Tag: weird Page 1 of 2

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?”

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.

Bottomless Pit

“Are we there yet?”

My legs burned. My bites itched. Cory had promised an interesting hike, but so far, the most interesting thing I had seen was a woman wearing sunglasses in the shade. Oh, and a squirrel falling out of a tree. So I was about to abandon them—take my chances with the bears and the moose and whatever the hell else was out here—when Cory replied:

“We’re here.”

“Finally,” I groaned. “This better be good, because—”

My breath caught in my throat.

We were standing on the cusp of a huge pit. A thin fence circled it, covered with signs that read DANGER and NO TRESPASSING.

Vegetation crept up to the edge and spilled over into the darkness, like some kind of grassy waterfall. And an unfortunate tree grew at the edge, its exposed roots stretching towards the bottom.

If there even was a bottom.

“What is it? A sinkhole?”

“Beats me,” he replied, pacing around the fence. “All I know is, locals call it the Pit of Endless Darkness.”

“Oooooh, so spooky,” Kat mocked.

“How deep does it go?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Kat shrugged. “And who cares?”

Cory got out his phone. “If we throw something in, I can time how long it takes to reach the bottom. And then, using kinematics, we can calculate—”

“You’re such a nerd, Cory,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“No, let’s do it,” I said, reaching into my pocket. I pulled out a water bottle, and chucked it. With a soft rush, it fell down into the pit.

Kat leaned against the fence, peering down into the darkness.

But she leaned a little too far.

Snap!

The fence gave way.

Kate tumbled forward—arms outstretched, face frozen in surprise.

And then she screamed.

And screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

Cory and I lunged forward. But it was too late—her scream was echoing up the pit, fading with every second.

And then silence.

No smack, no clunk, no thud. Just the chittering of the birds above, and the rush of the soft breeze.

“Kat!” I yelled, trembling.

“No,” Cory said, his voice cut with sobs. “No, no, no! Kat!”

I stumbled away from the fence and collapsed in the soft grass, sobbing. I pulled out my phone, started to dial 911; but I knew, deep down, there was no saving her.

But then I heard it.

A noise—

Shrill, high-pitched, reverberating through the trees about a dozen yards away.

Cory and I stared at each other.

And then we ran as fast as we could, the branches snapping beneath our feet. “Kat!” we yelled, as the sound grew louder. “Kat !”

There she was.

Lying on the ground, caked with dirt and dust, facing away from us.

As we approached, she tilted her head up towards the sky. “I’m okay!” she called up, her hands cupped around her mouth. “Cory, Jen, I’m okay! I’m at the bottom!”

“Kat?” Cory asked, stepping towards her carefully.

“Yes! I’m okay!” she yelled, her face still tilted towards the sky. Then she stretched her arms out, groping at the dirt. “Dammit, I can’t see a thing. So dark down here.”

“Kat—”

Wobbling, she pulled herself up.

Then she turned in our direction.

Cory stumbled back.

“No,” I choked out.

Her eyes—

They were completely gone.

Blizzard Warning

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

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

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

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

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

Crack.

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

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

I shot a glance at Daniel. He shrugged back.

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

“That’s weird.”

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

“I’ll turn on the lights,” I said, flicking the switch.

Click.

Darkness.

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

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

“Okay, fine.”

He disappeared into the kitchen.

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

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

Static.

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

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

I clicked the dial forward.

A cheery voice came on, clear as day.

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

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

I turned up the volume.

“Come out and get yours as soon as you can. There is limited supply.”

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

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

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

“Daniel!”

“Kidding, kidding! Here, let me see if I can find anything online about it.” He pulled out his phone. The blue glow contrasted sharply with the fire. “Instead of looking on news sites, I’m going to just Google with wild abandon. Let’s see… ‘Minnesota’… ‘radio broadcast’… ‘put sheets over windows’… ugh, page loading, we’re down to 3G.”

The fire crackled and hissed.

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

 

queenofthenorth89

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

 

CrazyCatGuy

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

 

excalibrrr

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

Don’t look at them. Don’t let them see you.

Even if you’re camping in a tent, or sleeping in your car, you can survive. Just be sure to cover any windows and apertures with something opaque.

Keep all pets (and other animals, even livestock) inside. Don’t put out the garbage. Don’t light a fire. They can smell the smoke from miles away.

 

Daniel and I looked at each other.

And then at the roaring fire.

***

Thud.

I jolted awake.

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

“Daniel?”

He only snored in response.

“Daniel!”

“What? ”

Thud.

“Did you hear that?”

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

Thud! Thud, thud, thud!

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

“What the hell —”

Thump! Thump!

A sharp knock at the door.

“Hey, open up!”

A man’s voice, loud and clear through the silence of the blizzard, coming from the other side of the front door.

“Police! Open up!”

Daniel stood up, and hesitantly stepped towards the door.

“What are you doing?!” I hissed.

“It’s the police, Rebecca.”

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

He stood in front of the door, frozen.

A shadow fell across the sheet we had pinned up. At a first glance, it looked like the silhouette of a normal person — a normal policeman. But the longer I stared at it, the stranger it looked. The neck was just a hair too short, the legs too long; and the head was cocked at an unnatural angle.

“Police! Open up!”

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

Staring, staring…

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

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

“Rebecca, it’s the police!”

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

And yanked the door open.

“No!” I screamed.

For a moment, time froze.

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

He let them in.

There’s no coming back from this, no way to save us now. We’re going to die, right here, before our marriage has even begun.

But then I had an idea.

I leapt up, and in one, violent motion —

Smacked the glasses right off his face.

Clack.

As the glasses fell from his face, the scales fell from his eyes. His expression turned from apathy to terror. He grabbed the edge of the door, and with all his might, pushed it shut.

Or tried to.

“Shut it! Shut it!” I screamed.

“I can’t!” he yelled back. “It’s pushing back! I’m not strong enough —”

Crash!

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

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

“Close your eyes!” he yelled.

“What are you doing?!”

“Just trust me!”

Creeaaak! Thump, thump, thump!

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

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

Ting, ting.

The jingle of keys.

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

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

Slam.

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

“But — won’t I see them?”

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

I opened my eyes.

The scene wasn’t much different from the dark of my eyelids, save for the headlights. Black trees flanked the road, stretching up towards the starless sky. A myriad of snowflakes glittered in the light, hovering in the branches, as if miraculously suspended in mid-air.

No — not snowflakes.

Eyes.

Hundreds of eyes, watching us from the treetops.

Thump. Thump.

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

“They’re in the road!” I screamed.

“What? Where?!”

“Everywhere! Can’t you see them?!”

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

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

The car swerved again.

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

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

“Why are we slowing down?!”

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

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

“I think they’re stopping us.”

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

Tap-tap-tap.

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

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

“What are you doing?”

“I have an idea.”

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

Fzzzssshhh.

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

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

“Exactly,” he whispered.

No.

My heart began to pound.

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

The man sitting with me, here in the car…

It wasn’t Daniel.

It was one of them.

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

“What are you talking about?!”

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

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

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

“You got a better idea?”

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

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

Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

A shrill screech.

And, involuntarily —

I looked up.

The figures weren’t running towards the fire.

They were running away.

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

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

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

“I guess he didn’t know.”

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

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

“Maybe being trapped inside our houses, waiting out the storm, is exactly what they wanted.”

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

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

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

“We’re going to Maple Street.”

***

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

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

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

“Test us?”

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

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

“Hey there!” A burly man walked over to us, wearing an ill-fitting flannel shirt with a rip across the chest. He slipped a flashlight out of his pocket, shined it in our eyes, and then called over: “Hey, Nancy, they’re good!”

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

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

“Are we safe here?” I added.

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

Daniel and I took food and joined one of the emptier tables. Across from us sat a teenager, chin resting on her hand, pushing the coleslaw on her plate in circles.

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

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

“It did happen before.”

We looked up. The teenager was staring at us, smiling like a child divulging a secret. “My dad told me it happened back in the seventies, and they’ve been prepared ever since.”

“That’s what that Excalibur guy on the internet said,” Daniel said. “I guess there was some truth in his words.”

I nodded. “So —uh — what are they?” I asked, a little too loudly. From across the hall, Mark shot us a disapproving look.

“I’ve heard the name ‘ice shadows’ thrown around,” she replied, shrugging. “But who knows what they really are? Shape-shifters, phantoms, demons… We had one outside our bedroom window, talking in my mom’s voice, telling Dad she wanted to get back together. Saved him in a nick of time.”

“What I don’t understand,” Daniel started, “is why the first alert told us to cover our windows. Don’t they want us to see them?”

“Oh, that’s because of the sunlight. It burns them right up, just like the fires do. Same reason they come out in the blizzard.” She lowered her voice further, and glanced around the room. “They want to be safe in your house. Because after… they want to live in it. Breed in it. Make it their own little den. And then do it to the next house, and the next, until they’ve taken over the entire town—”

“Kendra, that’s enough.” Mark clapped a hand on her shoulder. “She likes to tell tall tales, this one. Sorry if it caused you any trouble.”

“Dad! Were you eavesdropping?!” She sighed, and rose from the seat.

Mark removed his hand. The shirt shifted, and the rip pulled open, exposing some of his chest.

Underneath it was a tattoo.

A tattoo of a sword, stuck in stone.

Of Excalibur.

No way. As they made their way from the table, I turned to Daniel. “He’s one of them.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s the Excalibur guy! The guy who said they’re attracted to fire, who lied on that message board. Didn’t you see the tattoo?”

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

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

Wait —

Where had he gone?

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

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

“No idea.”

“This is really important —”

“We think he may be compromised,” Daniel said, immediately.

“What?! No. Absolutely not.” The anger flared, and her voice grew to a shout. “I saved him. He was going to look out the window, but I stopped him! Just in time!”

I opened my mouth to respond — but movement from the window caught my eye.

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

A bucket.

Hisssss!

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

And then the shadows at the forest’s edge began to close in. Shifting and swirling, racing to the house. One leapt forward, mouth stretching larger and larger by the second —

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

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

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

Daniel yanked the curtains shut.

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

And a strangely familiar sound joined the din —

Tap, tap, tap.

They were here.

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

“Follow me!” I shouted.

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

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

“What’s the plan?” Daniel said to me.

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

“Yeah, unless they get to us before then,” Kendra interjected, her voice oddly monotonous. And why was her head tilted like that? “You saw what they did to Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes! We have to go back upstairs —”

“Absolutely!”

No.

They must have seen the shadows.

All of them.

“We need to stay here! It’s the only place we’re safe!” I screamed. “Don’t you get it?!”

A silence filled the room.

Then Kendra lifted her arm —

And pointed straight at me.

“She saw them, didn’t she?”

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

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

“Her pupils aren’t contracting with the light.”

I pulled and wriggled. “I’m just trying to help! To save you all! Let me go!”

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

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

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

Thump.

***

My eyes fluttered open.

Pitch black.

No. Those men must’ve thrown me in the forest. And I’m here, in the darkness, with the ice shadows. My heart started to race. Am I one of them, now? A flitting, demonic shadow, with glittering white eyes?

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

I began to panic. I don’t have eyes anymore. That’s what they did no, no, no

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

“How are you feeling?”

“Daniel!” I tried to stand up, and failed.

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

“Is everyone okay?”

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

“But what about… everything —”

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

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

“Some official-looking people. They drove in this morning, said they’ll be ‘cleansing’ the area. I think that black-haired woman is one of them.” The rope unraveled, and I stood. “Anyway, let’s get you downstairs. We got bagels.”

I held took his hand, and we made our way down to the kitchen.

***

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

Except that, sometimes, when I look out the window late at night —

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

And I have the urge to open the door.

Let Me In

I woke up to my daughter crying at 4 AM.

That’s a horror story in itself, right?

Unfortunately, it gets worse.

Let me start from the beginning. My husband, Michael, and I live in a rural town in Michigan. We have a 5-week-old daughter named Riley. She’s doing well, but wakes up several times a night.

Every. Single. Night.

Thankfully, on weekend nights, Michael takes baby duty. He’s amazing – he gives her a bath, reads her a story, rocks her, and puts her to sleep. And he sleeps right in the nursery with her. The only thing he’s bad at? Singing lullabies to her – he’s completely tone-deaf. (I usually shut the door when he gets to that part.)

So, last night – when I heard her crying at the ungodly hour of 4 AM – I assumed Michael was on it. I rolled over, and tried to fall back asleep.

But she continued wailing.

Waaaaah. Waaaaah.

I pulled the covers over my head.

Waaaaaaaaaaaaah.

I turned up my white noise to full blast.

Waaa – aaaaaa – aaaaahhhh!

I jolted up. Dammit, Michael, are you even trying to calm her down?! I heaved myself out of bed, threw on my robe, and opened the door.

Waaaaah. Waaaaah.

I froze in the doorway.

The cries weren’t coming from her room.

They were coming from downstairs.

I peered down; dim, golden light shone across the floor, coming from the living room. “Michael?” I called.

No response, other than a shrill waaaaaaaaaaaaah.

“Is everything okay?” I shouted, louder this time. The shadows shifted across the floor, but no answer. I took a step down –

Footsteps, coming from her room.

I froze.

The doorknob turned –

Michael walked out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes, his mouth wide with a yawn.

“You left Riley downstairs alone?! What’s wrong with you?!” I began running down the stairs, my robe flying behind me –

He grabbed my arm.

“That isn’t Riley.”

“What are you talking about?!”

“Sssssshhh.” He pushed his door open. I turned, and my heart began to pound. In the dim light, I could see a little pink bundle, rising and falling with each breath.

I held my breath. Slowly, I backed up the stairs – careful to not make even the quietest creak.

He pulled me into the bedroom. Click – he shut the door. Click – he locked it, dragged a chair in front.

“Maybe it’s just the baby next door,” I said, trying to calm myself.

“The Johnsons live a mile away.”

I looked at him, my eyes wild. “Well, maybe it’s –”

“It was coming from downstairs, Catie. You and I both heard it.” He began pushing the dresser; it didn’t budge. “There’s someone down there.”

“But –”

“Ssshhh!” Michael held a finger to his lips.

The wailing continued.

“Hear that?” he whispered.

“Yes, I hear the screaming baby.”

“No. There’s a pattern. Two short cries, then a long cry, then a raspy cry.”

“So?”

He turned to me, his eyes wide. “It’s a recording.”

I felt the breath catch in my throat.

“Someone’s down there, playing a recording of a baby crying?” I said, incredulously. “Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” With a grunt, he pushed the dresser; it wobbled, and shifted maybe half an inch across the carpet. “To lure us out there.”

Waaaaaah.

I jumped. But it was only Riley crying, woken by our loud whispers. Michael swooped her up, singing a terribly off-key rendition of Brahm’s lullaby in her ear. “Lullaby, and good night… go to sleep now, little Riley…”

“Michael. We need to call 911.” I felt my pocket, but it was empty. “Wait, my phone. Where’s my phone?!” I glanced around at the dark bedroom – but the nightstand, the bed, were empty too.

“No, no, no. I must have left it in the other room.”

In the soft moonlight, Michael was pale as a ghost. “And mine’s out of battery.”

“Maybe we can get out the window,” I said. Shaking, I wrenched it open. The cold breeze blew into the room, fluttering the curtains; the surrounding forest was silent as ever. Our only neighbors – the Johnsons – were too far away, and the drop… just looking down made my stomach turn. The lawn bench looked like it belonged to dolls; the barren garden beds were like tiles on a checkerboard. “What do we do?”

“I’ll get your phone.”

“What? You just said yourself – someone is out there!”

“Your door is five feet across the hallway. I’ll make it across before they can get upstairs.”

“Michael – no –”

“The dresser’s too heavy to move across the door. The chair isn’t good enough. Sooner or later, they’re going to come upstairs, kick down the door, and – well – who knows what they’ll do then. I’m going.” He handed Riley to me. “Wish me luck.”

Before I could stop him, he threw open the door.

And as soon as he did –

The cries stopped.

I froze, clinging to the crib. They know you’re out there! I screamed, internally. Get back in here! Michael, please, run as fast as you can and get back –

Thump.

A footstep, at the base of the stairs.

Thump. Thump.

Slow, heavy footsteps, growing louder and faster.

The unmistakable sound of someone running up the stairs.

Thump! A crash, a yelp of pain –

Michael dashed back in, slamming the door shut. For a second, all was silent. I let out a shuddering breath, tears rolling down my cheeks. Michael held me close, and Riley watched us with her beautiful blue eyes.

But then it started again.

Thump.

The door rattled.

Thump. Thump.

The hinges groaned.

“Let me in!”

My eyes widened.

It was Michael’s voice.

“Hey! Leave us alone!” Michael shouted through the door.

“Catie! It’s me!” Thump, thump. “Let me in!”

I looked at Michael. “That sicko must’ve recorded my voice,” he whispered, handing me the phone. “Call the police.”

“Whoever that is in there – it’s not me!” The voice cracked with desperation.

“Get out of our house!”

“Catie – please – it’s me!”

Michael grabbed the dresser. Groaning, he dragged it across the door. The pounding grew louder, faster; the cries grew frenzied and shrill, becoming a blood-curdling scream –

And then silence.

***

By the time the police arrived, he seemed to be gone. “We’ll dust for fingerprints and run them through the database,” one of the officers told us. “But they’ll only show up if they’ve already committed a crime, and most people are smart enough to wear gloves these days, anyway.” After taking down notes and searching the house, they gave us their phone numbers and left.

After checking the locks for the hundredth time, we sat down on the bed. Riley, severely overtired like both of us, began to wail.

“Can you put Riley to sleep? I’m exhausted,” I said, rubbing my eyes.

“Of course.” He lay Riley across his chest, rocking her slowly.

I stumbled across the hallway to my bedroom. The sun was just rising over the pine trees; bright golden rays shone through the window, lighting up the room. Sighing in relief, I collapsed onto the bed, pulled the covers over me, and closed my eyes.

Across the hall, I could hear Michael’s soft voice singing.

“Lullaby, and good night… go to sleep now, little Riley…”

Perfectly on key.

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