There is something different about Joseph, and I don’t like it. Knoxford is the kind of place that makes you think maybe God left it behind. And if you had the burden of dealing with Joseph, you might get a good idea as to why. Knoxford is a nasty, rural, mountainous area of loosely connected dwellings and the occasional coal mine. The people had the temperament of wolverines and the keen intellect of that quadrupeds stool. Among these corn-jack swilling salts of the earth, Joseph was the meanest and keenest of them all. Not that I had any choice in the matter when it came to dealing with him; he had the best moonshine around, all but forcing me to get it from him.
Well, at least he used to have the best. There has been something different about the brew and I suspect that it might correlate back to that devil himself. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s grandpa has been missing for awhile now and his excuses change every time I inquire. Not long after his disappearance was when I started getting reports that the liquor was different. Maybe that old pollock stuck his nose in something that didn’t belong. Now me, I am just a runner, but people are dying and I won’t have the axe fall on my head. This was the most reasonable explanation I had for myself as to why I was here at night spying on Joseph.
“Stupid old man. Sitting there screaming at me with words I can’t understand.” I froze in mid step. That was Joseph. I crept up to a hole in the wall and looked around. He was sitting on his porch with a pipe in his mouth yelling at the apple tree across the unkempt yard in an slurred, nasally voice. A blind man could see that he was beyond drunk.
“Now you’re silent, and I can finally relax!” He then formed a twisted toothy smile. “It’s a shame your old, sturdy bones put a chip in the head of my axe. I could have cut down that nosy bootlegger, asking about you.”
I was right, he did kill the old man. If he finds me then I will be next.
“Profit is profit. and no one gets in the way, of my money…” His ramble then came to a total halt before he spoke again with a completely changed demeanor. “Nooo. No. Not again.” He muttered this to himself multiple times in a tone of disbelief. Even from about fifteen feet away I could see the fear mounting in his dirty brown eyes. I followed his line of sight across the yard to the old apple tree and barely managed to stifle my scream.
Standing over a patch of unusually dry dirt was a shadow shaped like a man covered in rags. It was darker than the night yet translucent, casting a murky gaze on everything behind it. I glanced back at Joseph who was looking at his bottle of gin before looking away and shaking his head. He sat there for a moment in silence, as if gathering what resolve the mere sight of that wraith had not snatched away from him. He then stood up, threw the bottle across the yard and screamed “It’s been almost a year you dusty bag of bones! It’s all my money, now!” He then stormed inside the house and upstairs to his bedroom.
With great apprehension I looked back to the tree to see that the shadow was still there standing hunched over what I now assume to be the unmarked grave of Joseph’s grandfather. I watched as its shrouded ‘head’ glanced up to me before slowly disappearing.
Coming to the conclusion that Joseph was in the comforting embrace of a liquor coma for the night, I lit the lantern I’d brought and finished snooping around the barn. Despite feeling like a chilled brick was lying in my stomach, I decided to finish what I came here for. This hovel of a barn was dingy, dirty, and neglected. The only thing that seemed to be given any habitual level of maintenance were his distilleries. I found myself surprised at how expedient my discovery of his compromised distillery’s alcohol were. Stupid hick was cutting good shine with anything he could find that would not arouse a stink. It was bathtub gin at best, diluted poison at worst. I also saw that one of the half dozen or so distilleries was damaged beyond repair.
Now I know why the old man had to go. It was at this point that if my foresight was as eagle eyed as my hindsight, I would have left that wretched barn. I would have went straight to my car hidden over the hill and drove as fast as what bits of reason I had left in possession would allow me to go. I continued wandering around the barn a bit more until I came across the murder weapon. Hanging on the wall was a rusty, stained axe with a split head. Located right in the break, was a chunk of molding bone. For some reason I felt compelled to reach out and grasp the only unburied fragment of the old man. When it was freed from the defective axe and in the palm of my hand, I began to feel a prickling of hairs across my body. Eyes felt like they were inspecting every aspect of my being. I could feel my legs telling me to leave, quickly and pleading with my head not to look back.
It is here. The shadow wraith of Joseph’s grandpa is here! The lightless areas around this corner of the barn took on a solid form and seemed to creep right up to the edge of my lantern. Despite my entire body being seized by the cold sweat of terror, I continued on this strange and abhorrent course I was on. I took the chunk of bone in my hand, walked out of the barn and on over towards the apple tree. All this time, the darkness stayed right on my heels, just outside of the lantern light. The dirt under the tree looked not to have been disturbed for almost a year, yet no life grew upon it. I could not conclude for certain, but I had the distinct thought that no worms or other lowly beasts crawled beneath it. It has been nearly a year. I sat the lantern down, and began digging through the dirt with my free hand, keeping a tight grip on the bone fragment. It felt unnaturally warm. Finally I touched a burlap sack and stopped digging instantly. My body sensing the threshold of what it should be allowed to know. I then took the bone fragment and dropped it in the small hole then covered it up again.
Maybe now the old man can rest in one piece. I found myself transfixed in morbid curiosity as the darkness seeped into the dead earth. I should have turned back. I should have left this cursed backwater of America and found work running shine elsewhere. Yet the same steadfastness in the face of apprehension that drives us all on unfortunately had me seeing this macabre spectacle to the end. A minute passed, then another, then a few more before the unthinkable began to occur. A solid black ichor began to bubble up from the grave, slowly at first but quickly gaining momentum. Before I was even completely aware of it, the shadow was standing once more over the grave. This time though, its form was as opaque as the oblivion it spawned from. No face, no features, just a raggedy misshapen form. Rationality finally taking hold, I began slowly backing away from this being. A deep, barely audible drone emanated outward from as it as it darted towards the house where Joseph slept. I felt compelled to follow it up the stairs where the door to his bedroom flung open with a bang, waking Joseph from his sleep. I heard him scream as he jumped from his bed, making a thud as he pressed himself against the wall opposite the shadow wraith.
Before either of us could react, it dashed straight towards Joseph and engulfed him. The last thing I – and Joseph, for that matter – heard was the sound of an old man laughing. In about the time it took for the wraith to engulf Joseph it had seemingly dissipated into the darkness of his unlit room. All that remained of Joseph was a pile of mangled, charred bones. In the following minute, there was nothing but absolute silence. My breath was caught in my chest. Then, the laughter returned. Deep, malicious cackling emanating outward in volumes that rose and fell with little rhythm. The shadow wraith started oozing out of the walls like molasses and pooling together over the remains of Joseph. Realizing how finite the time was in my situation, I turned, bolted down the stairs, through the house, and out the door. I ran unaware into the opaque embrace of the night, never returning from the cackling darkness.
It was the smell of soot that woke her – thick and smoky, like a fire left burning for too long in a closed room. On any other evening Ethel might have been frightened, and may have forced herself through the oily darkness of her bedroom into the comfort of her parents arms and their safe, warm bed.
But tonight was special.
Tonight, that smell meant something different.
Ethel carefully wriggled herself further into the duvet. It was a slow process, but a necessary one. She couldn’t risk anyone knowing she was awake, it could spoil everything. Only when she felt the cool fabric brush against her cheek did she dare open her eyes and squint into the darkness.
She scanned her room for a second, two, and then quickly squeezed her eyelids shut.
She had seen nothing, but that did not mean there was nothing to see.
She opened her eyes again… one, two, and close.
This time she thought she had seen something out of place, a dark shadow against the far wall where her piano should have sat unused, as it had for years. A trick of the light, maybe, but Ethel knew better. Ethel had seen it once before.
She held back a smile, waited, and then opened her eyes once more.
Against the far wall, where her piano should have been, was a large, unlit fireplace. Ethel’s heart beat furiously the moment she saw it. Her stomach twisted with joy and her head filled with thoughts of magic, tinged with just a little bit of smugness. Her left hand snaked its way over to her pillow, and grabbed the hard plastic beneath.
She would not be caught out again, not like last year. It had taken months for the classroom laughter, the name calling, to die down. No one had believed her, but this year they would. This year she would have proof.
Slowly, she pulled the camera from beneath the pillow, wincing as it scraped against the mattress. She licked her lips, held the camera to her chest, and slowly spun onto her back.
She almost expected the fireplace to have vanished, to have slipped back into the shadows before she had a chance to do anything. She was ready for the shame to burn her cheeks, to curse herself for being so stupid. For believing in something so childish when she was almost sixteen years old – practically an adult! But the fireplace remained – unlit and unwavering, grey stone piled upwards until it was lost in the night gloom. In the dark, it almost appeared unending.
Ethel felt a tickle on the back of her neck and shivered. Something seemed off, not quite the same as it had done last year. She pushed the uncomfortable feeling away. There was no time to doubt herself.
After turning her head left and right, checking the coast was clear, she shuffled into a semi-upright position against her pillow and held the camera to her face. The darkness made it almost impossible to be sure of where she was aiming the lens, but Ethel had a pretty good idea. She slipped her finger onto a large button on the top of the camera, took a deep breath and…
Ethel froze, waiting to be caught in the act.
She took another photograph, and then another. She captured what she hoped was different angles. She needed as much evidence as possible if people were to believe-
What was she hoping to prove? That she had a fireplace in her bedroom? So what? Lots of people had those, and nobody had ever even seen her room. No one could prove she hadn’t always had a fire.
She needed something…more substantial.
Ethel took a deep breath, counted to three, and then slid out of bed. Her bare feet landed on cool, wooden floorboards, and she almost yelped out loud in surprise. Her carpet had vanished to whatever magic realm had also stolen her toys. No matter.
She took a cautious step towards the fireplace, testing the new terrain for squeaks and creaks. When only silence greeted her, she took another step, and then another, slowly edging closer to the far wall. The smell of soot was thick in the air, clinging to her throat like honey.
It was becoming difficult to breathe.
Ethel reached out in front of her and felt her fingertips brush against smooth stone – almost marble like in texture, but warm to the touch. She allowed her palm to run across the surface, feeling the grooves and crevices of the fireplace against her skin. She traced a finger down a long, sharp edge. It sliced through her skin as cleanly as any knife.
Ethel winced, and drew her finger to her mouth, tasting blood.
She glared at the fireplace, and was about to turn back towards her bed when she heard it.
Very faintly, almost as though it were miles above her, was the sound of bells.
Ethel smiled, the dull throb of her finger entirely forgotten. She readjusted the camera in her grip and moved quickly to the dark, gaping maw of the fireplace. She kneeled and leaned forward, and turning her head so that she was staring up into the seemingly endless chimney. The smell was almost unbearable now. She needed to cough, badly, and her throat wheezed with the effort of breathing.
Was that movement, deep in the darkness?
She couldn’t be sure, but she no longer had any time to waste. Though she wanted nothing more than to stare into the chimney and await his arrival, to get just one photograph as evidence, but she was frightened of what would happen when she was caught.
As she stared up into the black, biting her lip as she thought, she felt something soft trickle onto her face.
There was someone in the chimney.
He was coming.
Without another thought, she lifted the camera and began snapping the inside of the chimney. Her fingers, slick with sweat, fumbled over the camera.
It fell to the hard wooden floor with a crash that reverberated in the air.
Ethel, not knowing what else to do, froze.
The sound thrummed around her, up into the chimney.
There was more than soot in the air now. Stale sweat and sulphur burned in her nostrils.
Her stomach lurched.
This felt wrong.
She needed to go.
Another trickle of soot on her face.
Was it soot?
It seemed… wet.
She needed to go NOW.
Forgetting her camera, ignoring her blazing chest, her throat tight with smoke and foul stenches, Ethel ran.
Ethel ran past her wardrobe.
Past her bookcase.
She could see her bed, but it was much farther away than it should have been.
Much farther away than her room should have allowed.
Her legs became heavy.
Her breath desperate gulps.
Behind her was the faint tinkling of bells.
Not as faint as they had been.
The bed was closer.
She was going to make it.
She had to make it.
Ethel stretched out her hand.
Heaved herself onto the mattress.
Threw the duvet over her head.
Her heartbeat pounded in her throat and in her head as she caught her breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, tears leaking from the crevice as she did so.
A cool breeze brushed against the back of her neck, and Ethel bit her lip to hold back a sob.
She couldn’t hear the bells, not anymore, but that didn’t mean there was nothing out there.
Fabric brushed against her cheek, slow and deliberate. Sandpaper against her skin.
Ethel felt long fingers brush through her hair.
Nails scratching lightly against her scalp.
“I know you are awake,” whispered the voice at her ear, wet and cracked. A voice seldom used.
Ethel did not scream when she heard the voice.
She did not scream when greasy fingers wrapped around her throat.
Ethel screamed when the flames took her.
Frederick stood 50 feet from the entrance of the haunted house while his teammates pleaded with him to go inside. He rattled off a bunch of statistics of mechanical failings in these kinds of pop-up carnivals while they rolled their eyes.
“Just 3 years ago in Iowa, the roof came loose and injured 5 people. A 12 year old girl lost her arm.”
They laughed. “Freddy, if you’re scared, just say so. You don’t have to make up injury statistics.”
Frederick was scared, but he didn’t want to admit it. It was just last week that he had made the varsity football team as a sophomore; he would be the starting running back and safety on a team that had made the state championship the last two seasons. He couldn’t very well have his new teammates see him jump at the sight of a dirty bedsheet on a stick emerging from the darkness.
Eventually he realized he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of it. He looked at Chet – the starting quarterback – in the eye and gave a slight nod.
“Alright! Freddy’s in. Quick, let’s go in before he remembers about the guy who was paralyzed by a prop gone wild in Arkansas.” They laughed.
Frederick took one last look around the carnival yard. It would be moving on the next day, so it was pretty empty. He thought maybe he would see someone in dire need of help somewhere and could heroically rush off to help them. “Sorry guys. Can’t go in there; my fellow man needs me.” But there were no damsels or lads in distress, so Frederick turned towards the haunted house and shuffled up the steps.
The opening featured a cartoonishly large mouth with vampire teeth, lips curled back in a grotesque laugh. The eyes above were red and wild. Frederick gave a short laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
His laugh brought the attention of the door attendant. He was an old man, sitting on a stool so tall his legs didn’t quite reach the floor. His body was hunched over, as if his necklace weighed 500 pounds. His terrible comb-over was covered with a ratty top hat.
“You find this funny? Perhaps you won’t be laughing when you exit. If you exit.” His laugh was harsh and uncomfortable. Frederick gave the man a quick, sidelong glance before hesitantly pushing his way through the black curtain that marked the entrance. The man’s laugh seemed to get louder as he stepped through, as if it were echoing off every wall.
The entrance was a dark, narrow hallway. The walls were tight; Frederick barely had enough room to pass through with his broad shoulders. On the few occasions where he made contact, they gently swayed, as if they were nothing more than cardboard. He attempted to look more closely at them, but he couldn’t make out much in the dark.
Frederick looked down and realized that he couldn’t see past his knees. “Smoke machine must be working overtime,” he said nervously. He looked for his teammates and saw they were already 20 feet ahead of him. He sped up his step to catch up with them. Once he was back in their presence, he began to calm down, and the laugh of the old man finally seemed to dissipate, swept away with the smoke.
The entrance hallway turned to the right and widened, revealing many alcoves lining the walls, filled with the most frightening costumes Wal-Mart had to offer for less than $30. A rubber witch mask and flowing black bedsheet shot out, while a cackling laugh playing over the speakers. Frederick startled, but not enough for anyone to notice. “I can do this,” he thought.
The laughter of the others made it easier to deal with. He found it difficult to be scared while the rest of the guys were poking fun at every scare. Watching them laugh and pretend to punch the masked killers in bathrobes put Frederick at ease. One subject in particular drew a lot of laughs: a two-foot doll with long dark hair covering her face and bright red paint splattering her white dress. A metal arm was attached to the back of her neck, cocking her head ever-so-slightly from side to side. But it was turning a bit too hard and the head had popped off. The hair had also uncovered her face, revealing the surprisingly uncreepy face of a mid-80s Cabbage Patch Doll. Frederick was starting to feel pretty good, so he stopped for a few moments to inspect the doll.
He dwelled on it for longer than he meant to, and when he looked up he found himself alone. Someone must have turned up the smoke machine, because it was now up to his chest. “Hello?” There wasn’t even an echo. “You guys there?” He heard laughing up ahead but he was determined not to run. He was having a good time; the last thing he wanted was for panic and fear to come creeping back.
He walked to the end of the hallway and stopped, listening. He heard laughter, but it seemed further away. He was getting ready to jog up to the next turn, but something to his left caught his eye. It was the same doll he saw earlier, right down to the blood splatter pattern. Frederick laughed. “Must have found a deal.” He briefly laughed at himself for being scared to enter such a cheaply thrown together haunted house. He was about to turn when he saw movement from behind the doll. A figure dressed head-to-toe in black emerged from the wall holding a long, curved blade. Frederick was able to get out one strangled yelp before he felt the blade enter his throat. The figure dragged Frederick’s kicking body through a gap in the wall.
Frederick’s teammates waited outside the haunted house. “You think he’s still in there? Probably got scared by a rubber cockroach or something. YO FREDDY! YOU COMING? I’m going back in.”
Chet’s phone buzzed.
– not feeling well. left thru front door. c u tmrw
“Freddy,” Chet reported to the group, pointing at his phone. “Must have got spooked. Already took off.”
As they walked away, they heard the old man say, “Have a pleasant evening.” His laugh echoed into the night.
His name is Sam-El Caan, and he was once worshiped as a god. In some countries, he may still be. He was more a demon than a god, but no one knows exactly how he came into being. He was “put to sleep” by a small group of monks at some point in the 1400s, and his eyes have not opened since. He was buried deep beneath the ground in an unmarked field in the middle of Kentucky. The original plan was to dismember his body and scatter him across the world, but the instructions were very clear: he must be kept in one piece, his right hand clutched around a ruby. The ancient text was vague in many things but very clear in this.
And so he slept. As the world changed around him, he slept. For centuries, someone had kept an eye on his resting place, guarding against any attempts to resurrect him. As time went on, the horrors were forgotten and duties were thrown by the wayside. The guard had gone, but Sam-El Caan remained buried in the dirt.
Sam-El Caan stood 25 feet tall. His head resembled a pumpkin and his face was carved in the manner of a jack-o-lantern. He spoke in a deep, resounding voice. His body was thin, strong and gnarled, like the branches of a very old tree. His feet were wide and the ground shook when he walked. He was an imposing figure, but he was now trapped underground in a seemingly endless sleep.
But it was not as endless as it appeared.
The ancient texts were incomplete. One of the missing pages stated that he would be awoken on Halloween night, 2016. When the clock struck midnight, he would be free to roam the Earth once more.
As distant chimes rang, Sam-El Caan’s eyes regained their glow. He did not know where he was, but he could sense his domain calling for him. He began digging upwards towards the surface, ready to reclaim the world that he felt was rightfully his.
He emerged into the darkness of a dim crescent moon and howled as best as he could, but centuries of being buried in dirt meant his howl wasn’t what it once was. No matter. He would regain his full strength soon enough and this new world would be his. He was hoping he would emerge to find a full moon – the light from that moon restoring his powers – but that was a couple weeks away. He would retreat into the woods to wait, and when he emerged he would not be stopped. Not this time. Surely the ancient text had been lost a very long time ago.
He stepped into the forest in search of dark place to sit for two weeks. What he found were a couple of teens dressed like wizards, smoking some kind of small white object. At the sight of him, they stood up and stumbled backwards.
Sam-El Caan’s eyes glowed red as he advanced on the teens. When he spoke, it was in his native dialect. It was deep and filled with all the rage that had been slowing building over the course of hundreds of years. “HOW DARE YOU LOOK UPON SAM-EL CAAN. MY RETRIBUTION WILL BE QUICK AND COMPLETE AND IT WILL START WITH YOU.”
One of the teens had regained his bearings. He picked up a rock and hurled it at Sam-El Caan’s face. It entered his left eye and exited through the back of his head, causing an explosion of gooey orange viscera.
The light left Sam-El Caan’s eyes. He stumbled and fell, exploding into thousands of twigs and what appeared to be the emptied shell of a rotten pumpkin.
The teens looked briefly stunned, then laughed and continued on with their night, the corpse of the once great Sam-El Caan lying beneath their feet.