I open my eyes. The clock reads 2:48, and I growl at it. I have an 8 o’clock class (my friend Jason calls me a dumbass for starting my schedule at such an ungodly hour), and I know that my dry, itching throat isn’t going to allow me to return quickly to sleep.
I peel back the blankets and lower my feet to the carpet. The ceiling fan hums quietly above me, and beyond that there is the faint sound of a drumbeat coming from Jason’s room just down the hall. I make my way out of the bedroom with all the grace of a lumbering zombie, trying to keep my eyes partially closed. If I can keep myself from becoming too aware, maybe I can make it downstairs, have a drink of water, and still get a few more hours of sleep when I return to bed.
Jason’s door is cracked, and a single shaft of light penetrates the darkness of the hallway. I step carefully down the stairs without flipping on the light switch, gently touching the handrail in case I lose my balance and start to take a spill.
The television is on in the living room—some washed-up athlete trying to sell a piece of exercise equipment in one of those late night infomercials—but the volume is down. I’m thankful on both counts: the glow is bright enough for me to see my way to the kitchen without turning on the lights, and the silence allows me to remain in my half-conscious state.
In the kitchen, I take a bottle of water from the counter and twist off the cap. I drink half of the bottle’s contents in three gulps, and then lean my back against the fridge. There are empty beer cans—probably close to a dozen, by my quick estimation—scattered around the kitchen. One of the cans is overturned on the kitchen table, and I pull a paper towel from the roll and soak up the small puddle beside it.
As I toss the paper towel into the trashcan in the corner, something outside the window catches my eye. The front porch runs the length of the house, and its metal rail obstructs my view, but out in the front yard is a shape I can’t quite make out. I cock my head sideways, trying to see between the bars, and after a few seconds the shape comes into focus. A chill brings the hairs on my arms and neck to attention. A person, hooded, sitting cross-legged with hands on his knees is sitting in our front yard.
I immediately want to shout at Jason upstairs, but I find myself unable to make a sound. My fingers tremble, but I am otherwise motionless. I wonder if the face beneath that hood is looking back at me. Then, as suddenly as it came, my fear is gone…replaced by some strange hybrid of inquisitiveness and anger. Who is this person on our property in the middle of the night? And why is he sitting on our lawn?
My own sudden movement is baffling even to me—my logic seems lost and my body moving of its own accord. I walk into the living room with a few quick strides and jerk the front door open with no real plan, maybe just hoping the noise and movement will scare the trespasser away. Instead, what I’m seeing now, without a barrier of glass, is a person on his feet, standing tall and broad-shouldered, facing me. This causes me to hesitate for a moment, but then I find my voice. “Hey!” I shout. “What are you doing out there?”
He approaches me with movements so inhuman that I once again find myself paralyzed with fear: his steps are small and slow and methodical, but he somehow closes the distance between us in a matter of seconds, his mass shifting as if he were caught in a reel of film with frames sporadically missing, or as if I were watching him between the flashes of a strobe light.
A realization creeps into my brain even before I see the glowing red eyes beneath the darkness of his hood or the rows of glistening needle-like teeth behind his smiling lips. Those eyes flicker like candlelight, but somehow ooze around the edges like pools of blood. He lifts a hand—black, and glistening like his teeth, and covered in what I can only compare to snake scales—and points to the porch swing. “Sit, Adam” he hisses. I obey without question.
The blood is hammering in my ears. My body is trembling. The wooden swing creaks beneath me. “Why are you here?”
“To look after you, child,” he replies, and that last word causes bile to rise into my throat. “You have neglected our relationship of late. My aching heart cannot bear your absence.”
“I am not your child.”
He laughs. “Your earthly father now calls my home his own. His request was that I watch over you. Surely you would not deny me that honor?”
“My father was a pastor!” I shout, surprised at the aggressiveness in my own voice.
“Pastor of a gospel so thin and misguided that he mourns his meaningless life with every breath as I strip away the threads of his undying soul.”
“You are a liar.”
“The father of lies,” he says, stretching that shiny mouth into an even wider smile. “But I am capable of speaking the truth, when it better serves.”
We stare at each other until I can no longer bear to look into his eyes and am forced to shift my gaze to my knees. “Why are you here?”
He outstretches one scaly arm. “Take my hand.”
When I shake my head, he repeats his command.
“Take my hand.”
When I say “no,” he shouts it, and I hear whispers and cries behind his voice.
“Take my hand!”
He lunges forward and clutches the chains holding the porch swing as he howls into my face. The entire swing vibrates, as if some energy emanates from his hands. I howl back at him, my voice cracking but powerful. The sounds—the voice of evil and the voices of the multitudes wailing within it and the voice ripping through my own throat and the thrashing of chains and the cracking of the wood beneath me—rise in an inharmonious crescendo until I think my skull is going to split open. Then, one of the chains snaps and I tumble backward and sideways, losing sight of him for an instant.
I sit back up, flailing and still screaming, but I am back in my bed. Outside, in the hallway, Jason yelps and leaps backward. His back hits the wall and he fumbles with a framed photograph of his mother that nearly crashes to the ground. “Jesus Christ!” he cries, staring in at me. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
I sit there panting, my eyes darting around the room. “Sorry, man,” I whisper. “I must have…must have had a nightmare or something.”
Jason hangs the photo of his mother back up on the wall in the hallway, and then releases a slow, heavy breath. “I think I almost had a heart attack,” he says with a laugh. “And I think my junk fell out of my flyhole. Hope you didn’t see that.” He adjusts his boxer shorts and I laugh, assuring him that I had seen nothing.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He nods his head in the direction of the stairs. “Was going down to get a drink. My buzz is wearing off and you know how I hate that.”
I glance at the clock, which reads 3:14. “It’s a quarter after three,” I say. “Don’t you have class today?”
“You say that like you think I go to class on Friday.”
“Oh, right.” I laugh, but my mind is already wandering back to the nightmare from which I just woke. I get out of bed, telling Jason that I’d like to join him, and we both go downstairs. The television is on but muted, and it is showing an infomercial, but not the one from my dream. For some reason, I am thankful for that.
But in the kitchen, my heart flutters when I see a half-empty bottle of water sitting on the counter and an overturned can of beer on the kitchen table with no puddle beside it. I tell myself that this is nothing strange, but even as that voice of reason is attempting to calm the mass of uneasiness writhing around in my brain, I convince myself not to look into the trashcan for fear of finding a damp paper towel with beer still clinging to its fibers.
“Damn,” Jason says as he flips on the kitchen light. “I left a mess in here, didn’t I?” He takes a glass and a bottle of whiskey from one of the cabinets, and pours himself a drink. That whole “beer before liquor” expression doesn’t really apply to him; I have always been envious of that. At parties, he can keep drinking even after my head is in the toilet, and he can drive us both home afterward and then drink a little more.
I sit down at the table, casting a quick glance to the window. With the light on in the kitchen, the window is more of a mirror, showing me my own uneasy expression with each glance, and I can see nothing beyond it. Jason takes a seat across from me, raking aside some of the beer cans on the table to make room for his whiskey. “What’s on your mind, brother?” he asks.
I don’t really know how to begin, but I start speaking anyway. I tell him about the dream, leaving out the parts I don’t find essential to its telling, and then stare down at the table. After a few moments of silence, I begin to wonder if he has even heard me. But then he says, “That’s a pretty fucked up dream.”
We both laugh, and then Jason shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know, man. It’s creepy, but don’t read too much into it. I dreamed once that I was wandering through this cave, and when I finally made it out, I realized that I was really tiny and the cave was somebody’s giant-ass ear. Dreams are just dreams, and, nine times out of ten, they don’t mean a thing.” He takes a sip of his whiskey. “Maybe ten times out of ten.”
I nod slowly, still staring at the table. “Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, you’re right.”
He pats the table a couple of times, then grabs the bottle of whiskey and the glass. “I’m gonna go back to my room. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Hey, Jason,” I say, looking up at him. “Maybe you should slow down a little bit. The drinking, I mean.”
He looks back at me over his shoulder, and immediately I regret opening my mouth. “We all have our demons,” he says.
Jason walks through the living room, but pauses mid-stride and looks toward the window that faces the front yard. He stares in that direction for a few moments, then says “Huh,” and starts up the stairs without looking back toward me.
I sit at the table for only a moment longer. I leave the light on in the kitchen as I make my way toward the stairs, but pause for a moment to look out the living room window just as Jason did. Outside on the porch, the swing hangs lopsided, one chain snapped in half.
Chad Cantrell approaches writing the same way he approaches a spider in his bedroom: with heart-racing anxiety, an overwhelming sense that things might not turn out all right, and, most likely, in his boxers. Unfortunately, he isn’t a writer. He’s actually a computer geek, serving the University of Kentucky as a tech support specialist. He lives in Morehead, KY with his wife, Great Pyrenees, two cats, and four chickens.