"Be mindful of the coming of the dawn, for demons dance in the shadows."
Alewar, darkness defender
It wasn’t the biggest or best park in the city, but it was close, and it had the path that led down to the river. That was what drew Micah here. That path. It was a beautiful and rugged trail which was rare in the city. It dropped away from the rest of the park into a deep ravine and snaked through the woods. The hills that rose sharply on both sides were covered with pine and birch and all kinds of low brush. Once down at the bottom, if he was lucky enough to be all alone, Micah felt like he was miles from any city street. Oh, he could still hear the traffic if he allowed himself to. He could still look up and see jets that had just taken off from the airport only a few miles from where he stood. But it truly did not take a lot of imagination to believe he was far away from all of that.
A fierce little brook raced along the left side of the path, noisily falling over rocks and twigs, struggling to emulate the big river it would soon join. Micah wasn’t sure where the water came from, honestly didn’t want to know, but he loved to hear it singing as it kept him company on his treks. The windy path to the big waterway wasn’t all that long, maybe a half mile, but it forked both right and left toward the end and meandered into the forest to follow along the river itself.
Once, Micah took the one to the left, upriver. And after a grueling, unexpected, two hours he ended up in the parking lot of an Exxon fuel station. It had been okay at the time, though. Micah hadn’t brought anything with him, and he had been surprised at how long the path was. He was grateful to be able to get something to drink. But he never took that path again. Once down in the river valley he much preferred to pretend Exxon fuel stations did not even exist.
As much as he loved the path, the quietness of it, how it seeped into his brain and calmed him from the inside out, he also shivered at the sight of Black Sands when he reached the river. An old abandoned energy plant, it sat there across the water, dark and tall and mysterious. Its towers, the only structures visible above the tree line, reached into the sky like sinister giant shadows. Of course, there were rumors it was haunted. Who could look at the craggy stone turrets and not think it was a hot bed of evil?
Except Micah tried not to listen to such things, telling himself again and again he didn’t believe in ghosts. Unfortunately, he couldn’t deny, at least to himself, how he trembled every time he gazed out across the water at those towers. But he also sensed a definite draw. Something was… beckoning him. It felt primitive, ancient. As if whatever was over there had hold of his very soul. It honestly didn’t feel… bad. Just… odd. Whatever it was had his heart thrumming through his body making him anxious. Static power seemed to be pouring from it, pulsing across the river in waves as if it were trying to reach him…
However, those feelings never prevented Micah from descending to that path, trekking all the way to the river, braving his unease of Black Sands. Today was no different. The river, the dark turrets, called to him. He looked forward to these walks, rare now, always bringing his bottle of water, sometimes a snack. It depended on how long he expected to stay. The times when no one was around, were the times he loved best and stayed the longest. Oftentimes the people crowded the park and even some of the upper path, where the playgrounds and picnic tables were. But it seemed most did not want to venture all the way to the water. The reason might have been it did get a little spongy and wet in places. You did have to cross the little creek occasionally and sometimes it wasn’t as easy as stepping over. The brook ran deep and wide in places and was very unforgiving and surprisingly always cold.
Not cool. Cold.
Micah’s friend, Bryon, who worked with him at Gunderson Products, said it was because of Black Sands and all the evil that flowed out from it, chuckling when he said it. Clearly, he was making fun of all the “idiots who believed in that crap” as he put it. Except Micah knew the jerk was also making fun of him because Micah did not like to joke about the abandoned plant, feeling that doing so was disrespectful of what had happened there. And what if such impertinence truly did invite evil? Bryon felt nothing of the solemn reverence Micah did when he saw the silent turrets.
“The place is dangerous, Micah. I’ll give you that. Why the city hasn’t torn down the fucker, I have no idea. They need to before any more stupid-ass teenagers get themselves killed wandering around down there trying to scare up demons.”
Micah shivered hard and turned away when Bryon said that.
Micah wasn’t angry. It was simply that Bryon didn’t know. Yes, a teenager had gotten himself killed. Whether it was an accident, or murder by ghost, was still up for debate in Micah’s mind. And tempting fate by being flippant about someone dying… well, Micah was just thankful they were nowhere near the river having that discussion. Nowhere near the abandoned plant. Because “raising a demon” was what Tom had said he was going to do.
Oh yes, Micah’s big brother, Tom, had not only been a stupid-ass teenager, but a fucking bully, besides.
Micah had overheard Tom and his friends that long-ago night being crazy about something. He had tiptoed to his brother’s room, drawn by all the “Can you believe it?” and “We fucking did it, man!” and “That was fucking awesome!”
“Shut up, you idiots! You want to wake my old man? He’d tan my hide with a fucking two-by-four if he found out we were anywhere near Black Sands.”
“But it was so cool!” He recognized Rick’s voice as Micah slid along the wall to squat on the floor near the partially open door.
“Cool? Who are you kidding? You were scared, you moron.” That was Flip. Micah never did know what his real name was. “You screamed like a fucking little girl!”
“I did not!”
“I said shut the fuck up, both of you! Now take a look.”
They had all been to Black Sands? Tom and his two best friends had been to Black Sands? Oh! That had been something Micah had wanted to do. But Micah followed rules. Especially all the NO TRESSPASSING signs that surrounded the facility. Not that he had been even brave enough to get that close. But there was a high fence that prevented entry anyway.
Unless you were able to cut a hole. Which evidently Micah’s brother and friends did.
Micah had been so shocked he couldn’t move from his cramped position at Tom’s bedroom door. Out of sight of the group, not that they would notice him anyway, Micah could only just see into the room through the gap in the door jamb. They were all gawking at something in Tom’s hand. Something he had brought back from Black Sands.
“Is that real blood?
“Course it is, man.”
“It ain’t the right color.”
“Blood turns brown when it’s old.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“From the door, you moron. The one they all died behind.”
“Fuck, that’s cool.”
“You think the blood’s from that guy who tried to escape through the window in the door?”
“Sure as shit, man!”
“Oh, fuck, man. Did you see how small that window was? A kid wouldn’t even fit!”
“Yeah, well, when you’re trying to not get burned to death, you probably do about anything.”
“What I heard was the fucker was basically skinned alive by all the people in that room trying to get out of that door. My old man said they pushed him through like he was an apple being cored.”
“Like a fucking horror movie!”
Micah’s legs had begun to cramp while his brother and his friends talked. But eventually they ended up playing video games, so Micah slinked back to his own room.
The next day Micah paid a visit to Tom’s room when his brother went to his part-time job at the hardware store. He wanted to find out what it was that Tom had brought back. Was it a human bone? Maybe it was a gross body part. Whatever it was evidently had blood on it, and Micah wanted to see. Except the only thing he found was a dull piece of glass. There were streaks of brown on it, but it certainly didn’t look like blood. He was just putting it back when Tom walked in.
“Hey, asshole. What the fuck are you doing digging through my shit?”
“No…” Oh God. “Nothing, Tom. Just…” It was too late, of course. Tom saw that he was holding the piece of glass.
“Just being a fucking thief!”
“No, Tom! I was putting it back…”
Micah turned to lay the glass down, but Tom grabbed his hand before he could. “You stealing my talisman?”
“No, Tom, no! I…” He was crying at that point. Tom had tightened his grip and the glass was cutting into Micah’s palm.
“You’re a fucking thief! You know what they do with fucking thieves, Micro? Do ya?”
Tom always called Micah “Micro” because Micah was smaller than him. “I’m not stealing, Tom, I swear! I just wanted to see it. I was putting it back!” But it had been a waste of breath. Micah knew even back then; Tom was a psycho.
“They cut off your hands, you little fucker!” Tom squeezed down hard on Micah’s hand. He remembered feeling warm, sticky liquid filling his palm and falling out onto the carpet. He also remembered screaming from the pain. Finally, Tom had let him go and Micah, hand dripping blood, dropped the glass and ran to the bathroom down the hall.
“Gonna take this back to Black Sands, Micro.” Tom called after him. “Now that your fresh blood is mixed with the blood of the dead on this here piece of glass, gonna raise me up a demon!”
Micah never told anyone. He washed out the deep cut, wrapped it with some gauze he found in the cabinet, and never said a word.
Tom went missing a week later. There were search parties and candlelight vigils and neighbors who brought over hot dishes, all shaking their heads in pity. A few days after Tom disappeared, a haunted Flip and Rick finally confessed that they knew where Tom was. They led the police and paramedics to an elevator shaft at Black Sands. Tom lay dead at the bottom with a broken neck.
“We were just messing around,” Flip had cried, his arms tight around himself.
“We thought we heard something in there,” Rick pleaded. “Like ghosts and shit. I swear! Tom… he was going to… well, he went in there and was saying all that stuff… chanting, is what he called it… they… they got Tom.”
“Who got Tom?” The police officer demanded.
“The demons,” both Flip and Rick whispered. Flip promptly threw up.
Micah believed them.
Not so much the adults.
It was finally decided among all who “investigated” the death, Tom simply didn’t see the opening and walked right over the edge.
“Kids will be kids,” the sheriff had said, shaking his head. “Seems they were performing some kind of ritual and halfway through, the boy tripped and fell. No foul play. We’re all just lucky we’re not burying three boys today.” Then he made some loud promises about making the plant more inaccessible which basically consisted of barbed wire on top of the fences. Supposedly they fixed the part of the fence that had been cut, as well, and that was it.
Whether or not Tom had that piece of glass with him when he fell, they never said.
His parents split up after that, with Micah’s mom leaving town. She asked if Micah wanted to come with but seemed relieved when he declined. It wasn’t that staying with his father was the lesser of two evils. It was just that he had been almost through the torture that had been high school. Starting over in some obscure tiny town had terrified him.
She wrote a few times. The last letter he remembered getting had her marrying some lumberjack up north. He never heard from her again.
All ancient history.
But today was Thursday. He was finally off work and wasn’t going to think about any of that. Today he was going to spend time letting the stress of the week wash away even though he caught himself rubbing his scar. It had just been a tough few days at the job with his foreman, Greg, riding his ass every chance he had, reminding him way too much of his brother. Micah had no idea what it was he had to have done to piss the jerk off, but he suffered nearly every day for it. This week’s case had a glitch in the computers which filled the docks with wrong product and somehow that turned into Micah’s fault. Yeah, Micah and his crew loaded the trucks with the incorrect boxes. He probably should have recognized there was a problem since there ended up being too many pallets and not enough trucks. Except it was too late by that point. Why would they question what came to them from the pickers? But that was not the way Greg saw it. It was never the way Greg saw it.
“You need me to read the fucking orders to you, Micah? Words get too big and scary for you? Need me to hold your hand back in the warehouse, teach you how to do your job – again?”
Micah learned early on you didn’t fight back or defend yourself, especially with logic, because that only made it worse. It took two days to fix the glitch and hours and hours of unpaid overtime to fix the orders.
“Unpaid? You can’t do that!”
“Because of this mess, we were fined and lost a crap load of money on all these shipments. You want to keep your fucking job, Micah? It’s hanging by a thread. I honestly never wanted you in this department, anyway, so I sure as hell won’t have any problem making sure the entire blame is on your tiny shoulders. How the hell did someone as small as you get a job in this department in the first place? Should start calling you ‘Micro’.”
Oh God, Micro?
Images of his brother laughing and pointing at him, then one horrible memory of him in his coffin, had washed over him making him catch his breath.
He was not going to think about Tom. Nor would he dwell on the fact he needed that fucking job. And small? He wasn’t small! Since when was five-seven small? Just because nearly all the rest of the department were fucking giants didn’t mean Micah was small. But he wasn’t going to let the memory of turning red with anger, balling his fists and wishing to hell he could tell the asshole, Greg, what he really thought of him mess up his night.
Tonight, he was going to follow the singing brook down to the clearing at the edge of the water. He would breathe in the cool air, smelling that aroma that he only associated with the Kressan River and gaze up at the towers and just feel. If he was lucky, he would catch sight of the doe and fawn that had recently taken up residence there, maybe sit at the edge and watch the minnows and be silent. Micah had such trouble just being silent.
But the second he pulled into the parking lot he was disappointed. It was full to capacity. No surprise, though, for a beautiful Thursday evening. It didn’t really matter. He simply parked on the street. However, with all these people milling around, it probably meant he would not be alone on the path tonight. Maybe not even down by the water. He would still try it, but irritation rose in him as he made his way across the park. It wasn’t just busy, it was packed. Appeared to be some sort of art show.
Micah quickly made his way to the opening in the gate. Then, on his descent, he nearly took out an old man who seemed to step right in his way. Cursing under his breath, he grabbed the old man’s arm and somehow prevented him from falling.
“Hey. Sorry. Didn’t see you.”
Micah let go and stepped around the old man. Then he turned, intending to continue down the path. But after some quick, unintelligible mutterings, the old man latched onto Micah with a surprisingly firm grip and whirled him back around. Shocked, Micah stared into the stern, wrinkly face.
“Whoa there, old man. What is it?” Micah was willing to see if there was a problem, but he was not going let the old man feign injury, especially after Micah realized he wasn’t all that small. His clothes were as wrinkled as his face, though, making Micah think there was a possibility the guy was homeless. There was an odd smell, too, of which Micah just caught a whiff. Micah had only been near a decaying dead body once, and this was what he remembered it smelling like.
The old guy just stared at him, like he was searching for something on Micah’s face. His eyes were a deep brown but not the kind that were warm. They were dull, seemingly lifeless and it made a chill run up Micah’s spine as he repeated his question. “What’s the matter? What do you want?” Fuck. He hoped it wasn’t money. That was something Micah had too little of himself.
The old man’s answer was to touch Micah’s cheek with a gnarled finger. Micah flinched at the touch of his pointy, yellow fingernail, but for some reason he couldn’t recoil. He was caught by the old man’s dead-looking eyes and held fast. He couldn’t even blink.
“What the fuck?” Micah whispered. He meant to shout it out loud, intended for it to shock not only the old man but himself as well, something to break whatever spell this old fart had over him. Who in their right mind would stand and allow a complete stranger to stroke his face? But Micah still couldn’t move as that finger traced the hollow of his cheek. That was when he noticed all the sounds of the park had faded away. All the people, all the movement, everything was gone and there was just him and the creepy old man. Then those creased, wrinkled lips began to mutter, spittle forming at the edges of his mouth. The sound of his mumbling voice, almost a chant, reverberated through Micah’s nerves, scaring him right to the bone. He wanted to pull away, he wanted to run away, but all he could do was stand there, his gaze locked with the old man’s, not being able to stop that cold, crooked finger from caressing his face.
Then something seemed to crawl right into his brain. Like a liquid spreading through his veins that was cold and hot and… sparkly at the same time. It was also when the wrinkles on the man’s face seemed to disappear and the eyes brighten as well. The aura surrounding them became static, as if searching for a connection. Micah felt just the slightest pull toward the old man. Except… maybe not so old. If Micah didn’t know better, and he didn’t, the guy appeared to be shocked as well. And by that he meant literally. Because at that moment, an arc of electric power surged between them. The confusion on the man’s face was more than evident as he whispered, “How did you… what just…”
Suddenly a kid knocked into the both of them. He ran by, yelling, with another kid in hot pursuit, and the enchantment was shattered. Micah was mercifully returned to the crowded park.
He leaped back from the strange man and drew in a breath as if he hadn’t been able to the whole time Micah had been in the old man’s grip. Old man? Yeah. The wrinkles and the dull, dead eyes were back. That was when he realized he was breathing heavily as if he had just run very far, very fast, his heart beating crazily. His scar was throbbing as well. Badly. He stared at the old man who at first was shaking his head but then glanced up and laughed, throwing his head back as if he had just heard the joke of the year. He walked away then, waddled actually, still laughing, and disappeared into the crowd at the top of the path. Micah stared after him, watched for his figure to weave in and out of the people on his way to wherever he was going, but once he disappeared Micah never saw him again.
He wasn’t surprised.
Micah didn’t go to the river that night. He went home. Fast. He got behind his door and locked it and took the time to close all his drapes. He sat on the couch then, trying to calm his heart before it came out of his chest.
What the fuck just happened?
He spent a fitful night dreaming disturbing things he thankfully couldn’t remember. But he startled awake again and again. In the morning, even the shower didn’t help with how tired he was. By time he left for work he had had at least a half a pot of coffee and he felt no better. He could still feel the old man’s touch on his cheek, so cold and dry. The sound of the voice as he chanted and oh God, as he laughed, rattled around in his head like fingernails on chalkboard. It wouldn’t have been so bad, no worse than a night with a bit too much to drink. Except for the fact he hadn’t drunk a drop and he knew that everything had changed.
Maybe he should call in sick.
He made his way out to his car, pushing aside the hoard of what he now called his “decorative grass” on his way to his car. He glanced at it. The odd pods that had appeared a week or so ago had bloomed into a white flowing feather at the top. Covering a good part of his front yard and reaching around the side, his neighbors commented they were pretty but strange. To the point one of them suggested calling a botanist or something to identify it. Honestly, he didn’t care that much. Mainly because two years ago, when he had first moved in, he had done everything he could to actually get rid of it.
Clearly, he had failed.
That was of course when he glanced at the traffic, already backed up on his street. Damn it. He had forgotten about the construction that had started this morning on the freeway. There was a major entrance to the interstate at the end of his boulevard, and this is what always resulted whenever there was an accident or lane closures for whatever reason. Today, they were starting a short-term project that would actually close both the entrance and exit for the remainder of the weekend. He had intended to get up early so he could get out before it started. But he forgot. Now he was going to be late for work. He took out his cell to make sure Greg was informed, knowing full well his day was now shot to hell. Greg was never going to allow this as an excuse, and he was going to be paying for it the rest of the day.
He glanced over at the school bus stop, loaded with children, just across the street from his house while he waited for someone to answer the phone. Appeared they would be late too. His gaze wandered to a little girl who was standing apart from the rest.
The group of kids was something to focus on since he was faced in that direction, not that he was staring at them or anything. He was used to seeing them since this was the same time he left every day. But he had never noticed the little girl before. Micah huffed. Stupid. She simply drew that half attention since she was standing apart, that’s all. However, her blond curls, pink dress and what appeared to be a heavy neon green backpack did make her stand out. Maybe she was new to the area.
But then, as if she knew he was watching her, she turned her face toward him. Micah thought she was maybe eleven and she was quite pretty, if a little kid could be pretty, but in a cold sort of way. Shivers ran up his spine as Micah met her glare. She was all the way across the street, but he could still see her stare. She cocked her head as if surprised or confused. But then she smiled, and it wasn’t innocent. It was more like those twins at the end of the hallway in The Shining. Flat-out creepy. It was the only way he could describe it. Not at all what he felt in the old man’s presence. Her eyes pierced him. And then, while he stood there, the phone still ringing in his ear, waiting for someone to pick up, her face changed. It contorted into something other than human. Something dark, scaly, bubbling.
What the fuck?
He fully expected the children around her to start screaming and running but they didn’t. They never even noticed. They continued their conversations, their pushing and shoving. Were they not seeing what he was seeing? Was what he was witnessing even possible? Even so, she maintained her distance from the other kids, standing all by herself, her face a mess of boiling flesh with wet and shining eyes still boring a hole right through him.
The school bus arrived and obscured her from view and when it pulled gradually away, she was, of course, gone.
When the scheduler answered, instead of asking to speak directly to Greg, Micah told him he was sick. Very sick. Because he really wanted to faint. He wanted to throw up.
He wanted to fucking kill the old man who
had evidently cursed him.