(My first scary story posted online – and still one of my favorites!)
The sun was just setting on a clear and brisk fall evening as Diane began making her way home through the winding, cobbled streets of the city. In the countryside, it might have been a lovely twilight, but much of its beauty was lost here. The tall brick buildings crowded close to both the streets and each other, obscuring the sunset and plunging the ground below into deep shadow. The streetlights had already been on for quite some time. They cast sickly yellow pools of artificial light around their immediate area, but somehow never managed to bridge the gap between adjacent lightposts entirely. They were bright enough, however, to hide most of the stars from view, leaving the sky above the city a dull, undifferentiated gray slowly fading to black. Incidentally, if one were to gaze up at this uninspiring sky while walking between the close-set buildings – and if the haze and shadows were just right – the tops of the structures would seem to lean in and reach towards each other ever so slightly, as if trying to enfold the street like a giant hand and block out the sky completely. It was enough to make even a deserted street seem unbearably claustrophobic.
Diane did not gaze up at the uninspiring sky as she walked home. She also did not gaze left, or right, or anywhere else except forward and slightly downward, fixating on the cracked and uneven brick road immediately ahead of her. Walking the city alone at nightfall could be dangerous, and she knew it. And while it was not quite late enough to mark the transition from mildly risky to downright stupid, it was still plenty late enough for Diane to feel uncomfortable. She walked briskly, ignoring the shadows of strangers passing on either side of her, the lights and laughter from pubs and shops lining the street, and the dark, gaping mouths of the shadowy alleyways in between. She wanted nothing more than to be at home, curled up in front of the fire with a good book; and she silently cursed her poor planning as the streets darkened around her.
Gradually, such that she could not pinpoint exactly when it began, Diane became aware of a feeling of trepidation exceeding her usual late-night jitters. A shiver drifted down her spine and she quickened her step, trying to pinpoint the origin of the feeling. It was the sort of feeling one often experiences when alone in dark places: a slight increase in heart rate, a prickle of goosebumps, a creeping sense of unease… and above all, the vague but undeniable feeling that you are being watched. Such feelings are often triggered by something – a movement caught from the corner of the eye, an unexplained noise, a cold breeze, and so on. Diane couldn’t tell what the trigger had been this time, and it bugged her. Around her, the city went about its usual evening routine, not quite bustling but not yet quiet, seemingly oblivious to the presence of one specific young woman among the many citizens going about their business. Still, the sense of being watched would not leave Diane, no matter how much she tried to rationalize it away. It tugged at the corners of her mind, raising the hairs on the back of her neck and sending waves of tension throughout her body.
Almost home, she thought, just a few more minutes of walking. Just got to get home. But the uneasy feeling only gained momentum as she hurried down the night streets towards her warm little townhouse. Diane became increasingly alert, listening vigilantly to the sounds of the city: the whistle of the wind through the buildings, the boisterous merrymaking from the pubs, the hushed conversations of passerby, the buzzing of the streetlights, her own footsteps echoing across the cobblestones… wait. She was suddenly seized with a flash of intuition. Her feeling was not merely one of being watched… it was one of being followed. As she focused down to the sound of her footsteps, she thought she heard a strange echo in them. Although she walked this same road in these same shoes almost every day, there was something unfamiliar in the pitch and timbre of her footfalls, something foreign. As if someone was walking completely in step with her, following just behind her…
The mere thought was enough to ratchet her vague uneasiness up a notch into real fear. Heart beating fast, palms sweating, she steeled herself and glanced around backwards to glimpse her pursuer.
The street behind her was almost empty, the closest other pedestrians being a group of three apparently tipsy young men staggering away in the opposite direction.
Just my imagination, she thought, but oddly this thought did not bring relief, for the feeling persisted after she turned back around. If anything, it grew stronger. She felt the weight of another’s gaze fixed on the back of her head. Her mouth grew dry. Her hands trembled. The clicking of her footsteps seemed to swell to the exclusion of all other sound, a hollow click-clack, click-clack projecting into a silence that now seemed as heavy and suffocating as a down blanket. She listened desperately, trying to catch her phantom pursuer in a misstep, or at least to pick out the foreign sound that had made her suspect his (her? its?) presence in the first place. But the difference was impossible to pinpoint with her rational mind, despite the insistence of her subconscious that something was amiss. Attempting to confuse her pursuer (if indeed there was one), she walked a bit faster, then rapidly slowed, then did a series of little off-beat trips, skips, and hops. All of which availed her nothing, except perhaps to make her look completely ridiculous to passerby. And yet the strange echo continued, nebulous and elusive, fraying her nerves and feeding the mounting dread that now possessed her.
Ever since Diane was a child, she’d had a very active imagination. As a young girl she was afraid of the dark and the quiet more than anything else, for her mind would fill it with waiting monsters and phantom noises. Every night after her parents put her to bed, she would switch on the little lamp on her bedside table and sleep with the light on. If her parents noticed, which they sometimes did, they would come in and turn the light back off again. She hated it when this happened, for if she awoke with the light off, she would never be able to reach over and turn it back on again. The six-inch gap between her bed and her nightstand became an unbridgeable void of dark menace; the young Diane was convinced that, the moment she tried to reach across, monstrous hands would reach up from under her bed, grab her exposed wrist, and drag her screaming into the shadows. Only the magical rectangle that constituted the top of her bed was safe, acting on the monsters as a circle of salt might act on a witch. And even the bed might not be safe if a REALLY BAD THING was lurking in the darkness. There amongst the vague, half-imagined terrors of a child’s imagination would Diane lie, mute and paralyzed, sleepless until the morning sun finally shone through her bedroom window. It was horrible. And God forbid she should have to use the bathroom.
Yes, Diane knew that she had an overactive imagination. But she thought she had conquered it years ago. She was a grown woman now, not a child; she shouldn’t be imagining things. And yet, the certainty of being observed…followed…hunted refused to disappear. Someone or something was following behind her, some deep intuitive part of her knew it. She was not a child anymore, and with every passing moment, she became more and more certain that she was not imagining this. And she became more and more afraid.
Maybe whoever it was just ducked into an alley or dodged out of sight the last time I turned around. That’s possible, she thought. With this in mind, she bit her lip, steeled herself… and without warning whipped around as fast as she could, turning her whole body to face her assailant.
Nothing. An empty street.
The sight of the dark, empty passage behind her nearly sent Diane into a full-blown panic attack. The shadows, the buildings, the very air itself seemed to pulsate with malicious intent, as if the city she now saw was merely a thin veil draped over a writhing, seething mass of… It was suddenly very difficult for Diane to breathe. A weight pressed against her chest and her eyes welled with terrified tears. Her body shook like a leaf. It took every last iota of her self-control not to shriek like a madwoman right there in the middle of the street. She was suddenly seized with a strong and urgent compulsion to GET INDOORS, to seek shelter from the terror, however irrational, that seemed to stalk the streets. She turned quickly back around and darted into the nearest lit building, letting the door slam behind her without turning back. She collapsed against the wall next to the door, eyes closed, breathing like she had just run a marathon. For a few moments she just stood there like that, calming herself down and trying to regain control of her breathing. Only then did she open her eyes to survey the room she had just entered.
Diane had, in her terror, stumbled into a small pub. The place was a bit dingy and not particularly well-lit, but at least it was brighter than outside, and the few patrons seated in small groups throughout the establishment seemed friendly and respectable enough, at least upon first inspection. A couple of them were glancing over in her direction, their curiosity perhaps aroused by her strange, panicked entrance… or perhaps simply by the fact that she seemed to be the only woman in the place except for one slightly harried-looking waitress. Diane still felt a bit uneasy, both from the attention and from her feeling of being followed in the street, but coming inside had managed to dissolve the worst of her panic. She did not in the least feel ready to venture back out into the street, though, so instead she sat down quietly at a vacant, two-person table near the door and tried to collect her thoughts. After a minute or so, the waitress she had noticed earlier came by and asked Diane politely if she would like anything to drink. Diane requested just a cup of hot tea please, if they had it; and the waitress gave her a kind, understanding smile and a pat on the back of the hand before bustling off to fill the order.
By this point, Diane felt much better, although the lingering feeling of being watched still persisted in the back of her mind. She was seated with her back to the front door and window of the pub, and a small part of her was still convinced that someone or something was looking in on her through that window. However, she pushed this idea away as firmly as she could, telling herself that she was being ridiculous, that it all must have been nothing more than her imagination. She had gone a fair ways towards convincing herself this was true when a man slid casually into the seat across from her.
Well aware that she was the only female patron in the pub, Diane opened her mouth to tell the man that she was not interested in flirting, but stopped when she got a closer look at him. The man was a lot older than she had expected, old enough to be her father. He had short, graying brown hair and a slight stubble across his cheeks, and the skin around his bright blue eyes was wrinkled not only with age, but with the kindly and wise smile that stretched across his face. Overall, he had a caring, patriarchal aura that – along with the golden wedding band she noticed on his left ring finger – suggested to Diane that this was not some young, self-styled Casanova looking for a date.
“Fergive a stranger fer soundin’ nosy, but… Are ya doing a’right, lass? Yer lookin’ a mite troubled, an’ ya stormed in here earlier like you was in a downright panic.” His voice was deep and rugged, but also soft, carrying a lilting accent that was somehow soothing to Diane.
“Oh, I’m doing alright,” Diane responded sheepishly, “Just… had a bit of a fright on my way home. Nothing really; just my imagination I suppose. Bit embarrassing, actually. I just wanted to… stop in, get a bit of a hot drink and calm down before heading back home for the night.”
The man nodded understandingly, taking a short gulp from his own mug as the waitress returned with Diane’s tea. As the waitress left, he responded, “Yeh, these city streets c’n be a touch dauntin’ at night, what with everythin’ bein’ so damn packed in. Not all safe fer a young lass walkin’ alone, either,” he added with a stern look. Diane nodded her understanding and sipped her tea with an embarrassed blush, looking down into her cup rather than at her companion. “What was it put such a fright inta ya, anyhow?”
“Oh, like I said, nothing really,” Diane responded, “Just a… creepy feeling I got, nothing to worry about.”
The man set down his mug and leaned his chin on his hand. “Why don’tcha tell me a bit about it, lass? Talkin’ bout these things has a way o’ makin’ em feel better, sometimes.”
Normally, Diane wouldn’t want to reveal something so embarrassing, particularly to a stranger, but she still felt in need of a bit of comfort, and the man seemed so sincere… she wound up telling him the whole story. Surprisingly, instead of nodding his encouragement or even looking amused at her folly, the man’s face seemed to grow darker and more troubled as Diane’s story progressed. When she had finally finished, the man sat there in silence for more than a minute, biting his lip and staring into his mug. Finally, Diane felt the silence had gotten too unnerving, and said to him, “Ummm, sir…?”
“Oh,” he exhaled in surprise, looking up from his mug, “Oh, sorry lass, I dinna mean to ignore ya. It’s jus’…”
“Just what?” Diane asked, a creeping feeling of dread starting to seep back into her body.
“Well… ya hear stories ‘round here, lass. Superstitious nonsense, the most of ‘em, but… there’s no denyin’ there’s some stuff what happens roundabout these parts at night that jus’ ain’t been explained. An’ what ya jus’ told me sounds an awful lot like one old story I hear now’n’ again…”
An icy chill went down Diane’s spine. “What story?”
The man drummed his fingers nervously on the table, looking torn. “Look, I don’ wanna put a fright in ya fer no reason lass, but… I was raised in a real superstitious family, and curse me if it ain’t been passed along enough for me to think… that it’d be riskin’ your safety not to tell ya.”
“Tell me what? Please, I want to hear this. Even if it is just superstitious.”
“Well, as tales would have it, there’s this… thing what comes around the streets a’ night, in the city like this. Some kinda monster, or ghost, but nobody knows what it really is, or what it looks like. An’ every now’n’ then, fer some reason it’ll… latch on… ta somebody, an’ follow ‘em around, walkin’ right behind ‘em as they go about their business.”
“Catch is, y’see… it ain’t really real. At least not in our world, not normally. I don’t get all that weird metaphysics stuff ‘er nothin,’ but supposedly it’s on some kinda other plane, for the most part. One what overlaps with our world but ain’t really a part of it… like it’s below what we c’n see an’ feel, and most people go through their lives hardly even knowin’ it’s there. Unless somethin’ there takes a shine to ya. Even then, it can’t do much… it can see ya, an’ it can follow ya around, but it can’t really harm ya, see, ‘cause it’s not really there. In fact, some people don’t notice it followin’ em at all, jus’ go on ‘bout their evenings without a care in the world. But others… people who’re more sensitive, more open ta stuff that ain’t exactly rational an’ concrete, they’ll notice it followin’ em. They’ll feel a cold chill on their backs, a sense of bein’ stalked… like a sixth sense or somethin.’ May even hear it followin’ em, jus’ a bit, or catch a quick glimpse of it, jus’ for a moment out the corner o’ their eye. Never more’n that, ‘cause it’s not really there, remember? At least not yet.”
Diane gulped. “…Yet?”
“That’s why it’s the sensitive ones what have to worry about it, see? If you don’t notice it, it c’n follow ya ‘round till the cows come home an’ not make one lick of difference. If ya do notice it, though, if ya start feelin’ it, and seein’ it, and expecting it… well, it starts gettin’ more real to ya, dunnit? An’ as it starts gettin’ more real ta you, it starts gettin’ more real period.” The man paused for a moment. “You said ya looked back at the thing twice, didn’tcha lass?”
Riveted by the man’s story (and practically speechless with fear) Diane simply gave a series of quick, twitchy nods in response.
“Well, don’t get too scared now, lass, but… they say it’s the lookin’ what gives it it’s real strength, lookin’ back an’ expectin’ with all yer heart to see somethin’ there. That brings it closer ta this plane, makes it more solid. The firs’ time ya look back at it, it immediately starts to feel more real to ya. Whatever spooked feelings ya may’ve had before, they’ll go up tenfold after ya look back. The footsteps’ll get louder, the glimpses clearer. You’ll be more’n’more convinced that somethin’s followin’ ya around.”
“Same thing happens the second time ya look back. Fear gets jacked up another notch. Monster gets closer an’ more solid. Start’s followin’ right behind ya, breathin’ down yer neck. It knows it’s gettin’ near the kill. They say the trepidation’s near unbearable, ya feel compelled to look around one more time… but that’s the one thing ya should never do. ‘Cause that third look is all it takes to bring that thing full on into our world. Real an’ solid as you are. Turn around that third time, an’ you’ll be lookin’ it straight in the eye.”
“No one knows exactly what you’ll be lookin’ at, mind you. Some say it don’t even have a form of its own ‘till you give it one, an’ that when you do, it’ll be yer worst nightmare. Your own personal boogeyman… whatever thing, real or imaginary, scares ya the most on God’s green earth, that’s what it’ll look like. But o’course, that’s all speculation, ‘cause so far as I know there ain’t no one what’s seen that thing an’ lived to tell about it. That’s the only thing ‘bout it that’s for sure… it’s a murderous, evil thing with an unholy hunger fer human flesh an’ bone. The moment you see it, it’ll seize on ya an’ tear ya limb from limb, rip ya apart an’ disembowel ya while yer still alive an’ screamin,’ savin’ yer head fer last. Only thing what the police’ll find of ya when it’s done will be some ripped up, bloody clothes an’ maybe a few slivers o’ bone.”
“Some say that ain’t even the worst part though. Some say that after it’s done devourin’ yer flesh, that thing’ll steal yer very soul an’ drag it into that other world it comes from, an’ there it’ll torment ya fer all eternity. Still jus’ speculation but… it’s ‘bout as plausible as anythin’ else in the story.”
By this time, Diane was as white as a sheet and trembling in sheer terror. She felt certain that the awful monster the man had described was exactly what was stalking her. The story had reiterated exactly how she had felt while walking out on the street a few minutes earlier. “W-what do I do?” she asked the man in a pleading voice. “How do I get away from this thing? Did I lose it by coming in here?”
The man shook his head mournfully. “Prob’ly not, lass. From what I heard, it don’t give up that easy. Even if it didn’t follow ya in here, which would explain ya feelin’ a bit better, it’s probably still standin’ outside waitin’ for ya. It’s smart. It knows this ain’t yer home. An’ it’s real determined. It wants ya; I’m sure you could tell.”
Diane hid her face in her hands and let out a quiet sob. Yes, she could tell. She could feel its horrible eyes on her through the window even now, boring into the back of her head. “Then what do I do?” she asked, her voice trembling with repressed tears. “How can I make it go away? There has to be a way, there just has to be!!”
“There is, lass,” the man told her in a soothing voice, “And it’s a plenty simple thing, too… but it won’t be easy. Remember, that thing ain’t real ‘till you look back at it that third time; it can’t hurtcha unless you do that. What ya have to do is go home. Go out there an’ walk straight down that street to yer house. And no matter what ya do, no matter what ya see or hear, no matter how strong the compulsion hits ya, you MUST NOT LOOK BACK. Ya already looked back twice, once more and it’ll have ya fer sure.”
“Go home an’ walk into yer house, but don’t look back jus’ yet. Not even ta lock the door behind ya. That thing don’t care ‘bout locks an’ doors, not really, an’ yer not safe even in yer own home. Not ‘till ya complete the ritual. It’s like knockin’ on wood or throwin’ spilled salt over yer shoulder, it’ll drive the bad things away. What ya gotta do (without lookin’ back, mind you) is go to yer bedroom an’ find somethin’ precious to ya, some kinda personal talisman. For lotsa people, it’s some religious thing… a Bible or a crucifix, some such, but it doesn’t have to be. Just has ta be meanin’ful to you. You find this talisman, an’ you turn it over in yer hands three times, while repeatin’ the followin’ incantation three times: Tenebras non timeo, quia nihil residet. I think it’s Latin er somethin.’ Anyway, once ya do that the monster should be driven away, an’ you can go ahead an’ open yer eyes an’ turn around. Then go lock up yer doors an’ go straight to bed, an’ everythin’ will be better in the mornin.’ Havin’ failed once, the monster ought never come after ya again.”
The man paused and appraised the terrified young woman sitting across from him. “Think ya can do that, lass?”
Diane took a deep breath and sipped down the last of her hot tea, trying her best to calm and center herself. With some effort, she stilled the trembling of her hands and let her heart slow down to a reasonable speed. Biting her lip and gathering all of her resolve, she looked the man straight in the eye and said, “Yes. I can do it.”
“Good. You look like a strong an’ smart woman ta me, lass; ya’ll do jus’ fine. Just remember not to look back, no matter what.”
“Can you… could you maybe come with me? Walk me home? It would be easier with someone by my side to talk to.”
The man shook his head. “Sorry, lass, it jus’ don’t work like that. Ya started this thing alone, ya gotta finish it alone. But you can do it. I believe in ya.”
Diane bit her lip and nodded. “Okay, I think I get it. Thank you.”
“No problem at all, lass. Think yer ready?”
Squeezing her fists tight and gathering all her courage, Diane nodded again, once, with finality. Then she stood up.
“Good luck to ya, lass. Ya should be okay goin’ out the door, but once ya’ve turned down the road towards yer house, don’t look back the other way again for anythin’.”
“Alright… goodbye then. Thank you so much.” And with that, Diane turned and strode purposefully towards the door. As she reached it, she realized somewhat sheepishly that she hadn’t even asked the man his name. However, she did not go back to ask him – she felt that, if she turned away from this door now, she might never be able to muster the courage to go through it again. Steeling herself as if for a dive into cold water, she pushed open the door to the pub and walked briskly back out into the street, head down, turning immediately to her right… the direction of home. There was literally no turning back now.
Almost as soon as she stepped back onto the road, Diane felt the suffocating terror descend on her again, even stronger than before. The feeling of eyes boring into the back of her skull was almost painful, her brain being pierced by two icy beams. For the first time, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, shadows that really shouldn’t be there if she were truly alone. While she was in the pub, the sun had set completely, and it was now pitch dark except for the weak, unnatural yellow phosphorescence of the streetlights. The city streets were mostly deserted, and the silence was palpable… except for Diane’s footsteps and the unnatural echoes of her pursuer.
Oh my God, those footsteps! Perhaps it was because she had heard them first, perhaps she was more sensitive to sound than sight, but the echoing footsteps behind her now seemed the most real of all. She could swear she heard solid feet striking the ground behind her, matching her gait more clumsily now than before. Sometimes an errant footfall would even strike at a different time than hers, letting her know beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone was behind her. Close behind her. Perhaps it was just the breeze, but she could even fancy that she felt cold breath on the back of her neck. The creature was so close, so close, she could tell. She felt its malice in the very atmosphere surrounding her, its anticipation and evil glee as it contemplated seizing her and ripping her to shreds, feeding on her terror and pain as well as her flesh. All it needed was one more look…
And damn it, even though she knew that look would seal her doom, in her mounting terror she couldn’t help but feel compelled to look behind her. That unseen presence breathing down her neck, piercing her with its eyes, filling her to the brim with horror… it was almost unbearable. Something about being unable to see it, unable to turn and face it, was almost worse than actually facing the thing. She supposed that was what it counted on. In any normal situation, ignoring such a strong feeling of impending danger was pure lunacy. Vision was perhaps humankind’s most important sense… when one heard a strange noise, felt a strange presence, it was a fundamental reflex to turn and look for the danger. Not to do so required the suppression of one’s strongest instincts. Although her rational brain insisted that the thing now walking behind her could not harm her unless she looked at it, some deeper, more animalistic part of her was clanging alarm bells with all its might, certain that looking was less dangerous than not looking. What if the man was wrong, what if this thing behind her could harm her, right now; what if its long claws were at this moment closing in on her jugular vein, its jaws opening to devour her whole???
Plagued by such thoughts, Diane gritted her teeth and broke into a run, not caring who might see her fleeing from nothing and think her mad. The footsteps behind her got even louder and more out of sync with hers as she ran. She was trembling all over, heart beating way too fast, terrified beyond belief. She could not help imagining the thing behind her… her worst nightmare… what it might look like. Vague memories of the imagined monsters that terrorized her childhood surfaced and coalesced. She imagined a creature with a round, gaping, bottomless maw, lined with horrible jagged bloody teeth. A creature with too many arms and legs, all bent in impossible conformations, all tipped with vicious claws. A creature with no order or symmetry, a crazed surrealist collage of terrible organs and implements of destruction. Or, perhaps most terrifying of all, a creature which lurked only on the edges of perception, amorphous, shrouded in darkness; a creature whose true form could not be imagined, for to see it even in the mind’s eye would drive one mad. Such was the creature that haunted her as a child. One which she never imagined or even tried to, one which went forever unnamed, a horrible malignant IT promising terrors beyond even her vivid imagination, beyond her worst nightmare.
Finally, Diane turned onto her own street and saw her front door, so close, just a few running paces away. Flooded with both terror and relief in equal measures, she closed the distance to her small townhouse in record speed, flying across the scraggly, brownish grass of her yard, bounding up her front steps, fumbling for a few horrible seconds with the key to her front door, terrified that she might drop it, then finally shoving it into the keyhole and violently throwing open the door. She closed the door behind her as she entered but, as per the instructions of the man at the pub, did not turn around to lock it, but proceeded straight up the stairs to her bedroom. Indeed, despite being inside her own home, she still felt the presence of the thing following her… its eyes on her back, its footsteps on the stairs… even the sound of the front door creaking ever so slightly, and if it had needed to open it to follow her in. But she was calmer now, knowing that it was almost over. She took the stairs not at a run, but at a brisk walk, and traversed the hallway to her room at the same pace. She already knew what her talisman was going to be… a treasured gift from her childhood…
Diane, you see, had not gotten over her childhood terrors of the dark and unseen monsters alone. Her parents had been loving and supportive, of course, but somehow had never known quite what to do with her. They never took her fears seriously at all… a position which only served to make her feel worse, as she was convinced that her fears were real and disheartened that her parents did not believe her. The one who actually helped free young Diane of her demons was her grandmother. When Diane was about ten, her grandfather died and her grandmother moved in to the same apartment complex as her family. Soon after, Diane happened to awake screaming from a nightmare one night while her grandmother was over visiting. The kindly old woman comforted her and coaxed her back to sleep, and the next day the two of them had a long, serious talk on the subject of fears. Grandmother took Diane’s concerns much more seriously than her parents seemed to. After a long time talking, Grandmother told Diane that the only thing she could do to put a stop to the monsters stalking her was to face them. Diane was horrified by the very suggestion. “But they’re so scary, Grandma! What could a little girl like me do to them? They’ll just get me!”
“Well, Diane,” her grandmother said, “the way I see it, there are only two possibilities. Either the dangers you fear are real, or they are the product of your imagination. If they are real, then they will find it easier to harm you if you don’t know what they are. You’re a smart little girl, with strong parents who love you very much and would do anything to protect you. I’ll wager it would be very hard for anything to harm you within the safe confines of your own home… unless you were too afraid to defend yourself from it. Knowledge is power, Diane, remember that. If the dangers are just a product of your imagination, then if you stand up tall and learn to face those fears, you’ll see that they can’t hurt you… just laugh in their faces and they’ll disappear! Either way, it’s better to face the things that scare you than to give in to them.”
The night after their talk, Diane woke up late at night, as she sometimes did, to find that her parents had turned off her bedside lamp. She thought she heard rustling and was seized with the sudden certainty that there was something hiding under her bed, waiting to grab her and gobble her up. In this situation, she would normally lie paralyzed with terror until morning, maybe even wetting her bed because she was too afraid to get up and go to the bathroom. That night, however, she remembered her grandmother’s advice. Gathering all her courage, she decided to reach across the void between her bed and her nightstand and turn on the bedside lamp.
She sat up in bed (a feat of bravery in itself) and took a few deep breaths, then, as quickly as she could, she lunged over to her nightstand and turned on the lamp. Nothing grabbed her, and the lamp cast its warm circle of light across her room. Diane was surprised and elated that nothing bad had happened. She could just go back to bed now, with the light on, and probably sleep fine… but, she realized, that didn’t really solve the problem, not all the way. Big girls didn’t sleep with the lights on; that was why her parents always turned it off. When Grandma said to face her fears, she meant all the way – and now, empowered by this little victory, might be the only chance Diane had to muster the courage to do it.
Trembling slightly, hardly believing her own boldness, Diane retrieved a small flashlight from her bedside drawer… and turned the lamp back off again. In the darkness, the unseen presence of the monster under the bed seemed to return immediately, and Diane’s heart raced with fright. But, she had to do this. Letting out a loud, high-pitched war cry to inspire herself (and alert her parents should anything actually go wrong) Diane jumped from the safe haven of her bed onto the no-man’s-land of the floor, dropped to her belly, switched on the flashlight, and pointed it under the bed.
No monsters. Just a couple of dirty socks and a toy ball she thought she’d lost. When Diane’s parents stormed into the room to see what was wrong, they found their daughter lying on her stomach on the floor, flashlight in hand, pointing and laughing gleefully at the space under her bed as if she was just the happiest girl in the world.
The nightly terrors went away for the most part, after that. To celebrate, Diane’s grandmother bought her a music box as a gift. It played the song “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I.
Now, fleeing from a monster which she could not face, Diane chose her grandmother’s music box as her personal talisman. It was her most tangible and meaningful representation of conquering her fears, so it should be perfect. She kept it on her nightstand right next to her bed, and played it sometimes when she was feeling particularly anxious or stressed… or just missing her grandmother. With a sense of profound relief, Diane picked up the music box and started to turn it over in her hands.
Then she heard it. The unmistakable creak of a floorboard directly behind her, loud and obvious in the quiet house. The most solid evidence yet of her pursuer – nearly undeniable proof that someone had indeed followed her into her home. Diane drew in her breath as a rush of adrenaline shook her to her core. Her head just faintly twitched towards the sound as the urge to turn around became almost unbearable. She had a thought, just then… an unbidden, intuitive sort of thought that seemed to rise from deep in her subconscious.
This is your last chance. Your last chance to face your fear.
But of course that was idiotic. Facing her fears may have been her grandmother’s advice, and it may have been good advice, but her grandmother had never faced a situation like this. If Diane turned around, she was dead, or worse, and she knew it. Facing this fear would neither arm her with knowledge nor make it disappear… it would only arm the monster. So, ignoring her instincts and her grandmother’s advice, Diane closed her eyes and turned the music box over in her hands.
“Tenebras non timeo, quia nihil residet.”
More creaking behind her.
“Tenebras non timeo, quia nihil residet.”
Rustling, a bump… a sound, perhaps, like a door sliding open or shut.
“Tenebras non timeo, quia nihil residet!”
Taking a deep breath, Diane opened her eyes, set down the music box, and turned around.
Behind her was only her empty room, quiet and secure in its familiarity. No monsters, no phantom noises, no unseen presences invading her mind. Diane felt a profound sense of relief and safety. She was home, safe and secure in her own home; and her pursuer was finally gone, banished, never to return! She practically skipped back down the steps to lock her front door (which, it turned out, was closed after all). After that, she took a brief moment in the kitchen to fix herself a glass of warm milk before heading up to bed.
Settling down to sleep for the night, Diane realized that she still felt a slight sense of tension and unease… but it was nothing compared to what she’d just experienced, and what did she expect after such a traumatizing event? Everything would be better in the morning, the man had told her so. Besides, even as a child, Diane had always felt the safest at home in her own bed. She snuggled up tightly in the covers, rested her head on her soft pillows, and was soon falling into the warm embrace of much-needed sleep…
Sometime in the middle of that night, Diane awoke from her quiet, restful slumber. She woke up slowly, as one often does from the deeper stages of sleep, and for a while was unaware of exactly what had woken her. Her mouth seemed as dry as cotton, and she felt strangely uncomfortable, but she didn’t think that was what had roused her. Finally, in her groggy, half-awake state, she recognized the sound of a music box playing. Her grandmother’s music box, playing “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” Normally, that tune made her feel happy and secure, but now, it somehow unnerved her… Coming awake a little bit more, she realized, Wait, how could the music box be playing right now? Someone would have to have wound it…
When the full implications of that thought hit her, it snapped her into full awareness like a splash of cold water. She bolted upright in bed… or would have, if she had been able. Unfortunately, she found her movement restricted, and all that her attempt to sit up accomplished was to send shooting pains through her wrists and ankles. Badly frightened now, she attempted to cry out, but found her cries muffled. That cottony feeling in her mouth had not been just from dryness – she was gagged! And the pains in her wrists and ankles… twisting around experimentally and looking down at the foot of her bed, she found that she was tied down to her bedposts with thick ropes. Just as she thought that she could not get any more terrified, she heard a sound above the music box that sent her spiraling into depths of panic she hadn’t even known existed – the chilling sound of metal sliding against metal.
Diane struggled with all her might, pulling at her bonds and making muffled noises through the cloth gag, but the ropes held tight, and no noise she made was nearly loud enough to penetrate the walls of the room. Suddenly, off to her right, a voice spoke to her.
“Ah, yer awake then. Yer quite the heavy sleeper ya know. Didn’t even flinch when I was tyin’ ya down, yet a lil’ music does the trick right quick… odd, eh?”
The voice, obviously masculine, sounded ridiculously conversational given the extremity of the situation and the disturbing content of its words. It also seemed vaguely familiar…
“It’s funny… I was sure fer a second there I was gonna be caught. When I stepped on that damn creaky floorboard, I mean. I thought fer sure you were gonna turn around; then you woulda screamed blue murder and probably woke up the whole damned neighborhood… ruined everything, that woulda! But yer good at followin’ instructions, aintcha? Never turned around once, right? Yeah, one determined wench, an’ I couldn’t be happier ‘bout it!” The voice chuckled darkly as Diane continued to struggle pointlessly, and the sound of grinding metal continued to grate on her ears.
“Determined and superstitious, yep, that there’s one helluva combination! Jus’ to put yer mind at ease, ya should know that there ain’t no ghoulies or ghosties followin’ ya from another world. Nuthin’s tryin’ ta steal yer soul. Those footsteps you heard behind ya on yer way to the pub, those were prob’ly nothin’ except yer imagination runnin’ away with ya. Those footsteps ya heard after ya stopped in at the pub though…”
Diane’s captor slowly stepped into her field of vision. It was the man from the pub, his once kind smile now twisted into a mocking grin of pure malice and predatory excitement. In his hand was a vicious-looking, freshly-sharpened butcher knife.
With a cruel chuckle, the man finished: “…well, those were me.”