Henry Trapp rarely played poker, and now that Stuart, Adam, and Jack "The Jackass" were beating him with such panache, such perfection, it seemed like orchestrated annihilation, a game of five-card fuck you. But he liked Stuart and had come anyway, rather than sitting home on a Friday night and watching reruns of classic Star Trek. It would have reminded him —quite painfully — of life without Sandy.
Cruel, heartless, pitiless Sandy, who adored Captain Kirk and company even more than he did.
Henry sipped his beer and stared at his only good cards: two grinning, euphoric jacks, their mouths twisted up like Jackass's haughty smirk, and Henry suspected that the bald bastard was about to further rob his wallet and crush his self-esteem.
Sandy had crushed his self-esteem well enough already.
"I fold," grunted Adam. With flawless hair, an athletic build, and Italian suaveness, Henry could see why women liked him at first.
"Ya pansy," said Jack. "You fear the Jackman, don't you? I see the terror in your eyes."
"Just show us your hand, you stupid heathen," said Stuart. "The Great Old Ones have obviously blessed you tonight."
He winked at Henry, who rolled his eyes in response. Henry agreed that it was either a great blessing from eldritch gods, or great old-fashioned cheating. Jack had won nearly every hand so far.
"Wow, is that some of your dorkspeak, Stu?" said Jack.
"You know it," Stuart answered, arching an eyebrow.
A la Doctor McCoy, mused Henry. Oh man. I'm the real dork here.
Of the three guys, Henry only liked Stuart. He had gone to high school with Stu, and they and a few other friends had spent countless nights tossing polyhedral dice beside piles of role-playing manuals, gleefully dismembering orcs, murderous cultists, and shit-for-aim Imperial troopers, but seven years had come and gone, and the old hobbies had died.
Jack shook his shaved head, a slow swipe left to right, and glared fiendishly at Stuart through orange-tinted glasses. "I hope you brought extra cash buddy, 'cause this heathen's holding a doozy." He slapped his cards down machinegun fast. A straight flush, Queen high. "Beautiful, ain't it? How's that for a great old one? Ha!"
"Son of a whore." Adam spread three Kings. Stuart laid down two low pair and watched his bills merge into Jack's pile.
Henry smiled. "I didn't win either." He revealed the jacks. "See?"
"It's time for a comeback," said Stuart. He nudged Henry. "Come on, man. Wake up. You look sleepy."
Henry sighed. His bed did call his name, however empty it might seem now. "Guys, look, it's been great, but I've got to get going."
Jack slashed his hands horizontally (like a freaky Bruce Lee, thought Henry) and pointed at him. "None of that talk in this house, mister. We play until the clock strikes one. That's the rule. It's only another hour, anyway."
Stuart shrugged. "You mind, Henry? I gotta reclaim some cash. Or, I'll have to murder Jack. Either way is cool with-"
Four knocks upstairs interrupted him, four sharp raps on the front door as if someone with a cane and little patience demanded entry.
"Did you order pizza?" asked Jack. "No one asked what I wanted."
"We didn't order pizza," said Adam. "Right, Stu?"
Stuart stood up. "Nope. Be right back. Jack, no more cheating! Henry, keep an eye on him."
Stuart tromped upstairs, leaving Henry, Adam and Jack in mildly awkward silence. Jack reached for the remote and flipped on the 19-inch television.
Henry recognized the movie playing: Kiefer Sutherland screamed for his kidnapped girlfriend and tore around a convenience store and exterior service pumps, his hair flying whip-wild, his eyes bugged with panic. It was a remake of some French flick he had never bothered to watch; he hated foreign films, and he hated seeing another guy in grief over a woman.
"Hand me that remote," said Adam. Henry smiled, relieved, when John Boy from the Waltons popped up in his first escapade to the realm of sci-fi: 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars. Not a great movie, but good. Adam zipped to the next station, a newscast on Channel 3.
"—another disappearance in Bakersfield," the reporter was saying. "A twenty-four year old woman missing for two days now. This is the fourth incident since the beginning of last month, and local authorities are still searching for—"
Jack snorted. "Sucks to be her. Turn it, man. Life is depressing enough already." Henry agreed with him for once. Adam flicked to an I Love Lucy rerun, groaned, and punched the button.
Click. Fizzzzzzz. No reception.
"What the—?" Adam mashed the button harder. "Only three stations?"
Click. Fizzzzzz. Click. Fzzzzzzz.
Kiefer Sutherland leapt back onscreen. Adam craned his neck and looked upstairs. "Stu! Stuart? What's wrong with your TV, man?"
Henry desperately wanted to go home, and considered several excuses plausible enough to bypass Jack's lame 1 AM rule. He leaned back in his chair and looked around. A multicolored shag carpet covered the floor. It complemented an orange lava lamp percolating with liquid strangeness and various lamps with tasseled shades and hell-red bulbs. Henry thought that Stuart's home lacked a woman's touch even worse than his own.
Kiefer continued to look upset on the television, but Adam jabbed the remote at him and blitzed back to John Boy, then the news station, transitioning to the daily weather report, and then—
Click. Fzzzzzzzz. Click. Fzzzzzzzz. No Lucy.
"Oh, Ricky," squealed Jack, cupping hands to his face. "What ever will we do?"
"I'm going to ram this controller up your butthole, that's what," said Adam.
Jack looked thoughtful, shook his head. "Nah. That might hurt."
"Ooh. Clever. Ya fag magnet."
Adam's face contorted. "Are you in junior high, Jackass? Fag magnet? Where do you get these insults?"
"You tell me, fagnet."
Adam threw an empty beer can that zinged off Jack's head. He pressed a hand to his temple.
"Oh, you bastard! I was going to let you leave with a little dignity tonight, but—"
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
Three knocks from upstairs as if Old Man Winter battered the door again with an iron-shod cane, and a terrible chill sheathed Henry's spine.
Lightning-quick, he imagined Stuart's face frozen in a rictus of pain, his lips ice blue, his eyeballs capsized in his skull like two chilly white marbles. Henry shook the image away. You're such a weirdo, Henry.
"Did Stuart forget to tip the pizza guy?" asked Jack.
"It's not a pizza," said Adam. "We didn't order one. Besides, you have the most money. You should buy pizza." Adam reached into his breast pocket for a crumpled pack of Marlboros, tapped out one of the three left, clicked open a silver Zippo and raked his thumb down the flint wheel. The cig ignited on the third strike and Adam blew smoke in Jack's face. "Go see what's taking Stu so long."
Jack snorted. "He'll be back. Hey, watch this card trick boys. I guarantee you won't figure it out. And if you do, I'll give you back ten bucks each. How's that sound?"
Henry shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so." He didn't really care. His eyes flicked to the stairwell.
Adam ignored Jack. "Who the hell is upstairs? Hey! Stu! Do you hear the door?"
"Watch," whispered Jack with a charlatan's finesse, and he laid down three cards side-by-side, face up.
Henry felt a twinge, as if a teensy climber had begun the ascent to the pinnacle of Mt. Henry.
Jack chuckled. "Three Aces. Fine, but it doesn't change the trick at all. Now sonny, take an ace, any ace, and hold it to your—"
Adam cut him off. "Jack, listen—go get me some beers and I'll play your stupid game. Ok?"
Henry looked to the stairwell again and the multicolored shag carpet stretching to the top rung. No light escaped from above.
Jack glanced at Henry, shrugged, and scooted his chair back. "Fine, Herr Lazy Adam." He saluted in perfect Fascist form. "I'll grab us some brewskies. Henry, my friend, you want another?"
Henry shook his head. "No, thanks." The urge to leave had grown even stronger.
"And some chips, too," added Adam.
"Yes, ma'am," said Jack. He sprinted up the stairs and darkness swallowed him.
Ten seconds passed before Henry heard the squeak of rubber and magnets. The refrigerator door opened and shut. Jack creaked across to the hallway, the foyer, the living room, and then stopped.
On TV, John Boy aimed a laser pistol at an alien, and jittery blue sparks exploded from its chest.
Henry strained his ears. He heard no laughter, no ridicule, just a near-tangible silence as if house and home had already devoured Stu and Jack in one, wet, rollicking slurp.
Henry suddenly felt as if he knew a secret that everyone else was either too ignorant or preoccupied to notice, an important secret with as many layers and pockets as a secret could hold. But it was probably nothing, as usual. Sandy had once said that he was a poster boy for paranoia. True. But still...
Henry cleared his throat. "Where are those guys?"
"Having a sausage party."
"Yeah, probably." Henry faked a laugh.
Adam cycled through the stations, only to find a miserable Kiefer Sutherland and morbid Channel 3 News. "Son of a bitch." Adam mashed his cigarette, rattled out a fresh one, flicked the Zippo once, twice, and held the flame to the end. "You still got a girlfriend, Henry?" he asked.
The question floated out of nowhere and it jarred Henry. A girlfriend? I sure did I did. And she was perfect!
"Uh, no," he said. "Not...not now. Sandy, she...uh...she broke up with me at a Trek Convention a few weeks ago. She met—" he smiled weakly, "—she met a Klingon she liked. You know, from Star Trek. The big, ugly guys."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," said Adam. He dragged on the filter thoughtfully. "You're better off anyway. Take it from me, man. My girl is either cheating on me with Minor Leaguers, or calling at two in the morning to say she's too drunk to come over. She lies every chance she gets. All women do. It's genetic. Isn't there a word for that? A klep—a kleper—a klepta—"
"Yeah. That. Anyway, you don't need it, man. Relationships aren't worth the hassle. And that's what they are. Just enjoy being a bachelor. You can still take a chick to dinner sometimes, maybe a movie, then get some tail and cut her loose. Know what I mean? Sure you do. You're a smart egg."
"Sure," he answered, and maybe Henry did know. Maybe being alone meant that no one could hurt him. Maybe it meant that no woman would ever again wobble up to a live mic at a crowded costume ball, dressed as a slut-tastic Lieutenant Uhura, slurring from too much cheap red wine, and vehemently announce the end of their relationship to him and four hundred other spectators and acquaintances.
Cruel, heartless, pitiless Sandy.
Adam sucked down smoke, looking reflective, even stoically wise. Henry glanced at his watch, blinking back salty tears. 12:17. Stuart went upstairs ten minutes ago, Jack a little less. He wiped his face before Adam noticed.
"Where the hell are they?" said Adam, voicing Henry's concerns. "Stuart! Jack?"
Another image flashed up: Jack nailed to the Formica floor with climbing pitons.
Henry's imaginary mountaineer, briefly forgotten, suddenly reached the small of his back. Two houseflies cruised around the room. The three Aces lay on the table. Henry picked one up, trying to think of anything besides Stuart's and Jack's corpses. He gathered the entire deck, shuffling it,
(four people missing since last month)
and tossed the top card on the table. A two of clubs. He threw another.
A two of spades.
A premonition tapped Henry's shoulder. His hand scraped the top card off the pack. It flipped in midair, whipping smoke into curlicues, and struck the table as an arterial-red two of bleeding hearts. Henry guessed the last card - a two of diamonds.
(Four knocks and three channels and now just two of us, oh my)
His mind sorted through the sequences. Whatever, he thought. Just coincidence. It means nothing. But that didn't alleviate the subtle dread that crawled through his gut, daring him to look oh so much closer.
Seconds ticked away and neither Stuart nor Jack returned. Adam smoked, the television yammered, and the miniature climber buried another pick at the junction of Henry's skull and spine.
"Something's wrong," he blurted, uncaring of how dumb it sounded.
Adam grunted. "No kidding. I'm losing my buzz."
"No, I mean something...strange is happening. The TV had four stations, then three, and now two. You saw it happen. It's like some kind of—of—I don't know, a weird countdown. These cards all came up deuces. Two of us here now. And first there were four knocks and then three and maybe—"
Henry's heart morphed into a chunk of ice. Adam didn't respond, but Henry could see his expression of Something-Is-Not-Quite-Right-But-I-Won't-Say-It, a look that Henry knew was registered on his own face as surely as Mr. Spock was a logical bastard.
"Who keeps knocking on the door?" Adam didn't acknowledge Henry's theory, but he did push his chair back and stand. Shadows swayed over his face.
"Where are you going?" asked Henry.
Adam reached for the crumpled pack of Marlboros, shook it, discharged the last
cigarette, and lit it with a single stroke from the Zippo. "Where do you think? To get myself a beer. And if I see those guys dicking around I'll maul them."
"They'll be back," murmured Henry.
Adam moved to the base of the stairs. "What's the matter, Henry, scared of the dark?" Adam laughed, wriggled the cig between his lips, and then leapt the stairs two at a time.
Henry was alone.
He sat very quiet, very still, letting the silence enfold him. He realized that his imagination had journeyed to realms better left alone. It was gearing up. He could feel it, a coiled metal spring winding deep inside his brain. Acute paranoia had landed him in trouble before, especially with Sandy. He had worried about her too much, fretted over her too often; checked on her at work, at home, with friends, and then double-checked, until she finally -viciously - compared him to an overprotective mother hen.
Adam's footsteps clomped one way, stopped, reversed direction. Henry raised his eyes as if to burn through the ceiling with X-ray vision. He heard Adam say—
"Stu? Where are you?"
Henry suppressed a tremble. His scrotum tightened. The footsteps passed overhead again. Adam must have gone to the kitchen, walked to the foyer, the living room and back to the foyer. Henry listened, but heard no rousing Boos! Gotchas! or well deserved curses.
There was nothing, and then suddenly—
"Hey!" Followed by an immediate—
That was the sound, a definite thomp, the sound a closing door might make, or a slab of beef striking the tile; perhaps a dropped case of beer, a slipped ham, or a thrown shoe. Anything. Everything. Henry's mind injected dozens of possibilities, but none rang true. Not one gathered to the forefront of his sensibilities and said, "Yes Sir, I Am The Sound You Just Heard. Please Accept My Apologies."
Henry sat with hands on his knees, back straight. Did someone come in? Did Adam go out? They might be in Stuart's room, distracted by a computer game or a skin mag, maybe hiding and waiting to see how long it took ol' Henry Trapp to wander upstairs and get the crap scared out of him.
Henry forced that last explanation through his brain. The mountaineer of fear halted, wavering in indecision.
They were messing with him—that was all—just playing with his head and seeing how long it took Henry to crack. He had expected better from Stuart though. No surprise from those other idiots, but—Stuart?
His old friend Stuart who played Dungeons & Dragons once upon a time, rattling handfuls of funky dice, always playing the anti-social elven magic-user and enjoying the company of his friends; Stuart who he had helped cram for Geometry finals so he wouldn't flunk; Stuart who had relinquished his R.E.M ticket as thanks so that Henry could go to the concert instead. No. Stuart wouldn't prank him, or turn cruel, petty and vindictive.
Henry's eyes drifted upon a solo fly without his friend. The mountaineer wriggled a pick loose.
Claustrophobia bloomed in a room suddenly too small, a tomb of appalling color and shrinking walls. Henry heard snik, buzz, and one of the four bulbs in the fixture above him flared and winked out.
The shadows stepped closer.
The news station grew fuzzy as it began another recap of the vanishings, and the screen faded to an unimposing white dot. Henry stared at the dot and the dot stared back, as if any moment they would put up their dukes and fight it out mano y dotto.
Four, three, two, one, I smell the blood of an Englishmun!
His eyes jerked to the vacuous hole of the stairwell. No glow from the refrigerator. No phosphorescence from the ceiling. No streetlight haloes sneaking through the panes. What made that thunking sound? A cane? A hammer or club? A mallet or an axe, or—oh, wait!—an AXE an AXE A FRICKIN' AXE!
(and you're next)
could have made that sound.
Henry imagined tempered steel crushing into the woodwork, splintering eggshell paint, ripping the guts from the walls. The same blade could crush someone's ribcage, the crick crack snap of bones.
His heart quickened to warp speed. Sweat ran down his face. The fly crawled across his hand as if it had beamed across the room. Henry didn't move. He watched it rub its forelegs in anticipation. The mountaineer neared the summit, victory flag out, ready to pound it through his head and claim the top, and Henry knew if that happened he would come undone at the hinges.
He still heard no muffled jibes, no giggles, not even: "Henry, that idiot. He's still down there!" He desperately wanted to hear such ridicule. He now thought that the darkness had taken shape, more than just filler between the lights, but something genuinely sinister with a plan and a goal, however convoluted.
Henry scooted the chair back. The oasis of light housed him, and then with a dual flare, two bulbs winked out. Only one left. The shadows coiled.
"Jack? Adam?" He moved toward the stairs, aware of every sensation from the gentle compression of the shag carpet beneath his shoes to the touch of cool air on his forehead.
He stopped ten feet from the stairs. There! A new sound. Not a thomp, not a bang, and most certainly not a pleasant normal knock. It was more of a slide, a slither, a trail of your hand through autumn grass or a snake across sunny rocks. The noise crept down the steps and then dissipated into another formless illusion.
"Guys?" whispered Henry. His tongue felt like a dried sponge. "It's not funny, anymore."
The dark did not respond.
"What's happening?" he whispered.
Death doesn't need to explain, his mind answered.
Henry's pool of light at the card table offered safety, a place he could return to if something
(bad, really bad)
happened. It wouldn't come to that though. He would laugh, go home and try to forget the ordeal, only he wouldn't forget, and he would refuse next time they asked him to play because he had more self-esteem than to let a bunch of assholes abuse him. He wouldn't let them. And he wouldn't let Sandy either. Women aren't worth the hassle, a not-so-wise man once told him.
But before he could lament himself any longer, the quasi-anticipated final BOOM! crashed down the stairs.
Henry squinted into the stairwell as if he could peel back the darkness. They wanted him to stick his head up. Or something did, something with an impeccable sense of timing and a flair for theatrics. Could those guys have pulled this stunt off?
As far as Stuart was concerned, all allegiances were gone. If Stuart wanted to treat him like this then Henry wouldn't even bother to say goodbye. So what if he was paranoid? And so what if Sandy would have agreed? There were more fish in the sea; he could find someone who loved him for who he was, warts and faults and all. He would get the hell out of Dodge and leave them to their juvenile games. He hoped to God it was just juvenile games. Regardless, it was time to catch some late night TV before hitting the sack, and in the morning he would wake up and re-examine a life that wasn't so bad. Just—predictable.
He drew a breath, in and out. This is it, buddy-o. One foot touched the bottom rung, and Henry Trapp launched into the stairwell.
But to his shock, the dark flowed around him like glutinous fog. He kept marching: four stairs, eight stairs, sixteen, twenty. This is impossible! And Henry knew that he should have reached the top, surely he must have seen some light and the darkness would break—
—and then it did break, and Henry stumbled onto the first floor as if breaching the surface of the ocean.
Dimness puddled in the kitchen. To his left, darkness stuffed the hallway and foyer. Behind and below he saw the multi-colored shag carpet and the beer can that had zinged off Jack's clean-shaven head. The intervening stuff in the stairwell was just...shadow. Regular, everyday, nice and normal ain't-nuthin'-to-be-scared-about shadow.
But still no Stuart, Jackass, or Adam.
He decided to speak after all. "Stuart! Man, I'm leaving!" There. He said it, but the house swallowed his words. The mountaineer hacked into his reptilian cortex, mucking around in the wiring like an obtrusive gremlin. He stood in the same spot for a full minute, hearing nothing but the throb of blood in his ears and the chastising whine of his conscience.
Would Sandy be proud of you right now, Henry? Aren't you proud of yourself, fella? Well, aren't you? Aren't you?
"Keep going, Henry," he muttered. "Get out of here. Go home."
Sandy would assume that he waited by the boob tube, sweating bullets, spinning conspiracies and theories, only to complain later about how cruel they had all been. Maybe the old Henry would have done that, but not now. He might not see her again anyway, or anyone else for that matter, for he heard a sound that filled him with bristling dread—garbled whispers from somewhere down the hall.
Henry's fingers began to shake. The gloom in the corridor seemed blacker, somehow gloomier, a glut of unpleasantness bordering on malicious.
"Who's there?" He stepped toward the kitchen, his eyes riveted on the hallway. The darkness swayed back and forth, an effluvial riptide of midnight. "Something is here. I knew it. I knew it. I freaking knew—agh!" Henry tripped and struck the tile, embarrassed, but shot his eyes back to the foyer—
—and saw shadows squirming in for the kill.
The whispering magnified: a thousand snakes writhing on a thousand sunless rocks from a thousand sunless worlds. Faces loomed in and out of the dark; hollow eyes, gaping mouths and whipping tongues, and then to his disgust, a familiar clean-shaven guy who had never ceased to annoy him.
Henry backpedaled into the kitchen, screaming.
It was Jack all right, but drained of color and youth, the orange-tinted glasses now just poker-faced soulless mirrors. He grinned grotesquely until his face dissolved into soupy muck and was replaced by his old pal Stuart. But Stuart's mouth stretched open far, far too wide, until his jowls split and Adam's face swapped out. Tall, handsome, cucumber-smooth Adam, although not quite so flawless now, with skin the pallor of asphalt, his hair taut and wiry, his mouth yawning in a torturous shriek until black stuff vomited forth. The thing sucked him back inside, just a tease of Henry's fate to come.
He stumbled against the back door, and whether this thing was an enterprising alien, a diaphanous demon, or a gelatinous god, the creature followed. Hundreds of filaments mercilessly lashed out to Henry's ankles, wrists and waist and jerked him inside its squalling mass.
His vision clouded, and then—bizarrely—he was falling, buffeted by a black capful of wind. Tendrils bored into his mind, jumbling his thoughts, but he squeezed his eyes shut, screaming, flailing, until—
The thing spoke. Not with words though. With images. Visions of pain and pleasure inseparable; of woes and wonders indescribable; of impossible infinities and unstoppable divinities. All Henry Trapp had to do was look, to just succumb and let it happen like all the others before...
And so, he looked.
And with that fractional glimpse, Henry's mind nearly fractured.
He hurtled through a synapse storm of cyclopean breadth and ferocity, blasting over abysses of vaporized rock and burning seas. Distant pulsars detonated and black holes gurgled; galaxies clashed and suns imploded, all of it a boggling backdrop to some existential hell he could barely conceive. Other beings suffered here too, some once human, some not, with forms of slippery instability, liquidly pulsing and reshaping and reforming, all of them awhirl in an endless dimension of dementia.
Part of Henry detached, the emotional part, the good ol' Henry Trapp that fell in love with a Miss Sandy Birch while standing in line at the Robot's Dungeon, the part of Henry that was all-too-human, all too normal, who sought solace in a life all too plain.
He was dissolving too, one layer at a time, but Henry resisted.
He didn't want this. He closed his mind's eye and shoved the filaments scraping hotly across his nerves, teasing under his eyelids, prying beneath the hood of his skull into his muddy, paranoid brain. His mundane human brain that he had filled with an earthly lifetime of—what?
And Henry randomly, almost whimsically, thought about Leonard Nimoy losing his brain to thieving alien scientists in Star Trek Episode Number 61, aptly dubbed "Spock's Brain."
Funny, Henry, what you think about when you're dying. How did Spock survive without a brain anyway? Regardless, it was entertaining.
Then, to Henry's bafflement, the tendrils hesitated. For whatever reason, he was not yet dead. Maybe—just maybe—most people didn't survive this long. Or maybe the creature liked Star Trek too.
Henry kept his shoulder shoved to the figurative door of his mind and recalled Captain James T. Kirk and his infamous libido rollicking across the cosmos.
Oh James...you would have missed so many women if your first enemy had killed you. Like mine wants to.
A few more tenacious hooks teased free, perhaps confused over the disregard for his own life, Henry surmised.
Control over a small part of him returned; the emotional part, with the capacity for love as well as hate. And oh, how he did hate this thing. Henry increased the pressure. He envisioned as many episodes of Star Trek as he could in excruciating detail, and when exhausting those, he blitzed to—to—
Yes! Of course! Doctor Who!
Especially actor Tom Baker, renegade Time Lord from Gallifrey who sailed the universe in a British police box and endured crap worse than this before breakfast. So many classic episodes: The Seeds of Doom! The Ark in Space! The Pyramids of Mars! He pictured the Doctor and his Companions, and then the directors and screenwriters for the series, hundreds of useless facts crammed into his head for the Trivial Pursuit extravaganza that would never come.
But it was working.
Henry's world spun topsy-turvy. His consciousness shifted direction within a directionless place, but he focused anyway, ignoring his surroundings, piling more bricks and mortar around his emotionally fragile psyche. Films, novels, comics; anything and everything cropped up and he used them all, and then he segued to scholastic subjects: Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, Physics, various theorems and functions and hypotheses from college courses long forgotten, crunching numbers and equations with equal fervor. But the creature seemed comfortable with his numerical defense, and Henry retreated to his aging Marvel comic collection of the X-Men and Fantastic Four.
The entity lost its grip again, sliding off Henry's intellectual wall, and the rush of euphoria nearly broke his concentration.
Lastly, Henry thought of himself, of his role in the universal scheme, however small and insignificant, and how this damn thing wanted to take it away. And for the first time that evening, Henry transitioned from being truly frightened to truly, truly angry.
With a chorus of screams, the entity snapped from his mind, and Henry erupted from its grasp amid a spray of ectoplasmic jelly. He crashed into the backdoor and instantly grappled for the knob, but found it locked. A brass key jutted from the keyhole, and even as greedy tendrils extended again, slurping, groping, Henry launched up with a riotous:
"I just want to go home, goddamn you!"
He jammed the key hard, twisting, heard bolts click and then he was through the door, glass shattering beyond and the metallic clatter of trash cans. He collided nose-first with something but didn't stop, the flash crack of pain across his face and a river of blood in his mouth and then he was out in the open, sprinting across the lawn and hitting the street, his legs hydraulic pistons, his hands swinging hammers, bare feet slapping the pavement as he ran like never before, expecting something cold and slimy to whip him back to a womb of sad harvested souls.
Henry didn't stop for a long time, not even when flashing red and blue lights stretched his lonely shadow down the street. He didn't even stop when the siren wailed at him, and he did not finally stop running until the police cruiser pulled alongside and the driver shouted vehement threats.
Henry sank to his knees on the double yellow line, lungs heaving and agony stitching his side, and noticed that he was nearly naked. His clothes were partially dissolved to reveal moon-pale skin and tight white skivvies, soiled with what he doubted were purely inter-dimensional stains.
He laughed; a strange, diluted sound that didn't stem from anything particularly funny. He kept laughing even when the officer swung a light in his eyes, one hand to his service revolver, and said, "Son, are you on drugs?"
Drugs? Yes sir I am! The drug of freakin' LIFE!
Henry laughed even louder, wondering if he might eventually puke.
"Boy, I won't ask again. You know, I've been behind you almost a quarter of a mile."
Henry finally composed himself, wiped his face, and said "Sir, you—you wouldn't believe it if I told you."
Henry thought about Sandy's reaction if he explained his night to her. He could already hear her callous response: "You're a nut, Henry. Loony-bin material. Paranoid in the extreme. Always were and always will be."
And maybe a little paranoia is good for the soul, Sandy. Been nice knowin' ya.
Henry stood up. The mountaineer of fear had been dislodged, plummeting to his death where the little bastard belonged. Henry tried to formulate a plausible explanation. Not easy to do, but he would give it shot. He was a fighter after all. More so than he ever thought possible.
"Sir, have you ever seen The Twilight Zone?" Henry wanted to establish a baseline understanding. After that, they could toss him in a padded room. It didn't matter. He was alive.
The other man opened his mouth to answer, but suddenly tensed, his body going washboard-rigid. His eyes bulged. Harold knew he saw something behind him in the dark. The flashlight tumbled away. Saliva sputtered on his lips, his face twisting into the expression of someone who has witnessed an unfathomable, unbearable horror.
Henry glimpsed the playing card lying innocently between the officer's feet —a crimson two of hearts. He didn't dare turn around. And then he watched it happen behind the cop: of the two alternating lights on the police car, the blue bulb fluttered, faltered and teasingly died.
And then there was only one.
Author's Note: Thank you for reading the story above! If you enjoyed it, check out some of my other work below! And please don't forget to hit the ❤ button below and subscribe!
The original draft of this story ended when Henry bounded up the steps to the unknown. I thought it would be cool to have an ambiguous ending, but test readers didn't like that route. So, I brainstormed the version we have here; and they were right. It needed a real ending.
About the Creator
I am a writer, artist and poet from North Carolina. I recently self published a children's/YA book called Harold and the Dreadful Dreams. You can learn more about it at my blog https://jmhauser.com, as well as other projects.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme