I had a weird dream last night. It wasn’t like your normal everyday dream. It was very disturbing to me. I wouldn’t consider it a nightmare, but I know I will never forget it. It still brings a shiver just thinking about it.
Before the dream, everything was normal. Saturday had arrived after a long, tiring week of work. I was an IT technician. It was the kind of job where we would assist customers, varying from software issues to networking ones. Occasionally, the job would require us to meet them on their turf to provide onsite service. Unfortunately for me, I wore multiple hats which meant I had to tackle most onsite visits. Some would think of me as a versatile, irreplaceable employee, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I, however, couldn’t look past the glaring fact that the company was just being too cheap to hire others, opting to milk every ounce they could get from us, their understaffed employees.
You can see why I would spend most of my weekends only sleeping or watching television; basically, anything that required the least amount of work or movement. Unfortunately, these tactics made them fly by faster than usual. There’s nothing worse than expediting your rest days to your work ones. This weekend, I decided to mix it up a bit. Instead of my usual lazy days around my apartment, I decided to venture out and visit my parents. I hadn’t been home in two years, and I couldn’t remember the last phone call I made to them. So, I figured I was overdue for a visit.
Home was around 50 miles away, but that didn’t seem too bad compared to most people I knew. I had plenty of friends who were clear across the country from their folks, so I knew I had no room to complain. To be honest, I was looking forward to the drive. The one’s in the morning were the best: watching the sun gradually rise, feeling the cool breeze while coasting the near empty streets, absent a river of traffic. Was there a better time to travel?
I couldn’t wait to see my dad or my step-mom either. I could already picture the two of them ambushing me with hugs while releasing a barrage of questions about how everything was going in my life, and I haven’t even gotten to best part: home-cooked meals. Energized by these thoughts, I quickly packed up a few things: toothbrush, clothes for one night, towels, and anything else I thought I might need. For a second, I thought about giving them a quick heads-up call to let them know I was coming, but refrained, thinking it would be better if my visit was unannounced.
After my car was loaded, I pulled out my apartment area, and began the drive. As expected, the sun had barely peaked beyond the horizon. The drive itself was smooth and fluent with barely any other cars on the road, just the way I liked it. As early as it might have seemed to some people, my parents were early birds. They got up at the crack of dawn to maximize their day, taking care of small things throughout it: cutting grass, morning runs, errands, etc.
It didn’t take long before I reached my old hometown. I was met with the familiar setting rendering old memories. Almost at every angle, I could recall some event from my life while growing up. It wasn’t until I looked in the rear mirror that I noticed I had a smile pressed on my face. There was no hiding it I guess; I was happy to be home.
Eventually, I reached my neighborhood turning onto the street where my parents lived. From the distance, I could see their house at the far end to the right. I drove down the street glancing left and right attempting to see if old neighbors were still present at their homes. Just from a glance, I could recognize what houses had new people and which ones had familiar faces. Only a few were actually up and outside; one person in particular was Mr. Harris. He was infamous for always attending his yard. He was mainly seen cutting his grass and did so in a full jumpsuit regardless of how hot or cold the weather shifted. It vaguely resembled the ones prisoners would wear except it was navy blue instead of a bright orange.
I reached my parents’ house and parked next to the mailbox. The driveway had my dad’s car in it; my step-mother’s car was usually kept inside the garage since it was a newer vehicle. The house itself was fairly big. It was two-stories with all white siding that made up its exterior. It had burgundy shutters to accompany each window and a decent size porch with a bench on it.
After parking my car and walking up to the door, I could already see the screen door closed to allow the cool air to run through. The aroma of bacon and eggs filtered outward along with the sounds of talking and moving around. Despite still having a key to the place, I rang the doorbell. Instantly, I heard my dad’s voice grumpily question out-loud who would be visiting at this hour. I could hear his footsteps walking over until he emerged into the entrance hallway. I could see his eyes widen and a smile grow on his face. He called out for my step-mother to come over to him. When she did, I was met with a loud cry of joy as she raced over to the door, opening it and pulling me into a vice-grip hug.
After about a ten-minute moment of hugs and greetings, I was finally able to settle in. I brought all my stuff into my old room which was in the basement. The basement of course was finished and had a big television in front of a couch along with the washer and dryer down there. It was almost like a second living room, perfect for having guests over or even a tenant for renting.
The day went by fairly quick. I spent most of it talking to them about my job, politics in the world and other recent events. It wasn’t until the evening arrived when my dad announced that in his spare time he had managed to convert all the old home-movie tapes onto DVDs. My dad was always the type to keep busy. He worked hard throughout the week and even on the weekends because he was unable to cope with the downtime. It was in these times that he would keep himself busy with small side projects. These projects varied from big ones like installing new floor boards to small ones like planting fresh flowers outside. Apparently, this time his project had been converting the old tapes before they became too bad to view.
We decided to spend that evening watching the old movies to gawk and laugh at the old days in our lives. He popped in the first disk and left temporarily to use the bathroom. The video appeared to be during Christmas time. The footage was very grainy producing a few white streaking lines across the screen. The timestamp in the corner read: December 25, 1991.
In the video, we could see a big tree in the background heavily decorated with tinsel and ornaments. Below it, a multitude of a presents covered the floor varying in size. Off to the side was my mother, my real mother, very young in appearance. She must have been at least in her mid-twenties at the time. I didn’t get a chance to know her.
My father had informed me she had died when I was too young to remember. I only recognized her from photos I had seen lying around. It wasn’t until I was old enough that my father explained her death was in fact a murder. Some crazy loon had broken into their apartment and shot her. He didn’t really like to speak about it and I didn’t blame him. Because of his feelings, I never pressed him more about it.
The camera in the movie sat fixated without shaking giving the assumption that it was on a stand. Soon after, my father appeared from behind the camera to join her on the ground. He too was young in appearance. It was strange to see them this way and brought about a small amount of laughter from me. They both seemed to have their eyes fixated on something. It wasn’t until my dad adjusted the camera that I could see that the something was me. There I was, a younger version of myself. Checking the timestamp on the screen confirmed that I was one-year old.
I watched in awe as my younger self hobbled around curiously grabbing small things around the apartment. Occasionally, he would render a smile to my parents whenever they called out my name in a soft tone. The moment was nice until the screen went to complete static. The sound was a little distorted, but it was clear the video was not over. I could make out what sounded like a knock at the door from the audio, but wasn’t sure entirely. My dad returned just as this happened and went over to the television cursing at it. He finally ejected the DVD and popped in a new one informing us that the rest of the tape must’ve been too bad before the full record. Yet, we didn’t let that hinder the moment and prepared ourselves as the next disk loaded up.
After a long evening of laughing and admiring our younger images on the home-movies, we decided to call it a night. We said our good nights with my step-mother promising to cook us all a big breakfast tomorrow. I made my way back downstairs and changed into my pajamas eventually laying on my old bed. I lay there for a couple of minutes just smiling to myself still thinking about the videos and other times I had while growing up. Without realizing it, I found myself asleep.
Now, this is when it all happened. This is when I had the dream. In this dream, I found myself back in that old apartment I had viewed with my parents earlier in the home-movie. It was odd though, unlike the angle the camera appeared in the video, I was standing offset of it. It was an angle that did not appear in the video and yet somehow, I could see more of the apartment with greater detail: from the kitchen in the back, its sink full of dishes, to the pictures hanging on the wall.
I wasn’t sure how this amount of detail was applied because clearly, I was just a child at the time and remembering this would be impossible. There was a possibility that my brain was just filling the gaps of the apartment with places I had seen and been to, but deep down I thought otherwise; it felt like everything being presented was exactly how it was at that time.
Around the apartment, it was clearly Christmas time like in the video. I continued to look around noticing my dad standing behind the camera exactly like in the video and my mother sitting on the floor in view of it. As if on cue, he walked from behind the camera and sat next to my mother. It was literally like being present in the footage, scene for scene.
I attempted to grab my parents’ attention. I tried calling out to them, waving and even touching them, but it was like I didn’t exist. They couldn’t see or hear me and my hands went through them almost as if I was a ghost. My dad then shifted the camera to where I could hear my younger self cooing and hobbling around to my side. I watched as the younger me began playing with a book curiously trying to figure out the object.
Suddenly, there came a loud banging at the door. The noise startled me, my parents included. I watched as my dad rose and went to check the door. The door itself had a small peek-hole. I recalled that I remember hearing what sounded like a knock on a door from the distorted video. I heard my dad mumble something in a confusing tone. It was something around the grounds of the peek-hole was either being covered or that someone was standing really close to it.
At this moment, I got an uneasy sensation in my stomach. For whatever reason, I got the feeling that opening that door would be a mistake. However, before I could react, my dad unbolted the locks and opened the door. He was immediately struck with a barrel of a gun. I watched in horror as he grabbed his now bleeding head in pain. The assailant kicked my father back causing him to fall over next to my mother. My mother let out an ear-splitting scream in fear.
The assailant came through the door shutting it softly behind and locking the bolt across. Afterwards, the assailant gave off a hissing shush sound to my parents; hearing the voice confirmed that it was a man. He stood silent, pointing the long-barreled gun at my frightened parents. I too was frozen in fear even knowing I couldn’t be seen.
The man wore a long black cloak over his body with a hood draped over his head. A few chains looped from his waist connecting his hip. When I looked closer, there were several faint grey inverted crosses on the side of his hood and on the back of his cloak. Was this guy a part of some twisted religion?
I carefully made my way around him; he remained in the same position appearing to not show any indication to my presence, yet I still wasn’t taking any chances. When I finally reached a good angle to see his face, my heart dropped. He was wearing a pale white mask over his face. The mask was glossy; the eye holes were wide-open along with the mouth, both completely veiled in black. It gave off an eerie chill; it was as if the mask itself was frozen in a fear, emitting an ear-splitting scream for its life.
We all just remained still with what felt like a long hour. Finally, my dad managed to mutter a question to the man, asking him why he was doing this. The man of course remained silent, ignoring the question. My mother was still whimpering to herself while my dad kept his head low, applying pressure to the wound on his head. He repeated his question with more anger in his tone.
The man finally made a move, taking out a second pistol from within his robes with his other hand. He raised and pointed it in my direction. My heart began rapidly pounding against my chest, more than it had before. Could the man finally see me? Had he always been able to? I raised my hands up in a surrendering pose while backing up a little. When I did, I realized the angle of the gun was slightly off. He was pointing it in my direction, but not at me exactly. I turned my head to see that he was in fact pointing the gun at me, the younger me though.
My mother let out another loud shriek when the man had the gun in the direction of my one-year old self. Of course, being one-year old, I didn’t seem bothered by the gun; in fact, I was still playing around with the book from earlier, oblivious to the whole situation. What was the man planning? Why did he break in to begin with? He clearly did not want anything from my parents. They didn’t have anything expensive at the time. More importantly, why was he pointing a gun at a one-year old child?
My heart dropped even further when I heard him cock the gun. What reason would he have for doing this? What would it accomplish? My mother attempted to move towards me, but the man refocused his other gun on her, cocking that weapon as well. I looked back at my younger self who in turn looked up at the man giving a blank innocent stare. The man appeared unfazed, solid in his stance. I could see his finger slowly squeezing back on the trigger. Heart still racing, I quickly moved in the path of the gun hoping to obscure his view. Realizing it wouldn’t make a difference, I decided to grab the gun, but my hand phased through it like before. I couldn’t touch him.
His finger gradually continued to squeeze back on the trigger. It was like viewing the moment in slow motion, taking forever to occur. Unexpectedly, I found my mind being flooded with images. They were images of people; they looked to be people I knew throughout my life. Almost like a photo album; endless images of moments and faces flashed by. I saw my mother, my father, friends I had known, girlfriends I had relations with, everyone. They continued appearing one after another and as they did I felt a pulsating pain grow in my head.
I couldn’t take all the images at once; it was too much and yet they persisted. I found myself on my knees as the images began appearing at a faster rate. I was now gripping my head almost shaking uncontrollably until they ceased without warning. The air felt cold, the warm colors around transitioned literally to a grayscale-like color. I looked up slowly and when I did, I saw the flash of the barrel go off, followed by the sound of a loud bang.
I turned around to find the lifeless body of my younger self lying on his back. A pool of blood quickly formed around him. The air was silent; my parents were speechless, frozen in disbelief. The man lowered his gun eventually letting it drop to the ground. We all remained silent and completely still.
He proceeded to lift his hand, removing his hood. Afterwards, he slowly removed the mask from his face. My eyes could not comprehend what they viewed. This man, this murdering psychopathic, religious, nut-case’s face was…. my face. He had the same face as me, the current age me. Tears formed in his eyes and slowly made their way down his face. He turned to my parents; a small smiled formed across his face. It wasn’t a twisted evil smile or a satisfied one. No, his smile and his eyes held a deep sense of sympathy. With it, he spoke with quivering words, “I’m sorry… I had to. I… I did you a favor. Forgive me…”
Without warning, a blinding white light appeared out of nowhere, completely engulfing me. I could see a face appearing amidst the white. Before I could make it out, I immediately jolted awake by the alarm on my cell phone. I sat up quickly; the dream was still burning in my mind with every excruciating detail. When I looked down at my hands, I found them trembling. I put them to my sweaty chest to feel my heart knocking around uncontrollably to no end. What the hell kind of dream was that?
After the dream, I couldn’t fall back asleep again or actually I didn’t want to. It was just so disturbing and more importantly too realistic. Lucky for me, it hadn’t been too early in the morning. Soon, my parents would wake up as well. This thought comforted me a little for I didn’t want to be alone. As expected, I could soon hear my step-mother adhering to her promise, cooking the large breakfast upstairs. Before heading up, I made sure to compose myself in the best manner I could. I didn’t want them questioning me about the ordeal even if it was just a dream. I wanted to prevent any reason to recall it, at least not at that moment, it was too soon.
I ascended the stairs and made my way to the kitchen where I was greeted happily. I of course lied about how I slept. We ate breakfast silently for the most part; luckily, they were deeply involved with the Sunday paper or they were on their tablets. After eating, I thanked them for the meal and promised I’d visit more often. I wanted to leave as quickly as possible so I told them I had to leave early to prepare for work the next day. I packed up my things and said my goodbyes before entering my car. Meditating on that incident really helped me wrap my mind around it. It’s helped me realize that it was just that, a dream. There was no deeper meaning to it other than my mind conjuring up a freakish set of images based off what I had seen prior to.
As time went on, the images began acting more like a dream: I said I would never forget it and yet, like the typical one, it slowly was slipping away from me.
I was ready to head back. Before I could turn my car on, my phone went off. On the other end was my boss. He asked me how I was doing and if I was willing to do an extended onsite service for a client, possibly for a week or two depending on the number of computers. The project involved establishing networks and accounts, and mentioned that the client would provide room and meals. Seeing nothing wrong with getting out of the office for a while, I agreed and asked who the client was. He told me this would be a service provided for an independent church.
I was particularly excited about this onsite job. Later on that evening, my boss called again, and filled me in on more details about the request. He told me that traveling to the church would be quite a drive and that its location was in the countryside secluded from most towns.
He gave me strict instruction to abide by their basic rules and to not offend them by any means. Apparently, they had paid handsomely for this service and he wanted to be sure our company kept every dime. He did note that I only had to respect their rules and not necessarily buy into any of their religious activities or anything. He told me to stop by the office in the morning for the necessary equipment. He promised that the company would reimburse me with the cost of travel and reminded me to call daily with any updates.
I wasn’t a big fan of religion, but I wasn’t going to complain if they were providing food and a room for sleeping. Again, it was a chance to get out of the office for a few days. That night, I quickly packed up enough items for two weeks into two big suitcases. After preloading my car, I set my alarm early, knowing that I would need to compensate for the drive.
It was strange. My night was dreamless and it was quick. It felt as if I had closed my eyes for a second before I heard my alarm go off for the next day. What struck me even odder was the fact that I could not recall what had stirred me up the night before. I had a disturbing dream when visiting my parents, that much I knew, but of what specifically, evaded my memory. I dismissed the thought believing it to be for the best.
Despite being tired from the early rise, I was up without a struggle and ready to embark. The outside air was cooler than I usually preferred; the sky was starless almost like a dark veil was across it. I hopped in my car and kept the windows up this time with the heat at full blast. There were a few times where my eyes rolled back from the tiredness, but the radio helped keep that temptation at bay.
I made the quick stop by the office to gather up all the necessary equipment needed for the job. My boss already had it packed and ready to be loaded upon my arrival. He wasn’t there himself, but with the help from the third-shift crew, I was able to load everything into my trunk.
Afterwards, they provided me a set of GPS directions provided by my boss. Once I thanked the crew for helping, I made my way on the road. The further I drove, the more scarce the streetlights and other cars became. Before long, the sun had fully emerged giving sight to the endless oceans of green pastures and cornfields. Eventually though, even the pastures came to an end and soon I found myself swallowed by the dense patches of trees.
My car barely managed to remain on the thin rough path; below I could hear the rocks and twigs crunching under the wheels. I held my breath a few times, slowing my vehicle down hoping to not incur a flat tire, which was the last thing I needed. After what felt like ages, I finally came across a fairly large building ahead.
The building itself was an old structure, standing tall and stretched far back into the woods. Its appearance was withered, made of old wood, pale and decayed. It swayed a few times at the course of the wind letting off a most-disturbing groan as if suffering, wishing to be put out of its misery. Truly it was amazing that such a building hadn’t already collapsed.
Continuing to approach, I could make out more of its structure. The building appeared to be two stories. Its front was rather plain aside from the monotonous row of windows – a row of three that ran across the second floor. The windows themselves were elongated, running along the sides of the building as well. I was thrown off by the sight of this structure. I was sure my boss had informed me this was to be a church. I wasn’t much of a church-goer, but the building before me looked more like an old warehouse or boarding home rather than a place of worship.
The rugged path led up its entrance. In the front of a set of double-doors, I could see a lone figure standing, waiting for my approach. It was an elderly man in his mid-fifties in a grey suit and black tie. He immediately made his way to me when I parked. His walk was hobbled but elegant in poise.
A little hesitant, I gradually let down my window, greeted by his big toothy smile.
“Afternoon, son,” he said in a strong country accent. “You our technician we’ve been waitin’ for?”
I was taken back by his overpowering cologne; it smelled like a poor concoction of baby powder and sunflower seeds. He was balding towards the top of his head while his snowy white hair grew around the edge like a crescent. Deep wrinkles were pressed across his face and seemed to grow in number with his smile.
Slightly stuttering, I answered, “Y-yes, sir. Pleased to meet you.”
He gave off an old man’s chuckle, still housing his toothy grin. “There’s no need to be shy, son. I’m Reverend Gary Gooding. You can call me Gary. Welcome to Peach Herb County,” he said extending out a hand.
Nervously, I shook it.
“I’d like to personally thank you for coming all the way out here. I know it must’ve been something for you. I hope you didn’t get too lost on the way over.”
For some reason, I couldn’t find my voice and only shook my head.
“That’s good. Look here, why don’t ya’ swing your car right around to the side. I’ll get one of my people to help you get your stuff settled in. Ya’ don’t have to lift a finger, understand?”
He gestured to the right-hand side of the building. I nodded and drove around as instructed and parked. Before I could even vacate the car, I jumped when stared ahead. There a man standing in front. I hadn’t even see him approach; I couldn’t lie. He was much younger than the reverend, but clearly older than me. He had slick black hair combed-over to the side and wore a dark vest resting over a white button-top with grey dress pants.
He gave a slight wave while approaching my car. I exited and was greeted with a firm handshake. “Terrance Crowe,” he said. His accent wasn’t as strong as the reverend’s. “Welcome to Peach Herb.”
I could tell that his smile was forced; even his eyes looked annoyed, but I thanked him.
“You have any luggage on you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s in the back.” I unlocked the door. Before I could turn around, the man quickly swooped over to the passenger door, opened it, and pulled out both suitcases. He began making his way towards the front gesturing me with his head.
“You’ll have to forgive my impatience. I was in the middle of something important before the reverend had me pulled to assist you.”
“That’s alright,” I assured him. “I know the feeling. You’d be surprised how often my boss does that to me. I sometimes wonder if he actually wants me to get the job done,” I joked, hoping to lighten the mood. He didn’t laugh. I could hear his grunts as he struggled to carry the weight of my suitcases, occasionally swaying to the side. I felt guilty for letting him do so, but didn’t want to impede on their hospitality.
He led me around to the front and through the double-doors. I half-expected to find the reverend waiting for us with his grin, but he was nowhere to be seen. Inside, we came into what looked like a lobby area. It was much nicer than I expected, completely different from the outside appearance.
Inside, the air was cold, borderline comfortable. Perhaps it was the hint of honey and sunflowers in the midst that made it bearable. The lobby was a simple room. Everything around held a calm pearl white. It was filled with a few tables and chairs up up against the wall. A golden chandelier hung from the ceiling, giving the bland room a more elegant feel. A red carpet led from the entrance to a set of closed double-doors ahead. Two other doors sat on left and right walls, both closed.
The man led me inside, setting down the suitcases. He took out a handkerchief from his vest pocket to wipe away the sweat from his brow. “This here is the Lobby,” he finally said, tucking the handkerchief back in his pocket. I chuckled to myself as if that wasn’t obvious. “Through the left door,” he continued, “ya’ll find a hallway leadin’ to the dinin’ area. To the right is a staircase leadin’ to the livin’ Quarters. You’ll be stayin’ in room six. If ya’ give me a minute, I’ll fetch yer’ keys.”
“What about those?” I asked, gesturing to the main double-doors ahead. “Where do those lead to?”
He glanced towards the doors as if now realizing their presence. “Those lead to the Congregation room where we conduct our services. Ya’ll find we conduct those on a daily basis.”
“Daily? That’s a bit much,” I said jokingly. “Whatever happened to once a week?”
Again he didn’t laugh, his face stern and solid. “Mister…?”
“Pale… Marcus Pale. Sorry, I never did introduce myself,” I replied.
“Right. Mr. Pale, this is a church. I’m sure where ya’ come from, once a week will suffice, but here, it is our life.”
He paused, peering into my eyes.
“Ya’ do attend a church, right?” My eyes must have truly given it away. He smiled, shaking his head. “Yer’ not much of a religious man now are ya’, Mr. Pale?” The tone of his voice matched his face.
I shrugged slightly, taken off-beat at this question. “No, I guess not,” I answered.
“I see. Please forgive me when I say this then, but maybe ya’ should just keep yer’ mind on yer’ job then. That is the reason why yer’ here. Understand?”
“Yeah, sure,” I replied, dryly.
“Good. I’ll be back with yer’ keys.”
I just stood there. The nervous feeling I had earlier had subsided; now what I felt was awkwardness. What was the guy’s problem? There was no need for his rudeness. The pity I felt for him earlier was no longer present. Yet, I shook it off remembering that my boss said not to offend these people by any means.
Five minutes went by and I still found myself standing there. What was taking so long? He made it sound like the keys were right behind the door. My eyes began wandering, bouncing from one side of the room to the next until finally settling on the double-doors.
They had a symbol, an emblem of some kind imprinted down the middle of them. Curious, I walked over to them to get a better look. The emblem on the white doors was golden, almost looking imperial-like. It resembled a face… no, maybe it was flower? It was surrounded with what appeared to be a wavering cloak of some kind. Did it have to do with their religion?
Still curious, I glanced over to the door where the man had disappeared behind. Finally, I returned my eyes back on the double-doors. They had fairly large bar-handles acting as the knobs. I was hesitant, but I slowly reached out to one of them. When my hand made contact with it, I felt a hint of warmness. This was peculiar because the room was cold, so how was this likely? The handle felt as if some had held it just recently, perhaps minutes ago.
I jerked back on it, but the door didn’t budge. I tried a few more times, but was unsuccessful; it was locked. I looked around it to see if there was keyhole, maybe I could peek inside. Instead, I found a small indent next to the handle. The indent was no bigger than a quarter maybe. Could this be the lock? I looked closer to see it had a similar design as the emblem engraved on the inside.
Feeling defeated, I made my way over to one of the chairs and sat. Hopefully the man wouldn’t be any longer. It was probably for the best that it didn’t open though. My first day on the job and I was already snooping around. I was actually glad the man didn’t catch me attempting to break in like that. That stunt could have had my ass sent home, especially since the man already seemed to be an uptight jerk. If that had happened, my boss would’ve had a field day on me for blowing such a high paying opportunity.
The man eventually returned from the back with a large ring of keys in his hand. He hastily ushered me to follow, grabbing my luggage, and proceeded to the door on the right. Just as he had mentioned, there was a staircase on the other side. This area appeared more on par with the outside appearance of the building looking pale and decayed. Every step we took was followed by a long-winded creak. I was sure that at any moment they would give out on either of us, but they never did.
We reached the top and came to a long dimly lit hallway with another red carpet except this was long enough to run to the end. The doors in the hallway appeared adjacent and parallel to each other. Electric candles illuminated the area from the walls in-between the doors.
The man led me halfway down before halting at the door on the right. “This is yer’ room,” he stated, unlocking the door.
The door produced a loud creak as he opened. I braced myself, expecting to find a poorly conditioned room but was met an agreeable sight instead. It was similar appearance to the lobby: plain with pearly white walls. A large king-size bed sat neatly near the window; blanket and sheets and even a pillow were already provided. In the corner sat a sturdy wooden desk with a brass lamp on its stead. A tall bookshelf was leaned against the wall empty of books with a small dresser to its side.
The room looked very comfortable. The thought of staying in it for a few days was very appealing. The man placed my luggage near the dresser.
“Ya’ can put yer’ clothes up in here. Breakfast is at eight, lunch at twelve and dinner at six…sharp,” he stated handing me a key from the ring. “Yer’ welcome to wear whatever pleases ya’ to the meals, just make sure yer’ not late. We don’t start eating until everyone is present.”
“Eight, twelve and six,” I repeated. “Got it.”
“By the way, Mr. Pale? I’m interested to know how you propose to conduct yer’ work without any of yer’…supplies?” he asked before leaving.
I chuckled to myself. “Oh yeah, sorry. I forgot to mention all my equipment is in the trunk of my car.”
He gave an unsettling glare and held out his hand. “Yer’ car keys, please.”
I returned him an unassured look, but quickly handed them over when I saw his glare tighten.
“I will return yer’ keys once I have acquired everything that ya’ll need from yer’ car. The reverend informed me that ya’ will not have to conduct any work until tomorrow so please enjoy the rest of yer’ evening. I will move yer’ supplies into the office downstairs. Ya’ can find the office after heading through the door on left; it’s on the way to the dining area. We’ll see ya’ at dinner,” he said, shutting the door behind him.
With that, I was left alone once again. The quietness of my room left me with a dull numbing sense. For a second, I was lost in its trance until the moan of the building from the wind awakened me. Once out of it, I turned my attention back to my room. Clearly it must’ve been recently refurbished. I ran my fingers along the surface of the desk. Just from sight alone, I could tell its history dated back with the building. Even so, it felt like it truly belonged despite its age. I made my way over to the window, looking below. I could see my car, but no sight of the man.
I shrugged it off. He could take as long as he wanted as long as he didn’t break anything, I thought. I smirked at this and returned my attention back inside. My eyes fell on the bookshelf. Although it was empty, several imprints from books could be seen in between the dust. The size of the imprints indicated they must have been fairly large books. Near the edge of the shelf, I could see dragging marks as if someone had removed all the books, maybe in anger or perhaps in a hurry.
that was probably done on purpose. I couldn’t blame them. These people here seemed like the secretive-type. They probably didn’t want me looking through any of their texts. My eyes floated over to the bed, it looked very tempting. I wanted to crash on it, but I knew I had to call my boss first. I promised him that I would inform him of any updates. Even though I hadn’t started yet, I could at least inform him that had I arrived on time.
I pulled out my phone and checked the signal bar strength; it was hovering between one bar and none. This wasn’t a surprise considering where I was. I played around with its positioning, first raising it higher and then side-to-side. I had no luck though. I even tried holding it closer to the window, but still was unsuccessful.
It was possible that it was just the room blocking the signal. So, I made my way out into the hallway keeping my phone stretched out. With my eyes fixated on it, I moved around the hallway aimlessly still changing its position. Eventually, I realized how pointless it was. I decided to see if I had better luck outside.
I went downstairs and into the lobby checking my phone along the way. Feeling the frustration build up, I aimlessly swung it around threatening to just toss the useless junk. Without warning, I was thrown off by a loud scream.
Following it came a voice that yelled out: “Hey, watch it!”
I was stunned, almost jumping out of my skin. The voice belonged to a young woman… a quite attractive one to say the least. Her green eyes flared at me in anger. She had auburn hair that curled her face and over her eyes. She wore what appeared to be a black and green Victorian-styled dress. The most eye-catching part about her was that she was pregnant. She had to be at least eight months by how much her stomach extended through her gown.
“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t m-mean to,” I stammered quickly. “I was trying to find a signal and I was getting…”
Her glare softened and a smile formed. She eventually let out a light giggle at my attempt to explain myself. “Okay, okay. It’s fine, you’re forgiven already,” she said. Her voice? She had a British accent. I wasn’t sure why considering everyone seemed to have a country one. “You must be the technician I’ve been hearing about?”
“Uh yeah,” I said blushing. “You’ve been hearing about me?”
“Well of course,” she replied. “They’ve been talking about you for weeks. Reverend Gary is especially excited. I’m Victoria Ruin,” she said, holding out her hand for me to shake. I couldn’t stop my blushing even when my hand met hers. It was smooth and felt frail to the touch. “Well aren’t you going to tell me your name?” she asked.
“Oh y-yes, of course,” I stammered again. “It’s Marcus. Marcus Pale.”
“Well Marcus Pale, it is a pleasure to meet you. I’ll have you know that cellular reception is very poor out in these woods. You can, however, use our telephone; it uses a landline connection and shouldn’t give you any issues at all. I can take you to it, if you like?”
“Yeah sure, I’d appreciate it,” I replied, finally collecting myself.
She began making her way to the hallway beckoning me to follow with one hand. I caught sight of a large silver ring on her ring finger. I guess she was married, of course she was. A woman that beautiful ought to be married, I thought to myself.
She led me through the door on the left where I originally saw the man retrieve the keys. It led to a long hallway similar to the one up stairs. This hallway was narrower, housing fewer doors all shut tight.
“So tell me, Marcus,” she began, “Where are from?”
“From Arlington,” I answered.
“And where is that?” she asked, snickering.
“Er- sorry, it’s northern Virginia,” I answered, blushing.
“That’s quite alright,” she said, giggling. “I’ve never been up north before. You’re lucky to be able to travel around. All my life, I’ve been here, stuck here, that is. I’ve always wanted to venture out, but…”
“But what?” I asked.
“No, it’s nothing,” she said, biting her lip. She came to a door on the left and opened it. “Here we are. You can use this phone,” she pointed inside.
I thanked her and entered. The room was tiny, just an upgrade from being considered a pantry. inside was a small wooden table cramped to back with an old phone. A single door sat to the side a small window. A collection of bread coated the air, making the cramp setting feel even more stuffy. I quickly dialed up my boss and informed him of the situation. He was glad to hear that I arrived alright and went into a speech about ensuring that I represented the company in the best manner possible. Afterwards, he told me to keep up the good work and to call him tomorrow.
After hanging up, I was surprised to find Victoria still waiting for me in the hallway.
“You didn’t have to wait for me,” I told her.
She smiled. “Well honestly, I have nothing better to do. I’ve been cooped up in my room for the longest time because of this bloody baby.”
“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t think of any response to this.
“You don’t talk much do you?” she asked, still smiling.
I shrugged sheepishly. “What can I say, I’m a quiet guy.”
“Well, it’s a change for sure. You’re different from all the men around here. All they do is talk and lecture. They expect all the woman to just listen. It’s quite maddening at times. Are all men of the north like you?”
I blushed at this. “Are you the only the woman here?” I asked, attempting to change the subject.
She scoffed. “Of course not, I don’t know what I do if I was. There are two others: my Aunt Margret and Cousin Sophia; you’ll meet them later at dinner. You are coming, of course?”
Her emerald eyes gleamed into my own. I could feel my heart rate slowly increase; my face must’ve been bright red from blushing. “Y-yeah, of course I will.”
Her smile widened. “I’ve been bored for the past few days; you want to go on a little adventure?”
“Adventure?” I repeated.
“Yes, I could give you a tour of the place? I’m sure you wondering where everything is at.”
I really hadn’t thought about the place as a whole. The only place that vaguely interested me was the room behind the double-doors, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking her. “Sure, why not,” I answered.
“Good,” she said, wrapping her arm around mine. “Where do you want to go first?”
Her perfume engulfed me, smelling of sweet berries and honey, a smell that was a perfect for her. “You want me to decide?”
“Yes of course, I don’t want to bore you, showing you every nook and cranny,” she answered. I could tell she was reading my face because she added, “Come on, I know there’s a place you’re dying to explore.”
“Well…” I started.
“Yes? Just spill it already,” she shot.
“I did kind of want to see what was behind those doors in the lobby,” I replied, rubbing my neck in shame.
“Doors? You mean the Congregation room?”
“If we can’t, I understand,” I quickly added.
“Nonsense, let’s go,” she said, yanking my arm, pulling me until we reached the lobby again.
“Victoria?” I asked as she made her way to the doors.
“That symbol on the doors? What is it?” I asked.
She glanced over to the doors. “That is the symbol of our religion. Well their religion anyway. I’ve grown tired of all their prayers and their sermons; it’s all rubbish really.”
“Rubbish? If you don’t care for it then why are you here?” I questioned.
“No, you’re right, I don’t. I never was into it. Ever since I was a little girl, my father forced me to be a part of it. All I have ever known has been Herb Peach County, well apart from brief stay in the UK. I’m sure you can tell I don’t exactly sound like I’m from around here.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” I said rubbing my neck.
“You have my aunt to thank for that. Anyways, I’ve grown really tired of all it. Like I said earlier, I want to venture out and see the rest of the world. At least, my home country – I can’t even remember it anymore.”
“So you’re aunt brought here? What about your mother? What did she have to say about all this?”
She chuckled softly to herself. “I have no memory of my mother. My father told me she died after I was conceived. I was mainly raised by aunt.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I replied softly. “I know the feeling. My mother died when I was young too.”
We went quiet for a minute.
“Why don’t you just leave?” I suggested, breaking the silence. “You’re not a little girl anymore. You don’t have to stay here now.”
She smiled. “If only it were that simple, Marcus. I would love to leave, but some things are not that simple,” she said, looking down, rubbing her belly.
“Oh…” I started. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” I felt like a complete idiot. My talent of making awkward moments worse was starting to emerge. I was bad at this kind of thing and even worse and at comforting someone. It was mainly the reason why I remained quiet.
“Come on. Let’s not ruin your tour with my story,” she interrupted, making her way over to the door.
“Yeah,” I said still feeling guilty. Without even thinking, I asked, “How do we even get in? It’s locked, right?”
A smile returned to her face. She turned to me giving off a jokingly-suspicious expression. “How did you know it was locked?”
I shrugged pathetically, giving off a sheepish grin. “I don’t know, aren’t most of the doors in this place locked?” It was a poor excuse, I knew it.
“Uh-huh. You’re more audacious than you make yourself, Marcus Pale,” she said, placing her ring into the small indent. She twisted her wrist to the right which prompted a soft click.
“Your ring is a key?” I asked in astonishment.
“What, does the north not have keys like these?” she teased, pulling open one of the doors. “Come on.”
I followed her behind the door. Inside, the room was huge. The sweet aroma from the lobby seemed to fall flat, sucking out when the door shut. Instead, the singe of smoke and ash filled the air. The lighting was very poor. What little light was present came from the cracks of the doors behind us. The room had long hues for seating lined in rows.
The rows made their way to the back of the room where they stopped in front of an altar. From there, a small set of stairs ran up to a large podium – behind it was a flat table on the altar. The table itself was covered in a white cloth. Near the walls stood tall columns of rigged rock as if crudely carved, connecting to the ceiling. In between them stood small marble pillars, each housing a brass bowl.
What was this place? I must have spoken the question out-loud because Victoria answered me, “It’s the Congregation room, silly.”
“Was something burning in here?” I asked her.
“Yes, it’s from the candles; it’s what we use during our services due to the poor lighting,” she answered.
“Why not just install lights?” I brought up.
“Well candles are also an important part of our service,” she said, almost as if I was supposed to know this already.
I dismissed it though and went further in. I climbed up the stairs of the altar, noticing a figure standing behind the podium. It was hard to make out in the shadows. If it wasn’t for the strands of light behind us, I wouldn’t have even noticed it. I took out my phone and held it up to the figure using its back light.
What I saw almost caused me tumble down the stairs. In front of me, I saw a tall white statue depicting a strange figure well over my height. Its upper body was of a very fit man, bearing a strong chest and arms. The arms of the statue hung low sweeping near its ankles. It only had three fingers. The legs appeared inverted, its knees caving inward like a goat’s legs. Even more disturbing was the head of the statue; it was a hard sight to bear.
The head looked to be a sick cross-breed between a dog and a man. It wasn’t like the typical depictions seen like in Egypt. No, this head was like a dog and a man’s simultaneously. It had a long narrow snout that seemed to morph into the mouth of a man. Other parts of its face appeared human-like while in others, indescribable.
The eyes were small and beady staring firmly off into the distance. It held a third eye larger in comparison to the other two in the middle of its forehead. Long wild hair ran down its face ending at its shoulders with horns protruding from its back. The statue as a whole stood in a confident pose as if knowing its presence was significant.
“Victoria…?” I felt my voice squeak. I could fell an eerie chill fall down my spine, unable tear my eyes from the horrid view. “W-what the hell is that?” I stammered.
Walking to me, her eyes carried over to the figure. She seemed unfazed and calmly stated, “That is our god, Lanius, the White Eye of Time.”
“What’s wrong, Marcus?” Victoria asked. You look absolutely pale, are you frightened?”
The light from the cellphone I had dropped reflected back into my face. Even with its light in my eyes, I could still make out the horrid figure looming before me.
“D-did you say… your god?” I stammered. “You worship that thing?” I asked, still unable to peel my eyes from it.
I took a few steps back, losing my balance in the process. Instantly, I fell back, slamming into the seating hues behind me. A sharp pain erupted from my back as I could feel the rush of air painfully forced its way out of my mouth. I guess it was true that the wind could literally be knocked out of you. I remained still, feeling the pain surge from my back.
“Marcus, are you alright?!” Victoria asked, rushing to my side. “Are you hurt?”
Instantly, there was a loud slam from a door behind us flooding the room with bright light.
“What in the hell is goin’ on in here?!” an angry voice yelled out.
Victoria popped up. “Nothing, we were doing a little touring when Marcus had a tumble,” she said, addressing the voice.
“Marcus?” the voice responded in surprise. “Ya’ brought an outsider into our area of worship?!”
I could hear the voice’s footsteps moving at high pace until they halted next to me. My eyes hadn’t completely adjusted to the light yet so all I could see was a partially lit figure, a man at least. It didn’t matter who it was though, they sounded angry regardless. This might have be the moment I was going to be sent home.
“He fell. I’m not sure if he’s injured himself or not,” Victoria continued.
The man sighed. “He does look pretty banged up. Hey, can ya’u at least move?” he asked, looking down at me.
I hadn’t tried yet, but I attempted to move my arms and then my legs. Despite the lingering pain from my back, nothing appeared to be broken.
“I think I’ll be alright,” I replied weakly. I slowly began to stand, feeling the man help me up.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Marcus?” Victoria asked again.
“He’ll be alright,” the man said, helping me towards the light of the door.
When my eyes eventually adjusted, I could finally make out his face; it was Terrance. After reaching the exit, he shut the door to the room behind us. It felt good to be out of there and back in the coolness of the lobby. Apparently, I had been sweating because I could see the large spots across my chest.
“Now, look here. I know yer’ our guest and all, but I’m gonna need ya’ to end yer little exploring’ ,” he said to me before turning his attention over to Victoria. “As for ya’ , ya’ outta know better. Matter fact, ya’ should be restin’. We’re lucky that didn’t happen to ya’ now with that baby. No more explorin’, else things like this happen,” he said sharply. It felt like we were both being scolded as if we were his children. “Just remember yer’ here for a job,” he said, returning to me. “So if ya’ just stick to that, ya’ll be fine. Now ya’ best go and wash up, dinner we’ll be ready soon. Bathroom is at the end of the hall on the left. Just make sure ya’ knock before ya’ enter. Go on now.”
I nodded weakly, catching Victoria’s apologetic eyes as I turned to leave. I wasn’t mad at her for what had happened. How could I be? It was my own fault for clumsily falling like I did. I made my way back upstairs and cleaned up. By the time I finished, the time was 6:03 PM. I knew Terrance had told me not to be late, but I didn’t want to be the first one to show up either.
I had cut it too close and hastily made my way back down, heading through the door on the left in the lobby. Coursing through the hallway, I caught the hint of food in the air. The smell gradually increased the closer I drew to the end. By the time I had reached the end, my stomach was beginning to growl in protest, even my mouth began to water.
I approached a pair of double-doors and could see light coming out through its cracks. Behind them, I could make out murmuring of voices. This was it, I thought. I took a deep breath and pushed open the doors.
The dining room on the other side was big, like fancy big. The vibe I felt reminded me of the formality back in the old days, early 1900s maybe. Several antique cabinets stood up against the walls. They had glass doors with the insides filled with priceless looking treasures. Portraits ran along the walls portraying the faces of people, possibly ancestors of the sort, their eyes firmly staring forward as if a silent audience to the event.
In the center of the room, a large table sat filled bountifully of plates with mountains of food and drinks. The other residents of this church could be seen standing around the table chatting amongst themselves. However, their chatting ceased when the doors shut behind me. They all gazed at me silently. All I could feel at that moment was utter awkwardness, not to mention my nervous meter was through the roof.
Finally, one of the women spoke out to me: “Ah, you must be Marcus. Welcome, my dear.”
She had a British accent like Victoria’s and quickly assumed this had to be her aunt. She was most likely in her mid-forties with a face lightly stained in wrinkles. She had dark hair tied neatly in a bun and wore a dress similar to Victoria’s, but with more red in it.
“I’m Margret. Pleased to meet you,” she said, walking up to me.
After shaking my hand, she guided me over to the others around the table. There were four others: one was a woman she introduced to be Sophia, apparently the cousin, Victoria had mentioned. I was surprised to hear she didn’t exhibit the same accent as either of the two, instead having the same country one as the reverend. She was much younger than Margret and probably a few years older than me. The next person was Terrance, who I had already met. From him was another man about the same age as him named Jessie. Lastly, she showed me Victoria. I couldn’t hold back my smile when I saw her; she returned one as well. Margret caught sight of this.
“I take it you’ve already met my niece,” she stated with teasing smile.
“Well…” I started, beginning to blush.
“Yes,” Victoria spoke. “I was showing Marcus around earlier, trying to get him familiar with everything for when he starts his work.”
“Oh I see,” Margret replied. “Well come now dear, you sit over here.”
She led me to an empty chair near the end of the table next to her. Everyone else made their way behind their respective chairs too. Victoria stood behind the chair across from my own. I was ready to pull out the chair and sit when I caught sight of her eyes beckoning not to do so. I quickly corrected myself realizing that everyone was still standing as well.
“When the reverend arrives, we can begin eating soon,” Margaret said. “Please excuse him, he can run a little late sometimes.”
I chuckled a little to myself thinking on Terrance’s words from before. However, it wasn’t long until everyone’s attention turned to the door opposite the end of the table. I hadn’t realized it was there. I was curious to where it led, possibly to the reverend’s quarters?
The door opened and the reverend came walking through. He still had his hobbled walk from earlier, his face still pressed with the same toothy grin. When he came through, everyone spoke in unison: “Evening, Reverend!”
His smile grew wider at which he replied, “Evenin’, everyone.”
He pulled out his chair and sat down, gesturing everyone to join him. We all followed suit. The food before us was truly a sight. There was many dishes flooded gracefully with food: rice dishes, freshly looking vegetables like corn and baked potatoes, sliced breads and even three roasted meats.
A large silver plate sat before everyone along with rows of forks and knives around it. I noticed the many wine bottles spaced along the table. The food looked simply amazing, and I couldn’t wait to eat, but was hesitant to make a move unsure of their manner of etiquette. I decided to follow any and all actions of Victoria. It was probably the reason why she sat across from me.
“Let us bow our heads for prayer,” the reverend announced.
My eyes shifted over to Victoria. She bowed her head with one eye open, pressing a finger to her lips while looking at me. Then she placed her hands together. I nodded and did so too. From then, the air was silent. I wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed, but it felt long, at least five minutes. I opened one eye to check to see if everyone was still praying.
Everyone including the reverend still had their eyes shut. I could see all of them mouthing something silently to themselves. Margaret I could see was holding tightly to a charm from her necklace up to her forehead. I could only make out partial amounts of it, but I was sure it was the same emblem as the Congregation room.
I also noticed that everyone had a similar ring like Victoria all on their ring finger. The rings each withheld the same emblem engraved within it. This made sense since apparently they were keys to the room itself. I noticed Terrance didn’t have a ring on his finger; instead, I saw it hanging from a necklace. When I looked at the Reverend I saw that he had two rings: one was the same as the others, but the second one was different. I could tell the symbol wasn’t the same, but the way his hands were positioned made it so I couldn’t distinctly make it out.
“Amen,” the reverend finally spoke out.
On command, everyone’s eyes opened.
“Let’s us eat now,” he said, raising his hands out.
Everyone began grabbing at a bowl or a plate, passing it around, filling their plate at their leisure. I was glad it was finally time to eat. I don’t think my stomach could have taken another minute. I could feel my mouth watering even more, but I sat patiently, occasionally glancing over to Victoria for guidance.
“So Marcus,” the reverend spoke out, “Terrance told me ya’ had quite a tumble today?”
Hearing his voice gave me a little jolt, snapping me out of whatever hunger trance I was in. “Uh. Yes, sir,” I managed to say.
“Oh dear, are you alright?” Margaret asked. “You didn’t hurt yourself too bad, did you now?”
“No, I’m fine,” I answered. “A little sore, but I’ll be alright.”
“That’s good to hear,” Sophia added. “Where was this? Wouldn’t want anyone else to do the same now.”
I swallowed a little, not wanting to explain I had been somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Somehow, my eyes guided over to where Terrance sat. The glare from them felt unsettling as if his look alone was punishing me.
“He was in the Congregation room,” he said sternly without removing his gaze upon me.
“Say what now?” Jessie replied, joining in. “How did he manage to get in there?”
“He was helped by Victoria,” Terrance answered without hesitation.
The way he said it though, it felt like he was dying to get it off his chest. It was like he was reporting a crime or something, expecting a reward. My eyes fell to my plate unable to meet anyone else’s. I was unsure what would happen next at this point.
“Oh dear,” Margaret said softly. “Did you not have a candle on you, Hun?” she asked.
I quickly looked up, surprised at her response.
“Victoria,” she continued, “you took him in there with no proper lighting? It’s no wonder he banged himself up.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here I thought I was going to hear a mouthful about invading their sanctuary and instead they brushed it off like it was nothing. I glanced over at Terrance, who appeared to be just as surprised by this reaction. Instead, he grumpily turned his attention to his plate unable to look at me in defeat. I looked over at the reverend and he too seemed unfazed still smiling.
“No, I wasn’t thinking when I did,” Victoria answered. “However, we were doing fine without a candle. It was more from the statue that startled Marcus.”
Margaret and others laughed at this. “Oh, I was dreadfully frightened too when I first saw that thing as a child,” she replied. “It is quite a sight at first, Marcus, but I assure when you learn about Lanius… you grow to truly understand him and what he is.”
I swallowed a little more at this. “And what is he?” I asked, leaning in a bit.
“Now Margaret,” the reverend interrupted, chuckling a bit. “We didn’t bring the young man all the way up here to teach him a sermon. Give the young man a chance to eat.”
“Oh, of course,” Margaret replied with a giggle. “Eat up Marcus, we don’t waste anything around here,” she said, passing a bowl of potatoes.
I felt my stomach growl again at the sight of them. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about my hunger. I thanked her and added it to my plate. I glanced over at Victoria, who gave me a slight nod of approval. I smiled and began receiving the other dishes being passed around.
The rest of the meal went by smoothly. There was chatter amongst everyone; I listened as they went on about their everyday occurrences. It was funny to hear them bicker at each other a few times too. Occasionally, one of them would ask me a question or two about where I was from or what I did. By then though, I didn’t feel nervous anymore.
After dinner, the reverend dismissed everyone. On the way to my room, Victoria caught up with me.
“Marcus?” she called out. “I just wanted to apologize.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For how Terrance acted in there.”
I chuckled. “It’s fine. I was just happy everyone else didn’t feel the same way.”
“Yes well, Terrance has always been that way. I’m just sorry he tried to call you out like that,” she replied.
“I’m fine,” I said, blushing a little, trying to brush it off. “He did the same to you too,” I joked.
We headed back upstairs, stopping when we arrived at my door.
“Well good night, Marcus. Today was truly a pleasure.”
“Good night,” I replied.
I watched her continue down the hallway, stopping a door on the left three away. She glanced my way when she saw that I was staring. Immediately, I snapped my head towards my door, unlocking it, and closing it behind me. Inside, I smiled to myself.
I quickly got dressed down into some shorts and a tee and sat on my bed. I decided to look for any new messages on my phone. The screen lit up revealing a surprising “no signal” message. Of course, I thought sarcastically, how I could forget? This place was a damn dead zone. I fell back, lying completely on the bed. Before I knew it, I was out.
I awoke suddenly, blinded by light. Apparently, I had forgotten to turn off the lamp on the desk. The last thing I needed was them to complain about wasting their electricity. I slumped over to my feet to turn it off. After doing so, I caught sight of something outside. Below, I could make out my car in the moonlight. I could see that a clump of leaves had been blown over a lot of its roof. However, that’s not what caught my attention. I could see a figure standing next to my car. Even with the moonlight, I still could not make out who it was. It did appear as if the figure was trying to enter into my car.
I tried to focus my eyes better, but it still didn’t help. I wanted to blame it on my tiredness but my mind instantly thought about Terrance. Perhaps that jerk was still sore about dinner. He could’ve been trying to sabotage my car or something. I ran for my door, ripping it open and racing down the hall to the stairs.
When I reached the lobby, I stopped. The entire lobby was dark. In the air, I could smell a hint of something burning like candles. I noticed a thin line of light coming from the Congregation room’s double-doors. Completely forgetting about my car, I made my way to the doors. I could hear the slight murmur of voices from inside the closer I got.
I pressed my ear up against the door to get a better listen, but I still couldn’t make out what the voices were saying. I could hear one voice speak out-loud. When it did, the other voices would speak in unison in the same rhythm. It was clear that they were repeating the message of the lead one. The tone and manner they spoke sent a chill down my spine. It was clear this was the church conducting their worship upon whatever that horrid image was I had seen earlier. I didn’t understand how they could worship such a thing, but then I didn’t know how any religion could worship anything as they did.
I decided to let them be and made my way back upstairs. They didn’t seem like bad people so how could I judge them based on what their belief; Victoria was a prime example of someone good from it. When I entered my room, I glanced out the window one last time expecting to still see something below. However, nothing was there. I shrugged it off; it was possible that there never was. I slipped back into my bed and fell asleep again.
The next day, I was awoken by knocking at my door. I was surprised to find Terrance on the other side. He apparently was ready for me to begin my work as soon as possible. When I checked my phone, the time read: 6:30 AM. This was a real dick move by him. I didn’t even wake up this early for my job back at home. Reluctantly, I bit my tongue and told him I would be ready in ten minutes.
After getting ready, he led me to the room where he had placed all of my equipment. The room had several old computers inside, like late 90s old. I hoped they didn’t expect the best performance on these dinosaurs. Nonetheless, I had a job to do. I immediately began setting up my equipment. I was even lucky to have company the whole time, Terrance saw to that. Seriously, what was this guy’s problem? Eventually though, the time went by and even he got bored and left me. I was too happy when this happened.
The day went by fairly quick once I really got into my work. Of course, when the meal times came around I attended them. A few times out the day, Victoria came by to check on me. She would force me to take a break by walking around with her, which I didn’t mind at all. Days continued to pass as I worked, each one becoming more routine.
Throughout these days, I found myself spending more time with Victoria. I always looked forward to those break times I had with her. We would walk around just talking and laughing, most of the time we did so outside. I never thought I would meet someone like her in a place like this. It made each day more doable. It was almost like our friendship was becoming more. I didn’t mind if it didn’t, but if it did, that was even better.
There was something that bothered me though. Every time we were together, it felt as if someone or something was watching us. I couldn’t shake the feeling, even when I looked around, only to find nothing. I wanted to think nothing of it until one particular evening. After dinner, I came back to my room to find that someone had gone through my stuff. I hadn’t transported any of my clothes from my bags to the dresser, feeling too lazy to do so. One of my bags had a Velcro strap to accompany the zipper for reinforcement. I knew I always kept the Velcro fastened, I was rather OCD about it. However, the Velcro was clearly unfastened and hanging loose.
The first thought that ran through my mind was Terrance’s doing, but I had no proof. It was possible that I was just looking for someone to blame. I never did confirm who it was by my car, if there really was someone. So I couldn’t prove if that had been Terrance at all. I decided to look through the bag to be sure nothing was missing. I went through to find that everything appeared be there. I could tell my things were moved around a bit, but other than that, nothing. Clearly whatever the culprit was looking for, they didn’t find it.
I couldn’t lie. I was angry that someone had gone through my things. Was it really Terrance’s doing? Did he really have something against that much that he do all of this? Maybe I should confront him, I thought. No, the last thing I wanted to do was start accusing people, which never looked good. I decided to let it slide, just this once. I got into shorts and collapsed onto the bed. When I did so, I felt my head his something hard. I felt around the pillow and instead of the usual fluffiness I felt a hard texture.
Someone had stuffed something. I reached inside and pulled out the object. It was a thick, old leathery book. I brought it over to the lamp on the desk to see it better. The cover looked hand-stitched to the spine. In the light, I could see a symbol engraved across in gold. It was the same one I had been seeing everywhere. My hands began to tremble at the sight of this. How did the book get there? Who put it there and why?
I was hesitant, but I slowly opened it; it gave off a peculiar scent, smelling of wet leaves and old tree bark. The pages were old and rather fragile. They were filled with text written in black ink. I couldn’t comprehend the words. They were written in some strange language. It didn’t even look like a language that should’ve existed. I continued to turn the pages though, seeing the text flood each one. A few pages in, I came across a picture. It was hand drawn with limited details.
The picture depicted what looked to be a star. Around the star stood several figures looking like people, one appearing slightly bigger than the others. I turned the page to find more text. I continued turning until finally, I came across another picture. This one showed one of the human-like figures standing on what looked like a pedestal. The other human-like beings stood around the main one.
Again, I flipped until I came across the next picture. This picture showed the star from before. It looked bigger but with squiggly marks shooting away from it. The human-like beings appeared to be cowering in fear kneeling down at the star, even the big one from before.
The picture after, depicted the human-like beings falling from the sky, their faces drawn in fear. The one I turned to after, showed them drawn in a dark place, their faces twisted in despair. It then showed the human-like figures begin to change into hideous deformed-like creatures. They had teeth and horns protruding out different parts of their bodies. The biggest one, looked even worse than the rest with eyes drawn angrily with sparks coming from its fang-filled mouth.
Despite appearing like the drawing of eighth grader, the images were really disturbing. Something about them made the hairs on my neck rise. I wanted to stop, but my hands kept turning the pages despite my mind’s wishes. The next one showed one of the hideous beings stray from the others, it was smaller compared to them. The creature came across a man in the next one. It appeared to reveal a swirl-looking symbol to the man. The man appeared to walk through the swirl. When he did, the creature followed. A small child stood in front of the man in the next one; it was weird, but the two looked similar somehow.
The creature appeared to possess the child’s body, when it did, the man fell to the ground, presumably dead. Now in the child’s body, the child grew up. As it did, it showed the creature leave the man’s body, depicting it underground, possibly sleeping. The man was seen surrounded by many people with others joining. Eventually like before, it showed the creature awaken next to the man showing him another swirl. Again, the man walked through the swirl with the creature following, appearing in front of a child. Once again, it possessed the child and the man died.
The images repeated. Each time as they did, I noticed the creature’s size growing bigger. Finally, I skipped further into the book to see where they led. The images revealed something different this time. Now, it showed the man with a woman, the creature standing behind her. When I flipped where the next image would appear, I found its page stuck tightly together to another. I tried to part them, but a tear began to form threatening to ruin both pages altogether. I decided to skip it and move on to the next image. My heart dropped, when I did.
This time the image showed the woman pregnant among the group of people from before. The images later went to show the woman in labor giving birth. The man appeared to have delivered the baby. However, it looked like no ordinary child. It was depicted to have large black eyes with long teeth. Horns poked out in many directions of the child with its legs and arms disproportionate to each other. The man was holding the child in the air, almost like he was glorifying it.
At that moment, I couldn’t take anymore and slammed the book shut. I tossed it to the other side of the room. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, my arms and face sweaty. I shook my head in disbelief. There was no way, I thought. What the hell was all of that even about?
After seeing those images, I couldn’t sleep for most of the night. All I could see was the horrid inked images of that creature. When I thought of that woman depicted to being pregnant, I couldn’t help but think of Victoria. There was no way it could have been her, could it? A lot of women can be pregnant. It was just a coincidence, it had to be.
The next day, I worked sluggishly from the lack of sleep. At breakfast, I made no eye-contact with Victoria nor did I talk to anyone else. If they asked, I simply blamed it on a headache or tiredness. While working, I pleaded to myself, hoping Victoria would not come by as she usually did. Yet despite my internal pleads, she came.
“Marcus, are you feeling any better?” she asked, entering the room.
I didn’t respond; I didn’t even look up.
“Marcus?” she said. “Are you alright?”
My silence caused her to press on.
“What’s wrong? Why are you ignoring me?” she asked, I could hear a hint of annoyance in her voice.
Still I gave her no answer. What could I say? All I could think about was…
“Fine!” she yelled, and proceeded to leave the room.
“That child?” I asked her without looking up.
I could hear footsteps come to a halt.
“What?” she asked, confused.
“Who’s the father of your child?” I rephrased.
“Wh- Is that what this is all about?” she asked.
I stood up finally facing her. It was direct, but I had to know. My face along with my silence must’ve said it all for her. I could see the look of confusion in her eyes.
“Why does it matter?” she asked, harshly.
“I need to know,” I stated firmly. I wanted it to be from her boyfriend or even her deadbeat husband, any of these were better than what I was thinking. Yet, the entire time I had been here, I not seen him nor had there been any mention of him.
She just stared at me, with her mouth open as if trying to find the words to speak. Tears formed in her eyes. They were gazing at me angrily and with sadness simultaneously. She shook her head softly never taking her eyes from mine. Finally, she spoke, “You stay away from me, Marcus. Never come near me or speak to me again or I will have you sent home.”
She stormed out leaving me dumbfounded. My plan had back-fired. I wanted to call out to her, to stop her and apologize, but again I was at a loss for words. Like an idiot, I just stood there and let my head fall down in grief.
As the day continued on, Victoria never returned to see me while I worked. At mealtime, she never made eye-contact with me either, keeping her eyes focused on her plate. I felt horrible for what I did. I had no right to put her on the spot like that. I cursed at myself.
After dinner, I attempted to talk her as she was leaving for her room. She ignored me though when I did. I don’t know why I thought knocking on her door would be any better. All I received upon it opening was having it immediately slammed in my face. I sighed, truly feeling utter regret and made my way back to my room.
When I did, I sat on my bed, staring off into space. I wished I had never found that damn book, then everything between her and I would have been normal. I missed seeing her already: her smile, hearing her laugh, just being around her. I let my hand slide to my pillow to check for the book only to find it missing. Stunned, I poured out the pillow’s contents finding only feathers and cotton. I was sure I had put it back after I left each time. Was somebody messing with me?
I angrily began searching for the book: I checked my suitcases, tossing clothes around as I did. I checked the dressers, under the bed and even behind the desk. Where was it? My eyes met the window when I came from under the desk. When I looked down, I saw the same figure from all those days before, standing next to my car. This time it appeared be looking up at me.
Anger filled me. I assumed it was Terrance again. This was a bad time for him to be messing with me. I raced out of my room and downstairs. I ran around to the side of the building to where my car was. The moonlight was stronger than ever, illuminating my way as I did. When I reached my car, no one was in sight.
I had finally reached my boiling point. “You picked the wrong day to fuck with me!” I yelled out. “Come on out, now! If not, leave me the hell alone!”
My voice echoed into the air, before dying in the wind. The building gave off one of its unsettling moans. The leaves from the trees in the distance shook, rattling against their branches in the wind. There was no one out here. Feeling my mind grow at ease and realizing how much of a fool I looked, I started to make my way back.
However, my nerves froze when I heard the snapping of a twig behind me. My heart began beating fast. I slowly turned around to see a figure gradually rising from behind my car. The figure was wearing a cloak with a hood over its head. In the light, I could see pieces of twigs and leaves sticking out of its cloak.
I opened my mouth to scream, but the figure quickly darted over to me, covering my mouth with its hand. It shushed me softly. The voice was clearly of a woman’s. She slowly removed her hand from my mouth and made her way to the back of the building. Before disappearing behind it, she gestured me to follow her.
I didn’t want to, but my legs began to move on their own in her direction. When I reached the other side, I saw her remove the hood from her head. The moonlight lit her face. She was an elderly looking woman possibly in her early fifties. She had ragged black hair mixed with gray strands that ran untamed. Her face was pressed with wrinkles with dry patches of dirt. The scent from her was rank, but familiar; it smelled like wet leaves and old tree bark?
“Did you see it?” she whispered, her voice was crackly and rasp. “You saw it in the book, right? You have to help me. You have to help me save my daughter.”
“Who the hell are you?” I asked, backing up from the woman.
“Please,” she begged, grabbing at my arm.
The smell from her was more unbearable up close. “Get off me, you old hag!” I yelled, pulling myself free.
She shushed me loudly. Her eyes appeared wide, scanning the area with paranoia. “You want them to hear?”
“Who will hear? What are you talking about?” I asked harshly. It had only been a few minutes with her and I was already beginning to become irritated.
“Them!” she hissed. I could see the whites of her eyes gleam in the moonlight at her weak attempt to scare me.
I shook my head unmoved. “I don’t have time for this. I’m really tired and I’ve got to get up early. Honestly, I don’t care what you do out here, but just stay away from my car. I don’t want to catch you near it again or else I’ll report you.”
“No, please don’t,” she begged, ready to grab at me again.
However, I was able to avoid her clawing hands this time.
“Fine,” I shot back. “Just don’t touch me again. I’m leaving now.”
As I turned to leave, I could see the woman’s head sulk to the ground. Normally, this would have been the part where I felt sorry, but right now I didn’t care. I was too tired with my mind overwhelmed with the events that had transpired throughout the day. Besides, she was clearly deranged in the head, possibly homeless, or maybe one of those people who lived off the land.
I started to walk away when it hit me. I thought about what she had said earlier. I looked back to still see her eyeing the ground, almost appearing in a trance. I was reluctant to go back, but I had to know.
“What did you mean your daughter? And how did you know about the book?” I asked, approaching her.
Without looking up, she answered, “My daughter, I need your help to save her.”
“Your daughter? Who’s your daughter?”
“You already know of her, why do you ask me?” she replied, looking up at me. Her eyes relayed a look of solemn.
“I need to hear it from you,” I said. I was sure I knew the answer as she mentioned, but something inside me wanted to hear those words come from her. I wanted to be absolutely sure. “Say her name.”
“Why it’s Victoria, of course,” she said softly.
I shook my head in disbelief. “But how? You’re her mother but…You’re supposed to be…. She said you died when she was just a child.”
“Is that what she was told you?” she scoffed. “It would be like Gary to tell her such a lie.”
“Yes,” she said stiffly. “He took her from me. When I didn’t want to submit to his religion, he banished me.”
This couldn’t be possibly. Victoria’s mother was dead, right? But how would I know otherwise? I did notice, when I listened closely, I could hear her accent hidden behind her raspy voice.
“Wait, this man you’re talking about,” I started. It couldn’t have been the same person. “Do you mean the reverend?”
She didn’t answer me immediately. Instead, her eyes wandered off into the trees beyond, but eventually her head gave a soft nod.
I sighed. “Look, you said to help your daughter and that the reverend ‘took’ her. Why didn’t you just go to the police or something?”
She chuckled to herself lightly, returning her eyes to mine. “You don’t know these people.”
“I don’t know anything because you’re not telling me everything,” I replied harshly. My impatience had elevated to annoyance.
“All you need to know is that the people you think you know, are liars. The reverend is the worst of them all. They need my daughter; they made her a part of their revolting ritual. I should have never brought her here. I was so weak-minded back then. Damn them,” she spat bitterly. “I didn’t know what to do, but then, then I saw you arrive. At first, I was unsure what to think of you. Yet, while watching you with Victoria, I knew it would be you who would help me, to do what I couldn’t and take her away from all of this.”
It all started to come together. All those times, it felt like something or someone was watching me had been her. Yet, I was still confused. She hadn’t really answered my question and only contributed to the pile of others.
“That’s a lot to believe, especially about the others. They don’t act the way you make them out to be. Besides, what ritual are you talking about?” I asked.
“You’re very fond of her, aren’t you?” she asked ignoring my question. “Of Victoria?”
“What?” I blurted out. I could feel my cheeks reddening.
“I’m glad that you are,” she said, smiling. “It does my heart good to see another care for Victoria as I do. This is the reason why I knew you’d help me, but I had to show you first, of what they plan to do and what they have already done. I left that book in your room as proof. You saw it, so you know now too.”
I was thrown-off again. I couldn’t believe she was behind the placement of the book as well.
“Wait a second! I don’t even know what I saw in that book. I couldn’t even read the words.”
“You don’t need the words, you saw the pictures, didn’t you?!” she shot back. “What you saw has been done.”
I didn’t know what to think. The images on those pages were indeed horrific. I wanted to believe, but another part didn’t want to accept it.
“You mean to tell that what’s growing in Victoria is…” I couldn’t finish the words. “What can you expect from me then? It seems a bit… too late now.”
“There is one thing we can do,” she brought up. “I can dispel their ritual, stop it before it is ever completed and that evil is born.”
“Why haven’t you done it already?”
“Because…” she began. “I need access to their room of worship and last I check I lost my key.” She held up her hand for me to see. I could make out a small stump where her ring finger used to be.
“What the hell?” I stammered.
“The rings are more than show. I’m sure you know that by now. They are keys, but there is a darker secret behind them. They are also a symbol to show your the allegiance to the faith by permanently clamping onto the wearer’s finger. The only way to remove it is by removing the finger entirely. When they banished me, I was so torn that I bit off my own finger. I didn’t want anything on me that was associated with them.”
“T-that’s crazy,” was all I could say.
I couldn’t fathom someone wanting to risk their finger or any part of their body on the basis of their faith or anything. I’ve heard of tattoos, but this was way beyond that. I couldn’t help but picture the woman clamping down on her finger until it snapped and spitting it out. The very thought made my stomach churn.
“Yes, but it was only after so, that I wished that I hadn’t. I could’ve ended this nightmare years ago. Yet, I let my anger cloud my judgment. But you’re here now which means there is hope again.”
“Me?” I replied. “I don’t have a ring either though.”
“I know, but the others do,” she said, smiling. “Do you know Terrance?”
I gritted my teeth. “How could I not? The prick,” I muttered.
“Terrance is a lapdog when it comes to the reverend and the faith, but he’s too much of a pansy to wear the ring like the others. He keeps his on a necklace he wears,” she continued.
“I’ve seen it,” I replied, recalling the times at dinner. “How am I supposed to get it, if it’s on him?”
“This is where you come in perfectly. You probably don’t see much of everyone throughout the day; that’s because there are chores to be done to keep the place up and running. Terrance is a working man. He normally chops up wood or fetches game for the meals. When he bathes afterwards, he takes off the necklace. I know this because I used to do the sheets around the living quarters and would see his ring just lying there. That is best time to do it, for he never locks his door at that time either. If you can take his ring at that moment, bring it to me and I’ll do the rest.”
I bit my lip, thinking on it. “I don’t know. It seems a bit risky. If I get caught, I’m finished and he’ll have me sent me home instantly.”
“Then don’t get caught. You’re the only one who can walk around easily. If I could do it, I would, but they’d see me on first sight. I was barely able to place the book in your room,” she brought up. “Please, you have to do this, for Victoria?”
I gave off another long sigh before conceding. With that, a smile formed wider than it ever had on her face. I could see the many crooked rows of her blackened and yellow teeth.
“Good,” she said, leaning close to me. “I’ve been watching Terrance for a while. He’s already chopped off a round of logs good for now, but he’ll need to do so again. He does it every two days. So the day after tomorrow you’ll have to make your move.” As she explained I nodded.
“Once I get it, how will I contact at you? Where will I find you?”
She paused for a moment before answering, “Your lamp. If you’re able to get the ring, then turn your lamp on and leave it on. I’m always watching, so I’ll see it.”
I nodded. “Then what?”
“Then bring the ring down to me and I’ll conduct my ceremony in the room. At that time, I want you to get Victoria out of here.”
“Wait, what about you?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine. I’ve survived this long, so don’t worry about me,” she answered. “You should go now; we don’t want anyone catching wind of you out here.”
“Yeah, right,” I agreed, turning to leave.
“There’s one more thing I need you to do,” the old woman said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I need you to promise to never mention this meeting to Victoria. She must never know you’ve seen me.”
“What?” I said in bewilderment. “But Victoria would be thrilled to know that you’re alive.”
“I know she would, which is why she cannot know that I am or else she will not want to leave. Now can you do that for me?” she replied.
I heard her voice quiver off. Her eyes became glossy in the moonlight. I swallowed hard and nodded. She returned a grateful nod and faded until I could no longer see her among the shadows. I shivered a little. The chill of the wind was finally getting to me. So, I quickly ran back inside and back up to my room.
The following day, I started the day early as usual for my work. Throughout it, I thought about the plan. Regardless of how I felt, I knew I had to make it work. I also knew I had to stall the overall progress of my work. So I made sure to inform Terrance that I would need a few extra days to complete it. My boss didn’t pick up when I called, so I left him the message. I made up a b.s. excuse about needing more time to set up and ensure the system was functioning correctly.
After lunch, I proceeded to head to my room to take a nap. Normally, I would’ve spent this time with Victoria. When I unlocked my door, I heard a grunting sound. The noise was subtle at first and appeared to be coming from the end of the hallway. I paused for a moment unsure if I had actually heard something. I was ready to shrug it off until I heard it again, but a little louder.
Curious, I made my way down the hallway, listening as I did. I stopped at the door I thought I heard it from and pressed my ear up against it. I heard it again. I took my ear away; this was Victoria’s door. Hesitant, I knocked on it lightly.
“Hey are you alright in there?” I asked.
There was no answer.
“Victoria? It’s me, Marcus,” I continued.
I could hear rapid breathing from inside sounding almost like hyperventilating. It didn’t sound good. Frantic, I knocked on the door with a little more force.
“Victoria, are you alright? What’s going on in there?” I asked urgently. “Can you let me in, please?”
“Go away,” I heard her say in between gasps.
I sighed, pressing my head softly up against the door. “Look, I understand you don’t want to talk to me,” I began. “And I don’t blame you. I had no right to… I was a jerk back there and I shouldn’t have been prying as I did. In truth, I don’t care about the baby or who the father is. I never did. I just wanted you to know that I…” The words again failed me. I could see them in my mind, but I couldn’t push them out. “… I’m sorry,” I forced out.
I wanted to tell her something else, about how I felt about her, about everything, but the timing didn’t feel right. I turned to leave, but stopped when I heard the door open behind me. She had the door half-cocked to allow her face to peer through. She stared at me for a moment as if analyzing my eyes for truth. Finally, she opened the door fully, walking back into her room. I followed her, closing the door behind.
Her room was nice. Unlike mine which was bland and almost empty, her room was more “cozy”. she had a desk filled with books, some open journals, others maybe novels. Her mini dresser was complimented with a vase filled with several flowers clearly well-cared for. The scent of her perfumed lingered in the air; I embraced its smell, a scent I longed missed.
“What was the noise I heard earlier?” I asked. “I thought something was wrong.”
She walked over to the bed and sat, making a painful face as she did. “I’m fine,” she said gravely. “It’s just this bloody baby is all.”
I joined her on the bed.
“I meant what I said out there,” I began. “I don’t care about it. You don’t have to tell me about it at all either.”
She kept her gaze way from me, but I could see tears forming in her eyes. “Just shut-up, Marcus,” she said with a quivering lip. “Just… shut it.”
She broke down in tears cupping her face with her hands. I was bad at handling these kinds of moments. They always left me feeling awkward, but I gradually reached over to her shoulder to comfort her. She immediately threw herself on me, bawling her eyes out on my chest. After a good solid five minutes, she had finally stopped. Her eyes were reddened and her nose slightly runny.
“You said your mother died when you were young,” she finally said. “How did she die?”
I sighed. “She was killed,” I answered after a long pause. “Some guy broke into their apartment and shot her.”
“Marcus…” she said softly. “I’m so sorry. That must have been devastating for you.”
“Yeah, well I don’t remember when it happened. Like I said, I was too young.”
I could feel her sob a little more on my chest.
“It was my father,” she finally said, leaning on my shoulder.
“Father?” I repeated, confused.
“Yes, he did this to me,” she said, looking down at her stomach.
My eyes widened as I pulled away. “Your father did this? Who is he?”
“Who do you think?” she said, harshly wiping her eyes.
I thought about it for a second and immediately my eyes flashed. “The reverend? Wait the reverend is your father?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. Her mother said he took Victoria from her, but mentioned nothing of him being the father as well.
Victoria nodded, but then shook her head. “Well he’s my step-father. My mother met him after my real father died.”
“If he did this, why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Because I could not prove it; he drugged me or something, I don’t know. At first, I did not want to say anything, but when I started showing signs of the baby, he went on to tell everyone that it was a miracle, that it was a gift from Lanius,” she explained. “And like aimless sheep, they questioned nothing, taking in his poisoned words. But I knew the truth, because he was the only one else there.” A few more tears fell down her cheek.
I bit my lip when she said this. This part sounded all too familiar. I thought about the book and the image of the man standing with the woman, and that horrid figure behind her. Was it all true though? She had no memory of the event. Was it possible that this sick action was all just the reverend’s doing? Regardless of which, Victoria’s mother was right, these people were monsters, if not that, ignorant.
At this point, I wanted to cheer her up. I thought about telling her everything about her mother, but remembered the promise I made. Instead, I lifted her chin up so that her eyes were looking into my own.
“I can take you away from all off this. All we have to do is jump in my car and leave. You’ll never have to see this place again.”
I could see a mixture between happiness and fear in her eyes.
“But how? Where would we go?”
“You can stay with me. I have my own place. It’s safe, trust me.”
“Marcus…?” she spoke softly. A smile gradually formed on her lips. “Yes, let’s do it,” she said, rendering me a tight hug. “We should leave tonight.”
“Tonight?” I repeated.
“Yes, after dinner. Any earlier and they’ll become suspicious. They always hold their sermons late at night which gives us enough time between then. We can leave then.”
I looked away, trying to find a way to convey my thoughts. I didn’t want to reveal the plan or her mother.
“What’s wrong, Marcus?”
“Err, how about tomorrow night?” I suggested.
“Tomorrow? Why? Why do we have to stay here another day? Let’s leave tonight.”
“No, it has to be tomorrow night,” I quickly shot back without thinking.
“Marcus, I don’t understand. Is there something you’re not telling me?”
I placed my hands on her shoulders firmly looking her in the eyes. “Look, you have to trust me. I have a plan with… a friend. They’re willing to help, but it has to be tomorrow, okay?”
Her eyes were full of so much confusion. I knew she thirsted for answers, but luckily she simply nodded. “Okay, I trust you.”
For a second, we began to lean in for a kiss when we were both startled by an abrupt knocking at the door. I answered it to discover Sophia on the other side.
“Mr. Pale?” she said surprisingly. “We were beginning to worry about you when we didn’t see you in your workspace.” Her eyes shifted their gaze between me and Victoria. “I trust I wasn’t interrupting anything?”
“No,” I said, trying to maintain my composure. “I was just… checking on Victoria.” I turned back to give her a wave and slid past Sophia.
Heading down, I glanced down the hall to still see her in Victoria’s doorway. I didn’t want to arouse suspicion so I continued on and back to the room I was working in.
I was glad I had patched things up with Victoria. The feeling helped ease my thoughts on the plan. I wondered if we could really pull it off. Leaving the place was one thing, but stealing the ring from that jerk was another.
Something broke this mood, though. I was heading back to continue my work when I caught sight of Terrance walking outside with an ax over his shoulder. That was strange. There was probably nothing to worry about; the old woman said he chopped every two days. He would still need to do it tomorrow. He probably needed it for something else I assured myself. Though the thought wasn’t that very reassuring.
I decided to keep my eye on him while I worked just in case. I looked towards the trees hoping to maybe catch sight of the old woman, but didn’t see anything. I didn’t actually believe I would see her since she was able to keep herself invisible for years. I was sure though that she too was watching everything.
I continued working until Sophia came to me. She informed me that my boss had called and was waiting on the phone. Great, perfect timing as always, I thought grumpily. What did he want anyway? She led me back to the phone where I found it sitting off the hook on its side.
Apparently, he was following up on the message I left and wanted to ensure I was making progress. I told him that I would have everything up soon, hoping to end the phone call quickly. I noticed the small window in the room and peered out it, stretching the phone line as I did. I gazed out and to my horror I saw Terrance making his way back.
His shirt was fully soaked in sweat while he was pushing a wheel-barrow full of chopped logs. After dumping the logs off, he made his way around to the front. I felt my heart leap into my throat. In my ear, I could hear my boss go on into another one of his speeches about representing the company. Fuck the company right now, I thought. I had a small window of opportunity and I was about to miss it. We were completely wrong.
I could already hear Terrance slam the front door and proceed to the stairs. I quickly thought of a way to let my boss allow me to hang up, lying that one of the clients had asked for my help. Once over, I raced out the room nearly smacking into Margaret on the way.
“Goodness, me! You’re running as if a fire spurred!” she exclaimed.
I apologized frantically, my eyes looking down the hallway behind her.
“Is everything alright, dear?” she asked with a puzzled look.
“Yeah,” I lied. “I just need to–use to the bathroom really bad.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t keep you,” she replied, holding a hand up to her mouth.
I thanked her and raced towards the stairs, stopping immediately before reaching the top. I cautiously peeked down the hallway. No one was in sight. Where was he? Was he still in his room or did he already enter the bathroom? I crept up the last remaining steps slowly, eventually making my way down the hall. I could hear the sound of water running in the background. Yes, he was in the shower, but for how long?
Knowing I didn’t have much time, I sped up my pace until I reached his door. I opened it quickly, shutting it behind me. Surprisingly, his room was a lot like mine. There wasn’t much in it; it was bland and almost empty. Anything he did have like books were nicely organized in its place.
I began looking around making sure to return anything I moved back to its original place. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Every sound I heard, whether creak or thump, I associated it with it being Terrance. It felt like my senses had amplified. I found myself constantly looking towards the door in paranoia, thinking he’d could barging through at any minute.
I looked through his dresser and all around his bookcase, but found nothing. I started searching the desk, pulling open drawers to see inside. When I opened that last drawer, I froze. Inside I could make-out a familiar object: a gun. It was a revolver; I didn’t know the specifics, but it had a very long barrel. I could see the dust that had formed over it, clearly it hadn’t been touched in a while. I shut the drawer and continued searching around.
In the end, I couldn’t believe it, the ring wasn’t here. How could that be? I wanted to check over everything again, but a feeling inside urged me to leave. I listened to it and left the room, gently closing its door behind me. I started to head back to my room until I heard a voice call out.
“Oy!” I heard, freezing my nerves.
I almost shouted in complete terror out of the shock. I turned to see a half-robed Terrance dripping in the hallway. A towel was wrapped around his waist soaking up what little water dripped from his wet body. His sweaty clothes were tightly gripped in a ball in one hand while the other held his shoes.
“What are doing down here?” he asked sternly.
My heart was now knocking against my chest as if wanting to burst out. “I just needed to use the bathroom,” I lied. “I didn’t realize someone was in it until I got down the hall.”
Terrance squinted hard at me as if trying to figure me out, but finally gestured to the bathroom with his head. “Well, it’s free now,” he said.
I thanked him and made my way past him. I pushed open the door to the small bathroom and immediately my eyes lit up. There sitting on the sink was the necklace with the ring attached. He had it with him all along. I was close to reaching for it until I heard someone behind me.
“There’s the blasted thing,” Terrance said, moving past me and grabbing it. “It’s all yer for real now,” he said and left.
I couldn’t believe it. The plan had failed. I wanted to punch a wall or something, even scream out-loud. Yet when I really thought about it, there was no chance of getting away with it freely. Even if he had left it in his room, he would have immediately noticed. There wouldn’t have been enough time to give it the old woman and leave with Victoria, especially if we planned to leave in the evening.
I sighed and began my long walk of defeat back. What could I tell the old woman now? We didn’t have an alternate plan. I continued, heading downstairs and decided to get back to work. Maybe I could think of something while I did so.
Dinner eventually came by and still I had no idea what to do. I was sure the old woman had seen my lamp was still off to relay the failure of the plan. I wondered if she would possibly come-up with a solution of her own.
“Marcus, how far along are you with your work?” Margaret inquired, pulling me from my thoughts. “I heard there were minor delays.”
“Well, I should have everything up and running by tomorrow,” I answered.
“Oh there’s a dreadful thought. We’re going to miss having you around. You’re almost like a member of the family now,” she said, giving off an unsettling giggle.
“I’ve actually been meaning to ask why you needed this service anyway. It doesn’t seem like you really need it,” I brought up.
“On the contrary, my boy,” the reverend spoke. “Our faith is a rare breed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any other inspirin’ souls out there. We wanna be able to reach any and all potential followers. With yer’ help, we can do that and upload our sermons for all to see.”
“Oh okay,” I said weakly.
The mere thought of them uploading footage of them worshiping made me feel uneasy.
“Plus, it brought us you, Marcus. Havin’ a young lad such as yourself has truly been a pleasure,” he continued.
I smiled sheepishly and glanced over to Victoria. She appeared to be squinting in pain.
“Are you alright, my dear?” Margaret asked when she caught sight of this too.
Victoria appeared to be suppressing the pain. “Yes,” she answered. “I think I just need to lie down for the evening.”
“Do ya’ need any help?” Sophia offered.
“No, I’ll be fine. Please, there is no need to worry about me,” she said, excusing herself from the table. “I just need to rest.”
I could see her gripping her stomach as she did. I wanted to leave the table as well, but my legs remained frozen, numb to the commands from my brain. I just sat there watching her leave. For some reason, I could not shake the feeling of discomfort.
After dinner, I made my way back to my room. In the hallway, I glanced down towards Victoria’s door. What were we going to now? The plan had failed and tomorrow was the day I promised would be our last here. I entered my room almost slamming it shut. I could feel tears of anger growing in my eyes. Why did it all have to go to hell? Why did that bastard have to ruin everything? And why, why did I have to fuck it up so badly?
I must’ve have eventually passed out from my rage-fit because I was soon awakened by the sound of voices and footsteps. The footsteps sounded urgent rushing from one end of the hallway to the next. Without warning, a blood-curdling wail filled the air. It grew so loud that I had to put my hands over my ears. It sounded like a woman’s voice: Victoria’s.
I raced to my door ready to rip it open, but immediately I stopped myself. I could hear a sound worse than her wail; it was so eerie and frightening that it sent an icy chill down my spine. What I heard was the low chanting of voices. They spoke in unison, reciting words I couldn’t comprehend. I could see a dim light flicker across the door’s bottom crack. While it did, I could hear Victoria’s moans of pain.
The voices grew louder, passing by my door eventually fading into the distance. I cracked open my door to look out which let out its signature creak. I was sure it would alert them, and halted in mid-swing. I could see the hallway was still quiet. I opened the door fully, taking a step outside. It was dark and absent of light. Under my shoe, I felt something wet. I took out my phone and used the backlight to get a better view. It was some kind of liquid, maybe water? I was ready to believe this thought until I accidentally dropped my phone in it. I quickly grabbed it in a panic, wiping it off, but the liquid seemed to only smear. I took my phone back into my room to see it better in the light. It wasn’t water, it was blood.
My heart skipped at the realization of this. I went back in the hallway using my phone’s light again over the liquid. I could make out more of it leading down the hall. The trail led back to Victoria’s room which had its light on. I swallowed hard and walked towards it trying to mentally prepare myself for the worse. I reached it and slowly edged my way in.
There was blood everywhere. A trail of blood ran from the door to her bed. The sheets were completely doused in red. I could smell her perfume mixed with smoke and the metallic smell of blood. I felt my stomach give-in at the sight. Immediately, I vomited all that I had eaten.
I felt my knees weaken and give away as well, falling to the ground and dropping my phone in the process. I must have blackened out for a few seconds before regaining awareness. I could see my phone’s backlight just about to turn to black. I quickly got up, horrified that I had been lying next to blood. What had happened in here?
I went over to grab my phone. After picking it up, I noticed the bed. The blood soaked in the sheets was mainly concentrated near the lower portion of the bed. However, there was another spot of patch forming near her pillow. I slowly reached for it unsure what I was about to see. I couldn’t imagine anything worse, but I was wrong. To my dismay, I found a finger.
The finger was clearly cut-off with the tip of its bone sticking out of the bloody flesh. It appeared to be Victoria’s, it had to have been. Next to the finger was a small knife with its tip covered in blood. Why did she cut it off? I observed the finger closer and realized the ring doused in red. She had cut off her finger so that I would have her ring, the key to the Congregation room.
She must’ve done so out of desperation. I thought about the pain she had shown from her contractions at dinner. She must’ve felt it was time for the child. Those sick bastards were going through with their ritual. They didn’t care about Victoria, the old woman was right.
I had to do something. I promised her that I would get her out of here and I was going to keep it. I hesitantly picked up the finger; it was still warm, and placed it in my pocket with care. Racing out of the room, I came to a stop when I remembered the gun kept by Terrance. It was something I was probably going to need. His door was locked when I tried to open it, but I didn’t care. I didn’t have time to waste, and began kicking it until the handle caved-in.
I pushed it open, running to the desk drawer where I had last seen the gun. I opened it and smiled; it was still there. I grabbed it feeling its weight fall into my hand. With my thumb, I popped its wheel out revealing six bullets lined in there chambers. Perfect, I thought and tucked it in the back of my pants and then ran out the room.
I got to the bottom of the stairs. The lobby was dark, the scent of candles in the air. The trail of blood from earlier could be seen leading to the Congregation room. I pressed my ear up against the double-doors to listen. It was silent – no voices or wails from Victoria. Something wasn’t right. I tried the handle only to find it locked as it always was.
I reached into my pocket, pulling out the finger. I looked for the small indent on the door and placed it up against it. I twisted it to the right the way I remembered Victoria doing so. Instantly, there was a soft click from the door. I pulled at the handle again and could feel the door move. This was it. I placed the finger back in my pocket and peeked through the small crack.
All I could see was darkness. I opened the door wider and was met with a warm breeze to my face. With it opened, I could see a dim light flickering from the sides. I poked my head in first before completely entering. The light was coming from the candles mounted on columns near the walls. With it, I could make out the room even more than I had the first time.
The entire area looked older in the light. The walls appeared worn-out and decayed almost blackened as if burned. The columns appeared ancient in nature broiled with cracks and fungus throughout. A deep scent of ash and moisture filled the air. I could now see the seating hues were carved from stone similar to the columns. A few were split in areas almost falling apart. The place looked like it had been there for centuries. The building must have been built around it.
In the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a dark figure off to the side. The candle light flickered across it producing a vague outline of it. I swallowed hard, peering towards the thing with frightened eyes. Something was there, and it was watching me.
“Hello?” I called out softly to it. I could feel every hair standing up on my neck. “Hello?” I said again, my voice quivering.
The figure gave no answer in return. I slowly walked to it, watching as the light flickered across it. With the distance closing between us, I could see its pale face in the light. My heart plummeted. Empty black holes were present where its eyes were supposed to be. The mouth of it was gaped wide open, almost like it was screaming in terror, but no noise came out.
I was ready to bolt out of there until I noticed that it did nothing, it didn’t even move. Cautiously, I approached the figure with my hand stretched out. I eased cautiously, half-expecting it to lash out at me at any moment. Finally, I touched its surface. When I did, I took a deep sigh of relief. It was only a mask. I picked it up revealing its disturbing features even more up close. I looked back at the wall to see the figure was in fact a black cloak of some kind. I pulled it off, releasing it from the hook, and brought both objects into the light.
It was a cloak and mask alright, thank goodness. Was this what they wore for their ceremonies? I looked back at the wall to see several other empty hooks lined up. Glancing back at the cloak, I noticed a faded image running across it. It was a symbol, but not like the one on the door. I recognized this one though: it was an inverted cross. It had chains attached as well, hanging from its waistline. It must’ve been Victoria’s.
Without warning, I was startled by the faint echo of a woman’s wails. It was coming from further back in the room. I followed the noise which brought me up to the altar. At the top, I could make out a familiar sight behind the podium. It was the statue from before, still horrid to the eyes as ever. As I climbed the stairs, the image of the statue became more apparent. It still brought an eerie feeling to me, right down to my bones.
I couldn’t stand the sight of it and looked away as I passed it. Behind it, I saw the mouth of a cave. Reaching it, I could see it stretch deep down into darkness. It was dimly lit by a few candles mounted on its walls. Stone steps descended with it. I could feel a warm breeze flowing from it like the breath large beast.
Every so often, a wail would echo from its depths sending my heart into its own depths with it. This was crazy. How could all of this be in here? It was clear that this, that all of it, was way over my head. I wanted to turn around, God knows I wanted to, but with each wail I thought of Victoria. I couldn’t leave her to suffer.
I glanced down at my hands to discover that I was still holding the cloak and the mask. It was a long shot, but I thought wearing it would help me blend in. Even if it bought me only a few minutes, I could use whatever edge I could get. I threw on the cloak and placed the mask over my face. I took one last breath and began making my descent.
The stairs felt like they would never end. I pressed onward though, passing by one of the mounted candles ever so often. In between them, I was left in utter darkness, at the whim of my own footing. I took my time walking down them, adding to the anxiety to reach the bottom.
Voices began to echo from the abyss below, bouncing off the walls. Once again, I could hear their monotone words being spoken in unison, still incomprehensible to me. In the darkness, the words were even more nerve-wrecking. It almost didn’t sound human.
The last of the stairs brought me to a large chasm. A few candles were mounted on these walls as well, but they weren’t of much help. I could see their light reveal a set of different tunnels pointing in diverse directions. From here, it looked like I had to choose a path, but which one was right? If I chose wrong, I knew it would be nearly impossible to retrace my steps, especially in this darkness.
The voices from earlier began to echo once again. Among the cave walls, they bounced all around, amplified by the acoustics. I focused on the sound, trying to pinpoint their origin. Finally after several minutes, I was able to determine that they were coming from the tunnel on the left, so I headed in that direction. The tunnel was completely dark, absent of candles. A few times I tripped on the rocky surface, but using the walls helped maintain my balance.
It continued to stretch onward. All I could see was an endless void in front of me. As I walked, I felt the urge to stop, feeling as if I would smack into a wall or something. All the while, the voices continued their chanting growing louder the more I pushed forward.
Finally, I reached an opening; it was glowing, all the while, producing a wave of heat. I came to a rocky perch; on the side, I could see another set of stone stairs curve down to the area below. I didn’t need to take them because the best gave a good overview of everything below. I crouched and moved closer to get a better view.
What I saw, would forever be burned in my mind. Below, I could see four individuals standing in a square formation, each facing inward. Four bowls containing an intense fire was set in between each of the individuals forming together some sort of a diamond. There were markings in red producing an arrangement of symbols and designs behind each of the figures. I noticed how all of them donned the same cloak and mask as I was wearing.
Each of them was slowly bobbing their heads, their hands clasped as if in prayer except one. The one was holding up a camcorder to film it all. Standing in the center, I saw a fifth person. This one wore a different cloak. It was pale white and more loosely fit than the others. The mask worn was black instead of white, almost as dark as the tunnel itself. If not for the light from the bowls, it would have looked like a faceless being.
It had to be the reverend. Each time he spoke out that strange language, the others would repeat it in unison. My eyes widened when I saw what was behind the reverend. There was a stone table covered with a white sheet, and on it I saw Victoria, clenching her stomach in pain. Every so often, she would let out a intense wail that filled the air. The white sheet underneath her was half-soaked in blood.
Now what? I didn’t know what to do now that I was here. Without warning, I was pulled from my thoughts when I felt something touch my shoulder. I spun around, almost screaming out loud. However, my eyes recognized the figure crouching behind me. It was the old woman, Victoria’s mother. She had followed me down here. She held up a finger to her lip and slowly crept passed me to look below.
“We must stop this before it’s too late,” she whispered over her shoulder.
“How?” I asked. “What can we do? We can’t just rush down there without some sort of plan.”
She nodded in agreement. “I know. We need to sprinkle this within their inner circle,” she said pulling out a small glass vial; it was filled with a clear liquid. “At the stage she’s in now, Victoria will need some of this on her as well.”
“That’s it?” I asked, sourly. “That’s the plan?”
“Yes,” she replied, returning her gaze below. “Once this is sprinkled, I will need to recite my own incantation to cancel out the effects of their ritual. Only then will Victoria be saved and the rest of the world.”
I shivered a little. “The world? You never did mention what would happen if that child was born,” I inquired.
“Nothing good, I assure you, but that will not happen,” she answered. “Listen, I have a plan.”
I was all ears to hearing it and leaned close.
“We need to draw them away from here so that I can conduct the incantation.”
“How are we going to do that?”
“A distraction, of course,” she replied, producing a twisted smile. “We’ll need their undivided attention. I need to conduct the ceremony, so for that, we have to lead them away.”
I sighed deeply. I really didn’t like this plan already, but it seemed like the only other option. After taking a few breaths, I stood up to announce my presence.
“Hey!” I yelled out. It was all I could think to say.
Immediately, they went silent below, staring up at me. The light bounced off the faces of their twisted masks. Not one said a word, until the reverend spoke out.
“Ah Marcus, is that you?” he asked out-loud. “What a surprise it is to see ya’ down here.”
“W-what the hell is going on here?” I stammered. “What are you fucks doing with Victoria?! You bastards better let her go or… or I’ll get the police involved.”
The reverend chuckled, his mask bouncing a little. “Marcus,” he said softly, almost in a jokingly manner. “When ya’ first arrived, I will admit I thought I understood everythin’ about you, just from our first conversation. At the time, you looked like nothin’ more, but a stammering piglet that had gone astray. You couldn’t even get your words right.”
I could see the others slowly moving away from their spots, edging their way to the stairs.
“But then ya’ surprised me with your bold antics. You sneaked into our congregation room, attempted to steal one of my member’s rings, yes I know about that,” he continued.
My eyes lit up. How could he have known?
“Ya’ even warmed up to Victoria, convincin’ her to leave all this and her family behind,” he finished. “Now, that my boy, is something. Tell me, I know you’re sick of seein’ everyone suffer, like your grandfather or even your mother that passed away when you were young.”
I was dumbstruck. How did he know all of this? He couldn’t have.
He continued. “All those people out there in world as well – suffering, doing so unnecessarily, and for what reason, but for what he wants,” he said, pointing upward. “With Lanius though, we can reshape this world. He’ll reshape everything in his image and erase all that pain and all that sufferin’. Everything will be set right, the way it should be. Why not be willin’ to join him in this transformation?”
I could see the other members drawing closer up the stairs.
“Think about it, Marcus. Are we really that bad of people? Look at yourself, what have you really believed in that you could hold on to?” he continued. “Join us down here, be a part of that new world, a new direction. You’re already halfway there; you’ve got what you need on you right now. So why not come down the path fully?” he said, lifting his hands up. “Victoria’s sufferin’ right now, but when this all over, she won’t anymore. You can even be with her in the new world, it’s what you want, isn’t it?”
My eyes glanced over at Victoria, still gasping in pain. Her eyes clenched painfully shut. I listened as she let out another horrific wail. I see could an impression of something moving around in her, pressing upward against her skin. My voice was lost; I was unable to say anything. This bastard was crazy, they all were. However, if that was truly the case, why was I so hesitant? Was there a part of me that wanted this, that believed in this?
Immediately, the old woman stood up to reveal herself too. “Poisonous words never fail to excrete from your mouth, you sniveling snake!” she hissed at him.
“Who is that up there with ya’, Marcus?” he asked calmly.
“Who do you think, you foul bastard?” she barked.
“Carolina?” he said, surprised. “I must admit, I am a bit shocked to see ya’ still living. I must ask how ya’ managed to escape the gaze of Lanius?”
“Hmph, wouldn’t you like to know? You’re not the only one who can conjure up a spell or two,” she snapped.
“Right,” he said unfazed. “Ya’ always were an unpredictable one, Carolina. I truly was heartbroken when I learned ya’ weren’t fully on board with us.”
She scoffed at this.
“So, Marcus. What will it be?” he asked, returning his attention to me.
I glanced over to see the old woman’s eyes gleaming at me from the shadows. She shook her head in dismay, mouthing something softly. I couldn’t hear the words, but I could make out the last word escaping her lips: “lies.”
“No,” I said softly.
“Come again?” the reverend asked.
“I said no, you Satanic fucks!”
He sighed, dropping his arms. “That’s too bad, son.” He gestured with his head to the others who immediately sprang up the stairs.
“Move it!” the old woman yelled, bolting down the tunnel we had entered from.
I was surprised she was even able to move at such speed. Without wasting time, I quickly hurried behind her. I could hear their footsteps echoing following us. I didn’t know where I was going; there nothing but endless void before me. I felt my feet trip again a few times as I went. My lungs were burning, begging me to stop, but the adrenaline pumping through me must have kept me going.
Eventually, we reached the original chasm with all the tunnels.
“We need to split them up. Try to lose them in the best manner you can,” she said in deep breaths.
I was half out of breath myself, barely catching what she said. Without hesitation, she ran off to the tunnel on the left. I took the hint and darted down the nearest one to my right. On the inside, I hoped that I had not chosen one with a dead-end. The tunnel itself was very tight. I felt the sharp edges of the walls scrape against my arms a few times, but I pressed onward. Thinking quickly, I pulled out my phone using its light to help guide the way. Ahead of me, my eyes made out what I had dreaded would happen.
I had reached a dead-end. “Shit!” I yelled out. There was no way I could turn around, not if they were following me. However, I was surprised to find that the wall wasn’t like the tunnel’s uneven texture. Looking closer, it appeared be a type of door. It was still made of stone, but it was smooth and had markings engraved along it. I couldn’t make them, out, but the phone on my light revealed a familiar sight.
I could see a small indent with a symbol etched within; it was similar to that of the one for the Congregation room’s doors. “The finger,” I thought out-loud. I reached in my pocket trying to find it. Behind me, I could hear the clapping of footsteps gaining on me. I struggled to pull the damn thing out. When I did, I pressed it up against the indent and twisted.
At first, nothing happened, but soon the door began to move. A loud moan was produced from it as it lifted slowly upwards. I could hear the footsteps getting closer, but the door was still at my ankles. I yelled and cursed at the damn thing to hurry until at last it was up to my chest; it was good enough for me. I was ready to bolt through the opening when suddenly I was tackled from behind.
The force from the tackle sent me forward along with my attacker. We both rolled into the room sliding away from each other. I landed crudely, banging my knee and elbow in the process. It wasn’t until I looked up that I caught the scent of something putrid in the air. The room we had entered was colder than the other areas and seemed to be darker. My impaired vision must have amplified my sense of smell because I completely appalled by it. It was if something had been decaying or rather many things had.
Under my hand, I felt something hard poke me. I couldn’t see the object clearly, but I felt how smooth it was, almost too perfect. Around it, I felt other objects with the same feeling. I wanted to use my cellphone, but I couldn’t find it, clearly dropped from the fall. I did, however, hear a man grunting, apparently my attacker.
“Ya’ little shit, I knew ya’d be trouble from the start,” I heard him say. The voice sounded like Terrance.
I could hear him standing up. His breathing was still rapid from the chase. My heart leapt into my throat. I tried to be extra careful while I rose to my feet hoping to not draw his attention. If he was like me, then it was impossible to see anything in this darkness. If quiet enough, I could probably sneak past him. I started moving forward, taking small steps while I listened for him.
“The reverend told me about the ring. Ya’ thought were slick about it all, huh?!” he yelled out, his voice echoed. “Ya’ see, the reverend knows all and sees all.”
I could hear his footsteps pacing around. The acoustics of the room made it hard to pinpoint his exact position.
“Then ya’ stole one of our tomes, but I found it,” he continued. “I was glad ya’ did though. Ya’ got to see what’s coming to that bitch. I hope ya’ enjoyed every last of it,” he said, chuckling.
I don’t know what came over me after that. After hearing those disgusting words, I somehow managed to find and pounce on Terrance in an immense rage. I didn’t hesitate and swung where I thought his head was, striking a hard surface. I yelled out in pain. It was his mask that I struck. He laughed, rendering a strong blow into my stomach. I felt the wind painfully rip its way from my mouth.
Afterwards, he pushed me away which sent me falling on my back. I felt the sting from something hard press itself against beneath me. I reached behind for the object and my eyes lit up. Immediately after, his hands grabbed at my legs to pull me close. Still in pain, I kicked at him and pulled out the object from below. I cocked it, aimed in his direction and pulled the trigger.
A flash of light lit up the entire area for a split second followed by a loud bang. The noise echoed throughout the chasm and beyond. That flash of light was enough for me to locate my phone. I grabbed at it, pushed a button and aimed it in front of me. I could see Terrance in the illumination gripping his arm in pain. The blood from his wound dripped to the ground.
“You little…” he started, but croaked in pain.
The gun shook in my hand. This was the first time I had ever shot one before, let alone at a person. I didn’t get time to decide what to do next. There was a deep growl that filled the air and echoed all around us. The ground almost felt like it was trembling. Further back in the room, I could hear something twisting around. Its movements were crackly and heavy. The odor from earlier grew stronger, flooding my nose even more than before.
“Shit! It’s awake!” I heard Terrance scream out. He turned to leave. Yet, before I could even blink, I felt a large rush of wind race past me. The smell of its odor lingered behind it. Whatever it was, it was fast and it was huge. The next thing I heard was it pounding on Terrance. I could hear it ripping into him and tearing pieces apart. His screams flooded the air – a blood-curdling shrill so intense that it brought tears down my eyes.
I could hear the thing continue to tear at him, cracking bones as it did. Somehow, I managed to find the feeling in my legs and bolted out of the room. Behind me, I heard the thing let out a frightening roar. I didn’t stop running though, pushing as hard I could through the tight walls. I could hear its heavy footsteps pounding behind me. The snarls from its breathing grew closer in my ear. It was gaining quickly.
Without thinking, I aimed the gun behind me and fired off a few rounds. It wasn’t until after the third round that I heard another loud roar. The footsteps behind immediately came to a halt. I continued running until I reached the open area once again.
I was out of breath, but I knew I couldn’t stop. That thing was sure to continue its pursuit soon so I couldn’t waste any time. Before I could fully gain my composure, I heard footsteps heading in my direction. They weren’t from the tunnel behind me, but ahead. I quickly readied my gun, ready to fire again.
Three figures emerged from the darkness racing frantically. It was the other church members. I had already fired four bullets which meant I only had two left. There were three of them so I would have to decide carefully who I wanted to shoot. They came to a halt in front of me.
“Hello, Marcus,” I heard Margaret’s voice speak out from the three. “Have you finally stopped running?”
“Back the fuck off!” I yelled, the gun still pointing at them. “If I have to, I will kill you crazy bastards.”
I heard one of them giggle. It must have been Sophia. They slowly began edging their way towards me. I backed up a little, keeping the gun trained on them. I started to shift to the side hoping to align the next tunnel to my back. It was clear this gun was doing nothing for me. I probably would only have enough time to shoot one before the others rushed in. I would need to be quick so I could make a run for it.
“Come now, Marcus. Have you realized it yet? You really think we invited you all the way out here just to install some silly computers?” Margaret began.
I was stunned when I heard this. “What the hell are you talking about? Why else would I be here?”
She chuckled. “We needed a legitimate reason to get you out here and here you are.”
“You don’t even know who I am,” I said. She was clearly talking nonsense.
“Is that what you think? I’m surprised none of this appears familiar to you. You have after all been down this path before,” she continued.
My hands slowly lowered the gun. I don’t know why, but a small portion of me believed, even if it did sound ludicrous. “What do you mean?”
“It’s Lanius, he’s always had a fascination with you,” she answered. “Something about you, he…” she started to say, but trailed in her words.
“What about me?” I demanded.
Before she could answer, a large figure bolted from the shadows, pouncing on Margaret. It was that horrid creature from earlier; it had caught up. Now among the dim candlelight, I could make out more of its features. I really wished those candles weren’t there.
Through the poor lighting, I could see its thin elongated arms with sharp talons for fingers. Massive horns extended from its back. Its loose wild hair fell across its crude snout of a face. Its blood-colored eyes glowed, piercing the darkness.
I watched as it began tearing into Margaret as it had Terrance. With each new sound of splitting flesh came a louder shrill from her. Her loud cries bounced off the walls, extending throughout the tunnels. The others attempted to flee, but they didn’t get far. The creature was merciless, pouncing on them and tearing into them in the same manner. Suddenly, I felt a harsh tug on my arm pulling me down the tunnel behind. It was the old woman. I didn’t know where she came from, but I didn’t question her.
The tormenting screams of the others continued to resonate in the air. The burning pain in my lungs returned, as we turned and ran. The old woman yelled back not to stop; I could hear the struggle in her voice as well to maintain the pace. There seemed to be no end to the tunnel. It felt like we were running in place, making no progress. In the midst of my exhaustion, I felt my foot drag, causing me to lose my balance. I fell hard, slamming onto my already injured knee.
“Get up! Get up, now!” the old woman screamed at me.
I tried but struggled to do so, caught in the blend of pain and exhaustion. I tried to pull myself up using the wall. Behind me, I could hear the rapid thumping of large footsteps once again. I could feel the old woman help me up. She threw my arm over her shoulder and began assisting me forward. However, it was too late. We could feel the gaze emanating from the creature behind us.
Our eyes must have fully adjusted in the dark because I could clearly make out its massive form. Its hot breath blew across our faces, the smell of fresh blood lingering in it. The old woman pushed me away. “Run now,” she said softly.
“What?!” I replied in shock. “No we have to stick together.”
“No, you must go. I will hold it off,” she stated firmly.
“But…” I started.
“Go!” she roared.
Her voice startled me. I quickly turned and began hobbling away. Behind me, I could still hear her.
“You foul demon. You think you’ve won?” she stated.
The creature rendered a harsh snarl in return. I could hear her begin to recite strange words in another language. The creature sounded affected, screaming loud roars of pain. Whatever she was saying, it was clearly working. I paused to look back, just making out their faint outlines in the dark. I wondered if what she was doing was actually going to stop it. However, I saw the creature swing one is long arms at her. Her body flew against the wall producing a loud crack. Her words instantly died.
Not long after, I could hear the thing ripping away at her. The blow must’ve have been enough to kill her because she didn’t yell in pain. I went from hopping aggressively on one foot to a full fledge run. I ignored the pain from my knee, feeling fear and adrenaline engulfing me. Up ahead, I could see a light from the end. I knew I didn’t have much time until that thing would continue its pursuit for me. I reached the opening, revealing the original ritual area I had first come across.
I was hesitant in approaching the perch, but I did so, looking down. Victoria was still down there. Based on her increased wails, it wouldn’t be long before she gave birth. I saw no trace of the reverend.
I made my way down the stairs, approaching the symbols surrounding Victoria. Up close, I could tell they were made from blood. The bowls were still blazing. The heat from them was intense, forcing sweat down my face. When I approached Victory, her eyes fell upon me. I could see the fear returning in them.
“S-stay… the fuck away from me!” she yelled, struggling with words.
I was taken back at this, but then I remembered I was still wearing the mask. I quickly removed it and was relieved to see her eyes light up upon seeing my face.
“Marcus?” she gasped.
“Yeah, I’m here Victoria,” I answered, rushing to her side.
Tears formed in her eyes. “Marcus… p-please…” she stopped in mid sentence, rendering another wail.
She continued screaming. I could hear her vocals become rasp from the strain. I didn’t know what to do. A massive lump moved around her stomach uncontrollably, pressing up against her skin. I didn’t think it was possible, but her screams grew even louder. I felt completely useless right now.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I heard a familiar roar from above. The creature from earlier had returned. I could see its burning red eyes beaming down from the perch. It leapt from the top, landing with a loud thud. Its disturbing form was hunched over, breathing a rapid rhythm exalting a snarl in between.
Now fully in the light, I felt my stomach tighten at its appearance. The thought of the statue came to my mind. This thing was almost a spitting image of it, but only worse. Its face was more disturbing in person with its blackened humanoid-dog features. The nose atop its snout appeared caved-in, flaring with its breathing. Its eyes were beady, completely dyed a crimson red. Atop its forehead, it held a large closed eye.
I stood in between Victoria and the beast. I wasn’t going to let this thing do anything to her. I raised the gun up ready to fire waiting for it to make a move. Yet, that was it, it did nothing. It just stood there, breathing.
“Come on!” I yelled, trying to provoke it. “Do it! Come at me, you sick fuck!”
It did nothing still. Instead, the edge of its lips curled up into a twisted smile. I felt a shiver roll down my spine. The damn thing was smiling at me. I was ready to fire the gun, but then I noticed the bullet holes on it from where it had been previously hit. Two of the bullets had managed to hit it, but they stuck out of it wounds barely penetrating it. It was useless; the gun did nothing to it. Realizing this, I lowered it, eventually letting it drop to the ground. When I did, its smile grew wider.
“What the hell are you?” I asked.
“That, my boy,” I heard the reverend’s voice answer out loud, “is Lanius, the White Eye of Time.” I could hear it behind me, but I didn’t dare break my eyes away from the creature. “He will become this world’s new master,” he continued.
I was speechless.
“Ya’ will witness his rebirth into this world, Marcus. He will reshape it in his image. Now, witness it,” the reverend went on.
As if on cue, the creature began to roar into the air. I could see the rows of its blood covered teeth extend deep back into its throat. It felt as if the whole room was rumbling. Suddenly, it collapsed onto the ground, lying motionless. I was confused. Did it just die? If it did, what killed it?
Victoria broke the silence, screaming at a level a human shouldn’t have possibly reached. The form within her moved around vigorously, eventually tearing its way free. Blood flew in all directions, some splattering across me. My eyes turned to see a blood soaked creature wallowing around in the remains of Victoria.
It looked to be the size of a dog. I could see the sharp talons from one of its lanky arms cling to the side of the table. Curling horns protruded from its head, entangled in the wild strands of its hair. It sniffed the air for awhile before turning its attention to me.
I felt tears forming in my eyes. Immediately, I felt my stomach give-in, hurling to the side. It hurt because I had already done so earlier and there was nothing left to give.
Leaning over the mess I produced, I could only think of one thing. “Victoria,” I whispered. In the end, I couldn’t do anything but watch her suffer. She trusted me to save her, and I failed her.
The creature looked like a miniature version of its previous self. However, its third eye was open this time. It was completely white, void of pupil, blinking asynchronously to its smaller ones. Despite having no pupil, I could feel its white eye gazing upon me. My head began buzzing starting as a simple vibration. The vibration escalated into an immense outpour of pain.
I could see images in my head. They were images of places in the world, of people. The people were screaming for their lives. The sky above them was black, the streets littered with thousands of bodies lying lifeless and torn to pieces. Fires were brewing over damaged cars with half burnt corpses sitting in their seats. Faces of horrendous beings, too atrocious to describe were seen everywhere tearing away at those unable to escape.
The images flooded my head. I was at the mercy of them as the pain increased the more they appeared. Tears fell endlessly from my eyes. Why was I being shown these horrible things? Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, they stopped. I slumped over still feeling my head throb. I could still see their faces, hear their screams.
“Did ya’ see it, Marcus? Did ya’ see the dream he produced in yer mind?” the reverend asked. He walked from the shadows into the light. He slowly removed the mask from his face.
“W-what the… what the hell was that?” I asked. I could still feel lingering amounts of the pain.
“It took many years to prepare this revitalization. First, he had to get stronger and to do so he needed a vessel to use. I too, was frightened when I first laid eyes upon him, but he showed me his intentions. From then, I was enlightened,” he explained. “He speaks to me with his white eye. That’s how I knew everythin’ about ya’ back there. I’m sure he gave ya’ a glimpse of the paradise to be,” he continued, walking up to me.
“Paradise?” I repeated, still in a daze. “Is that what the fuck you’re calling that?!”
“Yes, Lanius will reshape this world into his image. Imagine sweet blue skies, endless green pastures with trees flowing abundantly with scrumptious fruit. No more pain. No more suffering. A true renewed ‘Eden’. I know its hard to conceive all of this – how could we in the current world we live in?
“His power is beyond our understandin’, but it can open the ripples of time. He can alter what he likes, insert what he likes. With it, he can return to the past of the vessel he chooses. Each time, he possesses the younger self, growing with them until they become of age. Doing it repeatedly makes him stronger. When he finally reaches fruition, he needs to be born of human flesh,” he went on.
“Victoria?” I said.
“Correct. Now, is that time, Marcus. Once he does it again, this will be the last. He will be permanently infused with his new vessel,” he answered, revealing his twisted toothy smile.
“You?” I asked, still feeling the throb in my head.
“Come now, Marcus. I’ve merely been a humble servant, ensuring everything was arranged properly for his rebirth. Lanius has always been interested in you. Ya’ recall the pages of the tome, yes? Who do think that was with Lanius?”
I shook my head in disbelief. It didn’t make sense. There was no way it could’ve been me. “You’re lying. That’s impossible. If so, why me?”
“We’ll ya’ see, Marcus. Lanius sees all aspects of time, all possibilities. Out of everyone, he saw ya’ to be the best candidate to lead to the outcome he desired. Ya’ should feel honored,” he explained.
“I don’t understand,” I replied. “You said he’s always been using me, but I don’t recall any of those times at all.”
“Well of course ya’ don’t, Marcus,” he said, smiling. “Each time, Lanius removed yer memory after transferrin’ to yer younger body. Believe it or not, we’ve already had this conversation before. I only recall because he allows me to. Ya’ see, I’m the one ensurin’ everything goes as planned accordingly. Ya’ll go back as ya’ve done before, but this time, it’ll be for good. I’m sorry to say though, what is left of Marcus Pale will be no more.”
I found myself shaking my head again. I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it.
“Please, Marcus,” he continued. “Each time, we go through this little charade. I try to give ya’ a chance to let ya’ willingly come forward, but as always, ya’ fight it. How about switchin’ it up for a change and give-in. It is inevitable regardless,” he finished. “What will it be, Marcus?”
I remained in silence, trying absorb everything. It was too much. How could it all possibly be true? There was no way of telling otherwise. It seemed like a lose-lose situation.
“I think…” I started to answer. “… you’re full of shit,” I said, rendering a light smirk.
His eyes seemed to twitch with dissatisfaction. “How very disappointin’,” he said, turning his back.
I could see his hand move into his cloak. He turned around producing a gun in his hand. He fired the weapon missing me. I quickly threw myself to the ground, grabbing my own gun. I pointed and shot off a round just he did. His shot grazed my side, only piercing my cloak. My shot, however, had hit him in the leg.
He fell to the ground. Immediately, he proceeded to lift his gun, struggling to aim it at me. I walked over to him keeping my own pointed at him. Standing over him, I held it to his face. He smiled at me before dropping his own in defeat.
“Ya’ think this hasn’t already happened, Marcus? It’s inevitable,” he said. The smile grew wider on his face.
I didn’t answer and simply pulled back on the trigger. His body immediately went limp. I remained over him with the gun still pointing at it. I never thought killing someone would be so satisfying. I didn’t like this thought though. There was something about this place, whatever it was I was ready to leave it.
Unexpectedly, I felt the same painful pulse from early flood my head. I fell to my knees gripping my head. When I turned, I could see the creature crawl from the table, dragging its deformed legs. It snarled at me moving close in speed. I held the gun in my hand and pulled the trigger, but it only clicked. I repeated the action only to receive the same result; it was empty. Quickly, I reached over with my other hand and grabbed the reverend’s gun.
Yet, it was too late; the thing pounced on me. Its slimy hands gripped my neck. I could feel its hot putrid breath on my face and see pieces of flesh clung to it jagged teeth. I wanted to throw the damn thing off, but I could feel the pain in my head amplify. It’s hard to describe, but I could feel its presence within my mind. It was like it was searching for something. It wasn’t until the last minute that I could visually see what it had found. Immediately, we both were engulfed into a blinding light out of nowhere.
When the light cleared, I found myself lying in something cold. When I stood to my feet, I realized that it was snow. There was snow everywhere. Where was I? I looked around seeing cars covered in snow as well. Several buildings loomed around me all with something in common: decorations. They all had reeves and lights either on their doors or around the buildings. Christmas? How could that be, it was July?
Something about this area was familiar, but I didn’t know why. The building before me was fairly tall, maybe four stories. Something about it drew me towards it. Through the glass, I could see my reflection. I could see that horrifying mask over my face. How did it get back on my face? I also noticed both of the guns still in my hands. I can’t describe it, but I felt lightheaded. I could hardly recall what I had been doing prior to arriving here. In fact, I didn’t even remember where I got this cloak from.
I felt the urge to enter the building. I tucked the guns away and entered. Inside, I noticed several closed doors along with a staircase to the side. This must have been an apartment building. I couldn’t pulled myself from this feeling, letting it take me to the stairs. I began climbing, passing more doors on each floor, each with their own set of reeves or anything Christmas related. With each floor, I tried searching for some hint of why I was here. I continued upward until reaching the third floor. I was led to a door on the left marked: 3-A. Why was I brought here?
I felt my hand lift as if it had a mind of its own. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t gain control over it. It banged on the door. Inside, I could hear someone moving towards the entrance. Next, I felt my hand reach back into my cloak, pulling out the revolver. Fear filled my eyes. Why was I grabbing the gun? I wanted to warn the person inside to not to open their door, but my mouth wouldn’t obey either.
To my horror, I listened as the bolt unlocked and the door opened. My eyes could not comprehend the sight before me. The person in front of me was my father. He looked very young more so than the last time I saw him, but it was him. How was this possible? Without warning, my hand struck him across the face. Next my leg kicked him back. The woman inside gave off an ear-splitting scream in shock. It was the young face of my real mother. She was alive, but how?
The apartment was heavily decorated to suit the Christmas atmosphere. It had a tree nicely decorated with presents piled underneath. I couldn’t help, but feel a sense of familiarity to what was transpiring before me. Again, my hand moved without command, shutting the door and locking the bolt. It pointed the gun at my parents, fear engulfing their eyes.
“Why are you doing this?” my father asked, gripping his head. “What do you want?”
I wanted to answer, but could not. To my side, I heard a soft voice. I looked over and saw a young child playing with a book: it was me. I was actually in the presence of my younger self. I felt a strong force vibrating through my head, feeling it filter out. It was odd, but it looked almost like the fumes of gasoline flowing towards my younger self. It suddenly hit me. I felt a partial memory return. I recalled the words of the reverend. This was happening to me because of that thing, Lanius. It was inside me, controlling my actions. It needed to take over my younger self for its vessel.
I could feel its presence vacating my body watching it flood into my younger self. My parents probably couldn’t see it, only me. I couldn’t let this happen. I was not about to become one with this thing for the rest of my life. Concentrating, I attempted to move my hand. The one with the gun was solid and unmovable. The finger in that hand began moving on its own accord. I could feel it tighten on the trigger. The gun was still aimed at my mother.
Why was it doing this? Why was it trying to kill my mother in the process? I made every attempt to stop my hand, but it wouldn’t listen. I was ready to give-in until my mind had another lapse in memory. I recalled having a dream. It was similar to what was happening now, but slightly different though. I tried to focus, attempting to recall more of the dream. For some reason, it was so hard to do so. I didn’t know why, but it felt necessary to remember it.
More pieces began to come together. In the dream, I saw myself fire the gun, but it wasn’t at my mother. No, I shot myself, the younger me. It was puzzling that I was did this. Another piece of the dream came to me. There was a bright light and in the light was a face. I could recall the face this time; it was the smiling face of my mother. She was completely encased in the light as if the source of it.
At that moment, I understood everything. I knew what I needed to do. I attempted to concentrate on my other hand, focusing on the image of it moving to my command hoping the thought would render it. I could gradually feel my control returning. Somehow the more the creature left me, the more I gained feeling in my body.
I concentrated on moving my arm, feeling its mobility. With it, I reached down into my cloak and felt around until I recognized the object. I pulled out the second gun, aiming it at my younger self. My mother before me let out a loud shriek when she saw this. I could feel parts of my arm wanting to drop the gun, but I fought against it, aiming at the child.
The creature must’ve have picked up on my plan because it started to flood images through my head again. This time they were of people that I had known or would come to know: my friends, my loved ones, everyone. It was like it was trying to get me to understand the consequences if I continued with my action. I could see its fumes attempting to pump faster into my younger body.
Finally, I saw the last of them completely enter my younger self. My one-year old self stared at me innocently. This moment had made sense now. I could picture the dream that brought me into all of this. This foul creature had controlled me for the last time. All this time, it had been me who had been the executioner of my own mother. I was the monster, the crazy loon that had broken in all those years ago. No, he made me that crazy loon. He altered time. I was the closest person to help him realize his plan. However, the creature probably saw in all the infinite possibilities of time that my mother was the only threat to its plans. I laughed to myself. It was ironic that even in death she found a way to warn me, providing an escape route.
Lanius’ own tearing through time and space and had backfired. In its own attempt to fulfil its ambition, it ended up creating its own demise. It couldn’t stop the human spirit; it was powerless to love. My mother’s interference was like what the reverend had said verbatim: inevitable. I smiled to myself, squeezing back on the trigger. The bullet pierced through the child’s skull, instantly dropping him. Now dead, I could feel the control of my body return. It was as if a heavy aura of weight lifted from me.
Sighing deeply, I dropped the gun to the ground. Slowly, I removed the mask from my face, looking over at my parents. They were silent with eyes still fixated on their dead child. Finally, my mother turned her gaze to me. I smiled at her, watching her eyes grow wide at seeing my face. With tears forming in my eyes, I could feel a hint of pain growing across my forehead. Something warm began to run down my nose. My eyes looked deep into my mother’s as I spoke several words, “I’m sorry… I had to. I… I did you a favor. Forgive me…”