Time-Delay

The door-to-door salesman opened his case and pulled out what looked to be a pair of scissors with a cylinder attached.

“These are perfect for cutting hair. The blades never dull, and the tube vacuums up the hair as you cut.”

“I don’t cut my own hair.” I didn’t remember letting him in. He knocked, and the next thing I knew we were sitting on the couch as he tried to sell me useless gadgets.

“Well, then, how about this . . .”

“What’s that?” I pointed to a small, otherwise plain-looking box that had three buttons on it. It looked like a miniature traffic light as the red button lit up, followed by the green, and then the yellow, before returning to the red.

“Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that. This, however . . .”

“But I am interested. What is it?”

The man sighed and pulled out the box. “This is a Time-Delay. Some want us to call it a ‘Start-Clock’, but that’s silly. It really is nothing more than a parlor trick. Someone of your standing . . .”

“What does it do?”

The energetic – and saccharine – charisma had drained from his voice. “It stops time.”

“You’re kidding. How could this stop time?”

“I’m just the salesman, not the inventor. But I assure you, it works.”

“Prove it.”

“Very well.” The man reached out and waited. When the red button lit up, he pressed it.

Nothing had changed, but he sat back as though the demonstration was over.

“When does time stop?”

“It already has. And started again.”

“I didn’t notice anything.” As I had suspected, this was all a joke.

“Of course you didn’t notice anything: time was stopped. Being in time, you were stopped as well.”

“That’s a convenient excuse.”

“Check your back pocket.”

I never put anything in my back pocket, so I was surprised when i discovered a driver’s license. It was the salesman’s.

“How . . . ?”

“While time was stopped, I placed it in your pocket.”

“Why weren’t you stopped?”

“Because I pressed the button.”

“That’s incredible!”

“Not really. It just . . .”

Eager to test it myself, I reached out and pressed the red button. The salesman seemed to freeze in place. Realizing the opportunity before me, I closed the salesman’s case and put both him and it outside. They were both light as a feather, a side effect of the time stopping, I guess. I locked the door and turned back to my prize.

Since I had seen his hand come back from pressing the red button, I reasoned that that was the trick to start time moving again. To test it, I took a pen and held it high. When I let go of it, it stayed where it was, suspended in mid-air. Upon pressing the red button again, the pen fell to the floor.

So if the red button caused time to stop and restart, what did the other two buttons do? The traffic light appearance might mean that the yellow button slowed time down, but that seemed redundant. Why slow time if you could stop it? But I couldn’t even guess what the green button did.

As I considered the possibilities, the salesman (or someone) began banging on the door. If I hadn’t stolen the box, I assume I could have asked what the other buttons did, but it was too late for that.

Instead, I took the risk and pressed the green button. My consciousness seemed to speed forward several days. Several people were in the room with me. They used some sort of device which caused me a great deal of pain before reducing me to ash. I felt every moment of it.

When I recovered enough to realize I was back in my present, I picked up the box, opened the door, and shoved it into the salesman’s hands. Then I started packing. I’m not sure what I saw, but I was going to get as far away from my house as possible.

MAKE A WISH

Standing at just over six feet, the grey object looked like a vending machine but with some differences. It had a coin slot and an area for dispensing items; however, the front was not a glass window but an opaque, grey surface, just like the sides. There were no markings anywhere to serve as clues as to the object’s function. Only a low hum and a dim glow coming from somewhere inside indicated anything remarkable about it.

A man walked into the alley where the machine sat. He lit a cigarette and leaned back against a brick wall. On the other side of that wall, the man’s wife lay dying in a hospital bed. The alley was far enough from the hospital’s entrance so he could smoke.

As he was lighting a second cigarette from the butt of the first one, he noticed the hum. Maybe it was the quiet of the night, but the machine sounded louder than it did when he first stepped into the alley. Walking to the front of it, green lights had appeared which spelled out: MAKE A WISH.

Was this a collection box for that charity? It looked more like one of those smart refrigerators, but there didn’t seem to be any way to open it. Noticing the coin slot, he fished around his pockets for any loose change. In his back left pocket, which he never used, he found a quarter. Feeling lucky, he put the coin into the slot.

Immediately, there was a rattle in the change tray. Sure enough, the quarter was there. The front of the machine began flashing: YOU MUST FIRST MAKE A WISH.

This felt like a cruel joke. Who would put a machine like this near a hospital? Trying to profit off of getting people’s hopes up. But he didn’t think he had anything to lose. There was really only one thing he wished for: he didn’t want his wife to die.

When that thought crossed his mind, the words changed: HOW MUCH IS IT WORTH TO YOU?

His wife meant everything to him; he would give all that he had to save her life.

The letters changed once more: PLEASE DEPOSIT A QUARTER.

Again, he put the quarter into the coin slot.

* * *

A small item fell into the dispensing area. Pulling it out, he discovered it was a small box containing a single pill. Very small letters on the package read: Give to patient with water.

A different alley. A different time.

A woman, who looked to be in her early thirties, peered into the dimness and caught sight of the grey machine. She stood in front of it, and, after hesitating, she reached out and gently brushed it. As she did, the front sprang to life, spelling out in green letters: MAKE A WISH.

“You’re real. You’re really real.” She backed up against the wall behind her and slid down until she was sitting on the pavement. “Of course, you had to be real. I know that. I just find it hard to believe I finally found you. I’ve been looking for so long.”

If the machine understood her, there was no indication. It’s front continued to show the same message.

“I’ve wondered if you know what you’re doing or just following some program. Do you care what happens to those who do make a wish?”

MAKE A WISH.

“So either you aren’t sentient, or you’re not going to tell me. Even if you were sentient, I wonder if you would know who I am.”

For years, she had thought about what she wanted to say if this moment ever came. Now that the machine was in front of her, she had to confront the possibility that her words didn’t matter. Still, even if it was only for herself, she pushed on.

“My husband found you many, many years ago. I think I’ve lost track of how much time has passed. Has it already been a century? He made a wish at your prompting.”

The words changed: NO REFUNDS.

“Does that mean you do understand? I wonder. But no, I’m not looking for a refund. I just want you to know what happened.”

She paused to take a few deep breaths.

“The pill you gave my husband worked, obviously. Everyone said it was a miracle, and it was, for a time. I was supposed to die; instead, my husband and I got to stay together. It was a mixed blessing, however.

“Soon after I recovered, he lost his job. Then the bank foreclosed on our home. All of our worldly possessions were gone. We lived for a time in a van I had gotten before we met. I would like to say we had each other and that was enough, but it’s not true. After several years of struggling, he gave up.

“Instead of me dying and leaving him, our positions were reversed.”

A few tears welled up in her eyes. As if they offended her, she angrily wiped them away.

“Don’t know why I would cry now. All of this happened so long ago.”

After taking another minute to compose herself, she continued.

“Before he died, he told me all about his wish and the details of the machine that had saved my life. In his suicide letter to me, he apologized for saving me only to subject me to a miserable existence.

“It was stupid of him. I never saw our additional time together as miserable, but he couldn’t stop seeing himself as a failure.”

She took a few more breaths trying to keep the tears at bay. During the silence, the words changed again: APOLOGIES.

“I’m not looking for an apology. You gave him what he asked for, and he paid the price he said he would. I don’t blame him or you. Neither of you could know how he would fare under the pressure of the price he set. What he never knew, what I only learned after his death, was that his wish – that I not die – seems to be permanent. I have spent decades looking for you because I am trapped. Immortality, especially without him, is a dismal prospect. I was hoping you could help.”

Green lights danced on the machine for a moment, and then spelled out: MAKE A WISH.

“Thank you. I wish you had never granted his wish.”

ARE YOU CERTAIN?

“I have never been more sure of anything.”

HOW MUCH IS IT WORTH TO YOU?

“My life. It is worth my life.” Maybe that was cheating, but it was also true.

The lights flashed longer than they had before. Finally: PLEASE DEPOSIT A QUARTER.

Letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, she placed a coin in the slot.

* * *

MAKE A WISH.

He fished around his pockets looking for a coin. Unsurprisingly, he came up empty. When was the last time he had carried any cash? His second cigarette at its end, instead of lighting a third, he decided to go back and spend what time she had left by her side.

The Reason Why

“I need you to do something for me.”

The words sent shivers down my spine. The things he needed me to do were always bloody.

“Who?”

He tossed an envelope onto the desk. “Those are the details. No special circumstances, other than making it messy.” The discussion over, he waved me away.

* * *

“So you see, I don’t really want to do this.” The target and I were sitting across from one another at his kitchen table.

“Don’t do it, then.”

My gun was sitting on the table in front of me, and he kept stealing glances at it. He would have to be extremely fast to grab it.

“If I don’t, then he’ll kill me and just send someone else to kill you. We’ll both wind up dead.”

“Maybe the next person he sends will have the same misgivings.”

“I suppose that’s possible.” It wasn’t. I knew a number of the others too well.

“How about, I run away? Never come back. You can just tell him you killed me.”

His desperation was palpable. I wish there really were some way out.

“Won’t work. I need to make sure he reads about it in the paper. That requires a lot of blood.”

He jumped up and began yelling. “If there isn’t an alternative, why are you bothering to talk to me?”

I tapped the gun to get him to sit back down. Once he did, I spoke again. “It’s weird. People usually go through anger and then grief. The order isn’t set in stone, but it’s just odd seeing it backwards like this.”

“Are you just looking for me to absolve you? To forgive you?”

“No.” Now that he brought it up, it suddenly seemed very likely to me. “I just wanted to take a minute to process my feelings.” That was particularly stupid sounding.

“Couldn’t you have done that after I’m dead? Instead of torturing me by prolonging it?”

“It’s good to have someone to talk these sorts of things over with, you know?” I don’t know why I was trying to justify myself to him.

“Do you know why he wants me dead?”

“No.”

“Well, let me tell you, then.”

“I don’t want to hear it. Knowing the reason could make it harder to kill you, if it makes me sympathize with you. It might also make it easier, if you did something terrible. But I don’t want to kill out of anger. You know?”

“You’re going to kill me without even knowing why?”

“Probably.”

“I think that let’s you off too easily.”

I just shrugged. I could see why he thought so, but it didn’t change my mind.

“Here’s what happened. I was . . .”

Before he could say anything more, I picked up the gun and shot him in his face. The impact knocked him backwards on to the floor. I stood up, walked over to his body, and shot him in the chest.

I really don’t like knowing the reason why I have to do what I do.

Respite, Interrupted

Sarah had taken the relative quiet of recent months to return to her research. Unlike the other members of the house, she always wanted to make noteworthy contributions to magical knowledge. It wasn’t about making a name for herself, or at least, it wasn’t about just that. There was a tradition, and she wanted to be part of it in a substantial way.

Most mages with her gift focused exclusively on illusions, and Sarah excelled at them. However, there had to be something more, the opposite effect. If the gift could conceal, could it not also reveal? Dispelling illusions was common enough, but her research focused on finding techniques for sharpening the senses, allowing her to notice things otherwise hidden.

Now that things in the house had settled into a new equilibrium, she had some time to get back to this work. Settling into her new role, she had finally begun to relax a little. When she had run the house under Thomas, she always felt him watching her, judging her decisions. Trying to run his house was very different than running her own. The responsibility felt less oppressive; she could look after the well-being of the members without worrying that someone might overrule her. In gaining more responsibility, it had become less of a burden.

There were changes to get used to besides her own. Since the time-travel incident, Thomas had become even more reclusive, which was the exact opposite of what she wanted. For now, though, he didn’t seem to be causing any new problems. On the other hand, Julia was much more social than she had ever been.

Sarah had to constantly remind herself that Julia had had fifteen years to grow, to change, while the rest of the house didn’t even have time to absorb her absence. In effect, she was now the oldest mage in the house, and it was a bit jarring. As she explained it, she had actually missed everyone, and that’s when she realized she wanted to be a member of the house.

There were other matters to attend to, such as finding a new member to fill the hole Jason’s death had left, but those could wait. For now, she was enjoying her research and could forget the problems of the house.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. “Sarah? It’s Julia. We might have a problem.”

Placing the book she was reading onto the small table next to her armchair, Sarah sighed and rose to open the door.

“Please tell me we’re out of milk or something of that sort.” She knew Julia wouldn’t have bothered her over such a trivial matter, but she clung to hope.

“I’m sorry, no. I had a portal accompanying David on his visit to that other magic shop. It was forcibly closed, and I haven’t been able to reopen it.”

“You think something happened to David?”

“If only that was all it was. I haven’t been able to open any portal outside of the house. To anywhere.”

Sarah quickly understood the implication. “We’ve been surrounded by a barrier?”

“It seems so.”

“Do you know how long?”

“Only the last five minutes at most. My portal was fine until then.”

“Get Rebecca. I’ll retrieve Thomas. Meet in the kitchen as soon as you can.”

Julia nodded and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Was this finally the consequence of Thomas’s time experimentation? Attacks on houses were uncommon, but not unheard of. Thomas’s own experience was just one example. Sarah hoped he had come up with some idea for how to survive this.

Following a Lead

The shop was small and dark, with only a few lights at the edges of the room. A short, middle-aged man greeted David from behind a counter.

“Hello, sir. Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“Just browsing.”

“Okay. Let me know if have any questions.” The man sounded friendly, but David didn’t trust him. Evil didn’t announce itself.

“Are you seeing all this?” David whispered towards the small portal on his shoulder.

“Shh,” was the only response.

The store was full of trinkets that one would expect to find in a place like this: charms, crystals, and potions were the most common bits. It all appeared to be harmless, though David couldn’t tell for certain what, if anything, was real. On a shelf, one peculiar statue caught his eye. Only six inches high, it depicted some sort of sea creature he didn’t recognize.

“What’s this?”

The man looked up. “That? It’s supposed to be some sort of deity. Ancient. From somewhere in the Pacific, I think.”

“You don’t know?”

“I get a lot of stuff. It’s hard to keep track of all of it. I figure someone will recognize it and buy it. If not, it’s still an interesting piece.”

“I suppose.” David was confused. Wasn’t he a mage? How could he not know what he was selling. Had Mark lied to him about getting the box here in spite of his terror? He decided to be more direct and walked up to the counter.

“Actually, I am looking for something, I suppose. Something that will scare someone. Not hurt them, just scare them. Do you have anything like that?”

The man stared at him, weighing some sort of judgment.

“Who are you?” He eventually asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you a cop? Trying to get me to admit to selling dangerous stuff?”

“No, I . . .”

“This is all just for fun. People come in here looking for baubles, something to believe in, to give them a sense of security or to play at being wizards. Whatever. If you’re a cop, either charge me with something or get out. And if you’re not a cop, just get out.”

His anger took David by surprise. He turned and left in stunned silence.

“That was quite a performance.” Having forgotten about her portal, Julia’s voice started David.

“You think he was lying?”

“That’s one possibility. Another is that he’s selling things without knowing what they are. Or your client’s ex lied to you. Which do you think is more likely?”

“I’m not sure. Mark seemed truly scared, so I have trouble believing he would lie. But this guy seemed genuine as well.”

“Do you want me to . . .” Julia’s voice abruptly cut off.

“Julia?” There was no indication that her portal was still open.

David looked around but saw nothing that would explain the portal’s closing. He had already walked about a block from the magic store. Could the owner have done something? But why? That would only have raised David’s suspicions even higher.

Fearing something had gone wrong, David began to hurry back to the house.

Simulation 1218

“Hey, I need you to look at simulation 1218.”

“Why? Did they figure out that it’s a simulation?”

“No. . . Well, I mean some people have guessed it, but they’ve largely been dismissed as conspiracy theorists.”

“Then what is it?”

“Just take a look.”

“Looks normal to me. Hey, that one group finally has a leader that isn’t white.”

“Yes. This was ten years ago, their time.”

“Okay . . .”

“Let me skip ahead . . . Here. This is what it looks like in their present.”

“What the . . . What am I looking at?”

“Their civilization appears to be regressing.”

“That’s impossible.”

“It should be, according to our theory. That’s why I brought it to your attention.”

“Did something happen? Some extra variable introduced into the code?”

“As far as I can tell, no. I haven’t found any evidence of tampering.”

“So they regressed organically?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

“Do you have any idea what this is going to mean for our funding?”

“Not good, I’m sure.”

“Indeed. Okay, let’s explore this a bit. Any idea how this happened? Was it backlash against progress?”

“That’s possible. I’d like to test that.”

“How?”

“I want to copy this simulation and run different scenarios. Artificially make changes and try to isolate the cause.”

“That would be a good idea, but we don’t have the resources to run yet another simulation. Also, while I want to figure out what happened, we need to figure out what to do now, whether and how to help 1218. Do we intervene?”

“I’m a lab assistant. I can work on problems, but that decision is outside my expertise.”

“Have you fast-forwarded to see where all this is headed?”

“That exceeds my authority, too.”

“Okay, let me do it.”

“If you fast forward, aren’t you locking in that future? Shouldn’t you decide whether you’re going to intervene first?”

“You’re right. . . . I need to consult with someone. Until I get back, keep the simulation running at quarter speed. I don’t want them to get too far ahead.”

“Will do.”

“Ugh. Reactionaries. Messing up their own society as well as my research. I wish I could delete the whole thing.”

“But . . .”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that. Not yet, anyway.”

Punishment

David knocked on the front door of the house. After a few seconds, a man who looked to be in his 30s answered.

“Hello. Are you Mark?”

“Who are you?”

At that moment, the man’s eyes widened as he noticed the box David was holding, and he tried to close the door. Before it fully shut, David stuck his foot across the threshold to keep it open.

“So you recognize the box. Do you know what happened to your ex-wife?”

“I didn’t do anything!”

The force resisting David’s foot eased, and he shoved it wide open. The man had backed away several feet from the door.

“So you didn’t put this box in Jennifer’s basement?”

“Get out of my house!”

David took a step towards him. “Do you know what happened to her?”

“Leave me alone.” His voice had become almost a whimper.

“You know what’s inside the box? Should I show you?”

Shaking uncontrollably, the man crumpled to the floor.

David crouched down near him. “Where did you get it?”

His sobbing suggested he hadn’t summoned the horror himself. But he must have some idea of what had been in it. David needed to find out who gave it to him.

“Your ex-wife killed herself. Because of this box. Because of you.”

“No, no, no . . .”

“Yes. Where did you get it?”

“I just wanted to scare her . . .”

His terror was making it difficult to get anywhere, so David stood up and walked back to the door. After he put the box out of sight behind an end table, he crouched down next to Mark once more. He opened his hands to show that they were empty.

“The box is gone, for now. Take a moment to compose yourself.”

After taking a few deep breaths, Mark seemed to calm down a little.

“You can’t prove I did anything.”

“I suppose not. But I can leave the box here for you. Or you can tell me where you got it.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“Why not? Is there something bad about the box?”

“It’s . . . Well . . . No, I mean . . .”

“Just tell me, and I’ll leave you alone with whatever guilt you feel.”

“There’s a place. Downtown. It sells . . . things.”

David held out a notebook and a pen. “Address.”

Mark quickly wrote down an address.

“If this isn’t right, I will come back.”

“It’s right. I swear.”

“Good.” David walked over and picked up the box. “Here.” He tossed the box to Mark who scrambled backwards away from it. The box hit the floor and opened. Mark screamed and covered his eyes.

“It’s empty. I wouldn’t subject anyone to a horror. Even you. Sadly for Jennifer, she married someone who doesn’t have the same respect for others. I have recorded all of this, however, and I’m sure the police will have questions.”

Unsure of how much longer he could keep his anger in check, David left without waiting for a response. Since Mark didn’t seem to be a mage, he would let others handle him. It was better than he deserved.

The Cure (part two)

“You want me to do what?”

David couldn’t tell if Rebecca was confused or irritated. “I need you to connect me to someone else’s mind, so I can try to undo the damage caused by a horror.”

Clearly skeptical, Rebecca just stared at him.

“I figure, if I can get into her mind, I can use my own training to strengthen her against the madness.”

“Are sure the horror hasn’t driven you mad?”

“Rebecca, please . . .”

“First Thomas, and now you. If everyone is in such need of a mental specialist, we should recruit one. I am a spirit mage. There is some overlap, but this isn’t really my forte.” She didn’t sound upset so much as helpless.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but I have no one else I can ask. I just need you to get me in. I can take it from there.”

“You know I’m not prepared for this, and I’m not just talking about specialties. I have no training in dealing with horrors. What if the madness spreads to me?”

“That won’t happen.”

“Are you certain? You’ve done this before?”

“Well . . . no, I haven’t. But horrors can’t infect others through an intermediary.”

“David.” She sounded a bit like Samuel. “Even if it’s not dangerous for me, what about you? I’m not comfortable with the idea of helping you do something so risky.”

“I know this seems foolish, but this woman came to me for help. She doesn’t deserve this. I have to at least try.”

Rebecca was silent for a minute, perhaps considering his plea. “You know, I may not be able to do it. This really isn’t my area.”

“I know, but we can try. Thank you.”

She sighed and followed him. As they turned the corner onto the block with Jennifer’s house, they saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. David ran to the house just as the ambulance doors slammed shut. Jennifer’s sister, Sue, was standing in front, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“What happened?”

Gesturing at the ambulance as it drove away, Sue replied, “I left her alone for just a minute. She seemed better . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she began sobbing. David tried to console her, but she shoved him away violently.

“You said you would help her! Where were you?!” Sobs again wracked her body.

David started to explain but stopped himself. The last thing she needed was to hear him make excuses. Rebecca arrived and gently pulled him away from the inconsolable woman.

There was still a police officer on the scene taking notes. David walked over to him.

“Can I ask what happened?”

The officer looked up. “Who are you?”

“A friend of Jennifer’s.”

“Her sister seemed pretty angry at you.”

“I had promised to help, but I took to long to get here.”

“How were you going to help a suicidal woman? You a therapist?”

“Something like that.”

“What did you say your name was?”

Before David could respond, the radio on the officer’s shoulder began making an inhuman shrieking sound. The officer covered his ears involuntarily, then ran to his car, which was making the same noise.

With the officer distracted, Rebecca again came up to David and led him away.

“Did you do that?” He asked.

Rebecca smiled. “Spirits love messing with electronics. It doesn’t take much encouragement.”

The rest of the walk back to the house was quiet. David was lost in his own thoughts, and Rebecca seemed unwilling to interrupt him. Just before they went inside, though, she stopped him.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Why does it feel like it is?”

“Because you care. But you can’t save everyone.”

“You sound like my guide, Samuel.”

“He must be a very wise person.”

He gave a half-hearted chuckle, but he couldn’t forgive himself. Not yet.

The Cure? (part one)

“Hello, David. It is good to hear from you. How are you doing?”

David had contacted his old guide using the mental discipline Samuel had taught him years ago. Given Samuel’s knowledge of horrors, he seemed the most likely to be able to help David with this current problem.

“Greetings, sir. I am well. And yourself?”

“We’ve talked about this. You have come into your own, and we are equals. No more ‘sir.’”

“Yes, sir. . . . Sorry.”

Samuel gave the impression of a chuckle. “Keep working at it. Now I doubt this is merely a courtesy conversation. What is troubling you?”

“I have encountered a horror.”

HIs guide’s presence lost all sense of light-heartedness. “Your mind is still intact?”

“Yes, s. . .” David caught himself. “I remember my training. The horror is rather small and weak; it is secure and poses no threat. However, the owner of the house where I found it was exposed. Her mind is deteriorating.”

“That is unfortunate. Was she a friend of yours?”

“No. Just someone I was trying to help.”

“Still, I am sorry about her fate.”

“I am hoping you would know how to reverse it.”

“Reverse it? There is no way to reverse the kind of mental damage done by a horror. Even a small one. I’m afraid she is beyond help.”

“That can’t be right. There must be something to be done.”

“If it were you, or someone who had your mental training . . . Maybe. But a lay person with no experience? She is lost.”

“I can’t accept that.”

“David,” Samuel had switched into his “teacher” voice. “I know I taught you that we don’t always win. That sometimes things happen which are beyond our control. If she has fallen victim to the madness, we are helpless. As difficult as it is, we need to acknowledge our own limitations.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are your own person now. I cannot tell you what to do; that is your decision. But if you still value my experience, you will take my advice, my advice as a peer, and let this go.”

“Thank you, s. . . Samuel. I do appreciate your advice.”

The connection between them ended, and David was left with his disappointment. One thing kept nagging at him, though. If there truly was nothing to be done, why bother warning him to let it go? If nothing would help, what was the harm in the attempt? Perhaps there was something that might work, something dangerous. But what?

Horror Madness

It was staring at him. Even frozen and inert, David could feel the horror staring at him. Was that even possible, or was he starting to go mad? He sat down to meditate, reinforce his mental defenses, but it was difficult to focus with it staring at him.

After studying it for weeks, there was little David had learned about the horror. It wasn’t very powerful, so it couldn’t have created a portal on its own. Someone had brought it over, but who and why? The creature itself provided no clues; he needed to go back to where he had found it.

The woman who answered the door was not the same one who had come to his shop that day.

“Hello. Is Jennifer here?”

The woman studied him carefully. “She’s resting. Not feeling well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Who are you?”

David began to feel a little exposed under her probing gaze. “I’m from the magic shop nearby. I helped her a few weeks ago, and I had some follow-up questions for her. But if she’s not feeling well . . . Just tell her David stopped by, and I’ll come back another time.” He turned to leave, but she stopped him.

“Come in. She’s back in the bedroom. Maybe you can help.”

“Help?”

“You should see for yourself.”

David followed the woman down a short hallway and through a doorway. Inside, lying on a bed, was Jennifer. Bandages were wrapped around her arms and her fingers, but she was smiling.

“You came back! Did you find the monster?”

The question puzzled him. They had talked weeks ago after he had captured the horror. “Yes, I did. Don’t you remember?”

“It’s fine. He’s a nice man.” Jennifer clearly wasn’t talking to him. Instead, she seemed to be looking at an empty corner of the room. Abruptly her attention focused back on him. “What did you do? Did you hurt him?” David had no idea what she was talking about.

She began scratching her left forearm, but the bandages rendered her attempts ineffective. After several seconds of trying, she managed to push the bandage on her arm down a little, revealing a jagged, ugly wound.

The other woman ran to the side of the bed and slapped Jennifer’s hand away from her arm. “If you keep this up, I’ll have to bind your wrists again.”

“But Sue, it itches!”

“I don’t care. I’ll put some more ointment on it in a bit.”

“You can’t. She’s my sister.” Jennifer was again addressing the empty corner.

Sue gave David a look of helpless desperation.

“How long has she been like this?”

“It started a few weeks ago, and she keeps getting worse. Talking to people who aren’t there. Saying disturbing things. Even trying to scratch her arms off.”

A few weeks ago would have been around the time he caught the horror. She must have seen more of it than he had realized.

“Jennifer, is there anyone who would want to hurt you?”

Sue appeared shocked. “You think someone did this to her?”

“I don’t know. I’m just trying to understand what happened.”

Jennifer was again smiling at him. “Why would anyone want to hurt me?”

Sue frowned. “What about Mark?”

“He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s always been so kind.”

“Who’s Mark?”

“He’s her ex. A real jerk. That’s even how she used to describe him. Before . . . But I can’t see him going so far as to hurt her like this.”

“Does he have access to the house?”

“I don’t think so. Jennifer moved here after their divorce, so he shouldn’t have a key. Do you think you can help her? Do you know what’s wrong with her?”

“I . . . I’m not sure. I am going to try, but I need to do a little research. Do you know where my shop is located? In case you need to get in touch with me?”

“Yes. She told me about it, about you, before . . .” Her voice trailed off, as though talking about her sister’s condition would make it even more real.

“I’ll be in touch. Soon. I will do whatever I can to help your sister.”

Sue nodded, but kept looking at Jennifer with concern. David left the house on his own. Was there anything he could do? He wasn’t sure, but he had to try.