Substitution

[23:47] <J0hnDo3> ”We're all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> That was the last thing she said to me before she died. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she meant, but none of that matters anymore. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> Nothing does.

Her electric eyes in the dark. Four feet dangling from the familiar bridge.
Two bottles glittering in the synthetic lights of the city below.
”I can’t do this anymore.”

[23:48] <J0hnDo3> This room is dark and silent. The darkness is not something new, but the silence is. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> She was the talker, the player of music and games. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> Now there's just me, and I was always the quiet one. The thinker, the brooder. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> And nothing of that has changed, although everything else has.
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> I'm not sure if I'm drinking to honor her memory or to forget.

Give me your hand.”
A knife suddenly, without a smile, without a joke.
Something real, something since long weighing heavy
on solitary shoulders.
My confused hand in hers.
”Remember how we mixed blood as children?”

[23:49] <J0hnDo3> My computer is my only window to the outside world now, the only thing that grants importance to my days. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> She was always the outgoing one, the force that sometimes made me leave the virtual world for the physical. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> That force is gone now, and I have none of my own. Even less so now than before, actually.

Pain. The neon reflections in the blade, in the crimson liquid emerging from the paleness of my hand.
”See, your blood’s still red.”
Another scar, another wound. Glittering darkness like velvet quicksilver.
Little stars twinkling from the midnight oil in her cupped hand.
”Mine is not anymore.”

[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She always told me that we were going to change the world, one circuit at a time. We were going to salvage what was worth saving and tear down that which was not. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> Then we were going to stand by the crater and watch it all burn. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She was on a crusade to steal it all back from the world's rightless powers and to uncover all their lies. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> I always followed, because as far as crusades go, she was mine.

I found something, Jonathan, and I went too deep. Now it is changing me.”
Eyes usually brave, defiant, now filled with fear – and something else not readily apparent without looking dangerously closely;
twinkling, twinkling little stars draped in mercury midnight oil.

[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I don't know where she got the gun, or why I still have it. It is a sick thing to have, right, and an even sicker thing to keep. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it, but it still has specks of her burnt, dark blood all around the muzzle. It just won't come off. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> Well, it doesn't matter to me. It will do it's job again just as well anyway.

I can’t explain it. I’ve tried to understand what is happening, but I can’t.
I think I’m going mad.”
Three deep breaths, barely held back tears and panic.
”I can’t feel things like I used to, and I know things I shouldn’t know.
Like it’s someone else’s knowledge that I don’t know how I have.
And I have stopped sleeping, Jonathan.
I just lie there in the darkness, like in standby mode.
And the itching… I think there is something under my skin.
Something… not organic.”

[23:54] <J0hnDo3> When she met me on the bridge that night it was the first I saw of her in several days. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> I want to remember her as she was, not for the fear and panic and absence of her last three weeks. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> After she found that shit on the Tor dark web, that is. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> She never told me what it was, if it was tools or drugs or information. Perhaps all three of them. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> But whatever it was, it drove her mad and killed her. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> And one could say that indirectly it's now killing me too.

The knife is gone, and now there’s a gun.
Chrome surface reflecting the cityscape just as well as
eyes and bottles and blood ever did.
Panic in my mind suddenly.
”What are you doing with that? Put it away!”
I grab her hand tightly, feel pulsing red and black blood
intermingling between our palms.

[23:56] <J0hnDo3> I cannot stand this silence and darkness anymore. I cannot stand being on a crusade that means nothing to me now that she is gone. 
[23:56] <J0hnDo3> The world is so empty and pointless without her, not even worth burning or tearing down. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> I've realized that even if I didn't understand it at the time, this is why I kept the gun. Why I picked it up and hid it when the sirens approached. Why I lied about it when the police came by. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> Why I'm typing this with its chrome surface reflecting the blinking prompt on my screen.

I’m sorry, Jonathan. I can’t do this anymore. There’s a voice in my head, and it’s telling me things I don’t understand.
Things about me, about the world, about… About everything.
It’s never quiet, Johanthan – it’s never quiet!”
Words from my mouth, gestures of my hands, but they do not reach her.
I do not reach her.
Panic. Pleading. Tears. All mine now.
”Amanda, don’t do this. Please.”

She looks at me, stars twinkling clearly now in mercury midnight oil.
Some kind of calm suddenly.
”It’s all a lie, Jonathan. We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”

And then the world explodes.

[23:58] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she wanted to tell me, and I don't know why those last words plagued my dreams every night after that until I stopped sleeping and feeling altogether. 
[23:58] <J0hnDo3> My hand hasn't healed well either – did she infect me with something? I keep hearing her voice inside my head and I think I'm going mad as well. 
[23:59] <J0hnDo3> But none of that matters anymore. Nothing does. I feel like a mangled hard drive that's slowly being written over, and I actually don't care.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> I'm not even sure why I'm writing this. I guess I just wanted to leave a piece of me somewhere out there, before there are pieces of me everywhere so to speak. Perhaps someone will hear the shot and find me before things get too nasty. Or perhaps not. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> And perhaps nobody will ever even enter this old channel and read this crap anyway. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> But if you do, well, consider this my letter of resignation. To the crusade, to life, to everything. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> Goodbye, World.
[00:00] <Am&_A> Don't.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:01] <J0hnDo3> Wtf who is this? This is not funny.
[00:02] <Am&_A> Just don't, Jonathan. You'll regret it. I know.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda? Is that really you?
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> How? You died. I saw you die.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:04] <Am&_A> There's still so much that you don't understand, and it will get worse. I'm sorry.
[00:04] <J0hnDo3> What? For what? Amanda, where are you??
[00:05] <J0hnDo3> ????
[00:06] <Am&_A> Here. Or, I don't know. I'm not sure. Everywhere.
[00:06] <J0hnDo3> What the hell's that supposed to mean???
[00:07] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:09] <Am&_A> I hear it has started for you too. It's my fault. I didn't know.
[00:09] <J0hnDo3> KNOW WHAT?? Amanda, please!
[00:10] <Am&_A> There's a place downtown called Cellar Door. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> It's a bar. Don't ask me how I know this. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> Go there. Ask for Vincent. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> He will explain everything.
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> What is this, the fucking Matrix??
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> Hello?
[00:11] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:13] <J0hnDo3> Amanda, please don't leave me again.
[00:14] <J0hnDo3> Please
[00:21] <J0hnDo3> Amanda?
[00:33] <J0hnDo3> Ok then. Fine. Fuck it. I'll go there.

[04:47] == J0hnDo3 has quit [Ping timeout: 264 seconds]

We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.

That was the last thing she said to me before she was gone.
Gone, not dead. Because that’s not how the world works anymore.
Perhaps it never really worked that way, but I was too blind to see it.
Well, I don’t want to be blind anymore.

And if we’re all the sum of our own lies,
I want to know what those lies are.
Because my blood’s not red anymore either, and the voices…
the voices are never quiet.

Twinkle, twinkle, more and more
let’s go down that Cellar Door.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-16

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written two other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence and The Forest.


 

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The Missing Limb

When John put his mother’s ring on my finger we both knew it was not a promise of a future together. I harbored no illusions of that kind – I knew he only dared do it because we were both aware, deep down, that we were never going home. We were going to die out there in the cold trenches, together or separated, and did not have to worry about conventions, laws and consequences.

I wish I still had that ring.

The war had been going on for ages, or so it felt. When I was first sent to the front I was young and stupid with my head full of star-spangled dreams and lies. When I met John what felt like a lifetime later, we had both seen, felt and heard enough to have learned that this was not our war – that it was no-one’s. And still we fought in it; I because I was afraid of the alternative, John because he had nothing to go back to.

I wish I could say that we gave each other hope, that us being together made the terror we lived more bearable, but that would be a lie. We suffered and we wept and despaired, and when there was pain that pain was not to be dulled by anything except sleep or death or the poisons we drank to attain one or both of them.

But John sang to me when I was drowning in panic, and I told him stories from my childhood when he hurt too badly. And we grew to love each other in a way reserved for the mad, the desperate and the dying.

I have never loved anyone since like I loved him.

It had been raining heavily that night, and when dawn came the world was drenched in mud and blood. This was the morning of long dreaded advance, of finally pushing desperately forward. The secret solace from the night before seemed like a long ago dream, and not even the ring hidden by my left glove could fully convince me that I had not in fact imagined it all.

It did not matter, however, because everything was to end very soon. I just did not know it at the time.

We left the relative but treacherous safety of the dug trenches and moved forth. I tried to keep close to John in the stealthy turmoil, but repeatedly kept losing sight of him. The sun rose behind the clouds and suddenly there was fire and explosions everywhere. We had been sighted. Our numbers scattered without any real semblance of order, and despite my best attempts to keep calm and sharp I found myself lost and terrified. I panicked.

That is how John found me. He screamed through the clamour that our unit was falling back and regrouping, that we had been ordered to take shelter in the ruins of a nearby church. He grabbed my left hand and started running, leading me towards safety.

It was then that the ground around us detonated, and everything turned into panic, pain and blackness.

I awoke to blindness in a world of horror and agony. There was not a part of me that did not hurt, and I could not see at all. Half convinced that I was in fact dead I lay there on my back, listening to the moaning, hurting voices of my compatriots all around me. Part of my mind realized that it must have been a bombshell or a hidden mine – the rest of me did not think at all.

Until I felt John’s firm grip on my hand again, that is. The pain in my entire body was excruciating when he helped me to my feet, but his warmth was so relieving that I almost did not acknowledge it.

“I can’t see”, I said. “Please don’t let go.”

“I will never let go”, he replied.

And then he led me slowly, carefully through the nightmare that I could not see, but the sounds of which will haunt me to the end of days. People were dying everywhere around us, screaming for help or relief or for people long gone. If someone had told me at that time that we were in fact walking through the fires of Purgatory, I would have readily believed it. Sound becomes a merciless paintbrush when employed on the canvas of the unseeing.

At long last we must have left the battlefield behind us, as the voices of the dying slowly faded into the distance. I was growing weaker with every step, and the steady flow of warmth down the side of my torso told me that I was bleeding badly from the explosion. Without John’s hand I mine I would have been terrified of fainting, falling or getting lost, but he never let go. Instead he firmly and calmly guided me across the uneven landscape on the other side of my personal darkness, stopping when I needed to but never for too long.

Then, suddenly, I began hearing voices again – but not those of the dying. I recognized those voices, and the relief I felt at hearing them is not to be described in words. I realized that we must have found the church that John had talked about in those final moments before the world ended. Someone called my name, another called for assistance and now, finally, my legs would not carry me any longer. I collapsed there in the mud and felt consciousness drifting away, even as running steps approached along with voices shouting medical commands.

I did not die that day, but was later told that it had been very close. I remained unconscious for a very long time, floating in an endless blackness only occasionally interrupted by brief spells of blurry, partial wakefulness. The only thing that kept me sane and calm during those short, confused moments was John’s reassuring and safe grip on my hand as he kept faithful vigil beside my sickbed.

Then, finally, I awoke one day and the darkness was gone. I blinked in confusion, and everything was made of sharp, searing light. At least almost everything; however intensely I tried to open my left eye, it simply would not obey me. A silhouette was standing in front of me, and at first I thought that it was John. But then the man spoke, and I realized that he was a doctor.

He told me that I had been lucky, that the shrapnel had only punctuated one of my eyes and that they had thankfully been able to save the right one. He then told me about several surgical operations and a long, long time of insecurity as to whether I would have the strength to wake up again. He told me that us even having this very conversation was a miracle in its own right. It was a riddle to all how I had managed, bleeding, blind and dying, to find and trudge my way back to safety.

“It was John”, I said in a voice rough from disuse. “He led me by the hand the entire way.”

I tried to squeeze John’s hand in mine, but I could not move my fingers. I wanted so badly to look at him, to see that he was alright, but my left eye was blind and my neck hurt too much to move.

“John Curtis?”, the doctor said, and even though I could only see him diffusely the tone of his voice betrayed his concern.

“Yes”, I said and even managed a defiant smile. Then and there I did not care what he knew or thought about us. In that moment I could have bravely and foolishly made John all those promises we had been too afraid to make before, and more. I hoped that he could hear this in my voice – that they both could.

The doctor was silent for a long time, and when again he spoke his voice was grave and worried.

“You must be mistaken”, he said. “You came alone. I saw it myself.”

At this I laughed and shook my head, actions both of which sent pain shooting through my body once more. But I did not care, this was all too absurd. Still smiling broadly, I turned finally to my left to meet John’s gaze. But he was gone. I stared in confusion, knowing that he had been there, holding my hand, just a moment ago.

The doctor, mistaking my sudden silence for something else, hurried to my side and put his hand on my right shoulder. “I am sorry, son, I should have told you sooner. You must have lost it in the explosion, and when we found it the day after it was too late to do anything. But everything has healed beautifully, and with some training you should be able to–”

But I was not listening to him anymore. I had let my gaze wander downwards to where my left arm should have been, and was now staring in shocked disbelief at the bandaged stump that had now taken its place.

“But… But John, he was… Right now, I…” I realized that I was rambling, but my thoughts simply would not come together. He had been sitting there, right beside me, holding my left hand. And now they were both gone.

“I am terribly sorry, but John Curtis is dead”, the doctor interrupted me. “He was killed in the explosion that took your arm. In fact, that was how we found it. Even in death he was holding on to your left hand.”

***

They sent me home after that. I do not think that they would have reinstated me into service even if my body had been intact, since it must have been so painfully apparent that my mind was not. I do not know what happened to the ring, and have only presumed that someone must have stolen it. It was never returned to me, at the very least.

I went to John’s funeral and met his estranged parents and siblings. I told them that I was a friend, and saying those words hurt more than I had thought it would. I exchanged a few polite stories with the grieving family, but left soon after when it became painfully clear to me that we were not even talking about the same person.

This was all a long time ago now. I eventually learned to live with one arm and one eye, and nowadays I barely reflect upon the loss at all. The only reason, however, that I am able to live with a heart irrevocably split by sorrow, is that I know that the other half of it is never far away – just as despite all I still know that John Curtis saved my life on that cursed day.

Because every day and every night since then, however far I walk and wherever I may go, as soon as I close my eye I feel it; John’s strong fingers lacing together with those of my missing, left hand, as he walks beside me to the end of days.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-18

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

Always Keep it Locked

Now I am going to tell you about something that happened to me a couple of years back. I won’t tell you what to make of it, because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself. But here goes.

Back when I was a journalism student in Stockholm, finding a place to live was a real pain in the ass. I think I only ever knew one person who actually owned their own apartment. Most of my other friends and classmates rented their homes as sublets (or illegal sublets of sublets), or lived in the spare rooms of strangers as bizarrely overpaying lodgers.

Need I tell you that the rents were always ridiculously high? Well, they were. Absurdly so. Everyone were looking for a place to live, and all apartment adds on Facebook or in the papers were flooded with replies as soon as they came out. Getting first in line for any of them was, to say the least, entirely fucking impossible.

Therefore, when I found the add about a relatively cheap attic room for rent only ten minutes away from my school I didn’t think much of it. Someone else must have taken it already, was what I thought. But I still called, and was both surprised and incredibly happy when the old lady who answered said that I could move in the very next day.

Said and done. I packed my stuff in my car and drove the two hundred kilometers or so to Saltsjö-Boo, which is located in Nacka – a suburb of Stockholm. Everything felt new and a little bit crazy. I was to leave my old life behind (for a time at least), and do something entirely new, all on my own.

It was August, and although I arrived late it was still light out. The old lady lived in a big, red two storey house down by the water of an inlet called Skurusundet. The neighboring houses were just as big, and I could only imagine what buying a home here must cost.

The old lady – I’ll leave out her surname, but her first name was Harriet – greeted me on the porch when I stepped out of the car. She was a frail figure in her late eighties, and I remember catching myself wondering how she was able to manage that big house on her own. She had told me on the phone that her husband had passed away five years back, and that it was only this summer that she had cleaned out his old stuff from the attic room that I was now to rent.

She showed me where to park and then walked ahead of me to the back of the house, where a seemingly rather new built wooden staircase led up to a separate entrance on the attic level of the building. I kind of wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to climb up there to show me the room, that I could manage on my own. But she seemed so stubborn about making it up there that I kept my mouth shut and walked a couple of steps behind her as she slowly struggled upwards.

She unlocked the door and let me into a quite large room that took up at least half of the attic area. It was neatly fitted with a bed, a table, a portable kitchenette and some empty bookshelves. There were no windows, but I didn’t mind. Finding a place like this for a price like that in this part of town more than enough compensated for that.

Apart from the entrance, three doors led away from the room. One of them led to a small, simple bathroom with toilet and shower. She told me that this had been put in only four weeks ago, in order for tenants to live up here. The second door led to a big, cluttered storage space, that she unlocked briefly just to show me what it was. I’m guessing that this was where she had tucked away all her late husband’s belongings. She told me that I could put stuff in there if I needed to, but that she didn’t recommend it since the storage room lacked proper insulation.

After she had showed me all this – a process that didn’t take very long – we stopped in front of the third door.

“This door leads down to the rest of the house”, she said. “Always keep it locked. If you need to talk to me, you go out around the house and use the front door. And remember to knock first.”

I told her that of course I would respect this, and promised her that I wouldn’t come barging down the attic stairs and disturb her privacy. To be honest, if she had asked me to always leave my shoes outside and never to bring friends over I would have been fine with that as well. As long as I had somewhere to live in this city I’d be prepared to cope with just about anything. At least that’s how I felt at the time.

We signed a contract and she gave me the keys. She was really sweet actually, and told me about stores, bus connections and things to see nearby. Before she left me to mind my own business, however, she stopped one last time in the doorway and turned back to face me. “Keep it locked”, she said flatly. Then she closed the door behind her and started struggling her way back down the stairs outside.

I remember staring at the closed door in confusion, wondering what the hell that was – and why Harriet herself hadn’t used the interior stairs to get back down to the house. Then I just shrugged it off and went down to the car to start carrying all my stuff inside.

I settled in quite nicely. My courses started and the initial couple of months went by in a flurry of seminars, new acquaintances and study visits to the editorial staffs of different newspapers. I was rarely at home except for when I was sleeping or studying for tests.

I saw very little of Harriet, except for the occasional chance encounter in the garden. She kept mostly to herself, and since I had no windows I had no idea how often she even left the house. The only reason that I even knew she was living there in the house below me was two weird habits of hers that I discovered rather early on.

Every time she got home, namely, she knocked on her own front door before unlocking it. The first few times she did it, I always thought that she was having visitors over. It was only when I came home early one day and caught her after grocery shopping that I realized that she was doing it herself. I didn’t ask her about it. It was too odd, and I was afraid that it would embarrass her if she knew that I’d seen her. But after that day I started thinking that maybe she wasn’t as clear in the head as I had initially thought.

That was Harriet’s first strange habit. I told my friends about it and they thought it was hilarious. Every time we were studying at my place we always silenced and laughed when we heard her come knocking downstairs.

Her second habit, however, was one that quickly started irritating me more and more. The old lady turned out to be a real night owl, who didn’t go to bed until well after midnight. This in itself wouldn’t have bothered me the slightest, were it not for the way I was involuntarily made aware of her sleep routines. Because before Harriet went to bed, she always checked the attic door to see that it was really locked. Every single night.

I could lie in bed sleeping, and then suddenly jump in terror at the sudden squeak as old door handle was slowly pressed down a couple of times. Or, on nights when I was awake late studying for an exam, I could hear the soft creaking of the interior attic steps as she slowly made her way upstairs. Then the door handle would invariably be pressed down two or three times, before the creaking steps retreated downstairs again. And I repeat: this happened every fucking night.

Not only did the old woman apparently not trust me to keep to her rules, which was frustrating in itself, but she also had to scare me half out of my senses every night, at that? But as I said before, I was happy just to have a place to live, and didn’t want to antagonize the old, paranoid woman. So I settled for telling my friends and just having a laugh about it instead. On days when I seemed more tired than usual in school, they always teased me about it being because my weird landlady had kept me awake that night.

For some reason it actually never crossed my mind to be afraid of her, no matter her crazy demeanor. I just thought of her as an old person who was extremely particular about her privacy, and never fell for my classmates’ attempts to frighten me with stupid stories of her one night standing above my bed with a knife in her hand.

Until one particular night in late December, that is. I had been living in the attic room for almost four months, and had made myself quite well at home there. School was about to end for the holidays the following week, and my entire class were studying like crazy for the end-of-year exams. It had been snowing like crazy for the last couple of days, and I stayed inside with my reading to the extent that I could.

Anyways, there I was, sitting at my small table in the middle of the night, preparing for tomorrow’s test, when I could suddenly hear the first creak at the bottom of the staircase. I tried to ignore it like I always did, and continued reading. The steps drew closer, like always, and then stopped outside the door. The door handle was slowly being pressed down with its, by now, familiar creak, and then everything went silent again.

I stopped reading and glanced behind me when the sound of the handle being let up again never came. When I turned around I realized that the door handle still pointed downwards; it was still being pressed down. I just stared at it for several seconds. Was it broken? Or was the old woman still standing outside the door, holding it down?

After a while I began feeling creeped out at not knowing, and at thinking that maybe she was standing on the stairs, staring at the other side of the door.

“It is locked, Harriet”, I said loud enough for her to hear me.

Another couple of seconds passed, and I had almost convinced myself that the handle actually was broken, when it suddenly slowly started rising again. Then I heard the slow, creaking steps descending the stairs, before everything became quiet once more. I realized that I had been holding my breath, and that my heart was racing. I remember thinking “what the fuck is wrong with her?” I mean, I already knew that she was odd, but what was this about now suddenly?

I didn’t manage to get back to studying that night, and when I flunked the test the following day I laughingly blamed Harriet’s strange nightly visit. It became that day’s most-told story, and I didn’t think about how creepy the experience had actually been until I got home again that evening.

I went to bed, but the thought of the night before wouldn’t leave my head. In the end I had to get out of bed again and place a chair below the door handle before I could relax enough to actually go to sleep.

I awoke some time around midnight. It was pitch black in the room – of course, since I didn’t have any windows – and I wasn’t sure what it was that had woken me up. Then I heard the sound again, and was wide awake in an instant. It was the door-handle, the one I had propped up with a leaning chair earlier that night. It was creaking at even intervals, as if someone was struggling to press it down despite the resistance. I stared into the darkness, not daring to make a sound. The intervals quickly became shorter and shorter, until the door handle was drumming intensely against the back of the chair.

I almost panicked there in the dark. Then the chair suddenly fell over with a loud crash, and I screamed. The door handle was pressed down with a decisive creak, and by the sound of it was not let back up for several seconds. Then, slowly, it creaked back into place, and the steps outside retreated down the stairs again. By that time I was almost mad with fear, and just sat there in the dark, huddling with the blankets against the corner of my bed and listening for the slightest hint of a sound. I didn’t sleep at all for the rest of the night, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that.

I called in sick the next day. I just had to sleep. Or, what I actually wanted was to call my mum and tell her to come and take me home. But there were just a couple of days left in school for the semester, and I felt I had to finish. I had to pull thorough somehow.

After sleeping for a couple of hours, I decided to go down and talk to Harriet about the whole thing. Tell her that she had to stop doing this. I thought that if she got mad at me, I would just move out. I’d live on someone’s couch for a while until I found something else. I could put up with much, but this had even crossed my line.

I thought about using the interior stairs, but decided against it. I would be the bigger person here, and just because she disrespected my integrity didn’t mean I would stoop to doing the same to her. So I used my own front door, walked around the house and up to hers. The tracks in the snow outside were almost invisible, and I understood that she had not been out for a while. Maybe something had happened? Maybe she was ill, and this was why she had needed so desperately to get a hold of me last night?

I don’t know if I even considered this as a real possibility, or if I was just grasping for manageable explanations, but these were the thoughts that went through my head as I plodded through the snow and up to her door.

I knocked, waited and knocked again, but got no reply. I picked up my phone and tried calling. I could hear the signals from inside the house, but she didn’t pick up. I knew she had to be in there, but either she didn’t want to talk to me, or she was too sick to do so. And I realized that I had to find out.

If the old woman was so ill that she hadn’t been out for days, I had to find out and help her. I tried the door-handle, but the door was locked. I understood what I must do. Sure, if all was well with her she might get angry with me for taking liberties with her rules, but so be it. It was still better than risking it being the other way around, and doing nothing.

I walked back through the snow and back up to my attic room. As I approached the door leading to downstairs I could not help but feeling like I was about to do something very wrong. But the thought of the old woman lying helpless down in the house drove me on. The key was still in the lock where it had been when I first got here, and I reached out to turn it. Before I could, however, my phone rang and the sudden noise made me jump.

I picked the phone up and looked at it, expecting Harriet’s number to be on the display. But it wasn’t – it was a number I’d never seen before. Hesitantly I turned away from the door and answered.

It was a woman on the other end. It was not Harriet however, but a younger one. And what she told me… Well, let’s say it made me start packing my bags as soon as the call was ended.

She told me that she was Harriet’s daughter, and that she was sorry that she hadn’t called earlier, but the last couple of days had been a real mess. There had been so many relatives to call and things to fix, but now she just wanted to tell me that I could of course continue renting the attic room until the contract ended, even though things had sadly taken this turn.

At first I didn’t understand anything of what she was saying, and after a while I had to interrupt her and ask her to clarify. And it was then that she apologized again, and said that she had just assumed that her sister had called me already to tell me that Harriet had died in the hospital three days ago.

I went cold all over, and to be honest I don’t remember much of the call after that. Only that I monotonously thanked her for the kindness of letting me stay, said my condolences and then hung up. While doing so, I had slowly, slowly backed away from the door that I had been seconds away from unlocking. It was like in a movie. I just shook my head, said “fuck this”, and then started packing.

The rough half hour it took me to get everything into the car and scrape the snow and ice off its windows was thirty minutes of panicked terror. I even remember leaving some of my final things behind, for the simple reason that I could not bring myself to walk into that house one more time to get them. And then I drove away.

I didn’t drive all the way home to Gävle, of course. By the time I got onto the road I had calmed down enough to think somewhat rationally again, and instead drove to one of my friends who lived at the school’s boarding house. I don’t know how coherent I was when I got there, but she kindly let me stay at her place until end of term the week after.

I went home over the holidays, and when they were over I managed to get a room at the boarding house myself, as someone else had recently moved out. The room was small as hell and expensive as shit, but I didn’t mind. As long as I didn’t have to go back to that place I was happy.

I finished my studies and moved back to my home town, where I now work as a reporter for the local newspaper. But even now, several years later, I don’t know what to think. Perhaps I dreamed those things, or maybe I was just completely stressed out about the upcoming exams. I honestly don’t know. I just felt that I had to write it all down to maybe get it off my chest.

But I do know one thing: I’ve never really been able to shake the feeling that there was something living in that house together with Harriet, and that when she told me to “always keep it locket”, it was not in a paranoid attempt to protect her own integrity – it was to protect me.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-11

This story was written in response to a writing prompt,

What He Heard In The Mist

This text was written in response to a writing prompt, and I suggest listening to this music track while reading it to get the right atmosphere. Feel free to leave comments and feedback!


Second lieutenant Steward Whitewall of the offshore patrol vessel USCGC Carolla watched from behind his desk as the thick fog on the other side of the window engulfed the craft in a grey nothingness. He could hear the engines slowing down their pace somewhere in the depths below him to match their careful cruising speed, and checked again that his equipment was active and working. He was the radio operator of this ship, and would have to be extra attentive now that the visibility was limited.

On his radar he could discern smaller vessels out there in the unknown void, but they kept their distance and seemed to be already making for shore. But the Carolla was a steady thing, built to last through conditions much worse than these, and they had a broad perimeter to screen before returning back home. Their equipment was top notch, and they should not encounter any problems navigating through the mist.

He desperately wanted a cup of coffee, but this was not the time to go get one. He would have to wait until he was relieved in another thirty minutes, and settled instead for chewing at a mint toothpick to ease his restlessness. It was not his main responsibility to keep track of the radar – the people in Navigation took care of that – and Steward focused instead on listening in on the various messages broadcasted across the ether by other operators like him.

The yacht Sabrina was having engine problems two MI to the east, but was shortly aided by a nearby cabin cruiser called Sunset Dream. Other smaller vessels could be heard calling for help with navigation, and Steward dutifully called out the Carolla’s position to avoid risking a collision course. He, of course, knew that none of the civilians were even close to their coordinates, but had been taught to be thorough in the performance of his task.

He checked a couple of other frequencies just to be sure about not missing anything, and reported ashore about the distress of the Sabrina just for the sake of it.

”This is Second lieutenant Whitewall at USCGC Carolla, of the United States Coast Guard. We have just picked up a distress message from the S/Y Sabrina at N 41° 37′ 36.986” W 66° 29′ 21.328”, over. Reportedly aided by the civilian vessel Sunset Dream, over.”

When next he looked to the radar screen, all the smaller vessels seemed to have left the area. This was of course a good thing, but something didn’t feel right. He had only looked away for a couple of minutes – there should be at least a couple of ships still out there, even if most of them had made it to shore. He checked his equipment again, but everything seemed to be in order.

Steward looked to his watch and sighed. Still ten minutes until the arrival of his replacement. He would have to deal with this. He pressed the microphone button of the ship’s intercom and called out for Navigation. Only static awarded him from the other end of the line. What the hell was this? Did they have some real technical problems, after all?

Then everything went completely silent as the rumbling of the engines slowed up even more and finally stopped completely without explanation. He tried the intercom again, switching to the general channel this time. He could hear indistinct voices amidst the deafening static, but was only able make out incoherent snatches of what was being said. One thing was made clear, however: there really was a problem, and it seemed to be serious.

He hastily switched back to the outward communication channel and started sending out information about their coordinates, their speed and an indication that they might be experiencing some kind of problem. He could not be more specific than that without being further informed himself, and waited impatiently for the ship’s command to send him a message or a runner to inform him of the situation. Because one thing was obvious, at least: he could not abandon his post under these circumstances. But no message came, not even a response to his broadcast. And outside his window the mist was thickening, embracing the vessel and making him feel completely isolated from the world.

Then the silence was suddenly broken by a crackling in his headphones. Someone was trying to reach him through the radio, someone from the outside. Frenetically he tried to tune in on the message, desperate for a human voice to break the deafening silence that closed in on him from all sides.

At the same time he suddenly noticed a single dot on the radar, approaching the Carolla at a steady pace. He had to warn them, he had to tell them they were there in the mist. Couldn’t the strange vessel see them on their radar? It seemed like a large ship, surely they must have equipment to match their size? And that’s when he finally found the right frequency, and realized that the message was being broadcasted from the approaching ship. And his blood froze.

”…the United States Coast Guard. We are on a collision course. You have to veer starboard. I repeat, veer starboard, over”, the voice on the radio said.

Steward Whitewall just stared in horror as a large shape drifted forth from the heavy mist, straight towards them. He could hear the shrieking sound as parts of the Carolla’s broken machinery struggled painfully to life, trying to make one last yaw – but it was too late. The dot on the radar closed in on them, and on the other side of the window the other vessel now towered over him like a growing nightmare from Hell.

But it was not the imminent collision that made him numb with fear. No, it was the voice in his headphones – a voice he recognized very well. He slowly stood up as the other ship made a sluggish attempt to veer away, and that’s when he saw the impossible. On the vessel’s larboard side was written in high, crumbling letters its name. He took a deep breath, and the message repeated in his ears.

”This is Second lieutenant Whitewall at USCGC Carolla, the United States Coast Guard. We are on a collision course. You have to veer starboard. I repeat, veer starboard, over.”

Then the broadcast lapsed into static again, just as the rumbling impact shook the entire ship and threw the world into chaos. Stewards screamed with the dying ship, picked up his chair and smashed it against the radio transmitter. A horror he had never thought possible took hold of him, and he ran though the door, desperate to get away from this impossible nightmare.

And in his head continued to ring the voice that had spoken to him across the ether. The voice of the operator at the ship which had stolen the Carolla’s name. His own voice.

The Painting: A Ghost Story

This is an older text, written back in 2011 as part of a Halloween theme for the English class I was teaching. I wanted it to contain the most common ghost story-tropes in order to give the students inspiration and tools for their own stories. Feel free to leave a comment.


It was a dark and stormy night. A man was walking slowly through his equally dark house, admiring through the gloom his collection of old and fantastical things. He was old himself, and had been interested in antiquities his whole life – and because of this his collection had grown large.

An old grandfather clock struck midnight. He had acquired it from decedent estate sale ten years ago. From the same place came the crystal chandelier in the ceiling and the oaken chair in the corner. He stopped in front of his newest acquisition, a large painting depicting a house by the sea. It had been auctioned out for almost no money at all at a local sale that very same day, and he had bought it without hesitation. Now that he stood regarding it more closely, though, he could not help feeling icy shivers running down his spine.

He had bought it because the house in the painting looked a lot like his own house, down to the old willow tree that grew outside his bedroom window. The sea in the panting, of course, did not match reality. There actually was a lake some distance from his house, but no sea. He had thought the similarities to be amusing when he had first seen the painting in broad daylight. However, now that he stood looking at it in the middle of the night in the light of the full moon, he did not feel amused at all.

The similarities to his own house now made him feel uneasy, and he wondered suddenly if there really had been a candle burning in the painted window earlier that day. A sudden pang of superstitious horror struck him, and he hurriedly took the painting off the wall and hid it deep in a closet. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t like the way the branches of the painted tree reached for the little house by the sea.

Several weeks passed, and he forgot about the painting. He added even more artifacts to his collection and grew even older. It was not until autumn had closed around his house and robbed the willow outside his window of all its leaves, that he even thought about the painting again.

It happened late one night, when he was just about to go to sleep. The roof of his house was creaking in the wind and the tree branches were scratching against his window. A sudden noise caught his attention, and he realized that the photograph on the wall opposite from his bed had fallen to the floor, seemingly without explanation. As he inspected the damage done, he concluded that the frame was totally broken. He would not be able to put the photography back up without first replacing the broken frame.

Sighing, he picked up the glass and splinters and carried them into the next room to throw them away. It was when he passed the closet that he suddenly came to think of the painting he had hidden there. Much time had passed, and he could not remember what had gotten him so worked up, giving him such goose bumps. So he took the painting out of the closet and looked at it again.

Nothing had changed in the panting, of course. It was probably just his imagination that made him think that the tree in the picture had had leaves when he last looked at it, and the sea had probably always been full of billowing waves. Looking at it now he felt silly for ever having hidden it away in the first place. And he certainly needed to replace the broken photograph with something. So he did.

Pleased to have accomplished something at this late hour, he lay down in his antique bed and looked at the painting now hanging on the wall across the room from him. It certainly was a work of skill, with its masterfully executed details. It was almost as if he could see the flame in the portrait house’s window flickering. His imagination again, of course. And soon he drifted away into the land of sleep.

It must have been the roaring of the waves that awakened him. It was still pitch black outside. He lay still in the darkness for a while without opening his eyes, trying to go back to sleep – but sleep wouldn’t come. If the sea would just go quiet… Then he opened his eyes in horrible realization. Dread started to creep over him as he came to his senses and suddenly remembered that there was no sea – apart from that in the panting.

Now wide awake, he stared at the portrait on the opposite wall and gasped. The candle in the painted window was now clearly flickering in the wind that was obviously tearing at the spiny branches of the oil-color willow tree. And the sound that had woken him up really did come from the painted waves throwing themselves against the rocks by the beach.

But none of these things was what made his breath catch in his throat and his limbs go numb. No, what made his blood freeze in his veins and his hair stand on end, was the sickening sight of the corpse-like creature that came crawling out of the sea, dripping of sea weed and death even as he watched helplessly.

He tried to scream, but like in a nightmare where you can do nothing but watch, not a single sound escaped his parted lips. A smell like that of putrid flesh spread in his room as the hellish wraith drew closer to the frame of the painting, and when it was almost past the tree a black liquid, like rotten tar, began oozing out of the picture, down the wall and towards his bed.

The last thing he saw was the demon’s eyes, staring ravenously at him as it closed in and pressed its decomposing face to the inside of the portrait and began tearing away at it with talons dripping with something red.

They found him the next day, hanging from the old willow tree outside his bedroom window. Rumor had it that he had finally gone mad from living all by himself in that old cottage, his only company thousands and thousands of dollar’s worth of remnants from other people’s lives. Some of his collection was claimed by distant relatives, but some of the belongings were too grisly even for his greedy kin.

For example they found an old painting hanging on his bedroom wall, opposite from his bed. In an eerie way it seemed to depict the late old man’s house, willow tree and all. But this was not what made the relatives instantly send it away to be sold cheaply at an auction. No, what made them turn away in disgust and try their best to forget about it was another distasteful similarity.

Because from one of the branches of the painted willow tree, a body was hanging. So masterfully painted was it that the startled relatives later could have sworn that they had seen it swinging back and forth in the autumn wind…

All Lost In the Mail

Another story in response to a writing prompt. This one turned out a little longer than the previous ones – I just couldn’t help it, sorry 😉 Feel free to leave comments!


Sometimes when I passed by the old Foursquare on my daily delivery round I allowed myself to fantasize about how it would look with a fresh layer of white paint and some refurbishment. It must have been beautiful once, with its huge garden and inviting dormer windows. I used to wonder who once lived there, if children had at one point run laughing down the slight slope in the lawn and what boring office positions those children held now. Of course I also wondered what had once caused the old building to be so thoughtlessly abandoned. There was no one to ask, however, since the house had stood empty for as long as anyone could remember.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one day I found in my delivery bag a bundle of envelopes, cards and parcels clearly to be delivered to this very address. I thought about returning it to the post office for redirection at once, but then I thought better of it. I reckoned I should at least try to make the delivery before dismissing it, as was the policy. To be honest I was also secretly excited about finally having an excuse for taking a closer look at the mysterious building.

It was autumn, and the leaves rustled under my feet as I made my way up the garden path towards the structure. The grass, trees and bushes had not seen proper care for a very long time, and  the season’s added effects didn’t do them any favors. I considered making a beat around the house to sate my curiosity, but decided against it. For some reason I felt as if the dark windows were silently watching me, and I felt the excitement from only minutes earlier drain from my body with every step I took. I wanted to be done here, I realized, and looked forward to returning the letters to the office and continuing on my round. To houses more inhabited, friendly and alive.

The porch creaked as I stepped on it. The sound sent shivers down my spine and I stopped and listened. Nothing. One of the dusty lite panels in the front door was broken and the wind made the worn linen door curtain ripple on the inside. I knocked, first cautiously but then decidedly. I would be accused of neither cowardice nor negligence.

”Come in”, a faint voice said, and my heart almost stopped. I considered running, but duty and curiosity got the better of me and instead I opened the door.

Inside, the house was silent and calm. Dust drifted through the air like particles of memory, and the homely but dated furnishing spoke of love and dedication long past. A grey layer covered everything, as if this place had been frozen in time decades ago.

”Anybody home?”

”Here.” That faint voice again, cracked and hollow as that of a phantom – or a very old person not accustomed to using it.

I wound my way through the house and found myself in a small bedroom. The pattern on the wallpapers matched the dried flowers on the windowsill, and everywhere I looked there were old photographs in ornate frames. On the bed lay a woman, her hair white as snow and the shape of her slight body barely showing from under the heavy covers.

I looked down at the bundle in my hand and read the faded address on the topmost envelope. ”Mrs. Lapwing?”, I chanced.

She looked tiredly at me and nodded. ”Yes”, she rasped. ”Are you from the police?”

I shook my head. ”I’m from the post office. I have some letters for you. Where can I put them?”

She smiled faintly, but it was a sad smile. And that’s when I realized she was not looking at me at all. ”Mr. Postman, I’m sorry but I will not be able to read your letters. I’m blind, you see.”

”Oh”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”

”How could you?” She reached out towards me. ”Maybe you could read the letters to me? That would be wonderful, dear.”

”There are many letters”, I said while quickly thumbing through them. ”Maybe Mr. Lapwing can read them to you? There are letters for him here as well.”

Her hand dropped, and the smile disappeared. ”My husband has been gone for many years, Mr. Postman. He ran away with another woman thirty years ago.”

The silence lasted for several seconds, but for me it felt like far longer than that. ”I’ll read them to you”, I said and sat down in the chair next to her bed. What else could I do?

”Thank you, dear”, she whispered and seemed to relax.

I opened the first envelope and reacted to the old letter stamp. This letter should have been delivered several decades ago. A quick investigation of the rest of the bundle revealed that this was the case with all of them. I cleared my throat.

”These letters are old”, I told her. ”I don’t know why they haven’t been delivered already. This first one was sent back in 1951, and it is from your sister, Ruth.”

”My sister died in the war”, she said blankly.

I skimmed through the letter, the handwriting was not all that easy to read but I managed. ”Well, no. She writes here that she is – was – well and that she’s living together with a kindly man, a fisherman, in Sweden. This is the first letter she has dared to write, and she would like to know if you are alive and well. She wants to come visit you.”

She shook her head slowly. ”Are you sure? Are you sure it is from Ruth?”

”It says so here. And she asks if you remember the kittens, says that she has gotten herself a new one just like the ones you had as children.”

Mrs. Lapwing’s unseeing eyes filled with tears. ”I didn’t know”, she whispered. ”All these years, and I didn’t know.”

”There are more letters from her here”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”She writes that her children are starting school, and that they are moving into a bigger house. She thinks about you often and would love to hear from you.”

The old woman said nothing, so I opened more letters. ”In this one her daughter is getting married. She wants you to be there, but she is afraid that she’s writing these letters to a person long gone. The last letter is not that old, actually… Five years. Well, I guess that’s pretty old as well under these circumstances.”

”Read it”, she mouthed between the tears.

”Here she… Oh.” I paused. ”She is in the hospital. Cancer. The doctors have given her a month, and she’s writing mainly to force herself to accept it. She thinks that you are dead, and she’s glad that she will soon be able to meet you again. This is the last letter from her. I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Lapwing was silent for a long time, her milky eyes staring blindly in front of her. ”What’s in the rest of the letters?”, she said finally.

I didn’t want to do this anymore, but I couldn’t leave her like this. ”There’s one from someone called Becca…”

”My daughter. I haven’t heard from her in twenty years or more.” There was wounded disappointment in her voice.

”It’s from fifteen years ago. To the day, actually. She writes that she has tried calling so many times now that she thinks it’s on you to contact her, if you want to speak. She wants you to know that she and Felicia are happy together, and that no matter what you think about that, she hopes that you will be happy to know that you will soon become a grandmother.”

”A… grandmother? She is having a baby? Together with that woman?”

”I would seem so. There is a phone number here too, if you want to call her.”

”She hasn’t called”, Mr. Lapwing muttered. ”That’s all a lie. I haven’t received any calls for several years.”

I bit my lip. ”That might be due to the… reminders of unpaid phone bills I have here…” I browsed through them. They were old as well, and the final one should have been delivered almost twenty years ago. I felt sick when I realized what this meant. ”The phone company cancelled your number in 1981, you had not payed your bills.”

”But I didn’t get any bills!”, she protested weakly. And she was right. She hadn’t gotten them.

”I’m sorry”, I said. ”There must have been a terrible mix up in the delivery. With all these letters. Of course you will be compensated for –”

”Just read the rest of them, will you Mr. Postman.” She looked defeated, and I guess that’s exactly what she was.

”This one is a letter for Mr. Lapwing. Sent in the early seventies.”

”Around the time when he ran away and left me, then.”

”Well… maybe. Yes, that seems right. The letter is from someone named Susan Green, and it’s very short. She writes that she can’t meet him at the station after all. That she has decided to stay with her family and that it’s over between them.”

”So he didn’t run away with her?”

”No, it doesn’t seem so. But he still sent you divorce papers, they’re here in the next letter.”

”I won’t sign them.”

”No, you don’t have to. Here’s a parcel from the police here as well. They got no answer at the door and couldn’t reach you on the phone. It’s from 1985. Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry to say it, but your husband is dead.”

”This whole time? Dead?”

”I’m afraid so.” I lowered my head, but then remember that she couldn’t see me.

”There’s only one letter left. Do you want me to open it? It’s from last year.” She nodded, and I tore open the envelope. ”It’s from Becca.” This instantly caught her attention. ”She writes that everything is great and that she’s starting a new job. There’s a photograph in here, too. It’s of two women and two children. The kids seem to be in their early teens. They are all smiling. One of the women has long, brown hair and –”

”That’s my Becca. Oh my God, that’s my little Becky…”

”There’s the same phone number at the bottom of the page. You could call her.”

She reached for the photograph and I gave it to her. She caressed the glossy surface with her pale fingertips and tears again started falling from her eyes. I knew she couldn’t see the picture at all. ”My little Becky…”

I had no letters left. I rose hesitantly. ”Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry but I have to go. I hate to leave you like this, but I have many other houses to visit. And I’m terribly sorry these letters haven’t reached you until now, I understand how horrible this must feel…”

She just continued stroking the picture, and I slowly backed away. ”I will make some calls”, I said. ”I will tell the phone company to come here and fix your phone. And maybe someone from the social services too. To, you know, come check that everything is okay with you. Help you out with things around here.”

I paused at the door, but got no response. ”Of course I will report this terrible misconduct to the post office, too. Things like this shouldn’t happen. Ever.”
I hated myself when I turned my back on her and left the house the same way as I had come, my delivery bag much lighter but my heart significantly heavier.

I borrowed a phone in the next house over and made the calls I had promised to make, and some more I came to think of as I did so. Mrs. Lapwing had suffered terribly at the hands of the system. It was almost as if the entire establishment had gone out of its way to conspire against her. But now, finally, everything would be put right. I had seen to that.

I completed my round in less than an hour, and decided to double back on my route back to the office. I wanted to make sure that someone had heeded my reports and gone to check on the poor Mrs. Lapwing. And quite correctly, when I approached the old house I could see several police cars on the driveway and by the street in front of it. There was also an ambulance, and I was instantly worried.

I ran up to one of the officers. He had just finished a phone call and put the phone back in his pocket. ”Excuse me”, I said. ”But I was the one who called earlier. About Mrs. Lapwing. How is she?”

The officer looked me up and down and frowned. ”So you’re the one who called? Good, I know some people who would like a serious word with you. We got the impression that the woman was alive.”

My worry and guilt peaked. ”Oh my god, isn’t she? I was only gone for a hour, and –”

”What are you talking about?”, the officer said. ”It’s good that she was found finally, but we don’t appreciate being lied to. This woman has been dead for several years. If you would please come with me here…”

I followed. And as I did so, I again let my eyes wander towards the old house. The dark windows watched unblinkingly and in silence as the covered stretcher was carried out into the autumn air, leaving the house again to its quiet calm, memories of laughter and sorrow and long forgotten secrets.