This blog is a catalogue of my published fiction, a collection of short stories either unpublished or available online, and a discussion of all things writing. Here you will find tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything in between. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sons of the Desert

Written in 2011

"Sons of the Desert" was published on in Issue 7 (April 2012). Click on the link below to read the story!

Click Here To Read "Sons of the Desert"

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trial and Error

Written in 2010

While the Germans bombed London all winter, Nicholas Irvine had been hard at work on his machine to the stars. It was nearly complete now, despite their best efforts to level all of England.
The Blitz had been crippling London for several months now; thousands were already dead, and thousands more would perish if the bombings persisted further into the year. The people themselves were strong and perseverant, but Nicholas was frightened for his life and for the lives of his people.
He didn’t share their British resolve. Maybe in the long run their island could survive the attacks, but at what cost? When would it end? Bearing these thoughts and foreseeing the destruction that was to come, one year ago Nicholas started working on his plans to leave Earth.
When Nicholas went to bed that night, he prayed for London to be spared another firestorm. The next morning he woke up relieved to find his house undisturbed, and immediately started readying the ship for takeoff.
His daughter Christina, who was nearly twenty-five now, visited him that afternoon as he was preparing for liftoff.
“You’re really going to go?” she said as they sat down for one last cup of tea.
He nodded. “You know I have to.”
“That’s not true.” She looked flustered, but she calmed herself. “They say the worst of it’s over, you know. The Royal Air Force is growing stronger. Soon we will be able to compete with them.”
“You know that’s not the true reason I have to go,” Nicholas said.
“Then why? Is it because of that discovery you were talking about? Because if so, that’s not a good reason, either.” He said nothing, but Christina knew it was true. “Why, Dad! It was just an observation. No one knows if it’s really true.”
“It’s true,” Nicholas said plainly. “I have to trust in something, Christina, and if I want to hold onto my sanity, that something has to be science and the study of nature. If the astronomers say they’ve looked into space and encountered a wall, then it must be true.”
“Maybe our technology just isn’t advanced enough. Maybe we can see nothing past the celestial spheres because our telescopes aren’t capable of it.”
Nicholas shook his head. “No one had any trouble gazing at any of the celestial spheres before. The Moon, the Sun, and all the planets were discovered in ancient times. Like the others, I assumed that the sphere of stars must extend farther than we could ever hope to see, even with the aid of telescopes. But to encounter a wall of nothingness, and at no more than one-hundred and fifty million miles away…nobody can explain it.”
“So what? You’re going to risk your life just because we don’t know what’s out there? What if you don’t make it, Dad? What if you aren’t able to complete the journey?”
“I’ll make it,” Nicholas asserted. “The bulk of the fuel is necessary to breach the atmosphere, but as for the trip through space itself, I have reason to believe it will be an easy ride.”
She was silent for a moment. They each took a sip of tea. Then she said, “Dad, do you really believe it? Do you really think we can’t see past the stars because, well, because God is there?”
“What else am I supposed to believe? Can you think of any alternative?”
“None,” Christina said. “So why go if you don’t doubt the rules of the universe, if you accept the existence of God?”
“Because if God is out there, I want to meet him. Because the universe may be perfect, but mankind certainly isn’t, and I want to know why.”
Christina now understood just how determined her father was to have his questions answered. Moreover, his unwavering interest piqued her own. “All right,” she said, and finished her tea. “But I want to go with you.”
“Absolutely not.”
She looked furious. “You don’t think I have the same right you do?”
“I’m sorry, Christina, but you cannot come with me.”
“I’d like to know why.”
“Because I love you, Christina, and because I don’t know what will happen.”
“You mean when you meet God.”
“Yes. And you must stay behind and stand for Joseph and your mother. You must represent our family. The Battle of France couldn’t be won, but in time, if enough people like you are around, maybe we can win the Battle of Britain. As for an old man like me, all I have left is questions and all I want is to have them answered. Then I will be done.”
Christina looked down for a moment, her anger superseded by sympathy. She reached into her purse and placed something on the table. It was an olive jar that had been painted green.
“Take it,” she said. “I know you wanted me to have it, but I think you should bring it with you. You’ll need it more than I do.”
Nicholas nodded and grasped the jar. He placed his palm on Christina’s hand.
The room shook, and they lowered their heads. A bomb had gone off far in the distance, but they could feel the explosion even here.
“When you see Him,” Christina said when it was over, “if you see Him, try to give Him a little credit. We haven’t exactly been the most well-behaved children.”
Nicholas nodded, but he doubted he would be so forgiving.

When Nicholas first read the reports that the geocentric model was correct, he had been baffled. To him it had always made more sense for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Instead, the Earth was stagnant while eight celestial spheres rotated around it, moving like clockwork. Because it was now proven that humans were literally at the center of the universe, no one could deny anymore that we were special, and, by extension, that some divine creator must exist.
There were the skeptics, of course. There were always skeptics. They argued that the astronomers were wrong, that Copernicus was right, and we were simply deluding ourselves. But such people weren’t convincing because they did not use the scientific method and instead relied on their own intuition. In any case, the Ptolemaic model was widely accepted now, and such differing opinions were in the minority.
Still, while Nicholas had accepted the truth of the geocentric model, he had always wondered why this particular explanation had turned out correct while the others were all refuted. Was Copernicus’ model so outrageous of an idea?
Nobody took notice of Nicholas as he transported his spaceship into the backyard and readied it for takeoff. Perhaps they were more concerned with the afternoon’s bombing. In any case, the launch was successful and occurred just as Nicholas had predicted. Part of his house was destroyed in the process, but Nicholas had a feeling he was never going to return to London. No, the stars were where he was headed. The stars, and what lay beyond.
As he had predicted, space was not difficult to pass through. With the absence of air and gravity, space practically tugged Nicholas along on his journey. If the astronomers were correct in their predicted distances of the planets and stars, Nicholas would have plenty of fuel to reach the end and come back.
The Moon was the first sphere, residing very close to Earth. Nicholas looked out his window as he approached it. The sphere holding the Moon didn’t actually exist, but represented the invisible ring in space which shifted, like the hand on a clock, moving the Moon along its pathway around the stationary Earth. The Moon itself turned and moved like a mechanical toy.
Looking out the window, Nicholas almost expected to see the Ten Commandments etched onto the Moon’s surface. If God existed and wanted us to know it, was this scenario really so absurd? But Nicholas saw nothing.
Mercury and Venus were the next heavenly bodies to pass by. He encountered a miscalculation regarding the planets’ distances. The spaceship would require more fuel than he had once thought, but this wouldn’t be a problem.
When Nicholas reached the Sun, his spaceship was illuminated by its heavenly light. This was the fourth sphere, located roughly five million miles away from the Earth. Humanity’s home was behind him, not much smaller than it was before. Space was far less vast than Nicholas would have assumed.
The Sun, a perfectly round orb rolling through space along the grooves of a perfectly round sphere, astounded Nicholas by its perfection. Surely the presence of such a flawless body proved the existence of God. Nicholas wondered, however, why so large and great of an object would not be the center of the universe itself. Was humanity so great a thing that it deserved its position at the crux of everything?
Only a few months more and Nicholas would know for sure.  
As the fourth celestial sphere disappeared behind the view of the ship’s window, Nicholas leaned over to the table beside him and picked up the green olive jar. He held it in his hand, listing in his head all of the questions he would ask. Then he set the jar down and resumed piloting the ship.
If he was to have all of his questions answered, Nicholas mustn’t blockade his mind from the memories. He was convinced that his son would have supported his mission, were he still alive. Nicholas remembered vividly the day he had received the letter of Joseph’s passing and how they were unable to recover all of his remains. Marissa had died in childbirth for him, yet no one knew where much of his body rested.
Olives had always been Joseph’s favorite food. Nicholas smiled as he remembered all of times he had set down a bowl of them before dinner, and how they had all vanished before the food came.
Tears filled Nicholas’ eyes as these memories came to him. He wanted to know why. He wanted to know why all of this was necessary, why the Earth did not share in the universe’s perfection, why God was hiding so far away from his children.
Nicholas wiped his eyes and resumed his travels.
As the weeks passed, so too did the planets. Mars was next, followed by Jupiter and finally Saturn, the seventh sphere. Nicholas marveled at the last planet’s rings, the way the beams of light wrapped precisely around Saturn’s middle without deviating.
Nicholas didn’t linger. He had long since grown jaded by these miraculous sights. He was tired of witnessing the perfection, the handiwork of God. What he wanted to see rested far beyond where he was now, in the space past the eighth sphere, in a place the astronomers had failed to detect.
He increased the ship’s speed, burning up more fuel than before. Now that the end was so close, Nicholas longed to reach it. The engine labored through the weeks, blasting the ship past the seventh sphere and into the eighth. He was over eighty-million miles away from home now, and he could still see it.
Like a shooting star, the spaceship blazed a trail of fire through space. Nicholas fed the engine, watching the stars pass by in a chaotic blur. These points of light represented the limit of mankind’s technology. Past this realm, into the white wall beyond, the imperfection of mankind was made quite evident. Out there, Nicholas could see nothing, and he wanted to reach it.
As the days passed, Nicholas prayed he was getting close, though he wasn’t sure who he was praying to. He realized that he would no longer have enough fuel to take him back home. By needlessly burning most of it away, Nicholas had gambled that he would have enough to return home, and he had lost. Unlike with the planets, the spaces between stars seemed limitless. Nicholas could no longer be certain when they would end.
            He remembered Churchill’s speech over the summer, shortly after Joseph’s death. There had been rumors in London that Britain was going to surrender to Germany, but Churchill had assuaged their fears. We shall fight on the beaches, he’d said, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
            Nicholas believed that Churchill had been speaking the truth. He admired Churchill. He was determined to be stolid, resolute, and unyielding like him. Even in the face of death, of a force greater than himself, Nicholas would steel himself and face his adversary without fear.

            Nicholas wasn’t even aware he was approaching the ninth sphere until his ship departed the eighth and broke through the barrier.
            Immediately after entering this new realm, Nicholas could tell that the rules here were different. He was in the ether, a world where matter was different from what he was accustomed to. So while his ship continued to ignite a stream of fire behind it, Nicholas lost control.
            The ship veered through the clouds, turning erratically, gaining speed and then losing it as it looped through God’s domain.
            Finally, the ship punched through the clouds and approached the ground below. While he was more concerned with stabilizing his ship, Nicholas was able to glance out the window and see a few shapes below: wings, harps, beatific faces. Nicholas even claimed to see Joseph and Marissa among them, but this was just a fantasy.
Nicholas fought for control as the ship, now a burning fireball, plummeted to the ground. Angels dove out of the way as Nicholas’ machine plunged into the soft, white blanket, tearing through each layer of fabric until it encountered something solid and collided with the obstruction. As the lights went out, so did Nicholas.

            He awoke standing in the middle of a great white room. A man was sitting at a rather large desk, busying himself with the papers in front of him.
            “Where am I?” Nicholas asked when his head was clear.
            The man looked up at him. He had a great white beard, powerful shoulders, and cold blue eyes. A cloak of light surrounded him. “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” he answered before dipping his quill in a jar of ink, resuming his work.
            “Heaven,” Nicholas said breathlessly. “The afterlife. That is where I am. And that makes you God.”
            “Where’s my ship?”
            “BEHIND YOU,” God said, extending out a long glowing finger. Nicholas looked, and it was there. “YOU CRASHED STRAIGHT INTO MY OFFICE AND INTERRUPTED MY WORK.”
            “I’m sorry,” Nicholas said. “But I had to come to see you.”
            God rolled his eyes. “I KNOW, NICHOLAS IRVINE. I KNOW.”
            Nicholas was growing nervous. Here he was, standing before God, and he knew he must have violated some sort of law, if not several, to reach this place. He expected some sort of punishment, for God to pass judgment upon him. Nicholas was confident that with a snap of his fingers, God could have him dead.
            Then he remembered Churchill.
            “I have a few questions for you.”
            “I want to know why you made the universe the way it is, why it is so utterly flawless.”
            “But mankind is not flawless,” Nicholas pointed out. “Why is that?”
            God was silent for a moment. He placed his quill down. “MUST YOU QUESTION EVERYTHING I DO? I AM YOUR CREATOR, NICHOLAS IRVINE. YOU MUSTN’T DOUBT ME.”
            “I cannot help it!” Nicholas protested. “My country is at war. People are dying every day, and there doesn’t seem to be any fairness or design to it all. It is random, not ordered.”      
            “Yes,” Nicholas said. “If you created me then you created me to question everything that happens to me. It is in the nature of mankind to ask questions. So please, answer mine. Why is the world the way it is? Why did you make the universe so perfect and yet mankind so flawed?”
            God waited, but Nicholas stood still. He thought about returning to his ship and heading home, but even if he had enough fuel, he wouldn’t have done it. Something inside Nicholas simply required to have his questions answered, for as much as he feared God’s wrath, he feared not knowing the truth even more.
            “YOU’RE STILL HERE?” God said after a moment. He looked into Nicholas’ eyes, and Nicholas wanted to look away.
            He thought about his wife and son, and then he stared back.
            “Yes, God, I am.”
            “No, God. I have come too far, I have waited too long. I will not leave. Not until I know the truth.”
“You can make mistakes?”
            “But you wanted us to believe that you are perfect, that you have everything under control.”
            “That is why you created the universe the way it is,” Nicholas realized. “The planets and stars are a buffer to keep us from seeking you, from knowing your true nature.”
            “You’ve created the universe more than once?”
            Nicholas looked worried. “So you’re going to do it again, just like that, just because I found a way to reach you?”
            “All because of what I did?” Nicholas went on. He couldn’t believe the impact he had made, how easily he had altered everything. “All those people will die, don’t you understand that?”
            “So am I Job, or am I Abraham?”
            God chuckled. “BOTH AND NEITHER. WOULD YOU MIND TERRIBLY IF I HELD ONTO THIS?” He held out the green olive jar which Nicholas thought he’d left in the ship.
            “It means a lot to me,” Nicholas said. “I’d like it back, if you’re going to let me live.”
            Nicholas shrugged. “All right, if you must, but only if you answer one last question.”
            “ASK YOUR QUESTION.”
            “Is this a game to you? Is the whole universe a chance for you to showcase your power and learn to better yourself after each mistake, or do you truly care for and look after your children? Do we mean anything to you?”
            Nicholas nodded, satisfied. It felt good to have his questions answered, to know the truth, however disenchanting it may have been. He thought about Joseph, about how tragic and meaningless his death had been, and how Nicholas didn’t want to live in a universe that didn’t match humanity’s imperfection. If human nature couldn’t be changed, then at least nature could. “Okay,” he said. “I’m ready, do what you must.”
            God smiled, and in that instant, the universe died and was reborn. Every star, every planet, even the Earth itself, was swallowed up into the darkness and then spat back out. Time itself began anew, and God was the only thing present in the new universe.
            This will be the last time, God promised as he observed the nothingness. This will be my last mistake. This universe will be flawed, but it will also be perfect.
            With a wave of His hand, God created light, rewrote the laws, fashioned the Earth again. Then He descended down upon His creation and, like before, decided to make man.
            He opened the jar and spread its contents out over the space before him.
            And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the Earth…

The Perfect Lawn

Written in 2010

Mr. Polanski hated October 31st more than any other day of the year. It was the day the hooligans came from all corners of the town to ravage and defile his absolutely perfect lawn. He knew this year’s Halloween would be no different. He watched uneasily through his window as the teenagers came with their eggs, their toilet paper, and their cans of silly string. He watched them smash a pumpkin into pieces on his clean, trim, spotless lawn. It was spotless no more.
            Mr. Polanski could ignore them no longer. He went into his garage, retrieved his shovel, and stormed out his front door. He never could remember the rest.
            His neighbors said he was losing his mind. He was 82 years old, he had lived through the most terrible thing to happen to humanity, and so his mental state was understandable. But Mr. Polanski felt fine. He didn’t understand why they complained, why they wanted him out of the neighborhood.
            They called him Mr. Perfect, and he liked that very much. He prided himself on his well-kept lawn, the nicest one in the neighborhood. Mr. Polanski had to work hard to maintain it, of course. He mowed it once a week, never in the afternoon (too hot) or in the morning (too wet), but in the evening, when the sun had just set. He knew the perfect technique to cut his lawn straight and to the perfect length.
            The sprinklers went off every night unless it rained. Mr. Polanski hated when it rained because what that happened nature was taking care of his lawn for him, and he wanted to take care of it himself.
            He knew all about fertilizer. He talked to a lot of people about dethatching and aeration and when they were needed. Several times a day, Mr. Polanski would head out with a rake and shovel and rid his yard of unwanted leaves and sticks. Sometimes, when Mr. Polanski was feeling particularly ambitious, he would sit out by his porch, watch the wind blow, and be ready before any object intruded upon his perfect lawn.
            Mr. Polanski’s lawn was the greenest and cleanest in the neighborhood. He inspected it daily for weeds and plucked them out before they could spread. Pests never dared to approach his lawn because they had already learned of the consequences.
            Yes, they called him Mr. Perfect. Nobody’s lawn could compete with his. Before Lilly had died, maybe, but that had been a different time.
            A few hours before the teenagers murdered his lawn, Mr. Polanski had just finished cleaning the grass of debris and was now in his living room watching television. He needed his thick glasses to watch his programs now. This hadn’t always been so.
            He kept a picture of Lilly on the table beside his armchair. Not a recent picture of her, but one directly following their wedding, when she was younger and livelier. He missed that Lilly.
            Maybe he was getting old, too. Wasn’t that what they had said at the factory? Mr. Polanski couldn’t remember anymore. He couldn’t remember much of anything.
            But he did remember this: when they had fired him, Mr. Polanski had fought back. He’d said they couldn’t do this to him, they couldn’t take away his job just because he was getting old. Mr. Polanski had fought, but Mr. Polanski had lost.
            “You’re not fit to work anymore, Mr. Polanski,” someone had told him; he couldn’t remember who. “You need to go home. You need to rest.”
            Mr. Polanski had gone home, but he hadn’t rested. Who were they to tell him what he could and couldn’t do? He had lived through more terrible times than these, and he was still here, his heart was still beating. He was 82 years old, and he was stronger than any of them.
            “My lawn couldn’t be any more perfect,” Mr. Polanski said, grinning to himself before getting up to fix himself dinner. He had to blend his food now; he couldn’t chew many things anymore. His doctor had told him once that he needed dentures, and Mr. Polanski had told his doctor to go to hell.
            With the blender on, he couldn’t hear the start of Halloween, when the children went out in their hideous costumes and demanded candy from him. The doorbell rang eight times before Mr. Polanski was done with his dinner, and he didn’t get up once to answer it.
            When Mr. Polanski was finished eating, he went outside to inspect his lawn again. He cursed aloud when he saw the footprints on his once-flawless grass. He would have to take care of that tomorrow. In the meantime, Mr. Polanski picked up all of the candy wrappers the children had carelessly scattered across his lawn (and their parents had neglected to clean up) and went back inside to watch television.
            Irritable, they had called him. Forgetful. Washed up. Useless.
            Mr. Polanski laughed at these insults and thought about his lawn, which was perfect and would always be perfect.
            By the time the teenagers surfaced, Mr. Polanski was tired and wanted to go to bed. He couldn’t sleep just yet, though. He had to make sure his lawn was left alone.
            It wasn’t, of course. And while the teenagers destroyed it, Mr. Polanski tightened his hands into fists and tried to control his rage. His pulse was racing (bad for his heart, his doctor would say), and beads of sweat were dripping down his nearly bald head. Mr. Polanski pushed down one of the blinds and looked through the opening.
            In the darkness, he could barely distinguish the teenagers as human. Dark shapes danced and paraded, hurling grenades at the side of his house, spraying colorful bullets into the grass. They brought out their greatest weapon last, a bomb larger than Mr. Polanski’s head that they finally hurled into the middle of the lawn, incinerating it in gooey orange chunks.
            Mr. Polanski could watch no more. Everything in his life, everything had been taken from him, and now his lawn, too. He didn’t see the teenagers as people anymore; he saw them as demons who had come to torment him. Mr. Polanski would dispel the demons as he had in Europe, as he had when he had lost Lilly, and then everything would be okay.
            Mr. Perfect went outside with a shovel in his hand, and he couldn’t remember the rest.   

The Laughing Mirror

Written in 2010

They’d said on the news it wasn’t safe to drive; I should have listened to them. I just wasn’t expecting the road to end altogether.
            I’m not from the country, I’m not accustomed to the claustrophobia of driving while encased by trees at both sides, to the road winding up and down hills and veering sharply in unexpected directions.
            These were not the reasons why I crashed into the snow bank, though they were certainly on my mind and may have played a part. No, I crashed because the road ended.
            Who knew how it had happened? Maybe they hadn’t bothered to dispatch their snow plows so far into the wilderness. This meant, of course, that they hadn’t expected anyone to drive down this road, that not a single person would require passage through it.
            I myself hadn’t even been aware that this part of the world existed until recently. As I said before, I am not from around here. I work in an office building; or, rather, I used to work in an office building. They had not let me go, if that is your presumption. On the contrary, they valued my hard work and honesty more so than anyone else’s in the office, or so I have been told.
            I had discovered that a colleague of mine was involved in some rather suspicious activities, and this knowledge vexed me greatly at the time. I realized, however, that to expose him would put my own well-being at risk, because, as I soon found out, I had unknowingly played a small part in his machinations. To reveal his falsehood would be to expose my own, and I was not willing to do that.
            So I left. I gathered my things, I filled my car at the gas station, and I had been driving ever since. I was looking for a new place, far away from home. I was intrigued by the trees, the mountains, the wilderness. Last night I’d stayed in an inn two-hundred miles from where I crashed, and I’d watched through the window as the snow piled high. By the time the blizzard was over, more than two feet of snow had accumulated. Rather than waiting another day until the roads were safer, as I’d been advised, I dug out my car and resumed driving. It was only after I crashed into the snow bank that I regretted my decision.
            I could not help but curse as I opened the door and jumped out of the car. There was no moon out, and it was frightfully dark. I kept the high beams on and immediately started digging with my hands. I dug for over an hour, freeing the tires first before making sure the path was clear. I ignited the engine and put the car in reverse, but the tires merely skidded in place.
            I got out and tried again, removing all the snow I could, my hands numb from the cold. Still nothing.
Anxious and desperate now, I tried to think of what to do. I hadn’t seen one house or building for many miles. Deep in the mountains, I was alone.
            One last time, I bent to my knees beside the front tires, wiping the space clean. This was ridiculous. The air bags hadn’t even deployed, and my car was stuck. I began digging faster, furiously clawing at the snow, and my hand touched something solid and strangely metallic. I pulled it out and brushed away the snow to reveal what I can only describe as an amulet, a round piece of metal with strange words carved on one side and a symbol on the other. The words I could not decipher, but the symbol I could: an inverted pentagram, the sign of the Devil.
            I pocketed the treasure, not knowing what else to do with it, and returned to the task of moving my car. But even after all my laboring, the car wouldn’t move, and I was left shouting at the side of the hood, utterly defeated.
            That was when I saw it, the house upon the hill. It was the only house in sight, and it rested right there, where the road ended. The house was a mansion of a style I had never seen in person but often read about in the dreary books I found in the library.
            The mansion consisted of three sections, two tower-like structures on the sides and a box-like middle section between them. There were three levels to the building, all lined with crossed windows. Spires adorned the roof and stone statues were scattered across the fa├žade. Columns held up the bottom level of the gothic structure, while a single titanic door resided in the symmetrical center.
            I laughed nervously as I walked up the hill to this monstrous structure. I only needed a phone and perhaps I could call for a tow truck. But then, I was going to have to wait until morning, wouldn’t I? What would I do until then?
            Trees lined the narrow path to the front door, crooked and overbearing. I heard the sound of a bird, perhaps a crow, though I do not claim to know much about birds. I could not see the bird, but I heard its awful laugh. “Ha…ha…ha!” it mocked me.
            As I neared the entrance, I heard a sound and looked up to see a figure in a window, the only lighted room in the mansion. The figure disappeared and the light vanished. I approached the front door, shivering from the cold.
            I pounded angrily on the door only to watch it creak open without resistance.
            It was too dark to see. Candles were lit all throughout the hallway, but the shadows exceeded the light. Tentatively, I stepped inside only to hear the roar of a monster.
            The shadowy beast rushed up to me, snarling and bearing its jaws. I backed away, prepared to run for my life, but a voice called out,
            “Get back, Cerberus!” Still growling, the enormous black hound allowed me passage into the house.
            A figure stepped into the candlelight, a short and frail-looking old woman with wiry grey hair. She moved closer to me, a scowl on her face, and reached out a bony hand to touch her pet, which had transformed from a ferocious beast into a friendly dog.
            “Who are you?” she demanded, her wintry eyes glaring.
            I had trouble forming words. “My name is Randall Price.”
            “Why are you here?” the old woman said, rising to her feet.
            “I’m sorry. The road ended, you see, and I crashed into the snow. I tried digging my car out, but, well, it’s still there, obviously. Do you think I can use your phone?”
            “I don’t have a phone,” the old woman said, and turned away. She started walking down the hall, her black dog at her heel. I had no choice but to follow.
            “No phone?” I repeated.
            “No electricity at all,” the woman muttered. She grabbed a torch from the wall. “Is there something else you want?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She kept walking down the cavernous hall, and I could tell from the dog’s incessant growling that she was growing impatient.
            “I hate to trouble you,” I began, “but I don’t think I’ll be able to dig my car out tonight. It’s getting late, and it’s,” I shivered, “very cold out. It will be easier to solve my problem in the morning when I can think straight, but until then, do you think you could…that is, would it be any trouble if I…”
            “You want to stay the night,” she said. I nodded gravely. She shrugged and said, “You may.”
            This is how I met the woman who called herself the Lady of Shadows. When I later asked her how she preferred to be addressed, she said Sonya would do. I don’t know why she introduced herself as the Lady of Shadows, but I continued calling her Sonya because that is what she preferred. I viewed her as senile, mad, and, yes, I was deathly afraid of her.
            Sonya later instructed me to take my pick from the countless guest rooms. There were too many to choose from, and I just wanted to sleep, so I laid down my things in the first room she offered me and told her it suited my needs perfectly. Sonya nodded and left without saying a word.
            I had trouble sleeping that night. The mattress was too hard and stiff and the pillows smelled like mold. The ancient house made sounds in the night, creaking, moaning. And out the window, the bird perched on the branch of a tree, and laughed, “Ha…ha…ha!”
            I turned away, fumbling in my bag for a bottle of water. Instead, I retrieved the amulet I had found in the snow, the amulet with the sign of the Devil carved into it. Hastily, I deposited the amulet back in my bag and forced myself to sleep. Eventually, I did.
            It was still dark when I awoke next. The door to my bedroom was ajar, though I remembered closing it. A breeze passed through a crack in the window. I admit to being frightened, and certainly I was tired, but I swear I saw the old woman peek her head through the door, her colorless eyes searching, her mouth half-open and revealing a row of crooked yellow teeth. I watched her through the darkness, but she did not move. Finally, reasoning that she could not be real and I was only seeing things, I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
            Sonya made me breakfast in the morning, a few hardboiled eggs that she cooked in a pot over her fireplace. We sat in silence for a long time as we ate. Once in a while, Sonya would cut off a piece of egg and feed it to her dog.
            “So, how long have you been staying here?” I asked finally, unable to endure the silence any longer.
            The old woman grunted. “Longer than I can remember.”
            “And how did you acquire this home? It is quite extravagant. I didn’t know places like this still exist.”
            “I built it,” Sonya replied.
            “Built it?” I repeated. “You mean by yourself?”
            “Yes,” she said, annoyed. I knew from the size of the mansion that it would have probably taken a single person years or even decades to build a place like this, especially for someone as old as Sonya, but I didn’t question her.
            “I’m going to try to push my car out,” I said. “I don’t suppose you have a vehicle of your own? Then I could tie a chain to both cars’ bumpers and pull it out that way.”
            I had expected the answer she gave me: “I don’t own a car.”
            I nodded and thanked her for breakfast before going out into the brisk winter morning. My car rested exactly where I had left it. First I tried turning it on and putting it into reverse. When that didn’t work, I shoveled away some more snow with my hands, put the car into neutral, and pushed as hard as I could. I wanted desperately to be away from this place, but that was not to be.
When I finally gave up, I was cold, tired, and wet. I ignored the bird’s laughter on the way up to the mansion and sat by the fire to dry off. Sonya left me alone for most of the afternoon, but I saw her pass by several times. I even followed her once, making sure to keep out of sight until she had entered through one of the doors. I knew from the sound of her footsteps that she was heading downstairs, possibly into a cellar. She remained in that cellar for the better part of the day.
            For dinner she served me a meat stew. I don’t know what type of animal it was made from, and I didn’t ask.
            “Why are you here, Randall Price?” she asked.
            I was baffled by her question. “What do you mean? My car is stuck. I don’t have any other choice.”
            “No,” Sonya dismissed me. “There is a reason. There is always a reason.”
            Unable to answer her question, I left the room.
            That night, I was the one who sneaked out of my room. I was terribly afraid that Sonya was going to spy on me again, that she was planning something terrible. I waited a long time, and then I emerged out into the halls. I followed the directions in my head to her bedroom, which I had memorized the day before, and listened by her door for her steady breathing so I could be sure she was asleep.
            Afterwards, I retreated down the steps, heading into the bowels of the mansion. The halls may as well have been a maze, so extensive and rambling were they, yet somehow I managed my way through them and came upon the door to the cellar.
            I couldn’t expect the basement to be illuminated, so I brought a torch with me. Each step I took down the wooden stairs made a squeak, and I swear they were loud enough for Sonya to hear on the other side of the mansion.
            Somehow, I made it all the way down the stairs, down into the cramped, dank cellar. There was nothing at all in the room save the well. It rested in the very center, the bricks piled neck-high. Unlike most wells, which were circular, this one had five sides. Each side was marked with an inverted pentagram identical to the symbol on my amulet. The fifth side, however, was empty. My amulet would have fit perfectly within the grooves, had I placed it there. Very slowly, I approached the well and gazed within it.
            I cannot recall exactly what I saw. Perhaps the memory is too potent, too dreadful, that I had no choice but to simply flush it out of my mind. I do remember a few images, nothing more than shadows, really. They raked at the sides of the well, shrieking, wailing their terrible cries. I grew sick looking at them, turned away, and left with the intention of never coming back. But I did come back.
            As I lay in bed that night, I pulled the blanket over my head as if the wool could protect me. I heard the shadows, even in my bedroom. I heard them rustling, stirring, and I knew they were trying to break free. They wanted out.
            I realized then what was going on. The amulet I had found out in the snow was the last piece Sonya needed to free the darkness, to set it loose. She knew I had it. She had been waiting for her chance to snatch it from me since I arrived here. I realized that my life was danger and that I had two choices. I could either let her claim me or deal with her myself. I resolved that if she made her move, I would do the latter. I saw no other option.
            The next day transpired in the same manner as the last. I awoke, fretful and restless as always, and devoted all of my energy to pushing my car out of the snow. I worked all morning while the old woman watched from her bedroom window. I found tools in her closet and used them to dig under the car, clearing all of the snow I could reach. But while the car would turn on, it wouldn’t move. I contemplated making the long journey to the nearest civilization, however many miles it would be, but ultimately decided to give up and head back inside.
            Sonya’s dog greeted me at the door, licking the snow from my boots. The old woman stood in the middle of the hallway, a wicked smile on her face.
            “So you couldn’t leave,” she commented.
            “No,” I responded, and proceeded into the living room as usual to dry off by the fire. This time, the old woman followed me, Cerberus at her side.
            “Why do you think you couldn’t leave?” she asked as I sat down.
            “Because my car wouldn’t move.”
            “No,” she said, bending down to pet her dog. “No, that isn’t it at all.”
            I was getting annoyed, so I said, “Because this is the twentieth century, and you don’t have a telephone or electricity of any kind. Because you live out here in the middle of nowhere, and someone was bound to get stuck here. Because nobody bothered to plow the goddamn road!”
            She stared at me blankly, and then her gaze drifted to the fire. The red flames reflected against her pallid eyes.
            “You are keeping something from me, Randall Price,” she said mechanically. “Something that doesn’t belong to you. Something that is mine. And I want it back.”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
            She turned her head, displaying her hideous, wax-like face. The wrinkles under her eyes looked as if they had been cut into marble.
            “I think you do,” she said.
            She challenged me with her stare, but I stared right back. Finally, when she could glare at me no longer, the old woman turned around and left the room. The dog lingered for a moment, turning its head to look at me, to see into me, but not viciously at all. Then it too left.
            I decided then that the old woman needed to be killed. I would do it that night, when she was asleep. In my cowardice, I wanted to flee, I wanted to run far from here, but I knew I couldn’t. Besides the fact that I would have gotten frostbite and perished by the side of the road before ever reaching safety, I knew I had a moral obligation to oppose Sonya, she who called herself the Lady of Shadows.
            So I stayed, and this was the bravest thing I had ever done. In the middle of the night, I rose from my bed and gripped the knife in my hand which I had stolen from the kitchens the day prior. I looked out the window, but the bird wasn’t present, not anymore. It would laugh at me no longer, I hoped.
            As I approached the old woman’s bedchamber, I walked quietly on the tips of my toes. I listened intently by the door, but I heard no breathing. Had she known I was coming? My heartbeat intensified; the knife felt slippery in my hands. But I had to go through with this.
            I pushed open the door, holding out the knife. There was only darkness in the room, but I swished the torch in my hand around, searching. The old woman was not in her bed.
            I heard a loud sound, like a gunshot, coming from downstairs. I realized where she was.
            Like a madman, I sprinted downstairs, paying no heed to patience and stealth anymore. The old woman was awake, and she probably knew I was, too. At least I had been shrewd enough to take the amulet with me.
            She was in the cellar, of course. I should have known that all along. Sonya had been careless; she’d left the door slightly open, just enough so I could see inside.
            Through the crack, I watched. I saw her standing by the well, her hands held over the sides, feeding the darkness. Like some kind of witch or sorceress, she surged black fire from the palms of her hands into the abyss.
            She laughed, reeling her head back. “HAHAHAHA!” She sounded like a thousand birds all cawing in unison.
            I stood there, staring through the crack in the door, witnessing the madness. I heard a snarl, and suddenly I realized that the old woman’s dog, Cerberus, was at my side. I held the knife out, but the dog was not growling at me, but into the room with the well.
            I looked back inside. The old woman had suspended her magic, but only briefly. She breathed heavily, and I could tell she was gathering her energy again. The shadows from the well were screaming now, and I saw one of them place its ugly hand on top of the stone. I could wait no longer.
            Shouting, I ran down the wooden steps with the knife outstretched. Sonya saw me coming, but she was too drained of her energy to retaliate. As I plunged the knife into her heart, I saw her pale eyes go from transparent to an opaque white.
            She fell into my arms, muttering incoherently.
            In the ecstasy following the murder, I didn’t realize what I had done. The old woman’s dog ran down the stairs, barking unceasingly at the well.
            The shapes were rising now, dark and terrible. I wanted to shout at the old woman, tell her to make the shadows go away, but she looked weak, and her eyelids were closing.
            “The amulet…” Sonya croaked. “The amulet…The amulet...”
            I realized then the horrible and irreparable mistake I had made. Sonya had not been fighting to free the dark shapes, but to contain them. The five pentagrams served not to let the shadows loose upon the world, but to keep them locked up. And with Sonya gone, the darkness could spread freely and unhindered.
            I felt sick, very, very sick. I felt faint and wanted to lie down, and the dog’s incessant barking was doing little to help.
            Meanwhile, the darkness had nearly clawed its way out of the well. Almost free, the shadows would soon spread unhindered, and who was I to know what they would do next?
            I knew only that I had the amulet, and I knew where it was supposed to go.
            It was cold, and moving my feet was suddenly a monumental task. I tried not to look at the hand coming out of the well. I tried not to picture its grotesque, bony structure, the claws, the palm without lines or features. I almost gave in to my nausea then, but I fought it down, thinking of the task ahead of me.  
The shadows only noticed what I meant to do when it was almost too late. They struggled against me, whispered things in my ear that I worked hard to forget afterwards.
            I thought only of stopping them, of preventing them from doing any more harm.
            As soon as the amulet was in place, the shadows gave one final screech and then they were sucked back into the well like vermin into a vacuum. They made threats, promises, and even bribes. Then I saw them no more, even when I held a candle over the well and looked within. I knew, however, that they were not gone for good.
            The five pentagrams were in place again, but they could not hold the darkness forever. It had been Sonya’s job to guard the well, to watch over the shadows, and so it would be mine. I was perfectly aware of what such a decision would entail.
            Sonya’s life had revolved around the darkness, around keeping it in check. Her purposes were indeed noble, but by keeping herself so close to something so vile, a part of her was contaminated by it. Such is the fate of one who dares face the darkness, who keeps herself so close to something so terrible.
            This had been Sonya’s fate, and so it will be mine. I will be turned into something ugly in the process; I know that now. But that ugliness is a reflection of my enemy, not myself.
            It is quiet now. I sometimes grow lonely in these empty halls, but at least I have Cerberus as my companion. Cerberus understands me. Cerberus knows the difference between the true monster and the monster created within ourselves to oppose it. I know that darkness now, I’ve gazed into the well, but I’d rather not say what’s down there.
            Sometimes in my reflective periods I stare out the window and think about my life before the darkness and the well, and how petty my problems truly were. If I had known what I was to become, would I still have fled my life and my home? Would I have understood, or would I have simply laughed?
As I wonder these things, I see the bird there, hanging on a branch out the window. I see myself in that bird as if it were a mirror. It laughs at me; but now I laugh back. “HAHAHAHA!” I say, and the bird looks at me, terrified, before flying away.