, it was dead. I got out again and started to walk fast down the dirt road. I´ll find a ride once I hit the main road, I thought. started to run, I ran, and ran and ran, man was this road always this long? After running for at least 15 minutes in a straight line, I saw a light ahead. Finally, I thought, maybe it´s a car. I ran faster, then I fell to my knees in disbelief. The light in front of me was from the old ugly lamp, in the window, of the cabin. How!? I hadn´t made a single turn, how could I be back? I looked behind me, there, in the distance I thought I saw someone standing in the middle of the road. I got up and ran back to the cabin, I went back in and locked the door, I needed a plan. I needed to get out of here, what the hell is this place.

    My thoughts were interrupted by the painting all of a sudden falling to the floor. I got up and slowly went to pick it up, but dropped it as soon as I looked at it. There was a woman standing outside the cabin on the painting, right outside the front door, clear as day. I stumbled back and fell down on the couch. I slowly turned my head towards the front door, and saw the door handle slowly turn. I flew up to make sure the door was locked and then ran to the kitchen and out the back door. I had to make another try to get out of here. I took off to my left, into the woods and followed the shore of the lake. There´s bound to be another house somewhere along the shore I thought. I tripped and fell, got branches in my face and tore my shirt on the thorns but I didn´t stop.

    After about 20 minutes I saw a clearing up to my left, up in the woods. It looked like a camping spot, maybe theres someone there that can help me? I tried to move as quiet as I could but when I came to the clearing it was empty. Wait, was it? There were markings on the trees, I got up closer, it looked like the same language that I had found in the old books, almost latin but not quite. Three rows of text on one tree,and some carvings. It was hard to make out in the darkness but it looked like a crescent moon, and something else. In the middle of the clearing there was a big stone circle on the ground, twigs bound together resting on the trees. What the hell is this?

    I went back down to the shore and moved on in the same direction that I had been going before, I looked back out over the lake, I could clearly still see the Cabin way back there, it looked perfectly peaceful from here. I turned my head to move on and almost got a stroke, there, in front of me, it stood, the god damn cabin. I looked back again, a mist lay over the lake blocking the view, other than that - nothing but woods. I just saw the fucking cabin behind me and now here it is, as if I had ran a circle around the lake and come up to it from the right hand side. I could feel my sanity go, I´m losing it! Shit like this cant be real, I must have crashed my car on the way up here and ended up in a coma or something, and this is all a dream. Yes, yes, that´s it, this is a dream! This is not happening, reality doesn´t work this way!

    I had no choice but to go back in to the cabin, I was so cold. I got back in through the kitchen door and closed it behind me. I carefully looked around. No one in the kitchen, the hatch was closed, empty in the living room, bathroom, bedroom. The painting looked normal again, front door still locked. I sat down in the couch again and poured another drink, the fire was still going. I could feel myself calm down a bit. I grabbed the diary that still lay beside me and kept reading.

    “I just can´t see another way out. I don´t know what happens if she catches you, I don´t want to know. All I know is that I´ve been up here for 3 days now, and I can´t get out. I´ve tried getting to the main road, I´ve tried running out into the woods, I´ve even tried swimming over the fucking lake, no matter what I try, I always end up right back here at the cabin. This place is cursed. I even tried to burn it to the ground but the fire wouldn´t take. It´s a wooden cabin! And the fire wouldn´t take! God damnit... I´m writing this as a warning, but I don´t know if it will make any difference, on my last day here, today, I found a diary myself, written by the last owner, with a warning for me, or whoever would have found it, poor guy before me couldn´t take it either. He had ended his stay here, and on this earth by going out into the lake to drown himself. I think hanging probably is faster, If I only had a gun I could end it in a second. I truly hope no one needs to read this, but if you do. I´m so sorry. “

    I lay the book down and stared in to the fire. If this really is a dream, a coma, maybe I need to die here to wake up in the hospital? Either way, I can´t take anymore of this, the panic slowly started to return, I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. It´s not like I would be missed. Sure they would have a moment at work, say a few things about me but that´s it. I don´t have any family, no girlfriend or wife, no kids. I have to try, I have to try to die so that I maybe can live again, if this really is a dream, maybe it´s my only way out.

    As soon as I had made up my mind the old radio started to crackle and the dial lit up in a sickeningly yellowish light, the needle of the dial slowly moving through the frequencies by itself. A voice in the distance behind the static...

    • No! You are mine, you have signed the contract, you will not bereft me of what I own. You belong to me! A loud bang on the door, the handle started to wiggle furiously. I stood up in panic, staring at the door, then at the radio, the dial now flying back and forth and the room filled with loud white noise.
    I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the oil lamp and opened the hatch and went down. I tried to barricade it so that you couldn´t open it from the other side, all I found was some rope. I tied it to the hatch and secured it to the staircase and went down. I started to look around, I didn´t know for what. I glanced back up at the rope, was it enough? I stopped and looked, there was a sturdy beam in the ceiling. Yes, I will follow the last guy here... But first I went through the drawers and after a while found this book, this empty diary. I had to write this down. This is my warning to you, who ever you are, this is my good bye. Maybe I´ll wake up somewhere in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of me and machines all around, maybe not, I just can´t take it anymore, I have to chance it.

    As I´m writing this I can hear screaming coming from the white noice upstairs, I can hear furniture being thrown. I need to end this now, before she get´s to me. I´m using the rope from the hatch, and I´m hanging myself on that beam. I hope you never have to read this but I´m leaving the book in plain sight on the desk down here.

    Good bye.

    Silence, was I dead? I opened my eyess. I was lying on the dirt floor, rope around my neck. My head hurt. Blood was dripping into my eye, what had happened? I tried to get up but I was pinned down. I had tried to hang myself but the beam had broken and knocked me out. It looked like the back of the room was about to cave in. I managed to get out from under the beam and sat up on my knees. I couldn´t breath. I loosened the noose from around my neck and tossed it to the floor, breathing hard and deep.

    The beam had knocked over one of the bookshelf's, there was something behind it. What was that? A room? I managed to stand up and limp over to the bookshelf still standing up and leaned against it. The oil lamp was still burning on the desk, I took it and moved closer to the opening. I had to push the heavy shelf to the side to be able to slid in behind it. I entered the hidden space and held up the lamp to illuminate my surroundings. What was that in the back of the room, it looked like an altar. A big stone altar, bowls with..something in it, it looked like dried up blood mixed with some other stuff, the smell was nauseating, I felt like throwing up. The walls were covered in weird symbols and sigils. In the center of the altar there was another book. It looked like it was bound by small patches of leather. Was it leather, it almost felt like..skin. There was a symbol on the front of an eye and a crescent moon. It looked like it had been burnt into the skin.

    I opened the book, it to was covered in text I couldn´t read, but somehow I knew that this book was connected to all that was happening. Maybe if I destroyed it? I grabbed it and limped back out to the dirt cellar and up the staircase. There were still no sounds coming from up there, I tried to move as quiet as I could up the stairs and through the hatch. As soon as I had come up I started to feel sick, I wanted to throw up, everything was spinning. The white noice came back with a vengeance, it was deafening, it was like it was in my head. I could feel blood starting to drip from my ears.

    I have to destroy this book, that was all I could think of. I got sick in the sink and fell to the ground, something flew by my head and crashed in the wall behind me, a plate. I looked up, the entire shelf on the wall was shaking, glasses flying of it right at me, I caught one right on my eyebrow, blood started to pour down my face. I mustered all the strength I had left and started to crawl towards the living room, it felt like I was crawling up a steep hill, like gravity had shifted. I grabbed hold of the wall by the opening and pulled myself closer.

    The fireplace, I have to throw the book in the fire. I managed to get to the living room but had no strength left, I could barely even breath. I threw myself on the floor, I had a narrow angle to the fireplace, I saw the painting above it, it had changed again, the forrest was burning, the lake looked like it was boiling lava. In the window of the painting she stood, I could see her clearly now, her old wrinkly face, her eyes, oh my god her eyes, pure white eyes, it felt like she was staring into my soul. I turned my head to look over to the actual window, there she stood, her back to me. She slowly turned her head towards me.

    This was it, I had one chance or I would be hers to do with as she pleased. I aimed, still lying down, and with the very last of my strength threw the book towards the fire. time slowed down, it seemed like everything was happening in slow motion. In a blink of an eye she was over me, hovering in a horizontal position, her eyes just inches from mine, she smelled like death. Her dark wet greasy hair covering my face, her ice cold hand firmly gripping my wrist. I could feel her yellow long nails bury themselves in my skin. I could feel myself dying from the inside when in the corner of my eye I saw the book disappear into the flames. An ear piercing screech followed. It felt like the whole cabin imploded, a bright white light, and then, nothing.

    I woke up yesterday in the hospital, they say a couple of hikers found me out in the woods, at what looked like a camp spot. Apparently I had been lying there in the middle of a big stone circle, unconscious, dried blood everywhere, torn cloths, bruises all over. I wasn´t sure what had happened, I remembered everything, but couldn´t even believe it myself . It had to have been a dream I thought. That was, until they came to change my bandages, there on my wrist, was two barely visible scars, a crescent moon and an eye.

    I don´t think I´m out of the woods yet...

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************


    Story 8

    The smell of freshly brewed coffee was strong in the air as I descended the stairs. I stretched languidly when I reached the bottom, my body still trying to wake up after a long, good night's sleep.

    "Good morning, all," I announced as I made my way into the kitchen. I gave my wife, Clair, a quick peck as I passed by the stove.

    "Dad!!" my son squealed, hopping out of his chair and rushing over. That never got old. Luke was 4 and a firecracker. I lifted the boy off his feet and swung him around, much to the chagrin of his mother who was trying to get him to settle down long enough to eat his Cheerio's. Noticing Clair's harried expression, I quickly dropped Luke back into his little chair to finish his breakfast.

    "How did you sleep, little man?"

    "Fine! Reggie came to see me last night."

    "Ah yes, and how is fine Reginald doing these days," I asked with mock seriousness.

    "His name is Reggie dad, not Reginald!" Luke said, drawing out the last syllable as if the name Reginald was an absolutely absurd moniker.

    "Apologies. How is Reggie doing?" I responded, enunciating the name.

    My wife shot me a dark look. I knew I shouldn't encourage this new imaginary friend my son had concocted. Clair certainly did not approve. But I honestly couldn't see the harm in it. He was 4, after all. What 4 year old hasn't had an imaginary friend? And as we had just moved into a new home in a new village, I think it's his way of coping with being in a strange place and settling in. The move to Castlewood was somewhat unexpected. My job had offered the chance of a transfer, along with a sizable promotion. It was too good of a deal to pass up. The drawback was, of course, that the abrupt change had left very little time for my child and wife to acclimate to our new surroundings.

    "He's ok," Luke said.

    I glanced up at Luke. "Just ok? That's too bad. What did good old Reggie have to say?"

    "Nothing much," Luke said, slurping milk from his spoon. "Just stuff."

    "Just stuff," I parroted.

    "Yea. He said he doesn't like you."

    I feigned distress. "No! Reggie, you wound me!" I tickled Luke lightly which resulted in a round of giggles. "Well, perhaps I can meet Reggie officially at your birthday party next weekend and he will realize I'm not such a bad guy."

    My son laughed brightly and responded nonchalantly, "That's silly, dad! Reggie can't come! He's dead!"

    I heard the spatula my wife was holding clatter onto the stove. We both locked eyes. I paused for a beat before responding.

    "You say Reggie is dead?" I finally asked, looking back to my son.

    "Sure, he's been dead for a long time," my son responded before spooning another mouthful of Cheerios into his mouth. "Mom, can I go play out in the garden now? I've finished almost a whole bowl!"

    Clair looked slightly distracted before she nodded slightly to Luke. "Yes, but make sure to bring your bowl to the sink first."

    "Yes, mom!" Luke shouted, already running his half full bowl of cereal to the sink. He dashed out into the back garden without a second look back. I stared at his retreating figure.

    "What do you think that was all about?" I asked my wife.

    "I dunno. Quite creepy, don't you think?" she responded.

    "Quite. I don't know how he could have concocted such a story, to be honest. Think there's something to it?"

    Clair shot a look of disdain my way. "Are you asking me if there is a ghost haunting our house and he visits our son at night? Really, John?"

    "What, you don't believe in ghosts?"

    "Of course, not! It's a load of crap. Please don't tell me you actually believe in that nonsense?"

    "I don't know," I said with a look of contemplation. "I think there is a lot in the universe that we don't understand. Who's to say there's not something after death?"

    She turned back to my eggs she was still cooking. "That's ridiculous, John. Anyway, as you've said before many times. It's just a harmless imaginary friend right?" She looked back over her shoulder at me.

    "Right," I muttered, only half listening at this point. My mind was on other matters, now. I stared out the window watching Luke play in his sandbox.

    "Maybe I should stay in Luke's room tonight. You know, check it out, make sure there's not some weirdo sneaking into our son's room at night."

    "Really? Don't you think that's a little overkill?"

    "What could it hurt? It's a Friday night, mom would be happy to keep him for a sleepover. They can binge watch Paw Patrol while she gorges him on popcorn and sugar cookies. And you can get a night to relax in the tub with a glass of wine and a good book."

    She tried to look annoyed, but I could tell she was intrigued by the idea. "This is ridiculous, you know," she says, halfheartedly.

    "C'mon, you know a good soak and a night to yourself sounds pretty damn good."

    She rolls her eyes. I knew I'd won. "Whatever. But if your mom is busy, it's off!"

    Just as I had predicted, mom was pleased as punch to take Luke for the night. She picked him up early that evening and Clair and I enjoyed a lovely night of carry out pizza and cheap wine. I sent her off to have her bubble bath while I watched some goofy alien show on the History Channel. By 11 o'clock, I found myself getting sleepy and ready to turn in. After changing into my PJs and brushing my teeth, I announced to my wife that I was off to, "commune with the dead," in my hokiest spooky voice. She was already in bed and engrossed in a paperback. "Have fun," she muttered distractedly, blowing me a kiss. I left the warmth of our bedroom and shuffled down the hall into Luke's room. I flipped on the overhead light and looked around. The pale blue walls sported a large clown mural which stared back at me with a large toothy grin. I shuddered. Why, oh why did my wife decide on a carnival theme for his new room? There was nothing creepier than a clown, hands down. I walked over to Luke's tiny bed with his striped blue comforter. My feet would hang off the end, but I would survive. I crawled into bed and shut off the lamp that was shaped like an elephant. Darkness enveloped the room, save for a small nightlight in the corner shaped like a big top. The soft red light gave the clown a hellish glow. How had I not noticed how friggin’ creepy this room could be at night? Turning away from the creepy ass clown, I lay down and try to best to slow my breathing and relax.

    I awoke abruptly from a deep sleep to the sound of creaking. I had a moment of confusion as I tried to recognize my unfamiliar surroundings.

    Right. Luke's room.

    I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and looked around trying to locate the source of the noise. The closet door in the far-right corner was ajar. Hadn't it been closed when I went to sleep? Luke's tiny backpack swung slightly from where it hung on the doorknob.

    "Hello?" I tentatively whispered. "Is anyone there?"

    Silence.

    I turned to my right and my gaze landed on the fucking clown. I really needed to talk to Clair about that. The nightlight still gave off that creepy red glow, making the room appear almost disorienting. I looked around the roof, noting the pile of stuffed animals in the corner, and the bookcase by the door.

    "You're not Luke." My gaze whipped back over to the closet. The voice was so quiet, I couldn't even be sure I had heard it.

    "Who's there?" I whispered to the closet.

    Again, silence met my query. I rubbed my eyes. This was ridiculous. What was I even doing in here? I was working myself up over nothing. I was a grown ass man sleeping in a tiny bed next to arguably the creepiest fucking clown in the universe. I threw the covers back and was about to swing my legs over the side of the bed when I heard it again.

    "You're not Luke."

    I froze in place. There was no denying it this time. I had heard a voice coming from the closet. Slowly, as if I didn't really want to see, I drug my gaze towards the dark closet in the corner. From the red glow of the nightlight, I saw a tiny, pale face. Only the top half of the face was visible; large, dark orbs for eyes, a greyish white forehead, and a matting of dark hair. The face stared at me from high up in the closet, like it was some obscenely tall child standing just behind the wall.

    What. The. Fuck.

    "Wh-who are you?" I stammered.

    The face remained still. I realized the eyes had not yet blinked.

    "Are you Reggie?" I asked.

    At the sound of the name, the face abruptly disappeared and I heard a scrabbling noise come from the closet.

    "Where is LUKE?" The voice was louder and coarser this time, with Luke's name coming out gravelly and angry from the child.

    "He's not here," I said, glad to hear my voice steady this time. "What do you want?"

    There was silence for several seconds. Finally, the voice spoke, softer this time. "Want. Luke."

    I was shocked into silence for a few beats.

    "You can't have, Luke," I raised my voice defensively.

    The room suddenly grew cold and the air crackled. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

    Before I could say anything in response, I spotted movement at the floor of the closet. The white face was back, and I could see it more clearly from this vantage. It was the face of a child, but corrupted. This was not a child. The skin was sickly and thin. The eyes were sunken, almost desiccated. Dark circles surrounded the black eyes. The lips were pale and bloodless and were curled into a sickening grin. It was the teeth that shook me the most. They were extremely small, thin, and jagged. As if each tooth had been broken intentionally to create this horrific and serrated maw. The chin rested directly on the floor and the face looked directly at me with an anger such as I had never seen on the face of a child. It was a face of pure and utter rage. The face stared for a few seconds, before the child creature began to move. No - not move. Slithered. With it's limbs tight by it's body, it slithered on it's belly from the closet, all the while whispering in an increasingly sibilant voice, "Wantttt Lukeeee...Wantttt Lukeeee." I backed up as far as I could until I was pressed against the headboard of Luke's tiny bed while the child snaked itself forward. Soon, the head, and shoulders were no longer visible. I soon lost sight of it's pointed white feet as it continued to glide lithely forward.

    The child was under the bed. I gripped the small mattress with both hands, not knowing what to do. My heartrate was through the roof and beads of sweat had welled up on my forehead. The mattress jolted as the creature underneath grabbed onto the springs from below as if it were some deranged bat. The springs of the tiny mattress groaned from the extra weight. Slowly, I could feel the movement of the creature as it moved one hand, and then the other. Until I could finally see tiny, jagged fingernails appear on the side of the bed. I've never understood the term, "paralyzed with fright." I always imagined that faced with a raging monster or axe murderer, I could easily find the willpower to get my ass in gear and move. But in this moment, the ability to move had absolutely abandoned me, and I was forced to watch in silent horror as the tiny, dead hand was joined by another. I shut my eyes tight together unwilling to have that horrible impersonation of a child burned into my retinas. And it was then that I heard it.

    "John? John, come back to bed, this is ridiculous."

    The lights clicked on and as I finally regained the use of my muscles to turn my head and open my eyes, the visage of my wife came into view.

    "John? Are you ok?"

    I stared at her for a beat before I whipped back around to the side of the bed where the hands had grasped the mattress only moments before. Nothing.

    I released the breath I hadn't even realized I was holding.

    "I'm fine," I croaked. "All fine."

    She looked towards where I had been staring. Not seeing anything, she continued.

    "Come back to bed. I can't sleep without you, it gives me the creeps sleeping alone."

    She turned and left, her robe trailing behind her. I waited for a full minute, listening intently for any sound.

    All was quiet.

    Hesitantly, I lowered one foot and then the other to the floor. As I stood up, I fully expected to see a tiny, ragged hand reaching from below the darkness of the bed to grasp my ankle, but none came. I couldn't bring myself to look under the bed. The possibility of coming face to face with that hideous mockery of a child made me feel sick. Instead, I turned around, walked out the room, and shut the door behind me.

    Back in my own bedroom, with my wife sleeping peacefully beside me, I laid awake for hours, unable to get the face of the child from my mind. Unable to sleep with the fear that I would awake with those small, cold hands wrapping around my throat and that snake-like voice whispering in the darkness.

    I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew, it was morning. Sunlight shone through the partially opened blinds and birds chirped annoyingly outside the second-floor window. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I contemplated the prior evening.

    I couldn’t let Luke stay in that room again. Not with that...that thing in there. No. I had to do something. I had to protect my son.

    I grabbed my laptop from where it lay gathering dust under my nightstand. The damn thing took what felt like hours to load. When I was finally able to get the dinosaur up and running, I loaded up my web browser and began my research.

    How to get rid of ghosts.

    The curser blinked rapidly as if mocking me. I quickly backspaced and typed DIY exorcism.

    Ok, that was worse.

    Cleansing spirits from your house. That was better. I hit enter. The results were mixed, as was to be expected. But I finally found a few websites that gave me the information I needed.

    A few hours later, I had a plan. And I had a name.

    Reginald Ward.

    The little shit was named Reginald after all. It appears that unbeknownst to me or my wife, our home had been the scene of the tragic death of an eight year old boy in 1907. Reginald Ward, according to what I had found online, had passed away from consumption (or Tuberculosis as it’s more commonly referred to these days). As distressed as I was to learn that our new home was the scene of the horrific death of a child, I was even more distressed that said child was still in residence. I shuddered to think about what had befallen that child over the past decades to turn it into this...this thing.

    My wife poked her head in the doorway startling me out of my thoughts. “What are you doing? You’ve been in here all morning.”

    “Nothing,” I hedged, slowly closing the laptop screen so as not to make her suspicious. “Just looking at stuff online.”

    “Okayyyy.” She drew out the word while giving me an odd look.

    Yep. She was definitely suspicious. I had to think quickly.

    “Hey, you’ve seemed really stressed lately. What if I had my mom keep Luke for another few hours and you had a spa day.”

    Her brows perked up. “Seriously? I thought you said that spa days were the most useless way to spend your money.”

    My smile was tight. It was true, I thought it was an entire waste of money. You literally got nothing out of it. But I had to get her out of the house somehow. She couldn’t be here when I was performing the ‘cleansing’.

    “Nonsense, you deserve it. Go ahead, give them a call and set it up.”

    She couldn’t help the grin that spread across her face. “You don’t have to twist my arm!” she yelled as she turned and scurried downstairs to make the call. I stopped myself from mentally tallying how much this little outing would cost me and focused my attention back on the task at hand. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of how to get rid of Reggie. From what I read online, it was better to do the cleansing at night. But I didn’t have that sort of time. I had to deal with this now. I made the quick call to my mom to see if she could keep Luke until that evening. After coordinating the time that she would drop him off, I quickly dressed and hurried downstairs.

    “Babe, I’ve got to run a few errands. I’ll be back in a bit.”

    “Okay. I’m headed to the spa in a half hour. They had a cancellation for a Deluxe Package at the last minute, isn’t that great?!”

    I mentally groaned, but pasted a smile on my tense face. “That’s great, honey. Have fun.”

    I grabbed my keys and hurried out to my car.

    45 minutes later, I walked back into the house carrying my assorted purchases. Clair’s car was gone, so I didn’t bother calling out for her. I was all alone. Well, not alone, exactly.

    I carried my purchases upstairs and opened the door to Luke’s room. The red curtains were drawn and the room seemed just as creepy as the night before. The day had turned rainy and dreary, so what little light came through the curtains gave the room that same, dim glow as the previous night. I shuddered. Shutting the door, I emptied the bag of items on the floor. I paused to take stock of my haul. A small, wrapped bundle of sticks I was told was called a sage smudging wand, an abalone shell, a large feather, a container of course salt, and a bible. I pulled up my phone and found the article I had been referencing earlier. I quickly reread the instructions through just to be sure I had everything correct.

    I first grabbed the salt and sprinkled a line across the bedroom door. This was supposedly to prevent the spirit from going into another part of house during the cleansing. I didn’t know if this would do shit, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Next, I placed the abalone shell on top of the bible. The bible wasn’t specifically in the instructions, but figured it certainly couldn’t hurt. Again, I was taking no chances.

    I walked over to the window and pulled back the red curtain. The rain was really coming down now. I opened the window slightly. The purpose of this I had learned during my hurried research was to give the spirit a pathway to leave the house. I didn’t want to get rain water all over my son's bedroom floor, so I only opened it a smidge. That should hopefully be enough. I pulled out a small lighter from my pocket and flicked it on. The small flame wavered in the semi darkness of the small room. I picked up the smudge wand and lit the end. Red embers glowed as the stick caught fire. I quickly blew the open flame out, but the end of the smudge wand continued to slowly smolder, the red embers causing a fragrant, earthly smoke to emit from the end. I quickly dropped the smoldering stick into the abalone shell and picked it up along with the bible. With my other hand, I grabbed the large feather.

    I was ready.

    I began to circle the room. With each step, I would use the feather to waft the smoke, blanketing the room in that thick, earthy smell. I continued to circle the room twice more, keeping silent as I wafted the smoke, permeating the room. After three rounds, I spoke.

    “Reggie Ward. I command you in the name of God to leave this place. You are not welcome here and you must leave.” I paused momentarily in my path.

    Nothing happened.

    I continued again.

    “Reggie Ward, I command you in the name of God to leave this place. You are not welcome here and you must leave.”

    Still nothing. I started walking again.

    “Reggie Ward, in the name of God, I command you to leave.”

    At first, I though there had still been no change. Slowly, I began to realize that there had, in fact, been a shift.

    I could no longer hear the rain.

    It was as if a thick layer of cotton had encased the room. The air was heavy and dense. I almost had the feeling of being underwater. I could hear my heart beat increase.

    “Reggie, in the name of God, I command you to leave.”

    On the word leave, I heard a thump from the closet. I paused in my pacing and stared over at closet. The door was slightly ajar. Thick darkness enveloped the inside of the small closet. Without removing my eyes from the door, I started again.

    “Reggie. I command you in the name of God to leave this place.”

    Another thump. And then, so low I could barely hear it, a hissing sound, not unlike breath whistling from between clenched teeth. A deep, long scratching shortly joined the hissing.

    “Reggie, I COMMAND you in the name of God to leave! You are not welcome here!”

    The hissing became louder. And from the depths of the dark closet, a small, moaning voice.

    Don’tttt.” The word was dragged out in a hissing rasp.

    “Reggie, you must leave NOW!” I yelled towards the closet.

    Don’tttt,” the hissing, breathy rasp was louder this time. From the darkness of the closet, those two, horrible, small gray hands emerged and clasped onto the door frame. “John....” The sound of my name in that sibilant tongue literally made my skin crawl. “John....don’t...”

    I did not comply.

    “REGGIE WARD. IN THE NAME OF GOD, I COMMAND YOU TO FLEE THIS HOUSE!”

    The top of the small, gray face joined the hands. The dark eyes had a wary look. I could have almost felt sorry for the creature.

    But I did not.

    Quieter this time, I again spoke.

    “Reggie. You must leave.”

    Wisps of smoke began to emerge from the small hands, as if there were some great, internal flame churning just beneath the skin.

    The entity did not appear to be able to speak any longer. Only that ragged, shrill hiss filled the air.

    I watched with trepidation as the hands fell abruptly to the ground. I could see the sharp nails gouging crescents into the wood floors as it laboriously began to drag it’s body forward out of the darkness of the closet.

    In the light of the storm, and in it’s weakened state, the creature was pitiful. Gray, mottled skin rippled as the smoke drifted almost casually from it’s surface. The thing lifted it’s large black eyes to me in supplication. With great effort, it spoke.

    Don’t....”

    I did not have a chance to respond. The smoke enveloped the creature. It swept silently through the opened window.

    I stood still for several seconds before my knees finally gave out. I had not even realized the toll the process had taken on me until this very moment. I wiped a thin layer of perspiration from my brow as I looked towards the empty closet.

    It was over.

    Later that evening, my wife and I sat on the couch each nursing a glass of white wine. I had not said much after she got home and she, relaxed and zenned out after her day of pampering, had not pressed.

    I had not fully processed all that had happened within the last 24 hours. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I would ever process it. But to know my son was now safe was solace enough for me. I took a large swig of the sweet wine and leaned back into the soft sofa.

    The doorbell rang and before I could even set down my glass, the hurried footfalls of my son rushing through the front hallway reached my ears.

    “Dad! Mom!” Luke rushed into the living room and launched himself at us. Chuckling, we hugged the rambunctious boy as he told us all about his adventures at Grandma’s. He was talking so fast, I could only make out every third word. From what I could tell, they had had a boatload of fun making cookies, playing games, and eating lots and lots of junk food.

    My mom entered the room at a more sedate pace.

    “Sheesh, Luke, let them breathe, bud!” She intoned.

    “I’m going to go see Reggie! I can’t wait to tell him about the new puzzle Grandma got me!”
    Before I could say anything, he was already bounding up the stairs and giggling with excitement.

    My mom shook her head. “He could not stop talking about his friend Reggie all weekend.” She sat down on the edge of the chair next to the couch where Clair and I still lounged.

    “Well, I have a feeling we won’t need to worry about Reggie anymore,” I said.

    My wife gave me a sideways curious glance, but I ignored it.

    “It was the strangest thing, though,” my mother continued without acknowledging my statement. “When I asked him about Reggie, he said he was dead.”

    “I know,” said Clair. “Rather creepy, isn’t it?”

    “Yes,” my mother agreed. “I thought so as well. But he said that he was his friend, and that Reggie protected him from the others.”

    My gaze shot to my mom. “What did you say?”

    “Yea, it kind of creeped me out too,” she said. “He said that the others that lived in the attic were mean and tried to come down and hurt Luke. He said that Reggie wouldn’t let them; that he protected him and kept him safe. When I tried to press him on it, he clammed up.”

    I cold chill swept over my body. The others? Suddenly, the rasping voice of Reggie came back to me.

    Want Luke. Want Luke.

    It was as if the floodgates opened in that moment and I fully understood. Reggie didn’t want Luke. He was trying to tell me that THEY wanted Luke. The others wanted Luke. Reggie had been trying to warn me. He had tried to scare me into leaving, he had tried to help me. To protect my son.

    I quickly set down my wine glass and snatched the blanket off my legs. Before I could stand fully up, the sound of my son’s screams met my ears.....

    ******************************************************************************************************************************************

    Story 9

    It was cold every day, though I assume that’s the case whenever you spend every day in a research facility in the arctic. They told us we were to record the ice sheets’ sizes as they shrank, but I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve seen the Facebook feeds of all the dullards and philistines. They don’t believe us. Social policy doesn’t shift to meet us and our findings. No one cares. Still, there we were, freezing our respective genitals off in ridiculously low temperatures. That’s alright Karen, please finish your latte and tell me exactly how it is you know better than us. Go on, seriously. I think it’s a bit funny that we were sent up here on federal grants from the good ol’ USA. You may not believe our findings, but you sure are paying for them, so there it is.

    That’s not all we were up there for though. It seemed that was what we were doing at first, but as we began to record crazy seismic activity our focus shifted to that instead. Initially, it seemed as though it was just periphery nonsense we were picking up on our instruments, but it continued. The government suits came in and we worked under the ‘mushroom’ style of management the US government enjoys implementing most: Feed your employees shit and keep them in the dark. We were already working on the government dime, so not much changed. Everything just felt a lot more hush-hush.

    It had been at least a week since the last transmission and the storm wasn’t letting up any time soon, we all knew that. The animals knew it too. The sled dogs became lethargic and whimpered as we checked in on them. They would pace and refuse to touch their kibble.

    Things get weird outside sometimes though. Just the way it goes. Sometimes you think you see things in the snow and then you turn back to look at it and it’s nothing, but sometimes it is. I’m getting carried away with myself when I talk of such things, I apologize. The thing that gets me more than anything is the wild loneliness you feel. It’s maddening some days, but I suppose that should have been something to be prepared for. I’m not so sure any amount of preparation would have done it though. You expect the loneliness to be sure, but the thing you really don’t expect is exactly how crazy your own mind goes in it. You know there won’t be enough people to sate the average human equivalent, but the worst is within you. It’s enough to drive you up a wall. I’m rambling though, so I’ll get on with it.

    We were a team of eleven in the beginning, but during the shift rotation we were left with five. Me, that is, Andrew Warden, a junior researcher. Anthony Finkle, the lead. Jennifer Jones, another junior. Amber Darling (not sure how someone ends up with a surname like that), the helicopter pilot. Donovan Plant, Technical Officer sent in after the pickup in seismic; he notably came from a military background and it felt as though he was deeper in the government’s pocket than anyone else. There we were, expecting another round of professionals to come in, and that damned storm came down on us almost like it knew what it was doing. The weather itself knew we’d be trapped up there. We lost communication, but that didn’t matter as we knew they wouldn’t bring the next batch of fresh-faced researchers with the storm the way it was.

    It never seemed to let up; a constant whistle blew across the metal panels that made up the front entrance of the facility. You could get further away from the noises of the storm if you delved deeper into the facility underground; it was warmer there too and for a brief moment maybe you could forget you were on the top of the world in the middle of a blizzard. We hardly talked to one another, only congregating in the mess hall to eat together, normally in muttering silence. Mostly, I devoured books I’d already read, and the other team members were taken away in their own hobbies. The storm bugged most of our equipment out so it wasn’t as though we could get much work done beyond recording temperatures and making sure the seismograph kept a steady reading. Anthony tended his bonsai, Amber knitted, Jennifer tended to the dogs, Donovan kept his door shut and locked so I couldn’t really say what he did in there while the rest of us were filling our time.

    The first meaningful conversation I’d had in a long time was with Jones as we were peers. It was in the sterile mess hall as I attempted to keep an eye on the open page of ‘Metamorphosis’ while also spooning hunks of chopped spaghetti into my mouth. I was doing a rather poor job of this, constantly dropping sauce into my lap. She slid into the seat across from me with a bowl, rubbing her hands together after removing her gloves.

    I couldn’t help it, my interest was piqued, “Why the gloves?” I grumbled while closing the book and looking up at her. Her cheeks were veiny red.

    Jones lifted her warm bowl with her hands, letting out a satisfying sigh. She peeked over the bowl at me. “Have you been out lately?”

    I leaned in, “No. There’s a storm out there, in case you’ve not noticed.”

    “I know.” She sat the bowl down. “Still. I think you should go outside some time. I swear there’s something out there.” She shuddered as she spooned the food into her mouth and sucked on her spoon absently.

    “What are you talking about?” I raised an eyebrow.

    She grinned and leaned in towards me, “There’s people out there. I swear it! You’ve got to go out there. I’ll take you. You’ve got to see them.”

    “There’s no one out there.” I furrowed my brow at her, completely forgetting my book, and setting it next to me on the bench.

    She pointed her spoon at me, “You sure about that? You been up there?”

    I shook my head.

    “I’ll show you tomorrow.” She took another mouthful from the bowl. “Don’t tell anyone.” Jones whispered this part and decided to continue her meal alone in her room.

    As she left the canteen and disappeared down the hall, I watched her, baffled. “What?” I said. There weren’t people out in the storm. What sort of asinine crap was that? I rapped my fingertips across the tabletop and wondered whether Jones had a touch of the madness. That was a distinct possibility. It could creep up on any one of us at any time. Wandering around in a blizzard was a way for it manifest.

    I took my bowl to the sink basin and washed it, leaving it on the rack to dry. After returning to my room, I tossed the book onto the metal bedside table and lie in bed; even after clicking my light off, I could not sleep. I paced for longer than I’d care to admit, thinking that I ought to turn Jones in to Fink. Fink would know what to do, he was a brilliant yet compassionate man. Would we quarantine her? I couldn’t be sure. None of us knew when the next batch would show up. Call it curiosity, boredom. Perhaps I too had been touched by the maddening effects that place kept. I decided to meet with Jones in the morning and go out there. After making my decision, sleep came easier.

    The following morning, I bundled in layers and crept past the others’ rooms then the canteen. I could hear clanking utensils as they ate their breakfast. Reaching the mouth of the facility, I found Jones at the sled dog pens, roughing the neck of a shabby looking mutt with curly black and white fur. He looked around happily, wagging his tail. The storm picked up outside and he tucked his tail as the overhead fluorescents flickered. “It’s okay boy.” Said Jones, offering her hand, palm down. He brushed his face into it, and she gathered his head in both hands, scratching his jaw on either side. His tongue lolled back and forth.

    “So.” I said, making my presence known. “People outside, huh?”

    “That’s right.” She said. “I saw them a few days ago.” Jones lifted herself from her hunkered position and wiped her hands down the front of her pants. “Thought for sure I was losing my mind, but they are out there. Humanoid figures.”

    “You mean humans. Humanoid figures don’t exist.” I corrected.

    “Sure, humans. I saw them a few days ago and tried ignoring them, but every time I looked out there,” She motioned to the window near the facility’s arched doorway. I couldn’t see anything but thick snow whipping across the glass’s surface in violent bouts. “They were out there. The figures are the only thing I can’t rationalize.”

    “That’s impossible.”

    “Without a doubt. It’s totally impossible.” Jones said.

    “So?”

    “So? They’re still out there*.*” She shrugged. “If you ask me? Governmental experimentation.”

    “What?”

    “Hear me out,” She put up her hands with a coy twinkle of her immaculate teeth. “Probably I’m paranoid or something. Probably I’m totally wrong, alright? But I think this is some sort of localized blizzard. I think the government is testing out weaponized weather. That’s what makes sense to me.” Given the look in her eye, I could tell she was mostly joking. There was something like a hopeful glimmer there though and I could tell the thought of something so sensational moved the gears of her imagination.

    “That’s illegal.” I shook my head.

    “Lots of things are illegal. When the government does something, it’s not. I’ve seen your file, you’ve worked in the public sector long enough, so I’d say you know that better than anyone.”

    “Localized, weaponized weather.” I said, holding my chin and tugging at the thin beard transpiring there. Letting the words dangle in the air that way they would fully cement in my mind. “That’s insane. You’re insane.”

    She laughed heartily, flapping her gloves against her bundled tummy. “I mean, probably. Doesn’t change the fact that I’ve seen humanoid-

    Humans.

    “Right. It doesn’t change the fact that I’ve seen humans out there.” She paused to slip into her thick gloves. “So, I tried going out to them yesterday, but no matter how far out I went, I couldn’t see their details. They look like black outlines in the snow.”

    “So?”

    “So, I need help. I needed someone else to come with me. I don’t want to get lost out in that storm.”

    “You want to get both of us lost in the storm?”

    “At least if that happens, I won’t be lost by myself. Right?”

    This was suicide, without a doubt I was sure of that. But why had I come up here? I knew why. She knew why too. The talk of these strange figures out in the blizzard had me extremely interested. I moved across the white dusted floor and wiped at the window near the door with my glove, scraping the frost off. I peered out, squinting my eyes. I waited for it. I waited for the humanoid figures to show themselves out there. Nothing. I couldn’t see anything out there in that storm but wild white wind. Just as I began to tell Jones that I intended to have breakfast with the others, I saw them standing out there, unmoving There were maybe two or three of them, the vaguest outlines of people. Arms, legs, heads. No way. There was no way I should have been able to see anything in that. Unless. Unless the storm was localized somehow, and the reach of the blizzard didn’t touch out past maybe forty yards. Forty yards! Listen to me! Forty yards in a blizzard that thick might as well have been a million.

    Jones came up on my shoulder, “You see them too, huh?”

    I jerked at her presence and took a step from the window. “Yeah-yeah. I see them. Could be a simple case of pareidolia?” I offered.

    She nodded. “Could be. Could be several things. Pareidolia, cabin fever, polar madness specifically. Believe me, I’ve thought about all of that. The only thing that’s supposed to be out there is the chopper. I don’t know about you, but those don’t look anything like a chopper to me.” I studied Jones’s face and saw she was on point. Her brow was rigid, and her eyes were unmoving. She was determined. Repulling her hair into a tighter bun, she donned a thick woven cap. “Ready?”

    “Dammit.” I slapped my gloves against my hands but eventually slid into them.

    She grabbed the door handle as I was still placing the goggles over my face. “Remember to stay close. The worst thing we could do is lose each other out there.” She paused. “I set up a line yesterday. It goes out maybe twenty or thirty meters. It was difficult alone.” Twisting the door’s big flat metal handle with the full weight of her body, it came swinging in and I was immediately met with the stiff wind of the blizzard.

    Even in my layers, I knew it was going to be a miserable excursion. I barreled into the wind with my shoulder, feeling the chill cut straight through me. Gritting my teeth, I reached out with a stiff arm, searching the blind white air for the lead she’d mentioned. It was a panicked eternity that I was reaching out with my gloved fingers before I felt them wrap around the hard metal of a waist high post. Running the length of the guidepost, I found the line and took it in both hands. This was it. If I let go and scrambled into the whipping snow, I’d be lost forever. Behind, I felt the searching arms of Jones. She was flailing around. Keeping one hand on the line, I grabbed hold of her with the other, leading her hand to it. Quickly, I grasped onto the line again, terrified. It’s a similar feeling to drowning. Total hopelessness all around you. I shimmied my feet along, creating a small path in the heavy snow. Why did I have to go first?

    I fought my neck against the wind beating against my frayed hood as I came to the end of the line and peered out into the storm, holding one hand cupped around my face to help me see. There were the figures. Strong, unmoving. They must have been statues. That was the only explanation! Something was moving us along out there in that storm. Something wanted us out there. Something wanted us to find these things! I felt Jones bump into my back and grabbed my shoulder, looking past me.

    “There! You can see them a little clearer now!” she yelled directly into my ear. Even with the minimal space between us, I could scarcely hear her over the scream of the wind.

    “Are they statues?” I asked.

    “They look like it! It’s clearer out today!”

    “I’m going to go check them out! Hold on to the end of the line and keep me in sight! If you lose me, get help!” I let go of her and staggered into the snow before she could protest. Looking back even now, I wonder what was wrong with me? No one goes out there like that alone. That’s a sure-fire way to kill yourself. I didn’t care, I suppose. I was driven by a sense of adventure in an otherwise mind-numbing existence. The storm continuously pushed against me and I fought it, watching my feet steadily. I could already feel my muscles burning from the exertion, but I convinced myself that if I maintained my nerves and didn’t lose my sense of direction while taking my steps carefully, I’d be fine.

    That’s when I bumped directly into one of the figures and almost sent myself cartwheeling in the snow; I instead found myself on one knee, leaning over the obscured form of a humanoid figure. It didn’t move. It was frozen? I held onto the stiff leg of the figure and looked to my left and right. Three other frozen figures to my left. Two others to the right. Then there was the one I was kneeling over. Six altogether. Humanoid forms of varying heights and builds.

    I felt a hand grab my shoulder hard and I almost fell over in terror as I was sure that one of these figures had come to life and was coming to get me. It was Jones.

    She’d left the line.

    “What are you doing?” I screamed at her.

    “Finkles at the end of the line over there!” she spit through the cold. “He said to come and get you! Looks like the jig is up!” Could I almost hear a laugh in her voice? Who knows?

    I relaxed and took a moment to regroup. “Help me!”

    “What?” she said.

    “Help me! Get the thing’s leg over there! I’ve got this one!”

    We set about the arduous task of dragging the frozen figure through the thick snow, only circling around in confusion once. We saw Finkle at the end of the line, holding a light and waving it all around. “There!” Screamed Jones.

    As we met Finkle, he called out gruffly, “What the hell are you doing out here?”

    “Here!” I said, “Help us get this thing in!”

    It was hard to tell, but I’m sure the lead was shaking his head as he hunkered down and began aiding in our efforts to move the heavy statue-like figure.

    Darling slammed the door shut and the wind outside was muffled. I shed my hood and goggles and gloves, rubbing my hands together while blowing hot breath into them. I watched as Jones followed suit. The figure lay in the floor, stiff with both arms at its sides, staring at the ceiling blindly. It was ice. It was an ice statue. I looked around at the other faces of the research team and they too were all momentarily intrigued by the statue.

    Finkle tugged at his belt. “Now why don’t you tell me what you two were doing out there during a damned blizzard!”

    I looked to Jones and we locked eyes. “We saw those things out there,” she said, “There’s others out there. This isn’t the only one. Wild stuff if you ask me.”

    “And you thought you’d just go on a little trek without letting the rest of us know?” Stammered Finkle while stroking his thick peppered beard. “Have you lost your minds?” Still shaking his head, he crossed the room and knelt to examine the ice statue. When he looked back to us, his expression had softened substantially. “Alright. Alright. So, you see this thing out there and go get it. What now?”

    Jones shrugged and made the noise for, I don’t know.

    “This will be going into my folder, sir.” Said Donovan to Finkle.

    Finkle waved this off, “I’m sure it will. Everything does, doesn’t it?” He lifted the light from his belt and shined it at the statue’s bulbous featureless face. “This isn’t made out of ice.” He said calmly. “It’s coated in the stuff.” He sighed and wiped his dribbling nose with a sniff. “There’s a person under here. Goddammit. There’s a person under here.” He repeated his words.

    I stepped over to look at the figure. It was true. With him shining his light into the thing’s face, I could just make out two blue eyes, an open mouth, a nose. There was a human somewhere under all that, no doubt.

    “Jesus.” Whispered Darling. “Who is it?” None of us could tell as the glass-like reflective quality of its form did not afford the distinction of specific features.

    Finkle investigated the body with his coarse thick fingers. “Never seen anything like this before. Looks like someone poured water over them and kicked them out into the blizzard. God, look at this, the coating of ice is so thick. How does something like this happen?”

    Mine and Jones’s insubordination seemed forgotten, at least for the moment. I looked to her, but her eyes were transfixed on the statue. This wasn’t the sort of thing she’d been looking for. This was horrific. This was death. Who did that? What did that?

    We lifted the statue and carried it to the infirmary, laying it out on one of the sleek metal tables, surrounding it with heaters. Not wanting to watch the thing melt, I took myself to the canteen and settled into a corner with a warm butter biscuit. I hadn’t noticed, but Jones had followed me, startling me from my thought as I looked over my sparse breakfast.

    “You said you thought it was some sort of localized storm.” I said.

    “I don’t know. It seemed like a neat fantasy.” She toyed with her fingers on the table. “I was bored. That’s all. I didn’t think those figure out there were even real. The idea of a top-secret governmental conspiracy got me excited, but I knew that was a tad farfetched.” Jones sighed, “Of course it was. I was bored.” Her voice had an apologetic tone. “Plus, I had to have a reason to get you to come with me.”

    “It’s alright,” I assured her, “It’s a good thing we did what we did. There are frozen dead people out there. At least five others.”

    Darling joined us, sliding onto the bench table alongside Jones. “Craziest shit I’ve ever seen, that much I can tell you.” She was shaking her head. “Finkle says we should go out there and get the others.” She studied me and Jones. “You sure are a grim duo,” Darling cracked a grin, “What do you guys think? There’s some serial freezer out there, right? A Jack Frost type, going around and blasting people with a freeze-ray or some shit.”

    “There you go Jones,” I said, “There’s your top-secret government experiment! They’ve got a freeze-ray.”

    Jones’s mouth blinked a smile.

    It was a crummy situation for all of us. We were trying to keep our spirits up, I think. No easy task when there’s a dead body in the other room. Darling withdrew a deck of cards and I watched as the two women played a game of war. Their chatter filled the canteen and I was left thinking about that poor frozen soul in the infirmary. Who was it? Why were there frozen people out there in the blizzard? Why were they so eerie?

    Finkle entered the room and took in next to me, putting his hands over one another on the table. He stroked his beard and stared at the reflective surface of the bench-table.

    “What’s up Fink?” asked Darling.

    He sighed. “It’s Jenson.”

    It took us a moment to realize what he was saying. Dr. Donald Jenson was one of the researchers that had left our facility days prior during the shift change. How was that possible? We’d been in communication with the leaving team members up until the blizzard hit. They’d already boarded the plane that would take them home. We’d all said bye to one another over the radio. As far as we all knew, they were already back home. So, how was it that Jenson was sitting dead in the infirmary? He should have been hundreds of miles away.

    “Well,” Jones tossed her hand of cards onto the table, letting them splatter across the hard surface. “Guess you were right Andrew; those are humans out there for sure.”

    Finkle drummed his thumb against his leg, “I suppose we should gather their bodies. This time though,” he glanced at me and Jones, “We’ll do it right.”

    So it was that we gathered the other five statue people out of the thick storm outside, tilting them over so that we could more easily drag them along the ground like stiff boards. Donovan stood in the doorway, ushering, and cheerleading us as me and the other three did the heavy lifting. None of us were surprised at the thawed faces we found after laying them out with heaters in the infirmary. It was the other half of our team. Six people, frozen to death. I’ve seen people lose fingers or toes to the cold, all black and brittle; I’ve even seen people receive permanent damage on their noses or ears from it. This was different though. They were frozen, but they’d not lost the colors they’d had in life. It was uncomfortable to look at them. Considering Jones said she’d seen them out there over the past few days, their skin should be unrecognizable. This wasn’t your run of the mill frostbite. Me and the rest of the living members of the team didn’t mention it, opting instead to cast unsettled glances at one another. Finkle and Donovan took care of the bodies once they’d softened, covering them in blankets and arranging them in the infirmary in a perfect line against the far wall from the door.

    “Craziest shit I’ve ever seen,” Darling said repeatedly.

    Jones, I think, felt guilty. I attempted to comfort her, patting her on the shoulder. She gave me a stiff smile. “It’s not your fault, you know that, right?”

    “I know.” She said, her lips pulled tight. “I just wish I’d said something earlier.”

    “Yeah’,” said Darling, “Without you, they’d still be out there.”.

    We gathered in the canteen and shared in the chore of cooking. Strangely enough, the deaths of our team members did not settle a morbid silence over the room like I’d thought it would. If anything, the tragedy strengthened our bonds and the canteen was filled with the smell of food and the noise of friendly conversation. Finkle disappeared and returned with a bottle of wine, popping the top and pouring us all glasses. We toasted to the dead and ate, played cards, talked about anything besides the corpses.

    Just as Finkle yawned himself out of the mess hall and Donovan soon followed, I soon realized I was the third wheel in a game of eye-fuckery between Darling and Jones. We continued to play cards and broke into the cooking sherry. With our teeth stained red and Jones and Darling fondling each other’s fingertips, I removed myself with a quick, “G’night,” received with little protest.

    I returned to my room and stripped to my thermals then fell to sleep on a full warm stomach with a dizzy brain.

    I awoke to a biting chill in my room. Reaching for the bedside lamp, and finding it dead, I sat up in my mess of blankets. After rummaging around in the drawer near the bed, I found a flashlight and turned it on. I could see my own breath in the cutting beam of light. “Shit.” I said aloud and reached for my clothes near the bed. Bundling up, I stumbled sleepily into the hall, squinting in the darkness with my guiding light. As I was wiping sleepers from my eyes, my light caught the surprised face of Donovan and he spun around, swinging his arms, and letting out a yelp. I caught his wild hand and it was bone cold.

    “Hey!” He said, pushing the glasses up on the bridge of his nose and shirking his arm out of my grasp. “Power’s out.”

    “Yeah. Any idea why?”

    “Don’t know. I just woke up.”

    “Me too.”

    Darling pushed her head from her bunkroom, yawning. “Jesus, it’s freezing.” She was stripped down to her undies and hid behind the bulky door. “Oh,” she said, looking at me and Donovan standing in the hall. “What’s with the power?”

    Jones emerged from Darling’s room as well, wrapped in a quilt, peering at us from behind the other woman, and covering her eyes as I shone the light in their direction. “Quit it! Shine that somewhere else, please.” I did.

    Finkle’s grumbling voice could be heard from the far end of the hallway leading deeper into the facility. “Someone’s cut the main line.” He said, eyeing each of us suspiciously on his approach.

    “Don’t look at me.” Said Donovan. “I just woke up.”

    “Us too.” Said Jones and Darling in unison.

    I yawned my answer then caught myself, “Hey, Fink, what were you doing down there anyway?”

    “I was checking the breakers. Was going to see if I could find a way to flip the power back on once I’d noticed it was off. But someone cut straight through the line.”

    “What about the backup jenny?” I asked.

    “Busted to shit. Looks like someone beat it with a hammer.” He said while shaking his head.

    Our ghostly breaths hung in the air as we all looked around the hallway. Was it possible that one of us had sabotaged our own life support? That couldn’t have been it. No. We were all a bit jumpy from the frozen corpses, that was all. That’s what made sense.

    Finkle circled his finger in the air, “Everyone to the mess room.”

    We settled into the bench tables in the canteen, gathering candles from the cupboards, lighting them, and placing them throughout the room so that everything cast long dancing shadows. The wind outside only seemed to pick up and the although the place was lit in a warm glow, we were all chattering and shivering against a ticking clock.

    “So, who’s your money on there, Fink?” asked Darling, “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s your military boy over here.” She motioned to Donovan who clenched his jaw and tapped his foot.

    “Oh yeah?” said Donovan, “Wouldn’t surprise me if it was you. You’re the only one here as a freelance contractor!”

    “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” asked Darling. “You’re the weirdo that holes up in his room all day.”

    “Think!” said Donovan, “Why would I cut the power? I’m here too. I need heat.” He rubbed his arms. “Fucking freezing. You really think I’d kill myself just to freeze you out? Are you crazy?”

    She mocked his protests, jabbering her hand in a pantomime fashion.

    “Regardless,” said Finkle, “We’re all here now. The power’s out. Someone cut it. I can’t imagine why any one of us would. Comms been down for days and days now, so I can’t fathom why whoever did it would add freezing to death to the list of things we have to worry about. I don’t think any of us did it.” He settled his lower back against the kitchen counter. “Why would we?”

    “Maybe it was one of them.” Said Jones. We all knew what she meant. One of the frozen corpses we’d hauled out of that terrible blizzard.

    “Now’s not the time for your wild imaginings, Jones.” Said Finkle while holding up his hand.

    “I mean it.” Said Jones. “Those things give me the heebie jeebies.”

    “Those things,” I said, “Are our team members, in case you’ve forgotten.”

    Jones glanced at me and I saw the injury in her eyes. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant…“ Her voice faltered and fell off.

    “Fink and Andrew's right,” said Donovan, “Dead people aren’t getting up and cutting our power. Don’t be ridiculous.”

    Darling chimed in, “Oh yeah? I think Donovan’s right. He’d know, considering he’s probably the one that did it.”

    Donovan shook his head. “Are you dense? We’ve gone over this. I. Would. Freeze. Too. Are you stupid or do you just like to pick fights for no reason?”

    Darling stood, pointing a finger at Donovan. “I know you’re a fucking creep! I’ve seen the way you look at me and Jen. You probably got a few marbles loose from that tour in Iraq! Saw some shit over there, didn’t you? Now you thought you’d cut the power and murder us in our sleep? I’ve seen guys like you before! Totally normal, then one day, you flip a switch and bam,” she snapped her fingers, “You murder a group of people with an assault rifle.” Her hand came down on the table in a swift smack.

    Donovan sat slowly, dumbfounded, mouth agape.

    “That’s enough.” Said Finkle, crossing his arms. “It’s cold now and it’s only going to get colder.” I glanced at the thermometer. Seven degrees Celsius. I guessed it would drop below zero within the hour. “We need to insulate this room. If we stay together, we’ll be warmer, if only a little.” He too looked at the thermometer, shaking his head and checking the watch on his wrist. “Gather up blankets, pillows, coats, scarves, anything and everything that might retain some heat.”

    “What about the dogs?” asked Jones.

    “What about them?” asked Donovan. “Fuck em’. They’re dogs. They’ve got fur.”

    “Don’t be like that.” I spoke up.

    “Don’t be like what?” asked Donovan in a harassed way, “She’s over here talking about me cutting the power,” he motioned to Darling, “And now her little girlfriend is worried about some dumb animals. Am I dreaming or is everyone losing their damn minds?”

    “We’ll bring the dogs in.” Said Finkle, adding, “More warm bodies that way.”

    “I guess that makes sense.” Grumbled Donovan.

    “Someone had to explain it to you in order for you to show a little compassion?” I asked.

    “Guess I’m the bad guy.” He said.

    “No one’s the bad guy.” Said Finkle, stroking his peppered beard.

    We bundled into coats, jackets, gloves in our respective rooms and returned to the canteen with piles of blankets and pillows. Darling and Jones took up a post nearest the kitchen area, I bedded down near the doorway leading into the hall a few feet from Finkle. Donovan sulked in the far corner. The two women left to gather the dogs. I offered to help, but they assured me they’d be fine.

    I gathered a few nearby lit candles to stave off the chill permeating the room and tried cracking open Metamorphosis again. Finkle cut this short, talking to me in a hushed whisper. I glanced at Donovan to be sure he wasn’t listening, “What do you think?” He asked.

    “About?” I asked, setting the book to the side.

    “About all of this.”

    “I don’t know. I think it’s cold.”

    “You know what I mean. Between you and me, I think one of us cut the power. I know it wasn’t me.”

    “Well, how do you know it wasn’t me?” I asked him.

    He wheezed out a small chuckle, keeping his voice low, “That is exactly why I don’t think it’s you.” He said.

    “Really?” I cracked a grin, “I haven’t entirely ruled you out as a suspect either, boss man.”

    He shifted and pulled up the hood of his parka and withdrew something from one of his inner coats’ pockets. I caught the shine of a flask and heard him unscrew it. He took a swig and offered it to me. “It won’t actually warm you up, but it will help you forget you’re cold.”

    I took it and sipped then passed it back to him. “Geez that’s rank stuff.”

    He chuckled. “More for me then.” He took a healthy drink and re-screwed the top, placing it somewhere within all those layers. “I think it’s Donovan.” He sighed. “I’m trying to keep everyone calm, but I really think it’s him.”

    I raised my brow, “Really? Why tell me?”

    Finkle shrugged. “I trust you.”

    The women returned with the six sled dogs in tow. The pitter-pattering animals scrambled through the canteen, pushing their wet noses in every corner, sniffing. The black and white curly furred dog came straight up to me, sticking its paws directly onto my lap and pressing its face into my neck. I could hear its heaving breathes as it smelled me. “Hey there Steve, calm down.” I pushed him down a little and he settled near my feet, resting his eyes, and exhaling softly.

    The wind continued to batter against the facility and every so often, one of the dogs’ ears would perk up in attention then settle back down upon the realization that it was only the wind. Donovan settled into his corner with his back against a wall and watched the rest of us over the top of a book. Jones and Darling played cards while Finkle snored beside me.

    I wrapped my arms around my midsection and tried to drift off to sleep. Steve, the mutt, curled up beside me and I threw a series of blankets over me and him. “Good boy,” I whispered into his ear. With some effort, I drifted into a sweating sleep without dreams.

    When I awoke, it was to the door to the canteen opening and closing. The noise of the door shutting in its frame creaked, I almost chocked it up to any other noise in my half-asleep bundle. Upon the realization of what it was, I stirred awake, startling Steve, and sending him into an alert standing position. I looked around in the candlelit room. Finkle still snored. I blinked a few times and could see Jones big-spooning Darling, both dead to the world. Bingo, Donovan was gone.

    I shook Finkle and he opened his eyes with a snort. “Wha-what?” He said, eyes darting around wildly.

    “Donovan,” I pointed to the strewn mess of blankets in the corner. “He’s gone.”

    “Dammit.” He shuffled to his feet and moved across the floor, shaking the women until they groaned and arose. The other sled dogs watched him with mild interest, barely raising their heads to look his way. The research lead checked his watch, “It’s morning anyway.”

    He was right, but it didn’t feel like any of us had gotten enough sleep. I took my flashlight and cracked open the door to the hallway with Steve at my feet, peeking into the blackness. The others came over to the entrance of the canteen.

    “That bastard’s up to something.” Said Darling. “I know it.

    “Keep a cool head and don’t jump to any conclusions.” Finkle reminded.

    I pressed the door open and stepped into the hall with the others filing out with me. “Where do you think he went?” I asked to any one of them, hoping they’d know.

    “Here, I’ll go with Darling and you go with Jones.” Said Finkle. “Check deeper in the facility and we’ll head towards the entrance.” I nodded this affirmation and I could see Darling begin to open her mouth in protest, surely wanting to go with Jones, but Fink shot her a look I couldn’t quite catch.

    Darling clicked on her own light and they started off towards the entrance. Me and Jones were left there, watching them go until they met the set of stairs leading up at that end of the hall. “You don’t actually think Don’s up to something, do you?” asked Jones as we began our way deeper into the dead freezing underground facility.

    I shrugged, “Who knows.”

    “Hey, I know Darling is a bit harsh towards him and all, but I can’t imagine that anyone on this team would actually try and kill any one of us.” I could barely catch her hopeful childish eyes in the periphery of my flashlight’s glow. “He’s a bit of an ass, but I don’t think he’s evil.”

    “Why does she hate him so much?”

    I heard a soft sigh. “She was married once. To a military guy.” She stopped me, grabbing my shoulder, “Don’t you tell her I told you this, okay?”

    “Okay.” I assured.

    “They were really happy when they were dating teenagers. Years. The way she tells it is that her ex husband was a really nice guy until he joined the army.” There was a moment’s pause as we continued at our turtle’s pace, me shining my light into the depth of the hallway. “After he came out of basic, he was worse. He apparently used to be a real soft-hearted young man. The military hardened him. Turned him into a big callous.” From the way Jones spoke, I could decipher that she was repeating words once told to her. “He became a control freak. Wouldn’t let her leave the house. Wouldn’t let her talk to friends or family. She felt all alone. Then he started hitting her. And no one was around for her to tell because of the way he’d closed her off.”

    I shook my head, keeping my eyes straight ahead. “Damn.”

    “Yeah’.”

    Just then, some dark shadow darted across the circular beam of my light and I choked on my own spit, stopping my feet abruptly and putting up an arm so Jones wouldn’t walk past. “You see that?”

    “See what?” She craned her neck forward, scanning the dark hallway ahead.

    “You didn’t see that?”

    “No. Are you sure you did? Got a touch of that madness, eh? Cabin fever or something?” I could sense a smile beginning in her voice as she spoke the last word, but just as the thing darted across the hallway again, I could feel her stiffen in her place next to me. “Holy shit!” Her voice was frantic.

    “You saw it that time, didn’t you?” I said this with more than just a smidge of arrogance. “What was it?”

    “I didn’t catch a good look at the thing.”

    “Hey!” I shouted up ahead, “I’ve got a gun!” A lie, but I hoped it sounded convincing. “You’d better come out now if you don’t want to get shot.” That last sentence came out more like a quiver as the thing darted across again. “Fuck you.”

    I hadn’t thought it was possible to feel colder in those subzero temperatures, but as the thing spoke in the darkness, I swear the blood in my body froze and threatened to harden me like those dead corpses we’d brought in. It mocked my voice, “I’ve got a gun!” in a hissing voice. Quickly, I shot the light all around, hoping to catch the thing and see what it was. No matter how I tried, I could not find the thing. “I’ve got a gun!” It said again.

    “Fuck off!” said Jones in a panic. I could feel her begin to shift and turn to run, but I grabbed ahold of her arm. I could not move from my position and I was holding onto anything, like a drowning person. “Let’s go.” Jones’s voice cracked.

    “Let’s go!” said the thing in a squeal.

    Jones shoved me so that I collided with the wall and I was broken from my spell. She was already pelting down the hall, away from me and the thing. I slipped into a sprint, pumping my legs until I could feel the fire there growing. My warm breath clung around my scarf as I panted and ran. She disappeared from the light I held outstretched. Jones was gone and no matter how quickly I moved, I never seemed to catch up to her. The clatter of nails against the floor scratched behind and I dared not look there. I didn’t stop until I came to the door leading to the canteen and the noise of the creature behind was no longer audible. Darling and Finkle were there, bathed in darkness. I pounded my chest a bit with my fist, attempting to get my breathing under control.

    Darling didn’t even wait for me to catch my breath before peppering me with questions. “Where’s Jones?”, “What happened?”, “Where’d she go?”

    My hands went numb. “What do you mean? She didn’t meet you guys?” I scanned the dark hallway and shone my light back the way I’d come. There was nothing there. “There was something chasing me. She went up ahead and I lost her.” I refused to meet their eyes. “She should have met you guys before me.”

    Silence lingered between us all and I could hear the crinkle of Darling’s gloves as she squeezed her hands together.

    “Are you sure you didn’t miss her?” I pleaded.

    “We haven’t seen another living soul.” Said Finkle. “Not since we split up.” He shook his head and looked down.

    I spun, “Jones!” I cried out and the name echoed back at me from the depths of the facility. “Hey! Jones!”

    I felt a hard hand on my shoulder, and I turned to find Darling there, squeezing me. “Don’t panic.” She gave me a smile and for the briefest of moments, it honestly felt genuine. “It’s going to be alright. Don’t panic. We’ll find her. Knowing Jen’, I’m sure she just got lost in the dark.”

    Feeling myself nod along, I said, “Yeah. You’re right, that’s exactly something she’d do.”

    “So,” said Fink, “Don and Jones are both missing now. We pulled our other dead team members out of the storm.” He stroked his beard and shook his head. It was his turn to avert his eyes from ours. “This is fucking rough, pardon the French.”

    Darling ignored his words and turned back to me. “You said something was chasing you?”

    “That’s right. Something in the dark deeper in the facility. I couldn’t move it scared me so bad. Then Jones snapped me out of it and disappeared.”

    “What was it?” she asked. Fink’s interest piqued as well and they both stared directly at me, awaiting my explanation, but the only thing I could offer was a small shrug. “What did it look like?”

    “I didn’t get a good look at the thing.” I said.

    “Come on,” Fink opened the door the canteen and slipped in, saying, “Better to keep warm. Probably safer too. If she comes back, it’ll be better that we’re here.”

    As we sat at one of the bench tables, with the sled dogs shifting to lay at our feet. Steve clung to Darling’s side, keeping his snout buried under her hand. Darling’s knees bobbed wildly under the table and I could see that tears were beginning to well in her eyes. I wanted to reach out and apologize.

    I told them of the thing we’d encountered deeper within the facility. “It was a humanoid creature of some kind.” I concluded. “It seemed to be toying with us. Like it was a joke. Its voice.” I grimaced. “Its voice was like a mischievous little elf or something. I know that’s ridiculous to say.” Fink hung on every word and Darling rested her head against an arm propped by an elbow on the table. The lead researcher sat there, tugging at his beard as I explained what happened.

    “You just left her there.” Sighed Darling.

    “Wha- No. I didn’t.” I protested.

    She put up her hand. “No. You’re right. I’m sorry Andrew. I’m just nervous is all.”

    I reached across the table to touch her hand and calm her. She recoiled and I winced. “I’m sorry.” I said.

    “I know. I know you wouldn’t have done that. I’m upset and I’m being cruel.” She admitted. “Bit of a reflex.”

    “I’m sure she’s alright.” Said Fink.

    Darling cocked her head sidelong to look at the older man. “You’re right, I’m sure.” Her teeth showed in a soft smile and this time it didn’t feel quite so forced. “She’s a tough cookie.” Then she hid her face behind a glove, and I caught Fink’s eye while she dabbed her eye silently.

    The older man wanted to tell me something. He had another bit of information; I could feel it. He’d said he trusted me; whether that trust was misplaced, I can’t say for sure, but I knew what that look meant.

    Darling drew Steve the dog up into her lap and I excused myself to the kitchen area of the room, hoping to find some potato chips to snack on. This also proved to be a good moment for Fink to speak with me candidly. He leaned in with a whisper and I flinched, almost sent the bag of Ruffles in my hands gliding through the air.

    “Hey.” He continuously looked back over at Darling who was beginning to nod off. Tears make you tired. That’s something I’ve learned. “I know what you saw down there.”

    “What? How do you mean?”

    “I mean.” He took in a big gulp of oxygen and began to explain to me. “That’s a Ningen. It would explain all of the strange happenings that have been going on.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Don’t look at me like that.” He paused and reached into my open bag of chips, crisping one between his teeth slowly and then went on with his explanation. “I saw one once when I was much younger. Could hardly believe it myself.”

    “What the hell is a Ningen?”

    He held up his hand and closed his eyes, searching for the right words. “They’re a cryptid.”

    I couldn’t help it. At that very moment, I wanted to gasp out a laugh, but held it back. “Please don’t tell me you believe in shit like that.”

    “I believe in the Ningen. I can’t vouch for the things in this world I’ve not see. But I have seen a Ningen. They exist.”

    I stood, mouth agape, and wiped my hands off on my pants, slipping back into my gloves and forgetting the bag of chips on the counter.

    “I used to do a lot more work on boats. It was always more fun, I thought. Well, I ended up taking some work on a Japanese researching vessel. They’d come up here and gather data. It was a life experience; I’ll tell you that much. You see, I always wanted to be a pirate when I was a kid, so I figured working on a boat was about as close as I could get in the modern age.” He grinned, hoping the joke landed. It did not. He huffed and grumbled, returning to his story. “I was hired as a consultant of sorts as I was already well seasoned at this point. I aided in mapping out the subaquatic terrain. We’d check different areas at different times in the year. Well,” He stroked his peppered beard. “There was this one time in the middle of the night and all the Japanese fellows were making fun of me because I was calling bupkis on the folklore of the Ningen. Totally bogus, I thought. Then I catch a glimpse of a man standing out there in that melting ice. Only problem is, it’s not a man. I start losing my mind, screaming at my crew mates, telling them we’ve got a man overboard. They ignore my screams, so I take over one of the spotlights on the portside and turn it over to look at the thing out on the ice.”

    “So?” I asked.

    “So, it was a Ningen.” He shrugged. “They’re trouble-makers. Or bad omens. Gremlins, but instead of planes, they hang out in the arctic and fuck with fisherman, Inuit communities, people like us secluded from the rest of the world.”

    “You’re crazy.”

    Fink laughed and withdrew his flask, taking a sip and rubbing his hands together. “Whatever you say.”

    Just then, a tapping came on the door of the canteen and every single dog in the room began whining low. The room felt colder as the candles went out. All hollow.

    I can’t tell you how long we stood in the darkness like that, for time stopped having meaning there and I was instead left to count the seconds in blinks. The sharp inhale of air coming from Fink next to me was audible and then everything was silent; even the dogs dared not make a sound in those moments. My stomach dropped into the floor and I waited for the next bit of noise to come.

    Then Darling spoke, “Hello?” it came from feet away and forced spit to catch in my throat. I felt her hands come out and touch my arm and I jumped. “It’s me.” She said. “Fink? Andrew?” Her voice was small.

    I answered with a crack in my voice. “I’m here.”

    “Andy? Thank god.” I felt the hand clench on my arm harder.

    Fink coughed as if to bring some normalcy back to the nature of our circumstances, “I’m here.” The older gentleman’s voice was stern, gruff. I could hear the vague noise of him shuffling through his pockets.

    Still, the tapping on the canteen door rang through the open room. Then came a voice from the other side, “Hello? Help?” It was Jones.

    “Jen’?” hushed Darling. She was beginning to really dig into my arm.

    “Hello? Help?”

    Darling let go of me and started to move. I squinted through the blackness to make out the watercolor outline of her shadow to grab onto her, so she’d not go to the door. She attempted to jerk from my grasp, but I was stalwart in my hold. I could feel her move in the dark to look at me so I held up a finger to my lips; it took a second for me to realize how futile that was, so I spoke, “That’s not Jones.”

    “What the hell do you mean?” She asked.

    Fink clicked his light on, and we were bathed in the small glow of it and Darling’s eyes were panicked and pleading. I let go of her.

    “Listen.” I said. “That thing is not Jones. Whoever is on the other side of that door, it’s not good news for any of us. That’s the thing or person or whatever that we ran into deeper in the facility.”

    “It sounds just like her.” Darling’s eyes shot to the door once more.

    “Andrew’s right.” Said Fink. “Whatever’s out there is not human.”

    I caught myself rolling my eyes, “I don’t know about all that. But we can’t trust the person on the other side of that door.”

    There was a pregnant silence among us in the canteen before Darling approached the door leading out into the hallway. She put a flat hand against its metal surface. “Jen’?” she called.

    “Amber! Please help me! I think there’s something out here with me. It keeps moving around in the dark and I don’t know where it is! Come out here with me.”

    Darling’s eyes darted back to meet me and Fink. There was a questioning look in her face. We both shook our heads. She turned to the door. “Why don’t you just come in? It’s not like the door’s locked. You could just come in. There’s no reason for me to come out there.”

    A shrill bit of laughter rang from the other side of the door and I recognized the mocking voice of the thing I’d met deeper in the facility. As the chill played my spine like a xylophone, I knew that Frink was probably right. That was no human. “You stupid bitch! I’ll kill you!” it said. Darling stepped away from the door and crossed the room to stand next to us. Then it was back to Jones’s sweet lover’s voice, “Please come out!” Another echoing laughter that rang through the otherwise silent room like an echoing insanity.

    Darling twisted around to look at me and Fink. “Do you think it got her?”

    I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of, that’s likely, but Fink placed a hand on my shoulder, “Nah,” he said, “I’m sure she’s fine. It’s like you said, she’s a tough cookie.”

    “Yeah.” I said.

    The tapping slowed against the canteen door and we moved a bench table against the door; it eventually ceased altogether. The cold was cutting straight through us even in our many layers. Darling’s teeth chattered, my gloved fingers were stiff as wood, and Fink kept sniffling. The sink of his flask began to swarm my nostrils and although it was pungent, I considered it a welcome distraction from the very real perils that faced us. I took it upon myself to begin distributing unopened kibble to the dogs. They greedily ate it up and even as the temperature dropped, the mood began to feel a little less dire.

    I turtled my arms and head into my layers and swathed myself in a wool blanket, sitting on a pillow and surrounding myself with a few lit candles in what was once our dining area. Fink came over to sit by me and his cheeks were rosy from more than just the cold. As much as I liked the man, his drinking was beginning to bother me. We should be staying clearheaded and aware of our surroundings. I was idly aware of Darling rummaging around in the cabinets.

    “Bingo!” She shouted as she returned to meet us in the dining area. In one hand, she carried a spray canister and in the other she held a lighter.

    “Whoa there,” I choked, “What do you think you’re doing?”

    “I’m going out there.” She was shaking but I got the strange impression that it wasn’t from the cold. She was working herself up to do something. Something big. Something dangerous. Something stupid.

    “No, you’re not!” I was surprised at my own voice coming out so callous and rigid. “There’s only three of us left and you want to go and make it two? Are you insane?”

    “I’m not insane. I’m not going to let that thing take over!” she said. “Comms are down, the powers out, shit has full-on hit the fan in case you’ve not noticed. We don’t know when the blizzard will pass, but I do know that no one’s coming for us. We have to fight back or we’re as good as dead.”

    “Fink!” I twisted around to see the older man dead asleep. He was snoring. I was hoping he’d aid me in talking Darling down. So much for that. “Goddammit!” I turned to look back at Darling but she was heading towards the door, sliding the bench table away from the entrance. Before I knew it, I was up on my feet and moving fast towards her. I reached out to grab her and her hand shot out, slapping me away. “Hey!” I said.

    “What? You want to just hole up in here and wait for that thing to freeze us out? How long do you think we can wait around to die? Huh? The only chance we’ve got is to get Jen’ and make our way out to the chopper. That’s the only hope for us now.”

    “What about Donovan?” I asked.

    “Well him too.” She gritted her teeth. “No reason to leave him behind either, I guess.” She flicked the lighter on and whipped the door open, readying the canister out in front of her stiffly. “You can come along, or you can die here. I don’t care anymore.”

    She wasn’t going to listen to reason. I could see it in the glassy reflection of her wild eyes with the dim lighter flame. She disappeared down the dark hallway leading deeper into the facility. “Fuck.” I whispered.

    I looked Fink and sidled over to him, shaking him. “Wh-what?” said Fink, startled and swinging.

    “Darling’s gone.”

    He started pulling himself to his feet, pushing off the wall. “What are you talking about?” I could hear his knees give off two pops as he went. “Where’d she get off to?” He wiped at his sleepy eyes.

    “We’ve got to go get her. She’s off her rocker.” I was getting more panicked by the second. “She’s gone and she’s going to get herself killed.”

    “Let’s go.” He staggered toward the door in bleary steps.

    As we entered the dark hallway, Steve, the curly haired mutt, stuck his nose into the crack as we went to close the door to the canteen. I hunkered down and patted him across the back of his ears. “It’ll be alright, buddy.”

    He whined but tucked his tail in and wandered to lay with the other dogs.

    The door shut and Fink shone his light left and right. “Which way did she go?”

    “Deeper.” I pointed into the dark.

    He sniffled and we began walking. Fink carried a flashlight, and I held a battery lantern out in front of me. It seemed that as we went, the light ate up the shrouding darkness ahead and it felt that the place would swallow us up without hesitation if it were given the inclination to do so. Neither one of us spoke; we simply waited to run into whatever in god’s name waited for us in the dark. A sharp yell came from somewhere in front of us. A man’s scream. My blood ran cold and as I glanced at Fink; I could see that he was just as bothered by the sound as I was. Our pace accelerated and in no time at all, we came across Donovan, sitting in the hallway.

    “Fucking hurts!” hissed Donovan. It took me a moment to realize what was the matter. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. They were strewn to his feet. “Crazy bitch tried to kill me!”

    I hunkered down as Fink kept a look out. “What happened? Where’ve you been?”

    “Those bastards! They look just like us.”

    “What’s that mean?” I looked at his face as he jerked it to the side. The whole right side of his face was bubbled and blistered.

    “Fuck-stick!” He yelled at me, “Back off,” The last traces of warmth in my body ran into my feet. He was holding a pistol in his hand.

    I put up my hands. “Hey Don, there’s no reason for you to be waving that around, alright.”

    Fink interjected. “Dammit, put the gun down.”

    Keeping us in his one good eye, he scrambled to replace the glasses onto his face. I could see they were cracked. “How do I know you’re not one of those things?”

    Fink was shouting, “How do we know you’re not?”

    “You two just stay right there and don’t make a move.”

    I wagered a response, “What happened to your face? Did one of those things get you?”

    Donovan chuckled sickly, “No. It’s that bitch, Darling. One minute I’m running from you guys and the next, I slam into her in the dark. Guess she thought I was one of those things.” He tested a prod against the blister on the right side of his face with his free hand. “Nearly blinded me.”

    Fink spoke, “You were running from us?”

    “Yeah. You assholes were chasing me. It seemed no matter how many rounds I emptied into your bodies, you just kept coming.”

    “That wasn’t us.” I said.

    Donovan looked us over, no doubt studying our clothes for traces of bullet holes. “No shit.”

    “Do you believe we’re really us?” I asked.

    “Fat chance I believe anything anymore.” He sounded hoarse. His voice caught in his throat. If he’d been a weaker man, this would have been the moment he broke into tears. He kept his resolve while his gun wavered until he finally let it sink to his lap. “I guess you guys are who you say you are.” There was pause. “Besides,” He threw the gun into the shadows, “I’m out of bullets, so I guess if you want to kill me, you should do it now.”

    “We’re not going to kill you,” said Fink.

    “Then give me hand.” I reached down and helped Donovan to his feet. Even if he wasn’t my favorite person in the world, it felt good to be in a trio again. And he had combat experience.

    We continued our venture with me in front, Donovan in the middle and Fink bringing up the rear.

    “What do you think those things are?” asked Don.

    “Ningens,” said Fink. I was willing to believe anything.

    “That’s just human in Japanese,” said Don, “Those motherfuckers are doppelgangers. You haven’t seen nothing till you catch yourself running around in the dark.”

    “You saw yourself?” I asked.

    “That’s right.” He said. “Saw you and Fink too.”

    “How many?” I asked the question I already knew the answer to.

    “Let me show you guys something.” Don took the lead and we slowly made our way into the infirmary.

    As we shut the door behind us and began to shine our lights around the room, it was obvious the bodies of our team members had disappeared.

    “Those things weren’t our team members.” Donovan said the obvious aloud.

    We kicked the blankets they’d been wrapped in and opted to exit into the hallway. Don grabbed a hack saw off of one of the tables on our way out and I slipped a hammer into my pocket. Fink stayed quiet. I didn’t want to accidently kill anyone, but Don seemed to have no problem wielding the saw out in front of him. I was unsure how much damage something like that could even do if he got the chance.

    “Fucking cold.” I tried pulling my scarf up to cover my mouth and nose.

    “No shit,” said Don.

    We took the small set of stairs leading into underground storage. We passed by jerry cans, instruments, and excess food stored on shelves.

    As we passed by a shelving unit of dry kibble, we heard a rattling from behind it. We stopped and pivoted to shine our lights at the thing that must’ve been back there. All was dead quiet as we watched and waited. Nothing showed itself. Just as I relaxed my shoulders, that hissing mocking voice of one of those creatures belted out the words, “Fucking cold, it’s fucking cold!” And the shelving unit was shoved by some unseen force. I dove out of the way, scrambling past Don. Don sidestepped it. Fink let out a wailing cry as the shelving unit pinned him. I twisted around, trying to shove my frozen hands into my pocket to withdraw the hammer I’d placed there. I heard the pitter patter of the creature’s feet. It was darting among us in the dark.

    “I’ll get you, you bastard!” screamed Don like a mad man. He too disappeared into the shadows, giving chase to the creature. I heard his hard boots disappear somewhere towards the stairs that had brought us down there. He was gone.

    I moved on hands and knees with the hammer dangling limply in my right hand. As I met the overturned shelving unit, I heard Fink trying to pull himself from beneath it.

    “That smarts!” said the older man.

    I stood, trying to prop the until back onto its feet. After tilting the bent metal at an awkward angle, it seemed like it would stand properly. I reached down and tried lifting Fink to his feet by slipping an arm beneath his armpit.

    “Are you alright?” I whispered.

    The shriek of a woman echoed through the facility. That was something to worry about after we regrouped.

    “I think so.” His breath came out in a great white puff. “I don’t think anything’s broken, but I can already feel my ankle swelling up.”

    “That’s alright,” I reached down to lift my lantern. “You can lean on me. Let’s go back upstairs.”

    The movement was slow with Fink forced to shuffle his feet in small steps. We made our way to the landing of the stairs and stepped into the mouth of the main hall. I could just barely see the outline of something ahead. It looked like a person crouched in the center of the hallway.

    I called out to the kneeling figure on approach. “Donovan, is that you?” The figure didn’t move. “Darling? Jones?” No movement.

    Fink tried, “Hey!”

    We approached slowly and as the light met the scene properly, I choked back my vomit at the smell. I knew what it was. Blood. It was like copper in the air. It seemed the figure was hard at work, pumping its arm. The sounds of wet crunching met my ears.

    Donovan twisted around, still on his knees and held up the severed head of junior researcher, Jennifer Jones. “I got one of them!” He said.

    “Christ!” said Fink.

    Me and Fink stood in the hallway, looking at Don crouched over the twitching body of Jones. An infinity of silence stretched between us. Don wore a wicked smile and for the first time I understood the possibilities that polar madness could offer.

    “What’ve you done?” That was Fink. My words were still caught somewhere in the back of my throat. I was hyper focused on the dead face of my friend.

    “What are you talking about?” asked Don, “I got one of those little assholes. Look at it. He stood and offered the head of Jones out for us to see more closely.

    “I don’t think that’s one of them.” I spoke.

    “Look at it!” said Don. There was a long pause before he let the severed head thump to his feet. “I know what’s going on here.” His words were soft, lingering, insane, “I’m the only real one left, aren’t I?” He cocked his head to the side as though he was waiting for a response.

    “You need to calm the hell down!” said Fink, “You’ve already killed one of us!” He motioned to the dead body. “Look! Snap out of it goddammit!”

    Don took a step towards us, forcing a flinch out of me. I did not want to be anywhere near him. “Don’t come any closer.” I said.

    “Why?” said Don, “If you’re the real you, you shouldn’t have any issues being near me.” I could see in his eyes that he’d already made up his mind. He didn’t think we were real.

    “Just back up, Don.” I said, “Please don’t come any closer.”

    “Just let me get a good look at you,” he responded. “I want to make sure you’re all human.” He took another step forward.

    “I’m fucking serious! Stay away from us.” I said. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to fight him off with Fink leaning on me, so I shifted around to hand my lantern off to the older man. I’d be able to whack him with the hammer if it seriously came down to it. I did not want it to come to that.

    Don moved quickly, charging at us. Without any other options, I shoved Fink off my shoulder so that he bounced off the wall and fell to the floor. Don came straight for me, wielding his hack saw in his right hand. His left hand came out for my throat. I swung the hammer, and it met his groping left hand. He let out a howl and swung the hack saw at me. If he were able to grapple me, I was sure his superior strength would win out. I ducked, feeling the hack saw catch on my hood. Without thinking and only the driving force of adrenaline pumping through my muscles, I swung the hammer at his knee as hard as I could. It made a god-awful crunch and he spun like a wild ballerina, falling, and sliding down the stairs to the basement. I shimmied away from the landing of the stairs and found Fink still holding onto the lantern.

    We ran from the scene like we were in a three-legged race, all the while Don screamed at us; his words echoed off the metal walls. “You can’t leave me down here! They’ll kill me!”

    We stepped around the body of Jones. Her blood pooled thickly around the spot where her head should have been.

    As Don’s screams fell away into the distance, we slammed into the door of the canteen, huffing and out of breath. I shoved at the door. I could hear something inside of the canteen. Shuffling feet could be heard as something or someone approached the other side of the door.

    The door swung open, leaving me and Fink to go flailing into the room, landing on our knees. The door slammed shut behind us. Looking around, I saw in the dim candlelight that the dogs were still here. Good. I twisted to see who it was that had shut the door. It was Jones. She was grinning. Next to her was Darling and as I whipped my head around to the kitchen area, I saw Donovan munching on a snack cake.

    I moved to settle Fink onto a mess of blankets and stood. “Thanks,” He said, but as I caught his eyes, I knew he was thinking the same thing I was. How was any of this possible? I stood by Fink, pushing my back to the wall.

    “Are you alright?” asked Darling, hunkering down to check Fink’s ankle.

    “I think so,” said Fink, “Probably need to ice it.” He seemed to think this was funny because it was followed by a sick laugh.

    “What about you?” asked Jones. She was looking at me. “Are you okay?” she looked genuinely worried. What a master of infiltration those things must be. I almost believed it myself.

    Either way, I knew what she meant, I was shaking. As I looked down to my hands, they were quivering. The hammer I held was spattered in Don’s blood. At least I thought it was his blood. My eyes darted back to Don standing on the opposite side of the room. “I’m good.” I watched them all, bug-eyed. It felt that any moment, the creatures would spring into action. The wait was the worst part.

    Darling pushed Fink’s pant leg up, exposing a red ankle that would inevitably purple over.

    “Why don’t you put that thing down?” said Don, stepping over to inspect me. He was talking about my hammer.

    “I really don’t want to.” I said.

    “You’re among friends here. There’s no reason for that.” He responded.

    “You know what? I’m good actually.” I looked him over, hoping that there was some small thing that I could latch onto and notice that would giveaway the fact that he was in fact a doppelganger.

    “Come on,” Don stepped over to reach for the hammer, I jerked away. His face bunched up. “Quit acting like a crazy person.”

    “Leave Andrew alone,” said Darling.

    Don winced at this and stepped away. “Fine. Guess I’m always the bad guy.”

    I choked out the words, “Last time I saw you, you were all burnt up.”

    “Me?” said Donovan. “Really? Is that so?”

    “Yes. I threw you down the basement steps. So, excuse me if I think you might not be who you say you are.” I shifted to look at Jones. “And the last time I saw you, you had no head.”

    Jones looked at me with a stunned expression, “Really? You don’t trust me?”

    Darling was watching me. I could feel her eyes penetrating me. “There’s got to be some sort of test, right?” She said. “There’s always a test in the movies.”

    “This isn’t a movie,” said Fink.

    The room went still except for the dogs. Steve, the curly haired mutt, came over to stand near me. It felt good to have him nearby. If I could trust anyone, it felt like it was man’s best friend, right? I pet him as Fink massaged his ankle. The other three people in the room took up on one of the bench tables near the kitchen, talking amongst themselves.

    Fink took one last swig from his flask and tossed it across the room, forcing the dogs to perk up their ears at the strange hollow metallic noise. “Empty.” He grumbled. “This is bad, Andy.” He whispered to me.

    “How are we supposed to know who’s who?”

    “No idea.” He said.

    “Well, if they’re really ningen,” I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. “There should be some sort of test like Darling said, right?”

    “Hell, if I know.” He shrugged. “I’m not a cryptid zoologist.”

    The tension in the room was swelling and as the other three came over to sit near us, I could feel the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.

    An idea sprang to mind. “Hey Jones,” I said.

    “Yeah’?” she asked.

    “What’s this dog’s name?” I asked while pointing to Steve.

    “That’s Steve.”

    A million thoughts ran through my head. Think of something, goddammit. “What’s the capital of the United States?”

    “Washington D.C.”

    “What’s my favorite color?” I asked.

    “How am I supposed to know that? You never told me that.”

    “I guess not.”

    Darling sprang into action, “Andrew, calm your tits, alright? Jen’ is who she says she is.”

    “How can you tell that?” I said. “The only person I can vouch for without a doubt is Fink over here. He’s been with me the entire time.”

    I could see the spark in Darling’s eyes; she was getting pissed off. “How do we know you two aren’t the fakes?”

    “Hey!” said Don, “Yeah’! How do we know that you are who you say you are?”

    “Fantastic question!” said Fink. “No idea!” He chuckled. “Better kill us now!”

    I wanted to reach over and throttle the senior researcher. “We’re real!” I pleaded. A moment of silence. “Since when did you two get so buddy-buddy?” I asked while wiggling my finger between Darling and Don.

    Jones interjected, “Now is not the time to start pointing fingers at each other. I think we’re safe in here.”

    “You shouldn’t have a fucking head!” I was shaking. “I saw Don saw your fucking head off!”

    Jones glanced at Don. “Is that right?”

    Don laughed hysterically, “What? Why the hell would I do something like that?”

    “I don’t know,” said Darling, “You do strike me as the type that would fly off the handle given the chance.”

    “Fuck off,” Don crossed his arms. “I don’t know what vendetta you’ve got against veterans, but that shit needs to stop.”

    “You were in the military?” asked Jones.

    “Well, yeah’,” said Don. The next words came out of his mouth very slowly. “You know that.”

    Everyone backed away from Jones, creating a semicircle round her. Darling was looking at her lover with wild skepticism.

    “What?” said Jones, attempting to give a wry smile. All eyes were on her.

    “I’ll be damned,” said Fink. “Good try.”

    Darling spoke with an edge to her words, “Where did I grow up?”

    “Um.” Jones seemed to mull the question over.

    Darling lifted her spray canister and flicked her lighter on. “What town did I grow up in, Jen’?” The cracking sadness in her voice was immeasurable.

    “Please,” said Jones. “You know me! I love you!”

    Blinding fire shot in a line from Darling to Jones. I shielded my eyes with a forearm and could barely make out Donovan in the commotion as he stumbled away. Jones’s vocal cords ripped through the room and the dogs began barking. The smell of crackling flesh filled the room, then came the smoke.

    “I love you! I love you! I love you!” screeched Jones. She threw open the door to the canteen and the bellowing smoke went with her. She was a human torch. We stepped into the hallway, watching her run towards the entrance of the facility. She disappeared out of sight and her screams became echoes as we shut the door to the canteen once more.

    Darling was crying silently. Don sat on one of the tabletops, watching his hands. I moved to Darling. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

    “Shut up.” Her voice was sharp. “Just leave me alone, Andrew.”

    “We have to make a run for the chopper now.” Said Don.

    I regretfully agreed, “He’s right,” I leaned against the wall near Fink.

    “I don’t think I can fly in this storm,” said Darling from a million miles away.

    “We’ve got to try!” said Don.

    “Why don’t you try shutting your fucking mouth?” said Darling.

    “Hey, I’m sorry, okay?” said Don, “But there are still people here we can save. You’re the pilot. We need you.”

    A long sigh fell out of Darling as her shoulders slumped. “Alright. Okay.”

    Fink tried sliding up the wall so that he could stand appropriately. He still favored his injured ankle. “If we’re going, I need to grab something from my room.”

    “Are you kidding me?” said Don. “There are more important things to worry about than some trinket from your better days, old man.”

    Fink glared, stone-cold-sober, “It’s my wife’s wedding ring.”

    “I didn’t know you were married.” I said.

    Fink closed his eyes. “She’s been dead for some time.”

    “Well I’m not going with you. And I don’t assume you’ll be able to make it on your own with that ankle of yours,” said Don. I studied Don’s face. He seemed like the real deal, but after what had happened to Jones, I can’t say I knew anything for sure anymore.

    The next words that came out of my mouth surprised even me. “I’ll go with you, Fink.”

    “Thank you,” he wobbled over near me. “I think I can manage to walk on my own. Just barely. Gotta’ be careful is all.”

    “So that means we’re splitting up again?” said Don. He clapped. “Fantastic fucking idea. Great. Thanks a lot for that one.”

    “It might be faster if we do,” said Fink.

    “Yeah’,” said Don, “It might also get a whole hell of a lot more confusing too.”

    “Me and Don will make sure the line leading out to the chopper is still intact.” Darling shot me a look, “Just be quick. I don’t want to lose anyone else if we can help it.”

    “And what if you’re one of those things?” asked Don.

    Darling shrugged, “What if you are?”

    We set out, me and Fink heading deeper into the facility. Before leaving the canteen door, I watched Don and Darling go until I couldn’t see them anymore. “Let’s go.”

    “Thank you, Andrew,” said Fink. “It means a lot.”

    “Don’t worry about it.”

    It was slow going with Fink keeping the weight off his ankle by keeping a gloved hand on the wall.

    We passed by the spot we’d initially found Don sitting in. The place he’d been burned. My mind flashed to those two out in the blizzard and I hoped like mad that neither one of them were doppelgangers. My foot met something in the dark and I leaned down to see what it was. Fink stopped, holding the lantern up high so as to illuminate the immediate area. It was the pistol the possibly doppel-Don had dropped. I lifted it to my face and inspected it. It was still fully loaded. So that Don had lied about the gun. It made me feel a little bit better about crippling his knee.

    I slipped the hammer into my pocket and aimed the gun ahead. I didn’t care anymore. If anything came out of the dark, I would fire immediately.

    We met the part of the hallway where the bunk rooms were and as we came upon Fink’s, I told him to keep a look out while I opened the door. A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach swelled and I couldn’t figure out why. Something wasn’t right.

    I swung the door in, and the lantern light spilled into the bunk room. My scream caught. I couldn’t say anything. There was someone sitting at Fink’s desk adjacent his bed.

    “Hey!” I screamed at the figure sitting there. “Don’t move! I’ve got a gun on you!” It did not move. I approached carefully and rounded its shoulder so that I could see its face. It was Anthony Finkle, lead researcher. He was cold to the touch and a small line of frozen blood had pooled around his temples.

    I whipped my head around to see Fink standing in the doorway. His figure was blotted out by the light he held in his outstretched hand, but I could see that his shadowy form didn’t need the assistance of a wall anymore. His ankle was fine.

    “Not you!” I cried out.

    He threw the battery powered lantern directly into my face and it met my forehead just as I squeezed the trigger of the pistol in my hand. Fink let out a groan, but before I knew it, he was straddling me, and I was on the floor. The dead Fink toppled out of the chair in our struggle. The living Fink brought his knee to meet me directly in the groin and I tried slipping the gun beneath his chin, he grabbed the barrel, pointing it directly at the ceiling. I squeezed the trigger two more times, and the room was coated in a mesmerizing disco flash as his free hand began finding my throat. Tears pooled in my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. I was going lightheaded and my vision began to pinhole. In one last desperate hope, I reached into my pocket. The hammer met his head and he rolled off me. I scrambled to where the door was, pointing the gun at the threshold. I could barely make out his outline in the low light of the strewn lantern. As he approached the doorway, I fired the gun until I couldn’t anymore. The shots rang in my ears and I could hear nothing. I watched as he tumbled to the floor.

    I ran towards the entrance, throwing the gun as I went. I held the hammer, readying it so that if anything came from the shadows, I would immediately smash its head in. I tipped over a solid object and I heard the thing let out a whimper. I reared the hammer back as I waited for the thing to find me in the pitch black. A warm tongue met my face. I relaxed and scratched Steve around his ear. The dogs! We’d totally forgotten the dogs! “C’mon boy. Stay close.” I took my steps more deliberately, feeling along the wall until I saw the open door of the canteen ahead. Some small candle glow came from there and I ran towards it in a mad gamble.

    Upon meeting the threshold, I saw the canteen was empty. “Shit!” I said. Steve stayed close behind. Maybe we could come back for the other dogs.

    I dashed towards the entrance and it felt good to hear the paws of Steve behind. Upon climbing the stairs to the entrance, I passed by a blackened figure. That must have been the fake Jones’s body. I ignored it and as the light coming from the windows of the entrance illuminated my surroundings, I felt a bit better.

    With only the thought of survival in my mind, I threw the door open and barreled into the blizzard once more, keeping my hold on Steve’s collar. I could hardly see a thing, but I found the line leading out to the chopper. I moved, keeping one hand on the dog and the other on the line.

    The snow blindness was overwhelming, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t keep a hard grip on that line. Just over the sound of the whipping snow, I heard Steve barking wildly. I looked to him and saw that he’d buried his snout in the snow. I leaned down close, searching for the thing he’d found in the snow and saw the frozen face of Donovan staring up at me. He’d been sheered clean in two across his waist. There was no time to mourn. I could feel the heat of the cold attempting to trick me and I pulled Steve along with me. I’m sure I was choking him, but I did not want to leave him. I did not want to be alone.

    Through the wind of the storm, I saw the outline of the chopper. I picked up my speed, lifting my legs to fight against the gathered snow. Everything burned.

    I slapped against the door of the helicopter and felt around to find the handle. I tore it open, dropping my hammer somewhere. Steve dove into its cabin as I fought with the wind to keep the door open. I followed the dog and the storm slammed shut behind me.

    Darling was sitting in the pilot’s chair. “You made it!” There was a small bit of elation in her voice. She looked at me puzzled, “Where’s Fink?”

    “He’s one of them!” I said exasperated, trying to catch my breath. The cold forced a cough out of me, and I could barely stop hacking.

    “Did you see Don on your way? I lost him somewhere out there.” She nodded to the white hellish landscape.

    I nodded manically. “He was half-buried in the snow. I think they got him.”

    She began flipping knobs. “I hate to be the barer of bad news, but I think they cut the gas line.” She fell back in her chair before slapping the steering console in font of her. “Goddammit! Can’t one thing just go right!”

    I shook my head and focused on the dog attempting to bury its snout in between my legs.

    Darling looked at me. “You are you, aren’t you?”

    “I think so,” I scratched Steve’s head, trying to distract myself from exactly how fucked we were. “Are you, you?”

    “Probably.” She chortled. “Goddamn this!” She pounded the steering console again but piqued up as she looked out the windshield of the helicopter.

    I followed her eyeline.

    “You see that out there?” She squinted and leaned forward without breaking her gaze from what she was looking at.

    I did, but to be certain, I wiped the frost gathered around the windows and pressed my face close to the glass, cupping my hands. There was a semicircle of humanoid figures standing in the blizzard, unmoving....


    ******************************************************************************************************************************************


    Story 10

    Five years ago I became a park ranger. I won't include the location of this event. I don't want anyone seeking out the utter horrors I've seen in that forest. You think that you're prepared for whatever the forest might throw at you. You hear about the strange occurrences from other rangers, the missing persons cases, the unusual animals that are like nothing you've ever seen before. I was arrogant. I just blew off these stories the other more experienced rangers told me as nothing but paranoia or attempts to scare the new guy. But I was wrong. I was so very wrong. I had to tell this event to someone. To warn people of the things that are out there hiding in those deep woods. Just waiting for that bold individual to walk right into their clutches. This is the reason I will never return to that forest and now live in a large city. I avoid the forests that I used to love so much because I'm terrified of what I'll find in them. Or what will find me.

    Three months into my time as a park ranger it was the beginning of spring. For the past two weeks, we had been receiving strange reports from park visitors and a few fellow rangers. People had been seeing strange warped-looking animals wandering about the park. The animals sighted often looked thin with patches of missing hair, had completely white eyes, were gaunt and almost skeletal, and the proportions of the animals were said to just seem wrong. As if the animals were just not completely convincing copies of the animals they were supposed to be. Of course, most of us just assumed there was some sort of disease starting to affect animals in the park. There was an older park ranger, who’d started at the park a month before the sightings started, named Briggs who warned us that he’d seen this before. He was worried was insisting we should close up the park. He said that the animals were dangerous and a safety hazard to anyone inside the forest, but he wouldn’t say anymore than that. He just always looked haunted when he talked about those animals and said the forest wasn’t safe anymore. Of course, we just wrote him off as being a kookie paranoid older guy who'd probably had some kind of traumatic wild animal attack experience. We didn't even entertain the possibility that he might be right. And our hubris would be our downfall.

    I still remember something Briggs said to me one day shortly before he quit working at the park. It always was weird to me that Briggs was so disturbed by these animal reports and looked so haunted when he talked about them. He was a big man in his late seventies, but he could have easily wiped the floor with any youngster who tried to step up to him. He was an ex-Navy SEAL and a tough and real smart son of a gun. I was surprised he was so superstitious and paranoid that we should close up the park when it just seemed like some outbreak of a disease among some of the wildlife. All in all, it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Briggs wouldn't say specifically why he was so insistent on closing up the park. All he would say to me on the subject was, "There’re things in that forest you couldn't comprehend boy. Things that'll break a grown man in two like a twig. They're smart you know. We think we're the apex predator of this world, but we couldn't be more wrong. If you aren't afraid, you're a fool. They're coming out in droves and I don't know why. But I don't plan on being here to find out. I've seen the horrors of war sonny. And what I saw on the battlefield is nothing compared to what I've seen in that forest. Do the wise thing and listen to this old-timer before it's too late."

    I just wrote off what Briggs told me. But now I wish I hadn't. If I could I would go back and change what I'd done, but it's too late now. And the horrors I saw will stick with me as long as I live. One week after Briggs warned us to close down the park he quit and left the park behind. He was the smart one. He knew what was coming and didn't want to be around when all hell broke loose. I saw a glimpse of one of those strange animals on one of my patrols within that week, but it just looked like a sick raccoon to me. I thought nothing of it and it was gone before I could attempt to catch it. But within five weeks of these sightings beginning, things had started to become stranger. We'd had ten reports from park visitors of being attacked by these sickly-looking animals. All of them had told us the same thing. The animals seemed intelligent now, like they were hunting them. They seemed intelligent, and they seemed angry. We were bewildered and unsure of what to make of the situation. We'd been trying to hunt down and put down the sick animals since the reports started. We'd decided it was wiser to put down these animals to keep the sickness from spreading, but the animals remained elusive. The most any of us were able to do was catch occasional glimpses of them. But that all changed one night on the sixth week of the sightings. We'd also had ten missing persons cases brought to our door within the past two weeks. Though we were unsure if this was attached to the sick animal sightings and were unable to find any traces of the missing people aside from some abandoned belongings and campsites.

    On a seemingly peaceful summer night, three of us were at the ranger's station on the overnight shift. It was myself, Hank a tough hulking man in his early thirties, and Lida a petite girl in her late teens who was interning at the park over the summer. We had increased employee presence in the park due to the strange animal behavior of the past two or so months. It was close to ten at night when we had a hysterical young blonde woman rushing into the station. She was covered in dirt and scratches, her clothing in tatters. She looked wild, like someone who'd been lost in the forest for weeks. She was sobbing, babbling, and collapsed into the arms of Hank. I started to check her for and treat her injuries as we tried to calm the woman down enough for her to speak clearly. After an hour we managed to calm her down enough for her to be able to speak in somewhat coherent sentences. She was still hard to understand, but we managed to get the gist of what she had to say.

    The woman told us that she'd been camping in the park with her four friends. They'd set up camp in the morning and everything had seemed normal, but after the sun set things started to become strange. They started to hear odd noises coming from the forest and swore that they even heard talking. Though the voices sounded garbled and growled almost like someone who still wasn't completely sure how to form words. They'd started to feel on edge and had decided to leave first thing in the morning, but were too scared to venture out into the forest in the middle of the night with the strange noises they were hearing.

    She told us that after an hour of hearing the strange noises coming from the forest a stumbling and almost hairless sickly gaunt coyote with pure white eyes came out of the forest and started venturing into the clearing where they had set up camp. The coyote was making strange noises like it was in pain and the closer it got the easier it was for them to see that the coyote seemed off. She said that the coyote seemed just a little too long and too tall to be a coyote, like it had been stretched or something. As the coyote got closer her friend Trace got scared and decided to throw a rock at the coyote to scare it off. Instead of throwing the rock near the coyote he threw a fist-sized rock at the coyote and hit it square in the head. The rock hit the coyote and it collapsed to the ground.

    After the rock hit the coyote the forest seemed to go completely still almost like time had stopped. The only sounds the five of them could hear were their own terrified breathing and the crackling of the campfire. They thought Trace had killed the coyote. In the eerie silence, they could see that it wasn't breathing. But then the coyote's body jerked. Strange cracking noises could be heard from the coyote's body as it twitched and contorted. Its body changed into an almost humanoid shape as it rose up on two legs. The coyote bared its teeth at the five of them in a sneer and then opened its mouth. They heard the coyote speak two chilling words in a deep guttural voice, "Feeding time."

    These two words seemed to send the forest into chaos as creatures of varying shapes and sizes swarmed from the treeline upon the five campers. Not all of the animals even seemed to look like animals or like anything the girl had ever seen before. The creatures dragged the five of them through the forest to a cave, dragging them inside into what seemed to be a dark and massive cave system. This is something I found strange considering that the only caves we had in this park were relatively small. There should have been nothing in that park like what this girl was describing.

    She told us that the animals dragged them into this cave system and trapped them in some kind of sticky whispy substance that seemed almost like spider webs but with the strength of thick rope. She said she could barely remember what happened after that since she couldn't see at all in the pitch-black cave. All she could hear was the occasional screams of terror and pain from her friends and the squelching noises of what she knew was her friends being eaten. She wasn't sure how long she was in there. What she guessed was every few days one of them would be taken and fed upon by what she could only guess was the creatures that took them into the caves. The creatures also would force-feed her water and food every so often. Though it was clear from her gaunt and emaciated figure they only fed her enough to keep her alive. She said she was fed some kind of mush she was never able to identify. Only that it tasted utterly foul and almost like something rotten.

    When it was finally her turn to be eaten she got lucky. She felt the threads that bound her being cut by what seemed to be some large claw or knife and then she crashed to the cave floor. In a panic, she managed to grab a large rock. She struck out in the darkness towards where she believed to be the thing that had cut her loose. She could tell she made contact with something and heard a growl of pain as the creature hit the ground. She didn't wait to figure out how much damage she'd done. She'd just run. She ran for what felt like hours. She could hear the sounds of growls and what seemed like garbled speech she couldn't understand all around her, but somehow she managed to avoid the creatures who were hunting for her. She managed to escape the cave system and just ran blindly through the forest in the dark until she found the ranger's station. After finishing the story she just burst into sobs and begged us to protect her from the monsters that she thought were still chasing her.

    We realized, after hearing her story, that she was part of a group of five campers who'd gone missing in the forest two weeks earlier. It was a group of college students who'd come to the park on summer break, but after the first day of their camping trip their families and friends had stopped hearing from them. After three days of no contact from the students, we'd been notified that these campers were to be considered officially missing. We'd been contacted by the families even earlier than that and had run some preliminary searches but, like the five other missing persons that had cropped up in the past two weeks, we'd only found an abandoned campsite and belongings from the campers. After some closer inspection of the girl and some coaxing for her name, we managed to identify her as one of the two missing girls, Abigail.

    At the time we believed that Abigail and her friends were likely drugged and attacked by some dangerous individuals in the forest. It was easier to think that Abigail had just crafted this unbelievable narrative as a way to comprehend what happened to her while she was kept heavily drugged and docile. After all, what sane and reasonable person could honestly believe the wild tale Abigail had spun?

    We left Abigail to eat and discussed amongst the three of us for a bit about what to do with her. We were quick to decide that the best course of action was to notify law enforcement that we'd found Abigail and that there were likely a group of dangerous individuals currently residing in the park. The three of us felt very disconcerted after hearing Abigail's story, but knew that we couldn't very well abandon our post in the early hours of our shift. At that point, we all just wanted to get Abigail somewhere safe and really wanted to leave the park, even though we couldn't.

    First I tried to call the police through the office phone, but the line was dead. That far out in the middle of nowhere phone service can be notoriously unreliable, so our mobiles couldn't be used to call the police either. The office phones were really our only way to contact the outside world unless we felt like wandering about until we managed to possibly get a bar of service. With the phone lines down we just decided to shut down for the night and take Abigail to the police station ourselves. As we were gathering our things and shutting off the lights for the night we all moved with a mutual sense of urgency. Human instinct is a powerful thing and at that moment all of us seemed to sense that something was wrong.

    Suddenly Abigail started screaming loud enough that I was sure she could actually crack the windows. She started pointing towards the window straight across from the couch she sat on and screeching, "IT'S HERE!!!!! THEY'RE HERE!!!! YOU HAVE TO HELP ME!!! THEY'RE COMING FOR ME!!!!"

    Initially, I thought that the girl was just hysterical. That was until I saw it. The thing was exactly like Abigail had described. It was a too-tall bipedal thing with gangly but muscled limbs and a patchy furred body. It had to be at least eight feet tall with the way its torso was the only part initially visible when I looked out the window. Then it crouched down and tapped a clawed hand on the glass. It had the head of a coyote with those milky white eyes. It grinned and let out a growl. "Come out." it purred in a gravelly singsong voice.

    Abigail screamed and backpedaled away from the window, hiding behind and latching onto Hank while yelling that we needed to escape and begging us not to let them take her. I was frozen in fear. I was in no way equipped to handle this. I was just an average guy from Iowa with no special skills to speak of besides being decently athletic with an encyclopedic knowledge of the outdoors. The only thing I could do at that moment was stand frozen and staring in horror at the thing peering at us through the window and chuckling at our terrified faces.

    Surprisingly, what snapped me out of my shellshocked state was Lida. She was the only one out of us who didn't look scared. Instead, she looked angry. She smacked me across the face hard enough to leave my ears ringing. Then she proceeded to do the same with Hank. Hank and I shared mirrored surprised expressions that Lida was so quick to action, and that her small form could hit that hard. "Get your shit together! You all need to get the hell out of here!" Lida yelled at the three of us. She then proceeded to remove a black pistol from her pastel blue backpack. A multitude of questions were rushing through my mind. At the top of that list was wanting to know what the hell that thing outside was and right below that was bewilderment at Lida's one-eighty shift from a bubbly perky teenager to acting like some battle-hardened veteran.

    I didn't have much time to spend on these musings however as we heard the window crack. The coyote thing had placed a hard punch to the window that had caused it to fracture. One more good hit would surely shatter it. Then Lida raised her gun and fired. The bullet shattered the window and sent the coyote crashing back to the ground. "Hurry! Get to Hank's truck! And get your fucking guns!" Lida yelled. Hank and I already had our shotguns out and ready due to the reports of animal attacks. So we were able to snatch them up quickly as Lida took the lead to head for the front door.

    Abigail continued to stick close to Hank silently with wide terrified eyes as we moved cautiously for the door. Lida threw open the door and I was shocked at what we were faced with. There were at least thirty of those warped animals we'd heard so much about. And at the head of them was the coyote with a now missing left arm and the shoulder stump looking like it had healed over years ago. The coyote was the only one to be in a bipedal form. The other animals looked warped in various shapes and sizes, some being recognizable animals and others simply looking like horrifying beasts I had never seen before. The only thing they all had in common was those white eyes. The coyote snarled and seemed to focus its attention on Lida. "You'll pay for that." it growled out.

    Lida sneered at the coyote in response. "Shove it you overgrown fleabag!" she shot back as she reached into her backpack and produced a flare which she was quick to light and hold out in front of her. The creatures recoiled at the light and the coyote let out a deep unearthly growl. She hurled the flare into the crowd of animals and they scattered with unnatural speed back from the flare. "GO!" Lida yelled and the four of us made a break for it to the parking lot while we had the opening. Lida took the lead, taking a shot at any of the creatures who tried to leap at us as we ran. Her bullets seemed to have a strange effect on the creatures. The moment they hit black liquid bubbled up from the injuries and the things would screech in pain as their bodies seemed to start to dissolve into that black liquid. Hank and I took a few shots at the things, but our bullets didn't seem to do much more than knock the creatures back briefly.

    When we did get to the truck we all quickly piled in with Hank in the driver's seat and he gunned it towards the exit to the park right after the engine roared to life. I let out a breath of relief as I thought we were home free. "Don't start relaxing. We're not out of the woods yet." Lida scolded me and then offered a hint of a smirk at the terrible joke she'd made. I looked at her in disbelief for a moment before an uneasy chuckle escaped from Hank and me, appreciating her attempt at calming the three of us at least. Lida's smirk quickly faded as she focused her attention on the blurred view of the forest outside the car as Hank sped along the road.

    "So, who the hell are you?" Hank asked as he kept his eyes focused on the road. But it was clear the question was meant for Lida. It was an unspoken question that had been hanging in the air ever since Lida jumped into action to deal with that coyote thing back in the ranger's station. "I'll tell you what Hank, I'll give you a nice lengthy explanation after we're out of the forest full of things itching to get at us. Sound good?" she responded flatly. Hank gave a sigh in response. "Fine fine, fair enough. Do you at least know what those things are?" he pressed.

    "Yes." Lida said shortly. Then she sighed heavily. "All you need to know is that they're really hard to kill and that if you want to bring them down you'd better aim for the vitals. They won't stop moving until their bodies are completely destroyed. Their eyes are sensitive to light and they'll naturally flee from it. Fire also does a nice job of doing heavy damage to them. You manage to engulf one in flames and they'll go up like a bonfire doused in gasoline. But get back quick before they explode unless you want to go smelling like roadkill that won't wear off for weeks. Exception to the flame rule is that coyote thing. Fire'll hurt it, but it's not enough to kill it. If something fucks up you leave me to deal with the coyote while you all focus on escaping. The coyote gets taken out and the animals will stop attacking. They'll still be those things, but they won't be coordinated anymore. So it'll give you all the opening you need to get out." she explained.

    I stared at Lida with wide eyes, wondering how exactly it was she knew all this. I could tell Hank was wondering the same thing. But it was clear this was all Lida was willing to tell us at the moment. Abigail remained quiet in the backseat with me. She was just staring out the window with wide vacant eyes. Not that I could blame her after all she'd been through. I guessed she just needed time to process everything. Before I could speak up and ask Abigail anything I heard a loud metallic crunch and then we were airborne. I caught a flash of brown fur before the truck tumbled off the road, rolled down a steep hill, and came to a rest on its roof, having been stopped by a large pine tree.

    I sat suspended in the air by my seatbelt with my ears ringing and my body trying to process the shock of the crash. I was snapped out of my dazed state by Lida cursing loudly. "Shit! The truck is fucked!" she huffed out as she unclicked her seatbelt and crashed to the roof of the car. "Is everybody okay?" she asked as she shifted to look at the rest of us. Lida had a deep cut on her right cheek and forearm with some various cuts and bruises scattered across her form as well, but she seemed mostly unharmed. "I'm okay, I think." I choked out before undoing my seatbelt as well and hitting the roof of the car with a pained grunt. Aside from some cuts and being sore as hell I was fine as far as I could tell. Hank was similarly mostly unharmed aside from a thick bit of glass that had gotten stuck in his left bicep, but that was able to be quickly tended to by Lida by taking the glass out and tearing off a bit of his sleeve to tie around the wound. Abigail appeared to have passed out from the crash. She had a few deep gashes on her forearms and some smaller scratches, but otherwise, she seemed unharmed. However, she was unconscious and it was difficult to assess how she really was until she woke up. Something odd I noticed about her that I wish I had paid more attention to was that her blood looked almost black. But I just assumed I was seeing things because of the poor lighting and already being very on edge.

    Hank and I gently removed Abigail from the wreckage of the truck while Lida surveyed the damage and tried to figure out exactly where we were. The truck was an absolute wreck. The passenger side had collapsed inward like something heavy had made impact with it and the resulting roll down the hill and crash into the pine tree had completely totaled the truck. We were lucky the truck was as sturdy as it was or we would have surely walked away with worse injuries than we had. "We'll have to continue on foot from here." Lida said before placing a hand over Abigail's mouth and giving her a hard smack to the cheek to see if she could wake her. Abigail woke with a start, but her resulting scream was muffled by Lida's hand over her mouth. Once Abigail took in her surroundings Lida tore the sleeves off her own shirt and used the cloth to treat Abigail's wounds on her forearms. "Come on, we need to get moving before they catch up with us." she barked.

    The three of us followed behind Lida with Abigail in between the three of us considering her unarmed and mostly unresponsive state. We all moved at a brisk walking pace, sticking to the shadows of the treeline, but never completely leaving the view of the road just in case a car happened to come by. For a while, we were able to continue on without interruption. The forest was almost completely quiet, not even a sound from an insect could be heard. The only sounds we could hear were the occasional howl or growl in the distance and the sounds of our footsteps and heavy breaths. Despite the terrors of the night, this was perhaps one of the most terrifying parts to me. That utter quiet and the sense that at any moment one of those things could rush from the forest to do who knows what.

    Then the silence was broken as a thing that resembled a large deformed porcupine the size of a wolf rushed at us from the underbrush. Lida fired off a bullet into the creature's chest before it could make contact and it screeched and quickly started to dissolve as it writhed on the ground. Then the sounds of more growls and rushing footsteps could be heard as reinforcements rushed towards the area, attracted by the gunshot and the screeches of pain from the porcupine-like creature. "Run!" Lida yelled before breaking off into a sprint. The three of us quickly followed with Abigail pulling ahead of Hank and myself despite her frail condition. She had enough sense to at least not run out ahead of Lida, but her swift movements were startling. At the time I chalked it up to adrenaline.

    We ran with the sounds of those creatures pursuing us filling the forest around us. Lida, Hank, and I fired off the occasional shot when one of the things tried to jump at us from the forest, but we managed to keep ahead of the creatures. Or, that's what we thought anyway. As we emerged out into a large clearing the moonlight illuminated the coyote who seemed to be even larger than the last time we'd seen it. Though its left arm was still missing. Behind it stood a large half-circle of those creatures of numbers of at least fifty who all stood waiting, hissing and snarling as if they desired nothing but to charge and tear us apart. Lida didn't hesitate to raise her gun and take a shot at the coyote, but when she did all that sounded was an empty click. She was out of bullets. "Shit." she said softly under her breath, quickly reaching to the side pocket of her backpack as if reaching for more ammo.

    Before she could reach the side pocket a squirrel-like thing the size of a large dog came crashing down from the tree above and smacked into her back. Lida cursed as she struggled against the creature, but it held firm. Hank raised his shotgun to try and shoot the squirrel creature off of Lida, but as he made that move he was knocked to the ground by the small frail form of Abigail. She had landed a hard elbow to his ribs that caused a loud crunch. Hank groaned in pain as he instinctively curled into himself and Abigail took that opportunity to pin him to the ground on his stomach with a too-wide grin settling on her features that showed sharp teeth. Her eyes were white now like all those other fucking things. As she held him her body started twisting and crunching as her limbs grew longer and distorted with her skin taking on a papery white shade with a grey tinge. She bit into the side of Hank's neck and he let out a pained gurgled sound as she took a chunk out of the side of his neck. "Damn it! Hank!" Lida yelled as she struggled still against her captor. Then she looked at me with an intense gaze. "Get out of here!" she roared with a tinge of desperation in her voice.

    In that moment my survival instincts took over and I listened. It was as if my body went on autopilot while my mind raced. I thought that I couldn't just leave Lida and Hank behind. I had to stay and try to save them. But even as I thought this I kept running like my body had a will of its own separate from my mind. I tore through the forest, everything fading into a blur as I just focused on what was ahead of me. I don't know how long I ran for, but eventually I felt something heavy crash into me. I hit the ground roughly and felt the wind get knocked out of me. I briefly saw the shadowed outline of a hulking figure before I fell unconscious from the hard impact.

    When I woke up everything was still dark. I wondered if I was even still alive. All I knew was that it was dark and I couldn't move. Then I heard a groan from nearby. "Ah shit." I heard Lida's voice say softly before I heard a slight rustling like someone was struggling. "Lida?" I croaked out in question and I heard a gasp from nearby. "Thank fucking goodness, you're still alive." she breathed. Then she let out a more frustrated sound. "But- that means they caught you. Look. I have a plan to get us out of here, but you need to do exactly what I say if you want to survive this." she said in a hushed tone.

    "What about Hank?" I whispered back and Lida was quiet for a long moment before she spoke up again. "Hank's beyond saving now. You.....you don't want to know. Trust me." she said with a pained whisper. "Now stop talking. You don't want them knowing you're awake. And whatever you do. Don't let them feed you anything." she said with a renewly steeled tone. I did as I was told and shut up after that. I don't know how long we stayed in that darkness. I could feel myself suspended in the air and completely unable to move. It felt like I was wrapped up in some kind of cocoon made of a sticky substance similar to that of a spider's web. It was exactly the same conditions that Abigail had described in her story. The only sounds I heard all that time were an occasional shuffling, which I assumed to be Lida, and the distant sound of footsteps and soft growls.

    After what could have been hours or even days of just staying silent in that oppressive darkness I heard a ripping noise, and then a loud thunk and a grunt. I wanted to speak, but remembered Lida's words and forced myself to remain quiet. I just waited and hoped that that was the sound of Lida escaping. I heard footsteps approaching me and held my breath while attempting to press myself back against the stone wall behind me on a deep-rooted instinct to cringe away from the unknown thing that approached. Then I heard a ripping noise shortly before my bindings gave way and I went crashing unceremoniously to the rock floor below. While I lay there with the wind knocked out of me Lida ripped the sticky bindings away from me and I quickly scrambled to my feet.

    "You're going to have to trust me. Stay close to me and I'll get you out of here." Lida whispered in my ear. I nodded before realizing she couldn't see me in the pitch darkness and instead whispered back. "Okay." It was all I could think to say at that moment. I heard a strange crunching noise and then Lida grabbed my hand and started to swiftly lead me along as if she was able to see where she was going. I noticed that her nails felt sharper than before as she held tight to my hand. I felt fear bubble up as I wondered if she was becoming something like what Abigail had turned into. But I forced myself to bury that fear. Right then, Lida was my only chance of making it out of that place. I had to trust her. I didn't have any other option.

    We moved through the darkness for what seemed like forever. We seemed to be moving through some sort of massive tunnel or cave network like the one from Abigail's story. We would mostly move with hurried steps, but on various occasions Lida would stop me and pull me into little crevices or side tunnels when the sounds of footsteps neared us. Then after the footsteps faded we would continue on our way again. I began to wonder if we would just be wondering this cave network until we finally just collapsed. I could already feel the hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion gnawing at me. But I kept pace with Lida, forcing myself to keep walking even when it felt like my legs were turning to stone.

    Then I finally saw a beautiful sight. There was light streaming into the stony area about fifteen feet ahead of us after we'd turned a corner. As we drew closer to the light I could see that it was moonlight streaming into a large hole of some sort that looked to have been dug by massive claws. The hole was roughly five feet above us and led into some kind of tunnel to the surface. I felt my heart sink as I realized there was no way we could reach the hole to escape through it. We would have to continue on back into the darkness. "I'll boost you up to the edge of the hole. Do you think you can pull yourself out?" Lida spoke up as I let myself fall into a crestfallen state.

    I looked at Lida's petite five-foot form in bewilderment. I felt my eyes widen as I was finally able to take in her appearance. Lida's form had changed. She had grown more muscled and she looked practically feral. Her short black hair was wild and she was covered in dirt, but she looked uninjured despite her dirty appearance and very torn blood-stained clothing. Her nails had turned to claws and when she spoke I could see her teeth had changed to sharpened points. When I finally met her eyes they were no longer that piercing hazel green they had been. Now her pupils had changed to slits and her eyes were a glowing gold shade. I instinctively took a few steps back from her as I took in her inhuman features and she firmly grabbed my wrist. "Now isn't the time. I told you. If you want to make it out of this you're going to have to trust me." she said firmly.

    I slowly nodded and she released me in return. Then she laced her fingers together and placed her palms upward to allow me to step on them so she could lift me to the hole. I complied and she lifted me with surprising ease. I dug my fingers into the dirt and scrabbled my way up through the hole and out into the forest above. I collapsed onto the ground on my back, taking in deep lungfuls of air for a moment and let out a short laugh of relief to be away from that horrid darkness. Then I remembered Lida. I looked down through the hole that appeared to be an animal burrow hidden beneath a large thick bush from the outside. Lida looked up at me with glowing golden orbs before she jumped upwards and dug her clawed hands into the dirt. I grabbed her hands and helped pull her out of the hole. Though I'm not entirely sure she needed my help at all.

    Once we were both out in the forest Lida held a hand up when she saw me about to speak. "No questions. Not until we're out of here. Don't talk. Just follow and do what I say. That's how you're going to make it to see the sunrise." she said in a voice that left no room for argument. I just nodded in response to show her I understood. She nodded back and then we were off. The forest was still as strangely quiet as it was when we were captured and I wondered if it was even the same night anymore. I had no idea how many days had passed since we had taken down into the cave network. We could have been down in that cave system for days for all I knew.

    We just walked in silence as the moon moved across the sky. I didn't ask where we were going. All I knew to do at that point was follow Lida and hope that she had a plan. Lida seemed to tense some as we walked, but she said nothing beyond making a circular upward motion with her hand that I took to mean as 'be on your guard'. "You're quite the clever little girl. Such a shame that you chose the wrong side of this war." a deep rumbling voice spoke that seemed to echo around us. Lida let out a soft growl in response. "Yeah? If you're so upset about it then why not come and handle me yourself? Unless you're too scared to face me directly. You seem chicken shit with the way you're having all your lackeys do the fighting for you." she barked back which earned cold laughter from the voice which I assumed to belong to the coyote since it was the only one of the creatures I had heard actually speak up to that point.

    Then a dark shape seemed to emerge from a nearby oak tree that quickly shifted and took the form of that coyote I was beginning to grow familiar with seeing. It was grinning at us with its head cocked to the side ever so slightly as if it were amused. "As you wish." he said before he rushed at us with alarming speed. Lida was backhanded hard enough that she went flying through a number of trees which crashed to the ground as Lida skidded to a stop on all fours roughly thirty feet away. The deep gouges in her forearms she'd gotten from the coyote's claws were already healing as she charged at the coyote. The coyote let out a roar that was mixed with laughter as Lida charged at it as if it were relishing the challenge that had been presented to it.

    The ensuing fight was one I only caught glimpses of as I attempted to distance myself from the two. I saw glimpses of Lida savagely tearing into the coyote and drawing inky black blood from the thing with each hit. She was superhumanly strong with the way she was able to send the coyote flying. It had grown to be at least twice her size by that point with a far more muscled figure than its previously gaunt form. The fight between the two seemed as if it would never end as they destroyed the forest around them. Every time the two dealt injuries to the other they would heal almost as fast as they were given. Trees felled around the two and slowly their battlezone was changed more into a clearing filled with jagged stumps and fallen trees.

    Despite Lida's strength she still seemed out of her league against the coyote. As fast as she was able to heal the coyote still dealt more damage than Lida and seemed to land attacks on her far more often than she did to it. And yet she never seemed to tire or give up. She just looked at the coyote with this deep-seated rage as she stubbornly continued to battle it. I stayed hidden behind a large rock on a small cliif near their battlefield. I should have run, but I just couldn’t as I watched in horror, and yet almost wonder, as the two superhuman entities clashed. I just silently hoped their fight would not come near to me as I knew I would only get in the way or get hurt in this battle between two things who were far beyond the strength of a normal person like me.

    I could already see Lida was facing a challenge against the coyote with it only having one arm and I wondered just how dangerous would this thing be without that handicap. Then I quickly pushed that thought away as I felt panic overtaking me at that idea. Whatever the hell this thing was. It was a monster of overwhelming strength that I could still barely fathom the existence of.

    Finally the coyote got the upper hand, if you could even really call the hulking patchy furred thing a coyote anymore. It managed to pin Lida to the ground with its massive clawed hand holding her down by her throat and upper chest. Lida choked and gagged as she clawed and kicked at the coyote's arm, and it just laughed at her struggling even with her claws tearing chunks from its arm. I felt panic build up in my chest at the sight. I felt as if I had to do something to help Lida, but I had no idea what I could do. If Lida wasn't able to stop that thing there was no way I stood a chance. But I decided that I couldn't leave Lida to just perish at the hands of this thing. I’d already lost Hank. I couldn’t just stand by and lose her too.

    I picked up a heavy rock from the ground nearby and attempted to stealthily approach the coyote while its attention was focused on Lida. "You make such delicious prey little girl. Such a shame that you didn't last longer. It has been so long since I've been provided such a challenge. My compliments. Even your mother wasn't quite so strong as you. But alas, you'll suffer the same fate as she did." the coyote hummed with glee while Lida glared up at it with seething hatred in her expression. "I'll kill you!" she snarled back in a choked gasping voice as she more viciously attempted to struggle loose from the grip of the thing. "Ah, still so spirited. I'm sure that fire in you will only make you an even more delectable morsel." the coyote chuckled, simply seeming amused by Lida's fury.

    The coyote opened its jaws wide as its face split into four even pieces and opened like horrific flower petals to reveal a large black maw lined with white needle-sharp teeth and out from its throat flickered a deep red tongue reminiscent of a massive octopus tentacle lined with suckers that had silver spikes at the centers. I rushed forwards to hurl the rock right at the head of the creature and hopefully distract it long enough to let Lida get loose. The thing closed in as if aiming to bite into Lida with its monstrous mouth. I felt a sinking in my chest. I was too late. Even with Lida's astounding healing abilities, there was no way she could survive her head being bitten off.

    But then the thing's chest exploded in black gore as a loud bang sounded throughout the forest. Its body was soon torn apart by more explosions as more loud bangs filled the forest. Lida bolted to her feet as the creature's body started to dissolve into that black liquid I had seen the other things dissolve into. Its head flopped to the ground and changed back to the more coyote-like shape. Somehow it spoke even with its head now being the only solid piece of it left. "This....isn't.....over." it hissed out. "You haven't seen the last of....me. We will have.....our victory...." it gasped. Then its head exploded in another burst of gore and all that was left of the beast was puddles of black goo that quickly dried and floated up into the air in little black flecks as the sky started to change with the first shades of dawn.

    I felt the rock drop from my hands as a familiar voice spoke from the edge of the treeline. "You sure made quite a mess here huh?" I turned and couldn't believe my eyes. There Briggs stood with a shotgun in hand and a proud grin present on his face. Lida gave Briggs a withering look in response. "Took you long enough grandpa. Those damn reinforcements you promised were almost too late. We lost some good people while you jackasses sat around with your thumbs up your asses." she scolded the older man.

    I felt my mind begin to swim as I tried to process all the events that had transpired over the course of the terrifying affair. As I tried to take in the scene in front of me of the heated back and forth between Lida and Briggs all their voices sounded like to me were faraway echoes. Blackness started to form at the edges of my vision. And then I fell unconscious.

    When I woke up I was in a hospital in the nearest city to the state park. I was told I'd been transported to the hospital from a clinic in the nearby town to the state park. According to the hospital staff I had been brought in with deep gashes, dehydrated, and emaciated. I'd apparently woken up and spoken deliriously of monstrous animals attacking. So it was assumed I'd been attacked by either a bear or wildcat, based on my injuries, and had become lost in the forest for days before eventually being discovered by two hikers. At first, I attempted to argue and recount what really happened, but I quickly figured out that the hospital staff just assumed I was still delirious. They weren't going to believe me. I did discover that it had been a week and a half since the night that those things first attacked.

    After I was discharged from the hospital I immediately quit my job at the state park. My supervisors didn't ask any questions. I saw that a missing persons report had been filed for Hank, but no law enforcement ever questioned me about what happened at the state park. In fact, there was never any reports at all of what happened in the park that night. And after that night the strange animal sightings in the park just fizzled off soon after. I thought about going to the police and telling them my story about what happened, but I knew that they would just ignore what I said. After all, who would believe such a strange story? I hadn't believed Abigail at first. Surely no one would believe me either.

    Since then I've moved across the country to a large city in an arid climate full of flatlands and desert. I want to be far away from any forest. I know that the media and law enforcement won't believe my story, but I recently heard about this subreddit from my girlfriend. She's the only one I've told this story to since then. She's the only one who believes me. She encouraged that I post this here. I think she hopes it will be therapeutic for me. But I decided to post this story because I want to warn anyone who will listen. Watch out for the forests. There are things out in those deep woods far beyond human comprehension. Whatever I saw in that forest, I have no doubt there's more out there. I remember what it said to Lida. It mentioned a war. It said it would come back. The people that go missing out in the forests, the strange things that happen, maybe there really isn't a logical explanation for all of it. So if you start to see animals that look wrong with those white eyes in a forest. Get out while you still have the chance, or they might just come for you next.

    I hope that my tale will serve as a warning to all of you who choose to listen to it. I haven't seen Lida or Briggs since that night. And I can only hope they're doing well wherever they are. While I still wonder what those things are that attacked that night. I'm too scared to really go looking for the answers I want. As far as I'm concerned. I hope I never have to step into another forest again. But another part of me has started to become less scared over the years. I feel angry for all the horrors those things brought on. They killed innocent and good people like those college kids and Hank. I want to know what they are. And I want to stop them. There's a state park a few hundred miles from me and I've seen increasing reports of animal attacks and missing persons there lately. Maybe I should go there and warn them before things go too far.

    Yesterday, I got a visit from someone I never thought I’d see again. I heard a knock on my apartment door and before me stood Lida. She didn't look like she'd aged a day since the last time I saw her. She looked like how she had when I first met her. Tanned caramel skin, piercing hazel green eyes, a petite figure, five foot nothing, and jet black hair. The only difference was that her hair had grown down to her waist and was tied back in a messy braid. She looked up at me with that intense expression of hers before offering me an amused smile. "We need to talk." she said simply.

    Of course, I let her in. She just waltzed into my apartment like she owned the place and took a seat on my couch. "Nice place you've got. A little plain. But you were always kind of a basic guy huh?" she said casually as she surveyed my apartment while I stared at her in disbelief. Then she motioned for me to take a seat in the armchair across from her. In dumbfounded silence, I just did what she said. She's surprisingly good at getting others to follow her commands. That small figure just seems to exude authority when she wants it to.

    "Well, I did promise you I'd explain everything. And, I'm finally here to uphold that promise. After I explain. I've got a favor to ask." she said. I just stared at her in response for a long moment before finally just sputtering a stuttered "Okay." Lida laughed. "Always so good with words huh Jack?" she teased. That's my name by the way.

    Lida continued on to first tell me that her name isn't actually Lida. Navina is her name. So Lida, now Navina, continued on to explain just what happened in the forest that night. And just who she really is.

    According to Navina, she comes from a long line of monster hunters. What we encountered in the forest five years ago was a parasitic species that can take over organic creatures that are controlled by one hive mind which, in this case, had taken the form of that coyote. They come from another world and showed up on Earth about two hundred years ago. They're a species that tries to colonize worlds and consume whatever they get in contact with. But, Navina's group has been able to keep them at bay. They've taken to calling the species Webbers since they trap their victims in that spider-web-like substance and the parasite looks somewhat like a spider when removed from the host. And yes, Navina and I agreed the name wasn't the best. But it's what stuck.

    The Webber is a much larger creature that separates itself into smaller creatures which will then take over a host. They believe there are multiple Webbers from whatever world it is they come from, but they don't know how many. They also don’t actually know how the Webbers get here. Thus far there are five Webbers who have attempted to invade Earth and only one of them has made repeat attempts. There have been fifteen invasion attempts in the last two hundred years. Whether that means they killed the other Webbers when they stopped them, they don't know. They just know this one particular Webber they've taken to calling BAW, for big asshole Webber, is the one who keeps coming back. Navina says that her people need to start coming up with better names. The Webbers will take one primary host body on Earth and then extend their control outwards into other creatures by trapping them and feeding them its black blood so that the body becomes suitable for habitation. Then they will eventually turn into the warped creatures I saw five years ago.

    I angrily asked Navina why she didn't warn Hank and me about Abigail then and she just sadly stated that she couldn't alert the Webber that she was onto its game. She thought maybe there was still time to save Abigail since there have been cases where people in the process of becoming hosts have been able to be saved. She regretted what happened to Hank and that she couldn't save him. She explained that night was a train wreck and that she was supposed to have reinforcements come much earlier, but due to extenuating circumstances they hadn't been able to arrive on time.

    Navina explained that her mother had been killed by the same Webber she fought that night. Then she proceeded to nonchalantly drop that she was able to fight BAW so efficiently because she's not human. No, in fact she's a half-demon. She had to use a spell that suppressed her demonic abilities while she worked at the state park so BAW wouldn't detect her and the effects of the spell had finally worn off when we were trapped in the cave system. She only laughed at my dumbstruck expression, shrugged, and said that her mom had weird and kind of shitty taste since her dad had never really been around anyway. She'd been raised mostly by her grandpa, who was in fact Briggs. Surprise surpise, that’s not his real name either. So the man, who was really named Brisjan, left weeks earlier to get enough reinforcements to come back and deal with BAW when the signs had started showing up that another invasion was coming. But, as you all already know, he didn't get back until everything had already gone to shit. If I ever see him again he and I have some things to talk about.

    Navina explained to me that not only are there Webbers, demons, and magic. Apparently, there's a good many things that are real; like vampires, werewolves, angels, fae, and dragons. Among many other things. I'll really need to ask her more about that later. She sped over that whole point as she explained that her organization were people who kept the peace and stopped the bad guys who threatened 'the balance' as she calls it. Can't say their name unfortunately. Top secret and all that. She tells me that her group in the organization is looking for new members. They need reinforcements since it’s looking like that state park I've noticed may be the sight of a new invasion.

    Well, I'll cut to the chase. I said yes. I've got an opportunity to do something against those bastards and do some good. So, I'm going to take it. Navina's standing behind me now while I write this. She's very amused by how I describe her. She's also told me to stop treating her like a kid since she's over a hundred years old. That.....leaves me with a lot more questions I need to ask her later. But I've got a lot I'm still trying to process. So, one step at a time there. Agreeing to join this organization means that I'm leaving everything behind now. I don't like the idea of leaving my girlfriend behind, but I know she wouldn't understand all of this or why I feel I need to help Navina and her people. After I finish writing this I'll be packing my things and making what preparations I need before I set out with Navina.

    My parting words to all of you are to be vigilant. There are many strange things in this world that we write off as nothing but fantasy. But what many of us forget is that there are many things we don't know about this world. Better to keep a watchful eye than be caught off guard if you do encounter something hidden from the majority of the world. With that, I thank you all for reading my story and I hope that you heed its warnings. What happened in that park to the people like Hank and Abigail was a tragedy. Hopefully I can do something to now save people like them.

    Best regards and signing off, Jack. Perhaps I'll be making another report here one day to warn you all of more of those strange things that exist in this world so often unseen by the masses.
     
    Gix and Kefflar32 like this.
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