(December 16, 2010)
Even before Steven opened his eyes, he could tell something was wrong. A feeling of dread hung over him like a thick blanket. He could taste something, sharp and metallic, and it made him nauseous. After a few minutes of laying still with his eyes closed, Steven tossed his sheets aside and sat up on the edge of his bed.

     The faint glow of his computer’s screen lit his room. He could see a Kansas City Royals jersey in a shadow box above his dresser, and a framed photograph of the Rolling Stones hung over his headboard. It seemed his every taste was reflected in the room’s decor. It helped ease him, despite him knowing it wasn’t right.

     Steven reached to check the clock: 3:15. He realized it was game day; the Royals were playing the Cardinals at Kauffman, and he had tickets to the best seats in the house. They’d been sent to him by his uncle Roderigo, gift for his sixteenth birthday.

     But the stench was too sickening to ignore. He opened his door to investigate. As he peered out, the smell became infused with the that of bile and human waste, overwhelming him completely. Covering his mouth and nose, he stepped out into the hallway and prepared to open his grandmother’s door.

     Without a doubt, the smell was coming from that room.

     Cautiously, he eased open the door, and the stench hit him hard. He nearly vomited, but he managed to hold back the bile and enter the room anyway. As he did, his nausea faded and gave way to horror.

     His grandmother lay in her bed, her body stripped bare. The sheets had been removed and used to bind her hands and feet, with a rag shoved into her mouth to muffle her screams. There was a gaping wound in her chest, and her throat was slashed from ear to ear. Her eyes had been torn from her skull, and strange symbols were slashed into the flesh across her body. She had bled profusely from them -before the killing blow was inflicted.

     Steven felt a sharp pain in his own wrist, and the warm flow of blood trickling down his fingers. The other hand went slack, dropping a small box-cutter onto the floor. But within an instant those wounds were gone, and the scene had given way to a terrified figure running down the hall. As he followed that figure, he saw his mother laid down across a table, her arms taped behind her back and her body mutilated in the same grotesque fashion.

     On the other side of the table stood his Uncle Marcus, holding a cigarette lighter in his hand. A strange symbol was carved into the floor beneath his feet, a lopsided pentagram too large for its circle. He saw that Marcus had slashed the same symbols into his wrists, but they were shallow and showed more hesitation than they had on his mother and grandmother.

     His mind flashed to another scene, of his uncle dead inside the circle. In each hand were the crushed remnants of his grandmother’s eyes. The corpse bore a deep gash to its throat, which seemed to have been inflicted with some force. The knife that had done this had been flung across the room, apparently having slipped from his Marcus’ hand in the act of suicide.

     Steven’s mind returned to the scene before. His uncle seemed detached from the horror around them, staring down at the body of Desiree Somers with a pleasured smile. It was as if Steven had walked in on an artist admiring his masterpiece–this unsettling feeling became outright frightening when Marcus raised his eyes met his.

     Steven was too horrified to speak. Unable to move, he could only watch as Marcus struck the lighter’s flint. His uncle was still for a moment, his eyes penetrating Steven from behind the flame. Realizing what was about to happen, Steven tried to plea with his uncle, but only managed hoarse, meaningless rattle.

     “It’s not done yet,” Marcus said. “I will anoint you. I will make you hers.” Then he ran his other hand across the wick, and his flesh erupted into flames. He stood there, laughing like a madman as his skin bubbled and cracked, dripping fat onto the floor and setting it ablaze. Then Marcus seemed to kneel before Steven, his head slumping against the table as the fire spread toward the walls.

     The scene flashed to that corpse falling to the floor. Steven felt his uncle’s blood spray across his face. He knew, at that moment, that his life as he’d known it was over. He stood alone, helpless in the wake of the bloodbath, staring down at Marcus’ body and the symbol beneath it.

     It was then that the sound of a ringing phone echoed in the distance. He didn’t respond. He was standing in the door to another room, the box cutter at his feet and blood on his wrists. No one was with him. No one could help him. He was trapped, alone in this nightmare, and he couldn’t handle the pain. He embraced the futility of his existence, and screamed.

     He opened his eyes again. This time, his room was smaller, and lacked the personal touch from before. It had plain, white walls and a wooden door with a calendar tacked to it. A generic-looking laptop sat on a flimsy table in the corner, and a cable box on the floor was plugged into a small TV. Gazing down at his wrists, the scars that just a few years ago seemed so fresh were now barely visible. It had been a dream, but his dream echoed the past; just one week after his 16th birthday, he had moved to Calusa Shores to start a new life, and not long after, he had attempted suicide.

     Of course, some parts of that nightmare were wrong. There had been no fire, no face off with Marcus, and no waking to the smell of death. He had simply returned home late that night to find his uncle dead on the living room floor, with his mother’s body on the table before him. That scene, along with those symbols and his grandmother’s body, were the only parts of that nightmare that had actually happened. The rest was nothing but imagination.

     “To hell with this.” Steven climbed out of bed and headed down the hall. The apartment above Roderigo’s shop didn’t compare to his old house, but he preferred it. Everything he owned was never more than a quick stride away and not a bit of space was wasted. Roderigo had only chosen to live here for emotional support–his trust was hefty enough that he could afford to live on his own.

     Still, it could be boring, especially during nights he couldn’t sleep. It happened often enough that Steven had made a routine to work through it. He grabbed two slices of bread and made a batter. Then he poured canola oil into a deep-sided pan, and dressed the bread with slices of black forest ham and Swiss before dipping the sandwich into the batter.

      He smiled. There was nothing like fried food to lighten the soul, and the Monte Cristo was his favorite way to do so. The crisp, cheesy sandwich was quick to make, perfect for a late night snack. He could already feel the lingering dread from his nightmare fading as the oil came to a gentle roll, and as he dropped the sandwich into the pan, he felt the weight of that dream completely lift from his mind.

     That was how it usually went, anyway. This time, he was instead met with a burst of static screeching throughout the apartment. The shock caused him to drop the sandwich a second too early, leaving it hanging over the edge of the pan and spattering oil onto his shirt. Steven swore under his breath, letting out a stream of quiet vulgarities as he removed the pan from the burner and shut off the stove. His moment of relaxation completely ruined, he stepped out from the kitchen and grabbed the remote, shutting off the living room TV.

     Nothing happened.

     “Dammit.” Steven threw the remote onto the sofa, stormed his way to the TV itself and hit the power button. Again, nothing happened. In a moment of frustration, he grabbed the cord and yanked it out of the wall, only to be met with a brief spark from the socket and the continued screech of white noise.

     And he frowned. Princess, he remembered, had contacted Carlton this way, but Princess liked Carlton. Sure, she didn’t exactly hate him, but they never really get along either. Although, I suppose things would be different now, he thought. He took a moment to muster some courage, and called out to the empty room, “Is that you?” He glanced around, waiting for her–for somebody at least–to answer.

     There was still no response. The screech of the static was beginning to hurt his ears, and the light was burning his eyes. No one seemed to be there. Then he saw something inside the static–for the briefest moment, the noise appeared to form a faint image, one that made Steven’s skin crawl.

     The flickering snow seemed to form a vague shape, one that seemed to invoke the image of a man hanging by his neck from a wire. Steven leaned in, looking closer at the blinding static, hoping to confirm that it was merely an illusion brought on by stress. And for a moment, it appeared to be just that–a blank screen full of flickering gray and white pixels, and nothing more.

     Then the image returned with a vengeance, and the faint horror he had hoped he hadn’t witnessed was now stark and vivid. The dreadful corpse of a man began to sway from what seemed like an iron chivet, its eyes rolled back into its skull, globs of congealed blood oozing from beneath the wire. It opened its mouth, and at once a dreadful moan filled Steven’s ears; things, dreadful, horrible things began to flow out of its mouth, and its hands tore themselves open at the palms. Foul-looking fluids began to flow from the wounds, and then from its eyes, as indescribable and unearthly scenes flashed across the background.

     The squealing static began to twist upon itself, distorting the corpse’s moans into a horrifying mockery of speech. At first it was incomprehensible, merely a raspy, choking voice drowned out in what crackling screeches. Whatever it was saying seemed to be short, and it appeared to repeat itself endlessly. Soon these iterations began to become more restrained, the words slowly gaining clarity with each new iteration, until at last, Steven could make out the words of a young man, pleading against an unseen tormentor. “I don’t want to die,” it said. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” Each time, his pleas became more desperate, more filled with pain and terror, but they continued uninterrupted for some time, before finally giving way to a hellish, inhuman scream:

     “I DID IT FOR HER….”

     The lights in the kitchen flickered and sparked, and then the power went out. There was no sound, no light, not even from the television. Nonetheless, the unsettling air grew in intensity. Something was in there, something that was not Samantha Carter. Steven raced to his bedroom and strapped the Nightwalker to his wrist, before entering his uncle’s room to find Yvonne sleeping alone in bed.

     “Devon’s house,” said Steven. That was where his uncle was, and that was where they should head. He grabbed Yvonne’s arm and shook her awake, tossing his head toward the dresser. “Get up,” he said. “Now.”

     Whatever was happening, Yvonne seemed to sense it. She quickly grabbed a lockbox out of her dresser drawer and removed the pistol inside. The two then ran for the front door, Steven in lead, but as he twisted the handle, it wouldn’t budge.

     “Dammit!” Steven exclaimed. He gave the door a hard kick, trying to break it free, but it refused to budge. “Motherfucking reinforced frame! The one time I don’t want one–”

     “The shop,” Yvonne said. She grabbed him by the hand and gently pulled. Steven realized she was right–the drop out the windows were a good thirty feet, so with no other option, they raced for the stairway.

     It opened without a problem.

     The two didn’t waste any time. They descended the stairway in short order, only to feel whatever presence that had been upstairs begin to follow. Steven twisted the knob and pushed, but it wouldn’t give; he’d forgotten that the door was locked. “Fantastic.”

     Yvonne didn’t bother to respond. Instead, she threw her weight onto the door, and it burst open. Rushing into the shop, she quickly grabbed one of the shelves and began pushing it in front of the doorway, pausing only to allow Steven to squeeze through.

     “Should we even bother with the door?” Steven asked, motioning toward the entrance.

     “Doubt it,” Yvonne replied. Whatever had trapped them inside wasn’t hurrying after them–no doubt, that was because it had made sure the shop door was secured. She scanned the room, finally spying something that caused her to grimace. “There,” she said, pointing toward the display window.

     “Yvonne, that’s a laminated window.”

     “I’m aware of that–”

     She was interrupted by a dreadful scream–a primal, otherworldly scream, one that rumbled like rolling thunder, so heavy that it was more clearly felt than heard. Both their hearts seemed to drop in their chests. It wasn’t just loud and deep, it carried with it a force far beyond anything nature could muster, instilling the air with such a painful, physical presence that for several moments after it had subsided, the two of them could still feel it rattling their bones.

     Behind them they could hear a deep groan, as if the stairs and ceiling were beginning to collapse. Steven had to force himself to move for the window, but Yvonne was already there, holding onto a shelf for support. Once there, he grabbed a wooden bat and swung at the window with all his might. The bat managed to shatter the glass, but it held fast. A second strike corrected that, with the glass giving way just enough for the bat’s tip to break through.

     The wall behind them began to bulge and crack. Whatever was behind it was pushing its way into the room. Steven kicked the window as hard as he could, and the pane fell out of the frame. As the wall behind them began to give, they stepped through the frame and bolted for the main house.

     As soon as his feet hit concrete, Steven slipped and sliced his hand on a shard of glass. He ignored the pain, instead himself to his feet without missing a step. To prevent panic from overtaking him, Steven squeezed his eyes shut and focused on running. Within minutes he heard a door slam open, and he felt himself stumble through. He opened his eyes and caught himself, stopping inches from hitting his face on the wooden floor.

     He looked up to see Carter emerging from his office with Carlton and Roderigo in tow. As Roderigo grabbed his hand, he finally realized that his pursuer was gone, and he collapsed on the floor sobbing. As he reached to wipe away those tears, Steven caught a glimpse of the blood on his hand. Through it, the scars on his hand now seemed as fresh as they day they were made.

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