Short Story: For the Night is Dark

I submitted this for a contest a couple months ago. It just missed making the cut for the next round.

Abe pushed aside another stack of boxes. So far, his search had turned up very little of real value. He rubbed his eyes and immediately regretted it as he felt the gritty dust on his fingers rub into his skin. There was no rhyme or reason to anything in this house. The entire trip was starting to look like a waste of time.

The light from the setting sun turned the room a warm orange, making the papers on the desk and the paintings on the wall take on a warm glow despite the morbid nature of the subject. He reached for the lamp on the desk next him and switched it on. The long shadows retreated and he sat down in the battered old chair, grateful that the power was turned back on in time for his visit.

The phone call from Jacob had been unexpected, but calls from his friend always were. Abe never knew what the man was going to be up to next.

The man’s proposition was simple, his aunt and uncle had recently been declared dead by a court, and he insisted the couple were avid collectors and had artwork that Abe would probably want for an exhibit he was curating on Middle America.

While Abe was always interested in new items to add to the museum’s collections, the thought of driving to Missouri and spending the weekend digging through dusty kitsch was not something he really wanted to do, but Jacob had a way of getting what he wanted.

He promised Abe that legal paperwork from the estate company and a lawyer were already in the mail to him along with the key and directions. Obviously “no” had never really been an option.

Abe knew he had made a mistake as soon as he arrived. Everything was covered in dust as expected, but the assessment of the late couple as “collectors” was pretty far off. They were hoarders, plain and simple.

After more than 4 hours, Abe had seen countless renditions of the same theme, a giant monster with deer antlers and slavering jaws, but nothing he would be able to use in a show. One framed painting was labeled “Skinwalker.” The same word was scrawled on sketches and scraps throughout the house. He had no idea what that was, but he knew it was not something he wanted to spend time contemplating.

It was time for a break. Abe stood up and stretched, his back creaking and popping as he did so. It was getting dark quickly, he noticed. The house was situated down in a shallow valley and the setting sun was blocked by the ridge.

He decided to get his sleeping mat and overnight bag out of the car before it got any darker. His original plan had been to camp out on the living room floor, but that was before he knew what state the house was in. There was barely any room in the living room to lay his sleeping mat. Even the beat up old sofa had boxes stacked on top of two thirds of it.

As dusk deepened the air developed a slight chill to it. Abe crossed his arms over his chest as he stepped out onto the porch. The sky was rapidly turning purple and dark blue, soon stars would be visible. He lived most of his life in the city and found himself almost excited to see them.

He looked around the property. Here, immediately near the house was an area of less than two acres that had been cleared of trees. At one point it had been a yard and small pasture, he reasoned. A dilapidated barn leaned listlessly against a light pole, and an empty chicken coop sat squat and forlorn next to it. Abe was sure both out buildings were just as full of junk as the house. There was no way he was going to go look tonight.

He stopped and listened. The faint breeze rustled through the trees and grass sounding like the rattle of a giant insect. The thought made him shiver more than the cool air. For just a moment there he had imagined himself living out here, far from people, peaceful and still, but his over active imagination had to go a ruin it.

“Ridiculous,” Abe scolded himself. He scurried across the door yard to his little beige sedan. Now that he was spooked, it felt like eyes watched him from everywhere. No, not everywhere, the woods. It definitely felt like something was watching him from the woods. His shoulder blades itched with the imaginary gaze. A brief glance over his shoulder only showed him a deer lazily grazing at the edge of the tree line. It did not even seem to be aware of him.

He grabbed his roll and bag and slammed the door shut a little too forcefully, thumbing the lock just before he did so out of habit. The little car gave a quiet beep and perfunctory flash of lights.

“Because the squirrels might steal your Honda?” he asked himself, annoyed that he had done that. He reached into his pocket for his keys to unlock it again, and found that they were not there. They must still be in his jacket. He would just unlock it again from the house.

His feet crunched on the gravel drive as he made his way back to the front door. Part of him wanted to run to the house and the faint light of the lamp and the safety it promised, and part of him was determined not to give in to the impulse. Heart pounding Abe forced himself to walk slowly to the door. Though there was no one around to see him, he refused to break and run like a scared rabbit. He was an educated man, not a slave to his lizard brain. He still threw the bolt on the door the second he closed it. So much for not being a rabbit.

Abe dropped his bed roll and his bag on the floor by the front door and started going around the over-filled house turning on lights. Not surprisingly, many were burned out or were mostly inaccessible for the mounds, stacks, and piles of accumulated debris everywhere. He knew hoarding was a mental illness, but being here, in the middle of it was unnerving. Earlier today he had been startled half out of his wits when he rounded a corner into a small auxiliary bedroom or office and found himself face to face with dozens of pairs of unblinking eyes. The room was packed floor to ceiling with taxidermied animals of all sorts. Birds, large cats, small cats, squirrels, you name it. Some were well done and well preserved, others were barely recognizable as the animal they once were. Abe quickly backed out, pulling the door shut.

His stomach growled, and Abe frowned. It really was time for him to eat. His original plan had been to go back into the little town about 5 miles away for dinner and maybe pick up some donuts or pastries for breakfast while he was out, but the trip down the driveway had been harrowing even in daylight and he had no intention of taking his little car back up it now that it was dark. It was likely he would bottom out on one of the insanely deep ruts or puncture a tire on a sharp rock. Luckily he had a couple granola bars in his pack.

Crunching on a bar, Abe went back into the office. It looked so daunting that his heart sank. He would finish this room and then call it a night.  There was still a closet to go through in here. However, to get to it, he would have to move several plastic tubs and some paper filing boxes from in front of the door.

Abe tried to move the pile, but he had to unstack several and place them anywhere he could find a surface since there was so little space. Finally he had a gap where he could step over the large plastic tub on the bottom and still have room to swing the door open. He balanced his weight on his left foot and braced himself against the wall with his hand as he leaned as far over as he could.

Scraaaapppe a long sharp sound from the window at the far end of the room. Abe felt his skin twitch and his heart race. Tap! Tap! This too was from the window. He glanced sharply over his shoulder and felt his heart lurch and his knees nearly give out. In the glass he could see a bone white face with too large eyes staring at him.

Abe cried out and felt his balance give as his body tried to decide if he wanted to go turn around and face the new threat or keep moving toward the closet. As he stumbled, so did the face in the window.

It was his face. His reflection. It was now completely dark outside and the only light was from the desk lamp. Of course he was seeing his own reflection. Abe picked himself back up and looked at the mess he made with the boxes. Now half of them were tipped and spilling their contents across the dirty floor.

Annoyed, Abe picked up the closest box and started shoving the contents back inside. It looked like old newspaper clippings and more notes and sketches of the monster that filled this house. Some were so old that they were yellowed and brittle as dry leaves, but some were newer. He looked at the one in his left hand.

It was a story about a missing person. Whoever had saved it had circled the names of the people involved and written some notes in the margins. The handwriting was illegible and Abe gave up trying to decipher it.

Some were too old or damaged to read, but almost all of them were about missing people from this area. Abe was becoming more alarmed. What was this about? He saw one more clipping under the desk and bent down to grab it.

This was not a news story. This was a hand written note. It was the same terrible writing as before, and the only things he could make out were the word “Skinwalker” again, and “even think about…draw them to you…” He stacked the paper on top of the newspaper clippings and braced himself to stand up.

A sound like nails on a blackboard made Abe freeze. It was coming from the window again. He had not noticed any trees or bushes near the glass during the day, but he had not been looking either. He was not going to be able to work like this, his nerves were on edge with the mess and creepy artwork alone, that noise and these weird clippings were just too much.

Forget the terrible driveway. He was going back into town and renting a hotel room. The museum could pick up the tab.

Tap. Tap. Again the branches ticked against the window. Abe could almost imagine long sharp claws striking the glass. It was time for him to pack up and go. Surely if he drove slowly enough he could get up the drive and back to the sad excuse for a dirt road it connected to. Why anyone wanted to live this far out away from real civilization was beyond him.

“Rid-ick-u-loose,” he heard a voice from the window say just as the lamp stuttered and died. The wind kicked up outside and the tapping against the glass became stronger. The voice sounded strange, hollow, almost far away. Maybe he had imagined it. He still knelt by the desk, newspaper clipping clutched uselessly in one hand. He fumbled up on the desk, trying to find the light, but only succeeded in bringing a shower of papers down onto his head. The lamp must have burned out. After sitting unused or a year, it was no surprise.

The rationalization did nothing for his shaking hands or thumping heart.

“Ridiculous,” the voice said again. This time it was easier to understand, but still sounded like it had been run through a synthesizer or voice changing software.

“Ridiculous,” it said again, this time almost just like he had said it as he went out to his car.

“Not funny, Jacob,” Abe suddenly realized what was going on. His friend was having him on. He knew Abe hated the woods and everything about the outside. He sent him out to the creepy house with the creepier paintings and planned to scare him.

“Because the squirrels,” the hollow voice said. It sounded further away, like it was moving around the house.

“Because the squirrels might.” The voice trailed off.

This was a bit much, even for Jacob. Abe went into the living room. It too was dark. Had he not turned on lights in here just a few minutes ago?

Movement out of the corner of his eye caught Abe’s attention and he jerked his head to the right. Now that the house was dark, he could see something outside the window. His heart stuttered for a moment and he froze.

The rack of a large deer slid by the glass and Abe almost collapsed with relief. The deer from the woods had come closer to the house. That was all. He grabbed his jacket and slid into it.

Glass shattering in the office made him stiffen again.

“Squirrels might” the eerie voice said from the room.

Abe did not stick around to hear more, he bolted out the front door and toward his car.

His feet crunched on the gravel and his breath steamed in the chilly air. Abe grabbed the handle of his car and pulled. Nothing.

Of course not. The doors were locked. He had locked them out of habit earlier. Frantically he patted down his pockets. In his panic, he felt the same pocket twice before realizing that the lump he felt was his car keys.

His hands shook so badly he almost could not get it into the lock, but finally it clicked and the handle gave way. He glanced back over his shoulder at the house and knew it was too late.

“Not funny, Jacob,” The voice said as the creature emerged from the house. It was at least seven feet tall, without the massive rack of antlers atop it’s skull like head. “Squirrels might steal the Honda,” it repeated. The breeze now carried the stink of rotten meat.

His mind gibbered in fear and his keys dropped from his fingers. The paintings. The sketches. The notes. The Skinwalker.

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