In honour of today being World Storytelling Day, I thought I would offer up something new. The idea behind Stories from the Dark has been on the list of things to do for almost a year now. I’m excited to put it out into the world, and to see how it changes and evolves with each instalment. I hope you like it spooky, because that’s what you’re gonna get…
I check my watch. She’s late. I was really hoping she wouldn’t be late.
Gaetan strides up beside me and flicks the butt of his cigarette into the dark. He blows smoke and watches me from the corner of his eye. “Relax. This will all be over soon.”
I chew on my lip and watch the crest of the hill. The cast iron park bench. The Victorian lamp post beside. A silhouette emerges from the shadows and Angelica stops under the bland electric light. Her coat is buttoned to her chin. Dark bangs cover her eyes. Her fiery red lips stand out like the ‘x’ on a treasure map.
My heartbeat hammers in my temples. “Okay. She’s here.”
“I see that.”
“Are you sure this is going to work?”
Gaetan frowns. “Of course. You need to trust me.”
“Right. Trust you.” My hand tightens around the handle of the cloth bag resting against my thigh. “Okay. Be right back.”
Gaetan steps away. “Remember to breathe.”
The click of my heels echo around me as I climb the path. Angelica is still as I approach, showing no recognition, until I stop next to her.
“Hello, Angelica. Thank you for meeting me.”
“It is confusing. Being told that we should not see each other. Then you ask me to meet you here, of all places.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just… I have something for you.” Her eyes follow as I hold the bag out. I swallow against the lump in my throat. “A gift. To say thank you.”
Her shoulders relax and she faces the darkness. One hand rises and pulls the top two buttons of her coat open. The lace fringe of her bra matches her lips. “You know how I prefer to be thanked, and how I show my gratitude in return.”
My intention to maintain eye contact fails. “I can’t. We can’t. You know that.” I stretch my arm. “Please.”
Angelica sighs and takes the bag. With the handles spread wide, she peers in, then for the first time to me. “What is this?”
“It’s, well, it’s a doll.”
She reaches in for the doll and lets the bag fall. When she squeezes the body, it crinkles. “It is made from?”
“Dried grass. I think.”
Angelica scowls. “Thomas, what have you—”
Her breath catches. What little colour her skin held evaporates. The whites of her eyes show, and she folds to the ground.
“Angelica?” I rush forward and take her free hand. The doll is clutched tight in the other. “Angelica, are you okay?” Her skin is cold, lips twisted in a permanent sneer.
I scramble away and run down the hill. Gaetan steps onto the path to join me. “So?”
“Gaetan, I think she’s dead. What did you do?”
“You asked me to take care of your situation. So, I did.”
I lace my hands over my head. “That… that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Perhaps next time you should clarify your expectations.” He leans out and looks along the path. “Besides, she is not dead. Only, incapacitated.”
“Next time? Wait… she’s okay?”
Gaetan puts his hands in his pockets. “We can discuss details another time, since you now find them of interest.” He walks the path toward the hill. “In the meantime, it would be best if we collect your girlfriend and leave.”
“Close your eyes. Pretend I’m not here.”
The woman shifted her position and lifted her head to flip the pillow to the cool side. Her focus on the white ceiling panels faded as her eyes shut. She folded her hands over her torso and settled. “I can hear you breathing.”
The man cleared his throat. His moist lips smacked when he opened his mouth.
“That’s not helping.” The woman cracked one eye. She wondered why it was so popular, this place, and its promises of miracle cures.
“Let’s begin with a count down from ten. Ten, nine, eight. Breath in from your diaphragm. Five, four, three. Good…” His voice flowed like cold oil. “Now, imagine a calm ocean. The sun is warm and inviting. No wind, no sound but the gentle undulation of the waves.” The man slunk forward in his seat. “Can you see it?”
Under closed lids, the woman rolled her eyes. “I see it.”
The man smiled. “Good.” He laid a metal pen along the spine of his notebook and set it on the arm of his chair. “Now, the sun begins to dim. It’s place in the sky is taken by a great blue orb. It radiates calm. It invites you to peace.”
The woman held her tongue.
“You are alone, but content. Feel your body relax. No sensation. No fear. Only the loving glow of the orb.” The man paused, watching the woman’s breath ease, as his own heartbeat increased. “It reflects off of the water. It is the only object in a great void.” He leaned forward on one knee. “The world is fading, but it’s okay. You are safe. You have no responsibilities, no cares.”
The man shifted forward and perched on the edge of his chair. As he scanned the woman, head to toe, the movement of a clock across the room was the only thing to interrupt the silence. The tone of his voice deepened, his paced slowed. “Embrace this new world. Leave the old behind. Can you do that?”
The woman did not respond.
The man swallowed with a click. “Good.” One hand reached out. A tremor emerged as the tips of his fingers grazed the soft fabric of the woman’s blouse, starting near her belt, and moving up.
The woman’s eyes sprang open and locked onto the man. They changed from soft and green to muddied and swirling like a storm cloud. The man froze.
She spoke in a whisper. “Change of plans, you don’t get your jollies today. Hand back.”
The man sat up straight and rested his hand on his knee.
The woman rose up without averting her attention. She ran a hand over her head and pulled her amber hair to one side. “I’m surprised you were brave enough on day one. Maybe brave isn’t the right word. If you’re this careless, I figured someone would have spoken up before they did. Lucky me…” The woman crossed her legs and smoothed one hand over her knee. “I’m going to give you a little control back. Pick up your book. I want you to write something out for me.”
The man sat, unmoving, his eyes wide.
The woman motioned to the arm of the chair. “Go on.”
The man’s hand shook as he lifted the pen and set the tip down on a blank page. His lower lip pushed away from his bottom teeth. Small dark eyes, below the slicked back widows peak and unkempt eyebrows, watched everywhere but the woman’s face.
“I want dates and names. As much detail as you can remember.” She tilted her head. “I’d say you could check the little leather diary you keep in the hidden compartment at the back of your bottom desk drawer, but I’m sure you’ve read back over it enough to remember what I need.”
After a moment of hesitation, the pen scratched in fits and starts. One page filled, then two. As he started the third, the pace faltered. His eye twitched.
The woman smiled. “You just figured out who told me, didn’t you? She probably made a slight movement, or blinked, but you’re so sure of yourself, even as you’ve become so careless. It’s good. Remember her face. Remember who set this in motion.”
The man’s jaw clenched. His body seized as he fought for control.
The woman drew in a deep breath and refocused her attention.
A small noise escaped the man’s pursed lips. The scratching of the pen started once again, slow at first, but soon became frantic. With four pages filled, the man licked at his lips with the tip of his tongue and set the notepad down beside him.
“Good.” The woman snuck a glance to the large horizontal window along the far wall, and the empty air past it. “You know, it’s such a nice day.” She turned her turbulent eyes back to the man. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get some fresh air?”
The man turned his head. He stood and took slow, uneven steps toward the clear pane of glass. A few paces away, he stopped and stared, before looking back to the woman.
She stretched her arms out along the back of the couch and leaned into it. “You’re smart. Figure it out.”
The man’s eyes homed in on the oversized executive desk in the middle of the room, and the marble carving of an ancient fertility god perched on one corner. He shuffled next to the statue, hefted it in one hand, then spun and threw it at the window. As the glass cascaded down, the man was already running. With his arms raised over his head, he dove through the bare frame. He made no sound, until the dull thud of his body impacted on the concrete walk below. In the distance, someone screamed.
The woman stood and her eyes cleared. She mussed her hair and undid the top two buttons of her blouse. With a deep breath in, she wrenched her lips and cried out. “Oh my God, someone please help!”
Through the wisps of smoke from the fire, the first sliver of the full moon rises above the hills. She illuminates the clouds breaking overhead until they disappear altogether and stands alone in the autumn sky. I wish her tidings for All Hallows Eve, speak of the time since I’ve seen her last, and how a handful of weeks can feel like a lifetime.
With one hand tracing the intricate lace pattern of my dress, I remind her of my once pending wedding ceremony. How Aldus and I would have set out for the south the next day to start our new life. I tell her how those days were filled with tears of sorrow instead of joy. My voice is low as I speak of Aldus, his final trip through the valley with a bounty from the markets strapped to his small boat, the storm, and how the black water chose to embrace him.
I compose myself and focus off into the night, a night where the veil between worlds may be as thin as the one that should have covered my face. I search for more to say, but the words do not come. I turn back to the fire. My fingers graze the folded paper on my lap. I clear my throat, make a silent request, then lean forward.
The letter drifts away from my hand and settles on the glowing coals. The corners of the paper curl and blacken. Soon it flares and shrivels, casting light into the eerie calm. As the light fades, my eyes adjust once again to the darkness. A slumped shadow stands across the fire. Long hair stuck to their face. A tattered overcoat, once crisp and new, now dark and heavy with the scent of stale water and earth.
I do not look away as a piece of ashen paper floats away on the breeze. A smile fights for space as sadness flows from my eyes. “Hello, my love.”
The road out of the area had been travelled enough to make it passable. Alex took a wrong turn early on and brought them south on 219, instead of east as he wanted. Soon, they caught up with others fleeing the area. The road narrowed to two lanes, and they continued in a tight convoy. Alex considered pulling over to find a place to stop, but he also thought about the potential safety that came with numbers.
A glow rose on the horizon. At first, Alex wondered if it might be the rising sun. Soon, the pinpoint of light grew to an oasis. A city, it seemed, but he was not sure which one or if they might have crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. Shadowy structures came into view. Abandoned vehicles, concrete barriers, and barbed wire littered the road. His phone began to bling and buzz in the cupholder. Alex unplugged the charger cord and set the lit phone on his lap.
The display scrolled as notifications piled up. One message in particular stood out. Dividing his attention between the road and his phone, he ran a thumb along the edge of the screen. A text from Ivy. Alex cleared the tightness in his throat and set the phone down on its face. He put both hands on the wheel and pulled into the queue.
An older sedan passed the barricade, and a lone soldier stepped forward to halt them with one hand out. In addition to the standard uniform, the checkpoint guard donned doubled-up nitrile gloves and a cotton bandana tied over his nose and mouth. His rifle pointed at the ground with a finger hovering over the trigger. He stood well back from the vehicle, eyes darting across and around it.
When the driver’s door opened, the soldier hurried forward and kicked it shut. Shouting, he raised his rifle. The brake lights on the car went dark, and the engine revved. Without hesitation, the soldier squeezed the trigger. Sharp flashes of muzzle fire lit his face. Lurching forward, the car veered away from the crossing before settling in the deep snow. Soldiers flooded in from the shadows and surrounded the car. They opened the doors and pulled bodies to the ground.
Alex shifted the SUV into gear, cranked the wheel hard to the left, and pressed his foot to the floor. He fought to move in a straight line as he accelerated north and away from the light.
Eileen stirred in her seat. Her good eye fluttered, and she moaned. Alex eased off the accelerator and lifted an open bottle of water from the console. He put it in his mother’s unsteady hand. She gripped it and raised it to her lips. After swallowing, she held it in her lap. “Where… where are we?”
“On the road. Don’t worry, I’m going to find a safe place to stop.”
Eileen’s head bobbed once before she lowered it to her shoulder and closed her eyes.
Surviving the Storm, available for pre-order now!
“What was that?”
Everett turned in his chair. “It’s starting again. Put the candles out.”
Lori licked her fingers and pinched the wicks of the candles on the coffee table. She sat back on the couch and pulled her legs up beside her. “What do we do?”
Everett rubbed at his forehead. His voice was quiet. “I don’t know.”
They sat without speaking, listening to the wind blow, and the snow click against the windows.
Della ran into the living room and jumped up on the couch beside Lori. She wrapped her arms around her mother and buried her face in her neck.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“Someone’s in the backyard.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I heard something. I think it was the back gate.”
Everett pursed his lips, and his face lost what little colour it had. He rose to his feet and walked to the window. With one hand cupped against the glass, he stared out into the darkness. Everett turned and zipped up his jacket, then walked through the kitchen and out the back door. Lori looked to Della, pushed herself up off the couch, and followed after Everett.
Lori stepped onto the back porch. Della followed close behind, wrapping her arms around Lori’s waist. Lori set a hand on Della’s shoulder, but kept her eyes focused on Everett.
Everett stopped at the depression in the middle of the yard. He turned all ways, scanning for signs of movement. The back gate had been forced open. One of the boards, broken clean off, was sticking out of the snow nearby. Trails in the snow led around to the corner of the yard.
Everett called out. “Where you at, you piece of shit. You want trouble, you’re in the right place.” Everett lifted the hem of his jacket and took a folded knife from the sheath on his belt. He flipped the blade open and held it out. “Come on and get it.”
For a moment, the falling snow was the only thing that changed. Della raised her head and pointed into the shadows. “Mom, look.”
The blanket on the fort pulled to one side, and a figure emerged. They stood to face Everett. The stream of heat from their breath wafted up and drifted away.
Lori increased her grip on Della’s shoulder and held the other hand loose over her mouth. “Oh my God. Jason?”
Everett looked back at Lori, then to the shadow standing across the yard. “You little son of a bitch.” He adjusted the grip on his knife. “Get your ass over here.”
Lori pushed away and started down the front steps. Della reached out and grabbed at the sleeve of her coat. “No. Wait.”
Jason was still at first. He turned his head to look behind him. When he faced forward again, he walked out of the shadows. Only a t-shirt and jeans protected him from the cold and snow. A dark stain ran down from his mouth to his shirt and over his narrow chest. Blood left tracks from the corner of his eyes. Faint haze drifted from his exposed skin. Jason stopped shy of Everett by three or four paces. His arms were limp at his sides, his head lowered and cocked.
“I knew you’d be back.” Everett turned his head to spit but kept his eyes locked on the boy. “Think you’re a big man settin’ out on your own? Guess we all know exactly what you are now, don’t we?”
Jason raised his head and focused his bloodshot eyes on Everett. Everett swallowed as he took a half step back. Jason bared his teeth, and a fine mist of blood sprayed as he screamed out.
Into the Storm, available now on Kindle and Kobo
Surviving the Storm, available September 21, 2020