Social Proof

Submitted into Contest #206 in response to: Set your story in an eerie, surreal setting.... view prompt

27 comments

Horror Fantasy Suspense

Ethan reoriented his phone and pushed his stocking cap back to reveal more of his hair before offering his audience a two-fingered peace sign. "Hey-hey, guys! Wazzup?"

Aiden raked Ethan’s hand. “Dude, what the Hell?”

“What’s gotten into you?” Sam chortled, recording both of them on his phone through a cloud of steamy breath. “Scared?”

“No,” Aiden barked, glaring apprehensively into Sam’s camera. “I’m black, moron. Shit like this gets a brother killed.”

In response to Aiden’s misgivings, heart, laughing, and smiling emojis floated up Aiden’s image on Sam’s screen. Feeling smug, Sam showed Aiden the immediate, real-time results.

Aiden rolled his eyes. “Whatever, fool. They ain’t black.” 

Ethan resumed a filming position with a sarcastic smile, framing the tall fence behind him in the background. “Don’t worry, Aiden-buddy, we’ll be good’n’gone before anybody notices.”

“C’mon, guys! Let’s go, let’s go!” Sam impatiently gestured to the shadowy mansion. Pressing on, Sam directed his mobile to the naked, claw-like limbs of bare trees that lined the drive, reaching over their heads. “It don’t look like anybody’s been here lately.”

“Since the sixties,” Aiden said, jutting his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders. Trespassing aside, something felt eerie about the property. He felt eyes crawling all over him. “Been shuttered ever since. It was foreclosed on by the bank after Thadeus’ grandson died. The house is old, protected by some kind’a historical preservation law. They wanted to put a Walmart here but couldn’t. It can’t be knocked down.”

“Our resident bookworm and brown-noser, ladies and gentlemen,” Ethan said, capturing him and Aiden in the shot and bowing to his camera.

“Yeah, I read, okay?” Aiden said, shoving Ethan away.

“This is it, peeps!” Sam said, angling his phone to take a wide shot of the property. “Thornbrook Manor-”

Ethan interrupted Sam to draw a dramatic, wide-eyed slash across his throat with his finger. “The third sorcerer!”

Annoyed, Aiden glanced side-eyed at Sam’s phone and shrugged, speaking directly to Sam’s followers. “It’s where the geocache told us to go next.”

Abhorrent ground,” Sam whispered ominously, reciting a phrase they found written in the cache. Flipping the phone’s camera to face him, his face was uplit in the darkness. “W-T-F! What’s that even mean?”

Built in the 1860’s outside of Seattle, the Thornbook property was considered an architectural gem of Victorian elegance and grandeur. Dilapidated, weathered, and crumbled, its glamorous splendor, however, was lost to the past.

Situated on a lush estate, the mansion boasted a commanding presence with a towering three-story roofline with four chimneys and two pointed spires. Its exterior façade was crafted with intricate details replete with ornate carvings of strange and fanciful beasts, sturdy stone pillars, and delicate trimmings that lent the structure an artistic flair; its architect was both an engineer and an artist. Its front doors were made of rich mahogany and intricately carved yet spraypainted with urban gang tags.

“What is that?” Sam said. He focused his camera on a carving along the structure’s foundation. It had a rounded body with taloned hands, a sloping ape-like brow, and an angry expression baring menacing, jagged teeth, yet had stone wings like a bird. It looked tethered to the building by a black iron chain.

“Er, that’s a water drain,” Aiden replied. “Water comes down the chain into the monkey’s skull, spillin’ out the mouth.”

“Ugh!” Sam groaned, zooming in on it. “That’s crazy. What kind of acid were these guys on?”

“Opium,” Aiden clarified with a nod, thinking, then added, leaning into Sam’s camera, “that or absinthe - herbs, sugar, ice, wood alcohol - big-ass psychedelic effects brought on from consumin’ thujone, a compound-”

“Look, look!” Ethan interrupted, cutting Aiden off, holding his own phone over his head as they approached a ruined reflecting pool in an overgrown garden sanctuary. Surrounded by a wrought iron fence, the pool’s still black surface reflected the sky’s cold starry void. “There’s the statue!”

Aiden grumbled into Sam’s camera. Friendly heart emoji’s raced up the side of his face. “Yeah, well, if you’re curious an’ wanna know more, DM me.”

“C’mon, brainiac,” Sam scolded, slapping Aiden on his shoulder. Sam turned his camera’s flash away from the monkey creature to send it receding into the darkness. 

Cautiously entering the gate, they circled the pool to step through an overgrowth of thorny black bushes with serrated, tar-colored leaves.

A marble statue of a Victorian gentleman leaning heavily on a cane loomed over the pool’s edge. Soiled by centuries of grime and vigorous splotches of mold, thorny brambles climbed its legs and torso.

“Dr. Thadeus Parlow,” Aiden whispered, scanning through Wikipedia articles on his device. He passed the links on to the audience through social media.

Sam zoomed in on Parlow’s vandalized head. Chiseled away, it looked as if it were mauled; chunks of marble were gouged from Parlow’s face. Hundreds of shocked and gasping emojis went scrolling by.

Sam zoomed back, panned, and held his phone horizontally to keep Ethan and the statue in the frame. “We’ve got more than sixteen-hundred viewers, man!”

Play it! chided Ethan’s followers. Little blue bubbles of text went floating by.

“Okay, okay, I’m going to play it! Just hang on!” Ethan promised his followers before turning his phone around to navigate its settings.

“Nah, uh, Ethan, I don’t think-” Aiden’s eyes trailed from his phone to the water.

Sam could barely contain himself and removed his cap. He fixed his phone on Ethan. “Man, this is going to be so great!”

Reflected upon the smooth black surface of the pool, Aiden saw a sharp, vivid reflection of the Milky Way. However, looking up, ambient light from the city obscured the night sky, and it was cloudy, overcast - a typical Seattle night.

Puzzled, Aiden absently asked, “Er, Ethan?”

Closing on Sam, Ethan held up his phone up to Sam’s and pressed play to stream the video.

A cheesy, AI-generated black-and-white image of a man with the head of an octopus appeared, followed by a grainy, scratchy recording, as if sampled from a wax cylinder.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn,” recited the octopus man in a low, spectral voice.

Thousands of emoji’s raced up Sam’s display and his follower count skyrocketed. Elated, Sam pumped the air, shouting, “Yeah, yeah! Wgah’nagl fhtagn, fuckers!”

“Bring it on,” Ethan mocked with a sarcastic sneer and a crude, offensive gesture into Sam’s camera.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn! T'dril ng'kth'k'krii Dagon!" the recording concluded, leaving only a still, uncomfortable silence.

Seeing the statue’s mutilated head reflected in the pool of dreamy starlight, Aiden backed away to glance at Thadeus and then back at the water.

The statue’s angle against the surface was all wrong.

“How’s that possible?” he breathed.

Replaying the video on his phone, Ethan shook his mobile at Sam and shouted, “That’s it! The Third Sorcerer’s Challenge! Woo!”

“Look!” Sam exclaimed, holding out his phone. A bitcoin balance was leaping ahead in hundreds of increments. “We won, man!”

“Where’s all of that shit comin’ from?” Ethan said, peering at Sam’s phone.

Sam turned the phone toward him and manipulated its settings. “Dunno! Some guy in Amsterdam.”

Ethan squinted. “Amsterdam? Where’s that?”

“Who cares?” Sam exclaimed. “We’re gonna be rich!”

“Sam!” Aiden pleaded, pointing to the pool and gripping Sam’s jacket by the sleeve. “Something’s wrong!”

Sam jerked his arm back. “Bro, what the-”

Following Aiden’s hand, Sam saw the impossibly bright, brilliant universe, and the crisp reflection of Thadeus Parlow’s statue, except it wore a ghostly bearded face.

Before Sam could react, Ethan, his back to the pool, held his phone contemptuously under the statue’s chin to replay the video. Sam returned his phone to a recording position.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn! T'dril ng'kth'k'krii Dagon!" repeated the grainy octopus man.

Sam and Aiden cried out just as a massive blue and green scaled tentacle burst from the reflecting pool, gripped Ethan’s leg, then dragged him screaming into the water. The light from Ethan’s submerged phone sank into the pool’s depths and disappeared.

“Jesus fuck!” Aiden shouted, throwing himself from the side of the pool against the iron fence.

Sam’s phone - his thousands of followers witnessing the entire event - burst into a flurry of shocked, worried, and sad emojis.

From the shadows, the chained monkeys squatting along the manor’s cornerstones grinned.

Howling in terror, Aiden grabbed Sam to bolt for the iron gate, but as they ran, the thick, thorny, weedy brambles snagged their jeans and shot out to wrap around their legs. Tripped, Sam fell, sending his phone skittering across the cobblestone surrounding the pool.

“Sam!” Aiden cried, reaching back for him, only to find Sam’s body ensnared in the grips of the wicked flora, pinned against the fence’s bars.

Sam pleaded, extending his arm to Aiden. “Help! Help!”

Tugging, the thorns ripped into Aiden’s skin and tore at his legs and ankles. He could feel the lacerations, the blood saturating his jeans.

Aiden struggled and tried to get closer to Sam only to find tendrils of strangling, grinding vines cutting into Sam’s throat; his eyes bulged and bled, and he choked on a protruding mouthful of black leaves.

It began to rain.

Scared senseless, Aiden scrambled backward to lunge for the iron gate. Shut tight by the snaking weeds, it barely budged. Aiden glanced behind him in horror.

The statue of Dr. Thadeus Parlow remained as it was and always had been, except its vivid, colorful reflection was a ghastly monster with a translucent nest of writhing tentacles waving from its jaw. The pool was still, unmoving as if coated in a layer of sheer, translucent ice. The raindrops did not affect its surface. The pool was disorienting, mesmerizing, spinning; it was as if the whole of the universe lay open at Dr. Parlow’s feet.

“Absinthe my ass!” Aiden shouted, bracing his foot against an iron post to pull at the gate with all of his weight to rip it free of the twisting vines. Fleeing from the sanctuary, a wind bellowed from the chimneys, blowing from inside the mansion with a terrifying roar. Slipping on the mud, his heart pounding, lungs burning, Aiden ran with everything he had down the drive and scaled the fence. And without even a second glance, he sprinted away, leaving his friends forever at Thornbrook Manor.

Glowing in the darkness, the video of the octopus man replayed on a loop while a mass of emojis, check-in waves, bitcoin balances, and DM requests flooded Sam’s phone, before a green tentacle reached out from the water, cupped it, and slowly slid it into the pool.


July 12, 2023 20:23

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27 comments

Jack Kimball
02:15 Jul 17, 2023

I love where your head is at. If you’re not publishing flash horror, you should be. I mean…‘A cheesy, AI-generated black-and-white image of a man with the head of an octopus appeared, followed by a grainy, scratchy recording, as if sampled from a wax cylinder.’ Where does that even come from? And… ‘Tugging, the thorns ripped into Aiden’s skin and tore at his legs and ankles. He could feel the lacerations, the blood saturating his jeans.’ I especially loved your comment to Michal! >> screwing around with the reflections of stars is very ...

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Russell Mickler
03:22 Jul 17, 2023

Hey there, Jack - >> I love where your head is at. If you’re not publishing flash horror, you should be. Well, this one I did write for a Lovecraftian contest originally and I deliberately wanted it to be a 101 on Lovecraft and I only had 1,000 words ... the editors liked it but thought the dialog was cheesy (also intentional :) )... I do like writing horror, it fits with my dark fantasy bent :) and I do have a folder in my portfolio labeled "horror" for future work :) >> Where does that even come from? Laugh! Well, in the back of my sk...

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Delbert Griffith
10:18 Jul 16, 2023

Cthulhu-ian and Lovecraftian. Nice! I especially liked the action sequences. I'm not so good with those, and I recognize good ones. I found it especially interesting that death came from water and land, but a cleansing rain came from the sky. This is almost Biblical: salvation through baptism. I also found the message between the words to be quite compelling. Young guys out to make a quick buck via becoming internet famous seems to be the new capitalism for the youth of today. Fuck all this hard work and perseverance. Fuck all this strivi...

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Russell Mickler
03:59 Jul 17, 2023

Hey there, man! Thanks! >> I especially liked the action sequences. Well, thank you! I didn't have a lot to play with ... the original story was 1k words and I contemplated pulling the stooges through the house and into a private garden to see the pool, giving me more space for action :) It was abrupt and quick and when I re-write it, I'd like to draw it out more ... introduce more disturbing Lovecraftian ideas in the mansion :) >> This is almost Biblical: salvation through baptism. Wow! Well, I'm keeping it in there, now, thank you! :) ...

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Michał Przywara
20:38 Jul 13, 2023

Iä Iä indeed! A fun modern Cthulhu romp :) Well, not for the characters maybe :) The mix of old and new works well, and why wouldn't it? We're dealing with entities that predate time, after all. A couple parts caught my attention: "Built in the 1860’s outside of Seattle, the Thornbook property was considered an architectural gem of Victorian elegance and grandeur." This may be true, but I found this line jarring and it disrupted the tension. The tone is quite different to what we've seen so far, and I was immediately struck by the quest...

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Russell Mickler
21:45 Jul 13, 2023

Hey there, Michal! >> This may be true, but I found this line jarring and it disrupted the tension. Because I slowed down the pace? Hmm okay - >> "Considered by whom?" Grin - my internal narrator, of course :) laugh gotchya yeah, that was me doing an omniscient voice outside of the context of the three characters. I can see where it's disruptive ... >> screwing around with the reflections of stars is very Lovecraftian :) Ta-da! :) >> This itself is its own kind of special horror. YES! And I'm glad you see it - how desensitized we'...

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Jack Kimball
22:57 Jul 12, 2023

Hey Russell, Love the action scenes. I was right there with your stooges. Twisted! Also love the word ‘skittering’. Great image. ‘Howling in terror, Aiden grabbed Sam to bolt for the iron gate, but as they ran, the thick, thorny, weedy brambles snagged their jeans and shot out to wrap around their legs. Tripped, Sam fell, sending his phone skittering across the cobblestone surrounding the pool.’

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Russell Mickler
18:13 Jul 14, 2023

Hey there, Jack! Hehe thank you! Hmm! Now I wonder if 'skittering' is even a word, ah, skitter, yes, it is, whew! That's good ... yes, modern stooges indeed :) Thank you so much for reading and commenting, as always. R

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Chris Miller
21:09 Jul 12, 2023

Ha! Great fun. Definitely eerie and surreal. Lovely ending with the phone getting taken into the pool. There's one sentence that might need a tweak where you say "Ethan screamed before the light from Ethan's phone..." Good stuff, Russell. Thanks for sharing.

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Russell Mickler
22:09 Jul 12, 2023

Right on - thanks for catching that, Chris! I just posted an update. I wrote this "Intro to Cthulhu" story for a magazine in Q2 2023. It was rejected (the dialogue was too corny, they said, but hey, I had a 1,000 words :) ) ... but I tweaked it to give it new life here on Reedsy! Thank you so much for reading. I've been real busy this month on real-world-work projects - I swear I'll get around to reviewing yours and other's work soon! R

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Chris Miller
22:31 Jul 12, 2023

What do they know? 'Too corny' is just an excuse because they don't speak R'lyehian. Good luck with the fun work and the real work.

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Russell Mickler
22:41 Jul 12, 2023

_Exactly!_ hehe thank you ... ugh, mergers and acquisitions are keepin' me busy ... R

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Helen A Smith
07:06 Jul 20, 2023

Hi Russell I loved this story. On every level. The language was great, the dialogue drew me in and the scene felt alive. The descriptions were vivid. Those tentacles in the pool - yuck!! All the stuff on the phone, especially the emojis and bitcoin and AI generated image were hilarious. The followers watching the scene unfold brought the story into modern life in all its craziness and played a great contrast to the dilapidated Victorian setting. For me, a joy to read and beneath the surface a message to the modern world.

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Martin Ross
20:20 Jul 19, 2023

A great reminder to Gen-plussers to mind their elder (gods). Black Mirror should buy this for the next season — disorienting and wicked funny blend of social media/crypto culture and Lovecraft. Cthulhu always amps things up, and you paint a great portrait of a generation increasingly immune to the surrealist nightmares around it. “Absinthe my ass!” is the money line — wish I had an everyday use for it.😉 Your horror portfolio is growing and impressive.

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C. A. Janke
21:46 Jul 18, 2023

I love the contrasting and blending of two sorts of horror in this story! It starts out like a contemporary teen-scream but evolves into Lovecraftian chaos. So fun to read these annoying teens and their livestreaming, geocaching, and aggressive emojis face off against absurd physics, nature fighting back, and ancient gods!

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Russell Mickler
02:47 Jul 19, 2023

Laugh - right on CA, glad you liked it! It's definitely a lot of layered tropes ... but like I said to someone else earlier, tentacles ... you can never go wrong with tentacles. :) R

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09:10 Jul 17, 2023

Very creative story, feels sort of visual, as if it could be a horror tv episode. The ending is sort of how I feel when I get sucked into the next online game or social media app distraction for months.

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J. D. Lair
15:34 Jul 14, 2023

What a delightful read as always Russell! Modern spin on classically haunting tale.

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Russell Mickler
18:07 Jul 14, 2023

Hi JD! Hey, thanks - tentacles. You can never go wrong with tentacles. R

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Mary Bendickson
16:35 Jul 13, 2023

Sounds like mergers and acquisitions were happening in this story, too. Great read!

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Russell Mickler
16:37 Jul 13, 2023

Hey there, Mary! Ha! Yes, there was a bit of M&A in this one, especially on the Cthulhu side of things :) I appreciate the read, thumbs up, and comment - thank you! R

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Lily Finch
16:03 Jul 13, 2023

Hi R, you nailed it for sure with this one. I feel like I read this one before though. Nonetheless, it is sad how ill-prepared thrill seekers attempt to get followers and likes by doing things they should not be doing. Your wonderful way with words was well worth the time taken to read the story. Super as always. The universe acts against you when it is something that is blatantly wrong and disturbs a historical place that may or may not be enchanted, These guys are reminiscent of the three stooges. Aiden is lucky to be alive. Thanks f...

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Russell Mickler
16:42 Jul 13, 2023

Thank you! Yeah, kind of a typical horror, right? Three kids, doing a dare, they confront the big bad and only one escapes with their life? Definitely, you've seen this before :) The reference to "abhorrent ground" is specific to Cthulhu/Lovecraft horror and, yeah, definitely bad ju-ju when met with a summons. The video they played - encouraged by some fellow in Amsterdam - speaking in R'lyehian (more Lovecraft) would be drawing an elder (a monster) into the prime material plane and, yeah, eat them as a sacrifice :) But that's why the guy i...

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Lily Finch
18:15 Jul 13, 2023

Yeah, that is true. Kids will do stupid things and call them pranks. Not like when we were kids and we actually had great pranks; funny, and for the most part, safe. LF6

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Russell Mickler
22:28 Jul 12, 2023

The landing page for this work can be found at: https://www.black-anvil-books.com/social-proof R

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Unknown User
18:00 Jul 13, 2023

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Russell Mickler
18:09 Jul 13, 2023

Laugh - hey thanks, Joe - It was one of those off-the-cuff ones based on a narrow concept (the Tide Pod Challenge, remember that? Oh or the recent Milk Crate Challenge) ... if Elder Gods were involved :) Thanks for reading and commenting! R

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