Month: July 2018 Page 1 of 4

I Picked Up a Hitchhiker

I was driving through rural New Jersey when I saw him.

A hitchhiker, standing by the side of the road. Surprisingly well-dressed – black suit, slicked-back hair, narrow briefcase.

Now, I know I shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers. But I’m 6’ 4”, 230 pounds, with all kinds of hunting equipment in the back of my truck. It’s not like this prissy-assed businessman is going to beat me to death and leave me on the side of the road.

Besides, I need gas money.

“Hey, man,” I said, pulling over to the side of the road. “I’ll give you a lift, if you pay me for gas.”

“Of course,” he said in a polite, almost British, accent. He reached for his wallet, and pulled out three crisp, $20 bills. “This enough?”

I grinned. That’s way more than enough. I greedily snatched the money from him and clicked the locks. “Get in, bud.”

He climbed in. His blue eyes shifted from the crumpled Wendy’s wrapper on the dashboard, to the mysterious, sticky goo on the middle console.

“Sorry, the car’s not clean. I’m going hunting,” I said, turning back onto the highway.

“Hunting. Interesting,” he said, in a strangely enthusiastic tone. “Have you always liked to hunt?”

“No, it’s the funniest thing. Never thought I’d ever hunt. Love animals, got three dogs at home. But there are so many deer around these parts, when the winter comes… a lot of ‘em starve to death. Not to mention all the car accidents they cause.” I trailed off, and we fell into uncomfortable silence.

“Just hunting for the day, then?”

“No, my buddy Matt and I will be out there the whole weekend.”

He let out a laugh. “The whole weekend? Your wife’s a saint for letting you go.”

My wife? How did he – But then my eyes fell on the steering wheel, and the silver ring on my finger. “Ah, yeah. Mary’s a doll. She’s actually pregnant, you know. 5 months with a little girl.”

He gave me a crooked smile. “A girl, huh?”

“Yeah.”

I could feel him staring at me long after we had fallen into silence. It made me feel uncomfortable; I clicked on the radio.

“How did you meet Matt?” he asked, fiddling with the dial. All that came through was static.

That’s a weird question, I thought. “Um. He and Mary were close friends. So when we got married, I got to know him well.”

“Mmm-hmm,” the man said. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, and I was suddenly reminded of a psychiatrist.

“Are you a psychiatrist?” I blurted out.

He laughed. “Definitely not. I work in finance.”

“What type of finance?” It was my turn to ask the questions, now.

“Futures,” he replied, noncommittally.

I glanced over at him. A small smile was on his lips, and I noticed his fingers had gravitated from his lap to the briefcase at his feet.

My heart began to pound.

Click, click. He undid the clasps; the case creaked open.

“What’s in your briefcase?” I asked.

“Work.”

“What kind of –”

His long fingers disappeared into the darkness of the case. He was pulling something out! My body began to seize up; the steering wheel felt like ice under my fingers. “I have a lot of hunting equipment back there,” I said, “so you better not be –”

I stopped.

He was only pulling out a sheet of paper.

For a few minutes, he was quiet. Reading the paper, intently and silently, as if his life depended on it. Scrtch, scrtch – his fingers slid over it, as they traced the text.

Then he slipped it back into the case, and snapped it shut.

What was he reading? I thought. But before I could get the question out, he turned towards me. I could barely see his face in my peripheral vision; but I knew he was staring at me, for minutes on end.

Then he broke the silence.

“Don’t go hunting,” he said, his ice-blue eyes boring into me.

“What?”

“Turn the car around. Go home to Mary.”

“What?!”

“She needs you.” He paused. “Madeline needs you.”

I paled.

I never told him we were going to name our baby Madeline.

“How did you –”

“He’s going to make it look like an accident,” he said, his voice gravelly and halting. “Just a simple hunting accident. The most punishment he’ll endure is thirty-five minutes in the police station, writing out his statement.”

“But –”

“Let me off at that diner, up ahead. I like their Cobb salad very much.”

“Matt’s going to kill me? What are you talking about?”

He turned to me, eyes wide. “What are you talking about?”

“About what you just said!”

“All I said is I’d like you to let me off at the diner, please.” He pointed to the exit, curving off the highway. “You’re going to miss it if you don’t slow down.”

With a shaking hand, I clicked on my blinker. Pulled off the exit, into the parking lot. My heart pounded in time with the click-click-clicks of the cooling engine.

“Thank you for the ride,” he said, pulling his briefcase out with him. “Have a good drive, will you?”

I couldn’t squeak out a reply before the door slammed shut.

***

I didn’t believe him. But my nerves were too shot to continue the trip, either. I texted Matt that I was sick, turned around, and went home to Mary. Mary was thrilled; Matt was disappointed. A little too disappointed, if you ask me.

A month later, after ignoring most of Matt’s calls and texts (which became increasingly frequent and desperate), I heard a faint thumping noise at the door. When I flicked on the porch light — there was Matt, hunched over our doorknob.

Holding a lockpick.

We called the police. Since then, life has been great. Just a few months later, our wonderful little Madeline was born. And as soon as we got back from the hospital, on our doorstep was a little teddy bear, a pink bow sewed on its head. There wasn’t a return address, or a card of any kind.

But I think I know who it’s from.

There’s Something in the Cornfield

At 3 AM, I jolted awake to a sound outside.

Snap, snap.

That was unusual for our Ohio farmhouse. We were surrounded in every direction by vast fields of corn, miles from the nearest neighbor. And I’d know if we left the gate open, or one of Madison’s toys was out – I’d done my nightly check of the backyard about a thousand times.

But as I lay there, still under the blankets, the noise continued.

Snap, snap, snap.

I ran to the window and threw back the curtains.

The corn stretched out as far as the eye could see, rippling and churning like some great, dark ocean. It stopped just short of Madison’s swing set, casting long shadows onto the grass that nearly reached the back door.

Snap, snap! The stalks shifted and swayed, shaking the husks so hard they threatened to fall.

“David! There’s something out there!”

“Probably just a raccoon,” he slurred, pulling the covers over his head.

“That’s bigger than a raccoon. Look at it!” The corn rippled and roiled, as if something large was moving underneath. Snap-snap-snap. “What if there’s someone out there?! I’m going to check the locks –”

“You already checked them a million times, like you do every night,” he groaned. “Just go back to sleep.”

I didn’t listen. I opened the door and stepped out of the room.

No.

At the end of the hall –

Madison’s door was hanging open.

“Maddie?” I called, my voice shaking. And then I got that terrible feeling that only a parent knows. Something’s terribly wrong. Sinking, paralyzing, throbbing in your chest, as you try to tell yourself she’s okay, don’t freak out, I’m sure she’s fine.

But she wasn’t fine.

The bed was empty.

“Madison?!” I ran out the back door, into the yard. “Madison! Where are you?!” I screamed, out into the night.

The corn was still.

Now that I was out there, I saw the evidence. Little bare footprints in the mud, leading up to the cornfield’s edge. Where they disappeared, the corn was slightly trampled – two stalks leaned in opposite directions, as if forcefully pushed apart.

“Madison!” I screamed, as loud as I could.

But I was met with only silence.

David stumbled out after me. “She must’ve just went out in the corn, to explore or something. We’ll find her,” he said, his tone barely convincing. He pulled out his phone, turned on the flashlight, and squeezed himself between the leaning stalks. “Hey! Maddie!” he yelled, with panic trembling his voice.

I took a deep breath and squeezed in after him.

The corn scratched my body. My legs were shaking so badly, every step threatened to send me tumbling into the mud. The white orb of David’s flashlight hovered a few feet in front of me – but other than that, the cornfield was pitch black.

I was about to collapse with panic when the corn thinned out.

And then we were in what appeared to be some sort of clearing or crop circle. The corn had been trampled into the ground in a small circle, roughly ten feet in diameter.

In the center stood Madison.

Facing away from us.

“Madison!” I screamed.

She didn’t turn around.

David was frozen, staring at her back, the flashlight shaking in his hand.

“Are you okay?! Madison –” I turned her around.

No.

I was staring at a blank face.

A face made of burlap. A brown wig was stuck on top with safety pins. An Elsa shirt was stretched over the bloated waist of straw. The bottoms – patterned pink fair isle – were put on backwards.

I began to shake.

“Those are the pajamas I put her to bed in.” My voice cracked. “She wanted the My Little Pony ones, but they were dirty, and – and –”

“What kind of sicko would do something like this?!” David said, his panic boiling into anger. He pulled out his phone and began dialing 911.

Snap, snap, snap.

The corn shook and shivered all around us. Shadows, slowly coalescing between the stalks, surrounded us in a ring of black. And then, before I could react –

A hand shot out between the dark stalks.

It grabbed David by the arm. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, his phone flying to the ground.

“David –”

A cold hand latched onto my waist.

I was yanked into the corn. My back hit the cold mud; the corn scratched and poked at my sides. “Get off me!” I screamed, swatting blindly at the stalks. Black slowly faded into hues of indigo and gray, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

And then I could see them. Interrupting the vertical pattern of the corn stalks, there were several short shadows standing over me.

Then the whispers started.

Hissing, hurried whispers, that seemed to generate the very wind that blew through the stalks. The corn shivered and shook, and then a heavy silence filled the air. I tried to scream – but quickly realized one of them had tied something over my mouth.

But then I heard it, and my heart soared.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

A tinny voice, breaking through the silence. I pulled my neck up, and through the stalks I saw the white light of the phone, glowing against the trampled corn.

“Mmmph – mmmmph!” I tried to scream through the gag. It didn’t work. Similar grunts several feet away from me rung out in the night – David.

Crrrrrrsssshhhh.

A low rumbling sound filled the air. The corn shook above me, harder than I’d seen it all night – stretching and swaying, stalks wildly crashing into each other. And as the voice continued – 911, hello? What’s your emergency? – a loud rush, like an airplane flying right overhead, filled my ears.

I looked up just in time to see the lights. Red, purple, and green, blinking in an odd asynchronous pattern.

The scarecrow, wearing Maddie’s clothes, was enveloped in white light.

And then, with a deafening hiss, it was yanked up into the night.

I looked back at my captors. In the strange, flashing lights, their faces were illuminated – and I saw that they weren’t terrors, monsters, or murderers.

They were children.

Horribly disfigured children.

Some were missing noses. Others had long scars running straight down their faces, as if someone had split open their heads to explore what was inside. Quite a few were missing ears, and one had no teeth. All of them had a profound sadness in their eyes – except for the one to my left, who had no eyes.

But they were also smiling, just a little.

As the light disappeared, and the faces faded back into the shadows, the hands on me loosened. The gag fell away; the shadows receded into the corn.

Except for one.

“Mommy!”

Snap, snap.

With a squeal, two warm arms wrapped around my waist. Maddie.

“Oh my God – Maddie –” I began to sob, hugging her tighter than I ever have in my life. “Are you okay? And –”

“Maddie?” The broken, hopeful voice of David sounded to my left. Crunch, crunch – he ran over to us.

“I’m fine, Daddy.”

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, grabbing both our hands and yanking us back through the corn.

We ran back into the house, locking the doors and calling the police. Madison was in a different set of clothes – ones dirty, smudged with mud and riddled with holes. But she was smiling, safe, and happy.

“They saved me, Mommy,” she kept saying, tugging on my arm. “The bad men were gonna get me, but they tricked them.”

As the police were taking our statements – as the sun was cresting over the corn – Maddie stood at the back door.

“Bye-bye,” she said, waving wildly at the corn field.

Something’s Wrong with the Patient Files

This week, I was supposed to digitize all of Dr. Marnen’s patient files.

I was feeling good about my progress when I saw it. A second filing cabinet, hiding behind the shelves, that I’d never noticed before.

Sighing with fatigue, I yanked open the first drawer. I plucked out a file from the ‘A’ section and began to read.

ABERDEEN, CARLA

“Alright, Carla, let’s see if you’re in the system.” I set the file on the desk, sat down at the computer, and typed in her name.

Nothing came up.

Oh, hell no. I am not doing ALL the files in this cabinet. But I sighed, opened a new patient file, and began copying the data. Carla Aberdeen… DOB 4/24/72… 5’ 9”, 176 lbs…

Finally, I got to the doctor’s notes. They were written in messy script, as if in a hurry. I put on my glasses, and read:

– Complaints of eczema

– Itchiness after eating some fruits

– Lungs may be useful

I stopped and re-read the last line.

Lungs may be useful

I shrugged, figuring it was some sort of mistake or reference to something. I typed it into the computer and took the next file from the cabinet – a Mr. David Akowski.

But the doctor’s notes were even stranger, this time.

– Family history of heart attacks

– Large skin surface area

I typed him into the system and stared at the screen. Large skin surface area? What does that even mean?

When I got to the next one – a Miss Katerina Alanson – I felt the knot in my stomach tighten. It was a file for a little girl, and it read:

– Night terrors ever since sixth birthday

– Mom says increased anxiety

– Feet are perfect size

I rolled away from the computer. Heart pounding, I picked up the file and studied it. There must be an explanation.

But I couldn’t think of anything.

I took a deep breath. Then I picked up the phone, and dialed the number on Katerina’s file. But what will you say? I didn’t even know. I just had a terrible, nagging feeling, and wanted to do something about it.

But I wasn’t in luck.

Boop-boop-boop!

We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected –

“What are you doing?”

I whipped around.

Dr. Marnen was standing in the doorway, his arms crossed over his white coat. “I was digitizing the files. Like you told me to,” I stuttered, slamming the phone down.

“Not those files.” He violently grabbed the files from the desk, shoved them back into the file cabinet. Then he pulled a small key from his pocket and turned the locks on each drawer. Click, click, click.

“Finish this up, okay?”

I nodded.

And then he was gone.

The silence pressed in. The waiting room was empty and still. I checked the clock – 4:45. No more patients would be coming in.

It was only Dr. Marnen and me in the office now.

So I did what any reasonable person would do. I shut down the computer, grabbed my coat, and started for the door. As I hurried towards the exit, I saw Dr. Marnen at the end of the hall.

He was opening a door – the door he told me went to the supply closet.

But beyond him, I could see a set of stairs, snaking down into the darkness.

The Warm Spot Under my Floor

Floors are supposed to be cold. That’s why socks and slippers exist, right?

But the first day in my new house, I found a warm spot on the kitchen floor. There was no mistaking it – while the rest of the floor was uncomfortably cold on my bare feet, this one square-foot near the island was warm. Pleasantly warm, like the car seats with the built-in heaters.

But you know what’s not pleasant? Fire hazards.

So I brought in my brother to look at it. He does a lot of home repairs, and I figured he would know what was going on.

“I’m worried it’s an electrical problem. Like a fire hazard.”

“It does feel warm,” Landon said. He lowered his ear to the tile, his face screwed up in a frown.

“So? What do you think it is?”

He rose and nodded solemnly. “Unfortunately, it’s…” He paused, staring at me intently. “It’s a steaming pile of shit, right under your floor.”

“Landon!”

He broke into guffaws.

“What is it, really?”

“I have no idea! What am I, the dude from Curb Appeal?” He threw up his hands. “Google it or something, I don’t know.”

“Can’t you figure it out?”

“Not without pulling it up.”

I sighed. There was no way I was burning cash on this. My kitchen budget was already set aside for tearing down the wallpaper. It was horrendous – yellow with black polka-dots. I’ve never even seen polka-dotted wallpaper before.

So I tried to ignore it. But the next night, after eating an elegant dinner of canned tuna, I heard it.

A soft, high-pitched whine.

It was extremely faint – I only noticed it at all because the house was so quiet. Since I had just moved in, there wasn’t even the hum of a refrigerator or television to drown out the noise. I walked around the room, trying to pinpoint the sound. After four rounds in the kitchen, and one misguided attempt in the dining room, I finally realized –

The sound was coming from the warm spot.

Of course, I called Landon back.

And of course, he wasn’t helpful.

“Maybe it’s bugs,” he said. “Maybe you got a big ol’ termite infestation under there, and they’re all chittering to each other, and –”

“Ew, no, Landon.”

“What if it’s a dead body?” he said, now thoroughly intrigued. “And the noise is the buzzing of all the flies eating it?”

“Stop it!”

“Or what if it’s… a live body? And he’s just waiting, down there, humming to himself, waiting for the right time to strike?”

I told Landon to leave after that.

And for almost a week, I survived without giving the warm spot much thought. Whenever I walked across the kitchen, I stepped over that area; I ate my dinners in the bedroom, and never let it get too quiet down there. Everything was going fine.

Until I got the email.

From the sender’s address, I would’ve guessed it was spam. It was a seemingly random string of letters and numbers.

But the subject line caught my eye.

UNDER THE FLOOR

The rest of the message was blank.

That’s when I picked up the phone and called the handyman.

As he was working, Landon and I grew nervous.

“Maybe it is a body,” I whispered to him.

“Nah, Rosie. It’s probably just an electrical thing like you said.” But I could tell he was nervous, too. No jokes, no smiles – just his eyes locked on the handyman.

As the tile fell away, we both gasped.

It wasn’t a body, or a termite infestation.

It was a computer.

And a rather old one at that. A bulky desktop, crammed into a hollowed-out space in the floor, its fan working overtime to cool the CPU. The black cord snaked around and disappeared under the intact tile, plugging in somewhere unknown.

Landon and I stared at each other, at a loss for words.

***

“Got this monitor from my buddy Tom,” Landon said, hauling a beaten-up BenQ through the front door. “It’s got dead pixels and stuff, but we’ll see what’s on there.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see.

Landon slipped his fingers into the space between the computer and the surrounding floor. With a grunt, he heaved it up, and set it on the counter, pulling the power cord taut. He fumbled with the monitor cable, and after several tries, clicked it into place.

The screen blinked on.

From the blue task bar, and the image of a rolling hill behind, it looked like a standard Windows XP screen. The icons on the desktop looked normal, too; they all linked to standard programs, like Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and Yahoo! Messenger. Nothing looked out of place.

Until I noticed the icon in the corner.

A little yellow file folder marked PUBLIC.

“Why is it called ‘public’?” I asked.

“Maybe other people can access it, somehow. Or maybe it’s just a list of all the files they’ve uploaded online,” he replied, shrugging.

“Well – click on it!”

“I can’t very well do that without a mouse, can I?!”

“Wait, I think I’ve got one.”

After riffling through a few of the boxes in the family room, I came back with a mouse. And then, with baited breath, we clicked on it.

It opened up to a myriad of folders. 102705… 010206… “They’re dates, I think,” Landon said, scrolling through them. He clicked on one at random – 073007 – and it opened to an array of images.

He clicked on the first one.

It looked like a still from a security camera or a webcam. Black-and-white, grainy, blurred. But I could make out a woman, walking down the sidewalk of a small town. She was looking over her shoulder, her dark hair whipping around to cover her face. A block or so behind her, there was a fuzzy, black speck.

“Go forward,” I said.

Landon didn’t respond.

“Forward!”

“Okay, geez!”

Click, click. Now the woman was out of frame, although the top of her elongated shadow could still be seen at the bottom. The black speck had grown – it looked like a figure.

I grabbed the mouse from Landon.

Click, click. The figure was closer to the camera, now. It looked like a woman, though it was hard to tell from the fuzziness of the image. Something seemed off about her face, though; it was much paler than the rest of her. Except for the eyes, which were darker than I’d expect.

“Who… is that?” I said to Landon.

He shrugged.

Click, click, click. The woman was close in this one. I could see now what was going on – she was wearing a white mask. It reminded me of one of those fancy masquerade masks, from the upslanting eye-holes. But it covered her whole face, not just half.

“What’s that in the background?” Landon said.

I squinted. It looked like there were more black dots – on the sidewalk, in the street. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe if I scroll forward…”

Click, click, click, click!

I stopped.

The black dots had coalesced into a crowd of people.

All wearing the same white masks.

“What – what are they doing?!” I asked, my throat suddenly dry. Click, click, click.

But no more photos appeared.

“That’s the end of this folder. Dammit.”

“Aw, man! I hate cliffhangers!” Landon said, forcing a laugh. “Seriously, though, it’s probably just a Halloween party or something. Or one of those, uh, what are they called – flash mobs?”

“…Right. Yeah, of course.” I went back and clicked on the next folder.

The point of view wasn’t the street anymore. Instead, it was a bedroom. With flowered wallpaper, gray carpet, closet doors on the far wall…

It wasn’t just a bedroom.

It was my bedroom.

The wallpaper hadn’t yet faded; the carpet wasn’t yet threadbare. But it was, without a doubt, the same bedroom.

“That’s my bedroom, Landon.”

Click, click, click. There was someone sleeping in the bed. It was a blonde woman, on her back, arms splayed out and limp. Is she dead? I thought. But after making it through twenty photos or so, she rolled to her side.

Not dead.

I clicked through another several photos before I stopped.

“Landon.”

I pointed to the closet doors. A sliver of darkness had appeared between them.

Click, click, click.

The sliver grew wider. And in the shadows of the closet was a pale, grainy object. It hung as if suspended in thin air, surrounded by the sea of gray.

Click, click, click.

The door swung open.

It was one of the masks, faced at the sleeping woman. Click, click. My hand shot to my mouth, and I watched the scene unfold with wide eyes. Over the next few photos, it crept out of the closet, and pulled a pillowcase over the woman’s head. She started to thrash, but was dragged back into the closet by the masked person.

The next hundred photos were of the empty bedroom.

I looked at Landon. He just stared at the computer, mouth agape.

I clicked out of the folder. “How long do these go on for?” I asked, scrolling through the folders. 092807… 031211 … 050715 …

And the very last folder:

061018.

“That’s – that’s today’s date,” I stuttered.

“Click it.”

I scrolled through the photos.

The strength drained from my legs. I gripped the counter as I swayed violently.

No, no, no.

Me, sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. Click. The handyman, crouched over the floor, cutting up the tile. Click. Landon, hooking the computer up to the monitor.

And the last few –

Photos of us, looking at the computer, our faces contorted with worry.

“Wait – that’s impossible – I don’t even see a camera,” I stuttered, trying to convince myself. It has to be fake. If there isn’t a camera in here… it must be a hoax.

Landon was already scouring the room – opening cabinets, crouching over the stove. “I don’t see one,” he replied.

I stared at the far wall. That horrendous wallpaper, covering every inch – yellow with black polka dots…

No.

One of the dots, near the upper right corner, wasn’t a dot at all.

It was a hole.

And in the darkness, I could just make out a tiny, blinking red light.

Mushrooms

I wasn’t allowed to walk anywhere alone.

Not with Frank Lonegan on the loose. Suspected of brutally murdering his wife and their unborn son with a dozen stab wounds to the stomach. “You have to walk with Jeremy, okay?” my mom said, as she pulled on her work blazer. “Don’t talk to any strangers. Come straight home.”

I nodded.

But we didn’t come straight home that day. Because, as Jeremy and I walked the short, wooded path between my house and the school, we found mushrooms.

A cluster of three beautiful, white mushrooms. One large, two small, lined up in a perfect row, poking through the moist, black dirt. “Mom said not to stop,” Jeremy groaned, yanking me back onto the path. “Come on. We’re late, anyway.”

But all day, I thought about those mushrooms. I mean, I had only ever seen mushrooms in a grocery store – never in the wild. I told Mrs. Eberhart all about it, and she gave me a nature book from the library. I spent most of lunch reading about different varieties of mushroom.

During recess, I told my friend Mabel. “That’s so cool,” she said, drawing a unicorn on the sidewalk. “Do you think they’re poisonous?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, reaching for the purple chalk. “We shouldn’t eat them, just in case.”

“Maybe I’ll dare you to eat one,” she giggled.

As soon as the school bell rang, Mabel and I took off into the woods, kicking up dirt in our wake. Jeremy followed, muttering something under his breath about “annoying little girls.”

“There! There!” I shouted, pointing to the mushrooms. They poked through the dirt, pale and smooth and perfect.

“I thought they’d have more of a cap,” Mabel said, kneeling in the dirt. “They’re kind of just… round.”

“Some mushrooms don’t,” I said. “Like shaggy ink caps.” I reached for the book and opened it to the mushroom section. “See? Like that.”

She shook her head. “Those don’t look like these.”

I looked at the photo, and then at the mushrooms. She was right; the shaggy ink caps were taller. And they weren’t smooth, like these were. I thumbed through the pages, scanning the different photos; but the other mushrooms looked even more different. Brown portabellas, red wine caps…

None of them matched. These were smooth, stubby, white things with rounded tops that were slightly larger than the stems.

“Guys, we should get home,” Jeremy said, fiddling with his earbuds. “Come on. Mom will ground me forever if she finds out.”

“Let’s pull them up and eat them!” Mabel shouted, ignoring him.

She grabbed the large one. I grabbed one of the smaller ones.

We tugged.

Nothing happened.

“Why – aren’t – they – coming – out?” Mabel huffed, tugging over and over.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But we can always dig them up.” I pushed my fingers into the soil and pawed away. “See, we can –”

I stopped.

Two more mushrooms were buried underneath the soil. Smaller than the others, caked with dirt.

And all five of them were connected.

“I don’t think… mushrooms are supposed to do this.”

We clawed away at the dirt. Digging faster, deeper, like dogs digging for a bone. More smooth, white material lay under the soil. I dug faster, my heart pounding with excitement. These weren’t mushrooms at all! They were something cool, neat, and –

I stopped.

The mushrooms – they were moving.

And then the dirt shifted and roiled, as something large underneath it began to move. Mabel and I backed away. Jeremy grabbed our hands, his eyes wide with fear. “What the hell?!”

The mushrooms shot up.

And that’s when I realized –

They weren’t mushrooms at all.

They were toes.

And that’s when something grabbed my ankle.

I screamed. I yanked and thrashed and shrieked, but the grip was incredibly tight. Jeremy rushed towards me; I glanced down –

It was a hand. Pale and white, caked with black dirt.

Jeremy grabbed me by the arms and tugged. I felt the fingers loosen, then finally slip.

And then we were flying across the path, towards the safety of home.

The police told our parents the whole story, in hushed whispers that Jeremy and I weren’t supposed to hear. Apparently, to evade capture, Frank Lonegan had buried himself in the soil. He was breathing through a small drinking straw.

My parents and I moved shortly after that. We slowly recovered from the incident, though I was still never allowed to walk to school alone.

But to this day –

I still don’t eat mushrooms.

Shadows Where They Died

I can see where people died.

No, no, it’s not what you’d think. No zombies with blood all over them, staring at me, hungry for revenge. I just see shadows, blurry and frozen – on streets, sidewalks, hospital room floors.

And that’s why I was dreading visiting Grandma.

The car pulled out of the driveway. I stared out the window, dread sinking into my heart, as Mom prepped me for the visit. “Grandma’s been taking it well, but still – don’t bring him up until she does, okay?”

I nodded.

A month ago, Grandpa had fallen down the stairs. Within minutes, he passed away. I’d already pictured his shadow a million times: long and dark, sitting at the base of the stairs.

And it would be different this time.

Because I’d be able to fill in the details. Imagine his tall, thin body there on the floor as he gasped for breath. Imagine his brown eyes, wide with terror. His thin, wrinkled lips – that were always smiling – open in a silent scream.

My mom turned on to Euler Street.

You’ll be okay, I thought. Remember the one you saw on Valley Road? It was a little one, near the gutter, blending in perfectly with the dappled shadows from the leaves above. You knew it belonged to Macy. But after a few days, you didn’t think about it anymore. You were okay.

But I didn’t know her as well as I knew Grandpa.

The car pulled into the driveway. We got out and knocked on the door.

Thump. Thump.

Soft rustles came from inside, and soon enough, Grandma was swinging open the door. “Hi, Elena,” she said with a smile, wrapping me in a hug. “I made some cookies, if you want some!”

As we stepped into the foyer, I tried to keep my gaze glued to Grandma’s face.

I tried my best.

But I couldn’t. Before I could stop myself, my eyes darted to the floor.

And that’s when I saw it –

Or, rather, didn’t see it.

The stairs and the entire surrounding area were empty. The floor glistened from rays of sun coming through the windows; the carpeting on the stairs was its bright and cheerful green.

Not a single shadow was out of place.

And so, I had a great time. “Grandma!” I said, through a mouthful of cookie. “We’re doing paintings of fruit in art class, and Mrs. Stein said mine was one of the best…” I bubbled over with excitement. The dread faded away; it was replaced with warm, happy feelings.

That was before I went upstairs.

Grandma was in the downstairs bathroom, when I suddenly needed to go. “Go use the one upstairs,” Mom said. Then she added, laughing: “Just don’t touch the bath bombs next to the tub. You know she guards those things with her life.”

I climbed the stairs, fearlessly; they creaked and groaned in response. I walked over to the master bedroom, and with a confident tug, pulled open the door.

I froze.

There, on the right side of the bed – just a shade darker than the shadows from the fluttering curtains – was a long, thin shadow.

I backed away.

No, no, no…

I immediately pictured Grandpa. Lying there, gasping for breath, dying on the bed. The din of scraping chairs and footsteps wafted up from the kitchen; but it was all silence to me, as I stared at the shadow.

And then a thought entered my head.

If he died in the bed…

He didn’t die falling down the stairs.

With shuddering breaths, I forced myself to step into the room. “Grandpa,” I whispered, the tears rushing through my face, burning my eyes. “Grandpa, what happened to you?”

I don’t know how long I’d been sitting on the bed, with my hand curled around the roundish part of the shadow cast on the pillow, when the door creaked open.

I looked up.

Grandma stared at me. The smile was gone from her face.

“Oh – uh, I was just –” I stuttered.

“You see it too,” she said. Something like panic flashed in her eyes.

“What – you mean, you –”

She shut the door behind her. Click.

Then she sat down on the bed next to me, her face frozen and cold.

“And now you know what I did.”

What’s on my Baby’s Head?

6:27 am.

The contractions had gone from cramps to mind-blowing pulses of pain. I screamed and cried and gasped for air. When will this be over? It was the same question that throbbed through my head all night, but I still had no idea.

8:32 am.

“Push!” they yelled, as I felt another contraction clamping down on my insides. “Keep it up! 10… 9… 8…” There was no way I could hold that push for 10 seconds. No way.

9:53 am.

Waaaaaaaahhhh.

He was out. I heard the clink of metal, a hush of voices, and above all his feral cry. They wiped him off and put him on my chest. I felt the rush of warmth and love, towards little Jack –

And then my fingers brushed against the back of his head.

What the hell?

It was a bump, small and round, right under his skin.

A tumor? A parasite? My mind started to race with all the possibilities, and an intense fear settled in my chest, clamping my heart like the contractions. “Dr. Ambrose!” I started, my voice quavering. “I feel something – there, on the back of his head –”

He walked over, glanced down at Jack, and shook his head. “No, no, it’s nothing to be worried about. Some babies have molding – their head looks a bit conical from the pressure of the birth. Totally normal; it’ll go away in a few days.”

“But this is a bump, not a –”

“It’s fine. Just enjoy this time with him. And try to stay calm – if you start getting stressed, he’ll sense it, and he’ll start getting stressed too.” He gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and started towards the door. “Now, I’ll be right back. I just need to get some supplies from the other room.”

After he left, my fingers slid across the bump, over and over. Smooth, oblong, with a seam across the bottom. It’s normal, it’s normal, I told myself. And then it seemed to move – to twitch beneath my fingers in a fast, flickering motion. Don’t freak out, it’s totally normal –

I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to see it.

I flipped him over.

He protested with a piercing wail. I stared down at his quivering, bald little scalp, and felt the blood rush from my face.

It wasn’t a tumor, or a parasite.

It was a little, pink-lidded eye, slowly blinking open to look at me.

I began to scream. My screams mingled with Jack’s, and we both hollered until Dr. Ambrose was running back into the room. “Taylor, what in the world –”

“It’s an eye!” I screamed, now choking on sobs. “It’s an eye in the back of his head!”

He stared at me, calmly.

And then he turned to the nurse.

“Get her sedated,” he said. “Now!”

As I felt the prick of the needle in my arm, Dr. Ambrose pulled off his surgical cap.

And as he did –

I saw something. On the back of his head, interrupting the pattern of his hair.

And then everything faded to black.

The Flight from Hell

I was not enjoying my flight.

I was in a middle seat, crammed between a purple-haired teenager and a woman with a screaming baby. I’d tried to nap about twenty times. And when I finally did doze off, a loud noise woke me just a few minutes later.

Snap!

I turned. At first, I wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from. But then my eyes fell on a strangely-dressed man across the aisle. In a weird way, he kind of reminded me of Neo from The Matrix – black hair, black clothes, and dark sunglasses. He was holding a small leather briefcase in his lap – the sound was from undoing its gold clasps.

Snap!

For lack of anything better to do, I watched him. He opened the briefcase just a few inches, peered inside, and smiled. A small smile, as if he didn’t want anyone else to see it. I watched him curiously as he began to pry it open, his smile growing wider.

Snacks?

A laptop?

A… bomb?

But no. It was none of those things.

The briefcase was empty.

Weirdo, I thought, snickering to myself a bit. Guy probably forgot all his stuff at the airport or something. I smiled to myself, nuzzled my head against the pillow, and closed my eyes.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

My eyes flew open.

The person who’d been sitting next to Neo – a sixty-year-old, rotund man – was suddenly beating on the window with his fist. It shook and rattled dangerously.

“Crazy old dude,” Purple-Hair laughed.

But it wasn’t funny for long.

Old Man grabbed his laptop, and with as much strength as he could muster, began smashing it into the window.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“He’s going to break the window!” I shouted. I pounded the stewardess button. Come on, come on…

The silence of the airplane swelled into a cacophony of panicked voices. The person on the other side of Neo – a 12-year-old girl, wearing a yellow flowered shirt – ran out into the aisle. For a second, I thought she was getting help.

But then she ran a few rows ahead of us –

And began climbing over the passengers in the emergency exit row.

Clawing for the door.

“What’s she doing?!” Mom cried. Baby, sensing the panic, began to wail too. Purple-Hair was finally afraid, her brown eyes wide.

“Hey! Stop!” The stewardess came running down the aisle, panting and shaking. “Go back to your seat,” she reprimanded, yanking the girl by the arm.

“Let me go! Let me go!” she shrieked. “I have to get out of here!”

Then she lurched forward – and bit the stewardess as hard as she could.

A scream. Thump. She dropped her.

The girl ran for the exit again. But the passengers were ready this time. One of the guys leapt out of his seat and grabbed her by the waist.

Crack! Crack!

“Over there!” I yelled to the stewardess. “He’s going to break the window!”

Old Man was repeatedly hitting the glass. Surprisingly, Neo wasn’t making any move to restrain him; he was just sitting there, in the middle seat, with that tiny smile upon his lips.

And as soon as the stewardess’s eyes fell on him, the smile grew.

I leapt out of my seat. A few others did the same, and we descended on Old Man. As soon as we touched him, he whipped around, staring at us with wild eyes. “Don’t touch me, filthy whores!” he spat, brushing our hands away.

Crack!

“Sir, you need to calm down –”

Crack!

“The window’s cracked!”

Crack!

“Fucking stop him!”

Crack!

We finally wrestled him away from the window. Dragged him across Neo, who just watched us with a knowing smile.

As soon as we got Old Man in the aisle, we thought it was over.

But it wasn’t.

Because now two more people – the people in the middle seats directly in front of and behind Neo – were standing up, that frenzied look in their eyes. One, a nerdy-looking woman with glasses, ran for the front of the plane. The other, a bearded college guy, went towards the back.

The stewardess paled. “They’re going for the emergency hatches,” she whispered.

We ran after them.

We didn’t get there in time.

But, as it turns out, airplane hatches are wonderfully built. And it would take a few tons of force to open one of them mid-flight. That didn’t stop those two from trying, though. Nerdy Woman screamed and pulled until she collapsed into a sobbing mess on the floor. Bearded Guy grunted and pushed until he was vomiting from overexertion.

We made an emergency landing in Raleigh. The four passengers were taken into custody by the FBI upon landing. Somehow, Neo slipped out unnoticed – and, even if he didn’t, how could they take him in? He technically hadn’t done anything wrong.

To this day, I still don’t know what happened on Flight 3310. Maybe it was just the random insanity of four people. Or maybe they had planned their attack for months, even though it seemed random.

I don’t know what happened –

But I’m pretty damn sure that Neo’s briefcase was not, in fact, empty.

I Met Him on Craigslist

“He really bought you that diamond bracelet?”

I get why Rachel was skeptical. The nicest thing Mike ever got her was a pizza slice with everything on it.

“How did you meet him?” Theresa asked, without a smile.

“At Starbucks. He randomly sat down next to me, and we just started talking.”

Okay, that was a lie.

The truth was – I met him online. Specifically, Craigslist. Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking. What, you can’t get a guy to like you at school?

And, well, no. I can’t.

I even asked out some guys. It didn’t end well. Kevin apparently had a girlfriend, though I never saw him with her. Jackson wasn’t into “my type,” whatever that means. And Alexander just gave a flat-out no, and never talked to me again.

So, soon enough, I found myself browsing the personal ads of Craigslist. And after scrolling through some weird ads, I came across something real.

Teenage guy seeking nice girlfriend – m4w – 16

Hi there. my name is Matt and I’m a sophomore in high school 🙂 I’m looking for a girlfriend. I’m pretty shy in real life, so I haven’t even been on a date yet! lol. I do track&field at my school and like to play video games (Fallout yeah!!!).

btw personality is much more important than what you look like. I want to laugh and have fun with my girl, not watch her apply makeup all day lol.

We hit it off. He was funny, smart, and just got me. After a week, he mailed me the bracelet. After two weeks, we were basically in love.

And, tonight, I was going to meet him for the very first time.

At 10pm, I slipped into the lacy underwear I stole from my sister. At 10:30pm, I snuck out the window and walked the two-and-a-half miles to his house. His parents were out of town, he said, and we’d have the place all to ourselves.

When I finally got there, I had to double-check I got the address right. It wasn’t a sprawling brick mansion, like I had pictured, from the bracelet and talk of his parents’ wealth. Instead, it was a grimy little house, with an overgrown yard and tacky garden statues.

Clank. Clank. Clank.

I hit the knocker three times. One of the lights flicked on. “Come in,” a voice called, from deep within the house.

My heart racing with excitement, I turned the knob, and walked inside.

The living room was a mess. The couch was covered in papers. And on the kitchen counter sat a tub of bleach and some dirty rags. The whole house reeked, too, of something foul. A putrid mix of chemicals and rotten food.

Maybe I should leave, I thought. But that was quickly stomped out by the excitement of meeting Matt. “Hello?”

A figure walked out from the back room.

But it wasn’t a teenage boy. Instead, it was a towering, gray, bearded man. Despite the condition of the house, he was well-dressed – in a neat button-down and khakis.

He broke into a smile. Yellow, crooked teeth. “You must be Sami. I’m Mr. Johnson, Matt’s father.”

But Matt said his parents would be out of town. My heart pounded in my chest. “Uh, where’s Matt?”

“He’s at the diner, waiting for you!”

“But he told me –”

“Oh, no, you must’ve gotten mixed up. He wanted to meet you at the diner, so you two would have some privacy from me. But I can give you a ride over!”

“I think maybe –”

“Come on, he’s so excited to meet you!”

“No. I’ll come back tomorrow.” I turned my heel, and started towards the door – quickly, in fast, racing steps –

Thump.

Strong arms yanked me back by the waist. His wild eyes and yellow teeth flashed in my face.

“Get off me!” I screamed. “Help! Someone –”

But I felt the cold sting of metal against my neck.

“Make any more noise, and I’ll kill you,” he growled.

He took one of the rags from the sink. Pulled it around my mouth, gagged me. Then he bound my wrists and threw me over his shoulder. I kicked and screamed, but the noise came out as nothing more than muffled squeals.

“Another girl, just like you, has a date with Matt tonight,” he whispered, as he walked towards the door with me. “I’m going to bring you and Britney to the abandoned farmhouse out on Alston Rd., and then we’re going to have some fun.”

Thud.

I was thrown into the trunk.

Slam.

The lid came down.

The car rumbled beneath me. The tears fell hot and fast; cold sweat soaked my shirt. How was I so stupid?! I thought. I actually thought some guy on the internet was the real thing? That he liked me?!

Now I’m going to die. Oh, Mom… Dad… Theresa, Rachel…

I fell against the side of the trunk, as the car swung in a turn.

And that other girl. Britney. If only I could warn her… My sobs were muted against the gag. She’s going to die, too, with me. She just wanted a guy to notice her… like me…

The car halted to a stop.

I tried to scream. I tried to thump against the sides. I tried everything I could, to make as much noise as possible. Maybe someone would notice.

Slam. I felt the front door close as he got out. No, don’t do it. Run, run, run… I thought, as if I could somehow warn her through my mind.

But then I heard something else.

Shouting. Muffled through the metal, but I could still make out the words:

“Hands in the air!”

And then – crack! – the trunk popped open.

There stood a police officer.

“He’s got one in here!” he yelled.


By some miracle, “Britney” had been a sting, set up by the police. After searching Johnson’s house, they found three bodies in the basement. Of girls my age. Probably desperate, outcast, and feeling like they finally found true love in Matt.

As for me?

I’m grounded basically forever. The bracelet turned out to be a five-dollar fake, and my sister is still looking for her missing underwear. I’m going through counseling, but things are looking up.

There’s even a guy in my class who seems to like me.

But don’t worry –

I’m never going to meet him at his house.

The Shadow on the Stairs

You don’t know true horror until you’ve seen your child almost die in front of you.

It happened so fast. He was just toddling around the house, his hand locked into mine. But when we got to the base of stairs, he suddenly slipped away, and fell.

Hard.

He let out a piercing shriek. But then he was silent. For what seemed like minutes, hours, days – he just sat there in my arms, his mouth opened in a silent scream. His face began to turn blue – little patches of gray blossoming near his eyes, on his cheeks.

And that’s when I thought – no, knew – that his life was almost gone.

But according to the doctor, he had never been close to death at all. “Children hold their breath all the time,” he said. “A lot of them even keel over and faint, right on the spot!” He patted Matty on the back and gave him a big smile. “You’re just fine, aren’t you, little guy?”

He gave the doctor a big, toothy grin.

And for a few days, everything was fine. But then, as he was walking towards the stairs, he fell again. And it was the silent scream, the lack of breath all over again. “Danny! Help!” I was screaming, even though the doctor told me everything was fine.

“Relax. Just wait it out,” Danny said.

And soon enough, he did take a breath. A deep, shuddering, wheezing breath.

And I cried my eyes out.

Over the coming weeks, I noticed a pattern, though. He would only hold his breath when he tripped and fell on the stairs. It would never happen, for example, when he fell in the living room.

“Have you noticed he only holds his breath after falling at the foot of the stairs?” I asked Danny, bouncing Matty on my lap.

“No, not really,” he replied, not looking up from his computer.

“Da-da-da-da,” Matty said, staring at us.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Images ran through my mind – the bluish pallor… his mouth hanging open… always by the stairs.

So at 4 am, I heaved myself out of bed. Moonlight shone in through the window, filtering into the upstairs hallway. I made it to the stairs and grabbed the banister, my hand slipping over the wood.

Thump, thump, thump.

My feet slapped against the wood. My heart started to pound. For some reason, I felt suddenly nervous. Terrified. Cold. I made it to the landing, and my eyes fell on the foot of the stairs, several feet below me.

I stopped.

There it was – a dark shadow, at the base of the stairs.

Tall, with long, spindly fingers.

In my surprise, I leapt back.

And then I slipped.

Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

I fell down the stairs, my head clunking against each step as I fell. And as I got to the bottom, I opened my mouth to scream –

But I couldn’t.

Because I couldn’t breathe.

Long, cold fingers were wrapped tight around my neck.

In seconds, they released, and I began shrieking with all my might. Not in pain, but in fear.

Because now I knew.

Matty wasn’t holding his breath –

Something was holding it for him.

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