Category: Flash Fiction Page 1 of 3

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.

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.

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 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.

Missed Call from: Me

hate talking on the phone.

All those awkward pauses, not knowing how to end it… And the risk of talking to someone for over an hour?! It’s terrifying! So I keep my phone perpetually on silent, and figure if it’s important, they’ll text or leave a voicemail.

So on Sunday evening, while I was doing the dishes, my phone was silent on the couch. When I picked it up later, to check the time, I found that I had a missed call at 7:24 pm. But what I saw next made my heart start to race.

The missed call was from my own number – (352)-xxx-xxxx.

Is that even possible? I thought.

I did a quick Google search. “Some scammers can impersonate your phone number, to make you more likely to pick up the phone,” the webpage read. “To prevent it, go to…” Ugh. I closed my laptop, tossed the phone on the bed, and took a shower.

When I got out, I checked my phone.

There was another missed call from my number –

And a voicemail.

Probably just a message from the scammer, I thought. Are you satisfied with your internet? Do you need a new dishwasher? I dialed in to voicemail, and listened closely.

Thump!

The first thing I heard was a dull thump, echoing through the earpiece.

Then, the next 25 seconds were static – a low hum. And I could hear some sort of clicking in the background – faint, barely audible. Click, click, click.

At 25 seconds in, I heard a distinct rustling sound – and then the static started to fade. It didn’t disappear, but it faded slowly into a soft hum.

At 27 seconds – intermittent blips of voice, cut with static. I couldn’t make out any words, but it sounded female. And the tone sounded relatively normal – I don’t think she was screaming or crying, but I’m not sure.

And then – at 35 seconds –

“STOP!”

This word was clear. It was shouted, loudly and firmly, over the static. I couldn’t tell if it was angry or afraid – with such a short clip, it was hard to tell.

But I did know one thing, without doubt.

It was my voice.

The voicemail ended there. I dropped the phone, and just lay there on the bed, trying to make sense of it all. Probably just a weird glitch, I thought, draping an arm over my face. And was it even really my voice? I mean, hundreds of men must sound like me, right? –

The phone flashed.

A text.

I grabbed it. The phone slipped in my sweaty fingers as I tapped away, brought it up –

The text was from my number.

And it was only four words, all in caps:

DON’T OPEN THE DOOR

Well that’s ridiculous, I thought. What does that even mean? Of course I have to open the door sometime! Tomorrow is a workday, and –

The air-conditioning kicked in. A low hum filled the room.

Click, click, click.

High-heeled footsteps, out in the hall.

And then –

Thump!

A sharp knock, at my door.

Daddy, There’s a Man Behind You

Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel in NYC. And let me be straight with you guys: I hate it here. There’s a siren every five minutes, a dog barking next door, and some guy on the sidewalk ranting about bedbugs.

That’s why I decided to Skype with my family tonight. After mistyping the WiFi password a hundred times and making the bed again after checking for bedbugs (yeah, that guy got to me,) I finally gave them a call.

Immediately, I felt better. I heard all the sounds of home: our terrier barking, Samantha squealing with delight, and Baby Theo babbling up a storm. Their noise drowned out the cold, crazy sounds of the city, and I smiled.

“Here, let me put Samantha on,” my wife, Ginny, said. “She misses you so much.”

She walked out of frame, and Samantha’s head poked up over the table. “Daddy! Daddy!”

“Hi Sweetheart!” I made a frowny face. “Poor Daddy has to stay alone in a hotel tonight for work.”

“Silly Daddy, you’re not alone,” Samantha said, giving me one of her big, toothy grins. “There’s a man standing right behind you!”

I froze. “What did you say?”

“There’s a man behind you!”

I whipped around. But the hotel room was empty – all I saw was the bright lamp, the empty armchair, the comforter in a tangled lump.

“He’s hiding now,” she giggled.

“Samantha, what are you talking about?”

But she just laughed and smiled. “You’re being silly, Daddy!”

“Put Mom back on.”

Ginny ran back into view, a large glob of spit-up on her T-shirt. “Danny, I’m trying to feed Theo,” she said. “What was so important that –”

“Samantha said she saw someone standing behind me.”

“Oh, dear.” Samantha shook her head, as she bounced Theo on her lap. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you. She’s been going on and on about some imaginary friend recently. I already asked Dr. Marks about it; she says it’s totally normal, just a phase…”

My heart began to slow. “She had me scared there for a second!” I said, starting to laugh.

“Oh, I know. She scares me all the time with it. Talks to herself in the playroom, tells Theo about him… it’s crazy.” She snorted. “Did you ever think kids would be this… weird?”

“No. No, I didn’t.”

“Alright, well, I should get back to it. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

I closed the laptop with a click. Out the window, cars whizzed by, streaks of red and white against the blue of dusk. I looked around the empty room, at the beige carpet and the pulled curtains; it finally looked inviting, now that my heart was full.

I got up and walked towards the bed. The comforter was crumpled in a heap, pushed to the corner of the bed, and the sheets were wrinkled and pushed. What a mess, I thought, reaching for the comforter.

I froze.

Wait.

After I checked for bedbugs…

I re-made the bed.

I took a step back.

And that’s when I noticed – sticking out from the edge of the comforter –

The shiny, black tip of a shoe.

The Forest: A Video Game

“Can we play a game?”

“Which one? Minecraft, or—”

“The one we got at the garage sale.”

Oh. That game. The one with the badly-drawn trees on the cover, that was hanging out in the FREE bin at the end of the sale.

But a boring game is better than one of Peter’s tantrums, so I popped the CD in.

And waited.

And waited, and waited, and waited.

Finally, the scene loaded—but it wasn’t pretty. We were standing in the middle of what appeared to be a forest. The trees, which were identical clones of each other, had leaves that stuck together in big, stiff clumps. A low-resolution dirt texture was mapped to the ground, and the render distance was terrible—beyond a few steps, it was all just black.

And then the webcam light went on.

Was this some kind of virtual reality game, where it was recording our movements, or something? Either way, I didn’t really want the camera recording us, and—

Suddenly, it blinked off.

I shrugged, and turned to Peter. “Where should we go first?”

“Right! Right!”

I jiggled the mouse, so we were facing right, and pressed W.

We walked through the virtual forest. But as the minutes went by, everything stayed the same. The same weird trees, the same dirt, even the same rocks—two small ones and a big one, flitting by every ten seconds. I was just starting to get bored, when the dirt fell away, and the world beyond was pitch black.

“Whoops! The game broke, buddy.”

“No, it didn’t!” he said, grabbing the laptop from me. He marched the character forward, and as the trees faded back into view, I realized we had just been standing on top of a really big hill.

“Hey, it’s like the woods behind our house. You know, when we go down the hill, and then there’s the stream and the boulder?”

“You mean the butt rock?”

“Peter, don’t call it that. That boulder has been there for hundreds of years; it’s a relic that reminds us of how time is fleeting, and—”

“But it looks like a butt.”

I groaned, and took the computer back.

I could only see a few steps ahead of me as I stumbled down the hill. But slowly, the trees started to thin a bit, and the ground began to level out.

And then I saw it.

A stream, snaking across my path.

And behind it—

The vague outline of something large and round.

I mashed down on the W key. The scene bounced as my character jogged toward. Peter was squealing with delight, but I wasn’t listening. Because I knew.

I stopped, and there it was: a large boulder, with a huge crack running down the middle.

The butt rock.

My heart started to pound. The mouse slipped under my fingertips.

“How’d it do that? So cool!” Peter said, grinning from ear to ear.

I circled around it, just to be sure. But it was identical to the boulder in our backyard, down to the very last pixelated lichen. I walked around it again, and again, until I was dizzy. It must be coincidence, right? There was no way—

“What’s that?” Peter asked.

“What’s what?” I said, trying to hide the quaver in my voice.

“That dark thing.”

“That’s the crack in the rock.”

“No, the thing sticking out of the crack.”

He was right; there was something sticking out of the crack, small and dark, near the forest floor. I walked closer to the boulder and panned the camera down.

Stubby things, stained dark red.

It couldn’t be, but they looked just like…

Toes.

Snap. I closed the laptop, and jumped out of my seat.

“No! I want to keep playing!” He clung to my arm. “Please?”

“This game isn’t appropriate—”

He started screaming. “You never let me play anything fun! Never ever ever!” He got up and stomped on the floor. “Let me play!”

“Peter, this isn’t—”

Let me play!

I slowly opened the laptop, and held up my hands in surrender. “Okay, okay.” I grabbed the mouse, turned the character around, and started in the opposite direction. Back up the hill, back into the ugly, uniform forest.

Except, this time, it wasn’t so uniform.

The trees grew thin. The ground faded from dirt to grass. The rocks grew smaller and smaller.

And the distance wasn’t black anymore.

There was light, golden and bright, shining through the trees.

My heart sank. I pounded the W key, running closer, hoping it wasn’t what I thought it was…

A house came into view. A small colonial, tan with green shutters, with a fire pit on the patio, and a toy truck in the grass… All rendered into pixelated, blocky forms.

I crept towards the window. Slowly, shapes faded into view from behind the virtual glass. A person, seated at a table, next to a smaller figure—a little boy…

“Dad?”

Peter’s eyes were no longer on the computer screen.

“Who’s that in the window?”

Patterns in the Birch

Have you ever seen a bunny in the clouds? Or a face on the moon? Or a creepy grin in that dried-up splatter of tomato sauce on the kitchen floor?

That’s pareidolia.

Our brain sees faces in random patterns. Call it evolution, insanity, or whatever you like—but it’s an instinct ingrained in all of us, from the very day we were born.

And that’s exactly what happened when I found myself staring at a birch tree, waiting for Jake to finish up his lunch.

“Jake! Look!” I said, pointing to one of the black marks on the white trunk. “Doesn’t that look just like an eye?”

“Not really.”

“What? It’s totally an eye! There’s the pupil, and the eyelid—”

“Looks more like a bird to me,” he said, through a mouthful of tuna. “Or a bat. The wings, the round little body. Those points could even be fangs!” He grinned. “Maybe it’s a vampire bat.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s totally not a vampire bat.”

See, that’s the thing about pareidolia. Everyone sees something different; it’s like a Rorschach test. While you see a cute kitty on your morning toast, your boyfriend sees the perfect likeness of Alice Cooper.

“I’m done,” Jake said, crunching up the paper bag and throwing it in his backpack. “Let’s go.”

We continued to hike up the hill. The birch trees surrounded us, the pale trunks contrasting sharply with the yellow leaves of autumn. And the black eyes etched into the bark seemed to multiply, the deeper into the forest we got.

“Shouldn’t we be heading back?” I asked, as I applied more bug spray. “It’s nearly four—the sun’s going to set soon.”

“Aw, come on, don’t be a party pooper. Just a little further.” He took out the pamphlet, and fluttered it in my face. “I want to see this kickass waterfall.”

But it took at least thirty minutes for us to find the waterfall. And when we did, we were both disappointed; the recent dry spell had reduced it to little more than a trickle. “It was worth it,” Jake said, trying to convince himself more than me. “Totally worth it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Teresa?”

“Really beautiful,” I replied, rolling my eyes behind his back.

After a tedious five minutes of taking photos, we finally turned around. My legs ached, and I scratched wildly at a bump on my arm; but at least we would be back soon. As we stumbled down the hill, the eyes seemed to watch our every move.

“Woah, wait a second,” he said, stopping dead on the trail.

I groaned. “Jake, come on. We need to get home.” It was nearly five-thirty, now, and the forest darkened with every passing minute.

“Look at that tree.”

I looked up, and squinted in the shadows. Among the sea of white and black and orange, nothing looked amiss. “What are you talking about?” I said, glancing from tree to tree. “I don’t see any—”

No.

There, a few feet off the trail, was a pure-white birch tree. All the black markings were gone: no eyes, no birds, no bats.

“Maybe it’s like, an albino birch tree or something?” I said, ignoring the chill down my spine.

“Then how come we didn’t see it on the way up?”

“I mean—I was looking at the ground most of the time. I didn’t want to trip. There are so many rocks, and—”

My eyes flicked back to the trees, and I faltered.

Now several of the birch trees were white.

“Jake?”

We both gasped.

Before our eyes, the black markings wriggled and twitched. They scuttled down the trunks, across the forest floor.

Towards us.

“No, no, no,” Jake whispered.

A low chittering burst through the darkness. The crunch of leaves, the snap of twigs, and a sickening clicking sound.

“Run!” I screamed.

But I already felt the prick of their legs on my ankles. The touch of their smooth, round bodies; the itch of their long antennae swishing against my calves.

We ran as fast as we could.

The chittering grew louder, into a shrill scream. Don’t turn around, I thought, an intense itch flaring up my legs. Just focus on running. Focus. Focus—

Eeeeeeeee!

I turned around.

The insects—or whatever they were—had coalesced into a dark shape. Wriggling, writhing, twisting in the gray shadows of the forest. A shape with wobbly legs. A throbbing chest. A lumpy head.

A human shape.

Around us, the trees paled, as more of the things spilled out into the trail. “Just keep running,” I huffed. Just. Keep. Running. But the image of them crawling up my legs, under my shorts, and all over my body, didn’t budge.

“Are we almost there?” I shouted.

“I—I don’t know!”

The trail was now a shifting, rippling mess of black. And the shape… it was growing larger by the second.

But then I remembered.

“Wait, Jake! The bugspray!”

I reached into my backpack, pulled out the aerosol can—

And aimed at the ground.

Pzzzzzzssshhh!

Shrill squeals in response. The black sea parted, and we ran for our lives.

It felt like hours had passed when we were finally out of the woods, huffing and puffing in the dying sunlight. “What were those things?” I said, collapsing against the hood of the car. “Beetles? Or—”

Jake shook his head. “Let’s just get out of here.”

We dove into the car. I thrust the keys into ignition.

And through the windshield, in the shadows of the forest, I could just make out the figure. As we pulled out, it turned its head—watching us.

I mean, it didn’t really look like a person.

But pareidolia is a powerful thing.

The Wall in Grandpa’s Backyard

“Never go over the wall.” My grandpa sat in the rocking chair, massaging his bad ankle through mud-stained jeans. “This isn’t the safest area of Florida. Especially at night.”

“Okay.”

“Also, be careful with that. You could take your eye out.”

See, that’s why my nine-year-old self didn’t take him seriously. He was always warning me about various “dangerous” things. Don’t swim in the deep end of the pool; you could drown. Don’t run so fast; you could trip and break your neck.

So when—one night—I heard a voice on the other side of the wall, I wasn’t scared.

I had been playing alone in the backyard, sitting in the grass between the orange trees, when I heard it. A woman’s voice, low and soft, echoing over the concrete wall at the end of the backyard.

“Hello?”

Being the curious kid I was, I immediately ran over to it. I wouldn’t climb over—even though I didn’t believe Grandpa, I didn’t want to make him mad—but there was no harm in taking a peek, right?

I stepped up on the old stone fountain, reached for the top of the wall, and hoisted myself up. And then I peered down.

Underneath the intertwining oak branches and Spanish moss was only darkness. I squinted, trying to make sense of the shadows flitting across the dirt floor. Maybe I had imagined it—

“Hello?”

The voice rang out in the darkness, up through the trees.

“Hello!” I called back.

I heard a rustling sound, and the soft thump of footsteps. “Who’s there?”

“Amanda,” I called down.

“I’m Elizabeth.” The shadows shifted, but I still couldn’t quite make out the figure below. “And I need your help, Amanda.”

“Sure! I can help!”

“I’m thirsty,” she said. The wind picked up, and the branches swayed, scattering the shadows below. “So very thirsty.”

“I’ll get you some water!” I said, without second thought.

“Oh, that would be so wonderful, Amanda.”

I jumped down, scampered inside, and fished a bottle of water from the fridge. Grandpa didn’t even notice; he was watching some boring World War II movie on TV, rubbing his bad ankle all the while.

I stepped back up onto the fountain. “I got you some water,” I called. “Do you want me to throw it down?”

“Oh, well… it might hit me. Maybe you can come down and give it to me?”

I paused. The warm Florida air blew over my face, and there was a strange smell: sour, like when Dad’s meat freezer in the basement broke a few years ago. “I can’t. I’m not supposed to go over the wall.”

I was met with awkward silence.

“Hello?”

“Please, I’m so thirsty,” the voice said, again.

I looked at the rough concrete. Maybe I could pull myself up a bit, reach down, and hand her the bottle of water? I swung a leg up over the wall, and with a grunt, pulled myself into a sitting position.

Slowly, I leaned down, and reached my hand through the canopy of branches.

But nothing took the bottle of water.

“Hello?”

Silence. Not even a footstep, or a rustle, from the underbrush below.

“Hel—”

Something yanked my ankle.

Hard.

I jerked forward. The water fell to the ground with a sickening splat. My hands flew out, gripping the edge of the wall—

Ch-ch-ch-ch.

A chittering sound, almost insect-like, emanated from the underbrush. Large, dark figures emerged from the shadows, swarming towards me in jerky motions. I screamed, holding on to the wall for dear life, but my fingers were slipping—

“Amanda!”

Two rough, strong hands grabbed my shoulders. In one motion, they yanked me back over the wall.

“What did I tell you?” Grandpa shouted. “Never go over the wall!”

“But there was a woman,” I said, through sobs, “and she said—”

“No buts!” He dragged me back inside, and sat me down on the couch. “No matter what you heard—what you think you heard…” He propped my leg up on the ottoman. An angry red mark had appeared—the imprint of four long fingers and a thumb.

Fingers so long, they wrapped around the entire circumference of my ankle, and then some.

“Grandpa, what were those things?”

He didn’t reply.

Instead, he slowly rolled up his pant leg.

There was a white, shining scar—

Of long fingers wrapped around his ankle.

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