Part One: Welcome to the Woodland
Tap... Tap... Tap...
The knocking on the arched, oak doors echoed through the old and musty house; it reverberated off the walls, ran through the halls and ricocheted into every nook and cranny. It was this strident sound, coupled with the chilling breeze that whispered through the curtains, that served only the purpose of masking my presence in the house. The knocking was just loud enough to render my slight sounds inaudible; that freezing breeze, that whistled through the trees before entering the house like an old friend, smoothed out the thick carpet of dust where an unwelcome visitor had disturbed it. In a couple of minutes it would be as though I had never entered. The trail leading to every furnished room, frosty window and piece of sheet covered furniture would simply cease to be. And still that slow, deliberate and rhythmic knocking continued.
Tap... Tap... Tap...
I had inherited the house, if you could even call it that, from my late Grandmother. She had always adored forests; it went without saying that her house would be situated in the very centre of a small woodland, hidden by the densely packed trees and the perverse and prevailing gloom. The house stood stooped and strained, overlooking a vast and abysmal lake. Despite the fact that it was a tempestuously windy day, the lake was a darkened mirror. It lay deathly still and nothing could be seen in that Stygian water, save for the darkened reflections that dwelled on its surface. The trees were also static; they stood like monolithic steel structures, neither branch nor leaf could be bested by the wind. By the time that unforgiving gale reached the house it was but a minor breeze compared to that of which it had begun. Maybe this is why I found the paralysis of the woodland a gentle comfort rather than an eerie admonition of something gone astray.
Tap... Tap... Tap...
I slouched against one of the filthy wood panel walls of a second floor bedroom. I had opened all of the house's windows and yet the air was still as thick and hard to breathe as it had been when I first entered. The knocking on the door parted the silence and throbbed in my ears. In this woodland, the entire house was an alien. All three floors, basement and twenty-eight spacious rooms surveyed the woodland in a state of inner conflict. The entire building was quite a far distance from being anywhere near where it belonged. The house itself was a mystery. No one could work out how this property made its way into my Grandmother's hands and no one could work out how long it had been abandoned, not even the police. I began to walk, slowly and cautiously, towards the origin of the knocking. I quietly left the room, closed the door silently behind me and snuck down the stairs. The gentle breeze pushed softly against me, using what little strength it had left to deter me from my goal. There was no going back. I entered the first floor; my stride quickened.
Tap... Tap... Tap...
As I walked, a not too distant memory swirled into focus around me. In this secluded world of memories there was no sound, save for the hollow reverberations my shoes made on the varnished, wooden floor. All the colour had been bled away, along with the happiness once held in the house. The carpet of dust thinned out. The sheets on the furniture dispersed into the air. I strode down the aisle of my Grandmother's funeral. Though my Grandmother never had friends, in fact the people she knew shunned her, there were still people present. The translucent forms of people I had never met and my friends who came to support me took to their respective places. Some watched me with pursed lips, others with hungry eyes. They were as vultures, waiting for the scraps leftover from a nameless carcass. Hidden behind the mask of crocodile tears, they pried for answers that couldn't be given; town gossip, in some cases, was more valuable than money. At the end of the aisle, on the opposite end to the casket, stood my Grandmother's doctor. I wouldn't be able to pass without confronting him. I approached and he watched me with a look that went far beyond sadness. This man and this man alone had been the only person to not betray my Grandmother's trust, one of the only human beings she deemed 'honourable and just'. He was the only thing in this flashback that wasn't colourless and yet he was so pale that he might as well of been. I stopped in front of the man. The doctor was not silent. He answered the one question I wanted answered. I didn't even have to ask the question. He explained that he was the one who called the police, after realising my Grandmother had missed three consecutive appointments. He cried and shared his memories of her. He spilled his regrets on deaf ears. I shook my head. I kept walking, back still turned to my Grandmother's casket. There were no monsters lurking in the dark; I was the monster, emotionless and devoid of a soul. A heavy atmosphere of confusion and disbelief hung in the air; the atmosphere was toxic. For all the attendants that day, this was a puzzling predicament; for we were all attending the funeral of an empty casket.
Tap... Tap... Tap...
I continued my stride, breaking free of those wretched memories before they went any further. I reached the next flight of stairs and descended to the ground floor. The knocking was now even louder than I first thought. It had continued without pause, looping thunder claps that acted as the only warning of a storm yet to come. On the other side of this floor would be the entrance doors, the final barrier between me and an inevitable encounter. I kept walking, this time much more hesitantly, as my mind went through all the possible scenarios that could ensue. In my distraction, I fell into another memory. A stretching trail, not unlike a colossal cobra, grew outwards before me. In this memory I stood in the forest outside. The forest itself had become distorted, as though the past and the present were as one. The trail was as it was currently, overgrown and obscured by the fallen leaves of trees that had not yet gone still. I watched as, in my mind's eye, the swaying trees of the past grew rapidly from the ground. Soon enough, I could no longer see the house I was walking through. I now stood at the entrance to the woodland, police barricade tape and a chief investigator between me and my unclaimed inheritance.
I regarded the police officer on the other side of the barricade tape coldly. He mirrored my demeanour. They had closed off the entire woodland, no one was allowed in. He had 'politely' informed me of this only mere moments ago, telling me to either stay at the entrance or leave. There was a thick silence between us. All that could be heard was the rustle of the swaying trees, the crunching of leaves and the snapping of twigs as other police officers searched for my Grandmother's corpse. The sun offered no warmth from behind the dark clouds that dominated the sky. The chief investigator had been dragged up to the entrance of the woodland to answer my questions. For all of my generic questions came generic answers.
"I'm sorry Mr Dean. But no sightings of your Grandmother outside of these woods have been reported yet. We've got our top dogs on the case but we've found neither sign of her leaving these woods nor clues as to where she could be."
I nodded, unsatisfied with his answers.
He then went into mumbling excuses. Something about a peculiar odour throwing their dogs off of the search. Something about it attracting them to the east side of the woods, near the lake. In an instant, howling could be heard in the distance. The howling was followed by echoing shouts and frustrated yells. The chief investigator frowned. I hesitantly asked if they'd found her. The dog sitting by his side whimpered. It jumped up, lifting its head high in the air, and let out a deafening howl. It ripped its lead out of its partner's hand and disappeared, a sleek black blur, into the woodland. The chief investigator was no longer frowning. A portrait of fear had crept onto his face, replacing his frustration. It was at that exact time that a foul stench made itself known to our noses. The stench was exactly how I imagined a million corpses, waterlogged and left to decay, smelled like. The chief investigator steeled himself before dashing off in the direction his dog had gone. Somehow I knew that their journey would lead them to the lake. A week later, diver after diver would be sent to scour the lake for bodies; none to be found. The source of the stench had long since left. The entire area was declared a crime scene, the investigation of which would yield absolutely nothing. The property I had longed for would then, after six months, be passed into my hands.
Tap... Tap... Tap...
I fought my way out of the memory. Now was not the time for being caught up with things I no longer had to worry about. The police hadn't found anything. There were no threats to me. There were no obstacles between me and this house. My hands, without my knowledge, had found their way to the brass door handles of the entrance door. I gripped them tighter, my knuckles went white. The knocking had continued for my entire descent, a constant barrage against the insatiable void and impervious silence of the house. I was there to clean and inspect my house. I had left my apartment at six o'clock in the morning and made the two hour drive out to my inheritance. No one knew I was leaving and I was not expecting company, especially not today. I was an entire two hour drive away from the nearest town and half that distance away from the nearest farm. Those twin, arched doors loomed over me. These were my shields and I was about to drop them.
Tap... Tap... Tap...
I threw open the doors with a burst of strength, prepared to face whatever grim fate awaited.
The chilling breeze snuck past me. I stared into the woodland. Nothing but an empty space where a visitor should have been lurking awaited me with eager eyes. I shook my head. I couldn't write this one off as my imagination. That pounding knew not of subtlety. I closed the doors and made sure they were locked. I shivered. Maybe it was time to close the windows?
The silence of the woodland was no longer a gentle comfort.
Part Two: The Trustee in the Woodland
Charlie Dean, slightly more on edge than he had been before, had just locked the doors with a loud, solitary clunk. He didn't particularly want to remain in that house, nestled deep within the silent woodland, but he had no other choice. He had arrived in the morning and he couldn't leave until nightfall. If all went to plan he would finish his business before the light of a new day. He made his way to the laundry to retrieve his Grandmother's vacuum cleaner. By nightfall he would have vacuumed way more dust than the vacuum cleaner could store; but that was one of the reasons he had brought large, black garbage bags. He started to clean his inheritance.
Meanwhile, in the woodland, the tempest had come to an abrupt halt. The wind held its breath like a victim in an ongoing house robbery, desperate for help but praying not to be noticed. If Charlie hadn’t decided to close all of the windows and curtains he would have been able to watch his outside surroundings as they rapidly deteriorated. The lake froze over, but it wasn't cold outside. The leaves from the trees withered and fell, but they never hit the ground. If there had been anything living in the woodland before, it was long gone by now. A breath of death, thick and foul, glided through the woodland. It began its work but dare not cross the circular clearing in which the house stood dormant. A circle of long, green grass stood witness to the events that were about to unfold as the rest of the woodland died.
Something had drifted into the woodland.
And it was not on the guest list.
Night crept above the woodland like the hour hand of a clock, slow and inevitable. The moon chose not to show its face on this night. A haze hung above the woodland and the stars vanished from the sky. All was going to plan. Charlie sat back in a leather recliner, exhausted but content. He had managed to clean half of the house and for that he was reasonably pleased. There were times where he could have sworn he heard something shuffling around downstairs, but he reminded himself he had locked all of the entrance doors and secured all of the windows. Of course, that still didn't stop him from checking. Every time he checked he was greeted by absence. He closed his eyes, his body yearning for rest.
Thump thump thump thump.
The house guided a series of frantic, muffled and desperate thumps to his ears.
Charlie Dean rose, reluctantly, from the recliner. The sound was close. He could feel the varnished, wooden floorboards vibrating under his feet. He shot a glance towards the entrance. It was not coming from there. He spun to look at the nearby windows. Absence, like a well acquainted friend, motioned for him to come closer. And he accepted the offer with great hesitancy. He pressed an ear against the wall. The walls were still, not even the echo of a vibration. He turned his attention to the first thing he had noticed, the floor.
Not possible. His logic reassured him.
"Charlie? Charlie! Is that you?"
It was as though Charlie had plunged into the frozen lake.
The voice of Charlie's Grandmother resonated through the floor. It filled the air around him with its soft but insistent whisper. Charlie slowly followed the thumps. He passed through a hallway. He snuck past the dining room. He entered the kitchen. The vibrations were much stronger now. But they had also gotten slower, more laboured.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Charlie peered over at the fridge. The sound was coming from beneath it.
Charlie's instincts screamed at him. They pleaded with him. They tried to persuade him against this decision that would change everything. Their cries fell on deaf ears. He ducked down on his hands and knees and peered under the fridge. The floor under the fridge didn't match the rest of the floor in the house. It was the trapdoor to the basement, cleverly hidden in such a way that the police would never find it. Charlie pushed the fridge out of the way. It made a loud shrieking noise.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
The noise was louder still, no longer obstructed by the weight of the fridge. Charlie grabbed the latch of the trapdoor and pulled. The door rattled but it wouldn't open. The door was jammed. It had never done this before. He inspected the trapdoor further. Jutting out of the trapdoor were a series of old, rusted nail tips.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
"Charlie! Charlie? Please open the door!"
Someone had nailed the trapdoor shut from the inside.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
Part Three: The Trustee of the Contract
Thump! Thump! Thu-!
An incomplete silence was accompanied by Charlie's heartbeat. The noise had stopped only mere moments ago, cut off unnaturally. This was the most terrifying fact of all for Charlie. It wasn't the silence that bothered him. It was the fact that the sound had just stopped, devoid of echo and exempt of reverberation. Charlie Dean wanted to leave. Charlie Dean wanted to go home. Charlie Dean wanted to forget. He had wanted to forget for so long; he was not allowed to forget. He knew that there was no way his Grandmother could be down in the basement calling his name, but he so desperately wanted it to be. He crouched down near the trapdoor in the floor and held his ear against it steadily. The sound of nails being ripped from the wood door made him jolt back to his feet. The sound of the nails clinking down the basement's stone steps did little to quell his fear. He watched in both anxiety and dread as the nail ends disappeared, one by one, through the thick boards of the barricaded trapdoor.
It was done. The nails were gone. The final clink was accompanied by a sound akin to that of a bag full of potatoes falling down the stairs. Charlie's hand was against the rusted handle of the trapdoor within moments. He knew there was nothing down there that could hurt him. He yanked the door open with a loud creak. He followed the trail of rusted nails down the cold, stone steps. His descent was accompanied only by his throbbing heartbeat and darkness. There was no light to guide him. In the dark, he saw untold horrors, monsters and nightmares from times gone past. The horror movies and stories of the past caressed his mind. He reminded himself that he was worse than any of the things his mind could conjure; that he himself was the only monster in this house. There was nothing else he could do. He steeled himself. Like a blind beggar, he clung to the walls as he descended. He felt a chill run past his ankle. He recoiled violently, slipping on a pile of rusted nails. He was thrown down the steps after the thing that had fallen before him, eyes squeezed tight.
Something broke his fall. Charlie screamed as he recognised the familiar texture of skin. He quickly stood up, careful not to hit any of the walls or the lights hanging overhead. Was the ceiling low? Where was the light switch? Was there anything on the floor he could trip on? All these questions and more inundated Charlie's mind. He tried to envision the layout of the basement from the last time he'd been there. It was a long time ago but he had a vague idea of where everything was. The room was roughly a square. His Grandmother kept flour in the furtherest corner on the left from the entrance. Cans of food stood immortally on a shelf opposite the flour. Aside from that, the room should have been empty. His hands slid along the concrete wall as though he was waxing a car. The wall was damp. His imagination steered his thoughts towards blood; he steered them elsewhere. Charlie let out an overjoyed breath as his hand pressed against the cold, metallic light switch. He flicked it in an instant. The lights didn't turn on at first; but they soon began heating up. Their dim circles of light slowly lit the room.
There she was.
Charlie took a deep breath.
His Grandmother lay face down at the bottom of the steps, arms outstretched towards the exit. She hadn't changed at all since Charlie last saw her. There was no decomposition. There were no signs she was dead. If anything, she looked as though she was sleeping.
Her body contorted violently; a puppet with tangled strings. She turned over to stare Charlie in the eyes. A single tear, having waited so long, slid down her cheek. Her body released the final breath her corpse had held for so long with a single heave and her chest sank. Charlie's Grandmother was dead. She had been for quite some time. Charlie Dean shut his eyes tight and turned away. This was not what he wanted. He shook his head, regret only now acquainting itself with him. The grief he couldn't release at the funeral came to him in one quick wave and froze him like the lake just outside. Charlie's Grandmother had not just gone missing. She had been murdered, but who by?
Something upstairs had shattered. A window? A vase? A screen? Charlie's eyes snapped open and he was instantly alert. For the second time that night, he was disturbed by sounds that should not be there. What Charlie saw upon opening his eyes was something he would never be able to truly explain. A thick, black, serpentine smoke writhed its way out of his Grandmother's mouth. Soaring into the air above her face. The basement began to slowly change to smoke, which streamed towards the original cloud that was now slithering up the steps. The walls, now compact dirt that looked as though it had been there since the beginning of time, began to close in on him as the basement evaporated. Charlie didn't know what would happen if the room completely disappeared with him inside it, but he had a fair idea. He ran up the stairs, following the river of smoke that was growing larger and darker with every part of the basement that joined it.
Charlie launched out of the basement and onto the floorboards that were no longer there. He watched as his inheritance diffused into the air. He now stood in the middle of the woodland; minus the car he had driven there with, minus the house he had worked so hard to clean. The path that had once lead to the house had also disappeared, taken away by that serpentine smoke.
A stench he had only ever smelled once before assaulted his nostrils. The stench of the dead beckoned. The air was thick. The lake was frozen. The trees were a labyrinth of dying wood. The woodland was silent. Charlie stood in silence, processing what had just happened. There weren't words.
Crunch crunch crunch.
There wasn't anything. But at the same time there was something.
He had to leave. Charlie had to leave that place now.
He picked a thin trail.
The sound of crunching leaves was silenced as Charlie came to an abrupt halt. What was that in the distance? An orange light, like that from a fire, invited Charlie closer with its warmth. It lured him with the promise of order and stability in a world plummeting down into entropy. He found himself walking towards the light, not against his will but devoid of his consent.
The source of the light was a small campfire, nestled next to the very large and very frozen lake Charlie had always feared in his childhood. Those Stygian waters beckoned but he dare not take them up on their offer. The fire banished the uncertainty of the ominous shadows in the darkness of the woodland; Charlie found himself beginning to run towards the safety of the light. It was at that exact moment that he noticed it: the man sitting by the fire. The man wore a black cloak, the design not unlike those worn by travellers in the Middle Ages. The black serpentine smoke that had arose from Charlie's Grandmother and reclaimed Charlie's inheritance slithered into the sleeves of the man's cloak. His hood was lowered over the majority of his face, only the lower half of the mask he wore was visible in the writhing darkness beneath. The mask was made of old, cracked porcelain, pale and devoid of emotion. The stench Charlie had come to adapt to was stronger now. It obscured his vision and confused his senses like a thick, cold and invasive fog.
The man smiled beneath his mask. Though Charlie could not see his face, the man's presence alone gave off an atmosphere that nullified the fire's friendly warmth with its vicious cold and its lingering sorrow. The serpentine smoke billowed out of his sleeves, intertwining before forming a smoky log. It slowly began to gain colour, mass and detail until Charlie could no longer tell the difference between this log and the real ones dying around him.
The man nodded towards the log, "Come sit Charlie. We have much to discuss. And certain arrangements to solidify."
Charlie was taken aback. How did this man know his name? And where was that awful smell coming from? He clenched his teeth, "Who are you, and how the Hell do you know my name?"
"Did your Grandmother never tell you about me?" the man's smile widened, still devoid of any good intention, "Surely she told you the stories."
And Charlie Dean remembered.
Part Four: An Old Fable
A long time ago, way before we were born and shrouded in history, there was a man. This man was neither short nor tall, neither wise nor stupid, neither weak nor strong. As far as men went, he was quite ordinary. He had secrets, like the many others around him, and he held his cards quite close to his chest. On one of those cards was his greatest flaw; that of laziness. If there was an easier way of doing something, no matter how risky or immoral, you could bet your entire life's savings on the fact that he would do it.
He was visited on a day where the sun burnt low, where the clouds reaped a sky they certainly didn't sow. He was visited then, when the land embraced the twilight, by a woman with hair as long as she was tall. Her eyes, as crimson as red wine, spoke tales of deception and evil. Her smooth skin, the colour of ash and cinders, whispered sweet secrets of temptation and sin. He could see it in her teeth, those long white points, that she was not here to exchange pleasantries; she was not here on friendly terms.
She offered him a trade. An easy trade that would require no amount of large physical effort; a trade where the man himself would hold the futures of others in his palm. The woman assured him that this trade had been and continued to be quite profitable to her.
"What do you deal in?" the man had asked.
"Futures," crisply came the swift reply.
The man knew not of demons, but he knew of the woman's smile. He sent her away with naught but a thought of danger and malevolence. She obeyed his command and left in a cloud of black smoke, which was gently ushered away by the wind.
A single whisper was left in the company of the man, "You'll know where to find me when you're ready."
A month later, whether as a result of the woman's meddling or not, the man's father fell dreadfully ill. The man worked as a labourer for hire, and despised every minute of it. But he needed the money to support his family and pay for his father's expenses. There had to be an easier option. For days he pondered and always reached the same conclusion.
'... an easy trade that has been quite profitable...'
The words swam through his mind like a fish in a fishbowl, always circling and always arriving at the same destination. It was not what he wanted to do, but neither was anything that required any form of hard work.
He searched and he searched, until finally he found her. She stood there like a raven in the branches of an old oak tree, its leaves long gone and its bark scarred by love gone past. Though this tree was accompanied by many, it and it alone was choked by strangler vines. The branches reached skyward for a sun they would never feel. The woman looked no different, her black hair swayed in the dying breeze. Eternal, she surveyed all from that murdered tree. Though she had seen the man coming since his journey began, the woman made him wait. Minutes passed; the man pleaded. Hours passed; the man begged on his knees. It was not until he was about to leave that she answered him.
"Come closer," she whispered.
And he obeyed.
"Do you know what I am?" she asked sternly.
And he nodded, though he didn't know the answer.
She smiled contently, "You've come here for the one thing only I can give, and I will grant it."
Though the man was not religious, and he knew not of demons, he understood business.
Through gritted teeth he replied, "What do I owe you? Money? An arm? A leg? My soul?"
The woman laughed her first genuine laugh in years, "No. What I want is your future."
The man was silent. What did she mean by that? How can someone own another person's future?
It was as though she had read his mind, "I can outlast any payment. Money, clothes, kingdoms and other material objects fade and become dust. They all have a single, primary use. A person's future, however, is an object of endless possibilities."
The man still didn't understand, but he nodded regardless.
"This contract between you and I will be sealed as soon as you ask a question, of which, I must answer truthfully to seal the deal on my end," she elaborated, "Choose your question wisely, I know the answers to all things. Though you may not like what I tell you."
What could the man ask? What was the meaning of life? Was there a God? Which religion was right? What happens after death? Is there even an afterlife? Would his father ever get well again? All these questions and more were pushed to the back of the man's mind as he realised the one question he wanted answered most of all.
"This trade you're giving me, you have yet to explain it fully," he queried, "What is it and how much wealth will I acquire from it?"
"The trade I am giving you is exactly what we've done here. I will bestow upon you one of my many powers. You and you alone will have the power to give others anything they desire: money, health, strength and even immortality; all at the cost of their future. You and you alone will hold this power: The Trustee of the Contract," the woman flashed those razor sharp teeth mockingly, "And I never said anything about your own personal wealth. I said this trade had been and continued to be profitable... to me, not you. Never once did I say you would gain wealth from this."
Enraged at the thought of being cheated by this woman, the man began to raise his fist. But it was too late. His vision clouded over in a fog as red as the woman's eyes and he fell backwards into his own consciousness.
The man awoke in his home, as though he had never left. How had he made it back? Had he imagined the whole thing? Upon approaching a mirror he was brutally reminded of his dealings with the woman. His left eye, as crimson as red wine, glowed in the haze of the morning: the receipt of the man's grim dealings. The man attempted to hide it as discreetly as possible, but to no avail. Eyepatches would burn. Bandages would turn to ash before they even reached his eye.
The town began to fear him. Those he passed would run to the other side of the road before violently making the sign of the cross. His family tried to support him, but in the end they shunned the man for shallow ideals like reputation and family image.
The woman herself, having obtained ownership of the man's future, began her devilish deeds. She would tweak it, modify it. The day he was supposed to meet a beautiful young woman whom he would later marry? Erased. The day he was hired by a major company, procuring wealth beyond his wildest dreams? Erased. The woman tweaked and she tinkered, until finally she had woven such a bright and happy future into a pit of crippling despair.
The man tried to seek her out again, desperate for his future back and their dealings to be nullified. He wandered the world, seeing all and yet nothing; paths of drama and tragedy weaving themselves before him. He would never die, and yet he had no life to live. It wasn't until his most desperate moment as he collapsed in the middle of a vast desert that she reappeared, having trailed him for the entire journey. Still eternal, never having aged, she smiled that sweet smile as her eyes spoke untold evils.
"I want this contract between us to be over," he rasped, his arm outstretched pleadingly. And she only smiled, "Then you know what to do." The man frowned, "What?"
"Pay off your debt with the futures of others," her eyes twinkled in glee, "Only then will your end of the contract be broken." And there it was again, that black smoke, as she disappeared.
And once again, he was left with a whisper, "You'll know where to find me when you're done."
They say he wanders the Earth, eternal, reaping the futures of others in return for personal gain. They say he is accompanied by the smell of death, thick and foul, as those futures he has taken decay and die in his hands. They say he is always looking for those weak enough to accept his contract.
Part Five: The Lake in the Woodland
Charlie Dean had indeed been told that old fable by his Grandmother so very many years ago, and thus, he knew the true intentions of the man. Charlie's Grandmother had been clever. She knew this inevitable day would come, and she prepared her only remaining relative accordingly.
Charlie's response came quick and smooth, a monotone and emotionless command, "Leave."
Behind the mask, the man's smile dropped.
The man's voice, like the frozen lake beside them, chilled the air between them, "What was that Charlie? I don't think I heard you correctly."
"I know you heard me," Charlie was not brave, but he was an excellent actor.
The fire went out and the man was upon him in a second. Grasping Charlie by the neck, the man had him pinned against the ground. Charlie could see it now, beneath the man's hood. Convulsing shadows and a red light, like a dying firework, shone out from behind the man's mask.
"You might want to reconsider," the man hissed in his ear, "We wouldn't want any uninformed decisions made now, would we?"
Although Charlie was an excellent actor, talent could only get him so far.
"Fine," he wheezed, his fear betraying him through his eyes.
The man released his hold and the fire began to burn once more. Charlie blinked. Once again, the man was seated by that fire, the presence of which contrasted with his very existence entirely. Once again, the man motioned for Charlie to be seated. This time, Charlie did not refuse the man's offer.
Sitting on the log the man had conjured for him, Charlie asked, "What do you want?"
The man's reply was swift, as though he knew exactly what Charlie was going to say, "You are aware that you are the only remaining relative of Cassandra Dean, am I correct?"
Charlie nodded, wishing he was wrong about where this was going.
"Good, that makes this process a lot faster," the man continued, "You see Charlie, as the only remaining relative of your Grandmother, you have been left each and every possession she once owned in life."
Charlie did not nod this time, instead he crossed his fingers. He prayed to a God he had no faith in that this explanation would not end in the way he thought it would.
"Including her contract with me, which includes many of her materialistic possessions. For example: her estate, her business, etcetera," the man tried to feign sympathy, but the emotion was lost to him.
Charlie let out an exasperated sigh. This had ended exactly the way he thought it would.
"However," Charlie's ears perked up as the man continued his speech, "That does not mean her contract with me translates immediately to you. You can refuse to sign this contract, though anything she owned because of it will vanish forever."
There was nothing Charlie wanted more than to refuse this man's contract.
"Can we just get to the part where I make my decision?" Charlie asked in a way that was more of a command than a question.
"All in good time," the man sneered knowingly beneath that porcelain mask, "Follow me."
Charlie blinked. The fire had vanished. The man had vanished.
A warm glow from the centre of the frozen lake beckoned Charlie closer. Beside it stood the man, which only repulsed him farther. This man was fast, and it was because of this that Charlie dare not attempt to run away. Even so, Charlie was not a moron.
"I'm not going out there!" he called across the lake, "It gives you the perfect opportunity to force me into making a deal with you. Plus, the ice will be far too thin for me to walk across without falling in. Walking out on that ice would be like asking you to bribe me with my life."
The man did not yell back, instead he stooped behind Charlie in an instant.
"The lake is frozen solid Charlie," the man whispered, "And trust me, the contract doesn't work if I trick you into taking it. I would have paid off my debt by now if that was how it worked."
Charlie hesitated. The man's voice raised in volume, "Start walking!"
Charlie flinched at the man's shout. The man now stood at the centre of that abysmal lake. Charlie shook his head in disbelief at what he was about to do as he began to walk forwards.
Although the woodland itself had not been cold, the lake most certainly was. Charlie slid across the ice, his only companion the reflection of a monster. The ice chilled him to his core. Charlie found himself thinking about his Grandmother. Cassandra Dean had always been a little weird. She was not handicapped or had any mental defects to speak of. Her abnormalities were present in what she saw: the truth. Though she was arguably a nice and caring person, she was ostracised by the community because of how forward she was with what she could see. And thus, her loving nature hid from the world in a fortress of ice and snow, only ever shown to Charlie behind closed doors. Though she would never admit it, the only reason Cassandra Dean chose to live in the woodland was because of the constant rumours and spite from all those around her. Charlie would often come to deliver groceries and take the doctor to her, each and every time she would greet him with a wide smile and usher him into her house. Charlie and the doctor, the only people Cassandra Dean ever let inside her house. Even if it was just his memory, he could smell her cooking. She had been an excellent baker; Charlie missed her cooking, even if it did taste weird because she kept the flour in the basement and it would go a little past its best. As Charlie walked along that frozen lake, the waters of which had been the topic of his nightmares for years, a sudden realisation made itself known to his mind. This man would give him anything in return for his future. Was it possible that the man could bring Charlie's Grandmother back from the dead? And in an instant, Charlie began to doubt whether denying the man's deal was the right choice. His resolve was melting the closer he got to the fire at the centre of the lake.
Charlie had taken as much time as he could to arrive. It was not because the distance was large, nor because the ice was slippery and hard to walk across, but because he had much to think about. The man had watched him as he walked, gaze never wavering, and he smiled as he was reminded of the burden of choice. Charlie now stood beside the man as they both stared into the fire. Neither of them said a word. The man was waiting, but so was Charlie. The flames of the fire licked ever higher on that vast, frozen lake and yet the ice didn't melt. The woodland was painfully quiet, only Charlie's short breaths and the crackling of the fire remained. It was Charlie that broke the incomplete silence.
"If I accepted this deal, would you be able to bring my Grandmother back?" Charlie asked.
The man nodded, "All that and more Charlie." "I need to know more," said Charlie, "More about this deal and how it will affect me. I don't want to end up like you."
"I deal in futures. If you gave me your future I would fill the void left by it with anything you desire. Say you wished for a large sum of money and that wealth were to diminish, the quality of your future would follow. Say you wished for a trinket, any old one would do, and you kept it safe and away from all harm, your future would leave you likewise," then the man smiled, "Hypothetically, say you were to wish for a house, and you somehow got locked in the basement looking for flour, your only escape blocked by an unyielding fridge. In the time you were trapped deep down in that dark old basement your house got unclean, forgotten, lost, dirty and quite honestly ruined. Your future would leave you likewise. But say your dearest nephew were to rediscover and clean that house, bring a brief spark of life back into it. Well, you'd have the good side of ten minutes to finish all your worldly affairs."
Charlie's voice had gone cold, "That was oddly specific."
The man raised his hand in mock surrender, "I'm only answering the question in a way you'll understand. If you were to wish for your Grandmother's life, the moment she dies is the moment your future follows."
"Then I can't possibly accept-" Charlie began. "You understand that your Grandmother was murdered at least?" the man interrupted.
"How did you-" once again, Charlie tried to form a sentence.
The man was too fast, "I have something to show you."
The serpentine smoke, like a river, flowed out of the man's sleeves. Charlie was silent as the smoke writhed and spread out over the ice. The fire, now burning a ghostly blue, cast an eerie light over the ice and smoke. The smoke convulsed and contracted, writhed and wriggled. If anything beyond the border of the lake had been visible before, it was not now. All was hidden by a dome of black, unyielding smoke. Charlie stared into the smoke and the smoke, in turn, stared into him. The smoke reflected his desires and the lake refracted the reality of his heart.
Charlie watched in the smoke as his dream car drove past his dream house, his Grandmother's house, in the street where all the wealthiest people in his community dwelled. He watched as he himself, younger and more attractive, lead his dream family out of that dream house and towards his dream neighbourhood, going out for the family vacation he had always dreamed of. Out of the smoke and in the distance strode Cassandra Dean, alive and well and ready to join them. Was this the happy life Charlie had always dreamed of: a world free of envy, remorse, greed and regret?
But then there it was, the dark refractions of demons grinning in the lake. Charlie looked away from the lake. Charlie turned his eyes anywhere but down towards the lake. He could hear them screaming. He could hear them all screaming. He did not want to know what it would show him. He didn't need to know, he could guess. One of these two visions was a lie and the other was the truth, and yet they could easily be switched. A single deal had the power to break the boundaries between fact and fiction.
"Do you understand what I'm offering you now?" the man asked.
Charlie nodded, the same way in which the man had all those years ago.
"I can give you a new life, free from what you've done and free from what you could do," the man elaborated.
Once again, Charlie just nodded.
"There's only one thing left to do Charlie," the man smiled, "Ask me a question, any question." "No." Charlie was done with nodding.
"I could tell you who murdered your Grandmother-" the man began. It was Charlie's turn to interrupt, "Do you honestly think I'm that stupid? I already know."
The man was quieter now, "Some people just don't-"
"I don't care for you or your contract, if what you say is true then you can't force me into making this deal. So I'll take my leave and be done with you," Charlie sounded more confident than he felt.
"You'll plummet eventually Charlie. You'll fall fast and with considerable brutality. I'll be there to lift you. I'll always be there to lift you Charlie," the man's voice was flat.
"And every time I'll reject you," Charlie's voice was just as flat.
Charlie watched as the smoke dispersed and the light of the fire began to fade. The man was gone and so was every trace he had ever visited the dying woodland, aside from the frozen lake and the fact that the woodland was in a state of decay. Charlie Dean, alone and with no remaining family relations, stood in the centre of a frozen lake.
The lake was thawing; the lake was thawing fast. As quickly as the lake had frozen, it began to melt and Charlie fell down into that darkened mirror.
Part Six: Recap
I was awoken by the chirping of birds through the open window of my apartment; it reverberated off the walls, ran through the single hall and ricocheted into every nook and cranny. It was this melodic sound, coupled with the warm breeze that blew through the curtains, that served only the purpose of awakening me from my deep, encumbered slumber. It had been years since my visit to the woodland that my Grandmother's house had once dwelled within; in my dreams I am still haunted. Not a day goes by where I don't remember the grim specifics of what occurred there: the house, the man and Cassandra Dean. Not a day goes by that I don't wonder how I survived: the house, the woods and the lake. One day I may even find the answers.
Here's what I do know.
Cassandra Dean, for reasons unknown, made a deal with the man. Cassandra Dean, my Grandmother, is dead and her body will never be found. Her murderer will continue to walk free, all evidence of my Grandmother's death and all incriminating evidence having vanished along with everything she owned. At first I didn't understand why the basement door had been nailed shut from the inside, but I think I've figured it out now. The only way Cassandra Dean's contract with the man could be ended was if it were to become known for a fact that she was dead. Her house and other possessions gained by her deal would continue to manifest themselves as long as she remained unfound. Despite everything I had done to her, my Grandmother had attempted to allow me to live a long and happy life without the repercussions of her deal with the man.
Or had she been waiting for the perfect moment to curse me with the extra seconds of life she would receive when I inevitably visited the house?
The woodland is currently closed off to the public, declared a bio-hazard. Apparently, an entire ecosystem collapsing and a wide array of flora decaying in a single night is of great cause for alarm. I know it will grow back, it always does. It's just such a shame I will no longer own a portion of it. The rights to the property had vanished along with everything my Grandmother had owned.
The man is still out there, and he will be until the end of time. I have no doubts. He'll hunt for more and more futures, every time he reaches the full amount of his payment his mistress will increase his toll. He visits me from time to time, tempting me with all the things he can. He always comes before and after something horrible. Terrorist attacks, financial crises, war declarations; there's really no surprise anymore. It's a great comfort, each visit is like a premonition and I prepare my life accordingly. I invite him in for a drink, we talk. Of course, he only ever talks about the things he could give me, the deals we could make. Each and every time, as I promised on the lake, I decline him. Sometime he lets information slip about himself. Like a puzzle, I've taken to piecing it all together. Maybe I'll figure a way out of this. He's an interesting man, but I know if I offered him my future he'd take it in the blink of an eye.
I'm not scared of what my future holds.
There are no monsters lurking in the dark; I am the monster.
I wouldn't have known it that night on the lake, but my life would change for the better whether I accepted the man's deal or not. I don't live in fear of the repercussions of my actions. I don't live in fear of the police. Of course, I have regrets. My life is not perfect. No matter what I do, the man will continue to find me and offer me anything for my future. And one day I know I'll give in. It's inevitable, like each and every visit from the man.
My life is OK. My future is OK. I , myself, am OK.
I just really wish I hadn't left my Grandmother to die in that basement.