A deserted highway. A young girl, no older than seven. The girl is pale, too pale. So pale that she stands out against the surrounding shadows. Not glowing exactly, but sharply contrasted against the blackness and mixed green foliage behind where she kneels in the dirt. The girl begins to weep. The tears run down her face, but never reach the ground. They drop from her chin and disappear. Her sorrow and despair permeate the night air, bouncing off the tree trunks and faceless blacktop. The starless sky above the only audience to her sobs.
Route 5. A ten mile stretch of road running between Highway 40 and the town of Fayette. Dense woods line either side of the road, thickest along the center two-mile stretch. Within this span of highway, the stars never seem to shine. Sunlight seems faded and moonbeams are made dull. While passing through the area, those who possess a certain sensitivity, are assaulted by tinges of dread. A vague unease they cannot pinpoint. Those affected, whether they realize it or not, speed up along that two-mile stretch, anxious to escape the undefined melancholy that washes over them.
I return from Sheol and am instantly drawn to that odd stretch of Route 5. Faintly, I hear the girl's sobs but cannot pinpoint from where they originate. I move back and forth along the road and her cries seem to be coming from every point along those two miles. Her weeping nearly inaudible, like a sound so faintly heard that one must pause to discern if it's even really there. Like a ringing in the ears or that sensation when a person thinks they hear their name but looks around to see nothing but strangers and blank expressions.
I stop and look across the road. Before me is an old farmstead. The property long ago abandoned. The fields, once diligently plowed and maintained, now left untouched. Yet the ground remains barren. Neither woods nor weeds grow in the crumbling soil. A single house is all that's left to mark that anyone ever lived here. The house is run down, falling in on itself. No one has lived there for quite some time. The animals give it a wide berth, weary birds flying on instead of resting on its roof. Rodents and insects moving deeper into the woods instead of making their nests within its crumbling walls.
Hearing all this, your first thought is probably that this old house is haunted. You assume that some tragedy befell the farmstead's former occupants. Some sinister twist of fate, the result of insanity or the evil machinations of an outsider. This could not be further from the truth. The house is just a house, the property just empty land. Nothing terrible befell the last occupants. In death, they left behind some awful energy or malicious curse. This is not the case. No, this area was blighted long before the former owners moved to the land.
I don't mean to mislead you. Ghosts, as you would call them, do exist. An entity inhabits this stretch of Route B. It just isn’t connected to the house. No, it stems from something much darker and deeper. Something ancient and incongruous. The entity invisibly encompasses and engulfs everything in the area. Everything that is, except for the little girl. Though the entity hides her from view, she is not an object of its corruption. The girl does not belong in this place, yet cannot seem to escape it. Luckily, she has me.
I suppose you're wondering who I am. I don't remember my name and have little use for it even if I did. I you must put a name to me, then call me Cho. I have been charged with leading the souls of the dead to a place called Sheol. You might think of it as the underworld, though this would be misleading. Sheol is not under or beneath your world. It exists completely apart from it.
Others of you might have thought of heaven or hell. Sheol is neither so specific nor so richly adorned or opposingly subjective. Good and evil may permeate life, but they have nothing to do with death. There is no divine judge, no devil waiting to punish the wicked. There is only life, death, and the after. Truth be told, I've never crossed completely into Sheol. It is not my place to coddle the dead in the after. Rather, it is my responsibility to lead the dead from your world to the outskirts of Sheol. What they find in Sheol and where they go within that place is up to them, and not for me to know.
Now that you know me and what I am, you're probably wondering what I look like. I am a man of average height with nondescript features. If you were to see me on the street you probably wouldn't even notice me, and if you did, you wouldn't remember me five minutes later. I wear a black coat, jeans, and hiking boots. I have short, dark hair and wear a pair of glasses pushed high up the bridge of my nose. Even when there is no light, the lenses of my glasses flash, hiding my eyes behind their shine. My scarf blows in the breeze, even though there is no wind, its tails billowing behind me.
I do not know if this is what I looked like when I was alive. I have only the vaguest memories of my life before taking up my new role. Perhaps this form was chosen for me. Perhaps it is a reflection of what I once was. In either case, it matters little. I cannot help others move on if I'm obsessed with my own past. Their eternal peace carries more weight than the memories of what I once was or what I've lost.
As I look across the road at the farmhouse, I sense movement behind me. Closing my eyes, I hear the girl's sobs once again and know she is on the ground directly behind me. Kneeling in the dirt, feeling the sharp pain of gravel digging into her knees despite the fact she no longer has flesh. Unable to move, fear takes over her as the pain intensifies. Her terror reaches a peak and the girl wails, her scream rolling through the empty night. Having spent all her accumulated energy, the girl lapses back into pained silence. I begin to lose sense of her presence, but manage to home in on the sorrow that overtakes the air like a dense fog rolling off the sea.
Beneath the girl's cries, I also pick up another sound. This sound belongs to the entity that is bound to this portion of Route 5. It sounds like hundreds of wings, each beating their own tempo, creating a cacophony barely audible but no less earsplitting. It's like the off-timed firing of machinery or the footfalls of a crowded room but with an intensity amplified tenfold and multiplied by thousands. I can tell the entity fears me. Not because I pose a threat to it but rather because it has never encountered a being like me. Humans aren't the only things that fear what they do not understand.
As much as the entity wanted to avoid my becoming aware of its presence, it couldn't help but be drawn to the girl's escalated pain. Her negative emotions ramping up in a cycle, the apex of which proved irresistible to a creature that feeds on fear, sadness, and anguish. I turn and the tumultuous pulsing recedes into the woods, though it does not, cannot in fact, fade completely. It is bound to the place in the same way it has trapped the girl's spirit here.
I turn and the entity recedes further, hiding itself from me by stretching behind the trunks of trees and flat across the dark ground. I know it is still close, but I ignore it, turning my attention to the spot where the still unseen girl kneels. I remove a pebble from my pocket and place it on the ground in front of where I know the girl to be. This pebble came from the outskirts of Sheol. I always carry a few in my pocket. They help the most misplaced spirits become grounded by something tangible. Something that reminds them of their old world while also originating from their new destination. The pebble, white as bleached bone, stands out from the surrounding gravel and bits of broken blacktop like a diamond among coal. I squat down and wait. My eyes never leaving the spot the girl occupies.
After a few moments, the girl reaches out and takes the pebble. She appears in front of me, visible for the first time, and I see how the entity is binding her to this place. A dark cord is wrapped around the girl's neck. She doesn't seem to notice it, no longer able to feel physical stimuli, only the remnants of pain and fear from the last moments of her short life. These echoes of memory begin to ramp up again and, in her fear, the girl grabs my arm. Instantly, images flash across my mind and I relive the girl's last moments right alongside her...
The girl is on a playground, standing in front of a swing set. Of the three swings, two are in disrepair. They hang forlornly, creaking as they sway in the breeze. The other children won't let the girl have a turn on the one functioning swing. When they finally leave, she is alone but glad to have the swing all to herself. A man approaches and offers to push her. The little girl accepts his offer and climbs onto the swing.
At this point, events begin to blur together. There's the thrill of weightlessness as the swing reaches the apex of its arc. There's confusion as the man grabs the girl and drags her away. Fear as he throws her into the trunk of his car. From that point on, it's all pain and terror. So strong, that the next images are either distorted by static, shadowed by deep hues of blue, or colored blood red.
The last images are more understood by the girl than actually seen. She's back in the trunk. The man pulls off onto the gravel that lines Route 5. The trunk opens and there's a final flash of pain as he dumps the girl's body onto the ground. As her consciousness fades and her life ebbs away, the girl looks up and sees the farmhouse. Her dying brain projects images over the run-down structure, conjuring visions of a quaint little cottage. The girl's thoughts turn to the cute family that must live inside. The last thing she feels is hope that the family will come to help her. Then, everything fades to black...
As the memories end, and the girl’s torment cycles down once again, I wrench my arm from her grip. She lurches backward, silently sobbing, tears streaming down her face. I look up to find the entity hovering above us. My pain so new and tantalizing that the entity was forced out of hiding by its own hunger and greed. Satiated to the point of sloth, the entity floats above, oblivious to my presence as I walk into the woods.
I follow the black cord, tracing its path through the trees. Soon the entity realizes my purpose and rushes at me from behind. It looms around me, fallen leaves sticking to its visceral mass. The leaves vibrate, as if caught in a barely visible spiderweb. The entity emits a skittering sound that rises to near deafening levels. A stench of rot and fire assaults my nostrils, making my head spin. I wind more of my scarf around my face to cover my ears and nose before walking onward.
The ends of my scarf now hang down my chest, fluttering back and forth as the entity surges around me. It forms itself into horrible shapes. Shadows of teeth and claws scrape across the surface of the trees, rake across the ground. Still I walk on. I know the entity cannot hurt me, no more than I could untether it from this accursed place.
Finally, I come to a tree stump. This stump is the pinnacle of the force that binds the entity to this stretch of Route 5. The air around me begins to shimmer and the temperature drops. Frost crunches under my boots as I step up to the tree stump. Winds assail me, loose leaves and twigs buffeting my body and scratching across my face. I do not allow the entity to distract me. I keep my focus solely on the black cord that winds its way out of the stump.
The strings at the end of my scarf each harden into sharpened talons. Under my control, the ends of the scarf shoot forward. One sinks into the stump, just below the cord. The other rushes downward, striking the cord and forcing it against the other end of the scarf. The cord breaks with a snap so fierce it knocks leaves from the tree and makes the ground tremble.
The entity howls in rage, but I have freed the girl. There is nothing left for the entity but to recede completely, now left to wait for the next unfortunate soul to become trapped here. I return to the girl. She stands at the roadside, still holding the pebble in her hand. I take her other hand in mine and together we begin the trek to Sheol. I know not what awaits her there. I can only hope that she is offered a chance at a new life. A life unlike the one she is leaving behind. A life where she is free from pain. A life where she is no longer the victim.
We reach the boundary of Sheol and the girl looks up at me. She smiles, and I smile back. Then I let go of her hand and she crosses into Sheol. I wave to her as her spirit vanishes, drawn onward to whatever lies beyond.