Skepticism was my candle in the dark; the light I carried on the long vigil of life. When I was young I was the boy who would point out the zipper on the monster’s outfit, the trapdoor on the magician’s stage, and the flaw in the adult’s logic. To many the world was a well of secrets, hidden beneath a tarp of impenetrable shadow. To me, the shadows were merely cast by the light dancing behind us, clear for all to see if only they would merely turn their head and glance behind. I maintained this view even at my mother’s side in her last days. The pastor bid me to pray with him, joining with my brother, Frank, and my other relatives in their pleas for mercy for my poor, unfortunate mother. I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t. To do so I would look upon myself every day and see a fraud; my insincerity in praying to a God which I had never put much stock in would only poison the prayer group. I could never view such superstitious nonsense as my mother’s salvation. It was the syringe and the scalpel which would save my mother’s life; the prayer was little more than a hollow plea for aid falling upon an empty throne in some long abandoned hall.
I was 24 then, and was both beginning a new job at Comcast in the accounting department, and had just purchased my first home in Everton, NJ, an average suburban neighborhood in Camden County. The home was a small yet attractive rancher with 2 bedrooms one bathroom, and a full size kitchen and dining room. The backyard was small, but fenced in to provide enough privacy if I wanted to have a get together. It was a nice little starter home, but it likely wouldn’t be the last one I ever bought. Still, it provided both the comfort and the respite which I needed after an exhausting week of work in Philadelphia. It was the perfect place for my brother to move after my mother’s death.
Our father had long been estranged from us, having walked out on my mother shortly after my brother’s birth. My mom never told me why, but I could move to speculate. An affair seems most likely, given that we only ever hear from him once a year, on Christmas. We used to receive novel-esque letters which were filled with updates as to where he was, pleas for us to not blame ourselves for the separation, and even stories about his current exploits in Texas.
With each passing year it lost a page. Once it hit a single page, it lost a paragraph a year. By the time I was 21, the letter had become a Christmas card with pictures of his new family in awful holiday sweaters. Last year we received a single card which clearly was purchased in a box of 100 generic holiday cards. A single snowman sat upon the front, his coal-built smile looking formal and impersonal. Inside there was no letter, no picture, no hand-written messages of love and best regards. It was merely the printed text and a few words.
Dear Boys, Happy Holidays From All of Us
It wasn’t even written in his hand-writing. His new wife probably wrote it down.
Following my mother’s death, I tried to get in contact with him via email, but it was always returned. I called his phone only to hear a woman’s voice inform me that the number I was trying to reach had been disconnected. Her flat affect reflected my father’s true feelings regarding us, his first sons. His forgotten sons. In a final attempt to inform him that the woman he once loved, with whom he had brought to life two young men, had passed away I sent him a hand-written letter to the return address posted on his Christmas cards. In such situations, I envy the people who never hear back from their intended recipient. They get to possess the glimmer of hope that the mail was never delivered, that the letter was lost in the post. Four weeks to the day after I sent that damn letter, I received a small blue envelope. Inside was a Hallmark card, the kind bought in any pharmacy, which read…
“Sorry for your loss, All of Us”
At least they sprung for a more expensive card this time. It was rather nice, with gold-inlaid writing and silver-etched heart. The printed text was. Psalm 23:4; Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. How can a man seek aid from the father of all creation, when the father of his own body rejects his existence? So it fell to me to grant my brother shelter and help him heal the pain which came from losing his mother and being cast into perdition by his father. We had always been very different, Frank and I, not least of all owing to the 8 year age difference between us. Where I was skeptical, he was credulous. Where I was gregarious, he was muted. My brother, Frank, was an imaginative kid who loved books about angels and demons and clutched an ankh to his heart when he was in shock or grief. He was the kid who went to Bible study when mom asked us to go, did his homework when he got home from school, and then spent the day reading book after book. His friends were all the same way; they actually petitioned to the student council to start a school paranormal society. When the kid is motivated by something he’s passionate about, he would move the foundation of the Earth to see it completed. I’ve always admired him for that. Now his athletic ability left room for development, and he was so damn naïve.
Once, he actually ended up spending his entire summer vacation acting as a student volunteer on the mayor of Seaville’s campaign trail because he truly believed that the mayor was going to institute a city wide ban on kill animal shelters. I remember asking about why he would spend so much time doing this. “Someone has to step up and do this, Sam. If everyone who cared about animal welfare did nothing about it but complain, nothing would get done.” Frank said.
“Right, but is this really something that can actually be changed?” I said.
“Of course it is! These animals were made to be out companions, and we abandon them and then execute them when we don’t want them anymore.”
“Okay, first, an execution is a punishment performed on criminals for severe crimes. Dogs and cats are euthanized. Second, there is no way to keep all of these animals alive, indefinitely, and keep the animal shelter budget steady. It would have to rise.”
“So? People’s morals and ideals have a tendency to dry up real fast when they’ve got to pay extra. The mayor knows this, and he’s going to find a way to make everyone happy. At least, he’s gonna hide his true solution somewhere away from the prying eyes of your peers.”
“You’re so damn cynical.”
“Someday, when you grow up, you will be, too.”
Four months later the mayor won re-election and actually moved to institute a no kill shelter system in Seaville. The very next month the number of animals in city shelters decreased by 40%; something wasn’t right. Frank was so smug with me, I couldn’t stand it. I had to know what happened, and I found out what it was. My suspicions were correct; the no kill shelter was implemented within the city, and a lucky few animals were permitted to stay there. The rest were shipped out to high kill shelters in Tennessee for a low cost, much lower than it would be to ship to other no kill shelters which were also overburdened. Some of the animals sent to that shelter were lucky and got adopted by the locals. As for the rest, there are some things that are best left shrouded in mystery lest they needlessly trouble the minds of people who can do nothing about it.
In the end the city got to look like a stout ally of the animal rights movement while also saving far more money than it did by euthanizing animals in their own shelters. I showed Frank. He didn’t talk to me for a week. The day he moved in, I had to install a half dozen new smoke alarms in the house just in case one of his many candles got up to mischief and tried to burn the house down. The room he built for himself was an altar built to a God prone to mixed messages, maintained by an acolyte of every cause. Christian crucifixes stared at jade Buddhas which laughed in mirth at the absurdity of their meeting in the same room. He loved both the transcendental and the unknown, often mixing the two for his book of the month. He also had a passion for modern urban legends released in the shadowy corners of the internet. The readers referred to them as “creepypastas,” a term referring to creepy stories that are copied and pasted throughout the internet. It’s such a non-sense word when you think about it, like jabberwocky or Hogwarts. I couldn’t have predicted just how threatening such nonsense would become.
It was about a month ago when this all began. My brother and I were out at the Stark’s Diner when he asked me.
“Have you ever heard of The Midnight Game” before?”
“No.” I said, gingerly stabbing into my ham and cheese omelet. A moment of silence passed, and he went on.
“It’s this ritual, which they say is meant to summon this ancient, powerful spirit called “The Midnight Man,” a being who was sent to punish those who had transgressed against the gods.”
“Yeah! There’s all these videos of guys doing it online! In some of them you can even see the outline of a man in the darkness! It’s so scary!” I looked up from my plate to see the look on my brother’s face as he described this crude imitation of a voodoo hex out of a Hollywood movie. He bore the expression of a child recounting his first visit to Santa at the local mall. His enthusiasm was amusing, and, admittedly, contagious.
“Heh.” I snorted. A moment of silence passed. “Well, I guess if you’re looking for it, a smudge is gonna turn into figure.”
“What do you mean?” Frank asked. His eyes narrowed, and his head withdrew, aligning with his body. I looked at him and noticed his now defensive demeanor.
“Well, people like to see what they want to see.”
“Yeah, but this wasn’t me just assigning meaning to random shapes. This looked real.”
“Well, there wouldn’t be a need for me to say that if you were aware that you- you know what, just show me the damn video. I’ll prove it to you.” I held my hand out and beckoned for him to drop the phone in my hand. “Alright, give me a moment.” He said, his fingers racing across the electronic keyboard. A moment went by before I knew he had found his objective. The smile subtly creeping onto his face gave it away. “Here.” I examined the video. It included a primer of instructions, a list of required items, and some rules and warnings. I watched the foolish contents; special candles, salt, my name in blood, and knocking. “Double, bubble, toil and trouble” I muttered to myself as Frank scolded me to be quiet.
“So wait, is that Midnight Greenwich Mean Time, Eastern Standard, Mountain?”
“Whatever midnight is for where you are.”
“What if two people knock on the door to perform the ritual at the same time?”
“Does he place a note under the door of the guy who was one second too late?”
“You’re such an asshole.”
“Wait! Wait! Does he write I’ll get you back next time and slide the paper back under the door?”
“Okay, we get it.”
“Maybe he writes a return date and time.”
“Just watch the video!”
“Okay, okay.” I continued. The “evidence” was nothing impressive. A clearly edited in silhouette of a standard male figure dance on the periphery of the candle light, completely life-less. “Frank, come on. This can’t be convincing.” I said.
“It’s convincing enough.”
“So you’re telling me that if you performed these actions, you honestly believe that “The Midnight Man,” a-“
“-cat so cool after dark that he had to take 12AM as his name.”
“As usual, you find yourself hilarious. Yes, I believe it could be real, and I believe that belief gives those things power in this world.”
“Oh dear lord that is such bullshit.”
“Bet you wouldn’t do it.” He challenged. It was a poor decision on his part, and he had so much more to learn about me. I grinned.
“Okay, asshole. You’re on.” I said, pointing my fork in his direction before shoving a spoonful of egg in my mouth. His eyes grew wide and his movements became fidgety.
“Wait, no! You can’t!”
“That’s what you think, but I disagree.” I said, locking eyes with him as his own eyes darted left and right.
“But if you-“
“We’ll go to CVS-“
“-do this you could end up-“
“-and grab some candles-“
“-summoning a very-“
“-paper, and lighters. We’ll-“
“-powerful spirit that can do-“
“-use my atomic clock to get it to be exactly midnight, and-“
“Will you shut up for one moment!?” Frank shrieked. I smiled as I leaned back, awaiting his response. “Sam, you don’t need to do this, I’m sorry. Can we just drop it?”
I allowed silence for a few moments. “No.”
“Because I think doing this would be good for both of us.”
“I’m not doing this!”
“Come on, Frank! We’ll be able to settle this. If this is real, you’ll prove it to me and shut me up. Plus, you know the rules of the game and can keep us safe in case anything goes wrong.”
“One of the first rules is that you don’t do it with more than one person present!” He spit.
“Hmm, well we can break new ground.” I smiled.
That night I conducted the ritual exactly as I was instructed as my brother supervised, fear bringing him to the brink of tears.
“Sam, come on. Don’t do this. It’s dangerous!” he pleaded.
“You’re the one that issued the challenge, my man. I’m about to show you how shit gets done in this house.” I shot back, grinning.
I used a satellite clock to be certain it was exactly midnight. The final knock on the door rang loudly as I imparted extra force into the blow. I let it ring. I let it linger. I opened the door, wide enough for the entire spiritual world to enter, and I slammed it shut.
“Hope I didn’t shut it on his face. He might get mad.”
“Sam!” Frank’s whisper entered the air sharp and quick.
“Do you think if it got shut in his face he’d leave an imprint like a Looney Tune?” Frank found none of this funny.
“One of the primary rules is not to mock The Midnight Man! Light your candle!”
My smile was uncontainable as I lit the candle and began walking around the house with Frank in tow, holding tight to me. I will admit that the house was a little spooky. It simply amazes me how darkness and the power of suggestion can create dread in the most familiar of locales. Frank kept pointing at shadows dancing at the edge of the light. The monsters always taunted him there, ever since he was a child.
An hour into the game the candle went out and I could not get it to light. Frank nearly broke his nose as he hit the ground, making a salt circle all around us I readily stepped out of the circle despite his desperate pleas for me to stay inside. I sat upon my couch while he screamed for me to come back. I appreciate that he really did fear for my life, even flying out of his own circle to surround the couch in a ring of salt, spilling the vial and continuing to spread the table spice with his bare hands. The circle was shoddy and messy.
“You know, you’re cleaning that, right?” I said.
By 333AM, the allotted time frame for The Midnight Game, the most damage that I had incurred was from stubbing my toe as I made for my couch. I never saw any figures, there were no unexplained sounds emanating from the depths of the darkness, and no whispers in the shadows. It was all fake. Frank sat on the couch which was now surrounded by a crude circle of table salt. His face was now visible in the light of my television, wearing a look which betrayed equal parts relief and disappointment. He was alive, but the world had just lost a little bit of magic.
The next few weeks, Frank was the master of ceremonies, completing ritual after ritual with the fervor of a penitent monk meditating upon the nature of God and man’s redemption. He lost a night of sleep performing the Three Kings Ritual, tried to summon The Raven Man and singed his fingers putting out the candles, and played hookie from school to waste an entire afternoon in the Comcast building travelling up and down in the elevator, trying to perform the elevator ritual and glance the other side. The last activity only ended when security called me and asked if there was something wrong with my brother, as he had just rode the elevator for the 31st time and was beginning to unsettle the other employees and guests. On that day, Frank may have unintentionally created a few stories of his own, but perhaps not of the supernatural variety.
For all of this seeming foolishness, I understood what Frank was trying to do. I could see it in his face, and the way he looked at me now. My Ex-girlfriend, Erin, wore the same face after I had debated her regarding the existence of an afterlife. It was the look of a person whose view of the world had been called into question, perhaps encouraged by me but initiated by themselves. His every action was performed in the pursuit of the moment where he could finally prove me wrong; he sought that instance where he could finally silence the doubt which I had planted in his head. He had to maintain the invisible tarp; the well of mystery could not be found empty.
Of all the prep materials involved in these rituals, from red yarn to uncharged cell phones, it was the objects he brought in this afternoon which struck me as the strangest in the sense that it wouldn’t fall under your traditional understanding of occult ritual objects. When he walked in I could clearly see that he was trying to hide something from me; his gait was not unlike a toddler trying to hide the cookie that he had stolen from the jar.
“In the interest of ensuring that you are not trying to hide a bag of magic mushrooms from me for your midnight spiritual practices I gotta ask; what’s in your hand?” Frank stopped, rolling his eyes.
“Do I really look like the type of kid who’d bring that shit home?”
I didn’t accept such logic, “A) Language and B) When I was in the drug awareness programs as a kid they told me to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior from friends and family.”
“Is that all they told you?”
“Nah, they also told me to dare to be bold and that only I could prevent forest fires. It all runs together. Anyway, what do ya got?” The hesitance in his action as he revealed the bag in his off hand was visible. A small, grey stuffed bunny rabbit stared back at me from his satchel. His little marble eyes shone as brightly as obsidian jewels; the manufacturers succeeded in creating a rabbit both realistic in proportion and more adorable than real life in its finer details. I laughed.
“Are we done here? Can I go?”
“Sure, sure.” I said. “If you need a nice blankey I have one in the closet. It’s a very nice shade of green. There’s some Snuggy in the closet if you want to make them soft and fresh.”
“Okay, we’re done.” Frank walked off to his room.
I thought I was being so witty. I just wanted him to examine his own beliefs and actions. I wanted him to grow up. Even though I had noticed that something was unique about this particular day, I once again took refuge in sarcasm. If I had been more of the stern guardian type, ripping the rabbit out of his bag and throwing it away then things would have turned out different. But that’s just not who I am, and I should probably just stop thinking about this all that way.
I awoke last night at 330 in the morning. I typically sleep with a rain sound machine at night, both because my inner ear produces a ringing sound when it is silent and because the sound of the sky hurling water to the earth has always provided me with a great deal of comfort. Any change in this sound or interruption often causes me to wake within moments as had happened once when a snowstorm had knocked out our power. The ringing in my ears acted as a natural alarm which snapped me back to consciousness so suddenly it was as if I had been defibrillated. The sound of the rain distorted. First came a sharp whistle as if the rain were being sucked into an enormous vacuum and I was sitting just inside the mouth. This was followed by a drop in pitch so dramatic that the sound produced by the machine reminded me of air under tremendous pressure; its container desperately trying to prevent a violent explosion as the structure gave way and its contents spilled forth into the atmosphere with enough force to level buildings and crush the poor saps standing in its’ way. It proceeded to alternate these two sounds in a 5 second interval, not unlike a conversation between two individuals with completely distinct voices. This was infuriating. I had to be at work in two hours and now my sound machine was had abandoned its post, preventing me from getting my much needed beauty rest. I stormed out of the room, shuffling gait, eyes half closed and hair standing on end. Given my appearance you’d have thought that I had been sleeping a thousand years. I’m not a morning person.
It’s both calming and eerie, that silence that settles upon a house in the wee hours of the morning. Many may work at night, the convenience store and the gas station may be open, and strangers may still be driving on the highways but in that one little corner of the world everything is still. There, the world is in standby mode. As I headed out to the garage to grab my rotating fan I tried to turn on the living room lights.
In a single action my lights dimmed briefly and then blew out, and every electronic object that was charging or on standby in my house simply lost its lights and shut down. An appliance revolt had begun, and I’m not the type to negotiate with radicals. “Oh, mother fucker!” my yawp rang out at the silence, punishing it as if it had taken my wiring from me. I continued to mutter under my breath as I checked every single light switch and socket, attempting to piece together the clues to what had happened here on this most awful of nights. No lights, no t.v.? I can’t live like a savage! Behind me came a faint, tense whisper. “Sam! Sam! Sam!”
I looked back to find my brother leaning into the hallway, tension clearly evident in his muscles. “Frank, the god damn electricity blew out. Do you have power in your room? Hey, don’t you have school in the morning, anyway?” As I finished speaking I heard scuttling in the dining room behind me.
“Sam, please come in here!” He pleaded.
“Frank, what is it? Is it the Velveteen rabbit ritual? I’ve got work in a few hours, so not right now.” There was clearly a scuttling sound coming from my dining room. Please don’t be rats, I thought. “Hey Frank, something is in the dining room. Did you leave the back door open?”
“Don’t worry, we can get traps.”
“Sam, get in here now!” he bellowed at me now, displaying both a level of alarm and assertiveness which I had never before heard him use. This is the first time which I had started to question whether or not something was of great concern. I rushed to the closet, equipping a baseball bat in preparation to do battle for my home with an intruder and a flashlight to survey my surroundings.
I moved for the dining room with the flashlight drawn, the light dimming with each step which I took towards the source of the sounds. I blamed the batteries at the time.
What the hell makes that kind of sound? I thought. I held the bat as best I could with the flashlight in hand as I moved to the source of the sound. When I found it… I didn’t understand.
A stuffed rabbit stared at me, and nothing more. The same bright, adorable eyes, the same floppy ears, the same downy grey fur coat. Everything was exactly the thing and yet it was animated. Though I could not see my own face I could feel the betrayal of my own feelings etched upon it; a mixture of wonder and confusion. Its head cocked to the left side, which I had figured was a sign of curiosity as to who I was. I couldn’t comprehend what sort of ritual my brother had conducted this time, but I imagined that it had involved a human brain and lightning. The crimson stitching crossing its chest in a pattern not unlike the family crest emblazoned upon a knight’s armor offered greater proof of this fact. My mind cycled possibilities here. Elaborate toy? Robot under a stuffed bunny’s casing? I suspected some sort of trick intended to teach me a lesson.
I poked the creature with the baseball bat to test its weight; apparently this was the opening that it sought. The speed with which it climbed that bat was stupefying. I never even saw the Phillips head screwdriver in its possession until it was no more than an inch from my forearm. The blow was struck, the pain followed soon after. I had never screamed like that before, there was never a reason to. This was the sound of a man fearing for his life in the presence of something which he never could have contemplated actually existing. I fell back, my legs failing me when they met with the dining room chair positioned only a step behind them. When my head struck the shag rug on the floor, my willpower made war with my nervous system to stay conscious. I had to flee, now. I had to get out of there!
The light of the flashlight finally gave a last explosion of light which illuminated the greatest threat, the rabbit moving closer to me, before flickering out. The shadow swarmed me. This was surreal; what’s going on? Someone help me! I thought. I had become a frightened child. My heart pounded against my sternum as it sought to escape from this. My lungs crawled into the smallest ball that they could as if they were trying to hide from the inevitable blow of the screwdriver, shortening my every breath with each consecutive inhalation. I heard that awful sound growing closer as I attempted to return to my feet. My body seized up from being so overwhelmed. My mind had lied to it all those years, telling it that there would never be a night such as this. The well wasn’t empty! The darkness was its content! Something began to pull me. I thrashed violently in an attempt to escape, in terrible anticipation of the final blow.
“Sam, it’s me! Come on!” Frank said, the sound of the scuttling seeming to change trajectory in his presence. My thoughts disappeared, and my basest instincts compelled me to grab my brother’s arm and head for the front door.
“No! We can’t! I’ll explain in a moment!”
The decision seemed suicidal, and all of my thoughts screamed out at me to simply slap him in the face and drag him out of danger, but my body listened. I think it understood in that moment that the last time I didn’t listen to him, I got stabbed in the arm and was nearly murdered by a toy. Perhaps it was time to begin listening to my little brother.
It took us 5 seconds to cross the hallway to my brother’s room. Within those precious seconds was contained ages of speculation; countless theorems meant to disprove what I had just seen. Was I always wrong? I couldn’t have been. The unseen world which I had always sought to cast light upon had continually skittered away, further condensing itself into the filthy pit it was created within. It had picked the perfect opportunity to spring its trap, Revenge.
His room was a chapel, spilling forth comforting light from candles which I had once found tacky and reminiscent of a bordello. Now I was relieved that they were present; the last light present within the house, keeping vigil and sending out prayers to an unknown source that answered with its protection. I began to think out loud.
“Okay, so maybe if we can short circuit it with some kind of fluid we can-”
“-get ahold of it and dismantle it. We might have some trouble hearing it but-”
“It won’t work.”
“-if we had something crunchy to lay down and give us a better chance to hear it coming. Maybe-”
My mouth stopped but my thoughts kept pace to the drumbeat of my own heart, compelling me to look for a solution to this problem. There had to be one. It took four words to knock down the mummer leading my cognitive parade to victory. “It’s not a machine.” Frank said, biting down on the final word in a clear demonstration of frustration.
“Hey, let’s just leave through your window! Come on!” I said, completing the final word as my hands latched on to the lock on his window.
“NO!” I heard as I was pulled back and tossed to the floor.
“Leaving this house is one of the worst things we could do right now. The rules of the game are confining this spirit to the house, but if we were to leave right now there’s no telling what could happen! It could follow us! It could go after a neighbor! Anyone could be dragged in!”
“CUT THE BULLSHIT!” I roared, unsure if my target were Frank or the situation I had been dropped into. “There are no spiritual powers, or ghosts, or monsters, or curses! It is all a bunch of crap that people make up to scare each other! You’ve been obsessed with this shit ever since Mom died, and I’ve put up with it for too long!” The air changed, my breath was now mist, before me. Frank’s face changed, too. Where there was hostility to combat my fierce skepticism, now his face trembled as he was struck by the image of the indescribable threat which now sat behind my shoulder. I didn’t want to turn. I had to turn.
The candlelight abruptly ceased when it reached the door frame. All that our eyes could see was the swallowing darkness beyond that simple, wooden frame. I understood the look resting on Frank’s face, as I now felt it. The world I always knew did not work like this. Man has always feared what lurks in the darkness, but I would now have to accept that I had feared the shadows, themselves, for they were more treacherous than any beast or brute which may have once concealed itself within the miasma that rolled before us. As a greater silence fell upon me than I had ever known, the shadow took form and began to peer back at me. I saw it breathing but I couldn’t hear it. I felt its eyes peering at me, but I couldn’t see them. Time bore no meaning during this staring contest, there was only forever.
The tide of black receded. I knew it would return; no longer was I a heretic. I was now a sinner, living in terrible anticipation of my final judgement. The man I was would have called the police, or an ambulance blaming trickery of the mind or intoxication. Fear was my baptism. “What is this?” I said, the only words which I could manage. Frank paused. This was the moment he had awaited his whole life. The championship was on the line. “It’s called hide and go seek alone. It’s a game wherein the player uses a doll to attract a lesser spirit such as a ghost or anima into a doll and plays a game of hide and go seek… for control of their body.” Frank paused for a moment, waiting for my response. I could give none. He continued. “I’m going to spare you most of the details of the ritual, but I cleaned the doll out, stuffed it with rice, sewed it up with red thread to bind the spirit, named it, stabbed it, and told it to seek me out.” I had found words now.
“How do we kill it!?” I spat.
“You can’t kill it, you can only win the game.”
“How do you do that?” Frank looked down, his mouth spasming in a manner that betrayed his own fear of the next words.
“We can’t.” The words hung in the air for a moment before they echoed down the hall repeated by the house in myriad pitches in mockery.
“Why?” I snarled. “Why can’t we win it? Frank?! What did you do?” Frank could not respond with words, he merely nodded in the direction of the back corner of the bedroom. Various religious icons lay there, like a cocktail party of the divine. One thing stood out from the others. A wet spot on the carpet, white rimmed, with a glass still at rest right next to it.
“What was that, Frank?”
“The way to end the ritual is you have to bear with you, at all times, salt water. The salt water must be spit at the doll followed by saying the words I win three times.”
Fury took hold of me as I realized that we were absolutely fucked; I tackled him with all of my righteous fury.
“I-I was so used to the rituals turning out to be fake! I spilled the water when I got up to check the bathroom and I didn’t even think about it! An hour had passed and I heard nothing at all…” Frank’s voice began to quiet. “When I went to the bathroom and found it empty, I began to panic and ran back to the room. I started hearing it, then. Laughing… calling… waiting. Then you came out, and I remembered that you were here. I’d become so casual about these rituals, and so jaded that I disobeyed one of the cardinal rules. Never perform the ritual when someone else is sleeping in the house.” I had no response, even as the look in his eyes pleaded for forgiveness. What was there to forgive? I had taught him not to fear the dark. Me. I let go.
“This is all my fault.” Frank said, now relinquishing any hope.
“No, it’s m-“
I heard the forlorn sound of a woman's cries from down the hall. At regular intervals of four seconds they would call our names, alternating. “Frank. Sam.”
“Sam, how is it doing this?”
“How should I know, you’re the believer here.”
I moved to the door frame, a single candle my only weapon against the unknowable. The pressure in the air changed as I passed the door frame, as if I were trapped. There was no reason to be bold; I took only a single step out of the door to peer into the hall. Time had never moved so slow. The unremarkable white walls were now coated with a dry, grey film layered more densely on the bottom of the wall which tapered as it rose. The carpet was singed, sending embers into the air which danced like fireflies in the night. The candle’s light extended only to the edge of my own bedroom door before crashing upon the shade and vanishing. A single pyramid of moonlight beamed through a window at a point beyond the curtain of darkness sealing us, and within this cylinder stood a familiar female form outlined in the faint light. I knew her. I couldn't see her face, but I knew her. She moved in a glacial manner towards me. I stepped back into the safety of our make-shift chapel. “Frank, I think mom is coming down the hall.” I said flatly, as if I wasn't afraid. Every step she took foward, with its creaking footsteps and rising voice increased my sense of dread. Please, stop, I thought. I didn’t know if it was her, but regardless of whether or not it was my terror could not be abated. Did it pull her up from the netherworld or from our minds? Neither idea was comforting.
“Sam, don’t look at it.” I understood my brother’s warning, and so I followed and buried my face in my hands, turning to the corner. I still don’t know if my brother believed it was juat a shadow. I could have sworn I heard him begging God to make it not be her.
I felt her presence; the footsteps stopped at the door, her voice caught in a litany of names for us. With each repetition more pain was added to her voice, as she intermixed statements of love, pleas for us to embrace her, confessions of the cold, empty state to which death had condemned her. She cried, and her hymn continued; the calls now ringing in the room. I broke as she begged for comfort, but I did not turn. The greatest cruelty is how it all ended. Her wails trailed off, and began to sound as if they had crossed the sea to reach us. I’ll never forget her last words.
I’m so alone.
“Look, dawn should come soon. These sorts of things always end when morning comes, right? Dawn’s light?” I said. Frank looked at me, that same look he had given earlier when he told me we couldn’t win.
“Sam, there’s one thing I forgot to tell you about the game.” His voice a whisper.
“What?” he remained silent, as if he feared what I might do with this information. “WHAT?!” my voice shook the windows.
“As the ritual continues, the spirit gets stronger with each passing hour. We won’t make it to dawn if I don’t end this now.”
“You’re not sacrificing yourself!” I said, grabbing his arm as if I meant to punish a disobedient child. “I am your legal guardian, and you will do what I fucking say! If anyone will sacrifice themselves to end this fucking night it is me!”
“No, we don’t have to die. I have a plan!” his voice full of haste. “I can exorcise it!” I could see this was something he had always thought about, but it was only in this desperate situation that my brother had finally considered doing this.
“How the hell can you do that, you’re not ordained!?” I challenged, never quite understanding the mechanics of exorcism, myself.
“No, Protestants believe in the priesthood of the laity, which means that ordination is more of a formality than a requirement.”
“You’re Protestant?” I said, admitting that I never really knew his faith.
“I have faith that there is a God, and this night has only strengthened that.”
“Regardless, what makes you think you can actually do this?”
“Holy rites such as baptism can be performed by any man who has faith in his heart and knowledge of the ritual in his mind. I can do this! Just trust me! ”
Every fraternal instinct screamed out in my head for me to refuse; I was certain he would get himself killed. But what the hell did I really know about any of this? I was scared, out of my depth, and just wrong. All I could do is have faith in my brother.
“Okay, but if something goes wrong, I’m stepping in.”
“No! Don’t step in! Things could go horribly wrong if you intervene!”
“Do you have any idea how hard this is?! I’m your brother!”
“And I’m yours.”
I was completely disarmed. I had to trust him. I had to let him be the man who I may not have hoped he’d become, but I that I knew he had to become.
As the candles burned down I watched my brother equip himself. A bible marked for psalm 53, a candle which he claimed was blessed, his rosary, and his crucifix. The confidence he exhibited moments ago was replaced by trepidation.
One by one each candle went out like the hands moving over the face of a clock, and with each extinguished light the shadow came closer and closer. It was with the extinction of the final light that I heard it. An awful sound. Shrill. Redundant. The scraping noise could only mean that the game was over; we had lost. Behind us his tv had turned on, emitting static intermixed with bizarre sounds which I couldn’t place. Wailing women, crying dogs, squealing pigs, I wasn't sure what the sound was. Maybe it was all of them combined; I know that I never want to hear it again. The sound hurt me. My own heartbeat pulsed in my head, joining the chorus of impending oblivion and hellfire which now filled the audioscape. My thoughts were a dead language.
“God, by your name save me, and by your might defend my cause.”
The scraping came closer, casually travelling the length of the hall. It feared nothing; it knew that it had won the game.
“God hear my prayer, to the words of my mouth.”
The television now flashed images both familiar and surreal. A tunnel to nowhere moved rapidly, a woman vomited purulence, a man eviscerated a cat, an object with infinite sides spun in a dark expanse surrounded by a halo of light as static blew out the speakers, and finally a camera dragged along the floor. Mottled, leathery hands reached out and dragged something forward, toward a door. I knew what that was.
“For haughty men have risen up against me, and fierce men seek my life. They set not God before their eyes. ” The scraping was just outside the door now.
“See, God is my helper. The Lord sustains my life.”
The tv now burned through, and the screen warped and sloughed off the monitor. I saw the hand which had only a moment ago been on the screen. The wax from the fading candles now boiled over. The speakers of the television still emitted static, as the verses of You Are My Sunshine were sung by my mother as discordant tones blared. The hand of the beast now pulled its face into momentary view as the holy candle in my brother’s light now dispelled the curtain of midnight. It was the embodiment of hell. Its claws were sickles of ghoulish design, curving into its hand. Its eyes were vacuums, not reflecting light but absorbing it. Its front teeth were more rat than rabbit, and its mouth had been split open to create a garish smile. What remained of its fur was now matted, torn, and infested with mold. The new flesh appeared beneath, moist and grey with spots of black scattered about. It was the embodiment of filth.
“Turn back the evil upon my foes! In your faithfulness, destroy them!” His words no longer delivered in a stoic cadence.
It now reared upon its hind legs, demonstrating its scale. The monster may have been nearly seven feet in height, and upon its abdomen stretched a crimson vessel which contorted, looping back and forth as if imitating a streak of electricity. The jaw of the beast dropped wide; its mouth was the gateway to pain. Yet it froze in place. “Freely will I offer you sacrifice! I will praise your name, Lord, for its goodness!”
The oscillating motion of the entranced abomination provided me with an opening. I had to intervene. It had bared its weak point, I knew that I had to act now if we were to destroy this thing and end this horror. I saw my brother’s ritual dagger which I had bought him once on our trip to Mumbai. It was my Excalibur, I would slay a demon with it. My movement was swift, uniform, displaying a technique that men must ravage their bodies with years of intense conditioning to achieve. As the vessel was cut, I heard it scream in pain, cracking the window and deafening me. As the squeal within my ears buzzed away, my eyes granted me the sight of the monster’s body reducing itself to mulch before my eyes. A rapid compost which represented the fate of all flesh. We had lost its game, but we had won our own. My hearing came back just in time for me to hear my brother.
“Sam… what have you done?”
He said the string was a seal. I never listened. It was free now.
It was so fast.
My brother’s skin was ash.
His face had changed.
He was not the same man.
He was not a man.
I bound him within his own bedsheets; his body was now dressed for burial, wrapped within his funerary linens. He continues to struggle, to plead for his release. He tells me stories from our past; I can’t stand it any longer! I have to stop this! My brother still thrashes in his room, if any of him remains. His bed crashes upon the floor in regular intervals. It is a metronome. It beckons me, positively giddy with the victory it has achieved. I helped it. I have a plan, though. I will enter the room and begin to enact the same ritual my brother had begun, last night, and attempt to dispel the demon from my brother’s body via exorcism. In my right hand I will hold his holy candle and in my left I will bear a glass of bleach. I’ve seen a possession now, so I know when a spirit is prepared to jump bodies. When the time is close, I shall drink the glass of bleach, poisoning my body just as the demon enters in the hopes of dragging it back to hell with me. An ironic death, really. I’m kinda like Socrates. I guess Frank was wrong about one thing. One of us will have to sacrifice ourselves for the other.
It’s funny, I can’t stop writing now. Maybe it’s because I can’t help but tremble in the face of oblivion, now that I know. The figures in the dark corners of our room, they really are watching you. I fear what else may be true. I am so afraid to die.
I know that I’m doing the right thing, but I can’t help it.
These are my last words.