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Fantasy Horror

Stephen traced a finger through the condensation on the window. It was already warm in here compared to the drizzle drumming on the glass outside, and the humidity was making it worse. He drew two eyes and an upside down arc, then obliterated it with his palm. 

The water was refreshing, but the crush of numbers and rising tumult around him was overbearing. He closed his eyes and let himself cover his ears just for a second, not long enough for anybody to notice he was trying to block them all out. The horde of the faceless, bundled up in thick coats and all in search of a small dose of joy to ward off the sadness. 

Some bore themselves with nonchalance, carrying away whatever dainties up and out beneath the oppressive glum skies. They didn’t see themselves for what they really were, Stephen thought. They didn’t know they were dead. 

It wasn’t all of them. No, not yet. There were still actual people out there, and it wasn’t hard to see them most of the time. They were still in colour. The dead ones, though, they were a different story. Faces all grey and black, like characters from an ancient movie. Until you got up close. Then you could see that their skin was peeling away like old paint, sometimes mottled and dank like a decaying mask. But you could look them in the eye and they were able to pretend they looked just like everybody else. 

And there were more and more of them every day. At first it had only been one, maybe two in every town. He had passed through plenty after Harper died, just drifting across America from Colorado to Oregon to Maine or wherever the currents took him. Every place looked the same, which was to say they didn’t look like anything in particular. But still there was some colour in the world, and it was a relief to see it over the clink of a spoon and the rim of a mug. He had spent years just following whatever path life chose for him, trusting to the whims of nature. Until he saw that first grey creature coming toward him.

It looked like a man. A tall, hulking sort of man stooped over to try and conceal his great height and self conscious about his bulk. He looked affable, though his eyes darted about furtively. His laugh boomed out and reflected off the city buildings and his companion, a slight woman perhaps in her early thirties, seemed massively out of place alongside him. Where she was petite, he was enormous. Where she was demure, he was loud. So very loud. It might as well have been him and Harper, or at least the version of them that stuck out in his head.

The man, or rather the man thing, was walking toward him while seeming to look here, there, and everywhere. It was the height of summer but he was not sweating. His collared shirt was tied all the way up to his throat and his trousers were a thick herringbone weave. Not unfashionable, and not slobbish, but not quite right either. And he, and his clothes, were utterly colourless, even as they rippled and caught the sunlight with each passing step. His partner, hand happily bound to his own, had a white and red chequered skirt that swished with each stride, and a crimson V-neck blouse with short sleeves. Over one shoulder she wore a small red leather handbag and looped through the strap was the white cardigan she had brought assuming worse weather. For a second she even looked like Harper, the same half-wild blonde hair that framed her pale oval face, the same glint in her eye as she made some off-beat remark she knew only Stephen would appreciate. And then Harper was gone, and in her place was a brunette in grey slacks with freckles delicately scattered across her cheeks. 

As they passed Stephen, standing frozen in the coffee shop doorway, she spared him not a glance but the man looked squarely at him, and it seemed as if it was his own battered face staring back at him. A five o’clock shadow was draped across his chin but the skin was beginning to flake around his cheeks. His face was smiling but his eyes were gaping black holes that threatened to swallow Stephen whole. Stephen’s heart skipped a beat, then two as the dead man raised a finger to its lips as it walked past.

The world around him drained of colour and drew to a halt for half a second, then blasted back to normality as the couple passed, then turned a corner, never to be seen again. Stephen dropped his little paper cup and didn’t even notice as the coffee splashed on his khaki chinos. Instead he staggered to an abandoned office building next door, slumped in the doorway, and wept.

He continued to drift after that, though the simple distraction of travelling had become to feel like the drudgery of obligation. It was whim that had hardened into habit, and though he could no longer find the drive to go on he could not stop. The colour had drained from the world, ever so slightly. And when he saw the next dead man, a suited executive braying jawlessly into a phone, Stephen didn’t weep. Instead he screamed, though he could never recall if he had screamed out loud or only in his head. All he could feel was a deep cold creeping up from the pit of his stomach, threatening to overwhelm him.

Funnelling himself from town to town, oftimes at the back of the bus, sometimes buried in some freight train if he greased the right palms with silver, he found himself watching for the grey dead. Had they always been there, he wondered. He couldn’t shake the feeling that not only did they know he could see them, but that they were watching him for some reason beyond his comprehension. And they were all so loud, it was as if their voices and bellowing laughter were drilling into his skull. Even when they weren’t obviously speaking he could hear them in his mind, and so he retreated more and more into back streets, or parks, or any other large open space where he could just have a barrier between them and him. But it was getting more and more difficult. 

Once, they almost had him. He had been walking up and down some secondary streets of some forgettable provincial town when he crashed into four of them. It was his own fault, he told himself later; he hadn’t been watching where he was going, he was just focused on not letting that cold, sick feeling knock him down. By the time he realised what had happened he was about to land on his back. 

They were four big men, solid with muscle and dressed alike in black jeans, grey polo shirts, and aviator jackets. The jackets were adorned with patches that must have looked like different colours to most people, but to him they were just different shades of grey. 

“You okay buddy?” asked one, presumably the leader, with tight-cut hair at the sides and a square jaw that could sink ships. He reached down to help Stephen, and though his face looked like it was supposed to be kindly, Stephen could see those dead abysses where the eyes should be and the broken, cracked mask that was supposed to be skin and so the second he was on his feet he ran. He ran and ran, barely hearing the confused shouts behind him fade into the distance. 

It was only hours later, maybe even days later, as he sat in the corner of the bus station after dark, that part of his mind asked if they hadn’t been trying to get him after all. Maybe they really were offering to help, that little voice said until it was shouted down by his conscious thought. Yet it still sang out its contrary song, refusing to be silenced. Maybe you’re supposed to go with them, it said. After all, if the world at large seemed to be ticking along just fine, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. What if, he thought with a sudden electric clarity, what if they didn’t know they were dead? His stomach rolled and pitched, and it was only hours after the bus pulled away that he began to calm and, eventually, drift off to sleep.

His dreams were fitful and vibrant, screaming with colour and verve and emotion. A coffee shop, a smile exchanged over a mistake, hands clasped in mutual devotion, oppressive silence. Out of the dark swam a face, Harper’s face. She smiled at him in that lopsided way she had and whispered, “you have to go back”, then blew a kiss. He woke with a start, to find half a dozen grey men and women staring at him. He sat back into his seat and pulled his hood down tight over his eyes to block them out. Nobody moved toward him, even though he was braced for clasping hands. Even the usual blare of their thoughts was nearly silent, or at least low enough that he could manage. Perhaps he could survive this after all, whatever this was. 

He didn’t remember the dream until they were almost there. It was only as he alighted into the bleak cold of night that he even properly realised where he was. He was back in Colorado, in the town outside Boulder where he and Harper had met and spent so many happy days and years together. And there, across the street, was where–

He blacked out. Something about that street had put him on autopilot. His feet ached; he must have been walking for hours, and the palms of his hands were skinned as if he had had to brace himself in a fall, but he remembered none of it. He could have slipped in ice - there was plenty of it on the ground - but deep down he knew that wasn’t true. He listened to that cold pain in his stomach, trying and failing to choke it down. 

He recognised this place. The walls had been repainted and there was a new mural stencilled on the window, but the sign hadn’t changed. It was a weather-beaten piece of stubborn wood that was painted Cup O’Joe, with a pathetic little leprechaun he and Harper had always rolled their eyes at before going inside. Three shots of espresso with just a little extra water for him, flat white and cinnamon for her; how they had mixed up one another’s order on the bleary January morning they met they had never figured out, nor had they ever really cared to. 

In he went, surrounded by a solid wall of people avoiding the cold, half of them dead. It was almost too loud, and his heart thumped against his breastbone even as he stood tall and dared one of them to take him. But they didn’t. Nobody even turned a blind eye to him. Even the barista, a fair haired lanky youth dressed as they all were in combinations of black and white, scarcely seemed to pay him a second thought as he took his order. 

His old seat by the window opened up miraculously and he found himself pushed toward and into it, sketching little faces in the condensation that kept remaking itself on the inside of the window pane. Only after he sat down, pondering the imponderable, did he realise he had ordered two drinks; his and hers. Surrounded by the nonchalant dead, a voice cut through the incessant hum so close it was almost right in his ear. Harper’s voice. “You have to go back.” He turned but there was nobody there, but as he did so an avenue opened up amid the living and the dead in the coffee shop that gave him a clear way out, so he took it as if being pulled by an invisible thread. 

He coasted through streets covered with ice and filthy snow, listening to the sound of traffic snake past him to destinations unknown. He knew where he was going, though, even if he couldn’t yet admit it to himself. 

Two blocks of silent apartment buildings, another of faceless offices that may or may not have been occupied. At the junction he turned due east and there, another block or so down on the right, was the bus station, right back where he started. He didn’t want to go there, not this time. But he did, fighting every impulse to turn and disappear into the night. Headlights and brakelights glowed in the distance, with colours spilling out onto the asphalt. The green and white of a small general store across the street burned bright alongside the streetlights. The building was newer, cleaner than the rest of the stores, it seemed. Something small and red seemed to flicker and dance in the approaching gloom. On he marched, doggedly, reservedly lifting one foot in front of the other.

All the lights began to wash and fade. The red of the brakelights, the green of the store’s sign, all slowly bleached and reduced to shades of grey and white. Faces in the night, deeply shadowed by the yellow, now beige, now white of the streetlights, all turning to grey. Couples and families seemed to slow to a halt as he passed, all turning to watch him go, no longer with black holes in their eyes but instead something akin to sorrow. He was weeping. Why was he weeping?

About a hundred feet from the bus station he bumped into an invisible wall. It didn’t hurt, strangely enough, just stopped him in his tracks. He could even run his hand along it, watching trails of sparks shimmering into existence as he did so. Without knowing why, he lay his palm flat against the barrier and took a deep breath, then stepped through.

The world was ablaze with colour and sunlight. It was cold, but no colder than a typical day in this part of Colorado at winter. Both sides of the street were busy with pedestrians and while it was early in the day the buildings cast a black shadow over the road itself. 

Across the street the general store was shabby and faded, the green of its sign long depleted by winter weather and malaise. A young couple pushed the double doors open and strode out onto the street, and he saw himself and Harper. He was laughing, loudly, at some half-baked joke she was making and she was giggling at his laugh, uncouth in volume but so genuine in joy that nobody could fault it. He had a coat over his arm because he tended not to feel the cold and had a small paper coffee cup in his hand; their usual place had been shut because the water was off, so this was going to have to do, even if they both knew he didn’t really need it. He put his arm around her and held her close in that carefree way only couples in love possess. But Stephen saw the glee turn to horror as the bus pulled out from the station, hit ice, and skeeted across both lanes, dragging them carelessly underneath before ploughing into the storefront.

A blink and it was gone. All Stephen saw now was the newer, cleaner storefront and every shade of black, white, and grey imaginable. Except for just one thing across the now-silent street. A vague oval was being conjured into being, a myriad of creams and reds. He drifted across the road, not caring if he was hit by a car, not caring about anything anymore. As he stood up onto the sidewalk the oval coalesced into Harper, his Harper. She was standing with her arms crossed, her head tilted to one side making her lopsided little grin even more lopsided. She was electric against the dark.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he stammered.

“I’ve been right here, mister.” But she smiled brighter. “It’s okay. I didn’t mind.”

A little flickering light caught the edge of his vision. It was a small, solar powered little candle mounted in a small pillar. Carved onto the plinth were simply the words ‘For Harper and Stephen, 2014’.

“I… I saw you out on the road. You told me I had to go back. But I couldn’t remember.”

The bright smile turned a shade sadder. “You got lost. You’ve been blaming yourself. But you shouldn’t.”

“If I hadn’t bought that stupid little cup of coffee,” he whispered, feeling heavy tears drift down his cheeks. 

“It doesn’t matter, Stephen. None of that matters now. All that matters is what you say to this - will you come with me?”

“Where will we go?”

She shrugged in the smug little affectionate way she knew teased him far more than it should. “Wherever we want. I don’t want to go alone. I wanted us to do this together, but you never got the courage to ask me.”

“I should have asked you to marry me a long time ago.”

“I know. What do you say we make up for lost time, then?”

She reached out her hand and he took it, welcoming the tingle of warmth as it spread up his arm and banished the tensions and fears from within him. A tall, hulking man stooped over to try and conceal his height and self conscious about his bulk, wearing a collared shirt and herringbone trousers, he pulled the petite woman with the half-wild blonde hair, white and red chequered skirt, and cardigan over a crimson blouse toward him and together they drifted on to wherever the currents were destined to take them.

On the street, the little flickering light went out, its purpose fulfilled.

September 21, 2023 17:42

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2 comments

Dena Linn
12:13 Sep 29, 2023

Hey David - super interesting theme and how you bring the reader into the horror. Just some small notes for your furture writing. For exp. Be aware of your POV (point of view) and location markers. You have this confusion a couple of times Here is the first example: Stephen traced (POV is 3rd person HE/Stephen) a finger through the condensation on the window. It was already warm in here (Here? Here is where the reader is, Stephen is THERE. But actually you could delete this location direction tag completely! Delete HERE. And others...

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David O'Mahony
18:04 Sep 30, 2023

Hi Dena, many thanks for the valuable feedback. I will, almost certainly, revisit this story for publication elsewhere once I've had a chance to re-edit. I've returned to writing after many years of neglecting it so I'm a touch rusty - and indeed what may be obvious in my head is not always obvious to the reader! Thank you for taking the time to give the story some thought.

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