Suspense Horror Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

The convergence of David and I could be considered nothing short of a cosmic inevitability, as unavoidable as an earthbound meteor. Something that would irreparably alter the bounds of life and death, the fundamental meaning of humanity, a concept to which I’d never truly become accustomed.

Only months earlier, at the start of our freshman year, an instance of synchronicity had us standing in the same forgotten section of the campus library for the first time. He’d been seeking out the university’s selection of occult works, discarded in a lonely alcove on the bottom floor. I’d skipped my evening class to track a large rat scurrying between the stacks for over two hours.

Neither of us believe in love at first sight, but something undeniable passed between us in that moment. It was also not quite love that we felt, but a grander thing, a vital, inexplicable thing. We saw in each other a part of ourselves which we had never seen in another person before. A trace of the same substance which had formed both our souls.

We reunited in that same alcove every night that first week, saying little, mostly existing in the comfort of our shared presence. After a weekend of nonstop rain, a dampness clung to our bones, seeped through the floors. David sat at a small table, surrounded by books. They were mostly bland histories of occult figures, dates and data and biographies he’d had memorized for years, and the lack of any practical information they held frustrated him. Still, he was determined to unlock their secrets if any at all existed.

I wandered the nearby stacks, never straying too far, until I heard the familiar scuttle of tiny paws, punctuated every other moment with a high-pitched squeak. After silently moving down another two rows, I found myself in the furthest corner of the library and found the rat attempting to shove its furry, bulbous body between the very last half-empty shelf and the concrete wall. I crept closer, slowly, though the creature was well aware of my company by now.

The pathetic shouts grew more frantic, its desperation palpable on my tongue.

It scrabbled helplessly against rock and wood, its fate inescapable.

I imagined its tiny, pinprick heart beating away, faster and faster.

All the while, my pulse beat steady and slow in my throat, calm as my hand hovered mere inches away from its fragile neck.

Then it disappeared, slithering through some invisible crack only such unseemly vermin as rats and cockroaches seem to have uncanny access to. I crouched low to the ground, ready to drag it out of the shadows if I must. Yet, instead of a rat I found a hole, and emanating from it a strange pale light and musty draft, the smell of something burnt and bitter just underneath.

I returned to our table, took my seat opposite him. “David,” I whispered. We were the only students on this floor, but then I felt I could only ever say his name in hushed reverence. “I think I’ve found something.”

We were flush with sweat-slick skin after many slow minutes of pushing and pulling, my pocketknife dull from scraping away an old sealant binding the edge of the shelving to the concrete wall. We’d managed to drag it far enough for one of us to slip behind at a time. The smell of stale and bitter air grew thick on our tongues, as though we’d disturbed the long untouched ashes of something burnt beneath the old library some time ago.

David went in first and I followed. The concealed threshold arched wide above us, wide enough for us to stand side by side, on the precipice of an old set of curving stone stairs, far older than even the aged shelves and books behind us. An untraceable blue glow radiated from below, alighting glimmering veins in the rough stone walls. I looked to David, the phosphorescent light catching on the beads of sweat at his temples, turning his already dark hair midnight black.

“What do you think’s down there?” I asked.

David smirked, eyes still on the steps. “Better question – why were they, whoever they might have been, so keen to have it sealed away?”

I didn’t track the length of our silent descent. All I knew was that at some point the sweat dried on my skin, and the early autumn chill leaked down from above to turn my nailbeds blue, and still we walked. I briefly imagined some great mythical beast down below that had been waiting a century for the next stupid young men to come sauntering down these steps with the blind courage of youth. Or maybe I’d instead be greeted by brimstone and flame, if the life I’d led brought me to such a befitting place. Regardless of what monster or fate may or may not have been below, I’d have followed David. At least I’d no longer be alone, come whatever end.

The pale light seemed barely enough to ensure we wouldn’t slip and snap our necks, the stone ready to eagerly soak up the blood from our cracked skulls. We hadn’t yet familiarized ourselves with the grooves in the floor, the veins of strange minerals in the walls not yet as recognizable as the lifelines on our palms.

Finally, we reached the bottom. There was no monster, no secondary door requiring a long-lost key, no spectral guard to test our merit with riddles or to ferry us to some damned beyond. We stepped off the last step straight into a large, cave-like room, the fetor of burnt matter nearly overwhelming us.

In the center of the circular room was a long, elevated slab of dull stone. An altar. Dark, symmetrical stains blossomed across the surface, and I took note of similarly coloured blemishes splattered across cryptic symbols carved straight into the stone floor, like fresh wounds over old scars. A lantern hung from a thick chain over the center of the altar, the source of the preternatural blue light.

To the right, the walls were obscured entirely by crude shelving and cupboards, as though someone over many years assembled them here. They were bloated with containers with faded labels and strange specimens suspended in murky fluids, with jars of colourful powders and stoppered vials of dark liquids. No surface was without books. Thick tomes and countless leather journals, filling shelves end to end, piled sideways, amassed on the floor. David immediately grabbed three and flipped through them furiously on a table covered in strange, spiraling glass tubing and grimy burners.

I passed the altar to the opposite wall, my fingers drifting across the stains, towards another table adorned with fine-edged metal tools, the twisted cousins of a surgeon’s repertoire, yet somehow seeming more advanced, more innovative. Though most were rusted and unfamiliar to me, I knew with proper maintenance and a steady hand these devices could be quite deadly, or perhaps even allow for the prolonged exploration of the body before life gave way. I glanced at the small cages piled beside the table and the many chains that terminated in shackles hanging on the walls.

I was holding one of these strange tools to the pale light, its shape vaguely reminiscent of a spile used to tap maple trees, when David gasped behind me.

I was swift to his side. “What is it?”

The words burst from him as if he’d been set aflame from within. “The-there was a man, a-a student here, years ago, and he was doing incredible work. These experiments, these tests, all this research! And he left everything behind!” He shot off a litany of Latin words, their meanings strange and nonsensical to me, though I later realized he was listing the names of the rare and hybrid herbs and concoctions adorning the shelves. David turned to the altar, mouth open in awe, a glazed reverence in his eyes. “I could continue all this work, the Work. I could become great, renowned…” David’s voice trailed off as his fingers grazed the faded yellow pages. “I could wield ultimate power over death.”

I’d known in an instant that he was great, had been born into this world exceptional and without equal, that simply to be near him would be enough. I’d pledge my servitude to him, swear my very life, make him my true faith, if only to assist him and exist in his shadow. David had found his purpose in this room, as I had found mine up above.

“What can I do to help?”

We conducted his first experiment that night.

I found the rat, crouched in a shadowy corner beneath the altar, and snapped its neck. I laid the still warm corpse supine upon the altar while David collected tools and prepared the elixir. I could hardly acknowledge the thrill of the creature’s death, barely noted its final wheezing breaths. I was suddenly nervous, giddy with anticipation like a new bride on her wedding night, but I would perform my duty for him.

It would be the first time I’d show anyone the truth of myself.

The odd devices were cool against my palms and weighty, coated in a gritty film of dust, and the blades did not slide with ease as they might once have into the thin flesh of the rat. It was delicate work with rough tools. I succumbed to déjà vu, waves of memories of my own first experiments in childhood, how clumsy I was then. Then, years later, when I was the first to finish peeling apart the cold frog in science class, with the most precise incisions and overly detailed diagrams. The way my fellow students looked at me then, so different to the way David looked at me.

It was as though I’d presented a shy girl with the finest flowers on her very first date, a bountiful bouquet with promises of yet more gifts to come. The way he beamed rather than balked at my silent confession. It was in that moment I recognized I could never chance letting him go.

Our first time was at once halting and awkward, eager and sincere, and ultimately a failure. The rat was still, the stone greedily drinking its residual heat and oozing blood. But through the experience, the mutual discovery of that sacred lab, we were bound to each other, to a greater purpose.

David, to the pursuit of reanimation, and I, to him.

I started to believe there was no such thing as me before David, as if I was born in that dusty library, as if every day before was spent in a forge in which I was molded and beat into a shape perfect for David’s hands, another tool for him to wield in his work.

It frustrated me so fiercely that he was becoming distracted from the Work only weeks later. He’d met someone. A mousy girl, leagues away from his intelligence and importance. His, our, precious time was wasted with her on coffee dates and study sessions in her dorm on evenings he should have been with me in our lab.

She fawned over him, of course, but I was made for David, made for his work. We were each other’s beacons in the darkness, and this girl had led him down a dark path.

She was a simple girl with a simple routine and liked to walk to her dorms in the evenings, taking a shortcut through the forest by the lakeside bordering the west side of campus. Ever a student, I was fascinated to observe the transformation of something human to simply a prey creature, the moment she became aware of a second pair of boots crunching in the thin layer of snow behind her.

The growing panic in her voice when she started begging. 

The way her breathing shallowed, punctuated with the occasional squeaking breath.

The way her nails bled in the snow as she scrabbled for a rock to bash against my temple.

The way her pulse sputtered rapid and frantic beneath my fingers before finally ceasing.

My pulse roared in my ears, my core molten. Now David would no longer be distracted. I’d be ever at his side over Christmas break, and by springtime he’d all but forget the girl had ever existed. 

The very last frosts of melted winter away. Students drifted through hallways between classes, abuzz with frenetic energy at the approach of final exams. David and I hardly concerned ourselves with such pedestrian issues, having already learned more valuable knowledge below the foundations of this institution than they might ever hope to deliver up above.

We had conducted a dozen experiments, each a failure. Our fingertips were beginning to stain with the ashes of the burnt herbs. But David still seemed distracted, and he confessed the worse to me one day.

David missed her. He was preoccupied with heartbreak like any common man. Worst yet, he asked me if I’d heard from her, if she’d spoken to me. Not even when I was snuffing the light from her eyes did I say a word to that verminous wretch.

A rage incandescent burned in my chest, and I’d half mind to grip David’s skull and pound it into the dirt until I saw his brilliant brain matter. Even in death she was disturbing David’s mind. How could he have allowed himself to become so distracted from the Work, from us? What desire could she fulfill that the Work couldn’t, that I couldn’t?

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked, an unbearable pity in his voice.

Those words chilled me, my anger icy and turned inward in an instant. No, David could do no such thing. He was incapable of the very concept of wrong. My stomach twisted violently. I’d made a horrible mistake. I’d hurt him. I could think of only one solution, and now matter how much my very being repulsed at the idea, I had to fix this. If he felt he needed her, so be it.

“Meet me in the lab tonight,” I said.

I could still make this right.

We had long since grown used to the bitter smell which had seeped into the stones but tonight a fresher rot leached up the stairs. David eyed me with anticipation, a smile on his mouth. I felt I could weep, whether for joy or despair I did not know.

We reached the bottom of the stairs, and I entered the lab, but David stood frozen, one foot on the steps leading back up, one on the floor of the lab we had spent countless hours in together. He began to tremble, his eyes locked on the altar.

Winter had frozen the ground solid, so I had been unable to bury the girl’s body, completely discounting the lake for risk of it being found. Instead, I covered it with whatever forest detritus I could find. That had, of course, worked only so well. I suspected much of the bloating and damage of the corpse occurred once spring warmed the frozen flesh and awoke the sleeping animals of the forest. Various insects and rodents had eaten away at her eyes, leaving only empty blackened sockets. There was a hole in her cheek through which her molars were visible, her swollen tongue spreading her jaws apart.

“David,” I said. “Where would you like to begin?”

His mouth opened but no words came out, only a long low groan. He stumbled forward, catching himself on the edge of the altar, careful not to touch the swollen gray flesh.

“What have you done?” David said, his voice low.

I frowned. “You’ve been wishing for a human specimen for so long, and you seemed upset at her… disappearance.” I moved to rest a hand on his shoulder. “Two birds.”

David shuddered and released another groan. “Sick…” he muttered. “You’re sick…”

Before I could process the sting of his words, he whirled. His fist collided against my jaw, sending me spinning into my table of tools. The clang of metal falling against stone rang endlessly in my ears as my mouth filled with blood.

David lunged for me, sending us both tumbling to the floor. He ended up on top, his knees bracing my hips, his slender hands wrapped around my throat. I looked into his eyes as they filled with tears, the gray walls of the lab fading away. He would regret this. I knew it. Already he was mourning me.

My fingers found the long-tipped scalpel easily, the cool metal distinct from rough stone. I watched his face a moment longer, tears already rolling down his handsome face. It had to be overwhelming to be so vital to the world. Surely this had all become to much for him, he was simply lashing out. I couldn’t bear to let him hurt any longer.

David gasped, soft and surprised, as the blade slid between his ribs and punctured his lung.

Immediately his grip loosened, and he swayed on top of me. His gaze held mine, and I smiled as his eyes went glassy, his skin taking a sickly pallor. I half expected a golden ichor to come pouring forth, but his blood was red, almost black in the strange blue light of the lab.

Slowly, he tipped to one side and collapsed. I pulled his head to my lap, resting my hand on his chest, warming as I learned that David and I shared the same heartbeat, until that too slowed. Then stopped.

David often suspected we shared a star-crossed fate, but to me it was fate all the same. And it wasn’t as though our story was over. The lab was well-stocked, and I’d observed David perform the Work a dozen times. His existence alone was a gift I could never hope to reciprocate, but this I could do for him.

David would live, and I would never be alone again.

November 09, 2023 20:47

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.