“From all of us here at WKTL Radio, have a happy and safe New Year! Drive sober everyone. Remember: It's not worth your life, nor someone else's.”
The familiar voice on the radio gave one last plead for good judgment before being replaced by 80's pop songs. Stephen turned the volume down as he pulled up to a pump at the local 7-Eleven.
He briskly walked across the parking lot. The weather was unusually mild for December, but there was still an undercurrent of a chill when the wind blew. Stephen pulled the door open, and walked into welcoming warmth. For some reason, he was chilled more than he should've been, to the point of almost shivering. He held his jacket tighter and walked back to the Beer Cave.
Walking up to the counter, Stephen was carrying a case of Budweiser with his left hand, while nestling a 2-liter of Coke in his right arm, and a couple bags of chips in his hand. He placed everything on the counter, and pulled his wallet out while making the usual chit-chat with the cashier. “Man, I bet you're meeting all kinds of characters tonight.”
“Bro, you have no idea,” the cashier chuckled. “Just thirty minutes ago, I had a guy come in here, claiming to be the next Miss Cleo. I swear, he must've been on meth, or some new street kick, 'cause he was climbing the walls! He had to meet a guy, that he didn't know, to tell him that he was gonna die, but he didn't know how he was gonna die. He was close to having a coronary, man.”
“I do not envy your job, bro.” Stephen laughed as he swiped his card to pay. He picked up his items, and said goodbye to the clerk. What a night, and it's barely begun.
After placing the beer and bags in the backseat of the car, Stephen once again pulls out his wallet and his bankcard. He begins to fill the tank, deciding that $20 should be plenty. The party he was heading to was only 15 minutes away, so that amount would be more than sufficient.
“Hey! Man, sir, umm, hey! Can I talk to you?” A very disheveled man came, almost running, across the lot toward the car, waving an arm in the air. “Sir! Please, I really need to talk to you!” He was wearing a button-down shirt, no jacket, and his tie was hanging loosely around his neck. It looked as though he had given it a tug of desperation and left it lay where it did. Wrinkled slacks finished off the look.
“What can I do for you?” Stephen was cautious. This man appeared somewhat crazed, but controlled. He didn't seem to want to cause any harm, but his antics were off-putting.
“It's what I can do for you – I have to warn you! It's a matter of life and death!” He was panting by the time he reached the trunk of the car. He rested a moment, trying to catch his breath to finish what he needed to say.
“What are you talking about, man? Wait, you must be the man the cashier was telling me about. How long have you been waiting here? And why are you waiting for me?” There were so many questions Stephen wanted to ask, but those were the only ones that came mind.
“I had a dream. That's what I do. I have a gift, though it can often be a curse. I had a dream unlike any I've ever had before. It was the most terrifying, intense vision I have ever endured. That's what I had to do – endure it. Generally, I see a vision, and there's a message with it. But this... no. This was something I don't have a name for. It was no vision. There was nothing but darkness. The purest, heaviest blackness. And there was fear. You see these white hairs here?” He put his fingers up to where a few white strands were. “These weren't here before.”
“Look, I don't know what you're on, but it's apparently top-dollar stuff. I know we all like to cut loose a little as we ring in the new year, but I think you cut a little too loose, bro. I don't believe in all that stuff. To each his own, ya know, but it ain't for me. I'm sorry, but I'm already running late.” Stephen hung the gas nozzle back on its hook, screwed on the gas-cap, and shut the door.
“No!” The man's frantic voice made Stephen jump. “No! You don't understand. If you go into that closet, you won't come out!”
“Closet? Dude, what are you talking about? What closet? Sorry, man, but you're not making sense.” He took a couple steps toward the driver's door.
“I don't know what closet. I only know if you go in, you don't come out. There is something evil inside. You can't go inside!” He was panting and staggering toward Stephen. It was clear he believed what he was saying, but how could Stephen? Or any other sane, thinking person? This guy had to be on PCP, or Bath Salts, or something. That was it. He was having a bad trip, and Stephen was the unlucky recipient of its endeavors.
“I'm sorry, I told you, I don't believe in the devil, or evil, or whatever it is you're talking about. And I don't have a clue about going into a closet. Man, I'm sorry, but I have to go. Be careful getting home, 'k? You should probably call for a ride, I don't think you're in any shape to be driving.” His hand was trembling, as was his voice, but he managed to pull up on the handle and open the door. He wished the man a happy New Year as he was shutting the door and starting the engine. The man was still trying to talk to him as the door closed, but Stephen couldn't make it out, nor did he want to. He was wishing he had gotten something stronger than beer.
Fifteen minutes later he was pulling into David's driveway. He could hear the thumping of the music before he opened the door. A couple of people were walking up the sidewalk to the front door, each carrying a drink or a food dish to offer to the New Year's pot-luck Dave was hosting this year. For the past six years, Stephen, David and their friends, took turns hosting this pot-luck. The next host always striving to out-do the last – either with decorations, party favors, or games. Dave outdid himself with the decorations this year, but no one knew that the game he had planned was to be the cherry on the proverbial sundae.
Stephen set the bags and beer down on the table in Dave's kitchen. There were bowls, boxes, and containers of food set around on the table and the countertops. Styrofoam plates and cups along with plastic cutlery set together nearer the sink.
“Hey hey!” he recognized Dave's voice right away, but he still jumped a little at being startled.
“Hey, man! Awesome party this year! You outdid yourself with the décor and the sound system.” They shook hands and pulled each other in for a half-hug.
“Thanks, man! Teri and Scott helped me deck out the place. It was a group effort this year.” Dave grabbed a paper plate and began putting a few bites of this and that on it before getting one of Stephen's beers. “Get something to eat, dude. You look a little peaked. What's up?” He popped open the beer and took a drink.
“I've had the craziest night, you don't even know. I was at the 7-Eleven, over on Skylar Ave, and the cashier was telling me about the guy that came into the store, apparently higher than a Georgia pine, going on about needing to find a man he didn't know to tell him about a dream he didn't understand. Well, apparently, I was that man he didn't know, 'cause he found me out at the gas pump. He said he was a psychic, who had a dream about darkness. But, not just any darkness. Oh, no. It was a darkness worse than any he had ever dreamed about before. And there was an evil in this darkness. An evil worse than anything he's ever encountered. - You can see where this is going, right? - And apparently, this evil wants me, for some unknown reason, but – and here's the kicker – it can only get me if I go in the closet. Which closest? I don't know! But that is where it's laying in wait for me, in a closet somewhere.” He opened one of his beers and took a long, guzzling swig. The fact that it bothered him at all almost bothered him more than not knowing why it bothered him. He didn't believe in anything like this, so why did he even give it a second thought?
“You're going to need something stronger than that. Hang on.” Dave grabbed a Styrofoam cup and found the bottle Jim Beam Teri had brought. He poured Stephen a double and handed him the cup. He took it from him, and saw his hands were still shaky. In two swallows, the cup was empty.
“Thank you, I needed that. What a way to start the new year, eh?”
“Don't worry, Steve ol' boy, we'll get you worry-free in no time. Here, put a little something on your stomach. Mary's queso dip is one of the wonders of the world.” He handed him a plate with some chips and dip on it. “You shouldn't drink on an empty stomach, it'll only add to your problems.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” He took a bite. It really was good dip, and he didn't realize how hungry he was until he began eating. “That really is some awesome sauce. Mary outdid herself.”
“You ain't kiddin'! If you think that's good, just wait til you see this evening's party game!” Dave was smiling like a Cheshire cat. Stephen wondered what poor mouse was on the hook tonight.
More people pour into the house has the night goes on. The empty bowls and containers were being replaced by new ones brought in. It was close to 11 o'clock, and David was gathering everyone into the middle area of the house. It was the entry hall. It ran from the front door all the way back to the kitchen, but Dave was trying to wrangle everyone as close to the front door area as he could. There was a staircase that ran up one wall. Some guests were standing there, while others spilled into the living room that was directly across the wooden floor from the stairway. Under the stairs was a storage closet, with a wooden door that stood about 3 ½ feet tall, painted the same color as the wall.
“Everyone, can I have your attention, please?” The murmuring quietened down. “Thank you all for being here tonight. It's wonderful to ring in the new year such lovely friends. As I'm sure you're all anxiously awaiting, it's now time for this year's New Year's festivities!” He reached into a bag that sat as his feet and pulled out a rectangular black box with neon green writing on it. “May I present to you – Three With the Oui! Ten lucky contestants will go into this storage closet-” he motioned to the one under the stairs- “and will spend three minutes, in the dark, playing with this Ouija board. As you can see by the writing, it's a glow-in-the-dark board, and I've spent all day charging this puppy up! Now, if you want to be one of the lucky few who have a chance to ask the fates what wonders are in store for next year, I have a clipboard I'm going to pass around. Write you name – legibly! – on this list. If we have more than ten brave souls here tonight, I will be tearing each name off and putting it into a bag to blindly draw, until we have our ten players. And Stephen! Where are you, man?” Stephen held his hand up so David could see him in the crowd. “Buddy, you have a guaranteed spot on this list! You are going to be our last player this evening!” It took a minute for it to register with Stephen what David had just said. He thought of the man at the gas station.
“You arsehole! That guy at the gas station – that was you?! You set that up! If there weren't so many witnesses, I'd bury you in the closet with the evil darkness!” David erupted in laughter, as did the crowd. It was the most elaborate prank, and piece of New Year's entertainment, that any of them had done in the six years they had been working to out do each other. “I hate you right now, but that was sheer genius, man.”
“I love you, too, Steve ol' boy.” Dave saw Stephen raise a one-finger salute above the crowd as they both laughed. They had known each other since they were three, and grew up more as brothers.
Those who wanted to play put their names on the list, and waited patiently to see if they would be one of the nine drawn from the bag. Each one who went in came out with over-enthusiastic tale of terror and the supernatural. They were as giddy as schoolkids. Then, it came to Stephen's turn. Though he knew everything from the gas station was nothing more than a joke, he was still uneasy about going into the closet. He wasn't about to let Dave know, though. Instead, he'd return the favor. He'd wait a minute, then start screaming to be let out. He'd come up with a tale of terror that would rival Poe, and when he knew he had them on the hook, he'd come clean.
Stephen took the board and ducked into the closet. It was wider than he thought, following the length of the stairs. He turned around, so as to face the door, crossed his legs, and set the board on the floor in front of him. The door was closed, allowing the darkness to full encompass him. It was a blinding darkness, except for the glowing letters on the board.
“Alright, let's get on with this,” Stephen whispered to himself. He put two fingers from each hand on the planchette. “Is anyone there who would like to talk this evening?” He waited for a moment, then felt a small movement beneath his fingers. His breath got stuck in his throat. The little plastic piece moved across the board and stopped on the word “Yes.”
“No way! This crap ain't real!” The planchette moved away from the word, then stopped back atop it. “If you're real, then who are you?” The plastic piece started to move around the board. It hesitated over the letters N-O-T-W-H-O.
“Not who? What do you mean?” Before the planchette began to move again, Stephen thought he may have heard a slight swish sound from the far end of the closet. His attention was soon captured again by the board, as the piece began spelling W-H-A-T.
“Not who, what? Is this another joke? If you're not who, what are you then?” This time, he was certain he heard something to his right. Closer this time. It was faint, but he heard it still moving ever-so-slightly closer.
“Demon? You're a demon? C'mon, this has got to be a joke.” His voice was shaky. He had forgotten about trying to out-prank Dave. He had forgotten about everything except that sound. It was like something rustling around the boxes, trying to be silent, but slightly failing. He swore he could feel something breathing on the back of his neck.
“R, U, are you ready? Am I ready for what? I'm ready to get out of here.” He raised his voice so as to be heard outside the door. “C'mon, Dave! You got me, man! I'm done!” There was silence. Except something moving closer to his right. And a slight breathy sound from behind.
The planchette moved, without Stephen asking any question. It began to circle the board slowly. He took his fingers off the piece, but it didn't stop. It circled faster and faster, until he thought it would fly off the board. But it didn't. It stopped, suddenly. When it did, a deep, guttural growl came from behind him. It was so close to his ear, he could feel the breath from whatever had made it. He was frozen. He looked at the board to see where the planchette had stopped. As he did, he heard the click of the doorknob. Before light could break the darkness, Stephen felt something grip him from behind. It closed around his chest, but he couldn't tell if it was hands, or claws, or some freakish combination. He started to scream, but as the light came in and broke the darkness, the closet was silent.
Dave stopped, and looked around. “Steve? C'mon, man, time's up!” He glanced around the areas the light illuminated, and saw nothing but the board laying on the ground. He called again, but was answered only by silence. He turned the flashlight on on his cellphone, and peered down the far end of the closet. There was nothing but boxes, and spaces too small for a guy of Stephen's stature to hide. The carpet had a slight indention where Stephen had been sitting, and when Dave touched it, it was still warm from the body heat.
He stopped when he came to the board. His face going pale, his mouth going dry. The last message the planchette offered was the last word on the board – “Goodbye.”