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Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza

Paul Wallace wasn’t sure that he believed his eyes.

Being as careful as he could, he took the object that had caught his gaze off of the shelf and held it up to get a better look at it.  He felt a stir of excitement.  It was exactly what he had thought it was.

He was holding a small statue, roughly the size of a shoebox.  It depicted a small carnival.  In the center was a red and white circus tent.  Its flaps were open, and standing just inside of it was a smiling clown holding three balloons.  To the right of the tent was a platform with a dog dressed in a black suit and tophat, and to the left was a fortune teller booth with a woman seated inside.  The entire statue was in superb condition.

He looked up as he saw a man approaching him from the corner of his eye.  It was the person that had been hired by the estate to sell off the remaining property for the deceased.  The man smiled and nodded once.

“Good afternoon, sir,” the man said in a pleasantly deep voice.  “My name is Silas Pembrook.  I’m the manager of the estate.”

“Oh, yeah, hi, I’m Paul,” he replied.

“So good to meet you, Paul.  I see that you’ve found something of interest.”

“Yes, I think so.  Do you know if this is an original or a replica?”

The estate manager smiled slightly.  “Oh, it’s an original, sir.  The gentleman who owned this home was something of a collector.  What you are holding is an authentic Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza statuette.  It was produced in 1974, and it is one of only ten made.  Do you know the story behind it?”

Paul nodded.  “I’ve read that it was because of a mistake.”

“Indeed.  As you can see, the statue depicts the three original characters in the show: Bingo the Dog, Bango the Clown, and Poe the Fortune Teller.  However, it was also supposed to feature a recently introduced fourth character, Leo Lion.  Less than a dozen were produced before the mistake was caught.  The ones before the correction are extremely rare, not to mention expensive.”

“That’s what I’ve heard, yeah.”

Paul felt his excitement fading.  He had hoped that the man wouldn’t know what the statue was worth so that he could get it for a bargain price, but that obviously wasn’t the case.  Its actual value was well outside of what he could afford.

“Were you a fan of the show?” Pembrook asked.

“A big fan,” Paul answered.  “I used to watch it every morning with my father before I went to school and he went to work.  They’re some of my earliest memories.”

“I see.  I have to say, it’s rare to find a fan these days.  It wasn’t nationally televised for most of its run, and half hour cartoons were already starting to replace the children’s variety shows when it finally was.  Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza sadly never reached the same heights as, say, Bozo or The Muppets.  A number of television historians believe it was superior to both of those shows.”

Paul blinked in surprise at how well the man knew the history of the program.  “It really was a great show.”

“Indeed.”  Pembrook smiled again.  “Well then, down to business.  If you’re interested in purchasing the statue, I have it priced at $6500.  I’m sure you agree that is a fair price.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”  Paul sighed and placed the statue back on the shelf.  “Maybe some other time.”

“I understand.  It is a high price, but it’s also below market value and I do need to consider both the sellers and my firm’s percentage.”

“Yeah, of course, I get it.”

Pembrook regarded him for a moment.  “Tell me, Paul, would you be interested in the same statuette but in a lesser condition?”

“You’re serious?  There’s a second one of these here?”

“There is.  I found it as I was going through a number of boxes in storage.  I haven’t put it out due to the condition, but I’d be happy to retrieve it for you to take a look at.  I’m sure that we could come to some sort of arrangement on the price if you like it.”

Paul felt his previous excitement returning.  “I’d be very interested.”

“Then please excuse me for just a moment.”

Pembrook went through a door leading into the garage and closed it behind him.  While he waited, Paul slowly wandered around the house.  He was a collector of sorts, mostly things from his childhood that had some sort of meaning to him, and because of that he had attended many estate sales looking for bargains.  This one was somehow different.  Usually these sales were a bit cluttered or simply not organized, but everything here was neat and separated into categories.  He appreciated the effort that had gone into the setup.

Pembrook came back in from the garage with a cardboard box in his hands.  He set it down on the kitchen counter and motioned for Paul to come over.  He carefully opened the box and lifted the statue out of it.

Paul leaned down and looked it over.  While it was the same statue as the one he had originally looked at, this one was definitely in worse condition.  The colors were faded, and there were a number of small dents and chips.  There was also a large brown stain on the base.  Still, it wasn’t missing any pieces, and overall it was in fine shape for its age.

“As I said, it’s not in the superb condition that the one I have displayed is,” Pembrook told him.  “I apologize if you don’t find it acceptable.”

“No, it’s still great,” Paul assured him.  “Even with the issues, it’s much better than the ones that I’ve seen online.  How much are you asking for it?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?”  The store manager considered it.  “I don’t have any particular instructions from the family when it comes to selling the damaged items.  Why don’t we say, oh, fifty dollars?”

“What, seriously?”

“I’m quite serious.  Obviously I could sell it for far more than that online, probably in the thousands even in the condition it is in, but between you and me I would rather that it end up with someone that will truly appreciate it.  What do you say, Paul?  Do we have a deal?”

“Yes, absolutely.  Thank you so much, Mr. Pembrook.”

“Please, it’s Silas.  Let’s fill out some paperwork.”

After leaving the estate sale, Paul put the box containing his purchase in the trunk of his car and headed over to the local hardware store.  He bought a wooden shelf and the brackets needed to hang it.  With that done, he headed home.

An hour later he was making the final adjustments to the shelf.  It was larger than the others that he used to display the pieces of his collection, but he had been worried that the weight of the statue would have been too much for those smaller floating shelves.  When he was finished, it occupied a spot right in the center of the wall.  He carefully took the statue out of the box and placed it onto the shelf.  He took a step back to get a better look and nodded to himself in satisfaction.

Something caught his eye.  He stepped back up to the shelf and took a closer look at the statue.  Just to the right of Bingo’s platform was a black post with a clock hanging from it.  He hadn’t noticed it back at the estate sale, and he didn’t remember it being in the pictures he had seen of the statue online.  He distinctly remembered it being on the show itself, however, so he must have simply overlooked that particular detail of the statue.  That, or he was in possession of an even rarer item than he had thought.

Paul sat down on the couch and sighed as he closed his eyes.  It had been a long day.  Before he had gone to the estate sale on a whim, he had worked for hours on a client account at his small accounting office.  A tiny mistake on the client’s part had caused an avalanche of document requests from the IRS, and he had spent the day preparing and sending them to help the client avoid a full audit.  Originally he had intended to work a short day, but that obviously hadn’t been the case.

Hours later, Paul woke up with a start.  He hadn’t realized that he was nodding off, and it took him a moment to gather his thoughts.  Wiping the crust out of the corner of his eyes, he looked out the window and found that it was dark outside.  He took his cell phone out of his pocket to check the time, but the phone was dead.  He frowned.  He would have sworn that he had fully charged it the previous night.

He reached over and turned on the small lamp next to the couch.  Now that he could see better in the gloom he was able to locate the television remote.  He used it to turn on the television, and the time that was displayed at the top of the screen told him that it was just past ten.  He had been asleep longer than he thought.

“Are you ready to have some fun?”

The sudden exclamation from the television drew his attention to the show that was playing.  An overhead camera shot was showing a large carnival down below.  As he watched, the shot changed to one at the ground level.  A striped circus tent was in the middle of the frame, with a blue platform directly in front of it.

From behind the platform, a puppet popped up into view.  It was a black and white dog with blue eyes, likely a Siberian Husky, wearing a suit with a bowtie and tophat.  Children cheered from off camera as the dog bobbed around excitedly.

“Hello, boys and girls!” the fuzzy puppet said.  “Welcome to Bingo’s Circus!  I’m Bingo, your master of ceremonies!”

Paul couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It was Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza.  He hadn’t seen an episode of it in decades, and yet here was one being broadcast the very same day he had bought a piece of memorabilia from the show.  The odds of that were astronomical.

“Today we’re going to play a really fun game, kiddos!” Bingo was saying, calliope music playing in the background.  “We’re going to play tag!  Won’t that be fun?”

The children cheered again.

“Great!  We have a very special guest today to play the game with us.  Let’s give a big circus welcome to Paul Wallace!”

Horns blared on the show as Paul stared at the screen in confusion.  Had Bingo actually said his name?  He shook his head slowly.  He must have misheard.

“Oh, you heard right, Pauly Boy,” Bingo said as the camera moved in closer to the dog’s face.  “You’re the lucky boy that gets to take part in our little game.  Would you like to hear the rules?”

“No fucking way is this really happening,” Paul said to himself.

The puppet sighed.  “It’s going to be one of those days, isn’t it?  Look over at your new shiny statue, Pauly.  Go on, take a peak.”

Still not believing what was happening, he turned his eyes towards his collection wall.  At first it appeared that the statue was the same as when he had last looked at it, but something wasn’t quite right.  His eyes widened as it clicked.  The Bingo figure was missing from his platform.

“That’s right,” the Bingo on the television said.  “I decided to go out for a little stroll so that you and I can get to know each other better.  Don’t worry, Bango and Poe will be along soon enough to give you their regards as well.”

“How is this possible?” Paul asked.

“Doesn’t really matter at the moment, Pauly.  What does matter is the rules of the game we’re all about to play.  Like I said before, we’re going to be playing tag.  It’s a very special kind of tag, though.  If we catch ya, instead of it being your turn, you die a horrible death!”

He felt a chill run through him.  “Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll make it fair.  Only one of us is coming after you at a time, and we each get, oh, I dunno, let’s say half an hour each.  We’ll even give you little breathers in between.  That’s a pretty sweet deal there.  The clock on the statue will chime to start the round, and it’ll chime a second time when it’s over.  What do you say, ready to get this show on the road?”

“I’m not playing your game,” Paul said firmly.

“Kiddo, we’re not giving you a choice.”

The television turned itself off.

Paul stared at the black screen as he tried to process what he had just experienced.  He was so stunned that he barely registered the loud ringing that filled the room.  Still trying to collect himself, he turned his head towards the noise.  The clock on the statue had chimed.

As the chime faded, there was a different sound from the kitchen.  Something or someone was rattling around in the drawers.  Fear pierced through the haze in his head, and Paul instantly decided that he wasn’t going to stick around to find out what happened next.  He gave one last glance towards the archway leading into the kitchen before bolting for the front door and pulling it open.

He had made it onto the porch before he realized what he was seeing.  The house and yard were surrounded by some kind of cloth.  It was red and white striped, just like the circus tent on the television show.  He looked up and found that he could just make out the top of the tent high above the roof of the house.

Swearing loudly, he ran down the walkway to the sidewalk and pressed his hand up against the tent.  It didn’t budge.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t made of cloth.  He tried pushing harder and it had the same result.  He was trapped.

“Pretty neat, isn’t it?” a voice called from the house.

Paul turned back around.  Standing on the porch was the Bingo puppet from the show.  There was no puppeteer, but the dog was still able to move around freely.  The white and black fur was covered in dark brown stains.  His right paw was wrapped around the handle of one of the knives that had been stored in a block on the kitchen counter.  He tilted his head slightly as he stared back at Paul.

“What the fuck is happening?” Paul yelled at the dog.

“I already told you,” Bingo replied, the puppet’s mouth moving perfectly with the words.  “We’re playing a game of tag.  Let’s get this show on the road, big guy.  I’ve got twenty-four minutes left, and I plan on making the most of them.”

With surprising speed, Bingo sprinted towards him with the knife extended outward.  Paul swore violently and went to run in the opposite direction, forgetting for a moment about the impenetrable tent wall that separated the property from the rest of the world.  He ran along the edge of the grass instead as he tried to put as much distance between himself and the puppet as he could.

Paul heard Bingo laugh gleefully as he ran around the side of the house.  He wasn’t really thinking about what to do or where to go.  Panic had fully gripped him, and in that moment he wasn’t capable of rational thinking.  Too much had happened too soon.

He reached the backyard and risked a glance over his shoulder.  Bingo was no longer behind him.  He slowed his pace for a few seconds before coming to a complete stop.  Breathing heavily, he tried to figure out where the dog had gone.

There wasn’t much light in the yard, with the only illumination coming from a single security light mounted on the roof.  Large sections were dark, making it impossible to see what they contained.  He was just barely able to make out that the back door of the house was open.  His eyes widened.  While he had been blindly running in a wide track around the yard, Bingo must have simply returned to the house and gone out the back.  That meant he was definitely somewhere nearby.

The grass was brown and dying, a casualty of the late fall season.  It was still long, however, as Paul had never gotten around to doing one last mow.  With Bingo being only about a foot tall, he could easily crawl through it without being seen.

He felt a sharp pain in the side of his leg.  He gasped and looked down.  Bingo was standing next to him, the sharp knife clutched in both paws as he pushed the blade into Paul’s leg.  It was caught in his jeans, and just the tip had managed to penetrate the material.

Paul spun around and kicked the puppet, sending the dog flying across the yard.  The knife pulled free of both his leg and Bingo’s grasp, and it struck the ground with a clang.  The puppet laughed from where he had landed.

“Oh boy, Pauly, now this is a good time!” Bingo shouted.  “I haven’t had this much fun in ages!”

Kneeling down, Paul felt around in the dark grass, trying to find where the knife was.  He heard a rustling sound nearby as he searched.  There was a flash of pain from his hand, followed closely by the warm sensation of blood.  Bingo had returned and located the knife before he could.  Paul scrambled backwards and nearly fell as he hurried back to his feet.  He managed to regain his balance at the last second.

His footfalls were strangely loud in his ears as he hurried across the yard.  There was no wind under the tent, and no sounds from the outside world managed to penetrate it.  All that he could hear were his feet stomping through the grass, his heavy breathing, and his heart pounding in his ears.

When he reached the front of the property he had to stop.  He was out of shape, and his lungs were screaming for oxygen.  He leaned against the mailbox and gulped in air, his eyes constantly moving as he searched for any sign of Bingo.

“We’re in the home stretch now, buddy boy!” the puppet called out.  “Let’s turn things up a notch.”

Because of the strange acoustics, Paul wasn’t able to tell what direction the voice was coming from.  It definitely sounded close.  Ignoring the pain in his leg and hand, he hurried up onto the porch and closed the front door.  If Bingo was going to attack him, he wasn’t going to be able to sneak up on him to do it.

There was a laugh from up above.  Paul was barely able to move out of the way as Bingo leaped at him from his hiding spot in the corner of the porch roof.  The knife came so close to his face that he felt the air shift against his skin as it passed by.  The puppet hit the wooden planks and thrust the knife at his leg.

Paul had shaken off the momentary surprise, however, and this time instead of panicking he got mad.  Moving out of the way of the attack, he knocked the knife out of Bingo’s hands and off of the porch with his foot.  He reached down before the puppet could recover and scooped it up by the neck.  Bingo struggled against his grip, but Paul ignored him and pushed him onto an old nail that was sticking out of one of the porch pillars.  He had been meaning to hammer it back into place for quite a while.  For once his procrastination was coming in handy.  The nail pierced into the dog’s cloth skin and deep into the fluff within it.

“Oh ho!” Bingo said as he flailed about in a desperate attempt to free himself.  “Aren’t you Mr. Smartypants.”

“Fuck you,” Paul spit out.

“No thanks.  I have a certain type, and you’re not it.  You understand.”

“Tell me what’s going on right the fuck now.”

“I would, kid, but I’m afraid our time is up.”

From inside the house came a loud chime.

“I gotta tell ya, I didn’t think that you had it in you,” Bingo told him.  “It’s not very often someone goes the full thirty minutes with me.  My hat’s off to you.  Well, it would be if it wasn’t sewn on.  So we’ll just say that my metaphorical hat is off to you.”

Paul didn’t know what to say.  This was all so messed up.  He paced back and forth on the porch, making sure to keep his eye on the trapped puppet the entire time.

“I would save your energy,” Bingo advised.  “Remember what I said when I was giving you the rules?  You’ve got a little bit of time before the next round.  Rest your legs, maybe get a glass of water.  Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.”

“You just tried to murder me, and now you’re giving me advice?” Paul asked.

“Yeah, you know what?  That’s fair.  I’ll shut the ol’ yapper now.”

Paul opened his mouth to respond, but he was cut off by a loud screeching.  He covered his ears as the high pitched squeal dug into them.  It was the same noise that rusty gears made when they ground together, but at the volume that was assaulting him they would have had to have been huge.  The porch began to shake beneath his feet.

The tent wall started moving inward.  At first Paul thought that his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he could see it tearing up the lawn and concrete as it slowly pressed in towards the house.  As it drew closer he feared that it was going to crush everything in its path.  It stopped moving when it reached the front steps of the porch, however, and the deafening noise ceased.

There was a long moment of silence, followed by another chime from inside the house.

After checking to make sure that Bingo was still stuck on the nail, Paul opened the front door and went into the entryway.  He paused and listened intently.  When he didn’t hear anything, he went into the living room and looked at the statue on the shelf.  While Poe was still seated at her fortune teller booth, Bango was no longer standing behind the open circus tent flaps.

He caught a whiff of a foul stench.  He turned and found that the room was still empty.  There was, however, a faint trail of gray smoke leading out of the room and into the back hallway.  After a brief hesitation he followed it through the archway and flipped on the light.

Standing at the end of the hall was a mountain of a man.  He was at least seven feet tall, extremely overweight with a balding head.  The few hairs that remained were dyed a bright green.  His face was painted white except for the area around his lips, which was instead a bright red.  The man was dressed in blue overalls that covered a yellow shirt with a white frilly collar and a red bowtie.  A flower was pinned to one of the straps.  He was chewing on a large cigar.

“Evening,” Bango said in a low gravelly voice.

He took a step forward, and Paul could feel the hallway floor vibrate as he moved.

“Been a while since I’ve been out.  Feeling… hungry.”

The clown smiled, revealing yellowed teeth behind his painted lips.  He took a second step forward, and then a third.  As he drew closer Paul could see that there were brownish stains around his mouth and on the front of his shirt, the same kind of stains that were on Bingo’s fur.  He couldn’t be sure, but he thought that it looked a lot like dried blood.

With the tent pressed up against the house, there was no way that Paul would be able to run out the timer the way that he had with Bingo.  He had to figure out how to stay away from the clown’s reach.  As he backed up into the living room, he realized that the archway was going to be too small for the massive man.  As long as he didn’t go into the hallway, he would be safe.

Bango grunted as he came to the archway, but he didn’t stop moving.  Instead, he pressed forward without breaking stride.  The wood and plaster creaked for a split second before breaking away and creating a wider opening.  The clown laughed as Paul moved further away.

“Nice try,” Bango taunted.

Thinking quickly, Paul grabbed the wooden chair from his nearby desk and swung it as hard as he could.  It collided with the clown’s chest loudly before shattering.  He picked up the desk lamp and hurled it into the man’s face.  It broke and fell to the floor.  Neither improvised weapon had any effect.

“Makin’ me hungrier,” Bango said.  “Might have to eat you raw.”

“You know that tartare plays havoc with your digestion,” Bingo called from the porch.


“You’re no fun when you’re like this.”

“Shut it.”

“Okay, okay, fine.”

Paul’s initial thought was to make a break for the stairs and get up to the second floor.  The stairs weren’t wide enough for Bango to get up them.  The clown seemed to anticipate this, however, and he moved his bulk in such a way as to put himself between Paul and the stairs.  He wouldn’t be able to get around him.

His eyes fell on a door to his right.  It led down into the basement.  If Bango could follow him down there he would be trapped, but the doorway wasn’t large enough for the clown and the walls of the stairwell were heavy concrete instead of wood.  It would be able to take much more abuse than the archway had.  It was his best bet, and he would just have to hope that he would be safe.

The problem was that the path to it was also blocked.  Unlike the stairs, however, it was near the front door.  If he could figure out a way to get out onto the porch, he could run back into the house and hurry down into the basement.

Bango lunged forward just as he turned to run.  The tips of the clown’s fingers caught him in the shoulder for just a moment before he managed to pull away and get into the kitchen.  The window in the room looked out onto the front porch.  He hurried over to it and disengaged the lock before trying to open it.

It was stuck.  No matter how hard he tried to push it up, the window just would not slide on its track.  It was an old house, and this type of thing was a constant issue.  Giving up, he opened a cupboard and took out an iron skillet.  He swung it as hard as he could and shattered the glass.

He heard Bango smash through the kitchen doorway but didn’t turn around.  Knowing that he didn’t have time to clear away all the pieces of glass still in the frame, Paul gritted his teeth and shoved himself out of the window.  Shards dug into his right arm and both sides of his body, tearing clothes and skin alike as he slid out onto the porch.  The clown’s arm followed him through and attempted to grab him, but he managed to barely keep out of its reach.

The arm retracted back into the kitchen, but not all the way.  Instead, the fat fingers plucked a few shards of glass from the window frame before retreating back out of sight.  There was an odd crunching noise followed by a satisfied grunt.

“Nothing like fresh blood,” Bango said from inside.  “Bits of skin, too.”

Paul got back to his feet and went to the still open front door.  As he did so, he saw that Bingo was no longer on the exposed nail.  The puppet must have torn itself free.  He didn’t have time to worry about it.  He needed to hurry.

He went through the doorway and into the living room.  Bango emerged through the ruined kitchen arch just as his hand wrapped around the knob on the basement door.  He flung it open and rushed down the stairs.  He had only gotten a few feet down when his arm was grabbed and he came to a halt.  The clown had caught him.

Bango grinned down at him, licking his lips as he did so.

Paul attempted to pull away, and to his surprise his arm slipped out of the clown’s grip.  The blood from his cuts had made his skin slick.  He fell backwards down the stairs, landing hard at the bottom and slamming his head on the concrete floor.  The air whooshed out of his lungs as stars filled his vision.

He wasn’t sure how long he laid there before he started breathing regularly again.  Sitting up on his elbows, he blinked a few times as his head slowly cleared.  He could see Bango at the top of the stairs as he attempted to force his way into the basement.  The door had been ripped off of its hinges and the walls just inside were heavily damaged, but the enormous clown couldn’t push past the concrete to descend any further.

Paul moved further into the basement and hid beside the washing machine, praying that the walls would hold.

After what seemed like an eternity, he heard the chime come from the statue clock.  He waited for a few seconds before standing up, winching in pain as he did so.  He hobbled over to the stairwell, wondering when he had hurt his leg.  Looking up, he saw a small shape standing at the very top.

“You can come up now, Pauly,” Bingo called down through the open door.  “You heard the chime.  You’ve got yourself a few minutes before the final round of our little game.  Come get yourself a drink.  You’ve earned it.”

Paul stared up at the doorway, but he didn’t move or answer.

“Use your noodle, kiddo.  If we were going to break the rules, I would have just come down and gutted ya when you outsmarted Bango.”

“Watch it,” the clown’s voice came from the living room.

“Just calling a spade a spade here.  He got you pretty good.  Hell, he got me, too.  Come on, Pauly.  Let’s talk.”

Not really sure what else to do, Paul did as he was told and slowly ascended the stairs.  His multiple cuts and lacerations burned as he moved.  He reached the top just in time to see Bingo sit down in one of the chairs.  Bango was seated on the long couch, his body filling the majority of it as he took a long drag on his cigar.  The murderous hunger was gone from his eyes, and he nodded once to Paul.

“You want to pour yourself something stiff?” Bingo asked.

“Uh, no,” Paul replied, keeping his distance.

“You don’t have to stand all the way over there.  We don’t bite.”

“Liar,” Bango said with a deep chuckle.

“You know what I mean.”  The puppet motioned towards the shelf with the statue on it.  “Poe will be along in a few minutes.  You might have gotten past the two of us, but I’m sorry to say that your good luck is about to run out, kid.  I mean that, too.  Both parts, the part where you’re going to be finito and the part where I’m sorry.”

Bingo fell silent.  He seemed to stare off into the distance blankly, but it was hard to tell if he was thinking about something or if it was just because the puppet’s eyes couldn’t close.  Bango was looking around the room curiously, as if he was seeing it for the first time.

“All we wanted was our big break,” Bingo said suddenly.  “We worked long and hard to make Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza the best show on television, and dammit, we succeeded.  After all that work, though, the only thing kids wanted to watch was unoriginal cartoon trash shoveled out by toy companies.  We would offer them fresh and new entertainment, and they picked the glorified commercials every single time.  Well, what can I say, kids are morons.”

“Amen,” Bango grunted.

“You’re obviously a fan of the show, Pauly.  Do you know about anything that happened after it ended?”

“Um, no, I don’t,” Paul said, still not quite believing that this conversation was happening.

“It wasn’t pretty.”  Bingo shook his head slowly.  “We showed up on set on a Tuesday morning and were told that our services were no longer needed.  The production company had pulled the plug on the whole show.  We knew the ratings weren’t what everyone had hoped for, but we hadn’t known that things were that bad.  It was like getting slapped in the face with a brick.  Everything was just suddenly… over.  Gone in a puff of smoke.  You sure you don’t want a drink?”

“I’m good.”

“I would kill for a scotch.  Doesn’t work well with the whole puppet thing, though.  No digestive system.  Anyway, I knew that I was screwed.  There wasn’t a lot of work for a puppeteer.  The big studios that used them for stuff like Star Wars and The Muppets weren’t even taking applications.  They were all about who you knew, if you catch my meaning.”

Bango made an indelicate sound.

“As bad as things were for me, they were even worse for old Bango here.  Clowns were already losing popularity, but then Stephen fucking King decided to write that damn book.”

It,” Bango supplied.

“Yeah, that’s right, fucking It.  Suddenly everyone and their mother’s afraid of clowns.  I’m here to tell you that Bango is the best clown show business has ever seen.  Incredible comedic timing, and that goes for both jokes and physical comedy.  Fuck Bozo.  This guy right here is the top of the damn mountain.”

“Thank you for that.”  The massive man seemed genuinely moved by the compliment.

“It’s just how I feel.  It was and still is an honor working with you.  And then there’s Poe.”

The puppet fell silent again.  Paul looked back over at the statue, afraid that Poe would be gone from her booth, but the figure was still present.  He noticed that both Bingo and Bango were staring at the same place.

“I found Poe working at Coney Island in a sideshow,” Bingo continued, his voice a bit quieter.  “Telling fortunes, reading palms, that sort of thing.  I had her read tarot cards for me on a lark.  I’ll be damned if every single prediction she made didn’t come true by the end of the week.  None of that vague stuff, either.  She gave me specifics that couldn’t be misinterpreted.  I had just started putting together the show, and I knew that I wanted her on it.”

He sighed.  “I think the show being canceled hit her the hardest out of all of us.  At Coney Island she had been seen as some kind of freak, but on Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza, she was loved by thousands and thousands of children.  More than her fair share of parents, too.  For the first time in her life she was happy.  Being told that she wasn’t going to have that happiness and acceptance anymore…  I can’t imagine what that felt like.  It was a lot more than just a silly television show to her.  It was a lot more to all of us.”

“Dark days,” Bango put in.

“You ain’t whistlin’ Dixie.”  Bingo looked up at the ceiling.  “Dark enough that we made a deal we never would have considered otherwise.  Poe isn’t just a bunch of parlor tricks, you see.  She’s got a real connection with, well, something.  Call them spirits, or demons, or gods.  I don’t know exactly what they are, but when she called on them to help, they heard that call and came.  They offered to make it so that Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza lived on forever with us as the star players, all for one low low price.”

“Our souls.”

“Can you believe we jumped at the chance, Pauly?  Said yes without even thinking about it.  Turns out we should have read the fine print.  We got put into that statue so that we could live on forever.  It would be a pretty funny punchline if it hadn’t happened to us.  The only time we get to come out is when there’s someone new to kill.  Those shadowy friends of Poe’s enjoy that sort of thing.  They get off on these kinds of games.  We don’t get to say no, either.  Turns out owning someone’s soul gives you a whole lot of control over that someone.”

“There she goes,” Bango said.

Paul returned his attention to the statue.  The small figure of Poe was indeed gone from the fortune teller booth.  His heart began to beat harder in his chest as he looked around for any sign of her.  The clock chimed again, but it was oddly muted, like it was underwater.

“Looks like our time’s up,” Bingo told him.  “It was good talking with you, Pauly.  It’s been nice.  If I can give you one bit of advice, it’s this: enjoy your last moments as much as you can.  At the end of the day I’m just a talking dog puppet, and Bango’s just a big clown.  Poe’s so much more than that now.”

“What?” Paul demanded.  “What is she?”

The puppet looked up at him.  “She’s one of them now.”

A loud chime sounded throughout the house, and Paul felt the room grow cold as the lights went out.

Both Bingo and Bango turned their heads towards the stairs leading to the second floor.  It took a moment for Paul to process that he could see them in the darkness.  With the tent surrounding the house and no lights on it should have been impossible.  There was a faint, almost unnoticeable glow coming from upstairs, and just enough of it was making it downstairs for him to see their silhouettes.

“It’ll be worse if she has to come to you,” Bingo informed him in a voice barely above a whisper.

Paul knew that he was right.  Some instinct that he didn’t know that he possessed was telling him that the only course of action was to go confront whatever was waiting for him upstairs.  This wasn’t a threat that he could run or hide from.

He took a moment to retrieve a knife from the kitchen.  As he did so, he noticed the empty spot on the block where Bingo had removed one of them.  He figured that he should be worried that the puppet might have retrieved it, but he was sure that it didn’t matter.  Bingo’s turn had come and gone.  The dog was no longer a threat.

All that he had to do was get through the final turn.  Poe’s turn.  If he did that, there was no one else left on the statue, and he would win.  He had to assume that meant that he would be free of this horrible trap.  There was no way to know for sure that was the case.  It was the best guess that he had, however, and he’d take a faint hope over no hope any day.

Now armed, he went back out into the living room and walked up to the foot of the stairs.  From this position he could see more of the light emanating from the second floor.  It was a pale, almost sickly white, and instead of being steady it pulsed like a heartbeat.  He gripped the banister with his free hand as he squeezed the knife’s handle tightly.  Before he could talk himself out of it, he began to climb the stairs.

She was standing at the far end of the hallway when he reached the top.  Poe was wearing a long black dress, with a matching veil hanging in front of her face.  Her hands were cupped in front of her.  They were holding a small crystal ball, the same one that she had used to read fortunes on the old television show.  The light was coming from the orb.  There seemed to be movements inside the ball, like fog churning in the wind.

Paul could just barely see her face through the veil.  Her skin was nearly translucent.  It was both beautiful and terrifying.

He jerked his head to the side when someone whispered in his right ear.  There was no one there.  The same thing happened to his left, and once again when he looked in that direction there was no source.  As he turned his attention back to Poe, more and more of the whispers became audible.  Within moments he was surrounded by them.  They made it hard to think, and even though he hadn’t thought it was possible he felt his fear growing even more.  Confronting Poe had been a mistake.  He needed to run.

When he spun around to go back down the stairs, however, he found that they were no longer there.  No, he corrected himself.  They were there, but they were covered in blackness.  It was like a solid shadow was laying across them.  He tentatively put a foot out towards where he knew the top step should be.  As he did so, the darkness shifted and extended a tendril out towards him.  He quickly pulled his foot back, and the tendril retracted back into the black mass.

The whispering became louder.  He was almost able to make out individual voices in the strange chorus, but the sounds weren’t quite clear enough for him to do so.  The tones the unseen speakers murmured in were simultaneously inviting and sinister.

Paul took a deep breath and turned back to face Poe.  She was still standing where she had been when he had taken his eyes off of her, regarding him silently through her veil.  The temperature in the hallway dropped further, and he began to shiver.

He glanced at the two doors, one on each side of the hall.  One led into the bathroom, and the other into his bedroom.  Before he could take a step towards either of them, the same blackness that blocked the stairs crept over them.  She was systematically taking away all of his escape routes.

There was only one option left.  Turning his attention to the ceiling, he located the short string hanging down from it and jumped up to grab it.  As he pulled it down, the hatch it was attached to opened and an old wooden ladder lowered to the ground.  He expected Poe to try to stop him, but instead she continued to remain still.  With one last glance at her, he hurried up the ladder and into the attic, pulling the steps back up and closing the hatch behind him.

Feeling around with his hands in the dark, he crawled over to the wall and sat back against it.  He took a number of deep breaths and tried to calm himself.  All that he needed to do was stay in the attic until time ran out.  He had won.

A pale white light flared in the far corner of the attic.  Paul jumped and started hastily scurrying away from it as Poe stepped out of the shadows, the crystal ball still held in her hands.  She began to slowly advance.  She glided along the wooden boards like a spirit, her dress trailing behind her.  He kept backing away until he reached the end of the wall.  There was nowhere else to go.

She raised the orb and extended her arms towards him.  He screamed, the knife forgotten as it slipped out of his fingers.

Moments later the house was still.  In the living room, on a shelf in the middle of one wall, was the statue Paul had purchased earlier that day at the estate sale.  Bingo stood on his platform as if to welcome guests to the festivities.  Bango was just behind the open flaps of the tent, a grin on his face as he readied himself to make both children and adults laugh.  In her fortune teller booth, Poe sat in front of her crystal ball with an enigmatic smile at the edges of her lips.  There was no black pole with a clock attached to it.

From the television came the sound of a calliope, and a man’s voice excitedly announced, “Welcome to Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza!  Are you ready to have some fun?”

The Fun Starts on October 1!

Only three more days until October, which means only three more days until content starts to flow like wine here on the site.

I feel like I’ve been uploading stories, microhorror stories, and novel chapters day and night for the past week. For those who may not have seen the original post about this, here’s what’s coming in October:

A new microhorror story every single day of the month at 9am EST, starting October 1

An entire novel, Blackwood: Family Business, which will be released every weekday. This starts on October 3, and there will be two new chapters each weekday at 12pm EST. This concludes on Halloween, where the remaining chapters will be published.

Multiple new short stories released throughout the month. These will be released at random times and on random days, just to keep you on your toes.

I decided to kick things off a bit early with the release of Hogs, which can be found here.

Enough of the shilling, and onto the question!

If there’s someone out there that’s good at using either NightCafe or DreamStudio to create AI artwork, I’d greatly appreciate some tips for how to evolve images once they’ve been created. I’m the first to admit that this isn’t my particular forte, and I’ve been having problems with finetuning pictures by changing specific parts of them. A quick and dirty tutorial of how to change particular parts of an image on AI art generators while leaving other parts alone would be great, assuming that the ability to do so even exists.


In college, Thomas Eiden had studied under a professor named Dale Collins.  While that name is meaningless to most people, he was a legend in journalism circles.  He had worked for the New York Times for decades back when that had really meant something, and he had used his platform to expose everything from killers to corrupt politicians.  To his students, that meant that you listened when he imparted his wisdom during class.

He had taught many things that ended up having a major impact on both Thomas’ career and his life in general, but there was one particular piece of advice that he had especially taken to heart.

“You’re the follower,” Collins had said.  “The story is the leader.  You follow wherever the story leads.”

It was a tremendous piece of advice to any aspiring journalist.  On many occasions a journalist would start looking into one thing only to learn that the actual story that needed telling was something else entirely.

Thomas had written for a number of publications since college, mostly magazines and newspapers.  Eventually, he decided to expand into writing books, and his first published one had been a biography.  The subject of the biography had been a no-brainer; ever since he was a child, he had been fascinated by a particularly notorious former resident of his home town of Lamplight Bay.

Albert Bertelli, a criminal better known as Big Man Bertelli, had lived in the area back in the first half of the 1900s.  While most crime bosses chose to live in cities such as New York City or Chicago so that they were close to their businesses, Bertelli instead preferred to pull the strings from a distance and use trusted lieutenants as his mouthpieces.  He had his hands in everything imaginable, from brothels to bootlegging to good old-fashioned racketeering.

Big Man Bertelli was known for his brutality when handling anyone that crossed him or his various operations.  His tendency to drink mass amounts of alcohol didn’t help his demeanor, but he was just born ugly of soul, as Thomas’ father used to say.  There was a story that had long circulated that Bertelli had once decided that the standard cement shoes were too good for a police informant that his men had caught snooping around one of his warehouses.  Instead, he had personally gone to Chicago to pour the cement down the man’s throat before pushing the poor guy off a pier.

Then there were the pigs.

The locals told countless stories about Bertelli and his supposed pig farm.  Children still sang a song about it while they were jumping rope or trying to scare their friends.

Big Man Bertelli walkin’ down the street

Owns every person that he’ll ever meet

His men never have a grave to dig

‘Cause if you cross him he’ll feed you to his pigs

Bertelli had been infamous for making his enemies disappear.  No one really knew for sure how he accomplished the disappearing act, but according to legend he had a pig farm hidden somewhere beyond the outskirts of town.  It had never been proven, but that unsubstantiated claims were all many people needed to mentally put two and two together.

As Thomas had written in his book, the truth was that Bertelli had used a number of different methods to get rid of people that crossed him.  Tony “Two Guns” Yancy had been gunned down by him personally in the back room of a pool hall, for example.  He has also all but admitted that he was the one responsible for bashing in Michael O’Sullivan’s skull with a hammer.  Still, the rumors about the secret pig farm he reserved for people that he really wanted to watch suffer lived on.

Recently, Thomas had been commissioned to write a series of articles for the local newspaper about historical figures from the area.  At first he was asked to focus on lesser known people that had had a positive influence on the community.  He had written about politicians, activists, and artists.  The editor never came right out and said it, but Thomas had the feeling from the woman’s demeanor and various remarks about the readers that she wanted to make things more classy.

It didn’t take long for that ill-fated and more than a little condescending idea to fall flat on its face.  The fact of the matter was that most readers didn’t care about local heroes.  They wanted the blood and guts and that creepy little feeling that comes with reading about the darker side of their town’s history.

Thomas was asked to write five more articles, one of which would run each week on Friday.  These articles were to spotlight the more unsavory parts of the town’s history.  He had written up a list of who he wanted to feature, and right at the top of the list was Big Man Bertelli.

The articles ran as intended, and he was pleased to see that the editor didn’t touch much of anything that he had written.  There were always some changes made after submission, and as a writer he knew that intellectually, but there was always some small part of him that detested when a single word that he’d written was removed.  It was simple vanity to believe that there was no way to improve on his work, and he knew that it was ridiculous, but it was a vanity that most writers shared.

In a complete coincidence, his final article ran the week of Halloween.  He had saved Bertelli for last so that the short series went out on a strong note, and by all accounts it was a success.  He basked in what little glory writing an article for a local paper brought with it for a few days before moving on to other projects.

He received a call from the paper a little over a week later.  The caller introduced herself as a member of the paper’s office staff before informing him that they had received a package addressed to him.  He wasn’t sure what to make of that.  No one had ever sent him anything via an employer before, and when he said as much the women assured him that it wasn’t unheard of for them to get mail for writers.  It wasn’t commonplace, but it did happen.  They made arrangements for the package to be sent to him via courier later that day.

The term ‘package’ had been a bit misleading.  What was delivered to Thomas was a thin manila envelope.  After thanking and tipping the courier, he closed the front door of his apartment and walked into the kitchen as he carefully tore the envelope open.

Inside was an old black and white photograph.  He held it up to the light to get a better look.  It took him a few moments to figure out exactly what it was that he was looking at.  The picture showed Big Man Bertelli, dressed in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat, standing in front of a wooden fence.  There was a disturbingly wide grin on his face, one filled with dark humor and something that he could best describe as satisfaction.  He felt a wave of revulsion wash over him.  It was clear that whatever had brought about that particular smile was something truly horrible.

Tearing his eyes away from Bertelli’s face, he closely examined the rest of the picture.  It had been taken at night, and even with the light of the flash and another source of illumination coming from just outside the viewable area it was difficult to make out details of the area around the man.  His eyes fell on something between the slats of the fence.  He took off his glasses and held the picture up close to his face.  Staring out from between the wooden planks was a large pig.

Thomas blinked.  Assuming the picture was real, he was holding proof that Bertelli’s pig farm was real and not just an urban legend.  He felt a surge of excitement.  Flipping over the picture, he found that a phone number had been written on the blank side in blue pen.  Without hesitating he retrieved his phone and dialed the number.

A man’s voice answered on the third ring.  It was deep and raspy, the kind of voice that came from years of hard drinking and heavy smoking.

“What?” the man demanded.

“Yes, hello, my name is Thomas Eiden,” Thomas replied, a bit flustered.  “I received a picture with this phone number on the back of it.”

The man’s tone instantly became more friendly.  “Oh, yeah, the guy from the newspaper.  Good to hear you got it.  You never know with the mail being the way it is these days.”

“No, I suppose that you don’t.  Listen, this picture…”

“I thought you might like it.  I remember the day it was taken like it was yesterday.”

Thomas frowned.  “I’m sorry, are you trying to tell me that you are-”

“Big Man Bertelli?” the man finished for him before letting out a hoarse laugh.  “Of course I’m not saying that.  I’m not a nutjob.  My father worked for him back in the thirties and forties.  Tended the farm in the background of that picture I sent you, in fact.  He used to take me to work with him when I was just a pup.  That was, oh, three quarters of a century ago.”

“You were actually at Bertelli’s pig farm?” Thomas asked, more forcefully than he had intended.

“Damn right I was.  That’s why I sent you that picture and my number.  I read that article of yours in the paper, and there was all that nonsense that’s been floating around since forever about him and the pigs and all that.  I thought you might get a kick out of seeing the real thing.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “You mean the farm itself?  How?  It still exists?”

Another laugh.  “Sure does.  Right where Bertelli left it.  Be happy to show you around the place if you’re interested.”

They made arrangements to meet at an address that Thomas didn’t recognize the next day.  His hand was shaking as he wrote it down on a small notepad.  There was always a chance that this was some sort of elaborate prank or, despite the man’s assertion to the contrary, the guy was crazy, but he didn’t think so.  Between the picture and the matter-of-fact way the man had spoken, he found himself believing him.  Still, he had to accept the possibility that he felt that way because he wanted the man to be telling the truth.

The drive to the address he had been given was uneventful.  About halfway there it began to rain, not a steady downpour but that spurting kind of rain that somehow manages to be even more miserable.  The clouds overhead cast everything in an unpleasant gray tone, and not even the colorful array of fall leaves clinging to the trees managed to lighten it.  He refused to let the weather bring down his spirits.  He was on his way to see a place that he had been thinking about since he was a child.

He almost missed his turn when he arrived.  He felt the tires slide for a brief but stomach-wrenching moment, but they found their grip on the wet road and he was able to maneuver the car onto the dirt driveway.  It led into a thick patch of trees that blocked out everything beyond the road.

It was at that point that he began to get nervous.  If this was some sort of setup or sick game, it would be taking place at a very isolated location.

He was put at ease when the car emerged from the trees and into the clearing beyond.  The run-down building and decaying fences of the farm certainly gave off an unsettling vibe, but the old man standing next to the rusting pickup truck was hardly intimidating.  He looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.  Thomas pulled up next to him and got out of the car.

“Ah, there you are,” the man said with a grin missing more than a few teeth.  “I thought you might have gotten cold feet.  Name’s Peter Snyder.”

“Thomas Eiden,” Thomas replied, shaking the offered hand.  “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

“Not a problem.  Well, what do you think?  Is this place everything that you hoped it would be?”

“Honestly?  It’s a bit of a shithole.”

Snyder laughed.  “That’s right to the point, and I can’t say that you’re wrong.  There hasn’t been anyone around to take care of the place in decades.  It used to be quite the looker in its day, though.  Big Man made sure of that.”

That seemed like as good a time as any to start the interview.  Thomas took his phone out of his pocket to start the voice recording app.  Before he could even turn on the screen, however, Snyder began to speak again.

“I gotta confess, Mr. Eiden, I’ve got a bit of an ulterior motive in bringing you out here,” he said.  “Oh, don’t get me wrong, this is Big Man’s farm, all right.  He did indeed bring people here to make sure they stayed gone.  So you’re going to get your money’s worth visiting here.  More than your money’s worth, I’d bet.”

Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but Snyder turned on his heel and headed towards the fenced-in yard.  He was surprisingly quick for a man his age, and Thomas didn’t catch up to him until he was nearly at his destination.  Turning around, he leaned up against the rotting wood of the barely standing fence and nodded once to himself.

“Most people think they know how much of a monster Big Man Bertelli was,” Snyder said slowly, an unreadable expression on his face.  “I don’t think anyone really knows how bad he was, though.  Well, anyone but me, and that’s because I witnessed the monster in action more than once.”

He pointed over his shoulder at the muddy turf behind him.  The fence wrapped around a large portion of the yard, with one side attaching to the back of a barn that seemed on the verge of collapsing.  There were only a few ragged tufts of grass that managed to grow inside of the perimeter.

“He’d keep them cooped up inside that barn most of the time,” Snyder continued in a quiet voice.  “They’d grunt and squeal and scream.  I thought it was just about the saddest sound I’d ever heard.  I told my Pa that once, and he said that Big Man loved hearing it.”

“He liked hearing the pigs cry out?” Thomas asked as he finally got the recorder running.

“Hogs,” Snyder corrected him firmly.  “Not pigs.  Hogs.  These weren’t cute little pink animals with curly tails and a friendly disposition.  These were massive animals.  Even the smallest were north of two hundred pounds.  Thing is, even though they were huge, they could move fast.  They could chase down a man running as hard as he could within the blink of an eye.”

Thomas shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the cold rain.  “And he trained them to kill people?”

“Not at first.  In the beginning he left the training to my Pa.  Gave him a real detailed list of what he wanted, and Pa delivered for him.”  The old man stared off into the distance.  “It’s surprisingly easy for hogs to get a taste for people.  It doesn’t take much at all.  Pa started with mixing blood in with the water they drank.  Pretty soon they would barely drink if the red stuff wasn’t there.  From there…  Well, from there the feedings got worse, let’s just leave it at that.”

They were silent for a long moment.  Snyder didn’t seem to be in a rush to continue his story, and for Thomas’ part he was at a loss as to what to even say after a statement like that.

“You, um, you said that Bertelli left the training to your father at first,” he said eventually.  “That makes it sound like things changed later.”

“It did,” Snyder confirmed with a nod, bringing his attention back to the journalist.  “For a long time Bertelli was satisfied with my Pa’s work.  He’d have his thugs snatch up people and bring them here.  It was mostly people that had managed to get on his bad side.  Cops, prosecutors, snitches.  He’d have them brought out here and tossed into the hog pen.”

He scratched his chin for a moment before continuing.  “Guys like Big Man are never satisfied for long.  They want more.  Bigger.  Better.  Big Man took over the hog training, and his methods were a lot less kind than my Pa’s.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Thomas said, “but how were they different?”

“He beat them to make them meaner.  You could hear the howls from a mile away.  He said that it toughened them up.  He wouldn’t feed them for days.  They’d be starving by the time someone got thrown into the pen.  Those hogs would make a beeline straight for the poor bastard and tear him apart in a frenzy.”


“Yep.  He took it one step further, though.  He was sure to only breed the biggest and nastiest ones together while he let the weaker ones die off.  Every generation was a better killing machine than the last.”

Thomas took a moment to let what he was being told sink in.  Bertelli had basically been conducting crude experiments in eugenics.  It was simultaneously fascinating and revolting.

“It was around the third or fourth brood that things started getting strange.  There started to be some…  I guess you’d call them abnormalities.  Some of the babies were born with tusks.  Wild hogs have them, but the first of these particular hogs had started out as farm animals and none of them had tusks.  Some of the babies had these weird deformities on their hooves where the tips were pointed and curved.  And then along came Stella.”

“Sorry, Stella?”

“She was massive.  Had to have weighed at least four hundred pounds when she finished growing.  Long tusks that could punch right through flesh and blood, and these sharp teeth that she used to bite and tear.  Her hooves were hooked like claws.  Her hide was thick and tough, and it stretched real tight against her muscles.  I had never seen anything like her, and I’ve never seen anything like her since.  When she looked at you it made your blood run cold.  You knew she was sizing you up, figuring out how she wanted to end you.”

Thomas had a number of questions to ask, but Snyder continued before he could ask any of them.

“I watched Stella kill quite a few full grown men on her own without any trouble.  Now, I get this next part is going to sound a little wild, maybe even crazy, but I’m telling you, she enjoyed the killing.  She would toy with them sometimes.  She’d let them get back up after she knocked them down, and the second they were on their feet she’d shove them down again.  Big Man loved that.  He loved her from the moment he laid eyes on her.  He decided she was going to be the blueprint going forward.  He made sure that she had her pick of the boars.  She probably would have had that anyway, as she tended to kill any sows that got near her.  Soon all of the hogs he kept were these unnatural-looking monsters.  I don’t use that term lightly, Mr. Eiden, but that’s what they were.  Monsters.”

Snyder abruptly stood upright and started walking around the fenceline.  Not sure what was going on, Thomas followed him as he practically waded through the thick mud that pulled at his shoes with every step.  The old man led the way past the yard and towards the woods beyond.  He stopped next to a rotten stump and pointed at the ground.

“Right here is where Big Man died,” he said.

“What, no, that’s not right,” Thomas disagreed with a shake of his head.  “Bertelli was killed in a car bombing outside of the Douglas Theater during a trip to New York.”

“I hate to correct you, young man, but you’re the one that’s wrong.  That bastard, may he rot in hell, was killed and eaten by his own hogs right on this very spot.”

Snyder spit on the mud in what was either disgust or hatred, most likely both.  “Bertelli got the results he wanted, and he got a whole lot more along with them.  The hogs started getting too strong, too fast, too smart.  They weren’t satisfied with the scraps that were being offered to them anymore.  They wanted out.”

He nodded towards the fence.  “My Pa and I were over on the other side of the barn when it happened.  It was late, and believe me, this place gets dark at night.  Can’t hardly see the nose on the front of your face when the stars aren’t out.  There was just this single light at the top of the barn that shined down into the pen.  Bertelli had brought up another guy from the city for his hogs to meet.  Pa didn’t like me seeing that sort of thing, for good reason mind you, so he took me around the building.

“Not seeing didn’t mean I couldn’t hear it.  The same kind of screams that I had heard a dozen times before echoed all over the place.  It’s not the screams that were the worst part.  It was the sounds that came after the screams stopped.  These wet sucking sounds, like meat being pulled off the bone by a butcher.  It was…  Well, you can imagine what those noises were.”

Thomas could indeed, but he didn’t want to.

“This time was different, though.  Normally you’d know that everything was over when you heard the hogs grunting and shuffling back into the barn.  That didn’t happen on this particular night.  Instead of things quieting down, they got louder.  The hogs started squealing and crying out.  I swear that I could actually feel the rage coming off of them even from the other side of the barn.  It was like heat coming off of a road on a hot day.  Bertelli was yelling at them, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Suddenly there was this sharp crack.  It made my blood run cold.  My Pa told me to stay right where I was and walked back around the side of the barn.  Well, I was scared, but I was still a kid.  He was only gone a few seconds before I started to follow him to see what was going on.

“I got to the other side of the barn just in time to see the last of those monster hogs forcing its way through the hole they had made in the fence.  The light shining down on the pen was bright, but it didn’t reach past the pen itself.  I could just barely make out Bertelli running just as fast as he could away from the animals.  He couldn’t outrun them, and I suspect he knew that, but he tried anyway.”

“And here’s where they caught up to him,” Thomas said slowly, looking down at the spot that Snyder had indicated a few minutes earlier.  “He didn’t get far.”

“Not far at all,” Snyder agreed.  “Like I said, he didn’t have a chance.  No one would have.  They did just what they had been bred and trained to do.  When they were done, there was nothing left of the great Big Man Bertelli.”

They were silent for a long moment.  It was a lot to think through, and Thomas mulled over what he had been told as best as he could.  He blinked as a thought struck him.

“The car bomb was attributed to the O’Connor family,” he said.  “Danny Ricci, Bertelli’s second in command, had a major grudge against them.  When he found out what happened to Bertelli, he must have staged the bombing so that the family would have no choice but to go to war with the O’Connors.”

“Could be,” Snyder replied with a shrug.  “I don’t know anything about any of that.  I don’t think that you’re quite appreciating what I’m telling you here, Mr. Eiden.  Bertelli’s hogs, the ones that could tear a man limb from limb and had the disposition to do just that, got free that night.  Think about that for a second.”

Thomas’ eyes went wide.  “Jesus.  What happened to them?”

“They went off into the woods.”  He motioned towards the trees.  “That particular forest goes on for miles.  Sometimes hunters come out of it with strange stories.  Black bear carcasses completely stripped of flesh.  Odd tracks in the dirt that they can’t identify.  Sometimes they say that they’ve seen unnatural animals in the shadows of the trees.  Most people write them off as eyes playing tricks and the product of one too many bears.  I know better, Mr. Eiden.  I know it’s Stella’s offspring.  Hell, maybe that sow is still out there somewhere.  I can’t imagine that’s the case after all these years, but if any hog was stubborn enough not to die, it was that one.”

Thomas took off his glasses and looked up at the overcast sky, ignoring the rain that pelted his face.  “This is a hell of a story, Mr. Snyder.  It’s a lot to unpack.”

The man bristled.  “I hope you’re not implying that I’m shoveling you a load of shit.”

“No, not at all.  I’ve interviewed a lot of liars over the years, and you don’t strike me as one.  I guess what I’m wondering is, why me?  Why now?  You’ve sat on this for so many decades, but you reached out to me.  I’m hardly the first person to write about Bertelli.”

Snyder didn’t answer.  Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.  He held it out to Thomas, and he took it curiously.  He put his glasses back on and used one hand to unfold the paper while using the other to protect it from the rain.

It was a newspaper article.  It had been carefully clipped out, and the title ‘Boy Killed in Animal Attack’ was circled with a thick black marker.  He quickly read through it.

“That’s from four days ago,” Snyder informed him.  “The police think that it was a dog, but no dog did that.  There was almost nothing left of the poor kid.  They were only able to identify him because they found a few hairs on a ripped off piece of shirt.  They matched them to those of a boy that went missing a week earlier.”

“You think it was the hogs,” Thomas surmised.

“I know it was.  There’s no question in my mind.  At my age a lot of things in my body are failing me, but this brain of mine is still sharp enough to put two and two together.  And let me tell you, Mr. Eiden, this is only the beginning.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Like I said, these woods go on for miles.  On the other side, though, they’ve built a big housing development.  Backed some of those properties right up to the treeline.  Dozens and dozens of three bedroom, two bathroom houses filled with men, women, and children making a whole lot of noise and drawing a whole lot of attention to themselves.  Having barbeques out in their backyards, with all those delicious smells wafting through the air.  It’s a nice safe neighborhood, too.  The kind where you let your kids run around in the yard while you take care of some things inside the house.”

Thomas stared at Snyder through the falling rain.  The old man looked right back at him with a serious expression devoid of any humor.  It was clear that he had thought this through, and that his thoughts had led him to some very dark conclusions.

“We have to tell someone,” Thomas said finally.  “We have to warn someone about the danger those people are in.”

“Tell who, exactly?” Snyder asked with a shake of his head.  “The police?  Do you really think they’ll believe it?  Besides, they already searched the woods and came up empty when they were looking for that kid.  The hogs are smart, Mr. Eiden.  They know when it’s time to hide.”

“You’re telling me that there’s nothing that can be done?  I don’t believe that.  I can’t believe that.”

“I didn’t say that.  Come with me.”

Snyder led the way to the ancient barn.  It appeared to have once been painted red, but the paint had faded into a dark gray.  The roof was warped, and it took a moment for the elderly man to force the right door open.  He went inside without looking back.  Thomas hurried after him.  As he went through the door and into the structure, he was momentarily confused as he realized that Snyder had disappeared from view.

Thomas heard the sound of metal colliding with his head before he felt the pain.  He lost all control over his muscles, and he collapsed onto the dust and grime-covered barn floor so hard that it rattled his teeth.  He opened his mouth to cry out.  What came out instead was a low moan that was barely recognizable as human.

“I’m sorry this is how it has to be,” Snyder said as he stepped out from behind the barn door.  “I truly am, Mr. Eiden.  Maybe if I had another choice…  Well, no sense in dwelling on what we don’t have, is there?”

Thomas felt his body being dragged further into the barn.  The old man was strong for his age, and he was in no condition to fight him.  The world was swimming before his eyes, blurred and swirling around in all directions.  His stomach churned.  Somehow he remained conscious.

The dragging stopped.  Something cold and hard pinched into the skin of his left wrist, then into his right.  His head was raised off the ground and his chin was placed onto something he recognized but couldn’t identify in his current state.

“Head wounds bleed the most,” Snyder told him from somewhere above.  “I’m going to let as much blood drain into the bucket as your forehead is willing to give before I move onto other parts.  No sense in wasting any.  Just going to have to work around this big ol’ dent your skull put in it when I hit you with it.  Should be fine.  These old ones are a lot more durable than the plastic pieces of shit most places sell these days.  They cost more, but it’s worth every penny.”

Thomas blinked in a fruitless attempt to clear his vision.

“You probably won’t believe this, but I’m doing what’s necessary.  The only way that I’m going to keep those hogs around here and away from those houses is if I give them a reason to.  They want human blood and meat, and, well, I’m sorry to say that’s where you come in.”

He tried to bring his hand up to wipe at his face, but something was stopping him from doing so.  It took a long moment for him to realize that the pinches he had felt were from him being chained down.

“You asked me why I decided to tell you about Bertelli and these monster hogs of his,” Snyder was saying.  “Truth of the matter is that I looked into you before I sent that picture.  No wife, no kids, no real ties to anyone.  You’re pretty much alone in the world, Mr. Eiden.  You’re not even a real employee of that newspaper you write for, just a freelancer.  I guess you could say that I brought you here because no one would miss you.  That’s the trick to disappearing someone.  Make sure that there won’t be many people asking questions when the deed is done.”

Thomas felt a tear stream down his cheek.

“I’m going to get as much blood out of you as I can without killin’ you.  That way I can spread it around the treeline on this side of the woods and keep them drawn over this way.  That alone isn’t enough for them.  I suspect they have to have the thrill of the kill as well.  There needs to be some life left in you.  Well now, it looks like this particular well has run dry.  Time to drill a new one, if you catch my meaning.”

Thomas wasn’t sure how long the bleeding process lasted.  Each cut made him feel weaker, and he wasn’t able to fully regain his senses.  The small part of him that was still thinking rationally wondered if the blow to the head had caused permanent damage.  His limbs began to grow cold, and his body started to shake.

“Looks like we’re out of time,” Snyder said slowly.  “It’s been good talking with you, Mr. Eiden.  For your sake I hope they make it quick.”

With the last of his strength, Thomas forced himself up onto his elbows.  He squinted in a final attempt to be able to see straight.  It worked enough that he could just make out the barn door less than half a dozen yards in front of him.  Something was standing just inside of it, something huge.  The creature exhaled, and he felt hot air wash over him even from that distance.

For just a brief moment, his vision cleared.  It happened too quickly for him to get a good look at the animal, but what he was able to see made his heart skip a beat.  Long broken tusks.  Sharp bones protruding from the body.  A mouth filled with razor-like teeth, the canines so extended that they hung out over the jaw.

The hog snarled as it charged towards him.  Thomas screamed.

Room for Two

NOTE: Room for Two will be narrated EXCLUSIVELY on the YouTube channel Septic Theory. It’s a new but incredible channel for horror narrations and stories, so be sure to check it out at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbk8RkvntXridf4he37-6YA

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a number of well-intentioned people in my general orbit comment that they’ve noticed a large uptick in the amount of alcohol that I’ve been consuming.  That’s a fancy way of saying that I’ve been drinking myself into a stupor every night.  Now, I can’t say that they’re wrong.  I also can’t say that their concerns aren’t valid.  I also also can’t say that I’m not drinking enough daily to drown a fucking fish.

You know what I can say, though?  I can look you right in the eye and say with absolute certainty that if you ever have to find out what’s in the dark waiting for you like I did, you’ll be inclined to knock back some shots, too.

There are two things that you need to know right off the bat about how all of this started.  The first is that my father was the head of a very prestigious crime family.  By prestigious, I mean that anyone with half a brain was afraid to cross it.  Since I’m not an idiot, I won’t be providing either his name or the name of his, shall we say, business venture.

The second thing is that I never got involved with his dealings, not at any point in my life.  My mother, bless her soul, made sure of that.  I never had a desire to be a part of that world anyway.  Sure, the money would have been appreciated, but when you grow up hearing stories about people that never got to enjoy the fruits of their labor because of the dangers associated with working for my father, you understand that there are better ways to support yourself.

The problem, at least in my case, is that there are other folks out there that couldn’t give two shits about the personal choices that you’ve made.  This was a point that was made to me rather violently one Friday afternoon.  One minute I’m walking down the street through my supposedly safe neighborhood, and the next I’m being snatched by two thugs that could best be described as living mountains.  The smaller, and I use that term loosely, of the two shoved one gloved hand over my mouth, and they carried me into the back of a waiting van with no effort.  A gag was shoved into my gullet and a hood was thrown over my head.

There was no way to know how much time had passed when the van finally came to a stop.  It had definitely been a while.  I heard the van’s back doors open, and a moment later I was being pulled out of the vehicle.  The hood was removed.  I gratefully breathed in the fresh air through my nose.

Standing in front of me was a woman about six inches shorter than me.  She seemed even smaller with the two giant men flanking her.  The expensive business suit and the gun holstered around her waist said louder than words that this was a woman that both demanded and deserved respect.

I felt the blood drain out of my face as I took a quick look around and found that we were standing in a cemetery.

The woman explained to me that she and her associates were employees of a certain business rival of my father’s.  Her employer had come to the conclusion that it was time for my father to retire, and that part of his retirement plan should be to give up his territory.  At the same time, her employer didn’t want to get blood all over the streets.  It was determined that the best way to make the transfer of power nice and clean was to abduct me and use me as a bargaining chip.

She turned and started walking across the cemetery.  The two large men gripped me under the arms and half carried, half dragged me after her.  It was an old graveyard, with heavily weathered and broken headstones that were in the process of being reclaimed by the grass and weeds.  Our little group came to a stop in front of a gnarled husk of a tree with an open grave in front of it.

I tilted my head to look inside the hole.  It went down a good five or six feet, and there was a coffin at the bottom.  Its lid was open, and there was a lime green oxygen tank placed inside of it.

The woman gave me a long look before asking me if I knew where I was.  There were the beginnings of a pretty nasty smile at the edges of her lips.  That didn’t bode well.

I couldn’t answer because of the gag that was still filling my mouth, so I simply shook my head.  She proceeded to tell me that I was standing in front of the resting place of Tabitha Alden, a woman who had lived in the area almost four hundred years earlier.  The local townspeople had claimed that, after being mocked and humiliated by a group of children, she had made a pact with the Devil.  She used her newfound powers to enchant the children and force them to hang themselves in the nearby woods.  The stories also said that she had helped a demon possess a minister, who had gone on to murder half a dozen of the town residents before they managed to subdue him.

She had been proclaimed a witch, and the sentence that came with it was death.  The townspeople had carried out that sentence by burying her alive.

My captor informed me that, unlike in the story, she was going to give me a choice.  I could choose to get into the waiting casket willingly, or I could choose for her to put a bullet in the back of my head right then and there.  One of the men pulled out the gag so that I could respond.  It wasn’t much of a choice.  I picked the casket.

As I slowly lowered myself into the coffin, I was careful to avoid stepping on the oxygen tank.  Like I said earlier, I’m not an idiot.  Like Tabitha Alden before me, they were going to bury me alive for as long as it took for my father to agree to their terms.  The last thing I needed was to accidentally damage the only thing that would be keeping me alive.

That was assuming my father actually gave into their demands, of course.  I figured it was a coin flip at best.

I laid down in the casket.  It was disturbing, to say the least.  I barely fit inside of it; there wasn’t much room for me to move my arms or legs, and the top of my head bumped against the wood.  The woman instructed me to put on the plastic mask attached to the oxygen tank, and I complied.  It covered my nose and mouth, and it fit tightly against my skin.  I once again did as I was told as she had me turn the tank’s valve to open the flow of oxygen into the mask.

One of the men reached down into the grave and, with a snort of amusement, slammed the coffin lid shut.

I had done my best to stay calm when my kidnappers had been able to see me.  I was determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing me afraid.  They obviously wanted me to be, because there was no other reason to pick this particular location for the burial and to tell me the story behind it.  The moment the wood closed down over top of me and I was plunged into darkness, however, the fear began to overtake me.  It was the sound of the dirt being shoveled onto the lid that really pushed me over the edge.

I screamed for them to let me out.  My voice was muffled by the mask, and what noise did escape sounded flat in the confines of the coffin.  It started out as a demand, but it quickly turned into a plea.  I yelled that they didn’t need to do this, and that I could speak with my father on their behalf to get him to give them whatever they wanted.  I told them that they didn’t have to do this.

The only response was the thudding of more earth slapping against the lid.  Each thud grew fainter and fainter until they stopped entirely.

I tried to push against the top of the casket with my hands, but I couldn’t get much force behind it due to the limited space.  Changing tactics, I bent my legs as much as possible to push with my kneecaps.  The wood creaked as I pressed into it, but it didn’t budge.

They had actually done it.  They had buried me alive.  My mind reeled at the thought.  Intellectually I had known that it was going to happen, but the reality of being trapped under half a dozen feet of dirt was something else entirely.  I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around it.

I was panicking.  My body thrashed as I unsuccessfully fought against the confines of the coffin.  I kept crying out loudly, although I don’t remember what I was saying.  It doesn’t really matter.  The words weren’t important.  They were just a byproduct of the terror I was experiencing alone in the dark and unable to move.

I think it was the hissing of escaping air that brought me back to my senses.  My struggling had caused the plastic mask to slip off of my nose.  A new fear began to creep in: if the mask came all of the way off, I would likely suffocate.  Forcing myself to move slowly, I managed to slide my hand up my chest and to my chin to grip the plastic.  It took a few minutes, but I was able to get it back into place.

The near disaster made me understand that I needed to keep a clear head if I had any chance of surviving.  Continuing to panic would only make me go through my limited supply of oxygen faster.  I didn’t know how long the tank would last, and I really didn’t want to test the limits.  Allowing myself one deep breath, I exhaled slowly and waited for my heart rate to slow back to something resembling normal.

I laid silently in the dark for an indeterminable amount of time.  It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours.

I had never been in total darkness before.  Sure, I had been in rooms with the lights off or other places where it was hard to see, but this was the total absence of light.  It felt like the darkness was physically crushing against me.  It was thick and oppressive.  It was alive.

The silence was another matter.  In some ways it was worse than the dark.  Instead of feeling like a living organism, it was a cold nothingness that swallowed everything.  Any noise that I made was instantly cut off.  There’s no way to put into words the sense of isolation I was experiencing.

For a long time the only things I could hear were the air being released into the mask and my own heartbeat in my ears.  My limbs started to tingle, and because of the close quarters I wasn’t able to stretch them to relieve the uncomfortable sensation.  I noticed that my body was itching in multiple places.  I was able to scratch a few of them on my upper body, but the majority of them were out of reach.  Worse, they became more and more irritating.  The thought occurred to me that this must be how people went insane.

I was momentarily distracted from my discomfort when I heard a new noise.  It was very faint, and it only lasted for a moment.  Between the volume and the brevity I wasn’t completely sure that I had heard it at all.

It’s been so long.

I instinctively tried to sit up at the sound of the voice.  My forehead slammed painfully into the casket lid, and for a moment the darkness was filled with bright lights that flashed before my eyes.  I blinked a few times to clear them.

It was a woman’s voice.  Not the woman with the gun.  The pitch was different, and it was dry and raspy.  It sounded like it was coming from far away, like I was standing at one end of a tunnel and the speaker was at the other end.  I smiled broadly and sighed in relief.  There was someone near the gravesite.  My father must have cut a deal and my kidnappers were back to dig me out.

I listened intently and waited.

There was nothing.  I felt the hope start to slowly drain out of me.

That hope was quickly replaced by unease.  I knew that I had definitely heard the woman speaking.  There was no question in my mind about that.  Had someone just passed near enough to the grave for their voice to penetrate down through six feet of dirt?

The itching returned as I contemplated the other possibility.  Hearing voices that weren’t really there was a sign of going insane, wasn’t it?  I clenched and unclenched my fingers.  Would I even know if that was happening to me?

I suddenly felt absolutely certain that I was no longer alone.  I tried to tell myself that was impossible.  I was buried in a fucking casket, for God’s sake.  Of course I was alone.  I was being stupid, and that was all there was to it.

It was easy to prove, too.  All that I had to do was reach up with one hand and touch the wooden lid.  It would take less than a second.

Instead, I pressed myself as tightly as I could against the floor of the casket and put my hands at my sides.  No matter how logical I tried to be about it, I couldn’t convince myself that there wasn’t something horrible directly above me in the infinite darkness.

I heard a scratching noise from below me.  It was coming from outside of the casket, down deeper in the ground.

I’ve been so alone here.  Here below the world.

The woman’s voice wasn’t coming from the outside world.  It was in my head.

The blackness above me shifted.  It wasn’t anything that I could see or hear.  I can’t explain how I knew it had happened, but it did.

The scratching grew louder.  It was still below me, but it was slowly getting closer.

I thought about what my kidnapper had said about where I was being buried.  She had told me that the coffin was above a witch’s grave.  I had dismissed that as a mere scare tactic, but I was starting to believe that there was something to what she had said.  A chill ran down my spine and I shivered.

The scratching drew even closer.

Let me show you.

I felt tiny spots of cold against my forehead.  It was like icy fingers being pressed against my head.  The darkness erupted in red light, and my eyes opened wide as images flashed before them.

I saw a woman with long dark hair walking through the woods.  She was wearing a gray dress with a matching bonnet.  In her hands was a piece of rope that was tied to a dark sack that she dragged behind her.  It looked heavy, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by the weight.

She came to a clearing in the trees.  There were stone slabs and monuments that formed a ring, and in the center of the ring was a raised platform made of rock.  She dropped the sack in the center of the platform before untying it.  There was a moan from inside of the bag, and the small hand of a child reached out through the opening.

My vision blurred.  When it cleared, I was looking at the same woman standing in front of a small house with wooden sides and a thatched roof.  Just beyond the cottage was a wide river that raced off into the distance.

She was surrounded by dozens of people dressed in shabby clothes and holding large torches.  They were pointing and yelling at her.  They leveled accusations at her that she was a witch, and that she had defiled their town.

The woman tried to reason with them, but when it became clear that it wasn’t working, she shrugged and smiled wickedly.  She raised her arms, and the river rose up into the air and diverted course towards the gathered mob.  The water slammed into them and rushed over them as they tried to break free.  When the river retreated back into its banks, most of the people were left dead or dying in the mud.

Everything went blurry again, and moments later I was looking into a deep pit.  The woman was lying at the bottom of it, thick iron chains wrapped around her body.  Men were using ladders to exit the hole, and after they were all out the ladders were pulled up after them.  As a haggard-looking priest loudly recited prayers, the men began to shovel large mounds of dirt back into the hole.  The woman screamed obscenities at them as they worked.  Soon her shouting stopped as she became covered in soil.  The men continued their task as the sun began to set over the horizon.

I was suddenly back in the darkness.  I gasped as I released the breath that I didn’t know that I had been holding.  Below me, the scratching was louder and closer.

I would have been questioning my sanity if the time for that hadn’t long passed.  Sanity had gotten off the elevator at the ground floor.  Down here in the basement there was only the void and the nightmares that dwelled inside.

Tabitha Alden was free of the heavy chains she had been wrapped in, and she was clawing her way up through the earth towards me.  Maybe she was still alive somehow, or maybe death simply wasn’t enough to stop her.  It didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that she was coming and there was nothing that I could do about it.

Don’t be afraid.  There’s plenty of room for two.

Manic laughter filled the void.  My terror got the best of me, and I began to kick out my legs to strike the side of the casket as I screamed incoherently.  In that moment my rational mind was gone, and in its place was only primal instinct.

I could hear the digging below me even over my screeching.  The rhythm had gotten faster, as if it was more eager now that it was getting closer.  It took a huge amount of effort, but I was able to take back control of myself and quieted down.  The scratching sounded like it was only a few feet below me now.

I was hearing something else as well.  At first I didn’t notice it over the echoes of the fading laughter, but eventually it was loud enough for me to detect it.  It was a faint metallic jingling coming from up above.  It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

The witch must have heard it as well, because the digging stopped and everything was silent except for that noise.  I could feel that the presence inside the casket with me, which I was now convinced was the spirit of Tabitha Alden, had turned its attention upward.  The temperature inside the coffin began to rise.  She was angry, and her rage was radiating off of her spirit in waves of heat.

It doesn’t matter.  They’re too late.

The scratching began again, but this time it was more frantic than it had been before.  It took me a moment to process what she had just said.  Once I did, things clicked into place and I felt a small glimmer of hope.  The metal jingling was the sound of a shovel striking dirt.  My kidnappers had returned and were beginning to dig me out.  The witch’s assault had turned into a macabre race, and I was the grand prize.

There was a small thump just below my head, and the scratching ceased for a brief moment.  The witch’s body had reached the bottom of the casket.  I could actually feel the fingers scraping against the wood as it started to crack and splinter.  The boards were slowing her down, but they weren’t going to stop her for long.

The darkness above me didn’t seem quite as complete as it had been just minutes earlier.  The shovels were close enough now for me to hear each scoop as they cleared away the soil.

The witch made a sound like a growl.  It was filled with frustration and desperation.

The soft hiss of air in my mask stopped.  The oxygen tank had run out of air.  That probably should have concerned me, but I figured that my fate was going to be decided one way or another before I would have a chance to suffocate.

I had a new and more immediate problem to deal with anyway.  The temperature in the casket had risen so much that it was starting to burn.  I felt like I had a sunburn across my entire body, and the pain was slowly increasing as the shovels drew closer.  Not having any other choice, I grit my teeth and tried to relax as much as possible.

My head moved down about half an inch as the first wooden board broke away.  The witch’s spirit laughed in satisfaction.  I quickly lifted my neck so that the back of my head was no longer touching the coffin floor.  I was horrified by the prospect of her fingers coming into contact with me.

A shovel struck the top of the casket lid.  There was a shout from above, and I could hear more of the dirt being quickly removed.  At the same time, a second board snapped.


The third board shattered, and I felt fingers grab the back of my head.  They were freezing cold against my burning skin.  I felt them flex as they dug past the hair into my flesh.  My mouth opened wider than I would have thought possible and I screamed wordlessly.  The spirit’s laughing turned into an exalted cry.

I clamped my eyes shut as the casket lid was thrown open.  The presence was gone, the fingers were no longer gripping me, and I was once again alone inside the wooden box.  One of the large men that had initially taken me pulled me out of the grave and set me down on the cool grass.  My eyes gradually adjusted to the light and I was able to open them again.  I had never seen a sight as welcome as the faces of my kidnappers.

The exchange went off without a hitch.  My father had promised to give up his territory in exchange for my safety, and he was a man of his word.  After a brief handshake between him and his now former rival, I was handed over and that was that.  My kidnappers’ employer was now significantly wealthier and, more importantly, had a stranglehold over the city’s organized crime.  

I think my father was secretly happy about the overall outcome.  He had been thinking about retiring for quite some time, and now he was able to do that while guaranteeing that his employees would be taken care of.  Besides, he had his big stacks of money to cry into if he ever missed the life of a crime boss.

And me?  Me, I got a parting gift.

I had come out of the casket physically okay.  My skin had been red from the heat, but I hadn’t suffered any lasting burns.  When a doctor had looked me over I hadn’t told him what had happened, and he said that he thought the odd redness was from hypoxia.  Apparently a lack of oxygen can cause your skin to change color, anything from blue to red.  Weird, huh?

Mentally?  Not so much.

A few days after my ordeal, I started to hear it.  It was that same scratching and clawing noise that I had heard coming up towards me as I laid inside that casket.  Instead of coming from below, though, now it was in the back of my head.  I could hear it scraping against the inside of my skull.

I tried to ignore it at first.  I tried to convince myself that it was just some kind of PTSD, and that the sounds only existed in my imagination.  That didn’t work, so I tried therapy.  The shrink told me over and over again that what I was hearing was just a manifestation of the trauma that I had suffered, and that none of what I thought had happened inside the coffin actually had.  His words rang pretty damn hollow.

At three in the morning on a cold November morning, I woke up standing in front of that gnarled dead tree marking the grave of Tabitha Alden.  There was a shovel in my hand and a freshly dug pile of dirt next to me.  At my feet was a hole leading down into the earth.  It was still dark out, and the only illumination came from the headlights of my car.  It had been driven far enough up the small hill for the lights to reach.

I had no idea how I had gotten there.  I didn’t know the “how”, but I was pretty sure that I knew the “why”.  The witch was in my head.  She had waited until I fell asleep and marched me back to her grave like a puppet to dig up her body.

I got in my car and started driving back home.  I passed by a bar on the way, and, deciding if there was ever any time that I had needed a drink it was now, pulled the car into the parking lot and went inside.  I ordered the strongest drink the bartender had and downed it in one swallow.

That was when I figured out that drinking helps with my little problem.  It stops the scratching noises, and I haven’t had another sleepwalking incident since I started getting plastered on a nightly basis.  I guess my brain’s no use to anyone when it’s turned to mush, not even a witch.

There’s only so long that I can keep this up, though.  The way I’m going now, if Tabitha Alden doesn’t get me, my liver will.  I’m going to have to sober up soon, which means I’m on borrowed time.

There won’t be room for two in my head much longer, and I’m the one that won’t be staying.

The Suicide Engineer

NOTE:  I am a friend of Andrew Talbot, the man that sent me this recording.

I recently received an email from Andrew that contained a recording of his podcast that, to my knowledge, never aired.  There was no explanation as to why he had sent it to me.  There was just a request that I distribute it.  When I tried to call him to find out what was happening, I was unable to get through.  The call didn’t go to voicemail; it just beeped twice and hung up each time that I tried.  Over the last few days I’ve called multiple times and have gone over to his house twice, but I haven’t been able to reach him.

Whenever I would try to upload the podcast to a website as he requested, there would always be an error message.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to properly upload.  Because of this, I wrote a transcript of the recording so that I could instead distribute that.  This is the first time that I’ve ever done anything like this, so I’m sure that there are some errors in formatting.

Andrew, if you’re reading this, please let me know that you’re all right.



On April 18, 2022, Carolyn Blake committed suicide.

Her body was found when her downstairs neighbor reported water leaking through the ceiling.  Thinking that there was a burst pipe, the landlord had knocked at Carolyn’s door for nearly twenty minutes to try to gain access to her apartment.  It was easier to go in through her floor rather than through the complaining tenant’s ceiling.  She didn’t answer, and after checking with his lawyer that this qualified as an emergency allowing him to enter without permission, he unlocked the door using his master key and went in to perform the repair.

The landlord discovered her body in the bathroom.  She was lying fully clothed in the bathtub with her wrists slit.  The water had been left running, and it poured over the side of the tub like a waterfall as it drained into the floor vent and soaked into the floor and wood trim.

I didn’t know Carolyn.  It’s a small town, so I may have passed her in a store or bumped into her in a restaurant, but I don’t remember if something like that did happen.

I’d like to say that her death had an effect on the community.  Maybe people holding a memorial, or even asking the town council to improve the way mental health programs were handled to help prevent this sort of thing from happening again.  That’s what I’d like to say.  What actually happened was, well, nothing.  Carolyn’s death was just a blip on the radar that the vast majority of people didn’t even register.

One of the exceptions to this was Ray Carsten.  I had known Ray since first grade, and while we had never been particularly close, we had always been on friendly terms.  When he called me three days after Carolyn’s suicide, I quickly agreed to meet him at the same Denny’s that a large group of us had gone to after every home baseball game in high school.



Fuck.  I think…

[Short pause]


Okay, maybe not.  It might have just been…

[Short pause]


Ray told me that he had known Carolyn for a few years.  They worked in the same office, and they had grown particularly close while working on a project that had been assigned to them.  One thing led to another, and they began a relationship.

The problem was that Ray was married.  Happily married, as he put it.  I have my doubts about that since in my experience happily married people don’t tend to have long term affairs, but that’s what he told me.

Because of this, he was worried that she might have left something behind that could expose their affair and get back to his wife.  At some point she had introduced him to her mother, and he had convinced the elderly woman to let him help with going through Carolyn’s things and getting the necessary arrangements made.  This had allowed him to rummage through her late lover’s possessions with impunity.  Her mother had been grateful for the assistance and had thanked him profusely for it, if you can believe it.

Ray had managed to check everything except for Carolyn’s cellphone.  It was password protected, so he wasn’t able to find out what was on it.  That’s why he came to me.



…arted this podcast about electronics and technology, I never thought that it would lead to old acquaintances asking me to go through dead people’s phones.  That’s what Ray wanted me to do, though.  He didn’t just need me to unlock the phone.  That would only have gotten him so far.  Carolyn had frequented multiple social media platforms, and she used dozens of different apps that he knew of.  What he needed was for me to go through everything and make sure that all mentions of the affair were removed.

At first I refused.  I was polite about it, but just the thought of doing what he was asking disgusted me.  He kept pressing.  He told me that he had already wanted to end the affair and had planned to do so, but she took her own life before he was able to.  He said that if the relationship was exposed it would hurt not just his wife, but also their two children and they didn’t deserve to have that happen to them.  I eventually relented and agreed to do what he asked, under the condition that he give me the phone and not be present while I worked.

I had already started to rationalize things in my head.  We’re all exceedingly good at doing that when we know what we’re doing isn’t right, aren’t we?  I convinced myself that since Ray wouldn’t be seeing anything, I would be protecting Carolyn’s privacy as much as possible.  That’s a load of bullshit, obviously.  I would have actually been protecting it if I hadn’t agreed to break into her cellphone in the first place.



I don’t know if I’m about to confess to a crime here.  Is it a crime to break into a dead person’s phone?  Whether it is or not, I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t wrong.  It absolutely was.  It’s just…  It’s just not what’s important right now.



It wasn’t hard to unlock the cellphone.  All I needed was to hook it up to a computer and use a program that’s free and easy to find if you know where to look.  Most people would be surprised at how unsecure their supposedly secure phones are.  That goes for most pieces of technology in this day and age, but you’re not here to listen to a lecture on proper tech security and I’m not here to give one.

I wasn’t sure where to start looking, so I opened the calendar and began to check appointments and reminders.  I didn’t find anything that had to do with Ray.  I moved onto the Notes app and once again came up empty.  It wasn’t until I started digging through her email that I found something of interest.

I probably should have realized that something was off when the inbox was completely empty.  Carolyn had been dead for three days.  Anyone that uses their email for everyday use can tell you that at least one or two spam emails will get past your filter and wind up in your inbox over a three day period.  At the time I didn’t think of that.  I was so preoccupied with hurrying up with what I had agreed to do that my critical thinking skills didn’t have time to catch up.

When I checked the trash folder, I found hundreds, if not thousands, of automated notifications that had been deleted.  They were from all corners of social media and content sites: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, and many, many more.  Every notification was marked as having been read.  I did a bit more digging, and I found that they had all been sent within the span of a week.  I picked one at random and opened it.

The notification was for a new comment on a video that Carolyn had posted, and it wasn’t flattering to say the least.  The poster, screen name YrlGrl, had gone on a rant about how bad the video was and that they were going to be unsubscribing from the channel because of continued poor content.  That’s greatly cleaning up the language that was used.  The entire post was phrased in such a way that it read like a personal attack.

There was a link to the video in question.  I tapped on it and watched the first minute or so of the video.  It was a makeup tutorial that Carolyn had posted.  It wasn’t something that I was interested in, but judging by the number of views it had and how many followers she had, it was definitely something that many others enjoyed.

Now that I had some context, I scrolled down to the comments to locate the post by YrlGrl to see if other people had replied to it.  I found the post, but it wasn’t anything like the notification had said.  It was instead a glowing review that went out of its way to praise Carolyn and the content that she provided.  That was odd, obviously, but I figured that there had been two posts and the negative one had been deleted.

I began to doubt that theory as I went through more of the notifications.  All of them were bad, with many of them bordering on hateful.  When I would check the platform they were supposedly hosted on, though, I would always find a positive post.  Something very odd was going on.

I came to an email that was a response to a complaint that Carolyn had filed with a site administrator about a particularly disgusting comment.  The administrator had sent back a response saying that they hadn’t found any evidence of harassment, and that they had checked to make sure the comment in question hadn’t been deleted or edited.  They didn’t come right out and say it, but it was strongly implied that they believed she was making the entire thing up.

She had attached two items to her original email.  The first was a copy of the original notification that she had received.  The second was a screenshot that she had taken of the comment.  The image included a number of other comments as well, all of which were negative.  When I tracked down those comments, however, none of them contained the same message.



…wrote on Facebook about how she was feeling down after the onslaught of negative comments.  Her mother and a number of friends replied to the post, and all of them basically told her that she had become both a whiner and a disappointment in some extremely colorful language.  The messages were long and intense, and I felt myself growing more and more sympathetic towards Carolyn.  Nobody deserved the amount of abuse that she was receiving, especially from the people that she was closest to.

I took a break for about an hour.  At some point during the process, I had begun to care less about helping Ray weasel out of his affair being discovered and more about figuring out just what had caused this avalanche of hatred towards Carolyn.  None of the pieces, especially the comments seeming to magically change between negative and positive, seemed to fit into a coherent image.



…sten to it, but I figured that I’d already come this far.  I clicked on the voicemail and almost immediately wished that I hadn’t.

What followed was a nearly five minute long message from Carolyn’s mother berating her daughter.  It tore into every aspect of her life; there didn’t seem to be any line that the woman wouldn’t cross.  At one particularly horrible point, she stated very matter-of-factly that the only reason that Carolyn had been born in the first place was because she hadn’t been able to afford to terminate the pregnancy after becoming pregnant from a man other than Carolyn’s father.  I only managed to get through half of it before I stopped the playback.  I couldn’t stomach any more than that.

The second voicemail was from Ray.  She had received it less than an hour after getting her mother’s voicemail.  If the first message had sickened me, this one made my blood boil.  In a very condescending tone, he proceeded to talk about every flaw he saw in her in great detail.  He tore into everything from her intelligence to her looks to even her lovemaking skills.  It was brutal to listen to.  It was almost a relief when he finally declared that their relationship was over and hung up the phone.

I was reaching for my own phone even before the recording had ended.  Friendship be damned, I wasn’t going to help someone that could be that cruel to another human being.  The number was entered and my thumb was over Call when a thought made me pause.

Ray had told me that he had been getting ready to break off his relationship with Carolyn when she had committed suicide.  According to the voicemail he had left, though, he had already done so.  Why had he lied to me about that?  There didn’t seem to be any point to it.  Had he been feeling guilty about his message having possibly contributed to her taking her own life?

I thought back to the mysteriously changing online messages.

I was starting to think that maybe-



I found that Carolyn had downloaded an audio file the day before her death.  A woman’s voice, quiet and level, played from the phone’s speaker when I tapped on the file.  It took me a few seconds to realize that I was listening to an autonomous sensory meridian response recording, also known as the much less taxing to say ASMR.  For those that don’t know what that is, it’s basically voices and sounds that are recorded in such a way as to elicit a physical response from people.  You know that odd tingling sensation that you get sometimes in your head?  ASMR recordings are supposed to trigger that.

A lot of people, a lot more than you probably think, use ASMR videos on YouTube or audio recordings to relax and even fall asleep.  They don’t work for everyone, but many people swear by them and use them as part of their everyday routine.  After the stress that all of the sudden negativity in her life must have caused her, it was no wonder that Carolyn had looked for something to help relieve it.

Rather than try to explain the recording on her phone, I’d like to play a portion of it.  A quick warning: there’s some questionable content in it, so if that sort of thing bothers you, I’d recommend skipping ahead until you’re past it.  If I’m able to get this posted I’ll try to leave markers on the timeline so you’ll know when it’s over.

Here it is.  I’m not going to reveal the name of the person who made it or the source it was downloaded from, for reasons that will be extremely obvious in just a bit.



Sometimes it’s best to take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to let go of all that stress that you’re feeling.  I know that life can be hard sometimes, and we all have our personal crosses to bear.  It can feel like you’re being overwhelmed, like you’re being smothered.  It’s important to remember that there are always other people that you can turn to when you need comfort and reassurance.



Sometimes we need to ask ourselves what we would do if we didn’t have those incredibly important people in our lives.  Imagine how lonely that would be.  If everyone in your life had turned against you, what would you do?

I think that if everyone was turning against me, I’d need to take a good hard look at myself.  All of those people couldn’t be wrong.  What did they know that I didn’t?  What was so wrong with me that it invited such disdain and hatred?  There would have to be something for everyone to act that way.  

How about you?  Have you ever experienced all of your friends and family turning their backs on you?  If so, did you look deep inside yourself and figure out why you’re so repellent to others?

I think that if it was me, I would have to decide if the people I cared about were better off without me in their world.  After all, is my one life more important than the happiness of all those other people?  No, of course not.  I love my family and friends.  I want them to be happy, much more than I want myself to be.  If my being gone was what would make them happy, then wouldn’t it be better for everyone if I was just-






There’s more, a lot more, but I’m sure that you get the idea.  I’m also sure that you know where this is leading.  I tracked down the site that Carolyn had downloaded the ASMR recording from, and when I played it there it was nothing like the version she had downloaded.  It was instead focused on something called Reiki, which I’m not familiar with but was clearly not something sinister.


In the Downloads folder I also found a copy of a recent bank statement from her online account.  It showed that the account had contained a decent savings until a week before Carolyn’s death.  At that point it had gone to zero.  The change in balance was listed as a teller withdrawal.  It was a lot of money to have been taken out in a single transaction.

Because of everything that I had come across so far, I was immediately suspicious.  I went through the phone’s call history for the date she had downloaded the document and discovered that she had made a call to the customer service number at the bottom of the statement.  The call had lasted over an hour.  It seemed to me that Carolyn hadn’t been the person that emptied her account, and when she had checked her account and seen that it was empty, she had called the bank to get it corrected.

In her final days Carolyn had been under assault mentally, emotionally, and financially.  It must have been hell.

This assault had obviously been engineered.  I just couldn’t see how that would have been possible.  Online posts on major social media platforms that appeared one way to someone but completely different to everyone else?  Audio recordings that were magically different for one download?  And the bank withdrawal had been a teller withdrawal, meaning that someone had gone into a physical bank location and taken the money out of the account.  How could that have happened?  That wasn’t even getting into the voicemails.

As someone who has to regularly do a lot of research in the tech industry, I knew that the message and recording changes should have been impossible.  It would technically have been possible to target a single system like that, in this case a cellphone, but to do it in real time?  That’s where it crossed into the realm of fantasy.  Even if there was a way to do it, it would have required a lot of manpower.  A huge conspiracy against a single small town government employee didn’t make any sense.



One by one I went through all the apps on Carolyn’s phone.  I had completely abandoned the original plan of getting rid of references to her affair with Ray.  Instead, I was now solely searching for other signs that her life and wellbeing had been tampered with.

There were a number of things that I found that I would have dismissed as unimportant if I hadn’t specifically been looking for oddities.  For example, her latest Instagram posts had significantly less interactions than previous ones had, to the point that there might as well have been nothing at all.  The same went for her Tik Tok account.

Most concerning was that I started to see a pattern emerging on non-social media apps as well.  All of her content suggestions on Netflix and HBO Max were depressing stories or contained characters that commited suicide.  I tried clicking on a few of Carolyn’s previously watched movies and shows that weren’t these suggestions, but each time an error message would pop up saying that the content wasn’t currently available and to try again later.  The suggested shows, however, would instantly start to play.



I finally ran out of apps to check with the exception of one.  I had been purposely avoiding it.  During the hours that I had been going through Carolyn’s phone, I had been invading her privacy.  As I’ve said already, it wasn’t right and it’s not something that I’m proud of having done.  The last app would take that invasion of privacy one step further, though.  It was the feed and recordings from her home security cameras.

I forced myself to click on the app.  There was no doubt in my mind that Carolyn had been targeted and pushed over and over again until she had finally taken her own life.  I needed to collect every bit of evidence that I could and turn it all over to the police.  I’d probably get in trouble for what I had done, but it was worth it to have the authorities look into whoever had done this to her.

There were only three camera footage recordings listed on the app.  Each one had a time and date stamp, and all of them were listed as having been captured when a motion sensor was triggered.  All of them were within a few days of Carolyn’s suicide.  Taking a deep breath, I started the first recording.

It showed a woman in her mid to late thirties walking towards the camera.  The shot was at an odd angle, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize I was watching footage from a doorbell camera.  I recognized the woman as Carolyn from her social media pictures.  She stopped a few feet from the camera and dug around in her pocket before producing a set of keys.  As she did so, her face tilted at an angle that allowed me to see the dark circles under her eyes.  She looked exhausted.

She found the key that she was looking for and inserted it into the lock.  When she went to turn it, however, she struggled to do so.  She fought with the lock for a moment before stepping back and looking at the key she was holding.  It was now broken.  She stared at it blankly before her face screwed up in anger and she threw it to the ground.  She leaned forward and placed her head against the door.  It was hard to tell from the angle, but I thought that she was crying.

I felt horrible for her.  She was being put through so much, and it was clearly wearing her down.  I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go through something like that.

The second recording was completely black, and it was impossible to see anything on it.  I assumed that there was some sort of error, but there was still audio.  Either the camera hadn’t properly recorded or it was just too dark for the camera to illuminate.  I could hear a series of odd whispers that were too faint to make out words.  There was also a humming noise that I couldn’t identify.


If you’re still with me to this point, I’m hoping that means that you understand that this isn’t some sort of elaborate joke or prank.  I…  I get how this all sounds.  It’s about to sound a lot worse.  If you already think that I’m crazy, you’re about to hear something that’s going to set that in stone in your mind.  If you don’t think that, you probably will soon.


The third and final recording was from a camera in a hallway.  It was angled so that it was pointing through an open doorway.  This was Carolyn’s bedroom.  The bed could be seen on the right side of the opening, and to the left was a small table or desk with an open laptop on it.  The image was that odd black and white that you get when a security camera is in night vision mode.  According to the time stamp, the recording was taking place at 2:54am the morning of Carolyn’s suicide.


The… thing came into view from the left side of the bedroom.  It leaned down from the top portion, and at first I thought that it was extremely tall.  That wasn’t the case, though.

I’m going to try to describe it.  I’m sorry if I don’t make a lot of sense while I’m doing so.  Every time I’ve tried to do so it feels like the limits of the English language make it impossible to do so properly.

It was being lowered by thin sinuous tendrils.  The creature itself was…  Fuck, how do I put this.  It was only a few inches wide, but was the height of a person.  It was like the head and body were just a mask and covering being manipulated by the tendrils rather than an actual figure.  Three arm-like appendages reached out towards the bed, each ending in thin delicate strands that acted as fingers.

Because of the circumstances of the recording, with it being so dark and the low resolution of the camera’s night vision, it was difficult to make out any further details.  I was thankful for that.

The creature slowly pulled the blanket off of the bed.  It released its grip and allowed the cloth to fall to the floor.  One of the appendages slowly stretched out through the open door and into the hallway.  The fingers touched a thermostat attached to one of the walls and turned the dial all the way to the left.  The appendage retracted, and the creature pulled back up out of sight.

Minutes passed as the recording continued.  I started to wonder if anything else was going to happen when a pair of legs swung out over the side of the bed.  Carolyn got out of bed, her arms folded tightly over her chest as she visibly shivered.  She went out into the hallway and checked the thermostat.  Turning it back to where it was before the creature had adjusted it, she put a hand on the wall and leaned against it for a moment.  She looked like she was about to collapse from exhaustion.  She gathered herself and went back into the bedroom, picking up the blanket before getting back into bed.

The recording ended.


I watched it back…  I don’t know how many times it was.  I just kept replaying it over and over again.  No matter how many times I watched it, I just couldn’t force myself to accept it.  Not really.

I’m trying to figure out how to put this in a way that really explains how I was feeling.  It was like being in a car accident.  When it happens, you know intellectually that you were just in a collision.  The evidence is right there in front of you: the twisted metal, the broken glass, the smell of smoke.  Even when you’re staring right at the wreckage, though, there’s this weird disconnect that doesn’t allow you to grasp what’s just happened to you.

That was what I was experiencing while I watched the security camera footage on loop.

I’m not sure what viewing I was on when I began to question why it was even happening at all.  Why was this creature pulling off a blanket and adjusting a thermostat?  It seemed juvenile, something on the same level as a college prank.

I probably should have put it together faster than I did, but my mind was still reeling.  It wasn’t the actions themselves that were important.  It was the result.  The creature was depriving Carolyn of sleep.  That was the last component it needed to push her past her breaking point.

The creature had made sure that all roads led to her taking her own life.



I haven’t taken any of this to the police.  That was my original intention, and I would if I thought that it would do any good.  The problem is that none of this can be corroborated.  I have, what, some screenshots that the sites themselves said weren’t accurate and a couple of grainy videos?  From their perspective I would just be the nutjob podcast host that’s using a tragic event to drum up interest in his show.

This is where Carolyn Blake’s story comes to an end.  It’s unfortunately not where the story as a whole does.

Twenty-four hours ago, I found out that Ray Carsten committed suicide.  A single gunshot wound in the right temple.  The moment before the trigger was pulled he was there, and the moment after he wasn’t.

I called his wife to offer my condolences.  We got to talking, and I don’t know if it was the grief or some need to get it off her chest or what, but she told me that the day before he died a woman had shown up on their doorstep while Ray was at work.  The woman had presented her with a stack of pictures and email records showing in great detail that Ray had been having an affair.  That same woman had then identified herself as Carolyn Blake.

It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together.  The creature from the security footage had gone after Ray, and it had once again been successful.

This morning, I woke up to a text on my phone alerting me that my checking account was overdrawn.  Thousands of dollars were just… gone.  I also received notice that my podcast is currently suspended while it is being investigated for violating the terms and conditions of the hosting site.

It’s my turn to be targeted.  I’m hoping that because I actually know what’s happening, I will be able to get through what’s about to come my way.  That’s what I hope.

There’s no way of knowing what plan the Suicide Engineer has for me.


Nighty Night

For the past five years, it’s just been Ian and me.

My wife’s pregnancy with him wasn’t easy.  There were a number of scares and close calls due to health issues that she had experienced all her life.  Every doctor she had ever been to had told her that she would never be able to get pregnant in the first place.  She put on a brave face and joked that she would just get an entire litter of puppies instead, but when she was thinking about it and didn’t know I was watching her real feelings were etched all over her face.  She loved kids, and the thought of not being able to have one herself was heartbreaking for her.

We discussed other options, of course.  Adoption, fostering, you name it and we looked into it.  We even had a meeting scheduled with an adoption agency when a miracle happened.

That miracle was Ian.  Against all the odds, Ellen became pregnant.  Her doctors were at a complete loss.  It should have been impossible, but suddenly there we were, talking about converting our second bedroom into a nursery and planning out how to shuffle around our work schedules to make sure that one of us was always home with the baby.

The complications began about four months into the pregnancy.  It seemed like every few weeks we were at the hospital while the staff ran tests or performed procedures.  Ellen was amazing during all of it.  I was acting like a complete lunatic, worried out of my mind about every little thing, but she would just lay there in the uncomfortable hospital bed stroking her increasingly large belly and smiling to herself.  She would tell me that she just knew that everything would work out in the end, and that all of the issues were just bumps in the road.

She went into labor early, just a few days after the thirty-one week mark.  She waddled into the kitchen and told me in a very calm and very matter-of-fact tone that the baby was coming.  I had been getting ready for bed, so in that same collected manner she retrieved the bag we had packed weeks earlier and the car keys while I frantically got dressed and grabbed the few necessary items that hadn’t gone into the bag yet.

Six hours later, Ian was born.  He was so small, and I could feel my heart sink as he emerged.  The doctor immediately took him over to a radiant warmer table where he and a nurse began working with him.  A second nurse kept me from getting too close to ensure that I didn’t get in the way.  The activity suddenly stopped, and the most wonderful sound filled the room: our son started to cry.  The doctor informed me that due to Ian’s size he would need to spend a couple of weeks in the newborn intensive care unit, but that from what he could see the child would be fine.  I remember feeling so relieved that I had to put a hand on the bed’s footboard to steady myself.

My fingers had just touched the plastic when the alarm on Ellen’s monitor went off.

Ian and I lost her in less than an hour.

It wasn’t anything that the hospital staff did wrong, and it wasn’t anything that could have been prevented.  The stress of the labor and birth had been too much for her, and she had suffered massive hemorrhaging.  The staff did their absolute best to save her.  It just wasn’t possible.  She never even got to hold Ian before she was gone.

I never got a chance to mourn her.  I was now a single parent, and all that mattered was that tiny little baby in the NICU.  The next few weeks were spent going to work, getting through my shift, and immediately returning to the hospital to sit with Ian all night before doing it all over again.  Shortly before he was released, I secured a position with a new company.  It paid less, but it allowed me to work from home.  Without much of a family support system I needed to be there for him at all times.  After all, it was just me and him now.

I wish so much that Ellen could see this incredible child that we made together.  He’s loving, energetic, frustrating, confounding, and so much more.  He’s everything that we could have hoped for and so much more.

He also has a very vivid imagination for his age, which is partly why I didn’t believe him when he first told me that he was being visited by something during the night.

It took a while to get to this point, but we’ve settled into a routine each evening.  We have dinner together, spend about an hour running around outside if the weather is nice or playing inside if it isn’t, Ian gets his bath, and then he lays down to sleep for the night.  This routine is supposed to be finished around eight o’clock each night, but if you have kids you know that no routine is foolproof.  On the first night that he was visited I didn’t manage to get him wrangled into bed until almost nine.

I was catching up on work at my desk when I heard Ian yell for me.  I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to feel irritated.  Normally when he called out like that it was to try to get one last drink of water or to tell me that he isn’t tired and can’t go to sleep.  That would happen at least twice a week.  I said that I have an incredible child, not one that wasn’t prone to the usual four year old tendencies.

When he immediately cried out a second time, though, I stood up and pushed my chair back so hard that it tipped over.  There was panic in his voice.  I hurried up the short flight of stairs to the second floor and flung his door open, my hand immediately going for the light switch.

Ian was sitting in his bed with tears streaming down his face.  The left leg of his pajama pants was pulled up, and his hands were pressed down on the skin.  The sheets and comforter from his bed were laying on the floor.  His pillow was hanging halfway off the mattress.

I hurried over to him and knelt down next to this bed, putting down the safety rail as I did so.  He immediately flung his arms around my neck and started crying harder.  The sobbing was so intense that he started to cough uncontrollably.  I pried him off of me and held him in my lap to allow him to catch his breath.  We sat there for a long time, him crying and sniffing loudly with me gently stroking his hair and telling him that everything was all right.

When he finally calmed down, I sat him on the edge of his bed and took his hands away from his leg.  There were three long scratches running down it.  They weren’t deep, but there were a few tiny beads of blood.  I gently asked him what had happened.  He remained silent.  I asked him again, and this time he lifted his head to look me in the eyes.

“Nighty Night hurt me,” he told me in a tiny voice.

I looked back at him in confusion.  I don’t know what I had expected him to say, but it certainly hadn’t been that.

“Nighty night?” I asked softly.  “Like what I tell you at night before you go to sleep?”

“Nighty Night,” Ian repeated, more forcefully this time.  “He scratched me.  Like the bad cat did.”

Just after his third birthday, he had been scratched by a neighbor’s kitten while trying to play with it.  The claws had even punctured the skin, but the incident had stuck with him.

“I’m sorry, big guy, I don’t understand.  Are you saying that Nighty Night is a cat?”

“No cat.  Nighty Night is a monster, Daddy.  He hurt me.”

I looked back down at the scratches.  They were obviously real, but just as obviously they hadn’t been caused by any monster.  Something else had happened.

I want to make it clear that I never thought for a second that Ian was lying to me.  Sure, he was prone to the occasional fib just like any young child was, but he never lied to me about important things.  Besides, he was too scared to be making up a story.

Scooping Ian into my arms, I carried him into the bathroom and got the first aid kit out of the cabinet.  As I sat down on the toilet and maneuvered him into my lap, I mentally slapped my forehead.  The past few nights I had forgotten to trim his fingernails when I had given him his bath.  He must have scratched himself in his sleep.  It had woken him up, and his still half-asleep mind must have interpreted the whole thing as a monster attacking him.

I quickly bandaged the scratches before trimming his nails with a small silver clipper.  He had calmed down by that point, and I gave him a hug before carrying him back to his room.  When I went to put him down in bed, however, he held onto me so tightly that I nearly tipped forward.  He absolutely refused to sleep in his bedroom that night.  We ended up falling asleep together on the couch downstairs, and by the time the sun was up he was back to his usual self.  The events of the previous night seemed to be forgotten.

It was Saturday, and because I didn’t have to work on the weekends I took Ian to a local state park.  We spent the entire day playing on the playground and splashing around in the lake.  By the time we left the park and headed home we were both exhausted.  He fell asleep in his car seat just a few minutes away from the house.  I carried him inside and up to his bed.  He remained passed out through the entire process.

I planned to let him sleep for an hour or so.  He still needed to eat dinner, and I knew that if he napped for too long it would be almost impossible to get him down that night.  I kicked off my shoes and flopped down in a chair to enjoy the momentary silence.

That silence didn’t last long.  It was shattered by Ian screaming.  It wasn’t a yelp or crying out like it had been the previous night.  This was a full scream, one filled with pain and terror.  I yelled his name as I leaped up the stairs and burst into his room.

Ian was seated on the floor, his thumb in his mouth and his eyes watery.  He was rocking back and forth slowly.  He looked up at me with a blank expression, as if he knew that I was there but my presence didn’t mean anything to him.

I picked him up, and as I did so I felt something warm and wet on my hand.  I pulled it away from his back and saw that there was blood on my fingers.  Just as I had the night before, I carried him into the bathroom and turned on the light.  I immediately saw his back reflecting off the mirror over the sink, and I felt like ice was poured into my veins.

Pieces of his shirt were torn away, and the shreds that remained were red with blood.  I set Ian on the counter and lifted the shirt up over his head.  He was unresponsive during the entire process, and the part of me that was still thinking clearly wondered if he was in shock.

On his back were three cuts, each of them spaced roughly the same distance as the scratches on his leg.  These were much deeper than those, though, and they were bleeding freely.  I bandaged them as fast I could before taking him downstairs and back out to the car.  The cuts were too much for my basic first aid skills.  He needed a doctor.

The drive to the hospital was torture.  I padded his carseat as much as I could with a blanket to try to take pressure off of his back, but he started screaming in pain before we got very far.  Knowing full well that it was illegal, I pulled over, unstrapped him, and set him down in the passenger seat with him sitting sideways before getting back in and continuing to drive.  Maybe that was the wrong call.  I honestly don’t know.  All that I know is that I couldn’t stand for him to be in agony like that.

The nurse behind the emergency room desk immediately waved us through the door when she saw Ian’s back through the window.  She ran off to get a doctor while I carefully set him down on a nearby gurney.  I hugged him as best as I could without touching his back and told him that everything was going to be okay.

“I know it hurts, little man, but I have to ask you something,” I told him, giving him a reassuring smile.  “What happened?”

“Nighty Night,” he replied immediately in a matter-of-fact voice.  “Nighty Night hurt me.”

I didn’t have time to question him further.  The doctor arrived, and she took one look at Ian’s back before telling a nurse to wheel him into a nearby examination room.  I went to follow, but the doctor told me that she thought it was best if I waited outside.  Her eyes were looking past me as she spoke, and when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that she was looking at a security guard standing at the far end of the hallway.

If I had been thinking straight I would have understood what was happening, but at the time I was too worried about Ian to figure out what that look meant.

The doctor went into the examination room as the nurse came back out.  She put her hand on my arm and gently led me away from the door.  I protested, of course, but she made it clear that I had to come with her and answer some questions before I would be able to see Ian.

She started by asking me if there were any pets or animals in the house, to which I replied that there weren’t.  She then asked if we had been with anyone else when his injuries had occurred.  When I told her that we hadn’t, she followed up by inquiring if I had been drinking that day.  That was the moment that I started catching on.  The hospital staff was trying to determine if I had been the one that hurt my son.

At some point during the conversation a man in a gray suit entered the hallway and came to a stop next to us.  He introduced himself as a social worker, and he stated that it was his job to make sure that Ian was safe and got the best care possible.  He asked his own set of questions and I answered them as best as I could, but I was sure that he wasn’t really believing me.  It didn’t help that I couldn’t tell him what had happened because I had no idea myself.

Some time later the doctor came back out of the room and informed me that while one of the cuts had been shallow enough to bandage, the other two had required stitches.  To say that I was irate was an understatement.  I wasn’t upset that she had done what was medically necessary.  I was angry that I had been kept out of the room the entire time instead of being in there to comfort him during the process.  She stood there calmly as I yelled, and once I had said my peace and was winding down she told me that she was recommending that Ian stay at the hospital overnight for observation.  After taking a deep breath, I asked as calmly as I could if I would be able to stay with him.

She didn’t answer, but the social worker did.  He told me in a clearly practiced tone that due to the nature of the injuries, he was going to take Ian into his custody for the night while he worked to determine the nature of the injuries.  His tone might have been pleasant and measured, but the implication behind his words was very clear.

“You think that I hurt Ian,” I said, fighting back a second wave of anger.  “I would never hurt my son.  If you think for one second that I’m going to let you-”

“That’s enough,” the social worker snapped, cutting me off.  “You need to stop right there.  I haven’t made a determination one way or another on if I think you did this.  I will say that I’ve met a lot of abusive fathers in my time, and you don’t strike me as one of them.  I have policies and protocols that I have to follow, though.  What’s best for everyone involved is if you go home for the night, get some sleep, and let me do my job so that we can get this put behind us.”

He had caught me off guard.  I stared at him for a long moment before nodding once.  Anything I did other than what he told me to would only jeopardize my situation, and even though the thought of being apart from Ian for a night made me sick, the thought of him being taken away permanently was much worse.  I nodded again and he patted me on the arm.  He told me to come back in the morning and to ask for him at the desk before turning to go into the examination room.  As he opened the door, I clearly heard Ian call out for me.

I left the hospital feeling as if my entire world was burning before my eyes.

I went home and immediately marched up to Ian’s room.  I was determined to figure out what had happened to him.  The scratches on his leg could have been explained away by him causing them in his sleep, but the cuts on his back were another matter.  He couldn’t have reached that area of his body.  Even if he could have, there was no way that he could have made markings that deep.  Something else had happened.

I tore apart his room looking for answers.  A loose screw or nail that he had leaned up against, a broken piece of bed that I hadn’t noticed, a toy with something protruding, anything.  I examined every inch of the room from top to bottom.  I came up empty.  There was nothing that I could find that could have caused his injuries.

Defeated, I leaned up against the wall and slid down the floor.  Something caught my eye, and I reached over to pick up a small stuffed duck.  Its yellow cloth had faded, and overall it looked a bit worse for wear, but I could still easily identify it as the first toy that Ellen had bought for Ian.  It had been right after we had found out that she was pregnant.  She had named it Mr. Quackers.  An absurd name for an absurd-looking duck.

The events of the day caught up with me, and I started to nod off.  I felt my eyelids growing heavier with each heartbeat.  This was good, I reasoned.  I would get some sleep, then be at the hospital the moment the sun began to rise.

That was when I saw the creature standing in the corner of the room.  One moment there was nothing there, and the next there it was, its extremely tall gray body bent over as it pushed up against the ceiling.  Its limbs were extremely long and thin for the creature’s size.  The two arms ended in three needle-like fingers that had to have extended at least three feet from the hands.

Stretched out on its elongated neck was its face.  Its lips, dry and cracked and missing entire chunks in some places, were pulled back in an eternal grin that exposed its oversized white teeth.  The lidless eyes were black in the center, and the areas that on a person would have been white were the dried yellow collar of old parchment.  Dark ichor that had pooled in its jaws slowly dripped onto the floor as it watched me.

“Nighty night,” the creature rasped out.

My entire body jumped as I snapped back to full consciousness.  The creature was gone again, with no trace that it had even been there in the first place.  The spots where the ichor had splattered onto the floor had vanished.  I sat there on the floor, alone in the room with my pulse racing and my breath coming in short gasps.

I could have attempted to rationalize what I had seen.  It probably would have been easy enough to convince myself that I had imagined it, that it was a trick of the light that my nearly unconscious mind had twisted into a horrifying vision.  That was a perfectly rational explanation.

The problem was that I had seen it.  I knew that it had been real.  There was no question about it in my mind.  It was impossible, but I was sure that it had been occupying the corner of the room across from me seconds earlier.

My breathing slowed, and my panic was slowly replaced by nausea as a realization came to me.  Ian had also seen this creature.  It had stood over my four year old son with that nightmarish face.  It had then proceeded to hurt him not once, but twice.  If I was this scared, I couldn’t fathom how frightened he had been.

Nighty Night.  Ian had called it Nighty Night.  It must have said the same thing to him that it had said to me.

I got up off of the floor and left the bedroom, closing the door behind me.  I stood in the hall for a moment before rushing into the bathroom and throwing up in the toilet.  It went on for quite some time, so long that I started to wonder if it would ever stop.  When it finally did, I collapsed against the bathtub, light-headed and close to passing out.

There was a thud from inside of Ian’s room.  I lifted my head as best as I could and looked out through the bathroom doorway.  I managed to focus my eyes just in time to see the knob on the bedroom door start to turn.  There was an audible click, and the door slowly swung open.

Nighty Night’s face took up much of the bedroom doorway as it grinned at me.  I tried to stand up, but I was too weak from throwing up to manage it.  I could only watch as Nighty Night pressed its head against the wood frame.  It was too large to make it through the opening.

My feeling of relief was only momentary.  Nighty Night started to push its head harder.  Its face stretched back as the head slowly began to force its way through.  It was like watching rubber being forced through a hole.

“Nighty night,” it rasped, the coming out distorted through the stretched lips.

I had to leave, and I had to do so quickly.  More of the monster’s head was making it through the doorway every second, and it wouldn’t be long before it was free of the room’s confines.  Ignoring my aches and pains, I forced myself into a standing position.  My head swam and once again I was sure that I was going to pass out, but somehow I was able to  barely remain conscious.  Nighty Night’s face was almost all the way through the doorway now.  I stumbled into the hallway and pressed myself up against the wall opposite from the creature.  Being as careful as I could, I moved past it, feeling its hot breath on me as I did so.  Its teeth were mere inches away from my body.  I made it through the thin opening and hurried down the stairs.

My foot caught on the last step.  It wasn’t enough to make me lose my balance entirely, but it did trip me up and I stumbled forward before falling over the side of the couch.  My head struck one of the armrests.

I must have blacked out.  I don’t remember doing so, but the next thing I knew I was being awoken by the sound of knocking.  I sat up on the couch and immediately regretted doing so as the worst headache I’d ever had greeted me.  The knocking continued.  It took me a few seconds to figure out that someone was banging on the front door.

I stood up and took two steps towards the door before I remembered what had happened.  I looked up the stairs expecting to see Nighty Night squeezing its way down the hallway towards me, but the creature was gone.  Still a bit dazed and not sure what else to do, I continued over to the front door and opened it.

Standing on the other side was a large man in a police uniform.  He was holding a clipboard under his arm and a pen in one hand.  He nodded at me but didn’t smile.

He asked me my name and I gave it to him.  He informed me that he was here at the request of the social worker from the hospital, and that he would like to inspect my son’s room.  I moved aside and let him into the house.  I closed the door behind him and led him up the stairs.  I didn’t want to go anywhere near the second floor after what I had experienced, but if I didn’t comply with his request it would undoubtedly impact my chances of getting Ian back as soon as possible.  I took him to the still open bedroom door and we went inside.

Night Night wasn’t there, of course.  The officer took the clipboard out from under his arm and asked me a few questions, and I answered them as best as I could.  He scribbled some notes on the paper as I spoke.  Seemingly satisfied with my responses, he then got down on one knee and examined the safety rail that ran along the sides of Ian’s bed.

“Have you done anything in this room since you brought your son into the hospital?” the officer asked.

“I looked around to try to figure out what happened,” I told him.

“Okay, but did you change the bedsheets or anything like that?”

“What?  No.  I just moved things around and put them back.  I didn’t change the sheets.”

The office nodded.  “Well, it looks like Mr. Eaton was right.”

“Mr. Eaton?”

“The social worker assigned to your son.  See here?  There’s no blood on the sheets, but there are three streaks along the safety rail.  They match up to where the poles are on the rail.  Mr. Eaton thinks that your son tried to get out of bed while he was still out of it and slid over the rail.  He must have caught the poles just right through the fabric and they dug into him.  Cute kid, by the way.  He said that he was going nighty night and that his back started feeling ouchy when he got out of bed.  Eaton put things together from there.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  The theory was wrong, and Ian’s words had been completely misinterpreted.  The blood trails and the spacing of the rail poles were pure coincidence.  It was all working completely in my favor, though.

“Good thing, too,” he continued.  “If he hadn’t figured it out or if I had found anything to prove him wrong here, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.”

Seemingly satisfied with everything, the officer left and went back to his car.  I watched him through the window as he pulled out and headed down the street.  The sun was starting to come up over the trees, and I could hear the family of robins in the front yard tree chirping.  I decided that it was close enough to morning to go to the hospital and get my son back.

It went smoother than I had expected.  The social worker had me fill out some quick paperwork so that they had my statements for the record, and after that he led me to a patient room on the opposite side of the hospital.  He had barely opened the door for me when Ian came running up to me barefooted with his little hospital gown waving behind him and practically jumped into my arms.  He hugged me tightly and, being careful to avoid the white bandages covering his stitched cuts, I hugged him back.  We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, me crying and him telling me all about his stay in the hospital.

That was two months ago.  The house that I raised Ian in is currently for sale, and my realtor tells me that there are a number of people interested even though it hasn’t been listed very long.  A seller’s market, she calls it.  I’ve only been back twice since that night, once to pick up our clothes and other necessary items, and once to pack the remainder of our belongings and put them into storage.  Both times were during the middle of the day, and each time I made arrangements for Ian to stay with someone instead of accompanying me.

We’ve been living at a hotel on the other side of town.  My long term plan is for us to move far away, possibly all the way to the coast.  I want to put as much distance between us and this place as possible.

Last week, I read a newspaper article in the local paper about an officer that killed his wife.  According to the report, he had said that he had just started to doze off one night when a giant monster appeared in his room.  He had grabbed the gun that he kept in his nightstand and fired off five shots at it.  The monster disappeared, but his wife had been walking into the room at the time and two of the bullets struck her, killing her almost instantly.

No one believed him, of course.  How could they possibly have?  It was a ludicrous story.  He seemed so convinced that he was telling the truth that a psychological evaluation was ordered before formal charges were filed.

Three days later he was found dead in his cell.  Not just dead, but damn near decapitated.  The police are baffled.  He was alone in his cell, and there was nothing he could have used to do that to himself.  The guards think that one of the other prisoners got in and did the job.  Former cops don’t have a lot of friends in jail, after all.  They’re at a loss to explain just how a prisoner could have gotten into the cell and caused so much damage without alerting anyone.

This was the same officer that had come to my house.  

I know what happened to him.  It was the same thing that almost happened to both myself and my son.  It was Nighty Night.

I think that I’ve got the creature’s appearing and disappearing act figured out.  I was on the verge of becoming unconscious both times that I saw it.  The first time I was almost asleep, and the second time I was trying not to pass out.  When I actually did black out it didn’t harm me.  The officer said in his statement that he was falling asleep when he saw the monster in his room.

I think Nighty Night exists in that ever so brief moment between awake and asleep.  When you enter into that moment, you can see it… and it can look right back at you.  Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s always there, watching and waiting until it can come for you in that short time where your world and its are connected.  I don’t know.  I don’t have all the answers.  I doubt that I ever will.  

Knowing exactly what Ian had gone through might provide more insight, but it doesn’t matter.  I refuse to ask him about it.  He’s sleeping through the night now that his wounds have mostly healed, and I’m not going to dredge up bad memories that could only hurt him.  He deserves to be safe and protected from things both natural and unnatural.  He’s been through enough already.

I’m afraid that he’s going to be through more before this is all over.  Last night, as I watched him sleeping on the bed in our hotel room, I started to drift off in the uncomfortable chair in the corner of the room.  I was just about out when I heard something through the glass window to my right.  It was faint, as if coming from quite a distance away, but I recognized it immediately.

“Nighty night,” the raspy voice called out in the darkness.

I jerked awake and immediately stood up to start packing our things, being careful not to wake Ian up as I did so.  He needed his rest.  We were going to be on the road for a long, long time.


Dear God,

Please forgive this poor sinner for how long it has been since I have last prayed to you.  I swear that it wasn’t because of a lack of faith or loss of wanting to be wrapped in your grace.  Earthly matters have taken up my attention over the past few weeks, and while I know that’s no excuse for allowing a lapse in my prayers, I also know that you see all and that you know my time has been spent in service to you.

I attended a church service yesterday that moved me profoundly.  There was a guest speaker, a Reverend David Holloway.  Truly you have given him great gifts, Lord, as his sermon filled the entire congregation with the warmth of your glory.  He spoke of your many works, and of the need for your people to go out into the world and spread your word so that the world might perform its own works in line with your example.  It was a call to action, one that filled us to overflowing with love and light, more than enough to pass on to our fellow man.

Later that evening, I sat at home thinking about the sermon, and I suddenly realized just how far I’ve come.  I don’t think anyone really understands and appreciates the extent of their personal journey while it’s happening, not unless they really sit back and take honest stock of it.

For so many years, I was a lost lamb with no flock.  I was alone, scared, and feeling that the world had no use for me.  If I had met someone like Reverend David then, I’m certain that he would have brought me into the light of your love, but alas, that was not to be.

Instead of me finding you, you found it in your infinite wisdom to bring your majesty to me.  You must have seen that I was too far gone to ever find my own path.  You could have left me to rot, to come to the inevitable end that my way of living would have led to, but you did not.  You offered me your hand to help pull me up and an invitation to teach me how to stand.  My gratitude for that and all that you’ve given me since knows no bounds.

It amazes me that so many people speak of their devotion to God, but don’t truly understand what God is.  In the Bible, John 4:24 proclaims that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”.  There are many examples within the book’s pages that reinforce this concept.  A whisper on the night wind, a voice from a flaming bush, and more.  The portrayal of God in the Bible is that of a being that stands apart from his people.

Perhaps that is good enough for those that put their faith in a book stitched together from stories, legends, and, at best, third hand accounts.  The Satanists, although they would argue otherwise, are cut from the same cloth.  Both groups seem satisfied to worship deities from afar and trust that these unseen entities will toss them enough scraps to survive on.

I know what God truly is.  I know this, oh Lord, because you have shown me that God walks among us, and He is truly great.

I remember the moment that you came to me and made me yours.  One moment I was lying face down on a wet sidewalk, the cold rain pouring down on me as I slowly bled out from being stabbed while no one around me cared about my condition.  I knew that I had reached my end, and I am ashamed to admit that a large part of me welcomed it.

Suddenly the rain stopped.  I was no longer lying on pavement, but instead in a grassy field underneath a black sky filled with infinite stars.  My pain was gone, and my wound no longer bled.  I stood up and looked around.  The field seemed to go on forever.  In front of me was a huge bonfire, at least ten stories tall and just as wide at the base.  The red flames licked at black wood.  Heat radiated from it and blasted against me.  I had never felt anything that hot before.

That is when you walked around the side and into view, God.  No, ‘walked’ isn’t the right word.  There was purpose and power behind every movement.  It was more like a storm rolling in.  I apologize, Lord.  Language has limitations that act as shackles on describing you and your ways.

You approached me, and you towered over me.  I was nothing to you.  I was less than a single thread in the infinite tapestry of existence, and you were the weaver of that tapestry.

The human mind is not equipped to handle the sight of God.  I could process certain aspects of you, but not everything that stood before me.  Your great antlers extended from your inconceivable faces, their broken points replaced by flickering fire.  Your skin was like onyx that was constantly shifting and changing.  Your three faces looked towards me and through me and at everything else in your kingdom.  Your four legs dug into the earth like pillars supporting a temple.

I fell to my knees before you.  I was nothing, and you were all.  To my amazement, though, you reached down and pulled me back up.  You looked directly into my eyes and saw all that I was.

And you found me worthy!  Without you saying a word I knew that I would walk with you for the rest of my life.  Tears of joy filled my eyes as I accepted my place at your feet.

You laid one of your great hands upon my head and baptized me before the great bonfire with blood so hot it boiled.  As it poured down upon me, it scorched and burned the words of your scriptures directly onto my soul.  While lesser religions rely on the written word to pass along their messages, I feel and know every syllable of your decrees at all times.  I am truly one with God.

When you had finished, I looked up at your glory once more and knew that I was now a part of the one true faith.  My God doesn’t look down on His people from a cloud in the sky or up at them from a dank pit.  No, my God walks among us, culling the weak and creating the strong.  His judgment is of blood and flame.  Those that do not heed His words shall be broken in the dirt before Him and devoured in His many jaws.

Since that moment of my rebirth, I have sought to spread your message as you commanded.  In your infinite wisdom you saw that this is a task that I am well-suited for.  I do not have the way with words necessary to grow your church like Reverend David, but I have the tools to bring your will to the non-believers.

Just last night I shared your will in accordance with your scriptures with an affluent family in VIrginia.  I entered their home in the night and brought them together in the largest room on the first floor of the house.  One by one, I burned your mark into their foreheads, baptizing them with searing heat as you had once done for me.  I then spilled their blood and poured it into their mouths in holy communion.  WIth their souls ready to offer to your eternal embrace, I brought the flames of the great bonfire to the house to cleanse it with fire.

I hope that you have accepted these small offerings, and the many that I sent to you before them.  I shall continue to follow your words and ways all the days of my life.  I am yours, oh Lord, forever and ever.



In the middle of nowhere, under a sky of darkness filled with unrecognizable stars, there is a crossroads.

Its roads are made of rocks and dirt, and walking along them fills the cold air with dust.  Brown brittle grass covers the sides, making it difficult to see where the road ends and the battered landscape around it begins.  There is silence at this crossroads.  The only sounds are the ones that you bring with you.

At the northeast corner is a small cemetery.  The dozen or so wooden markers have cracked and crumbled over the years, and the names that once adorned them have long since faded.  Those poor souls that are buried under the dry ground have been anonymous for longer than any of us have lived, and they will remain that way long after you and I have joined them below.

On the northwest corner are the barely visible remains of what was once a path leading into a large crop field.  At the center of this field are the ruins of an old farmhouse.  The family that had built it had seen it as their greatest accomplishment, their reward for decades of struggle, suffering, and toil.  There had been happiness in that house.  Laughter and love had filled its walls.

In the end, those same walls had echoed with unanswered prayers and horrified screams.  They had been covered in thick blood and sticky gore.  With the family gone, the farmhouse had been left to rot, and that rotting continues still.  The structure’s bones look out over the crossroads like a gaping malformed skull.

The other two sides of the crossroads are filled with fields.  The color is not the cheerful gold of wheat before harvest, but is instead the yellow of dead plant matter.  The fields extend far beyond the limits of human sight.  They are vast seas of lifeless decay.

The roads extend off in different directions, each stretching towards a different point on the compass.  These roads lead to everywhere, and they lead to nowhere.

A young woman barely out of childhood once stumbled out of a dingy apartment building in a bad part of Chicago.  She had done something bad, something that she couldn’t see any way to come back from.  All she could think of was escaping, fleeing into the night to leave behind what she had done.  With red stains on her dress and a cocktail of narcotics pumping through her veins, she stumbled down the concrete street and under a rusting metal bridge.

Less than an hour later, she hung three feet off the ground inside the remains of the farmhouse, a broken piece of timber from the first floor ceiling shoved through her mouth and out the back of her skull.  Her glassy eyes were wide, and her pale skin was covered in deep scratches.  Blood dripped in thick droplets from her many wounds until her body had nothing left to give.  It pooled underneath her as it soaked into the old wood.

There was a day when a lawyer in Tallahassee was feeling particularly proud of himself.  He had just gotten one of his more affluent clients released from jail without the client even being officially charged.  The client had been extremely grateful, and he had made sure to show that appreciation in the form of a large payment.  Never mind that the client had confessed to the lawyer that he had indeed committed the crimes, and that the crimes in question had been despicable acts involving children.  None of that was important to the lawyer.  What was important to him was the increase in both his bank account and the bragging rights his performance gave him over his peers.

Thinking of the things he would do with his new financial windfall, the lawyer left the courthouse and walked down the sidewalk.  It was a bright day, and he took a deep breath of the warm Florida air as he allowed a self-satisfied smirk to spread across his face.  He turned the corner and looked down as he retrieved his cell phone from his suit jacket.

The cell phone eventually ended up deep in one of the dead fields south of the crossroads, its screen cracked and the back snapped off.  It was a long way away from the lawyer, who laid face down in the middle of the path leading away from the crossroads to the west.  His body was twisted and broken, and it was pushed down into the ground so far that it nearly disappeared into the earth.  His left arm was torn free and had been left off to one side.  In his right hand he still clutched his briefcase, inside of which were the documents that he had used to secure his client’s freedom.

Recently, a man in a small suburb of Phoenix opened his home’s front door and angrily stormed down the steps.  His wife had just demanded that he leave and not come back.  She had screamed at him that she was sick of his lies, sick of being humiliated as he constantly cheated on her and plunged them further into debt with his frivolous spending.  She had pointed at the swelling around her eye as she informed him that she would never allow him to hurt her or their two daughters ever again.

That had been what she had insisted this eviction was about, but the man was certain that he knew better.  It wasn’t about him.  He hadn’t done anything wrong.  Every time he had raised a hand against her or the kids, it had been because they had needed correcting.  That was a husband and father’s job, right?  And he bought whatever he wanted because he worked for almost half their income, damn it, and that meant it was his.  The cheating?  Well, it wasn’t his fault that she didn’t do it for him in bed anymore, was it?

No, she was kicking him out so that she could have the house to herself.  He was sure that she was cheating on him.  He didn’t have any evidence, but that was because she was careful.  A husband knew when his wife wasn’t being faithful, though, and he knew that was what was going on here.  Plus it would give her a chance to turn their daughters against him.  She was always trying to make him out to be the bad guy.

The man wasn’t going to let that happen, though.  He would go down to the bar, have a few drinks, and then he’d come back.  When he did, he’d make sure that his cheating bitch of a wife wouldn’t disrespect him anymore.  He’d make sure that she didn’t do anything ever again.  He had just the thing in the garage, too.  He’d get those drinks, come back to the house, and dig that heavy iron prybar out of his tool bench.  He’d drive the respect right back into her, and when he was done maybe he’d teach the girls to respect him, too.

The man never reached the bar as planned.  Instead, he spent countless days wandering through the lonely crossroads, walking up and down the roads until his legs ached and his feet bled.  Each time he would leave the crossroads behind him, it would appear in front of him once again even though he was sure that he had walked in a straight line.  He tried leaving the roads and going through the fields, but this had the same result.  The farmhouse was empty and gave him no shelter from the cold air.  Night never turned to day.

Finally, sick, dehydrated, and starving, with no sense of how long he had been trapped at the crossroads, he laid down among the markers in the small graveyard and closed his eyes to rest.  His breathing was labored, and he felt it burn in his lungs as he drifted off.  His eyes never opened.

I’m writing this while sitting at the desk in my study.  It’s one of my favorite places in my house, mostly because of the large window that looks out onto my backyard.  I live a good distance away from any neighbors.  I’m far away from any prying eyes or probing questions.  It allows me to enjoy my time as I wish.  Often that means simply looking out my study window and enjoying the view of all the pine trees that I’ve planted over the years.

I’ve arranged the rows of trees neatly, with six trees per row and the oldest plantings the furthest from the house.  There are currently three full rows, and I’m working on filling in the fourth.  I make sure that they are well taken care of and that they grow strong from the combination of clean water, rich soil, and, of course, the human body buried beneath each of them.  One body per tree is really all that you need.  As the body breaks down, its nutrients become a very potent fertilizer.

This morning, I awoke with the musty smell of decaying grass in my nostrils.  My bedroom was cold despite the hot summer day outside.  When I swung my feet over the side of the bed and stood up, I could feel dirt and stone crunch underneath them.

Soon it will be my turn to stand at the crossroads.  This place that is so damned it has been excised from the natural world has taken notice of my lovely trees, and it wants me to walk its roads and explore its ruins.  It has chosen me to be the next to satisfy whatever it is that it hungers for.  It’s an honor, in a way.  My sins are  great enough for the most unholy of places to take notice.

After it is finished with me and its hunger inevitably returns, I wonder who will be next.  Another killer, perhaps?  Maybe it will be a drug dealer whose small bags of poison have taken the lives of addicts.  How about you?  Are your hands clean, or do you wring those hands as you’re racked with guilt and thoughts of what you’ve done?  Is your soul free of sin or stained dark with it?

Are you ready for it to be your turn at the crossroads?