I'd already been thinking about it when I found the book. I hadn't been back in far too long, and I happened to be far nearer than I'd expected. The prospect of actually going there held a small but surprising allure; a tiny kernel of inexplicable positivity that defied explanation and cynicism. In some form, I suspected I'd been staying away on purpose… but I did find the book, and I could no longer avoid thinking about returning home.
The book rested half-hidden among scattered soil and decaying leaves, indiscernible to the casual observer - but I've always had a sense for these things. I immediately recognized the protruding corner of crumpled pages as something out of place, as something that should not be lying discarded in an Ohio forest. I continued leaning against the side of my car, feet planted idly in gravel, my eyes cautiously tracing the scene.
Outside the small arc of gravel that marked the spot where I'd pulled off the road and stopped for a break, scrubby bushes ran deeper into open woods. High spreading trees formed a mottled canopy of suffused green and radiant orange, the evening sun glaring through a chaotic pattern of gaps in the leaves above. A single beam of sunset firelight rippled along the undergrowth near the book, and it was that uncommon angle of illumination that made the crumpled corner stand out.
I set my jaw and frowned for a moment… but then lifted myself from the side of my car and tugged it from the dirt and rotting leaves.
Leafing through the first few pages, I realized that it was a journal of terrible sorts, and the dysfunctional family described within reminded me far too much of my own. I hadn't been this close to my hometown in years, and now there was this book… was it time to return? The world had certainly taken its toll on me. If I was not the same person, what could I possibly expect from my hometown? After throwing the book in the passenger seat, I gripped the steering wheel, shook my head, and decided that it was time.
I was even closer than I'd realized. I made that first recognizable turn while the evening light was still strong. Following the old streets, I couldn't help but feel a small sense of wonder born of recognition. The buildings were all there, if a little run down; the streets were all as I remembered, though more cracked and weathered; and memories I'd forgotten I possessed began flooding back, only somewhat faded by time.
I passed by a large field surrounded by a chain-link fence, wondering if they'd built a new football field. Peering at the squads of men and women on the field, I realized that they were anything but students. The drills were formal, almost militaristic, and the variety of obstacles and equipment was surprising. Stopping alongside, I stepped out and onto the sidewalk, watching them train.
One figure in the distance almost immediately fell behind, his running group passing him as he slowed and froze in place, staring at me. He approached slowly, almost hesitantly, walking across the field toward the fence. He moved up to it and stopped.
We studied each other for a long moment.
"What did you do, join the military?" I asked, finally breaking the silence.
He rolled his fingers nervously. "I'm a cop now."
"What's all this then?" I asked, not mentioning that I'd seen similar setups in quite a few small towns recently. I narrowed my eyes. "That a freaking SWAT team?"
He looked back at the different groups of his peers finishing up their training exercises. "Government surplus program. Military gear they don't need comes to us. All the departments are buying it up these days."
I raised one eyebrow, but there were far too many subsequent questions involved in that topic, so I said nothing.
A girl in sweats ran up to the fence, a sly opportunistic smile on her face. She stopped and looked between the two of us.
"Old high school buddies," I replied.
Her eyebrows tilted slightly in confusion. I'd made a mistake, and responded before she'd asked the predictable question. As she peered through the fence at me, looking closer, her demeanor seemed to slowly and subtly grow darker.
"Drink?" he said to me, disrupting her study.
He hurried along the fence to come around and meet me. "I'll get my car later. Let's just go." He climbed in and picked up the book from his seat.
Shrugging, I pulled away, leaving his colleague still staring at us from behind the fence.
The nearby hole in the wall tavern was exactly as I'd remembered, only far more depressing. Save for two old men at the back watching a wall-mounted television, the place was empty. I ordered two draft beers at the bar, ignoring the closest old man peering at me. I carried the drinks back to the table without a return glance.
"What the hell is this?" my old friend asked, leafing through the journal I'd found. He studied the handwritten pages for a moment. "You didn't write this."
"Nope," I responded, sliding a drink across and taking the book in exchange.
He took a gulp of his beer and stared down at the middle of the table. I had the sense that he wanted to talk about the past, or old haunting memories, but he chose a different route instead. "Why are you in town?"
I shook my head slowly. "I honestly don't know. Just felt like it was time to come back home, see how things were going here."
"Why come in person?" he asked, subtly agitated. "Why not just check Facebook?"
I gave a brief smile. "Yeah." I did not answer his question or elaborate.
"So…" he watched my face carefully. "There's no particular reason you're back?"
I shook my head again, analyzing his masked fears. "Is something wrong, Chris?"
He let his jaw go slack for a moment, realizing I could see right through him. "No," he lied. "Just, um… just be careful. Crime… crime is up."
"Even despite all that military stuff?" I joked. "Were those automatic assault rifles I saw? Honestly, what is America coming to?"
He ignored my rhetorical questions, quickly gulping down his beer. After slamming it down empty, he stood and made sure he had everything before turning to leave. "Just be careful. Thanks for the drink."
I watched him go. Once he was gone for sure, I turned. The old man that had been watching me abruptly looked away.
My old street, as every other street I'd wandered through, was empty. Cracked sidewalks and tilted chain-link fences lined my path, hinting at the powerful cloud of apathy crushing my childhood haunts. The streets had been straight and green and cheery then - or, at least, that was how I remembered them. I came to my house with what I felt was a visible dismay. Studying the dilapidated single-story structure, I couldn't help but feel let down by the difference between the place I'd built up in my memories and the place as it really existed.
Swinging the rusted gate open, I approached the front door. Standing on the porch, avoiding the spots where the paint was peeling the worst, I almost tried my key - but no, that couldn't possibly work - could it?
Frowning, I eked my head past the door, scanning the dim interior.
It was exactly the way I remembered it, faded carpet and all. The living room sat quiet and gloomy, hosting intermittent shelves lined with porcelain and pewter objects. I'd grown up considering those trinkets rare, but now knew were simply mass produced items found at any flea market. That didn't take away their sentimental value like I'd expected - I picked up a porcelain pig with a slot for change, shaking it, listening to the clatter of the pennies inside that I'd deposited when I was innocent and small.
I put the pig back in its place, and then squeezed my free hand into a fist.
Walking the small circle of rooms, I found no one. The living room was neat and proper, the kitchen was clean and the fridge rather scant, and the master bedroom was made up, but nobody was home.
I sat on the couch, not sure why I was there, or what I'd been expecting. The silence sank in. A nearby smiling cat clock ticked loudly at my awareness. Why had I come back here? Why did my key still work? Did they still live here? Even if they did, would they want to see me here? Could they possibly understand?
I glanced at the front door, as if it might open and admit someone at any moment.
I placed my found book lightly on the coffee table, glancing up at the silent television. Watching my reflection in the curved, dark glass, I stretched out on the couch. If I just waited a little bit, they'd be along soon, and then the little reunion I'd dreaded for so long would happen one way or another.
I drifted into a half-asleep stupor with the strangest sensation that my reflection was smiling at me. No, not a smile… more a grin… but my slowly and deeply pounding heart carried my tired limbs into a state of exhaustion even as I imagined my reflection curling its lips in a sadistic grin wider than my face itself…
I blinked into adrenaline-filled awareness with a mental jump - but without a physical one. No, I'd long since hammered out that dangerous tendency. Looking around the shadowed room by the dim orange light of a streetlamp outside the window, I kept my body and head still, peering carefully around the night-cloaked living room.
Something was different. It had to be - that was why people woke up with that particular feeling. I'd long since learned to trust my human instincts. Don't move, don't touch it, don't speak the forbidden ancient words - trust it. Always trust the instincts.
And still that damn cat clock grinned and ticked from the wall near the kitchen as I scanned my vision across the dark living room. Tick, tick, tick - my eyes went first to the television, but, thank all that might be sacred, there was no reflection to be seen in the dark - tick, tick, tick - the window glowed with streetlamp light, but the curtains held fast and unmoving - tick tick tick - the shelves lining the walls sat undisturbed, the piggy bank I'd picked up still in its proper place - tick tick tick…
I suddenly felt incredibly vulnerable lying on that couch with no blanket to cover me - but that feeling came in hand in hand with the realization that there was a door ajar where none should be; that the coat closet next to the front door now bore a sliver of black between itself and its frame.
Tick tick tick…
Still unmoving in the dark, I stared at the coat closet door, my heart pounding. Had I…? No, I hadn't. I hadn't touched a thing, save the piggy bank. Had the coat closet door been open when I'd arrived? I tried to run through the house in my mind as it had been when I'd entered, but…
Tick tick tick…
I felt the urge to breathe deeper, to swallow a lump in my throat, to clear the uncomfortable position I'd found myself in, but my every instinct advised me to remain still. The only movement I allowed was my hand hidden between the cushions and my pocket, reaching for my cell - living the way I do, you always set up one button reserved for the police before you go anywhere, if only perhaps to call the lesser of two evils.
But I'd never used that option before…
Tick tick tick…
A rare car passed by outside, arcing light around the room. I watched as the roving light illuminated angles unexpectedly.
But it's just a house, I thought. There's not even anyone here… why am I on edge? Why would anyone or anything be here?
I stared directly at a small oval of quickly reflected light in the long stretch of darkness between closet door and closet frame. I stared directly at what must have, beyond any shadow of a doubt, been a watching eye.
Tick tick tick…
I shifted on the couch, sitting up.
The closet door slammed open wildly, the echo of wood on wall reverberating throughout the small house. Against all instinct, I froze, eyes wide.
Nothing happened. I remained in place, arms shivering, weakened limbs trying to keep me where I'd decided to remain motionless.
Tick tick tick…
The minutes passed by in slow, torturous agony. I stared at the darkness, unwilling to move. Eventually, another car passed by on the road outside.
The roving light illuminated the form of a gangly man in ragged clothes - a homeless man, I immediately suspected, partially relieved - but…
…but he was looking away from me, his face toward the closet… all I could see was his ragged, unkempt hair on the back of his head, in that brief moment of illumination from the passing car.
Tick tick tick…
I remained in motionless limbo for another indeterminable time, not sure whether I should be confused or scared. I could envision a homeless man breaking in, and then perhaps hiding in the coat closet, but why would he emerge just to stare right back into darkness? Why wouldn't he face me? Why wouldn't he move? Why were we sitting here in the dark, in silence and stillness?
Reviewing every bit of the scant sensory information my eyes had received, it began to occur to me that the intruder's limbs were beyond gangly. They were thin - emaciated, in fact -and a suspicion began to well up in the darker recesses of my mind… it had only been my own assumption that this was a man at all.
Tick tick tick…
I stepped up from the couch.
In the dim orange light from the window, it crept unevenly backward towards me, keeping its face on the coat closet ahead. Hanging in a seemingly awkward stance at the end of the couch, it waited.
Touching the other end of the couch lightly for stability, I gulped.
As if on cue, it moved again, its gangly limbs angling it closer to me like some sort of spider.
It stopped a foot from me, its ragged hair emanating a foul odor - and, still, it remained facing away from me.
Tick tick tick…
Glancing down at my feet and hands, heart racing, I made the connection. It moved when I made significant movement or sounds - all I had to do was wait silently for rescue.
I looked back up, my heart sinking.
I knew I shouldn't have come home.
Tick tick tick…
It was too close. It had come upon me by surprise; come upon me at my most vulnerable and stupidly unaware. There was no opportunity to judge its modus operandi or attack pattern. I might already be dead, in the strategic sense, but bound by animal instinct to remain still as long as possible. Eventually, I would itch, or grow tired, or flinch - and it would have me.
I had the urge to gulp, but I let the pain in my throat build instead.
I had the urge to breathe deeper, but I let my head wallow in subtle fuzziness, unwilling to inhale more deeply.
The minutes passed as I thought about my life, and how the possibility of it ending at that moment felt bitter and unhappy. What the hell are you?, I wanted to demand. Why did that suddenly matter so much? Why did I feel so sharply angry about not understanding the thing that might finally get me?
Tick tick tick…
I stumbled back on a numb heel, the floorboards creaking under my feet.
It snapped its limbs at me in a flash, moving like a hungry spider.
A loud pop hit my ears, and a spray of burning ichor slashed across my neck and face.
The front door slammed open further, and I fell to the floor, completely caught off guard. I vaguely realized that the sound had been a gunshot.
Somebody shouted, and a dozen black-uniformed silhouettes encircled me with lights, loud cracks sounding off as they surrounded the creature on the floor and hit it with dark sticks. Black liquid sprayed up, splattering the ceiling, and black liquid sprayed out, splattering me. The uniformed men kept up their efforts, directing one another to brutalize the gangly monstrosity in a specific manner, spending several minutes turning the otherworldly creature into pulp.
A uniformed woman entered through the busted front door, spilling kerosene from a handheld carrier. I recognized her from the fence by the field earlier.
Beleaguered eyes found mine as one officer stayed behind for a split second - my friend, his face drawn, his soul weary. He threw me a lighter without a word, and then followed after his fellows into alternating red and blue light. The cars outside sped off without a moment's hesitation, leaving behind lingering echoes of radio chatter and imperative shouts.
I picked myself up carefully, trying to process what had happened.
The lighter ignited its intended materials in a burst of green flame. I watched in grim confusion, making sure the impromptu pyre didn't spread to the rest of the house, but my efforts were unnecessary. The gangly creature burned faster than it had any right to, leaving a charred circle on the living room floor - a circle I now recognized as similar to marks I'd seen in the kitchen.
I walked to the front door and listened to the warm summer night with concerned ears. I could hear police sirens in the distance, approaching some new crisis. What did a small town police department need with military grade equipment? I could guess, now, that something terrible was going on. I'd seen inklings of this in other small towns, but the grand scale of the problem hadn't been obvious.
Returning to the pile of embers, I prodded at it with my shoe. It had kept its face turned away until the last moment, but the barest flash I'd seen still lingered in my senses. Tilting my head, I studied its twisted, blackened features. I was sure, then, that this thing had the same face as the old man at the bar that had been watching me.
Heart still pounding, I slid a chair from the kitchen into the corner, facing all the doors in the living room. I picked up the book from the coffee table, dead certain that I wasn't going to sleep again until morning. Something was beyond horribly wrong in my hometown, but further investigation would have to wait until tomorrow… I flipped the journal open to the sixth page and began reading, eyeing each entrance to the room at random intervals, my adrenaline fueled by the overwhelming sense that something terrible was standing just outside in the darkness… just standing there, watching me, a sadistic smile curled up on features ghastly and incomprehensible.
"So glad I came home," I muttered, scooting a little further into the false safety of the corner.
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