To the Reader of these Tales: One of the best parts of a late-night campfire is telling a scary story, especially to the Kids. Yes, who can forget the thrill of telling the tale of the 'Hook' to a frightened son or daughter, or even an innocent friend who happens to be by the fire? The ultimate effect, of course, is to have a 'Captain Hook' pirate hand at the ready and gently caress an earlobe as the story finishes. Oh, how they scream, especially if the Kids are supposed to sleep in a tent alone that night!
However, it may also put a damper on any Primitive Urges you might have had planned with your Sweetie-Pie for later that night, since the Kids will now be sleeping with you! But sometimes it's worth it...
The following story is edited from a column from August 1998. It is based on a true incident, sort of. For best results, have ready a mannequin's hand, or even a stuffed glove, and throw it at someone at the proper moment. You'll know when...
'The Hand' by Frininzero www.frikoutdoors.com
It was seven years ago that this happened. The Circus Train was coming to town for a brief stop on its way to Milwaukee. The stopover was always a gala affair, with people buying balloons and cotton candy, clowns mingling with the crowd, and several temporary cages of wild animals put on display. On this particular night, however, the train engineer was hesitant. There were heavy winds, and a possible tornado sighting just 5 miles away. He knew he should just continue on, but up ahead was the Welcoming Committee and more than a hundred children. He radioed back for the animal crew to be ready to set up quickly and tear down just as fast. He would give the children 15 minutes--no more.
Meanwhile, the nearby campground was nearly deserted. Most of the campers were away, waiting for the Circus Train, braving the gusty winds in order to see the clowns and animals. So it was with ease that two teenagers were able to creep through the surrounding woods and find an empty tent next to a cooler full of beer and a smoldering campfire. It was too good to pass up--they could steal a few beers and quickly escape into the thick woods if anyone came back early.
The storm struck swiftly, the rain so heavy that the trainers could barely see as they herded animals back up the ramps into the train cages. The crowd was scattering, and a large flatbed truck swerved to avoid hitting an elderly man. The tires skidded on the slick road and the truck sideswiped one of the ramps, toppling a cage of giant alligators into the bed of the truck. The driver, in a panic, sped away, unaware of the cargo in the back of the truck, or that the cage door had sprung open.
The driver would not get far. The rain had washed out a section of the highway a few miles ahead, and it was there that he lost control and crashed into a ditch, unconscious. The largest of the alligators, almost 20 feet in length, longer than the truck itself when it straightened its tail, poked its snout out over the bed of the truck. The gator bared its huge teeth as it sniffed the air. It was hungry, and wind carried a faint scent of food nearby. As if smacking its lips, the giant gator hissed and then slithered off into the woods.
The teenagers had retreated to the tent, not thinking about being caught anymore. No one would come back in this storm. The beer was almost gone, and one of the boys was in the middle of a joke when he suddenly stopped. He had heard something rustling outside by the campfire.
The other boy teased him for being scared. It's just a lost dog, he said. Laughing, he opened the tent flap and went outside to chase it away. A few seconds later the screams began.
The screams seemed to echo through the tent, mixed with growls and crunching noises that sounded like bones snapping in two. The campfire outside flared briefly to life, making hideous shadows dance on the tent wall. Then there was silence, but only for a moment.
A huge shadow sniffed near the tent flap, a long low body scraping against the canvas. The boy still inside the tent held his breath, afraid to move. A huge claw reached up and tested the canvas, pushing against it. The beast, as if confused, shuffled to the back of the tent, and the boy summoned all his courage and forced himself to dash through the flaps of the tent. Almost immediately he stumbled over the shredded body of his friend, lifeless eyes staring up at the rain. The boy ran past the flickering campfire, towards the nearby lake. If he could get through the woods, he could swim to safety.
Fear made him clumsy and he fell several times. He could hear the giant creature chasing him, branches crushing under the beast's weight. Something snapped at his ankle and pain shot up through his leg. Still he ran, not bearing to look back, until he reached the lake. He threw himself in, swam as far as he could, and only then stopped to catch his breath. That was his mistake.
His heavy gasps of air must have hidden the noise as the beast slid into the lake. He must have seen the deep black eyes and the long rows of yellow fangs as it suddenly rose in front of him. He must have thrown up a hand for protection, for that was the first thing the alligator bit off. He must have thrashed about in the seaweed just under the surface, becoming entangled, unable to further defend himself. When he was found the next morning, his body had been dragged back to the campfire, and only when the Police pulled away the mass of seaweed did they discover the bloody stump of his missing hand.
The boy was buried like that, without his hand, in a cemetery not far from the campground. In time the story was forgotten, except by a few of us who still try to warn people away from a certain campsite. But we can't warn everybody, and it was only last month that another camper was found dead next to his campfire. His face was twisted with fear, and there were ugly red bruises around his neck, as if something had strangled him. Hanging from his open mouth was a single strand of wet seaweed. In the grass and dirt around the body were strange markings, and grooves dug deep in a long trail leading from the woods near the lake.
You may laugh, but there's a few of us who believe it was the boy's hand that did it. You see, the mind is a powerful thing, sometimes so powerful it can reach out from the grave, searching for something it desperately wants, something that is missing...a body, perhaps. It cannot go into the cemetery, for that is a hallowed place. So it must continue to search the only place it can, the campground. And what is it searching for? We think it needs someone the right age, the right size, a perfect fit to attach itself to. Someone like...you.
We may never know. Then again, you might find out tonight, if the hand is in a mood to...STRIKE!
Well, telling this tale has certainly made me thirsty. You there, you with the seaweed, hand me a beer...
So...did you throw the "hand" at the right time? For my next tale, you're on your own. I'll bet you think of something...
The man had been in the cage for a long time. Once a day--or perhaps it was night--a thin sliver of light would break the darkness of the tunnel outside. He would cower in the corner against the stone walls as the footsteps echoed. A bowl of stew would be placed near the bars. His waste-bucket was emptied. Then the footsteps would retreat. He hated the stew and the bits of bread, but the rats had been acting bolder lately, one even chewing on his bare foot as he slept. So he would use the meager food as bait. The rats had found a way in…now they would show him the way out.
He sopped a few pieces of the bread in the stew and set them aside while he finished his meal. Then he leaned against the stone wall and waited. There was a pale splotch on the far wall of the cage, a suspicion of light from down the tunnel, as if a lantern had been left on behind the distant, heavy door. But for some reason he knew he shouldn't try to escape that way. He didn't know why, couldn't think why not, he just knew. So he waited.
The rats came out an hour later. By now he could see fairly well in the cage, and he watched their fat tails slither on the ground as they tested the air, thick whiskers over protruding teeth sniffing towards him. He tossed a scrap of bread at the first rat, the largest one.
It was larger than his hand, with eyes that seemed to glow a bright red in the dark. It moved boldly to the piece of bread and nibbled at it. Satisfied, it devoured the rest of the crumb eagerly. Other rats circled about. The man let them starve. The leader was the one he needed.
The man tossed each successive piece closer to himself. When the rat was about three feet away, it would come no closer, its thick body shifting and hopping in hesitation. The man ate the rest of the bread and went to sleep. Sometime during the night or day he sensed the rat sniffing at the corner of his mouth. He did not move, and the rat did not bite him.
It took four more feedings for the rat to come close enough for him to catch it. It struggled and darted its yellowed teeth at his hand, but he quickly fed it a scrap of bread. Then he released it. When no more food was offered, the rat joined its followers. The army of red eyes studied him briefly, and vanished one by one. He couldn't see how they entered the blocks of stone, but he at least knew which corner. It was a start.
The next time, he began his feeding at that corner. He gave the leader all of the bread at once. It stared at him, body expanding and contracting in quick breaths. When greed became too much, the rat tore into a large chunk of soaked bread and carried it into the tiniest of crevices at the base of a stone. The man smiled to himself.
By his count, it took him a full week to dig around that stone with his fingernails. The rats watched him all the time, the leader of the rats studying him with a cocked head, sniffing, testing the air, waiting.
The man crouched against the stone and the fresh dirt whenever he heard the feeding-person walk down the tunnel. All the while, the far-away lantern was kept burning outside the far-away door. It helped him, made his work quicker. And he knew he had to hurry.
When a jagged section of the rock broke free, it served as a tool, and in another week he pried that first stone block out.
When two more stones were out, he felt he could squeeze his body through. He had lost weight--he was giving the leader and the other rats most of his food so they would scurry further into the opening. It was a trail he could follow in his digging. The packed clay behind the stone wall was almost as tough as the rock itself, but the rats knew the weakest spots to dig out for their cache, and for their escape tunnels. And his.
He was digging gradually upwards, although it was difficult to tell in the contours of the narrow shaft. He was starving, all his food going to the leader. By his estimate he had not eaten in four days when he felt a sliver of fresh air caress him. He scraped his body into a different position and tried to relax, to collect his thoughts. He didn't know what to do. Something in his brain told him to go back, to scurry to the safety of his cage, to eat the food that would be there. When the leader of the rats boldly walked along his outstretched forearm, he made his decision.
The fattened rat's fur came apart easily in his hands, the meat warm and bloody. He heard the other rats slide away towards safety as he finished his meal. He licked the bones clean and tossed them down the shaft. A few yards later he saw a glimmer of light beckoning him closer.
The digging was too easy, the dirt falling loose in his hands. More strips of light hurt his eyes. A trap-door of some sort was above him, and faint noises came from beyond. The noises stopped as he pushed at the door.
He had to wedge his entire body against the door to move it. It was almost too heavy for his weakened muscles, the strain making him faint. It was the scent of fresh air and the memory of food that gave him the strength to shove the trap-door aside.
The light had fooled him--it became dark again in this place as he forced his body up and on to a dirt floor. He smelled odors from a forgotten past as he stumbled awkwardly for a few steps. He heard a quick release of breath and something moved not twenty paces from him. The new place was suddenly filled with a light that blinded him.
He heard hushing sounds, and wood being scraped against wood. He took his hand away from his eyes and let them adjust. A young girl with washed-out blond hair and sunken eyes was at an oil lantern above a plank table. The lantern was strung up by a twisted wire, slowly spinning, catching each face at the table in brief frames of light: the girl with the sad, sunken eyes, about 15 years old; a girl of seven or so, her hair in unraveling pigtails, the eyes already as haunted as her sister's; the old man in a torn flannel shirt as faded as the stone walls of the cabin they were in, his gaunt face just as washed out, a thin dribble of tobacco spit oozing between the broken stumps of his teeth.
"Well, took you long enough." muttered the old man. He nodded at an empty wooden chair by the table. "Go on, set."
The little girl clutched a doll, a stuffed rag bound with bits of string to make a head and stubby arms. There was no face on the doll. The girl stared at the man who had climbed through the trap door. "Daddy," she whispered, "is that the man who killed Mommy?"
"Shut up!" snapped the old man. "We don't talk bout that no more." The old man looked hard at the newcomer, then jerked his chin at the bowls the older girl was now bringing to the table. "We got some extra meat in the stew today."
The older girl was at the man's side, placing the last bowl on the table near him. She reached out tentatively, as if to touch his shoulder, and drew her hand back. "Because it's your birthday," she said.
The man sat, puzzled. He slurped at his food with the others. There was bread, and the older girl gave him a second piece. "Ain't got no cake," she added. There was a thin smile on her face.
"But we got you a present," said the little girl. Her hollow eyes came alive for the first time. She was waiting eagerly.
"Yep, we did," said the old man. There was a smile on his face too as he brought up a box and set it on the table. It was of medium size and wrapped in old newspapers. "Go on, open it."
The man felt something he hadn't known for many years. He rubbed at the small tears in his eyes and slowly tore the newspaper away.
It was a metal cage. A small saucepot with no handle had been bolted inside to make an exercise wheel. On the wheel, a small rat raced furiously, going nowhere.
They were all laughing at him now, even the older girl. The younger girl thumped her rag-doll against the table in glee, cackling. The old man coughed on his tobacco juice and pounded his chest with a fist. "Oh, that's rich!" he said.
A short while later they watched him go down the trap door. "We'll see you next year, son," said the old man. "Give me a day or so to fill this one with cement, then you can start again. Just remember the rules."
"I'll make sure you get your food," said the older girl. She gave him a pleasant smile and waved.
"Make sure you give your pet a name," said the little girl. "It has to have a name."
The heavy trap door closed over him and he worked his way backward.
The man had been in the cage a long time. Every day, or perhaps it was night, someone brought him food. He felt weak, so he ate it all, except at first, when he was still feeding his pet. He tried to handle it, but it bit him, so he stopped giving it food. And he never did name it.
After a while his eyes adjusted. There was a pale reflection of light coming from a distant door. For some reason, he knew he shouldn't try to escape that way. It had something to do with the food, he thought. He might not get any more.
It was when he had finished his meal that day that his pet began to race on the exercise wheel, faster and faster. The noise distracted him, so he reached inside the cage and threw the rat against a far wall. It shuddered once and was still. He slept then.
The slithering sounds woke him. He propped himself on an elbow and tried to see. As usual, it took a while. Then he could see very clearly.
A hundred red eyes were staring at him.
and now, for nights when you just can't sleep, enter the...
chapter 1 chapter 2 chapter 3 chapter 4 chapter 5
Nice 1st anniversary. Dinner out, back at home, fireplace going, cocktails, no awkward moments in the bedroom. Now he was sleeping. There was probably a smile on his face.
She nudged him; he heard the dogs. "Did you leave them out?" she said, half-asleep. He could picture her face without even looking—just simply beautiful, long blond hair, high cheekbones, eyes shaped perfect, as if they were always discovering mischief in the world.
"Nope," he said, grinning. "But if you want to go another round, pay the price, I’ll let them in."
She laughed. "Forget it. I’m worn out." She shook off the blanket and went to the French doors. From there you could go out on the small balcony and see the entire back yard. "You be quiet!" she shussed at the dogs. "Get inside!"
The dogs continued to bark. "Idiots," she said. The older dog was blind, and wasn’t going to live much longer. The puppy was Ripley’s companion, an afterthought…but too frisky for it, and trying its best already to be the Alpha dog. Then Sandy stepped back suddenly and bumped against the edge of the open door.
"You OK?" Paul asked. He had turned to stare at her. God, she looked good.
Sandy shook her head. "Nothing," she said. "It was nothing."
"What?" Paul said. He had figured out a long time ago that Sandy needed coaxing to admit any worries. She was strong—hear her roar.
The dogs kept barking. Paul went to the doors, leaning against her to look outside. Lucky, the puppy, was running the perimeter in ragged circles. Ripley was throwing herself against the dog-eared fenced that covered nearly an acre. She was at the back gate, where the property adjoined a marsh.
"I thought I saw a light," Sandy said quietly. "Like a flashlight, moving around out there."
"I don’t see anything," Paul said. He leaned over and kissed her neck. He was headed towards to the bed when she gasped. Paul hurried back, looking out. The dogs were cowering on the rear deck of the house, away from the trees that lined the edges of the expansive yard and the cluster of oaks in the middle.
"It was a shadow," said Sandy. "It floated across the yard, like a giant bat."
Paul looked up. He had to lean far out. It was 2am, the moon in the west. "Maybe some tree branches moving in the wind," he said. "I’ll go let the dogs in."
The dogs came in eagerly, Ripley the Elder always unsteady, Lucky going straight for her blanket. Paul went out on to the deck. From this angle the yard stretched forever, the bare branches of the trees seeming to scratch against low, marching clouds. Sandy wasn’t one to imagine things--maybe some kids had snuck out to check the ramshackle forts they built near the marsh. That would explain the flashlight. As for this ‘bat’ shadow, well, Sandy had enjoyed her wine at dinner, and the cocktails after…
He got the flashlight from the kitchen—Sandy was already asleep, just a whisper of a snore—and Paul wondered if he should bring the dogs. He couldn’t find the leashes, didn’t want to wake his wife, and so Paul went out alone into the yard in his robe and slippers.
There was enough moonlight coming through the trees for him to follow the main path. Another dead branch, a large one, had fallen recently, and he moved it aside. He heard a small noise beyond the gate, somewhere out on the slopes that led to the marsh, just a hint…maybe an animal, maybe the wind. He couldn’t see a damn thing and wished he had turned the deck lights on. He started to flick on the flashlight and thought better of it. Kids! Catch ‘em and scare them half to death, that’ll teach them…
He eased the gate open and started through the underbrush. The land here was no-man’s land, owned by a retired couple in Florida who hadn’t been back in decades. The moonlight dissolved in the canopy of branches as Paul went deeper, and he slowed down to find his way through the thick brambles and rotting logs. He was actually thinking how nimble and agile he was, despite the darkness, when he stumbled over something.
He went down hard on his hip and shoulder, the wind knocked out of him, and a hand came out from the brush and clamped across his mouth. Putrid whiskey-breath seeped into his lungs through the hand as he gasped for air. "Not a word…" whispered a hoarse voice. More rustling as the voice came closer. The stench was overpowering, and Paul gagged as he tried to pull the hand away. "Don’t fight me!" said the stranger.
A trace of moonlight reflected on the hard barrel of a long flashlight as it came down and was held against his throat. Paul’s flashlight was pulled from his hand and tossed aside. Paul could breath now, but it was ragged, and his muscles felt weak and unresponsive…he had never felt this helpless in his life. The stranger’s face came close; Paul could make out the sunken eyes, the face etched like a canyon, the broken stumps of teeth. The man was wearing thick clothing that reeked of swamp water and something dead.
"Go ahead, think what you want," the man said, his tone different. For a moment, Paul thought he was listening to a cultured voice, but that was not possible, not from what he saw. The flashlight against his throat eased up a bit.
"Sandy is your wife now, right?" asked the stranger. It was a statement. His lips peeled back. "Just your luck, I guess. And I could really give a damn, except no man should have to go through what I did, or the others."
Paul managed to swallow, get his throat working. He had to fight hard to keep his voice steady. "You stay away from my wife or I’ll kill you! I’ve got attack dogs, and guns!"
This time the stranger actually laughed. "Yeah, attack dogs, all right. I saw them. What is that one, blind?" The flashlight came away, flicked on, and shone on Paul’s face, blinding him. "Guns won’t help you either, Mr. Franklin. When the shadows come, dogs or guns don’t matter."
"I’ll have your ass arrested!" yelled Paul, coughing. The flashlight wavered as the stranger got to his feet.
"Go ahead. Been there, done that. Jail, psych-ward, name it. But you won’t find me, anyway. And you don’t want to, not yet." The stranger got to his feet with an aching weariness. He was tall, but even the layers of clothing couldn’t hide the gauntness.
"What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?" snapped Paul. "What shadows?" He tried to get up and felt sick. He stood there hunched over.
"You wouldn’t believe me right now," said the stranger. The flashlight was off, the stranger easing away through the brush. The slight noises stopped. The stranger’s voice came from deep in the woods, normal at first, then a snarl:
"She still got her scrapbooks? Bet so. Check it out, man…check it out. Especially the pictures…
"She always keeps the pictures…"
Paul brushed what he could from his robe and found his way back to the house. It took a while; when he got inside, the dogs sniffed at him, growled, and went back to their corners. He started to wash his hands and ankles, then just took a shower. He checked his throat in the mirror. He had the start of a bruise, which he figured he could blame on his accidental fall…vines, tree roots, all sorts of wild things out there in the netherland.
He walked to the bedroom and stopped dead. Sandy was at the French doors, staring out. "I thought I heard noises," she said, turning around. God, she looked beautiful. "Was somebody out there?"
"Nothing," said Paul. "I tripped and fell. Maybe that’s what you heard."
"And you didn’t see anybody?"
"I didn’t see a thing," Paul said. "Swear to God."
the end of Chapter 1. Coming soon: pictures in a scrapbook, deceit, and the shadows advance...
They made love, they met neighbors and played cards. Paul finally cleared out the abandoned junk from the ancient garage; everything went to Goodwill, tax-deductible. Sandy joined a garden club; she laughed about it because it was the dead of winter, but the girls had to plan ahead, always over wine. A week went by, the dogs were quiet, no mysterious shadows, and then Paul searched for the scrapbooks and the pictures.
A year may seem like a long time to not know things, but she had swept him off his feet, as the saying goes; they had dated barely five months before the marriage. There were still mountains of boxes from both apartments to unpack even now. Paul had to admit to himself that what he knew about Sandy’s past came from her brief conversations over cocktails: both parents dead in a tragic car accident in Alaska, no siblings (her only sister had died young from congestive heart failure), and that was that. So at a Bistro in Janesville, not a bad place, cozy and intimate, he brought up the subject of boyfriends, perhaps husbands.
"Sure, I had boyfriends," she said shyly. "You know, just friends…"
"You were 25 years old when I met you, and you said you were a virgin. That’s rare nowadays. So what about these guys?"
"I beat them off with a stick," laughed Sandy. She was getting that mischievous look in her eyes again.
"Literally?" Paul said, grinning back at her. "That’s a new one."
Sandy tried to do her Bill Clinton imitation, rapping her knuckles down on the table: "I did not have sex with those men!" She laughed briefly at her poor imitation, then her eyes narrowed. "Do you believe me or not?"
"I believe you," said Paul. He managed a pretty-good imitation himself—a smile. "So I guess that eliminates any husbands, eh?"
"Oh, most definitely," answered Sandy. She finished her wine.
Sandy spent the next afternoon with her gardening club; Paul spent the next afternoon coughing and sneezing down in the basement. The boxes were blocked by paint cans and tools and everything else that goes with remodeling an old house, but that was a good pretense—Paul moved a few things around as if he were sorting it out, then went to work on the boxes.
Everyone snoops, but this felt a lot different from rummaging around in somebody’s medicine cabinet. Like all women, Sandy kept everything—Christmas ornaments, ribbons, postcards, letters, a collection of stuffed animals (all rabbits), a melted candle, a pair of frayed panties with a suggestive quote (now, that made him wonder), a copy of The Kama Sutra (that too!), everything. He started with the postcards, thumbing through them. No address or postmark stood out. Most were from vacations her parents had taken, scenic views of charter ships and glaciers. Some were from Sandy’s own vacations: Aruba, Florida, all college-age locations. Paul wiped a cobweb from his forehead and pulled out a packet of letters. He held it as if it was Pandora’s box itself.
He undid the ribbon that bound them, looked carefully at the top envelope, then all of them. The first was from her parents, as were most of them. There were probably 20 letters. The last six were from men.
He stood there, sweating even in the coolness of the ancient basement, his body throbbing with a strange pulse. He felt dust and broken cobwebs in his eyes, felt it in his mouth. He couldn’t swallow. He sorted the envelopes by names and dates—there were two each from three different men. He hurried through the first of each, the mustiness of the pages floating up, not wanting to read secrets, unable to stop.You swear I will be the first? Your eyes are like the devil’s shadow—you torture me with your kisses, draw me in…I would gladly die in your arms, Sandra!
It sickened him to read the pages, made him want to burn them in a fire that would engulf the entire house they were building together.To know that I will be the first to have you completely is beyond description. All from the past is a mere shadow—you are the light… He stuffed the pages back in the envelopes. He was crying, wiping his eyes with the sleeves of his filthy sweatshirt.
I will give you everything, everything I own, to be the first lover to marry you, to have you, to be a part of you. All it takes is the shadow of your smile to capture me…
Paul stopped crying. He rubbed the grit off his face and peeled the flaps back from the second set of envelopes. He spread the letters out, absent-mindedly swatting a tiny white spider that had dropped on his neck. He read the last page of each.
And there it was:What did I do to deserve this? Didn’t I give you everything? And again:
You evil bitch! I gave you everything, and this is what I get?The final message he read was from a man named Stephen. It was like a child’s handwriting, a scrawl: I will find you
The scrapbooks were in the next 2 boxes, all very neatly arranged. He pulled one from the middle of the 1st box; it seemed to be from her late teens: some prom photos (yes, she looked great!), remnants of a dried, pressed corsage, a pennant from the Wisconsin High School football team…he moved on to box #2.
This time he chose the last scrapbook. Pieces of newspaper slid out from under the back cover. One was aged enough to have yellowed at the edges. It was the obituary page of The Chicago Tribune, the date missing from the top right corner. The page was folded into quarters, and Paul opened it carefully. There were perhaps 30 obits, all text, no photographs. He started to check ages, but in every case, the date of death had been obliterated…a tear in the crease, or a deliberate puncture, as a pen or pencil might make when it was thrust through the paper. Paul gently turned the page over—the reverse side held ads for Funeral Parlors…’Sike’s Since 1945’, ‘Hennessy’s--A Family Tradition Since 1961’, and four paid obits with photos, all elderly folks. One of them, purely by accident, had her eyes poked out from the other side, the face of Anne Smittie, age 87, staring out at her remaining relatives with hollow sockets.
Paul threw it down; he grabbed the next newspaper article, another obituary sheet, this time from the Sun-Times, newer, crisper. The date had been snipped off clean and sharp; spaces where faces and dates once stood where now ragged holes. He flipped the sheet over…there could be tell-tale dates…something.
Footsteps sounded overhead. The basement door opened wider. The top step creaked and settled. "Honey, what are you doing down there?" asked Sandy.
"Trying to get this crap organized!" Paul said, yelling more than he should have. He began stuffing the newspaper sheets back into the scrapbook. "I wanted to finish the trim for the bedroom, and I can’t even get to it."
Sandy took another step. The boards shifted under her. "You’d better stay there," Paul said. "Those stairs are a million years old." He could see her shoes and started to hurry. Then he relaxed. She hated the basement…she had come down once, only to have a spider dangle in front of her. That was it for her—he had carried every box and paint can downstairs himself. He wanted to check the obituaries again, especially the last one he hadn’t gotten to. There would be time.
"I’ll be right up, Dear," he said. He took his time putting the scrapbook back in order.
When he came upstairs, he helped her carry in ferns from the car. These would be planted in the spring, she told him, laughing at his confused look. He was an idiot about plants. "How about dinner?" he said. He held out a fern. "Salad, I guess."
She laughed again, giving him the smile. "No, you’ll get a steak." She brushed at his hair. "Ugh!" she said, wiping her hand on her pants. "You got cobwebs!"
Paul swiped at the dust on his hair and made a face. "I need a shower, huh?"
"Definitely," Sandy said.
Paul was a claims-adjuster for a large insurance company. He worked from home 4 days a week, but was expected in the office for meetings on Monday. He still had vacation-time coming, so he blew off a half-day and came home at 1. He was curious, to say the least.
The recycling truck was just pulling away. Sandy was in her gray Nike sweats with the black stripe. Paul shook his head and locked the car. "Fooling around with the garbage man, are you?"
Sandy laughed. "I forgot some junk," she said. "I called down, and the guy came back."
"Oh," said Paul. "What?"
"Just things I wanted to get rid of," she said. "C’mon, I’ll make you lunch." She smiled at him, and that made him forget his foolish fears.
Until she brushed the cobwebs from her long golden hair.
The dogs began to bark that night. Paul quieted them down, let them in. Sandy was sleeping. Paul slid out of their bed and took the new flashlight. He followed the path to the rear gate. There was a brief noise in the brush, a thin sound that came from the marsh to the gate.
"No need to turn the light on," said the gaunt man. "Did you bring any food?"
Paul held out a jar of peanut butter and a half-loaf of rye bread. He pulled them back as the man reached out. "Is your name Stephen?"
The man showed a glimpse of his blackened gums. "Could be. So you found something, then?"
Paul gave him the food. "All I could get right now," he said.
"That’ll do," said the man. He opened the jar and began eating from it with his fingers, but tidily, as if he were a cat. He paused. "Did you see her scrapbooks?"
"She came home. Then they were, ah…destroyed, I think."
The man licked his fingers. "There are other sources, I guess." He took out a slice of bread, stared at it, ate it crushed in a ball. A sound like a lost cry of anguish came in from east of them. The thin waters of the marsh were filled at the edges with ice, but now the water roiled back to the shores, fish and frogs swept up in a fount of waterspray that danced to the shore, then stopped, a geyser in mid-motion.
"We don’t have much time," said the gaunt man, searching for another piece of rye. "The shadows are coming."
The man with the broken teeth and the hollow eyes smacked his lips. "You looked scared," he said. "You should be." He stared, and Paul saw vision behind the eyes.
"Let me tell you how it all started," said the man…
you couldn't possibly think it would happen in a mere two chapters, right? Soon, secrets are revealed...
The thin man came closer. Paul could smell the animal stench on him. The stranger put his hands on his knees and grimaced as he struggled to his feet. The man clutched at his back and Paul heard bones snap. "You and I are very much alike," he said. "We have…a history."
Paul was an average man—he was 5’10", medium build with brown eyes, needed to lose about 10 pounds, had most of his hair. He thought he was in pretty-good shape. He was 35. The stranger stood eye-to-eye with him now. Paul resisted the urge to gag at the smell. "I want you to take a good look," hissed the stranger. "A really good look."
His eyes bored out from the sunken hollows. Moonlight streaked the grotesque face. Paul brought the flashlight up; the beam flickered and died. He dropped the flashlight; stared back as the stranger had demanded. In the shifting moonlight, the stranger’s gaunt, hard face seemed to soften and fill out.
For one moment, in the span of time it takes to blink slowly, the eyes of the stranger were no longer sunken and black—they were a soft gray with a trace of mischief. The hollows in the face were gone, and the wisps of matted hair became a careless but short shock of deep brown. The face had a casual, reckless look. For that one moment, the stranger was self-assured, impish, cocky, and all those features made him handsome in a strange mixture…
And Paul felt the tendrils of shock crawl in and grab at his brain.
The stranger could be Paul as he shaved and smirked at the mirror in the morning, or at night when he made love to Sandy. It was a trick of the moonlight, he knew it was, but it was right there staring him in the face, believable beyond doubt.
The stranger suddenly collapsed to the ground, gasping. He was as he had been, an apparent derelict. He laid on the leaves and dirt and shook with small convulsions, twisted fingers searching for something solid to hold on to. He found some air and rolled over onto his hands and knees. Spit hanging from his chin, he cocked his head up. "She wants us to look the same, you know. Not exactly, but close enough. She does have her preferences, that’s for sure."
The stranger stopped, finally caught his breath. "I looked like you once," he said. "I proved it to you, didn’t I, even if it almost killed me." He leaned against a tree. Even in the dead of winter there were animals…a squirrel darted past, and the stranger instinctively tried to fling a hand out. The squirrel leaped to a nearby tree and chattered from a high branch. The man wiped his chin and rolled his head down to his shoulder. "That’s what I eat now…damn squirrels and rats."
Paul looked over at the marsh. The wind had died down. There was a rim of ice on the lake. No shadows were in sight.
Paul asked the question. "Is your name Stephen?"
The gaunt man looked up. The creases on his face deepened. "Yes," he said softly.
Paul watched as his hand came out with a will of its own, grasping at the man’s throat. The flesh on the man’s throat felt like cold cereal, as if he could dig right in and tear skin and bones away with no effort at all. "Keep that up and you’ll never hear a thing," said the man, and Paul released his hold, shaken by what he had done. He had never as much as even slapped anyone in his entire life.
"That’s OK," said the man. "I’ll give you one time. If the others had been alive, I’d’ve done the same…worse. But if you do it again, it won’t be me that gets revenge. The shadows will do it for me." He coughed and spit a bloody, congealed mass on the forest floor. To Paul, the gummy puddle appeared to slither under the leaves towards the marsh even as he watched.
The man tried a grin. Paul wanted to turn away from the broken mouth, couldn’t. "A part of you is starting to believe that I knew your wife, that perhaps Sandra and I were, ah…intimate. But you look at what I am now and you are horrified." The man turned to stare out at the marsh. "It’s a bit easier to take if the other guy is handsome, or rich, isn’t it? You can always blame it on that…"
The stranger shifted, came back to Paul’s gaze. For a moment, as the branches swayed and shadows covered them, they could have almost been two normal men discussing anything. Except Paul wanted to kill him.
The stranger read his mind. "You can’t blame me for being in Sandra’s past," he said sternly. "You didn’t exist then, not as far as she knew. I was handsome then, had money, had a condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago."
"You’re a liar," snapped Paul, forcing himself to keep his hands still.
"Oh, not at all," said the stranger, "not at all. I was 25, owned a seat on the Commodities Exchange. Cost me $250,000 back when I bought it, age 21. Had it all paid off and owned the condo too by the time I met Sandra. Yeah, I was doing just fine."
He started coughing again, phlegm pulled up from deep in his lungs. "Cancer," he said. "Got every damn disease known to man, I guess." He cleared his throat, stood upright as well as he could. "My name is Stephen A. Carney. I owned the brokerage seat from 1972 until ’78. Check it out. That’s something even she can’t change."
"That’s almost 25 years ago," said Paul. There was relief in his tone. "Sandy wasn’t even alive."
"Oh, yes she was," said Stephen A. Carney. "Don’t I know it. Said she was a virgin, too." He managed a wink. "You fall for that too?"
Stephen A. Carney began to sneeze. Blood ran from his nose. He wiped it away in a smear on his shirtsleeve. "I know you want to kill me, but you can’t, not now." The man winced as a final deep cough shook him. "I’m the only one who can save you. Like I said, we have a history, and history repeats itself, right?" Carney glanced at the peanut butter jar. Bugs were already crawling in it. "I’m going to need some more food," he said, quite reasonably.
"You’re not getting crap until you answer my questions," Paul said. He found himself searching for a stick, a rock, anything. The flashlight was at his feet. He stopped himself. "Eat your damn rats, then."
He could see his house from here, a dim pattern of light coming from the bedroom. A shadow walked past the patio curtains, paused. "I’m going home," Paul said. "I’m calling the cops in the morning. If you’re still here, I’ll have you arrested."
"They won’t find me," Stephen A. Carney said softly. "Not even the shadows can find me if I’m careful."
From the distance of the yard Paul heard the patio door open. The shadow became Sandy, the slight wind plucking at her nightgown. "Paul?" she called out. "You there? I’m afraid…I’m going to let the dogs out."
"Tell her no!" growled Carney. "Or you’ll never know…"
Paul picked up the flashlight. It flickered, died again. Carney stood there like a carnival freak, hair matted and covered with dirt and slime, his clothes and entire body reeking, a repugnant wretched troll crawled out from under a desolate bridge. And he grinned again. "Gotcha’, don’t I?"
Sandy called from the patio. "Paul? Don’t scare me…"
He had to know. No matter what, he had to know.
"It’s OK, Honey," he called out. "Be right there. Keep the dogs in, OK?"
He stared at the freak. "This better be good," he said. "You’ve got five minutes."
Carney smacked his thin lips. "Steak, I think. One of those things you just can't get on the run." He leaned closer, the smell oozing out. "And wine? I haven’t had a good wine in 25 years. At least not in a glass."
"You’d better start talking," said Paul.
"I was young, handsome, and rich," said Stephen A. Carney. "I had it all. Then I met Sandra." He wiped a dirty hand across his face. "God, she was beautiful. I was on my way home; her car had broken down." He spoke to the ground at his feet. "She had a beat-up Saab then." He looked up. "What was she driving when you met her, Paul?"
It was an ancient BMW, the right fender caved in. The radiator had overheated. "Just tell your tale," said Paul.
Carney shrugged. "She wasn’t wearing any underwear; noticed that right away when she got back into the car after I gave it a jump. She got in that way: ass first, lifted her legs. What guy wouldn’t want that, right?
"So I get her phone number, we start dating. Listen, Paul—if she was a virgin then, she sure read a lot of books. Don’t get me wrong…we never had sex, as far as the ‘Clinton’ standards go. We…well, me at least…fell in love. Then the strange things started."
The branches moved slightly, the moonlight filtered down. There were tears on the man’s face, tears that ran down the gouges on his cheekbones. "She was a virgin, she claimed, and how was I to know different? We planned our wedding." Carney swiped at his tears, looking shamed. "Then she got a lawyer."
Carney was lost in thought for a moment. The golden flecks in his eyes seem to dance out from the black hollows like fireflies. "Did I mention steak?" he asked gleefully. "Medium-rare, right?" As if any remaining energy had been sapped, he settled back into his former self, eyes hidden. "It was all over then," he said mournfully.
"I signed the papers, and I was a dead man. You ever been so delirious with joy that you don’t really give a damn? Well, that’s how I was. I gave her everything…in the event I should die." Carney shook his head. "And that’s what I did, I guess."
Sandy’s voice came from the deck. "Paul, I’m letting the dogs out…can you hear me?"
"Yes, Dear," Paul yelled back. "Hurry up, Carney."
"Yes, there’s not a lot of time," he answered. He tried to stand tall again, couldn’t. He punctuated his sentences with sharp coughs. "I was on my way to the wedding. Getting married to my virgin. I forgot something, had to go back to my condo. Sandra was living in a cheap apartment, but she had moved some things in. There were boxes in my storage. I opened one while I was looking for a gift I wanted to give her—a dried flower from her prom. She showed it to me once, said it was one of her favorite memories." He sucked in some air. "I found the scrapbooks.
"I imagine she’s changed them by now." He glanced quickly at Paul, saw Paul’s expression. "What’d she do—cut the faces out?"
Paul glared at him, said nothing. "Well, back then the faces were there. Dates, too. I thought nothing of it, except it was strange to be putting pages of obituaries in scrapbooks. Then something brought me back, made me look again."
Carney did his evil little grin. "Bet you got it figured out by now, right? Yep, every one of them looked like me. Oh, a bit different here and there, but pretty much how I bet I looked to you a few minutes ago.
"It was if she knew. Somehow, she knew! She had that mean, slit-your-throat look in her eyes. You ever see that look?"
This time Paul responded. "No, not ever," he said emphatically.
Carney shrugged. "You will."
The dogs were racing towards the gate, the blind Ripley in the lead. "I was devastated, I couldn’t even think," said Carney. "I wanted to confront her, but the ceremony had to be done. And that’s what I did. It was very beautiful.
"We danced, drank champagne, drove to our honeymoon suite. It was on Michigan Avenue. It was on our way there that the shadows first appeared."
The puppy was overtaking the older dog. They were halfway there. "Close the gate now," murmured Carney, "or it’s over. I am starving, and I will eat that dog."
Paul fumbled towards the gate. He closed it as Lucky charged at it, jumping up to throw her weight against it. Paul had to brace himself. Ripley came up next, both dogs barking at the enclosure.
"And because I want my next meal, I will finish quickly," said Carney. He smacked his lips at the dogs. "The shadows came from Lake Michigan, I think. The engine stalled, I looked up. Things were happening on Lake Michigan, let me tell you.
"Sandra ran from my Cadillac. I distinctly heard her laughing. The shadows came in, covered the Caddy. No one else seemed to notice, but there it was, a black cloud that covered everything.
"The shadows thought they got me, but here’s another case of misinformation, yes indeed. See, I got out in time. The guys before me, they are dead. Me, I’m just trapped here, eating rats and squirrels." He bared his rotten teeth. "And you’d better pay attention."
Paul leaned over the gate to pet his dogs. They jerked back, snarling. "They know the shadows touched me," said Carney. "The shadows swiped at me." He hung his head down, fitting it neatly in the cavern of his chest. He spoke from down there. "You are doomed if it catches you. It drains you. It sucks you dry." He forced his face up to stare at Paul. "It is everything bad you have ever worried about. It only touched me, and look at me now."
Paul forced himself to keep repeating it: This is nonsense! This is nonsense! But the worry was there, worming its way in deeper. He caught himself, spoke boldly to the stranger who called himself Stephen A. Carney: "You’re just a drunken old bum hiding out behind my yard. Go away."
The stranger shook his head back and forth. "I threw myself into Lake Michigan. They dragged some other body out of there two weeks later…Sandra claimed it was me. The body was putrefied; gases had split the stomach and the face, ruptured the skin. They never bothered with fingerprints. That was fine with me."
The wind had picked up. The few withered leaves still remaining were sent spiraling through the air. The moon was slashed by branches whipping wildly; Paul heard his dogs cry and yelp. He tried to comfort them—they bared their fangs and barked crazily. To the east, the marsh churned and the wind became a wailing sound that vibrated against the trees.
The stranger stood there, wind flailing at his meager clothing, arms outstretched. "I have searched all this time for her," he yelled, his words barely heard now above the turmoil of the marsh.
"For what!" yelled Paul. "What the hell do you want?"
"She is mine! I deserve that much…look at me!" The stranger whirled about wildly, stumbling back to point a gnarled finger at Paul. "Run, fool. And don’t look back!"
But of course Paul didn’t. He couldn’t. He had to see.
The marsh convulsed, no simple geyser this time. The shadows came from all shores, swirling together in a swarm that encircled and then shot towards him. It spread giant wings that cast the entire shoreline in even deeper darkness, no trace of moonlight visible on anything it covered, and it searched for them.
"She’s my wife!" yelled Paul, and he shoved the stranger to the ground. He burst through the gate and slapped at the dogs. The blind one tried to bite him; he shoved her aside with a knee and raced for the house. And then he stopped.
The puppy was trying to get through the half-closed gate, trying to attack whatever it sensed from the shadows. "Get over here!" he yelled to the dog. "Get inside the house!"
It was fifty yards back to the gate. The shadows had invaded the forest…they seemed to float down like a net of death. Paul heard animals cry, heard them die.
Sandy was at the patio door. "Hurry, Paul! I’m scared."
Ripley had followed Paul, all the while barking at the forest. Now the blind dog paused to sniff at the air. It turned on arthritic legs, hobbled at first, picked up steam. It followed the familiar trail back to Lucky, snapping at the puppy, trying to nudge it away from the gate. The puppy lunged at the blind dog; Ripley bit down on the puppy’s neck, forcing her to the ground. Paul started running down the path to the gate.
"Paul, I’m locking the damn doors if you don’t get back here!" Sandy was screaming the words. Paul stopped. The shadows had swooped down, hovering, testing. The dogs were thrashing about at the gate, locked in a fight to the death, the winner the Alpha dog, King of the day…
Paul heard the patio door slam shut, heard the lock click. He saw Carney looming over the gate, intently watching the dogs trying to kill each other. Everything he had heard and seen in the past 30 minutes collided at once, trying to flood his mind, jamming it. All that made it through was the image of a BMW with a crushed fender, steam rising from under the hood, a beautiful girl beckoning him inside.
He ran to the dogs.
Stephen A. Carney was positively drooling over the dogfight. He had a ringside seat, snot dripping out as he coughed and laughed at the same time. He looked hungry.
That was when the blind Ripley released her hold on the slack puppy and leaped. Paul was 15 paces away when it happened. There was a look of complete and utter surprise on Stephen A. Carney’s crazed face when the big dog sunk claws into the gate for a foothold, jumped, and tore into his throat.
Carney went down under the weight, hands trying to pull the dog away. Paul reached the gate just as the shadows sensed prey.
The shadows descended, a thick, wet blanket with tendrils that prodded and poked. The entire area—trees, marsh, Carney and the dog—seemed to condense to a world of its own, while a darker, more dedicated cluster of the shadows, a mouth, searched for victims. Paul could swear it had wide-open fangs as it devoured Carney and Ripley.
The shadows lingered; all sounds quieted but for one brief snarl that ended in pain. Like thunderclouds rolling backwards, the shadows returned to the marsh, the shores, to nothing. Without thinking about it, Paul kicked at the gate until it flattened, and he stepped into the forest beyond.
Something crunched under his shoes. The moonlight was back again, making the bones of a small ribcage glisten. The meat had been picked clean. Paul heard a noise…he saw Carney drooping against a tree. Carney’s face was bloody, his throat ripped open. A thick red stream spurted out like clockwork. "Guess I got lucky again," he said. He put a hand up to his throat. It did nothing to stop the blood, merely made it a lawn sprinkler that splattered red droplets in a wide path.
"You brought it here," said Paul. He clenched his fists.
"Nope," Carney said calmly. "She brought it." He reached down and pulled out a fistful of weeds and roots. He shoved it in the hole in his throat. It stopped the blood. He glanced at the bones. "Don’t forget the steaks," he said, turning to go. "Medium-rare."
He went deep into the forest. He seemed to drop into the earth, nothing to mark his path. Something came from the east, from the marsh, a charcoal-line on an aerial map of the sky overhead. The thin strand zoomed in, then down. It searched. It seemed to Paul as if the thin shadow found a cave and delved in. It was gone.
The puppy was waiting for him at the patio door. Paul didn’t have a key, Sandy wasn’t there, so he got a pry-bar from the garage and forced the door up at an angle and got it off the track. Lucky followed him in.
Sandy was in the bedroom. She had changed into a black negligee. She looked especially beautiful tonight. "Thank God you’re safe!" she said, coming to him with open arms.
Paul stepped back. "Why did you lock me out?"
Sandy smiled shyly. "I’m sorry. I was scared. The dogs were going crazy."
The puppy was behind him. It began to growl. "You be quiet!" said Sandy. "Be a good dog!"
Paul didn’t say a word; he slept on the couch. Sandy had plants to discover, so she was off to a wine-tasting party the next day. Paul went down to the basement.
The scrapbooks were gone.
He looked about. Things had been rearranged…boxes, tools, paint cans…all had been shifted to hide one missing box. He had one shoe on the stairs when he saw a pink piece of paper wedged in a crack on the riser. It was from a storage company located in Minnesota. It had last week’s date and a time of 30 days. She was moving north. Paul went upstairs and waited.
Sandy came home at five, a bit tipsy. The sky was darkening. She was carrying a plastic cup half-filled with red wine. "I went down in the basement again today," Paul said nonchalantly.
Wine spilled over the rim of the cup as Sandy set it down next to the sink. She stared out the window. "And?" she asked.
"Nothing," said Paul. "It’s just that some things had been moved." The puppy was by the patio door. She began crying, begging to come inside. "No!" Sandy snapped. She rubbed her temples. "Excuse me for a minute," she said. "I need some aspirin." She went up to the bedroom.
Paul looked about the kitchen. He had put the plank flooring down himself, had sanded and varnished it. There were copper pans and kettles arranged above the stove. Prisms and crystals decorated the window sills. There were birdfeeders Paul had hung from nearby branches, but he hadn’t noticed any birds lately. He went through the house and methodically checked the windows and doors, letting Lucky in as he went. The puppy trailed at his heels while he finished. He went back to the kitchen. He quieted the puppy.
Sandy was back at the sink. She smiled. "Bad headache," she said. "They buy the cheapest wine for our gatherings, you know."
"So why did you move the box of scrapbooks?" Paul asked.
Sandy leaned over the sink, peered out the window. A vein was throbbing alongside her neck. "Old memories," she finally said. "I didn’t want them in the house."
"You happen to know somebody named Stephen A. Carney?" Paul asked.
Sandy shifted some dishes in the sink. She began washing cutlery. "Never heard of him," she said, her hands busy.
"I think you’re lying," said Paul.
She sighed. She turned around. She had a serrated carving knife in her right hand. "Thanks for the money," she said, grinning to one side.
"I locked all the doors and windows," Paul said evenly. He reached down and petted the puppy.
"And I opened the balcony door in the bedroom," Sandy said.
Something woke him up. He slid from under the blankets and found his shoes and walked out onto the deck. He had a nice yard, open to the pond out back where the kids went ice-fishing this time of year. He came back an hour later.
His wife stirred under the covers. "What?" she asked sleepily.
"Nothing," Robert said. He brushed his brown hair back from his forehead. "Just some old bum with a scar on his face and a mongrel dog half-starved to death, thing can’t even hardly stand up."
"What’d he want?" she asked, pulling the covers with her as she turned.
God, she was beautiful, he thought, watching her smile out at the moonlight.
"Steaks," he said. "One for him and one for the dog." He chewed at a fingernail. "Medium-rare, he wanted."
It was very cold in Minnesota this time of year. "Give the poor man and his dog a steak, then," said Sandra, snuggling deeper under the blankets. "But leave the door open, would you, Honey? You know I need my fresh air."
the end of shadows...for now
Scary art by Frik...check out more Frik at www.frikoutdoors.com
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