© 1998 by Bobette Bryan
Peter Dalton was certain that if hell really did exist that he was in it.
He clutched his nylon jacket tightly as he looked around the old cemetery, the cold air of the early fall penetrating his flesh like arrow tips.
“How the hell did I get here?” he said out loud. “I…I just can’t remember.”
As he studied the old gravestones, and the stark, treeless hills that flanked the graveyard like the walls of a fortress, horror thoroughly took hold of him. The mad urgency of his untold predicament, coupled with the sweet scent of decay permeating the air around him, strained every nerve to the max, and, for the first time in his life, he felt faint.
The brunt of the cemetery was situated in the low-lying valley of the forbidding landscape, which was full of obtuse hills, and there appeared to be no way out. That was a crazy thought though, and he knew it. There had to be a way out. Just had to be.
He shuffled along through a maze of headstones and thick undergrowth, determined to find an escape but only succeeded in striking his leg on a broken branch that jutted haphazardly from a twisted tree. Letting out a yelp, he sank to the ground, raising his pant leg to just above the knee to examine the injury. He braced himself as he did, fully expecting to see something awful like a jagged bone protruding from his shivering flesh. Yet no wound was evident–not a single sign of an injury.
Amazed, he shook his head. The way the blasted thing hurt, one would expect, at the very least, a bruise or a drop or two of blood. Better for me that there isn’t, he thought, for he couldn’t bear the sight of blood. That was the reason, much to his mother’s disappointment, that he’d become an accountant instead of a physician.
Tugging his jacket firmly across his chest to block the pierce of the wailing wind, little good did it do, he tried to get a grip on himself. As he stood, gazing desperately at his unwelcoming environment, he sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly, trying to convince himself that everything was fine, that everything would be all right, the same kind of bull they tell patients before a painful medical procedure.
He was certain that there could be no better place in the world to film a horror movie. The endeavor would require no costly special affects. The place was perfect as is. From the heavy mist that permeated the air, to the oddly bent and blackened trees, the cemetery had a definite air of death and disaster. Even the tombstones were in the foulest condition imaginable. Busted, bent, and broken, they were every bit as obtuse as the trees and the surrounding hills. It seemed as if the entire place had been forgotten by mortal man for centuries.
The only other bit of life in the ghastly milieu were the thick patches of English ivy that hung from the mausoleums and large tombs. The tenacious greenery had virtually buried some of the structures whole, as if attempting to consume the darkness and death within.
But Pete realized that he wasn’t helping himself by standing there gaping and dwelling on such dire thoughts. It was time to move on. There had to be an exit somewhere, and he was determined to find it.
Following the remains of an old cobblestone road, he never stopped once to glance at the sky. If a full moon hovered above him, he didn’t want to know. A hand full of paramedics were among his many friends, for he had been in charge of the Emergency room accounts at Baylor Hospital. These friends had always warned him that “strange” things happened during a full moon. That was when the ER was always on demand due to peculiar accidents and odd disasters, which kept the staff on their toes.
Pete was lucky that, at least, the stars were bright tonight, illuminating the environment. They cast a silvery, effervescent glow over the tombstones and mausoleums, blending with the black to make a mysterious blue-gray haze, touched here and there with trails of mauve. The colors were so brilliant, so vivid and intense that he might have been inside a painting, the work of some twisted genius.
As he rounded a bend where the trail narrowed, he found himself looking into the white face of a woman who seemed to materialize in the darkness. He released a long, ear-piercing, gut-spasming, bone-jarring scream. Heart beating fast, it took a moment for him to gather his wits. The vision before him was no ghost. He was merely gazing into the face of a tarnished statue, possibly of an angel, that rested eternally before one of the old tombs.
Most of the statue’s body was covered with ivy, and only the face and arms could be discerned. But these parts faintly glowed, shimmering beneath the starlight. Too bad she isn’t real, he thought. She was lovely, resplendent and ethereal in some strange way as if she were a real angel. He could really use the help of such a being about now.
But alas, she was made of stone and could help him no more than he could help himself.
Cursing beneath his breath, he forced himself onward, and forged ahead for what seemed like forever, the scenery along the way all looking the same, converging into a spectral pallet of never-ending darkness and death.
As the voice of the wind haunted his soul and stroked his flesh, his every muscle sore and aching, he thought that if he wasn’t careful, he’d find himself walking in circles. That sounded like him, he thought. He sometimes seemed to have no direction, or so his mother-in-law was always quick to point out, but he certainly didn’t want to think about her right now. His situation was dire enough without adding her terrifying vision to his thoughts.
His wife, Gabriella, however, grew heavier on his mind with every step he took. He could picture her pacing the living room, calling every hospital in town, out of her skull with worry. How in the world was he ever going to explain his absence to her when he had no idea how he’d gotten here? He sighed. thinking that he’d deal with that situation when, and if, it arose. Right now, the only thing that mattered was finding the way out of here.
The heightening shadows serving only to further the darkness and decay around him, he came to the road’s end only to find himself before two iron gates that had been secured with a padlock. He tugged at them desperately, but was only rewarded with the squeak of rusty iron.
“Damn it, let me out of here! Do you hear me? I want out of here! I just want to go home!” he yelled to no one in particular.
He was loosing control, and he knew it. But exactly how was he to remain calm in such a situation? He doubted that even the deep-breathing exercises that he’d learned in his wife’s prenatal classes would help him now.
The fence was way too tall to climb, rising easily twenty-feet from the stony ground, and there was nothing to get a firm grip on. Even if he successfully reached the top, he’d be ripped to pieces by the gleaming iron spikes there.
What madman had put those spikes on the fence in the first place?
He shivered at the thought. Clutching an iron bar in each hand, he poked his face between them to stare at the tree-lined road ahead and wished he was on the other side. But just as he couldn’t escape by climbing, there was no way that he’d fit between those narrow iron bars which were no more than six-inches apart.
Feeling utterly defeated, he turned back toward the cemetery, thinking that it seemed darker by several shades. A heavy feeling of sorrow and desolation filled him as if the atmosphere had penetrated his soul. Or was it that he felt so very alone?
On the verge of tears, he lowered his head. He no longer cared about upholding a masculine front. No one was around to see him cry anyway. All the inhabitants of this place had probably rotted into dust. Time had stopped for them long ago.
It would stop for him as well if he didn’t find a way out.
He decided that if he ever hoped to escape, that he’d have to find a weaker area of the fence.
The thought gave him a little hope. Surely there was a place somewhere along the length of the formidable enclosure where the rusty iron had deteriorated. Or perhaps there was a place where mischievous teenagers had forced their way through for a midnight rendezvous. Or, hell, maybe there was another gate somewhere in this world of nightmares.
His eyes fixed on two grand mausoleums to the right, several feet back from the road. Between them was what appeared to be a narrow footpath. He dashed in that direction, struggling along for several minutes until he emerged in yet another part of the unending garden of death. But much to his frustration, the iron fence was strong and firm.
Still, he remained no less determined to escape, and after he continued his plight, passing through a thick den of moss covered trees, he gasped with excitement when he first saw the house. Perhaps, at last, he’d found the caretaker and a means of escaping this Stygian hell.
As he drew closer, his muddled brain registered the image of the house into some sort of concrete logic, which sucked away his hope. No one lived there–at least no living being. By the looks of it, no one had lived there for a very long time.
It was a sprawling Second Empire with a hip roof and fancy detailing along the eaves and overhangs, but little finery of the Victorian era remained, and the house appeared to be as decayed as the inhabitants of the cemetery.
The whole place sagged and sunk here and there, giving the impression that the slightest wind could topple it like a house of cards. Just about every window that had once graced the gray facade had been busted or boarded up. Some of the panes had slipped out, for many of the sills had rotted and had fallen away like the bark of a diseased tree. A tattered curtain blew through one of the gaping holes on the second floor, the long tendrils of fabric streaming out like spectral fingers.
Pete closed his eyes for a moment trying to block the vision from his psyche so that he could get a fix on this situation. An inner voice told him that he didn’t want to go inside that place, but, at the same time, he must. The weather was already frigid and was getting colder by the minute; the wind had picked up, the wail turning into a pained moan. Already, his teeth were clattering so fast that he was surprised he hadn’t gnawed them into dust. He desperately needed some warmth and a place to rest his weary soul.
Before long, he limped toward the house… swearing that he’d heard movement from somewhere behind him, a snap of a branch, a rustle of leaves, a rake across a headstone. He had no idea what the source was. He couldn’t bring himself to turn and look back. He thought that he’d be a fool if he did, because if he did see something, there was nothing he could do about it. He was much too tired, sore, and numb to wage much of a fight, and he doubted that he had much of a fight left in him anyway.
Besides, if something intended to kill him, he’d rather it did so fast, from behind, before he had a chance to react. Maybe that way, his death would come so quickly that he wouldn’t know what had happened to him and wouldn’t feel a bit of pain.
Yet he remained alive, at least halfway, as he made his way to the front door and urgently grabbed the warped knob, twisting it as hard as he could with his frozen fingers. Unsurprisingly, it came off in his hand, and he found that he had only to push the heavy door back to gain entry to the dispirited abode.
His footsteps creaked eerily along the pine floorboards, and he could swear he heard wood crack and splinter in his wake as he made his way into what was once a grand hallway.
Remnants of the good old days remained. To the left were two Italianate settees whose stuffing gaped through worn fabric. They were positioned across from each other before a massive fireplace. It was the fireplace that spurred his interest, and so he earnestly paved his way toward it. If he but had a match, he’d be gathering some of the wood shingles that the house had shed over the years and making himself a toasty bonfire. But there was nothing in his pocket except a stale handkerchief and a wallet full of useless credit cards.
For the first time in his life, he wished that he’d taken up smoking.
Icy shivers racing through his body, he wistfully stared at the fireplace, and imagined warming, golden-red flames burning brightly within it. But, perhaps, in this dark world, such a fire had never burned in that hearth. He wondered if he would have to spend the night here. He could just imagine the disbelief on his friends’ faces when he told them that he’d not only spent the night in a cemetery, but had slept in a dilapidated cemetery house that was fit to be bulldozed.
They’d never believe it. Not in a zillion years. They knew that he was one to avoid anything supernatural. He’d been raised to be superstitious and afraid of the dark, for his older brother had thoroughly traumatized him with his tales about the Boogie Man. He’d tell Pete that the Boogie Man would torture and kill them both if they turned their bedroom light off. And Pete began to believe it.
Then too, when Pete was a child, he’d seen a ghost, and the experience was so horrifying that he never wanted to see one again.
He stood near the fireplace, leaning into the mantel as he thought about that time. He’d been at his grandma’s house, sitting in the front room and watching television in her post-WWII war house, when suddenly he’d heard odd sounds on the enclosed front porch, including a scraping sound as if furniture was being moved. As an uncle had hanged himself there years earlier, Pete had been terrified but he’d had no adult to go to for comfort.
Like usual, his grandma had fallen asleep on the couch, even with the television blaring, and his grandpa was deep in his cups in the renovated basement. Therefore, he’d tried to ignore the sound and think happy thoughts like adults always tell kids to do, but that endeavor had done him no good. His fear had heightened when the activity on the porch grew louder each minute, followed by a resounding splunk, a horrendous creak, and the whine of tightly pulled twine. Then a swinging creaking sound filled his ears, which had lasted for several minutes.
“It’s the wind,” he’d told himself. “Just the wind.”
Then, a sudden cold breeze had wafted into the dark room followed by a near blinding light. Footsteps had sounded. The young Pete had turned to see the full image of his mad and twisted uncle, standing at the doorway in horrifying spectral form. His uncle had worn the same black “Sunday suit,” he’d been buried in years earlier. As Pete looked on, wicked laughter bellowed from his uncle’s lips.
Pete had screamed so loudly that folks might have heard him on the other side of town, and the horrified rail had awoken his Grandma as effectively as a fire alarm. Yet, in the typical way of adults, she’d simply said, “There’s nothing there. It’s just your imagination!”
Now that Pete was a man, he knew that adults don’t really believe that line. Adults are just as afraid as kids are about the things that lurk in the darkness, and the only reason they tell kids that there are no ghosts is because they don’t want to get scared themselves.
People have a natural tendency to convince themselves that the dark phantom that floated past them was merely a shadow or trick of eye, that the strange noise in the hall was just the house settling, that the moan in the night was just the wind. Eventually, usually by adulthood, they began to believe it, because skepticism made people feel safer.
Even knowing as much, as he stood there listening to the wind moan through the windows, doors, and cracks in the walls, Pete found himself quoting that old familiar line.
“It’s just your imagination. It’s just your imagination. It’s just your imagination! There’s nothing there!”
Still, just like when he was a kid, the phrase did nothing to assuage the black fear that was twisting his gut into knots and making his heart race as if he’d ran a marathon. He turned, trying to detour the dangerous path of his thoughts by searching the house for a lighter or matches. He was about to enter a room off to the right, probably the parlor, when he noticed that there was a shining object on an uneven old table on the far side of the hall.
He raced forward to examine the object, aware of the forbidding black stairway to the right as he did. To his surprise, the mysterious object was a handheld mirror, a fancy brass one like the ladies used long ago.
Only, he couldn’t see his reflection, because the mirror was coated with a thick layer of dust. He didn’t know why he cared. He guessed that he just wanted to see himself–to actually be able to stare at something he knew and recognized. Wadding up the bottom of his shirt, he wiped at the grime until he felt the smooth glass emerge against his fingertips. Excited, he rushed toward the large window at the front of the hall where the silvery light streamed in and carefully positioned himself so that he could get the best view possible in the mirror. Yet when he held the mirror before him, terror like he’d never known raced through his entire being.
He didn’t recognize himself. Not anymore.
His face was rotted through and through and was so swollen that even his sex was indiscernible. He looked like a bloated corpse that had floated in the river for a month. Sunken black holes filled the space where his eyes once were, and his flesh, in shades of gray and red, dripped from the bone like melting wax. The tissue that had composed his lips was already gone, exposing the set of perfect white teeth that he’d paid a fortune to the orthodontist to cap.
Even his wild mane, one of his best attributes, was no more. Not a single strand of curly blond locks remained. All he saw on top of his head was patches of skin and glistening bone, as white as his teeth. Some of the skin had sagged to pool over the tips of his ears.
Dropping the mirror, he screamed. What in the world was going on? What had happened to him? Was he dead?
No, he told himself, I can’t be dead. It’s impossible. He paced the worn floor. I’d remember it if I had died. It just an illusion, just some terrible trick of the eyes, the imagination, and the light.
The anxiety setting off a round of palpitations, he balled his fingers into tight fists and stared at the ceiling. “Why? Why am I here in this atrocious place? This can’t be real. None of it.”
But his own words failed to ease his mind, and he remained horrified as he recalled the decaying visage he’d glimpsed in the mirror. He dared to touch his face only to find that it felt perfectly normal. All his flesh felt as though it was fully intact, and when he ran his fingers through his hair, he found that it was still as full as ever. He even bit his lip just to make sure it still existed. It hurt and that was reassuring. Surely he’d no longer feel pain if he was dead.
In a near panic, he dropped to the floor, searching for the mirror that the darkness had hidden. When he found it, he stood to resume his position by the window, glad that, by some miracle, the mirror hadn’t broken. Taking a deep breath and bracing himself, he gazed into it again, telling himself that he’d see his normal reflection this time.
But when he peered into the mirror, again that terrifying specter of himself gazed back at him.
This time he wanted to destroy the mirror. After throwing it against the wall, he stood above it and smashed it repeatedly with his boot. He took great pleasure in hearing the glass crack and crunch beneath his feet. Yet when he’d finished, he found himself on the verge of tears once again, and the dust his movements had uprooted whirled obnoxiously around him, instilling an urge to cough.
He took the handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Only the action felt strange in some unexplainable way. When he drew away the cloth, he found his nose and a good portion of the tissue that had surrounded it nestled in the balled up cotton.
A scream ripped from his lips. He begged for help, begged for a miracle to end this horrible nightmare.
He fell silent when high-pitched, maniacal laughter filled the air…followed by footsteps…creaking…and more footsteps on the stairs. Gulping in the dusty air, he spun to see the forbidding and luminous image of a man slowly emerging from the heady shadows and descending the worn stairs.
Little by little the legs materialized, then the torso, the neck, and at last, the head.
Pete’s heart raced against his ribs when he saw the familiar features of his wicked uncle, the selfsame image that had horrified him so long ago. The noose remained around his uncle’s neck. the end of the rope trailing into the darkness. Even now, the ghost gave him that same twisted and tormented grin that had filled Pete’s nightmares.
“Well, Pete, I’m glad to see that you’ve joined me at last. I’ve been waiting for a very long time for you!”
Pete was at the door in a flash, then racing into the darkness of the cemetery, though where he could possibly find sanctuary from the mad uncle in this dank existence was beyond him. All he knew was that, even if he was dead, which he certainly didn’t believe, he wanted nothing to do with the crazy uncle who’d made torturing small animals and terrorizing children a hobby. Wasn’t that why he’d killed himself–had had a trial coming up? Pete was unsure. The adults had grown quiet about such things when he was around. He’d only caught an occasional whisper about his uncle’s atrocities. Even so, he knew that there was something intimately wicked and sinister about the man.
As the minutes ticked by, and he became one with the cold and the darkness, he wasn’t watching where he was going or paying heed to the direction he was taking, for wicked chuckles came from somewhere behind him, blindly spurring him on.
“There’s no escape, Pete!” his uncle yelled in the distance, the voice reverberating oddly as if spoken through a megaphone. “This is the end for all eternity!”
But Pete didn’t believe it. And even if this was the end, was his fate, he intended to fight it.
He ran for what seemed like hours, until his sore feet were surely bloody and blistered, the endless images of death along the way only vaguely registering in his mind. He wondered how in the world he found the strength and endurance to keep going.
Gasping for air, he rounded a bend in the road and couldn’t have been more surprised when he came to some overgrown limestone stairs that led to the summit of a hill.
He paused for a moment, looking back, and when he did, he regretted doing so. Not only was his uncle heading his way, but an army of corpses were in pursuit as well, their clothes ragged, their features decayed and distorted. One of them, most likely the grave keeper, held a lantern in its rotted hand, and led the others on. To think that this was the person he’d hoped to find earlier.
They wanted him, wanted to slowly torture him and make him a permanent resident of the graveyard. They must have thought there was no way that he was going to escape.
But he’d found the stairs.
The only problem was that the stairs appeared to lead nowhere. It was as if they had once been a part of a building, perhaps a great mansion that no longer existed. Still, in this sinister world, Pete had learned that not all was as it appeared, and he had no time to weigh his options anyway. So, he dashed up the stairs, hearing the howls and jeers of the devious congregation behind him.
The grave keeper had followed in close pursuit. Midway up the stairs, the phantom had reached out with a bony hand and jabbed Pete in the back, touching him with the shocking coldness of death.
Pete spun and kicked it as hard as he could. It gave a scream as it tumbled down into the herd, lantern flying and giving off sparks. The motley crew went flying like pins struck by a bowling ball.
Pete turned and continued his mad dash up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs, there was a landing. He paused, struggling to get a breath after his break-neck plight. He looked back to see if his uncle still lingered in the shadows, but, to Pete’s shock and relief, the madman was no where in sight. All of the other spooks had vanished as well.
Had he imaged the whole thing? Was he merely hallucinating?
He had no idea, but he was glad they were gone. He turned, trudged to the opposite edge of the landing to look down at the green valley below.
When he saw thousands of lights sparkling in the distance of the city that he called home, joy like he’d never known filled his heart and nearly brought him to tears. It was the place where he’d been born and raised, the place where he worked and lived with his wife and teenage daughters. He knew the place well, and had probably traversed every city road at some time in his life, but no matter how hard he searched his mind, he couldn’t remember this cemetery or the steep hills that surrounded it.
But, there was no time to think about it now. He’d do so later in the warmth and comfort of his home.
At first it had appeared that the stairs were only another dead end in this sinister place, but, as he strained his eyes to look out over the edge, he saw that there was another set that lead out of the cemetery and into the world of life, a set that would lead him home.
He didn’t have to consider his options long. Though the stairs were steep and overgrown with vines and weeds, he began his descent. But after he’d made it down the first two, he discovered that they were so slick that they might have been covered with algae. The slickness came from the vines. They seemed to exude some peculiar substance that was as sticky as glue and as slick as oil at the same time. The hazardous surface forced him to descend slowly and carefully.
He’d made it halfway down when he paused, his uncle’s wicked laughter roaring in his ears. He gazed up to find the specter materializing at the crest of the stairs. Before he could react, his uncle was somehow just behind him. A cold, mighty hand brushed across Pete’s shoulders, and then pushed him with considerable force. Pete let out a yelp, trying to regain his footing, but to no avail.
He found himself falling…falling…falling…falling…falling…falling…falling…falling…falling…falling…
“Wake up, Pete!”
“Whoa. What?” Pete yawned, trying to make sense of the words that were so harshly spoken to him.
“Wake up! You’ve been yelling and screaming in your sleep all night. And you’ve pulled all the covers off me, and yourself, as usual. I’m freezing my ass off!”
It was Gabriella’s voice. When her words finally penetrated his thick skull, he sighed with relief, trying to calm the urgent beating of his heart as he apprised the situation.
He wasn’t falling. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t rotted, stinking, and ever decaying. And he certainly wasn’t trapped in a desolate cemetery. It had all been a nightmare. A mere a nightmare! There truly had been “nothing there.” The cemetery, the house, his uncle, all of it, had merely been the work of his imagination.
“Pete, did you hear me? I’m cold. Give me the blanket!”
“O…okay. Sorry, dear!” His voice was still weak from sleep. He sat up, then, he leaned over the side of the bed, fumbled a bit until he found the blanket…the wonderful, snugly, warm blanket. He clenched it in his hands, marveling at its softness for several minutes.
Tenderly, he laid it across over his wife, drawing it up to her shoulders. Apparently satisfied, she turned over and went back to sleep.
Pete wanted to do the same, however, his bladder was full to bursting. Still feeling weak, he arose and staggered toward the bathroom off the master bedroom. He didn’t bother to turn on the light as light streamed in from the bedroom, and, having lived in the house for more than eight years, he knew his way around,
After doing his business, he turned, eager to return to the coziness and comfort of his familiar bed…and to the warmth and softness of his wife. He swore that he’d take nothing for granted again. But as he was about to exit the bathroom, he had an unrelenting desire to see his face. He just wanted that last bit of closure to his nightmare, that last bit of assurance that all was well, that all had returned to normal.
He flicked on the light by the door, then turned toward the oval mirror above the sink.
And when he saw his reflection, he screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
For his features were rotted, ugly, bloated, and foul just as they’d been in the cemetery.
A wicked laugh issued from behind him. The putrid scent of decay effused the air. “I told you, Pete, there’s no way to escape the ever after! Now come, and give your old uncle a hug.”
© 1998 BY BOBETTE BRYAN