The Abyss of Fear by Nick Young

Rachel reaches her big empty home before the big storm hits, but she is not alone; by Nick Young.

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In the late evening sky to the west, a canopy of ugly indigo thunderheads crowded the tree line. Beneath the ragged edge of clouds the sky shone with a sickly glow. August was just beginning to nudge its way into autumn, and a sudden stillness had fallen, signaling that a hell of a storm was brewing up to disrupt Wellesley's leafy peace.

On Pond Road, in an especially cloistered corner of the town, headlights speared the lowering gloom as a Range Rover topped a rise, banked around a gentle leftward curve and braked at a driveway entrance leading to a large Georgian colonial set back seventy-five yards from the street. As the SUV pulled in, a gust of wind shuddered through the old maples lining the broad driveway. Lightning strobed the scene, catching the first of three garage bays on the east side of the house as it glided open.

Once inside, the Range Rover's engine was cut and the driver's door opened. Out stepped Rachel Oppenheim, still trim in her late forties, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Her clothes were expensive earth tones, suburban-casual, and she moved in them with easy grace, the legacy of her youth at the barre. A low rumble of thunder welled up from the distance, and she counted herself lucky to have made it home from the market before the full force of the storm hit. On any other Friday night, she wouldn't have been out at all; but there had been too many distractions that had piled up in the middle of the week, so she had been forced to put off her regular Whole Foods pilgrimage.

And she was still distracted, chiding herself for not touching base sooner with Phyllis Schwartz about September's discussion topics for the reading group at temple. While that was occupying her mind, she had reached the back of the SUV before the incessant chiming from inside reminded her that she'd left her door open and the key in the ignition. With an exasperated shake of her head, Rachel popped the Range Rover's rear hatch and began wrestling with two canvas totes filled with groceries.

She did not notice in the harsh light cast from overhead the shadow that had fallen behind her.

"Need a hand?"

The voice, a flat baritone, nearly caused Rachel to jump out of her skin. As she spun around, screaming once, the bags fell from her hands, sending their contents scattering across the concrete floor.

The man who stepped into the garage accompanied by a fresh burst of lightning was unremarkable in most respects. Thirty-ish, of medium height and build, he was dressed head-to-toe in black. In one hand he carried a leather bag to match. His face, with its Mediterranean complexion, was a mask of cold appraisal.

Nonchalantly, followed by the woman's terrified eyes, he set his bag down, turned and pushed a button on a wall control panel triggering the bay door to close slowly. Panic gripped Rachel, and now the ignition chime was no longer a simple annoyance but a hammering counterpoint to the pounding of her heart that she felt was ready to explode. Her breath came in short, choked gasps.

The intruder savored her fear, and the pleasure it gave him showed on his face as a wisp of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. He sauntered to the open door of the SUV, reached inside and pulled out the key. The sudden silence was jarring, even more chilling to Rachel. It screamed inside her head. She opened her mouth to speak, but fear trapped the words at the back of her throat. She forced herself to try again.

"Who are you?" The intruder didn't answer. Instead, with a casualness that only added to Rachel's growing dread, he meandered in front of her, surveying the interior of the spacious garage.

"In due time, Mrs. O. All in due time," he said, stopping and turning toward her. "You know, you're not being a very gracious hostess."

Rachel's brain raced, trying to control her panic, to make sense of the suffocating trap she was in and to find some way, any way, out of it.

"What do you mean?" she said, her voice ragged.

A look of feigned hurt passed over the intruder's face. "You're not going to invite me in?"

A fresh spasm of terror tightened its grip on Rachel's throat. "Please..." the word barely escaped her lips. He regarded her for a long moment, the manufactured charm quickly evaporating from his face.

"Let's go," he said, the ice returning to his voice. "Inside."

There was only a short distance to the door leading into the house, just a few steps, but Rachel had to summon whatever strength she still felt to will her rubbery legs to move. She turned the doorknob and stepped inside the mud room. Tentatively she reached toward the home security system keypad on the wall, fighting to stop her fingers from shaking. But as she was about to tap in the first number of the code, her captor shot out a black-gloved hand and tightly encircled her wrist.

Rachel froze.

"I need to disable the system," she said hoarsely, "before it triggers the alarm."

"Make sure you don't enter an intruder code, Mrs. O. We wouldn't want a visit from the cops. I'd better see this little 'disarm' light turn green. Am I clear?" She nodded numbly, finishing the short sequence of numbers as a deafening crack of thunder rattled the house to its foundation. Rachel jumped, her knees buckling. The intruder rolled his eyes heavenward and then toward his captive. "It looks like we're really in for it," he said, with the barest hint of a smile. "Time to go, Mrs. O."

He put his hand at the small of Rachel's back, nudging her forward and through the open door to the kitchen. The room sprawled in front of them, dominated in its center by a large granite-topped island overhung by a heavy cast-iron rack festooned with copper cookware. The ebbing twilight shrouded the room in deepening shadows, with the only illumination the faint glow from accent lights under a bank of oak cabinets. Despite the coolness of the room, to Rachel the air hung oppressively, crackling with menace and the power of the building storm, and she fought to draw breath.

"Sit down over there," the intruder ordered, motioning toward the island. Unsteadily, Rachel crossed the room and slowly slid onto a tall chair while her captor walked to the opposite side and set his bag on the countertop. "You like storms, Mrs. O.?" She didn't reply, fearful that he was subjecting her to some kind of twisted test and that giving the wrong answer would only make the situation that much worse for her. Instead, she watched as the intruder closed his eyes and slowly tilted his head back. She could not know by the placid look on his face that jagged images of violent assault on another storm-wracked night flashed through his mind with blinding speed. As if entering a bottomless black pool, he allowed himself to slide into its darkness. And the deeper he slipped, the greater his agony as the shards of memory cut into him.

After a long moment, Rachel summoned up enough courage to speak weakly:

"If you want money..." At first, there was no response; but slowly the intruder's eyes fluttered open, and he returned to the moment.

"What? he muttered.

"I said if you want money... jewelry - whatever you want. I'll give you anything."

But instead of responding immediately, he turned his attention to his bag, unzipping it and removing small, round candles, arraying them on the countertop before Rachel.

"Do you take me for a common thief?" he replied, his voice feigning aggrievement. "I am offended, Mrs. O." Now her raw fear and anxiety boiled over.

"Stop calling me that!" she snapped. "My name is Rachel - Rachel Oppenheim... and this is my house!" But her outburst had no effect. He continued to stare with nothing but coldness and calculation in his faint smile. Rachel's body sagged, her fury spent, and she said softly, "Just tell me what you want."

For a long moment he said nothing. Then, with the deliberation of a snake about to strike, the intruder inched his face across the island until it was close enough for her to recoil, twisting away from the moist sourness of his breath.

"Matches," he said evenly. "I want matches." Through the haze of her dread, Rachel wasn't certain she'd heard correctly.


"That's right, matches... Mrs. O."

"The bottom drawer, right-hand side."

He bent, slid the drawer open and began searching.

At that moment, Rachel's terror sent her spinning back in time more than forty years to an episode that had branded a fear that had lurked deep within her psyche all the days of her life.

It was late Halloween afternoon, 1956. She had just turned five and was being watched by her eight-year-old brother Benny while their mother went to the grocery store to pick up more candy for the expected hordes of trick-or-treaters. She wouldn't be gone long, she had told her children, sternly admonishing Benny not to get into any mischief.

Many times in the past Benny had been given the same warning, and many times he had ignored it. So, no sooner had his mother left than he started in.

As the little girl stared wide-eyed, he told her that the two of them needed to try on their costumes before Mommy took them out that evening and that in order to do it the right way, they had to go down to the basement, to a "secret room." At first she resisted, telling her brother that it was too early to get dressed up, that Mommy would help them after supper, right before they went out around the neighborhood. But Benny persisted and was very persuasive, so Rachel took the small plastic package containing her costume when Benny thrust it toward her, and she allowed him to take her by the hand and lead her down the twelve steps to the basement.

It was a place she didn't like, a place she said was "cweepy" - damp and cloying - with its one dim lightbulb, smelling of must and chemicals. Benny knew the basement scared his sister - that was part of what he was up to - so he held her hand tightly and kept telling her everything was alright, that he was protecting her. She was trusting, lulled by his reassuring words as he led her across the rough concrete floor to a doorway next to the worn workbench where their father kept his tools and sometimes tinkered with old clocks.

"Okay, Punky, this is it," Benny told her. "We'll go into Dad's closet, our most secret, secret hiding place - for you and me - nobody else. That's where we put on our Halloween stuff, okay? You go first while I wait out here."

She didn't want to go by herself. The closet wasn't that big, and there was only a tiny light. And it smelled bad from the oily rags and turpentine. Rachel didn't like it at all, but Benny kept pushing her, telling her not to be afraid, to "act like a big girl."

So she trusted him. She went in, clutching the plastic pouch with the little witch costume her mother had bought for her at the Ben Franklin. He shut the door behind her.

And then he turned out the light.

Being plunged into blackness sent a wave of fright through Rachel right away, but she tried her hardest not to scream, to act like a big girl. Instead, she called her brother's name - once, twice and again, louder each time. But Benny didn't answer her. He was standing outside the door, holding both hands over his mouth to stifle the laughter from what he thought was his best prank yet.

Inside the closet, Rachel's fear was beginning to overcome her. She was starting to gasp for breath. Tears were welling up in her eyes.

And then she heard the scratching near her feet and felt something clutch at the sock on her right foot and begin climbing up her ankle.

She panicked and began shrieking at the top of her lungs, kicking out her feet and hammering her bunched, tiny fists against the inside of the door for all she was worth.

Still, it didn't open right away. The agonizingly long moments dragged on, with more screaming, more helpless pounding as Benny stood, bent double with glee.

At that instant, salvation arrived with a clatter of shoes on the wooden stairs. Mother had returned from the store, heard the horrible screams and rushed down to the basement.

"My God, Benjamin, what have you done?" she shouted, tearing open the closet door and gathering Rachel into her arms, soothing her, cooing to her that she was safe, that "everything's alright now."

But everything wasn't alright for Rachel. She overcame the immediate trauma. Her brother was forced to make a sheepish, half-hearted apology, and the incident gradually receded with time.

But for Rachel, in the deepest part of her, that closet, that dark hole with its sickening smells and the skittering thing climbing her leg, lurked like a latent virus. It had surfaced sporadically over the years in nightmares. But she always managed to rebury the terror, never fully acknowledging it, not even during her short time in therapy years before.

Now, it was back.

It was not a dream, and Rachel realized she could not push away the horror as she always had. Mother would not rescue her this time.

She must find a way to do it for herself.

And so, as she pulled herself back to the moment, Rachel's eyes darted to the countertop where, an arm's length from her, a hardwood block bristled with knives. In that instant, she saw a chance - perhaps the only one - to fight back. She gathered herself, breathing raggedly, and screwed up enough courage to begin stealing her left hand across the cool granite. But just as she snatched one of the large knives from the block, nerves got the better of her, and the knife slipped from her fingers, clattering to the floor. The intruder straightened up, matches in hand. He laid the matchbox on the island and retrieved the knife, slowing sliding it back into its slot.

"You know, you really should try to be more careful with fine cutlery." Rachel, angry at her failure of nerve, her fear surging, lashed out.

"Oh, God - enough with the banalities already!" The intruder looked at his captive for a long moment before nodding.

"You're right, Mrs. O. Time to get down to business."

Swiftly, he took up the matches and lit the candles, then reached into his bag and removed a coil of rope. A fresh wave of terror washed over Rachel.

"Look," she pleaded, "whatever it is you want, take it - and you can be gone long before my husband gets home."

The intruder had moved behind Rachel and, with a sure hand, began binding her to the chair. As he did so, she let out an anguished sob.

"Why Mrs. O., surely you haven't forgotten that your husband's not coming home tonight," he said as he went about his task. "This is his big weekend at Yale. Now, I'm not much of a gambler, but I'm betting that you wish you'd gone with him, even though you loathe the way he gets when he's the center of attention. And he most certainly will be, especially once he presents his paper tomorrow." He affected a grand tone: "The Precursors of Criminal Behavior - Paradigms in the Diagnosis of Sociopathology." Then his voice dripped with bile: "Doctor Sidney Oppenheim, the fucking toast of academe." Rachel's eyes widened at this display of venom.

"Does Sidney know you?"

"I think not," her captor replied, removing his leather gloves and replacing them with a latex pair he drew from his bag. "But he should. And he will." A long burst of lightning was followed quickly by rattling thunder. The first big drops of wind-driven rain staccatoed across the kitchen windows.

The intruder dipped into his bag once more and withdrew an oblong case of dark, polished wood trimmed in brass. "Are you a collector?" he asked casually, carefully setting the case on the countertop. Rachel could not take her eyes from the object, not wanting to contemplate what might be inside.

"What?" Again, barely a whisper.

"A collector - stamps, coins...?"


"That's a pity," he replied, unsnapping the latch on the case and lifting the lid. "Now, I have a passion for these." He turned the case toward Rachel, who strained against the rope holding her and shuddered at the contents - a wicked array of vintage surgical instruments, cold and deadly in the sharp flashes of lightning and flickering candlelight. Slowly, he removed a foot-long saw from the red-velvet lining and displayed it lovingly. "Ebony handles... chromed steel - a Civil War field amputation kit, Mrs. O. Superb workmanship. Incredibly sharp. Absolutely vital in the days before anesthesia." He replaced the saw and withdrew a long Liston knife. "Did you know that a skilled surgeon using these could remove a man's entire leg in less than thirty seconds?" As he finished, he turned a malevolent eye toward Rachel as his words sunk in.

"Please - oh, God!" she pleaded as, knife still in hand, he began slowly circling the island. "What did my husband do to you? What do you want with me? Please - I'll do anything..." She was struggling with all the strength she had left, desperately trying to keep him in her field of vision. "Just don't hurt me!"

He stopped directly behind her. Eyes closed, he lifted his head toward the roiling heavens. Once more, his mind was assailed by a barrage of violent images.


He opened his eyes - flat, utterly without feeling. The tableau froze in a jagged streak of lightning.


  1. Nick Young’s “The Abyss of Fear” was the perfectly timed Halloween treat; thanks, Charlie! There was no overt physical violence by the villain; it was all psychological. His malevolence was very understated, but he was, like the story, was just loaded with menace. The backdrop of the story, the violence of an electrical storm--meaningful to both of the fiction’s just two characters—was terrifically conceived. The subdued evil of the villain was so powerful that Rachel was cowed into almost complete inaction, which was itself terrifying. The final sentence is the most eloquent and expressive and as such, the most horrifyingly satisfying. You write creepy fiction, Nick; good job!

  2. Bill — Nick Young here (having no luck signing in). I want to thank you for your thoughtful reading of "Abyss" and your generous comments.

  3. Yikes. I wonder what comes next but I think that’s the point. The horror is left to the reader’s imagination, and that makes it worse yet. Good descriptions support the foreboding atmosphere that complements the plot.
    — D, Henson

    1. Thank you, D. I’m happy you agree that the best chills are conjured in the imagination.
      — Nick Young

  4. Deliciously terrifying! I do not usually indulge in horror stories or films, but I could not stop reading once I started—and then was left up in the air! Terrific scene setting, descriptions—I have to say excellent. Was this a Hallowe’en story or do you often write horror? The scene in the basement was particularly effective—nasty little boy! Nice work.
    Cameron Spencer

    1. My great thanks, Cameron. In truth, this was the opening of an unproduced screenplay written years ago refashioned into an unpublished novel and reworked into a short story. The childhood Halloween element and timing of my submission were serendipitous.
      -- Nick Young

  5. I too was scared. This is every woman's nightmare. It seems that the older brother also has a potential for violence later on. He is the kind of kid that kills small animals and could easily endanger or maim younger children with his nasty pranks. I also loved the powerful ending.

    1. I'm very pleased you responded as you did. I never meant for this to be little more than a sensational woman-as-slasher-victim story. As I mentioned to Cameron, "Abyss" started out as part of a larger project that incorporates other elements. But, since the script and novel were gathering dust, I felt the opening, with a bit of paring down, still made for a pretty good chiller.

  6. Excellent work. It's no easy task to capture the darkness and fear without becoming cliche. This piece does just that. Well written and well-conceived. I, too, am curious about how the story ends but am satisfied to leave the conclusion to my imagination. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. I appreciate your kind words, James. — Nick Young

  7. Classic! Felt as though I was reading the pages of a dog-eared paperback anthology of horror stories. A great read and for me, evocative of the classic horror stories of the past. Enjoyed this on many levels.

    1. I'm quite pleased you liked it, David. Thank you very much. -- Nick Young