(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 out of eggs, milk and flour. 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.

     The Monte Cristo was his favorite way to relax on nights like this. It took only a minute to fry, and there was nothing like fried food to lighten one’s spirits. But he wouldn’t get to enjoy it that night–as soon as he dropped the sandwich into the oil, the screech of white noise filled the apartment. His mood now ruined, Steven removed the pan from the burner and stepped into the living room to switch off the TV.

     Nothing happened.

     Steven frowned. It couldn’t have been Princess–the two of them had never gotten along. But in light of all he’d seen, he wasn’t about to rule it out. “Is that you?” he asked, glancing around the room as he waited for for her to answer.

     At first, he got no response. Instead, the snow continued to cast a dancing light on the ceiling and walls. Then he saw something–for the briefest moment, the noise appeared to form a faint image, one that made Steven’s skin crawl. It was a pattern, one that called to mind the visage of a man hanging by his neck from a wire, with dreadful things bursting from his mouth and hands. Every few moments, more vague and unnerving images flashed across the screen. These images seemed to crawl across the screen, distorting and mangling the man’s body in bizarre ways while horrifying and unearthly scenes flashed in and out of the background.

     “This isn’t funny,” Steven said. His instinct to run was beginning to take hold, tightening his calves and deepening his breath. He could feel adrenaline surge through his body.

     The squeal began to twist and distort, mimicking a voice drowned in static. At first Steven couldn’t tell what it was saying, but it frantically repeated itself, which each reiteration become clearer and more restrained. 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.” It continued for several minutes, never once pausing for a breath, before finally giving way to a hellish 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–”

     A deafening scream cut her off. It was primal and otherworldly, terrifying enough that Steven felt his heart stop for an instant. It wasn’t just unnatural–it was almost a force of nature, carrying a physical weight so profound that the shelves and walls shook in its wake. Even several moments after that cry had subsided, he could still feel it reverberate in his 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.