Rental

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This post was originally published through Patreon on February 5, 2019.

The street was dark and empty, and aside from the tidal hum of distant cars, I was alone. I’ve always been open about my fear of crowds, but what only a few close friends know is that I find the opposite extreme equally unsettling. You never know who or what might be standing beside you, unseen.

I looked up and down the street, waiting, and soon enough I heard her coming.

It wasn’t just the chunka-chunka of her broken down engine, but the way the wind stopped to hold its breath, as if the night had been startled by her presence. Laura’s rusty ’58 Buick came into view a moment later, rounding the corner in a flash of headlights and a chorus of crunching gravel.

The lime green vehicle pulled up to the curb beside me. The engine sputtered and the lights died. The passenger side window rolled down, and a voice I’d been both waiting and dreading to hear sounded from the darkness within.

“Hello,” said Laura.

I peered through the window, hoping for a glimpse of the interior or the woman inside. But, of course, I was disappointed on both counts. The inside of the Buick was shrouded in darkness even though the streetlights should have set it ablaze.

“How are you, Laura?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Should I get in?”

“Please.”

I clutched a door handle that felt like it had spent a month in someone’s freezer and pulled. The Buick was a tank, and the door, solid metal, squealed when I opened it, revealing an inkblot of darkness. I reached in, trying not to think about how my hand seemed to disappear beyond the threshold, and felt for the seat. I took a deep, steadying breath and sat down.

The moment I did, the world outside disappeared.

“Are you comfortable?” Laura asked.

“Yes,” I said, even though the oppressive darkness clung to every inch of my body like tar; even though I had to fight the instinct to leap out and run far, far away. This was business, so I swallowed my fear and resigned myself to the void.

“The terms are, uh, fairly standard. The body is yours for 24 hours provided you do nothing illegal or defaming. Cash upfront. No extensions or refunds.”

“Cash upfront. Nothing illegal or embarrassing. I can do that.”

Something slid into my lap, and even though I couldn’t see, I knew what it was.

“Twenty thousand, just like we agreed.”

I didn’t need to count it. Her sort were a lot of things, but they weren’t liars.

“You’ll carry it into the house for me after the exchange?”

“Of course.”

Suspended in the void, I sat, terrified of what came next. It wasn’t something you ever got used to. Each time was like the first, a heart-stopping drop from the precipice of the infinite and down into the endless sea of oblivion. Still, Laura deserved a respite from her long exile, and let’s face it, twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”

With my consent, the soul inside me came unmoored, and like a boat across a night-darkened sea, I began to drift. I felt the world outside, already invisible, recede further until at last, I could feel Laura, passing beside me in the opposite direction.

In the instant our paths crossed, I beheld the entirety of her being: the otherworldly resplendence of her former self along with a body that was now lost forever; a keen and cunning intelligence weathered by eons in this awful, soul-crushing prison; and, most heartbreaking of all, the crippling despair that had turned her into the dark and faceless creature she was today.

Then the swap was complete, and, trapped in the driver’s seat, I was doomed (albeit temporarily) to suffer exile in her place.

With the phantom sense of a man who’s lost an arm or a leg, I felt Laura flex my fingers.

“This is wonderful.”

“Yes,” I said, already mourning the loss of my body and counting the hours to its return. “It feels good.”

Laura slid from the car and slammed the door behind her.

I didn’t want to think about how many rentals I could endure before the darkness worked its awful madness into my soul just as it had with Laura. Instead, I focused on those parts of myself that remained apart from the void, and when I regained my composure, I pulled back onto the road and drove away.

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The Watchers

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This post was originally published through Patreon on January 29, 2019.

Remy found the journal right where he’d left it: on the bedroom shelf beside his favorite book, The Shining. It stood at an angle, and where it touched the slanted afternoon light from the open window above, a shadow had formed, an intense and palpable black that might, for all Remy knew, be some kind of black hole, ready to suck him in should he venture too close.

He leaned in, his nose just inches from the leather binding, and after a deep, steadying breath, he snatched the journal up and carted it off into the basement, where the shadow’s entire family seemed to have congregated in his absence.

Remy sat before a wooden desk, set the book down, and after turning on a nearby light, he watched the shadow’s kin scatter to the far corners of the room. He opened the journal to the very first page, and there he ruminated over the text scrawled across the interior cover.

Property of Archibald Miller.
Do not read unless I’ve passed.

Archibald was Remy’s uncle, and since the man had, in fact, passed, he had no qualms about prying. The two of them hadn’t been close, but a chance encounter with his estranged sister had resulted in his acquisition of the journal.

The meeting had been an awkward one. Remy had stopped by home to check on Mom, and when he arrived, sitting beside her on the sofa was his sister, Jan.

“Oh,” she said, and she offered Remy a strained smile that he refused to return. “Hello.”

Remy didn’t meet her eyes, nor did he reply. Too many hurtful words had passed between himself and his siblings for him to ever make eye contact again. To think that the fighting preceding their falling out had revolved around a stupid inheritance—a different family member at the time, not his uncle—that he’d wanted no part of in the first place. In the years that followed, she’d extended multiple olive branches, but he’d resisted every one.

“Isn’t this nice,” his mother said, ignoring the extended silence following Jan’s unrequited greeting. “Remy, come sit with us.”

And he did, not for his sister but for Mom, who he didn’t wish to upset.

Just as the visit was winding to an end, Remy’s sister cornered him in the foyer and said, “We found something in Uncle’s house yesterday.” By we, she meant herself and Remy’s younger brother, John. She reached into her purse and produced the book that now lay open on Remy’s desk. “It’s a journal. I offered it to Mom, but she wasn’t interested. Said Uncle had secrets she wants no part of now. I just thought maybe you’d like to read it.” She looked up at him, and again, he refused to meet her eyes. “You know, since you’re the reader in the family.”

That was true. He’d always loved books. Back when they were kids (long before their falling out), he’d sneak off to his room while his brothers and sisters watched TV and lose himself in the darkly hypnotic worlds crafted by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice, and Stephen King.

“Thanks.”

No doubt she’d hoped the gift would spark a renewed interest in their ruined relationship. He took the book from her and closed the door on his sister once more.

The journal, it turned out, was indeed full of secrets, and he couldn’t blame Mom for wanting no part of them. His uncle’s words were unnerving, and at first, Remy thought the man must have been delusional. But somehow, the journal’s contents stuck with him until it seemed his uncle’s mad ramblings followed him wherever he went.

Whether he was sleeping or awake, working or at rest, his uncle’s words took root, lodged in his heart like a tumor. A dark fascination took hold, and soon Remy was spending all his time in the basement, reading and re-reading the thoughts of a mad man and somehow making sense of them.

Now, again, Remy consulted the journal.

I have come to understand that, just as our eyes are windows into the universe, so too is the universe a window into us. Who, I have often wondered, might be using that window to watch over us? Today, the answer came to me and I am afraid.

From there, the man had gone on to detail a class of beings he dubbed the Watchers.

I see them in the shadows everywhere I go: the Watchers. I cannot look directly at them. Ironically, they don’t seem to like being watched themselves and they’ll vanish the moment you turn your head. But if you’re clever, if you train your eyes to make sense of what you see at the periphery of vision, there you’ll find them, always watching. And for what purpose? Are they beneficient? Malevolent? Perhaps neither. Perhaps we’re some kind of exhibit in a cosmic zoo, and those terrifying phantoms are much like ourselves, staring at creatures lower than themselves, perhaps musing, perhaps mocking, and always watching. Always, always watching…

Delusional, every word. At least, that’s what Remy wanted to believe. But hadn’t he tried his uncle’s experiment? Hadn’t he focused on what he could see out of the corner of his eye, and hadn’t he spied something strange, something off, an ever-present shadow that followed him around wherever he went?

He wanted to believe his uncle was crazy, that the man had been a closet schizophrenic, and that his journal was proof that he should have been committed long ago. But hadn’t he found his uncle’s phantoms even outside in direct sunlight?

Like his uncle, Remy had glimpsed whatever was watching him from the other side of that cosmic window, and now he was afraid.

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The Price of Rebellion

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This post was originally published through Patreon on January 22, 2019.

Derrick gasped and the nightmare dissolved. He lay on his back beneath the light of the full moon, drenched in sweat, and loosed a hellish, world-shattering scream. A message. The dream had been a message, and its meaning was clear.

Derick’s family was dead.

He’d tried to protect them. He’d sent them to a place where no one could find them…or so he’d thought. He could still smell their incinerated bodies—singed hair, charred skin, smoldering flesh—a tainted, unholy perfume that would fester in his memory for the rest of his life.

It was the price of rebellion, a debt his family had paid in full.

How does it feel? The soundless words rippled through the world like the wind, an aftereffect of the dream. Was it worth it, Derrick? Was the cost of disobedience worth it?

Grief twisted his stomach into a series of progressively tighter knots. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see his wife’s and childrens’ bloody faces: burned, angled toward the sky, eyes glazed and unseeing.

I could have done more, he thought. I could have stayed with them until I was certain they were safe, that the danger had passed.

Self-loathing battled with a searing, white-hot hatred for the men and women who’d murdered his entire family.

They died because of my carelessness.

And yet, deep in the recesses of his poisoned heart, he understood the truth: He hadn’t killed his family. They had.

And they would regret it.

Derrick scrambled to his feet, too disoriented by grief to do anything but stand while the sounds of the night cried out like a funeral dirge. He kicked the sleeping bag at his feet aside and heaved, wide-eyed, as one bone-rattling sob burst free from him after another.

“Awful, isn’t it?”

The voice came from behind—a man, judging by the tone—and Derrick spun.

“The magnitude of your grief must be incalculable.”

At that moment, all his rage surged out of him like a flash flood.

“Are you one of those murders?”

Derrick reached for the blade he always kept at his side, even when he was sleeping…only to realize it was gone.

When Derrick turned, he saw the man brandishing the curved sword as if it were his own, cold steel flashing in the monochromatic light of the moon.

“A precaution, you understand. I’ll give it back to you once you’ve heard me out.”

“My family!”

Derrick rushed to meet him, sword or no sword. If it was his fate to die this night, then at least he would return to his family. One step. Two steps. Three. Derrick was almost upon him when the man disappeared.

“I didn’t kill them, you ravenous idiot.”

This time, the voice came from where Derrick had been standing only moments before.

He spun again, sick with terror and blind, unfocused fury. The two emotions danced a lunatic jig in the dark, sweeping Derrick away, perilously close to the edge of insanity.

“You want revenge, don’t you? I can give it to you. I know who killed your family, and if you do as I say, I’ll deliver them to you.”

The Earth stopped spinning, and a deep, otherworldly stillness seized Derrick’s suddenly frozen heart.

“Yes,” the man said. “I see that got your attention.”

Time stilled, and it was a few moments before Derrick could speak again.

“Why?”

A shrewd clarity began to take root in Derrick’s heart, and his blood, boiling only moments ago, was already turning to ice.

“Why?” the man echoed. “Because your enemy is my enemy, and in a way, that makes us friends.”

“So,” said Derrick, “now we’re friends?”

The man shrugged.

“I have something you want, and you have something I want. If we can’t be friends, then let us be partners in a joint venture that will benefit both of us.”

Derrick’s skin prickled with alarm. Somewhere beyond the grief, in a part of himself that felt a thousand miles away, a sense of wrongness blossomed, along with a desperate warning to turn away before it was too late.

But if this man really knew who’d killed his family, and if he could help Derrick find them…

“What do you want?”

No, that distant part of Derrick cried. Don’t listen to him! But Derrick had already brushed the warning away.

The man smiled, and the horrendous, razor-sharp grin was so terrifying that Derrick took an involuntary step back.

“For now, just the promise that when I have need of you, you’ll come. Your skill with a blade is very useful, and I might require it later.”

“Then it’s killing you’re after?”

Derrick thought of those who’d killed his family. Would he now be asked to do the same to someone else?

“Does it matter?”

Derrick hesitated. His grief was still fresh, and paired with a conscience that found such an atrocity revolting, he was hard-pressed to offer this man his service. But his hunger for retribution at any cost was growing, further dulling an already withered heart, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to turn the man away.

“I could hire someone else if you’d like.”

“No!” The word sprang out of Derrick’s mouth before he could stop it.

What about your family? an interior voice asked. Would they approve?

The thought made Derrick hesitate again. This time, however, it was only long enough for him to quash the renegade voice of his conscience for good. The thirst for vengeance was too potent, too overpowering, too irresistible to ignore, and after a final futile struggle to reclaim his broken heart, Derrick gave himself over to the darkness.

“No,” Derrick continued. “That won’t be necessary. If you require a promise, then I’ll give it. As long as you promise to hand over my family’s killers.”

The man stepped forward and placed a hand over Derrick’s shoulder. The touch was a blast of arctic ice, almost painful, and Derrick recoiled. But his decision was made, and so he steeled himself and stood alongside his mysterious visitor while his soul necrotized like his childrens’ immolated corpses.

“Come with me before you go on your way,” the man said. “I would discuss our partnership further.”

He snapped his fingers, and the two of them were swallowed by the dark.

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