Sam is haunted by memories of a creepy house, the death of his dog, and his betrayal of a friend in Jordan Anderson's slow burning horror chiller.
The second of the end-of-day bells was just finishing its call and students were fleeing the school property in all directions. Their distant shouts and laughter heralded their dispersion.
The track curved north to continue its loop around the soccer field, but Sam did not follow the curve. He broke off from it and moved up the small grassy incline toward the school's chain link property fence and the exit to 131st street. The condensation in the grass soaked the bottoms of his pant legs and he could feel his socks getting wet through his shoes.
Someone called his name from behind.
Sam turned to see a chubby blond kid rushing up the grassy embankment after him. It was Ronny Williams, a fourth-grader as sarcastic as they come, a gossiper that always hung around the guys from the neighborhood, even though his house was somewhere beyond the Mormon church in the Northwest Hills block. Sam was pretty sure Ronny didn't spend a lot of time in his own neighborhood, or even at his own home. There was a rumor he had heard a couple years ago that his father hit him. Sam never brought it up.
"Sammy! Wait up!"
Sam stood at the fence as Ronny approached, breathing heavily by the time he'd gotten halfway up the incline. The cold sun sat somewhere above the clouds and it was still bright outside, even though the sky was obscured behind a grey blanket of overcast.
"Hey Ronny," Sam greeted him.
"Sammy," Ronny started, still gulping air by the lungful as he reached out for the chain link. He leaned heavily against it and panted like a dog. "Sammy, did you hear about Timmy Jacobson?"
It had felt like forever since Sam had heard that name spoken, but he had thought about it almost every day since last summer, the summer with Isabelle's stomach open and the spiders and the house in the trees.
"No, what happened?"
"Oh, man! He went crazy, Sammy. He went crazy! He took the clown car to the looney bin!" Ronny was always saying things Sam didn't understand. He didn't understand what a clown car had to do with going crazy, and he figured they were adult phrases that only boring grandparents used.
"Crazy? What do you mean crazy? Why?" Sam asked.
"Well, Tina Hendricks said that he wasn't in class today or yesterday, and that he was talking about going to see something called the gore hole a couple days ago." Ronny emphasized the word gore with wide-eyes, like the librarian at school did when she read stories from picture books to the class on Thursdays. "Supposedly he saw it and went crazy. You ever heard such a thing?"
Sam shook his head. "Huh-uh." He tried to imagine what a gore hole could be, and what it would look like, but came up blank. In some of the video games he played there was a Gore setting that could be shifted, but what did blood and guts have to do with Timmy? Before he could ask, though, Ronny continued.
"Me either until today. Anyway, Joey Campen and his cousin say they supposedly know where it is and are gonna meet us later, if you wanna come with. There will be a bunch of other kids there, too." Ronny, still breathing heavily from his pursuit, let go of the fence and clapped Sam on the shoulder, smiling a wide grin. "You're not scared, are you, dude?"
The hairs on Sam's neck pricked hearing bunch of other kids as he knew of the social situation that would bring upon him. Sam knew that Ronny was a talker, a rumor-spreader, and he knew that if he denied him in this, word would spread of how much of a pussy Sam was (Jacob Santos, the Latino kid that sat next to him in class, had revealed the 'proper' use of the word pussy to him, as well as four other wide-eyed fifth graders, during recess a few weeks after the start of the year). He was confused about what this gore hole was and apprehensive to see something that supposedly made his old friend go crazy. He knew he'd never hear the end of it if he didn't show up, though.
"Nah, I'm not scared. What time?" Sam asked. "And where?"
"Meet us at the bus stop at six."
Sam had lived on 131st Street his entire life and knew there was only one bus stop Ronny could be referring to. Even though Ridgecrest Elementary was within walking distance of home, there was only one bus stop on the loop that went around his neighborhood for the schools across town. It was at the three-way intersection where 131st Street was bisected by Shaw Road.
He arrived home fifteen minutes later, pulling the key out of his backpack and sliding it into the lock of the front door of the house. His mother, being the worrier that she was, had tied the key to the inside pouch of the backpack with red yarn for fear of his losing it and being locked out. Sam thought it extra-dorky and had a habit of looking over his shoulder before pulling out the leashed key, but he didn't think she deserved the hassle, especially with everything else going on, so he never mentioned it to her.
The door shut behind him and he unslung his backpack, tossing it onto the couch. He took his shoes off, made some microwave macaroni-n-cheese and watched an episode of X-Files (the one with the yellow-eyed guy that could stretch through vents and small holes and made nests out of newspaper and spit), all the while being unable to get his mind off of the words Ronny had said back at the elementary school track.
He went crazy, Sammy.
After starting a few math problems from his homework, it became apparent to him that his mind wasn't going to cooperate, not until he was on the way to the bus stop, until he was on the way to finding out the answer to the question that now burned in his mind: what happened to Timmy? He sat in the living room on the brown leather chair near the kitchen and his mind rushed through the events of last summer as it had so many countless times since. He wanted to find out the truth, but not from the shitty kids of the neighborhood.
Many times throughout the last year, Sam had debated calling Timmy's house. When Timmy wouldn't answer his calls after the first few weeks, Sam had given up. He still had the phone number to his friend's house memorized, repeating it with clarity in his mind as a type of jingle or mantra (eight-four-seven seven-nine-eight-two, eight-four-seven seven-nine-eight-two). If he knew that Timmy was still doing alright, maybe making new friends and living his life, Sam wouldn't have been so compelled to make the call now. He'd even feel happy for him. He just hated not knowing the truth of the situation. Yea, Ronny embellishes stories like the best of them, but he usually told the truth. Even after all this time of not seeing each other, Sammy had still felt slimy listening to Ronny talk about Timmy like he was just another focus for gossip.
He went crazy, Sammy!
Even though Sam hadn't spoken to Timmy since that horrible day, and they had only briefly seen each other in the hallways a few times since, Sam still considered Timmy his friend, if anyone were to ever ask. Inside himself, Sam felt some hole still hadn't been filled; you don't just drop friendships like the one they had, he thought. It takes something horrible, and it was something horrible that destroyed their bond. He was pretty sure Timmy didn't feel the same way about their friendship, not after how Sam had run away like a scared baby, not bothering to save him.
Something could be wrong, though. Something could be wrong with his friend, his used-to-be best friend, and Sam wanted to know the truth. Maybe he could help if he understood, if he heard what was wrong, and maybe he could get his friend back, earn their friendship once again and prove that he wasn't a scared little kid.
Maybe Timmy could forgive him.
He approached the house phone and picked it up, dialing the numbers like he had so many times last year and the year before. Seven-nine-eight-two, and then he put the phone to his ear and listened anxiously as it began to ring.
After four rings, a woman's coarse voice answered the line. "Hello?"
Sam recognized the voice of Timmy's mother. "Hi, Mrs. Jacobson," he started. "This is Sammy Benton."
"Oh, Sammy! Oh, it's good to hear from you. It's been a while." Her voice seemed to lighten a bit. Just the few sentences she had spoken were already sending Sam's mind into a nostalgic trip, back to when he was visiting Timmy's big house and his mother was making food and asking what do you boys want for dinner or how's your mother doing, Sammy, as they sat around the dining room table in the summer sunlight. It wasn't until this moment that he realized just how much he missed those days.
"Yea," was all Sam said, unsure of what else to reply with. There was a long pause between the two of them and then he asked, "I was wondering if Timmy was there?"
There was another pause, then she answered. "Timmy can't come to the phone. I'm sorry, Sammy. He's very sick at the moment and we're just trying to do everything we can to get him better."
"Oh. Well, could you tell -"
Sam was interrupted by a muffled groaning in the background of the call. It was quiet at first but began increasing in volume to a loud whimper. It was Timmy's voice, broken up by heavy sobs. Sam wanted to ask what was wrong but there was commotion on the other end of the line, with only a briefly audible phrase, "...the whispers again...", before loud crying made it unintelligible. He could hear Timmy's mother gently singing, and then the phone clicked and the call was ended.
The clouds had begun to clear in the west, exposing the small flare of evening sun that was sinking below the horizon, but the sky was still overcast above and had grown dark by the time Sam arrived to the bus stop. In the shadow of dusk, the porch lights of the neighboring homes had come to life. Dull orange light glowed from beyond the curtained windows of the house directly behind the bus stop, and the squeak of a bat came from somewhere, although Sam could not spot it when he searched above. He leaned himself against the street sign-post and glanced down at his Power Rangers digital watch, pressing the nubbed plastic button on the side that switched on the dim little bulb in the display.
A long sigh came from his lips.
We're just trying to do everything we can to get him better.
He went crazy, Sammy!
Even during the day, the blacktop of Shaw Road seemed to soak up the light of the sun in unnatural ways. But now, in the late evening, Sam could swear he was staring down a river of shadow. The freshly painted lines running down the center appeared like white worms, seeming to slowly squirm in the uncertain light, but going nowhere and remaining in their perpetual spots on the concrete. Identical gabled roof tops lined both sides of the street as it tapered off into the distance, and blue television light radiated from the living rooms of a few of them. Some of the houses had windows that glowed dimly from their second stories like eyes. Tall evergreens were cluttered in between the homes and in backyards, and there were deep forests on either side of the street, beyond their properties. Towering pines stood like giants, black and jagged in the growing dark.
Sam hadn't been down Shaw Road since the worst day of his life. His mother knew about what happened, from what Sam had told her after she had retrieved Isabelle's corpse, and had decided it best that they avoid Shaw Road any time they were in the car and on their way into town. He had been grateful for that during this last year, since it happened, grateful for her understanding since the day he lost both of his best friends.
He knew that a house - the house, the one where his nightmares brought him back to - sat off of a cul-de-sac at the end of Shaw Road, before the big curve out of the neighborhood. And now, staring down the long black road, his mind once again played the memories he wished he could forget.
There had been nothing different about the air that day last summer, nor the smells or the wind or passage of time, or the sunlight, appearing as bright as it ever had during any summer day. There were only a few weeks left of vacation and Timmy had invited Sam outside to go exploring around the neighborhood, as was their usual plan each morning. The sky was clear and the air was warm, as if summer had pushed herself to her very boundaries in order to give the two a bright day to enjoy the last bit of freedom with before returning to school.
Sam brought along Isabelle, a big, fat chocolate lab with droopy eyes that ate voraciously and walked a little funny from her bulk. She was huge but had a quiet, raspy bark and she had been his best friend, his confidant, and the perfect pillow for a long time. She hadn't been able to move very fast, but she was always just as playful as she had been as a puppy, and Sam had loved her to death for it.
The three of them - Sam, Timmy and Isabelle - were making their way around the neighborhood loop, taking the turn at the bus stop to head down Shaw Road. The blacktop had not yet been applied to the cracked worn concrete back then and Sam remembered the bulges in the road from thick tree roots growing underneath. Timmy was whipping a stick at the reeds that grew out of the ditch on the left side of the road and the plants cracked against the stick as he swung. A few minutes of this passed, then Timmy followed a particularly large crack out into the middle of the street and moved across to the other side. Sam followed, glancing behind to see Isabelle's tongue lolling out of her big doggy smile as she trailed them.
He couldn't remember what they had been talking about on their way that day. His memories of the walk down Shaw Road grew hazy until the point they reached the cul-de-sac, about a quarter mile before the end of Shaw Road, when the smell in the air changed from the piney warm fragrance of late summer to... something else. It was pungent, a smell that assaulted Sam's nostrils, like rotten food in a garbage can mixed with something electric. Isabelle was sniffing at the air as if something were strange about this place. The cul-de-sac was empty, lined by no houses, only old evergreens leaning into each other, save for a gravel drive to the right. At the end of the drive, there was a black house barely visible through a thick stand of pines that obscured vision of the area from where they stood out on the road.
"I've never been into here," Timmy said as he moved from the road into the cul-de-sac. "Have you?"
Sam's eyes moved through the trees. Even though the cold grip of the previous night was all but gone to the warmth of the morning, something was... off with this place. He felt that he wasn't noticing something he ought to be, like someone was staring at them from a place out in the open but he simply couldn't find the eyes to meet with his own.
"Earth to Underpants McGee," Timmy said.
Sam snapped from his gaze. "Huh? No, I've never been here either. Dude, do you smell that?"
Timmy sniffed the air like a dog. Sam could tell he was more focused on the impression than actually smelling the air, glancing down occasionally to check his own act against how Isabelle was sniffing at the sky, attempting to mimic her perfectly.
"Timmy, do you smell that or..."
It was at this moment that Sam heard the whisper. At first, he wasn't sure he'd heard anything. Birds were chirping to each other from high branches of distant trees and the engine of a car not too far away was fading as it left the neighborhood. Then he heard it again. He was sure of it, even though he couldn't tell what it was saying. The raspy voice shrieked in the quiet sunlight, whispering loudly and chanting something he couldn't quite make out.
"Is that someone talking?" Timmy asked.
The quiet voice was coming from the direction of the black house, or from the surrounding pines it was nestled in. Sam felt a slight relief that he wasn't the only one hearing it. Before he could respond to Timmy though, Isabelle yelped her raspy bark and shuffled off into the stand of pines toward the noise, rustling bushes with her bulk as she went.
"Isabelle, come on," Sam called after her. "Isabelle!"
She was gone into the undergrowth on her way toward the house. Sam moved to follow her path but halted abruptly when he noticed the sun's light glinting off of something in his vision; it was a spider web sat across the shrub in front of him. And then he noticed all of the spider webs, strung across branches, under bushes, between trees that nearly hugged each other, everywhere; more spiders than he'd ever seen in one place. Each web held in its center the fat brown arachnid of the northwest forests, with their bunched hairy legs and the milky kaleidoscopic patterns on their huge butts. He imagined the feel of the web on his face and skin and the crawling sensations all over him had he not noticed them before diving in after Isabelle.
"Jesus!" Timmy shouted. "Look at all those things!"
Sam shivered and turned, moving toward the gravel driveway. Timmy followed him, whipping spiders from their webs with the stick he still held. A wall of arachnid infested shrubs passed through Sam's view while he tried to keep up with the rustling of leaves and the wheezing breaths of Isabelle as she maintained her path through the underbrush toward the black house. "Isabelle," he called. A hundred feet down the drive, with gravel crunching under every one of his hastening steps, Sam saw that Isabelle was running faster and outpacing him, beating them to the house. He heard her break through the wall of foliage as he closed in on the front yard of the place and watched the dog bolt, covered head-to-toe in thick spider webs, through the overgrown grass to the back of the house. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her move so quickly.
The smell of rot and electricity was intense, growing more acrid the closer they came to the place. Sam slowed as he approached the front of the dark home, his eyes feeling a slight burning from the haze in the air. He heard Timmy close in from behind but his gaze was caught by the situation in front of them.
The first thing he noticed was the tree growing out of the roof. After blinking a few extra times to be sure, Sam stared up at the tall sentinel that rose from the center of the gambrel roof top, its needled canopy spread open like a tarp above the house. Its trunk was wide and had grown through a hole in the shingles of the roof, broken bits of carpentry melded to the aperture over time with moss. Pitch dripped thickly from the tree's rigid bark. Something wasn't right about the feel of it and the smell in the air. The feeling tickling Sam in his gut made him sure of it: the thing didn't belong here.
"What the hell?" Timmy started. "Why is a tree growing out of there?"
"I don't know." Sam's eyes were following the along the contours in the bark and he could see sap everywhere, an unnatural glaze.
A few dead brown leaves were spread across the worn wooden deck that skirted the front of the house, otherwise covered in a thin layer of dead pine needles. The house's windows were gleaming in the sunlight but barren of any visible form or shape from the interior; no curtains and no lights. Only thick darkness met the other side of the glass. As strange as it was, though, Sam's focus was now on something else entirely:
The whispers had stopped and he could no longer hear Isabelle.
An eerie quiet lay over the forest surrounding the black house and the air was heavy with that smell. Sam remembered a similar electrical odor outside of his Aunt Julie's place, which sat under huge power lines. When it rained, it smelled like burnt water. Sam's eyes searched above for anything resembling cables or lines but saw none.
Timmy was already on the deck when Sam's attention returned. "I don't hear that voice anymore," he said. He was analyzing the front door, kicking some of the moss and needles around with his foot.
Sam nodded, whether or not Timmy could see it, and slowly moved toward the side of the house Isabelle had disappeared behind. "Timmy, toss me your stick," Sam said. He turned just in time to catch it as it wobbled through the air, then turned back and moved along the length of the deck toward the corner of the house.
There was rustling in the overgrowth beyond. The sound was getting closer as he approached the corner.
And then Isabelle appeared from around the other side. A wave of relief washed over Sam as he called her to him, but her pace was much slower than before, and she was no longer bouncing around and wagging her tail.
Something was wrong.
There was a dark substance dripping down her hind legs and into the grass as she moved. Sam saw that it was blood and that something was dragging along the ground underneath her. His eyes brimmed with tears as he knelt down to her, unsure of what had happened and uncertain of what he looked at. He could hear Isabelle whining and her breath becoming wheezy as she stumbled onto her side onto the deck in front of him. The blood slicked tubes that dangled from her exposed stomach appeared almost white against the dark brown of her fur. Sam had never seen anything like it, a skein of worms that glistened grotesquely in the morning light.
Then she stopped moving.
He had cried out then, unsure of what else to do, what else to feel. Then he had heard other crying as well and glanced through watered eyes back toward the front of the house.
Timmy was standing facing the front window next to the door, his face no further than a foot from the glass. He was sobbing hysterically but staring into the black beyond the threshold. The front of his jeans were soaked and he was saying something behind his cries but Sam couldn't make it out.
In the shadows on the other side of the glass, there was thick darkness and in the darkness, a shape stirred.
Sam didn't know why he did it, why he ran without grabbing Timmy. Fear and sorrow had filled him to the brim, pouring over and out in an adrenaline fueled sprint down the gravel drive, out of the empty cul-de-sac, along the white lines of Shaw Road and finally back to his home in what seemed like a blur, a flash of time, a surreal dream that he would wake from as soon as he got home.
When he got home, though, he did not wake from a dream. He left his only two friends back at the black house and, even now, couldn't even remember what he'd seen in the darkness in that house.
Sam told his mother about the spiders and the forest, the tree in the roof of the house, and the stuff dangling from Isabelle's stomach. He told her about the whispers, but his mother didn't seem sure of how to respond to that bit of the story and simply shushed him and held him close.
Their next-door neighbor, Chuck, helped his mother in collecting Isabelle's body. The three of them drove in her car to the cul-de-sac Sam quietly pointed out. When they arrived, Timmy was sitting in the gravel on the side of the road opposite the cul-de-sac, crying into his knees. Sam's mother offered Timmy a ride home and, when he quietly sat into the backseat next to him, Sam could smell the piss in the air. Neither spoke to each other, even as they dropped Timmy off at his house. He never came over to hang out with Sam again after that, and Sam couldn't blame him.
They buried Isabelle in the backyard. Sam cried for hours. His mother had said, with tears in her sympathetic bloodshot eyes, that maybe Isabelle had gotten herself caught on some old wire or fencing or a nail. She said that animals don't typically have the patience to wait in a situation like that and will move about, trying to escape, often causing more damage to themselves. Sam knew that she was trying to be helpful, but the idea sent his mind into images of his dog ripping along barbed wire, thrashing back and forth. He had imagined it so many times since then and could still imagine it to this day, as if it was an actual event that he had seen, locked into his imagination like a memory.
Aside from the fear and the sorrow, Sam learned something important that late summer day:
It was a house near the end of Shaw Road.
Sam still thought of Isabelle these days and he could do it without getting all teary-eyed like he used to. He still remembered the grey under her chin and her big tongue and her happy eyes and he had learned to try and appreciate the memories of her that he actually enjoyed; all those summers out to his grandfather's cabin in some town called Cle Elum, with Isabelle following behind him as they explored the woods around the old man's property; those countless times with her by his side while they spent cold winter evenings playing Flashlight Tag with his neighborhood friends - whether it was from her raspy bark, her big wagging behind, or her heavy breathing after even short distances of walking, she always gave his position away but he didn't care. He had loved her as much as anyone could love a best friend.
Sam's thoughts faded when two kids approached from the north: Jacob Santos and Ronny Williams. He greeted them, and Jacob Santos, of course, found a way to use the f-word in the first few words he spoke. Even though Jacob cursed a bunch, he wasn't a bad kid - never picked on Sam or anything - and sometimes he could even be pretty funny.
As they waited for the rest of the kids to show up, Sam listened as Jacob was speaking to Ronny about the gore hole, the reason why they were out here to begin with. Within moments, the topic had moved to Timmy and, even though Sam had no desire to be a part of the conversation, he stood there listening and watching Jacob's animated face in the evening dark as he spoke.
"Yea, I heard it fucked him up real good," Jacob said. "My brother said that his mom found him just wandering around old Ashley Hills, not knowing where he was, or who the hell he was." Ashley Hills was a housing development that had begun construction about three years prior, off to the southeast of their neighborhood. After funding had been lost, the entire project was deserted for 'Future Development Continuation', according to the fine print on the NO TRESPASSING sign that guarded the abandoned homes. Sam had hung out with Jacob and his cousin there a few times during the winter, playing flashlight tag or throwing rocks at some of the derelict construction equipment but, without anyone else there, it would be a lonely place to be.
Three more students approached out of the dark of the loop coming from the same direction Sam had. It was Collin Chambers and two other kids from a different class than Sam. He thought the one to Collin's right was named Jeremy but he couldn't remember. Jacob greeted Collin with a punch to the shoulder and they play wrestled for an aggressive minute, bringing each other down to the grass of the yard behind the bus stop, laughing and grunting as they tried to overpower one another.
As one last kid, Matt Soblieski, arrived to the bus stop, the clouds of the east had already darkened to black while the western horizon still flared with the pale yellow-blue of the setting sun. Jacob Santos had Collin in a headlock and was laughing as his opponent squirmed. "I give, I give!" Collin managed. The two stood and laughed, pushing each other and wiping the blades of grass and dirt from their knees and elbows.
Dusk was falling upon them.
"We ready to go?" Collin asked toward the rest of the group. He turned and pushed Jacob again and they both laughed.
Sam looked down at his Power Ranger watch once more and pressed the rubber nub.
"What's this thing called again?" the kid Sam thought was named Jeremy asked.
Collin smiled widely.
"The gore hole."
"What a weird name."
Collin used his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice: "Come with me if you want to live," he said with a big chest and wide eyes.
The group laughed and began moving but they were not heading the direction Sam had anticipated. Of the three routes to take from the bus stop, two of them led further back into the neighborhood, toward the entrance to Ashley Hills, except Collin wasn't leading the group down either of them. Collin was headed the only direction Sam didn't want to go, especially as night approached.
"Hey, Collin," Sam said. He nodded to his right, toward the road leading further down the loop. "Ashley Hills is this way."
"It's not at Ashley Hills," Collin responded, looking back over his shoulder.
"What? Jacob said that's where they found Timmy, in Ashley Hills."
Collin stopped and the rest of group bumped into each other doing the same. "Yea, that's where they found him but the gore hole is this way," he said, pointing down the road that led to the place Sam did everything he could to avoid, the road that his mother would intentionally circumvent, that ran toward the dying sunlight and to wounds that he now realized were still very much fresh, opening up once more like a flower of pain in his chest.
Sam could almost feel what Collin was going to say before the words came out of the kid's mouth.
"It's near the end of Shaw Road."
Fifteen minutes had passed with Collin leading the group down the dark road, its white lines wavering and the blacktop as dark as the night that grew around them. Sam's thoughts were running; he had stared into the big windows of each house that lined the black road, seeing images flash on distant televisions and even saw a family sitting at a dining room table, eating and laughing and enveloped in a dim warm light from a fireplace. He wanted to be in there, or be at home with his own warmth and the safety of his own house and his own family (which consisted of just his mother), but all he saw in his mind's eye was the dark house with the tree growing out of it that glistened with thick sap, the house that Isabelle ran behind and returned from only to die... The images of the worm-like tubes dragging from her stomach overpowered his attempts to keep his thoughts at bay, to stave off the nightmares he'd tried so desperately to forget over the last year. Even with the conversation from the other kids - loud and rambunctious shouts echoing off into the woods behind the houses - Sam could barely hear it. It was a light din compared to the thumping of his heart and the fire of anxiety burning in his neck and chest.
He wanted to run home. He didn't know how close they were to this 'gore hole' but he hadn't been this far down Shaw Road since that day last summer. He wanted to simply stop and let his friends continue while he slowly turned and walked home. He knew, however, that he would never hear the end of it. His so-called friends would hound him and jibe him for months for being such a chicken-shit, as Jacob Santos would undoubtedly say and, for the most part, it would be undoubtedly true.
He remembered how they treated the foreign-exchange student earlier this year when the kid wouldn't stay at Collin's house to finish The Blair Witch Project because it was too scary. Sam couldn't recall his name but he did remember his teacher saying the kid was Swedish and he remembered how much the kid cried that week after he bailed on the movie when Collin and the rest of the group berated him at school. Jacob Santos used the word pussy to describe the kid as he told the story to everyone in class during lunch the following Monday.
The truth, though, was that The Blair Witch Project, just like many other movies, had given Sam nightmares for weeks, something he would never admit to the rest of the group of neighborhood kids. It took weeks for those dreams to die off and for Sam to stop crying in the middle of the night from fright and the only thing that would've made those nights worse would've been if he had to go to school the next day to face ridicule for the fear he could not control, for the nightmares that seemed to control him instead. Sam hadn't said anything then to stop his friends from ridiculing the scared kid. He ran from that like he'd run from Isabelle and Timmy. And now the same feelings of fight-or-flight were pulsing in his tendons and ligaments. He felt the same desire to run away from what was unfolding and he was ashamed of his fear.
Sam glanced ahead to take in the group he traveled with once more; Collin, Jacob, Ronny, Jeremy and Matt, and a kid whose name he didn't know, all of them seemingly confident in their journey to this thing called the gore hole, joking and jostling. Ronny was bouncing from one side of the road to the other, picking up rocks and throwing them at garbage cans and Jacob was picking up rocks and throwing them at Ronny. Sam allowed himself the smallest sliver hope that perhaps they would simply walk by the entrance to the cul-de-sac, shouting and messing with each other without even noticing. Maybe the destination was beyond that place. Sam hoped that, when that time came, his own reaction would not betray him, that he would not give any sign of how terrified he was to pass by that cul-de-sac and that black house, once again. If they could simply walk past and continue down to the turnpike at the end of the road, perhaps he would have nothing to be afraid of.
The shadows around them had grown thick. Sam's anticipation was swelling along with the darkness. His hands had begun to shiver in the pockets of his jeans.
And it was only a few moments from then, as the group crested a small rise in the road, that Sam saw it. There were many cul-de-sacs in the neighborhood with the same type of concrete and the same type of side-street entrance that ultimately led to a dead end. Yet, even in the evening dark, Sam knew, by some invisible marker he couldn't pinpoint, that he was looking at the entrance to the one cul-de-sac he had avoided for so long. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as his mind began to run through the memories once more, the scenes both in his head and in front of him matching each other in shape.
"Nah, dude," Ronny Williams said. "Sub-Zero could take Scorpion any day. What does Scorpion have? A rope that comes out of his hand? Sub-Zero can freeze things."
"Bullshit!" Jacob retorted. "Scorpion is undead. He's got a skull for a head!"
"So what? Sub-Zero would just freeze him and then shatter him like that guy in the movie." Ronny shrugged like that should win the argument they had been having for the last ten minutes.
"Dude," Jacob began again. "Scorpion blows fire out of his head. He would just melt the ice. Fuckin' simple. Boom. Plus, you can't kill an undead. They're already dead, dummy!"
Sam winced at the word dummy. His nerves were firing.
"Then how do you explain what happens when I kill you in the game whenever we play, huh?" Ronny's irritation was beginning to show. "How many times have I done the snowball fatality on you?"
"That's in the game, not real life, dummy!"
The group was just a few strides from the entrance into the cul-de-sac. Sam's eyes analyzed the steps of his friends, specifically Collin who led the group, trying to verify from their movement whether or not they were going to simply pass right by the place. In his mind's eye, Sam already saw it happening, with the group simply walking past and him following behind. He wouldn't even need to look. He'd not even glance toward the empty cul-de-sac, the woods around it, or the direction of the black house hidden in the trees. He wouldn't even acknowledge the place, pushing his fears down into a hole they couldn't overtake him from. The image was so potent, of the group being loud and just continuing down the road, that he already felt the stress begin to ease out of him like the air from a balloon, deflating the anxiety in his breath.
"You guys are retarded," Collin said over his shoulder. "Reptile beats both of them."
Sam hardly heard this, though, because, as Collin laughed at his own comment, Sam watched him begin to veer to the right, away from the center of the road, away from the safe image that Sam had in his mind. Collin was moving toward the entrance to the cul-de-sac, toward the dark trees that had held the whispers and the black house, where the nightmares lived. The balloon in Sam's chest inflated once more. The fear began to burn behind his ears and in his lungs as his breathing shallowed.
Jeremy had joined in on the conversation, but his voice, like the voices of the others, was distant amongst the roaring anxiety in Sam's head.
"Wh-where..." A whisper was all Sam could muster from his jittering lips, a combination of the growing night chill and the adrenaline pumping through him, shocking his veins. His heart thumped loudly in his ears, yet his feet still propelled him along with the group, moving from the blacktop of Shaw Road to the old concrete of the cul-de-sac.
"Smoke can teleport and he's got Scorpion's rope thing," Jeremy said. "Best of all worlds, plus he's badass."
As they moved along the circumference of the cul-de-sac, Sam gazed with cruel nostalgia upon the dark bushes and pines that sat at the front of the woods. They had been home to many spiders and their webs on that day last summer. It was too dark for him to discern if any were still there but, with the way the darkness caused the leaves to appear to shift and wobble, he imagined a fat hairy eight-legged thing waiting under each and every leaf, behind each branch or twig, with thick webs draped just over the endless needles that crusted the dirt underneath.
There were other voices. Sam heard them and then he saw glowing spectres crawling over the trees. Beams of light were coming from down the gravel drive, toward where the house had been.
Collin was the first to step over the threshold from the cul-de-sac to the gravel caked dirt of the drive. A cold sweat dampened Sam's forehead as he followed the group, afraid of what lay ahead but terrified of staying back in the dark by himself.
The group rounded the final curve in the drive.
The house was gone.
Where Sam's memory told him the house would still be, with the tree growing out of the old roof and the windows sitting empty and cold, a large vacant square of strange grass now lay, short and pale rather than dark and overgrown like the flora that surrounded it. In the grasp of night's shade, the grass almost appeared luminescent, with a glow barely visible to the naked eye and almost perfectly shaped to the foundation of the house that once existed there, the house that still existed in Sam's memories of this place.
In the center of the empty space, a massive stump jutted out of the ground with knobbed boney roots snaking into the soil. They gripped the earth beneath it like ghoulish fingers. Not so much as a single two-by-four or stray brick lay in the vicinity to indicate the means in which the house was removed. It was as if it never existed.
The spectres of light crawled through the trees in Sam's peripheral once again. He noticed, then, that they weren't ghosts or aliens but the beams of flashlights held by two of the eight or nine kids that were standing in a line, single file, leading up to the back of the big stump, the side Sam could not see from where he approached. Collin removed his own flashlight from the backpack slung over his shoulder and flared it to the group, exposing the stump in a spotlight for a moment.
The bark appeared burnt, scorched by an unknown fire, but glistened with some kind of substance, draining from under the blackened ridges like blood, too thin and watery to be sap. Sam's eyes searched the clearing and the surrounding bushes for any signs of a downed tree, the one that once existed here. Surely, if the tree had fallen over, there would be a massive trunk still decaying somewhere nearby, burnt by flames or soggy from rain and time.
He found no sign of the rest of the tree. Something else, however, caught his attention:
Behind the group waiting in line at the stump, off near the edge of the tree line, was a kid he couldn't identify from here, murmuring and consoling another that was standing next to a tall pine. And as Sam's eyes tried adjusting to the dark with the beams from the flashlights occasionally making a swipe through the forest, he realized that the kid was not the only one.
Standing silently in the woods along the forest line, scattered about, were at least a dozen other kids. They were short forms of shadow that were motionless, save for one or two of them swaying back and forth, but all were quiet and staring off into the dark.
"Woah, look at the grass," Jacob said, motioning for Collin to hand him the flashlight. Once in his hand, he clicked it on and crouched to pluck some of the pale plant out of the ground, rotating it between his fingers and holding the light up to it as he analyzed the stuff. In the beam of the flashlight, Sam could see a powder flaking off of the bit of plant and floating in the air in front of Jacob's face. Where the wind had been cold and consistent earlier in the day, here, in the night, within the walls of the surrounding pines, the air was calm and the dust swirled slowly in the stillness. Sam remembered seeing a similar type of dust once waft out of the dry mushrooms that grew near the tree line on the other side of the chain link fence, near the garbage bins at the rear of the elementary school. This grass didn't look like mushrooms though.
"Be careful of that stuff, Jacob," Sam warned.
"Yea, or what?" he asked pompously. He glanced up from his hands then and directed the light toward the line of kids, specifically to the one standing closest to the stump.
"Joey, you piece of shit," Jacob laughed as he stood and moved around the back side of the stump, shoving the kid in line. "You dillweed! You said were going to w-... You said you... were..."
Jacob's voice trailed off as he coughed, wiping his nose and mouth with the back of his hand. He stood there, looking at the kid named Joey but not really looking. His eyes were glazed, hypnotized by something Sam could not see from the angle at which he stood. The other kid remained silent, never moving his eyes from the black trunk, as did the rest of them in line; all silent, all staring ahead to the stump.
"Let's see it! Where's the gore hole?" Collin asked loudly as he, too, started walking around to the back side of the large stump.
Jacob's voice was making a mumbling noise as he pointed at the stump. Collin coughed once as well and his eyes seemed to glaze over.
"Guys, what's wrong? What is it?" Sam asked. The house was no longer here and the fear of encountering it once more had depleted only to be replaced by a an eerie chill from the scene he now looked upon; the two loudest of his friends silenced by what they were witnessing on the other side of the black, damp stump; a bunch of kids standing hypnotized in a line and many more, silent throughout the tree line.
It's okay to run, sweetie, his mother's voice said in his mind. And he wanted to run. He didn't want to see what was on the other side of the stump and he didn't want to know why all those kids were quietly standing in the dark. This place was bizarre and there was a wrongness to it all that Sam could swear was preying on him now, here, in the dark. He wanted to run again. He knew why he wanted to run, yet something deep inside of him prevented him from doing so.
It was then that he could taste the powder in the air and on his tongue, spores of the pale glowing grass below. That's when he felt the tingling, pin-pricking sensation in his sinuses and in his mouth and over his eyes and in his nose. And there was something invisible and thin, like a line of spider's web that he could not see, tugging at his chest, at his insides, to move forward. It urged him toward the other side of stump with slow steps seemingly outside of his control.
Only when Sam Benton turned and faced the other side of the stump, the side that everyone else was staring at, through eyes that he felt he'd lost control of, only then did he see it:
Bored into the black leaking bark of the burnt tree trunk was a hole the size of a basketball, and there was a boy knelt down in front of it with his head sunk into it to his shoulders. Sam's directed gaze moved along the contours of the barked aperture and watched the boy's knuckles as they went white in the passing beam of a flashlight, holding the sides of the stump. The boy's body was relaxing and tensing, and Sam could hear a muffled sound coming from deep within. It sounded like a scream, distant and hardly audible. He wanted to know why the boy was kneeled there, why he would submit his head to the stump's maw, but words would not come from his throat. His voice and his body had relinquished themselves to something beyond the realm of the world he knew.
And as he watched himself, felt himself, moving to the back of the line, with Jacob and Collin moving behind him just as witlessly, Sam began to hear the whispers, the sharp consonants licking in the dark around him. It was the whispers from trees, the same one he'd heard the day Isabelle died. He couldn't understand it at first but, as it repeated itself again and again, inside and outside his hazed and hypnotized mind, he could make the words out, even though he tried desperately not to hear them.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
Sam could see the dark wall of the forest surrounding them. From the corner of his eye, he saw the shapes of the other kids, standing amongst the trees like indistinguishable shadows. He wanted to escape for what lay ahead of him was the short line to the black stump. Sam's eyes, fixated on the thing, could almost pierce through the bark, sensing the evil that waited for him within. Its wretched fingers had somehow leaked from the stump and were reaching out, leading him to where it wanted him.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
The line had shortened as the whispers licked at his mind with oiled tongues. The kid kneeling in front of the stump had left and the next in line had taken his place. Tears ran down Sam's cheeks and the fear was rattling his ribs. He thought of his mother sitting at home, waiting for him to return. He tried to scream again, tried to scream for her, but nothing came out except a barely audible moan, hardly able to escape his clenched teeth.
The line, including Sam, shuffled forward and the child directly in front of him knelt down to the stump, placed his hands on the bark on either side of the deep, black hole and slowly moved his head closer and closer. The boy's head sunk into the hole and Sam could feel his chest quivering with frightful sobs that couldn't escape.
The hole was waiting for him. He could feel its anticipation like static along the hairs of his arms and neck. The eternity this thing seemed to have waited was heavy in the air, in his lungs and in his mind.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
It's almost your turn, Sammy.
Sammy. Sammy. Sammy.
The boy's head slid out from the stump, covered in a placenta-like substance, steaming in the cold air of the autumn night. His skin was pale, drained, and his eyes were wide and completely vacant in the dark. A low moan emitted from his slimed lips and, in Sam's peripheral, the boy stumbled off to the trees beyond the clearing.
SAMMY! SAMMY! SAMMY! WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.
Everything he had ever been and ever would be pushed against the force that moved his legs forward to the stump. His insides burned with wasted effort, seemingly useless against the powers that now controlled him, feeling like concrete slathered across his limbs, animating him like a rigid puppet. As his body knelt down in front of the stump, he screamed as hard as he could, producing only a breath that fitfully wheezed out of his lungs.
SAMMY! SAMMY! SAMMY! WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.
SAMMY! SAMMY! SAMMY! WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.
The harsh whispers chanted his name and that phrase like a song, some tune he would hear kids singing in the schoolyard during recess. They came from the tall pines that surrounded him as well as from within the bowels of the black hole directly in front of him, thousands of whispering mouths, slick with saliva, licking and lapping and chanting. His hands tingled with possession as they reached up to either side of the aperture, the echoes calling him from within the window to the abyss. The dark consumed his fixated vision as he felt the bark scrape along his glasses and against the skin of his ears.
Something in the blackness had been waiting for him. There was an almost palpable sense of pleasure, of a long game finally coming to a close, washing over Sam and hardening onto his bones. I can't move. Guys, I can't move! But these were only thoughts, playing silently in his own mind, as his throat and mouth betrayed his command and the aperture seemed to cinch closely around his neck.
SAMMY! SAMMY! SAMMY!
And as his body submitted, with his head and neck encased fully in a tight darkness, the whispers went quiet and the world outside of the hole faded away.
The blackness was heavy over Sam's eyes and he couldn't tell if they were still open. The inner walls of the trunk felt like wet rubber and slickly moved over the sides of his glasses and his nose and lips, fluttering back and forth against his cheeks, undulating like the throat of some ferocious beast. The horror burning through him sheened the edges of his darkened vision like mirrored glass and he tried to push himself out of the black, but his arms didn't move. He tried to move his legs, but they made no response either, tranquilized by the oppressing darkness around him. He felt the slick walls tighten and close in and air no longer filled his lungs.
It was going to suffocate him.
Panic grew in the depths of him as he struggled for air and the rubber constricted around his neck below his jaw and on his face, crushing the frames of his glasses into his eyebrows and when he thought that he could take it no longer, the oily walls of darkness fell back, opened up, ballooned out far away from his head. He gasped for air, his lungs aching ferociously, and found that his mouth was no longer clenched shut, no longer silenced by possession. He cried out into the nothingness ahead of him and around him. After whole seconds, his sobs echoed off of distant walls he could not see, coming back to him like someone else's voice. He no longer felt his hands on the bark of the stump, no longer felt the damp ground soaking the knees of his jeans or the gnarled rim of the aperture against the base of his neck. He could only feel the darkness around him and his heartbeat thumping in his throat and ears.
Sam whimpered, floating bodiless in the black.
Somewhere in the dark, ahead and below him, the sounds of an unseen ocean broke against a shore. The crashing floated up to him, along with a mist of pulverized waves, invisible, speckling his face. The mist smelled like dirt, and something else. Something he recognized, like wet fur.
It smelled like Isabelle.
The darkness was toying with him. He sobbed as a few new tears crept from his eyes, joining the mist that came up at him out of the dark. The insides of his throat and chest were thick with the anguish of old memories pried out of the sad fingers of his soul. His heart cried out to hold his dog again in that moment and the darkness fed off of it, seemingly intensifying the scent with each crashing wave below him, each spray of the unseen mist. It smelled of home for Sam, of days lounging in the sunlight with Isabelle, but there was a growing sourness to it as the sensation grew more intense; a hint of suffering and of rot or decay. The miasma spewed up at him and it burned in his nostrils and throat, causing his eyes to water even more. It was everywhere and, in his mind's eye, he saw Isabelle lying in his lap with the white worms hanging out of her. In his mind's eye, he heard her breaths became labored. The nothingness was showing him this image, displaying it like a slide on a projector screen. He couldn't tell where his mind ended and the dark began.
"Isabelle!" he cried into the black. And as if reacting to his call, the smell faded then, almost instantaneously. The memories of Isabelle were leaking from his mind, drifting across his inner eye as they, too, were extracted from his reality. He felt himself forgetting her, forgetting his best friend, as the surrounding black gorged itself on the sorrow it wrought in him. Sam felt himself breaking. It was taking her from him.
The darkness opened up further, then. In the black distance, something caught Sam's eye. The eerie glow of a white fog was coming into existence, floating along the massive cavernous walls far ahead and around him. His eyes sought out the light, consuming it like sustenance, the entire scene slowly came into view. He squinted and could barely make out the scale of the dark space he floated in; it wasn't a room, small and confined within the hollows of the burnt bleeding tree trunk.
It was a space much larger.
The turmoil of the black waters below reminded him of the waves of an ocean, but the body of blackness was very much encased in the caverns. It was a roiling underground lake that he floated above, the waves of which crashed against a shore of black sand. He could barely make out a dim luminescent light birthing itself out of the nothingness beyond the shore. Tendrils of fog crept along the water's edge, emboldened by the mist of shattered swells. An old lamp was dangling from a rotten wooden post, buried in the dark sand. It glowed its light a deep red through its stained glass over a small portion of the beach, slowly swinging in the shore breeze. Just inside the red glow and barely visible against the surrounding shadows were several dark masses. Their silhouettes were illuminated by the sinister light, upside-down teardrops that balanced on the very tips of their shapes. They swayed back and forth on the black sand to the rhythm of the crashing waves and swinging lamp, and Sam's heart thumped loudly, threatening to break open and out of his ribcage.
And then Sam felt himself losing altitude, slowly floating downward through the darkness toward the black waters below.
Panic consumed him. He cried out again into the massive cavern, his shouts echoing in the distance and then back at him in a tone that did not sound like his own. His eyes searched throughout the massive underground cavern for anything other than those things on the shore, dancing in that red light; someone to help him, anything to give him sanctuary from this nightmare. He shouted for Collin and for Jacob to pull him from the stump, to save him from the grasp of the gore hole, yet he felt no response from the other side. He simply continued to sink down, further and further.
In the distance off to his right, seemingly built into the rock wall of the cavern, a castle of some sort had come into view, its contours outlined by the creeping pale fog. The massive structure was black, cold and silent. At the top of one of the warped stone towers, however, a small window was glowing with an orange light.
"Help!" Sam shouted toward it. He didn't know who was in there but he didn't care. "Help me! Somebody, please! Hey, help!" But his squealing voice was swallowed by the distance between he and the light that looked so warm. He drifted down closer to the water and screamed.
It happened slowly or it happened instantly, Sam could not tell either way but, at some point, he stopped screaming and felt his body once again, its presence, starting with the pressure of a surface underneath his knees. It was not liquid he felt but something more solid, yet still soft.
The black waters had calmed, completely still save for the ripples coming out from under the object he now floated on. He glanced beneath himself to see that the surface was not made of wood or metal, but of cotton, a blanket, with hardness underneath that. It was a bed - his own bed - floating as his only salvation in the lake of darkness. The same light blue blanket he'd used since he was a toddler was draped over it and the sheets were dampening at the edges, soaking up the ink of the black lake. It was thick and syrupy, like tar, now that he was close enough to see its viscosity.
A deep groan rumbled out from the murky abyss below, like a muffled horn, massive and ear-shattering if not for the depths that stifled it. The thing was moving under the surface of the lake, sloshing the water below with unearthly strength, the petulant liquid burbling up around the sides of the bed. Massive ripples broke on the surface and Sam's adrenaline was on fire.
Directly ahead of him, the oil of the lake seemed to bell up for a moment, then break, as a titanic sphere breached the surface, rising slowly out of the waters until it was half-emerged.
Sam's eyes locked onto the massive black bubble in horror. As the streams of oil dripped from it into the lake, the texture of the thing came into view: it was wrinkled and warted like the skin of a boar, musculature twitching underneath its bulbed surface.
The rough mass began to peel back, unsheathing a layer of itself to reveal a smooth, glassy surface, dripping and glistening with the red light from the shore. His heart thumped loudly, and the terror inside him locked around his throat, suffocated by the panic roaring within him.
The glassy surface shifted toward him.
In the dim red light, Sam saw that it was an eye; a fiery orange iris with a cross-shaped pupil like a goat's, white with cataracts yet seeming to stare directly at him. He tried to scream, but his body was once again unresponsive and no longer under his own will. All he could do was stare right back. The sheets and blanket underneath him had become fully soaked with the black liquid and the bed was beginning to sink. Sam could feel the buoyancy diminishing but could not take his eyes off of the ocular mass in front of him, could not attempt to swim away. It held his gaze like a moth's was held by a light and, as he felt his knees submerging, a whimper escaped his lips. All control of his body was relinquished to the nightmare. The only thing keeping him afloat was sinking underneath him, drifting down into the abyss below and he was following it.
The cold fluid was at his thighs, then his groin. His genitals shriveled, violated by the ink seeping into his clothing and into the pores of his skin. The freezing oil reached his stomach. He tried to scream again, but nothing came of it. Sam knew that the water, itself, was part of this creature, a massive liquid mouth, slowly eating him somehow. He was going to be its food. Then it was at his chest. He could smell the stuff now; a thick garbage smell with that same burnt electric quality to it; the stuff he smelled last summer. His chin then submerged and his mouth, the titanic eye following him as he sank, watching blindly.
Sam didn't want to see what was under the surface. He wanted nothing more in the entirety of his existence than to avoid seeing what was in the dark below. He wanted to shut his eyes away from it and he tried, squeezing as hard as he could, a last ditch effort to fight back against the entity, but his eyelids remained wide open, held apart by a force unknown, the force that mastered his body like a puppet.
And in the brief moment that Sam had become fully submerged, when he tried once more to scream for his mother, his eyes were open. Even in the blackness of the ink in which he sank, he could see the thing below. It was everything he had ever feared. It writhed and took its shape from Sam's nightmares, each and every one of them. Its form was titanic and it extended into the unfathomable depths like a black glacier, with its bulbous tendrils gyrating in the clouded water, and its pale alien face floating in and out of the depths. It shapeshifted and appeared in one moment like a wall of human teeth and in another as a mound of haggard breasts, rotten to the nipple. Massive eyeballs sat floating individually in the darkness, each tethered to the entity by slithering appendages. Sam knew, with what little consciousness he held onto, that this thing was responsible for the slit down Isabelle's stomach that day. He knew what he looked upon was the thing that had waited for him, waited for such a long time, had goaded him with the destruction of his best friend and the whispers in the trees around the black house, and counted on him to return one day.
And he did return.
As Sam sunk further into the cold black and the writhing mass, speckles like points of light flooded his vision. His mind turned blank and thoughtless, sheening over completely with the gloss of witnessing indescribable horror.
The clouds had broken and moonlight illuminated the clearing of pale grass around the black stump. The cold still clutched at the kids standing in line, who watched as Sam Benton gently pulled away from the tree trunk, rising slowly to his feet. His hands were covered in dark sap but he did not seem to notice. His eyes were wide and watery but unblinking. His face was slick and his mouth was slightly ajar but no sound escaped.
Tufts of spores swirled in the chilled air around his feet as he turned and ambled slowly toward the edge of the clearing. Behind him, Collin knelt to his knees to take his spot in front of the stump.
Sam moved without conscious thought toward the forest line where the others were, the ones who had seen into the hole and witnessed their own darkness before him. They stood like scattered stone statues but Sam did not see them. He stared blankly off into the dark forest, eyes glazed. Damp branches bent and cracked under his feet as he moved autonomously through the underbrush, possessed by his own trauma, to take his place amongst the pines.