It wasn’t even supposed to come here. Fool thing was supposed to hit that cold front and take a hard right for Mississippi. We would have gotten some gusty wind, maybe a little rain, nothing we couldn’t handle. But by the time they updated the forecast models, by the time they showed the storm of the century bearing down on our town, it was too late.
Some people tried to get out of course. Some of them even made it. But some of them are still out there, stuck in their cars, caught in a grisly traffic jam in one hundred and fifty mile per hour winds.
They probably think they’ve got it bad. They have no idea.
I’ve been through enough of these to know how it goes. I knew I couldn’t make it out. And even if I could, I figured I’d be safer here, riding it out, keeping an eye on the old place. I’ve been through storms before. This house has been through the worst of them and not suffered more than a little roof damage. Sure, the power would go out, but it’d be better to be buttoned down here in a familiar place than to be packed in with hundreds of strangers and their screaming kids.
That’s what I told myself.
I thought I was ready for anything. I put the boards up against the windows, filled a couple of gallon jugs with tap water, and checked the batteries in my radio and flashlights. I ate the rest of the ice cream in the freezer and packed the meat under several bags of ice in a foil-lined cooler. It wouldn’t keep forever, but that was okay. I’d reckoned I’d be cooking out for the rest of the week, use the rest of it up before it spoiled.
And when everything was in order I sat myself down in my armchair with a flashlight by my side, and prepared to wait it out.
The wind picked up outside, roaring and moaning in ever more powerful gusts. The lights flickered at first, but for a while the power held.
You can’t survive without planning. That’s my motto. A life lived without a plan is no life at all. I planned for all the contingencies. I was ready for this.
That’s what I told myself.
But then…I don’t know, I started to feel…off. I think that’s the right word. Off.
Something wasn’t right in the house.
I get that feeling sometimes, you know? Like I’ve forgotten something? That gnawing terror somewhere in your gut that I’d forgotten some important detail, left something behind I shouldn’t have, let some loose end flap in the wind. And now the wind was terrible, and deadly.
I checked my flashlight for what must have been the third time since the storm started. I don’t like to be in the dark. Never. I sleep with a lamp on. I even have one of those tiny Mag-light flashlights attached to my key ring, just in case.
The gnawing terror grew in intensity with the storm, a silent nameless fear, as if the very walls around me might reach out and lay a cold hand on my shoulder, and even with the wind gusting with ever greater intensity, the house was too quiet. From every shadow, I felt eyes unseen watching me.
I told myself it was all in my head, that it had been too long since I’d had my medicine.
I don’t like to go the doctor.
I don’t like the way they look at me.
The storm was in full force, and the lights were flickering with increasing regularity, when I heard a crashing THUD in the kitchen. It was so loud I though that something had hit the outside of the house, and I bolted up out of my chair to see what it had been.
Of course I couldn’t see outside the house, because I had boarded over all the windows. I keep precut plywood on hand for just this eventuality. You have to plan ahead, don’t let yourself get sloppy.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see outside. The thud had been the sound of the cooler bouncing off the wall. Something had picked it up and thrown it against the wall so hard the hardwood paneling had cracked, and it lay open on the floor, meat and ice and blankets all spilled across the white tile in my kitchen.
For a moment I was frozen to the spot. A dozen terrible thoughts crackled through my mind at once.
Someone was in the house with me. But no, how could there be? The windows were boarded up, and the bolts and padlocks on my doors were all carefully checked and double checked.
I was alone. I had to be alone.
I looked down at the cooler and it’s contents spilled across the floor, each package carefully wrapped in white butcher paper.
I thought I heard a familiar scream.
And then the lights went out.
I made a scramble for the living room, but my feet slipped in water from the melting ice and I found myself face down on the floor with two dozen frozen packages of meat. I tried to get up again, but it was hard to regain my footing in the slippery mess. The sound of the scream came again, closer this time, or maybe louder, I don’t know.
My heart was pounding in my chest and my breath came fast and shallow. My lungs heaved for air, but it was suddenly hard to breath.
An asthma attack, some distant part of my brain informed me. I was having an asthma attack.
I finally managed to get my feet under me and hobbled to the living room.
I stumbled in the darkness, and my hand went out in front of me, to steady myself. I collided with the table where the flashlight sat, and a moment later I heard something hit the floor with a thin “crack.”
The wind howled outside, pelting the side of the house with rain drops as big as acorns.
I scrabbled forward, trying the reach the flashlight, but when my fingers finally found it and pressed the button nothing happened.
There was a sound I couldn’t quite make out, a whisper in the roaring, and it chilled my heart to the core. Breathing was still hard and I could feel my head getting fuzzy. I had to get to my inhaler. I had to get to a light. Both were upstairs. There was a battery operated camping lamp that I had placed next to my bed and my inhaler was in the medicine cabinet.
The whisper came again, closer now. I thought I could almost understand it. I didn’t want to understand.
I crawled on hands and knees toward where I thought the stairs would be, and cracked my head against a wall. Spots swam in the blackness of my vision.
I stopped a moment, trying to gasp in just one full breath of air, but my lungs felt as if they were turning slowly to stone.
I staggered down the hall. My hand found the light switch and flipped it by instinct, but of course nothing happened. A little further down the hall I felt the cool steel surface of the door to the guest bedroom.
Did I hear a thumping from inside? Did I feel a breath on my neck? Did I feel a dozen cold fingers closing around my arms and legs?
No, no no no NO!
Just my imagination. That’s all it was.
Up the stairs then, half crawling, my muscles burning as if I had been exerting myself for hours, the storm booming outside, and something whispering inside, and finally somehow I made it to the cabinet.
In the dark I fumbled past bottles of pills and band-aids and packs of razor blades feeling for the familiar shape of the inhaler. I brushed against something, heard it clatter to the floor and I dove after it. It felt right in my hand. I put the mouthpiece up to my lips and pressed down on the aerosol canister. It sprayed out in a weak puff, not enough, not nearly enough.
I thought I heard laughter, high-pitched and grating from somewhere down the stairs.
I squeezed again and again, sucking in puff after pathetic puff of months-old Albuterol. Finally the vice grip on my lungs loosened a little, enough for me to stand and not feel dizzy at least. I tried to calm myself, to regulate my breathing, but my heart was still hammering away jack hammer fast.
The light. I knew I had to have the light.
Everything would be okay if I could just push back the dark.
Somehow I made it into my bedroom. When my fingers found the lamp on my bedside table I almost squealed with joy. But my joy turned to terror when the knob turned and nothing happened. It was them. It had to be. They had escaped my nightmares and they were toying with me.
I heard that laughter in the dark once again.
I put the lamp back on the table, and setting it down, I heard the rattle of my keys underneath.
My keys. The flashlight. I grabbed them up and twisted the tiny focusing knob on the Mini Maglight. A weak yellow beam trickled out, spilling across the rumpled covers of my unmade bed.
I turned, and the uncertain light fell on something in the corner, a figure standing with one arm outstretched at me. It’s face…no there were faces, flickering and changing in the shadows. But I knew them. I knew them all.
And with a voice that was one and many, the thing in the corner said, “Come play with us.”
I staggered back as if I had been hit.
No, no, no.
What does it want from me?
The thing took a step forward, and spoke the same words again, and in that voice of voices the power of the storm howled.
That howl grew to a crescendo, and then something cracked and moaned and splintered and the ceiling started to peel free of the bedroom. Water and leaves and debris poured in through the opening and the wind tore at more of the roof, ripping the whole ceiling of my bedroom away and exposing me to the furious sky beyond.
I ran. I ran to the safest room in the house, the guest bedroom, the one with the reinforced walls and the door of steel and the bare tile floor with a drain in the middle, and locked myself in.
Outside the door I could hear the wind making havoc of my home, tearing away at everything. I heard timber snapping and glass breaking. I felt the walls of the guest bedroom shudder. But the room held.
I thought I was safe. I thought I had beaten them. But when the wind finally died down I tried the door and found it wedged tightly shut. And then I understood.
I’ve been here for three days now. No water. No food. And the sweltering heat of the summer sun has turned this place into an oven.
I want to think that someone will come looking for me, but the truth is the house is too remote. I will die here in this room, forgotten. Just as my playmates died.
I know better than anyone, there is no escape from this room. After all, I designed it that way.
I can hear them laughing. I can feel them waiting for me.
Someone will find the house eventually, but they’ll never find the truth. They will never dig up my treasures in the woods.
They’ll never suspect that the meat spoiling on the floor of my kitchen is anything more than rotting pork.
Such a shame it went to waste.
Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.