Monday, 14 March 2016
Pass It On | A Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
Henry worked in an office. It was an ordinary office in an ordinary city where he was paid an ordinary wage to do ordinary things. For many this would have been tedious and frustrating, but not for Henry, because he too was ordinary, and he enjoyed being so. Life was predictable; get up at 7:00 A.M., shower for 15 minutes, toast two pieces of wholemeal bread, poach an egg, eat with a minimum of fuss, watch ten minutes of morning television, listen to an audio-book on the train, get to work, sandwich for lunch, back to work, home, watch a little TV, read something light, go to sleep, and repeat day-after-day.
He liked his weekends to be just as routine. On a Friday night after work he would treat himself to an Indian takeaway and a good film. Saturdays would be spent exploring some local car boot sales for items to add to his collection of old video games, while Sundays would be specifically put aside to play them. Life was simple for Henry, and he preferred it that way. Being mildly tainted with an obsessive compulsive streak, he avoided anything which would take him out of his comfort bubble and away from his routine. He always avoided the extraordinary, but on this day, the peculiarly extraordinary found him.
It was lunch time on an overcast Monday and Henry knew exactly where, what, when, and with whom he would be eating. He walked from his place of work along the usual route. Normally it would have taken him exactly 5 minutes and 32 seconds, but there had been a bad accident on Gladstone Road and due to this he had to take a slight detour. He was annoyed at first that his routine had been warped by something outside of his control, but on passing the closed-off street he could see a car mangled, sitting unceremoniously on a pavement, with members of the emergency services frantically attending en masse to the passengers. And so he continued on his way hoping that those who had been hurt would require only minimal medical attention.
After exactly 7 minutes and 24 seconds, he arrived at his destination only to once more be agitated by a change of routine. He always sat on the same bench in the city square for lunch, but on this day that would be impossible. His favourite spot had been snatched by an unscrupulous young couple who were, of all things, kissing each other. Henry stood momentarily, moving off in disgust when the couple took notice of him staring while they came up for air.
George square was an impressive place, not as large in scale as some city squares, but not without its charm, containing numerous blackened statues - which the city pigeons just adored - and surrounded on all sides by impressive 19th century architecture. It was one of Henry’s favourite places to sit; eating lunch, staring at the passers by, feeling an attachment to society, without having to actually be a part of it.
Surveying the scene of his discontent, Henry sat down on the only bench which hadn’t been commandeered by man, woman, child, or pigeon. Opening his black leather briefcase, he unwrapped the single part of his day which he could absolutely control: a ham and pickle sandwich covered in horseradish sauce, which he had made for himself that very morning. Chomping down hungrily on his masterpiece, he now took in the bustling heart of the city, and while he was not entirely keen on his new vantage point, he still took part in his favourite pastime of people watching.
His eyes moved through the crowds, jumping from one person to the next, as if turning the pages of his favourite book, imagining the stories each stranger had to tell. It was ironic really, for someone who had difficulty meeting new people, he was entirely captivated by them. A beautiful woman in a blue dress waiting in the doorway of a bar, most probably for a man much luckier than poor Henry - he was just not accomplished at meeting women - two teenage boys attempting to impress some girls of a similar age, sharing a cigarette they no doubt had stolen from an oblivious parent, and a city sweep cleaning the square; a hard working, honest woman, invisible to the office workers passing by in their preened and cleaned suits.
Henry smiled to himself. Who was he kidding? He was a suit too. That was in itself quite surprising, for just ten years earlier, he was the antithesis of the person he’d become. A light sprinkle of rain benignly tapped the end of his nose. Looking up, he hadn’t realised how clouded and dim the early afternoon had really become. Gazing back across the square, the beautiful lady in the blue dress still stood, waiting, occasionally glancing at her watch.
There was something about her...
‘He’s not coming’, Henry thought to himself. ‘And look at her. Beautiful.’
He didn’t exactly care for being a runner-up prize, but something had stirred in him. Something which took him entirely by surprise. Before he knew it, he had closed over his briefcase, packing away the remnants of his sandwich carefully. It was very strange, but now he was standing up. Perhaps it was the change in routine which had shaken him, but by God, Henry, a man obsessed with avoiding risk and sticking to his habits, was going to do something brash. He was going to walk over to the lady in the blue dress, now sheltering from the increasing rain, and ask if he could buy her a drink.
A feeling of exhilaration swept over him. With a deep breath and a moment to compose himself, he took two steps forward, not taking his eyes off of the increasingly beautiful woman in the doorway for a second. So engrossed was he, so single minded in his intent, that he did not see the old grey-bearded homeless man staggering towards him. Henry’s body noticed before he did as the old man lost his balance falling head first into his chest. With a jolt, he stumbled backwards slightly as the old man slid down his front, grasping at Henry’s clothes for dear life.
Managing to regain his footing, Henry twisted his body, using the old man’s weight to rest him gently onto the empty bench, but he would not release his grip. With a strength which betrayed his age, the old man pulled Henry’s face close to his own. The combined smell of alcohol on his breath and thousands of nights spent sleeping in the gutter, overwhelmed; it was all Henry could do to stop from gagging in the poor fellow’s face.
‘I’m so sorry’, the old man gasped. ‘So...so...sorry.’
His grasp on Henry’s suit jacket suddenly loosened. With a glazed stare, the old man slumped over, appearing motionless. Staring up at Henry through unkempt and straggled hair, was the lifeless corpse of one the city’s unfortunates. Panicking, he shook the man in vain, but he knew it was too late. Looking around, it amazed him that no one seemed to notice, or care; that another human being, a pensioner, had just died. Well, they could all go to hell: Henry cared. As he stared sombrely at the corpse before him, he thought to himself that he would notify the police and do everything to find out who the man was. Maybe he had some family somewhere.
It didn’t appear that there were any police officers in the square, but one thing Henry did notice; the woman in the blue dress was gone, either her suitor had appeared, or perhaps she had just went home.
‘Not to be’, he whispered to himself.
Something now caught his eye. Looking down at the old man, peeking out from under one of his clenched fists was a simple piece of paper. Instantly, Henry thought that it might have been of importance, for even in death the man clutched it as if it were his most prized possession. Easing the note from the dead man’s hand, he unravelled the scrunched up piece of paper, yellowed with age, and read its contents.
Puzzling, very puzzling. But what it could it mean?
As he pulled his phone from his inside pocket and began dialling the emergency services, wary feelings as if being observed by a hidden, unseen predatory watcher came over him. The phone did not seem to be dialling out, so again he tried, then once more, but the line was dead. Finally just as he was about to approach those nearby to ask if they could phone the police, Henry was floored by an entirely unexpected sight.
The old man’s body was gone.
He had vanished. How or by what means, Henry was unsure, but he had most certainly been dead. There was no doubt about that. The thought that he might have been going out of his mind did occur, after all he was quite aware that his compulsive, obsessive behaviour was a hindrance and that at times it teetered on the brink of becoming a serious psychological issue, but he was certain that he hadn’t cracked just yet.
No, that man was lying there dead, and was now gone – Henry knew it.
The unwelcome feeling of being watched returned, now far more intense than before. It was accompanied by a strange, sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, and for a moment Henry felt like he was going to vomit. As the sensation passed, it was replaced by a compulsion which now took him: to read the note once more, to take in its message. But he was still utterly perplexed by its contents.
The time had dragged on, and Henry would be damned if he were going to phone the police and tell them that a dead body had just vanished into thin air. Maybe it was stress. Maybe he had imagined the entire thing.
It was at that moment Henry noticed a strange individual on the other side of the square. He was far away, but there was something fearfully unique about him. The man stood as still as stone and it would have been easy to have mistaken him for one of the statues which littered the area, but he was most certainly a thing of flesh and blood. He wore a rather antiquated black suit, the style of which Henry was sure hadn’t been seen for many a decade, but although the suit was from another era, it was almost painfully familiar. With a long black coat which stopped just above the knee and a tall top hat upon his head, Henry was convinced that the man was dressed not unlike an undertaker.
He was in every sense of the word, a persona out of time.
Numerous office workers, tourists, and students wandered past the man, weaving their way through the enduring statues, busying themselves with the errands of an average life; many of whom crossed between Henry and his stagnant watcher, but the man remained still, as if unmoved by the background noise of any other, any other but for Henry.
From this distance the man’s features were unclear, and as the growing certainty grew to attest to the truth that this strange individual was watching Henry, other notable peculiarities became evident. The man was exceptionally tall, and if it were true that he was at least seven feet in height, Henry would not have been surprised. For the first time the man now intimated that he was indeed alive, and not a facsimile of life. Keeping his gaze fixed, he slowly slipped his hand into what looked like a waistcoat and produced a golden pocket watch which was connected to his person by a thin chain.
The sickness now returned, and he began to feel light headed as the strange undertaker continued looking down at his watch. Again, his thoughts focused on the note, and unravelling the yellowed paper, he still could not fathom the meaning of the simple message which it contained. But one thing he could comprehend, unless he was utterly mad, that note proved the dying man had existed.
It is often said amongst those who encounter the strangest of events that they know implicitly in their gut, in their very bones, when to flee. Even if no real logic seems to be at the foundation of such an action, an individual in a foreboding situation is compelled to run, compelled to escape whatever foul deed may be forthcoming. Henry was overcome by this very feeling, when his watcher swiftly closed the pocket watch and began marching forcefully towards him.
He had to run, he didn’t know why, but he had to get out of there.
Before he knew what he was doing, he had grabbed his leather briefcase and began running as quickly as he could away from the square, away from the hustle and bustle, and away from his pursuer. The streets flashed by at lightening speed. He had been running now for several minutes and in his pristine suit and heeled leather shoes, was already out of breath. After negotiating a crowd of gleeful shoppers, Henry rested for a moment in an old doorway leading up to several city flats.
As he caught his breath he began to once again doubt himself. Stress, paranoia, perhaps even a flu - which some in his work had taken ill with - could have been the explanation. It was all so preposterous. Fumbling through his pockets he once more produced the note. At least that was real, but surely the strange man with the pocket watch wasn’t following him. Yes, surely he couldn’t be. That part had just been the product of a weary mind. Either the man had been walking around town minding his own business, or perhaps he hadn’t existed at all.
He turned slowly to look down a long street filled with shops and fast-food outlets. There was no sign of the man. None. It took a while, but eventually Henry decided to return to work. His usual routine had been completely destroyed, but he never took a day off and he most certainly did not make a habit of disappearing at lunch time.
His office was in a brand new building, which the company he worked for had moved to earlier in the year. He much preferred the sterile glass walls, the shiny clean floors, and the hand sterilisers in the bathrooms compared to the old, less hygienically satisfactory premises. At the front of the building was Pedro Silva, one of the security guards. He was sitting behind the large front desk with a colleague and a repairman. Henry nodded to them all as he passed, uninterested in their idle, superstitious conversation about someone who worked in the building having gone missing, a man by the name of Robert Francis. Henry had no time for such things, he already knew the story, and while he hoped Robert would be found, anyone crazy enough to go cycling through the Scottish wilderness on their own was always going to run into trouble at some point. It was best to stay in the city where there were people - safety in numbers.
Several fellow business-types entered one of the large elevators in the foyer, and Henry moved briskly to join them. It was a bit of a crush and it occurred to him that normally he would be uncomfortable being so close to other human beings. There was something comforting about being in a group but he just wanted to return to the safe and secure surroundings of his office desk. Paper, pens, files, and performance targets; the perfect remedy for an anxious mind. At least Henry thought so.
The company had its offices on the 12th floor, and it seemed as though each and every level was accompanied by an unwelcome stop where yet more bodies crammed into the now stifling lift. By about the 5th floor Henry’s obsessive compulsions on cleanliness began to take hold, and the feeling of people in front, behind, and beside him, rubbing against his body, soon dispersed any comfort he had felt, making him feel quite sick.
It was then that a rhythmic sound came to his attention. The sound of someone’s watch, ticking consistently, winding down the seconds of time. The noise was agitating, as it only made him more conscious of the length of time he had been there. They were on the 8th floor now and he just reminded himself that soon he could enjoy the comfort of familiarity, in the guise of his trusted chair and desk.
Now the 9th floor.
Not long to go, but the sickness of proximity increased and Henry began to worry that he would actually vomit on one of his reluctant companions. As the elevator steadily climbed from 10th to 11th, the ticking grew in volume as the sickness climbed from his stomach, involuntarily opening his throat at the back of his mouth.
Now Henry realised, it was not a sickness of anxiety brought about by being squeezed into an elevator with strangers, it was the same nausea which he had felt standing in the city square, being watched by the strange character in his funeral suit and hat.
Tick, tock. The noise was next to his ear. Turning pointedly to the source, he recoiled in terror as a long fingered hand, held the golden pocket watch next to his head - the tall stranger was in the lift. Henry screamed for his life, and a panic ensued within the elevator as some tried to calm him, while others aggressively tried to quiet him with a verbal battering. He did not care, he had to get out. He clawed his way to the front of the lift to get away from his stalker, thanking gods he did not believe in as the doors opened onto the 12th floor.
Tripping over, he fell out of the lift and face first onto the polished hard ground. Rolling over onto his back, several of his work colleagues tried to help him up as he stared terrified into the lift. The tall figure remained hunched over in the corner, grinning from ear to ear as the doors closed on the shocked and mocking faces of the other elevator passengers. Henry was unsure, but the brief glimpse he had of the man led him to believe that the face of his pursuer was off somehow; the eyes almost too glazed and far apart, the nose slightly crooked, and the grin worst of all, too large and uncovered, as if through an inadequacy of skin.
Sweat poured down Henry’s forehead, and as several of his work colleagues asked if he was feeling OK, he stood up and rushed past them between countless office desks and chairs to the other end of the floor, where he burst into the toilets and quickly barricaded himself in one of the cubicles. There, he sat on a closed toilet lid with his head in his hands.
This cannot be happening.
Once more, he gathered his breath and attempted to compose himself. Work-related stress, that was it. He would go straight to his boss and ask for a week’s leave, perhaps even visiting his doctor to ask for some Valium. Something to treat his nerves. After all, he almost never took a holiday, perhaps it was long overdue.
Ten minutes passed and Henry was somewhat moved by two of his work colleagues checking to see how he was. While he did not leave the cubicle, he made his muffled apologies for the scene at the elevator from behind the door, and assured them that he would be out in a few minutes, before they finally left.
As his heart stopped racing, he finally stood up and, briefcase in hand, prepared himself for facing the accusatory glances of some of the less-than-affectionate members of his office. But before he could unlock the cubicle, the sound of a door creaking echoed throughout the tiled room. Someone else had entered the toilets.
‘I’m honestly alright. I’ll be out in a minute, if you could just give me some privacy to compose myself, I’d really appreciate it’, Henry said, his words reverberating around the otherwise empty toilets.
Without an answer, the footsteps continued slowly, passing from left to right, before the visitor entered the cubicle next to Henry’s. The sickness returned, and his heart now began to gather pace once more. The room was silent, save for the occasional dripping of a faulty faucet, but soon this noise was joined by an ominous ticking from the next cubicle. It was the watch, and its owner was right next to him.
As his thoughts became a torrent of paranoia, he turned once more to the note. Is it this piece of paper? Is it the message that they want?
Henry did not understand.
‘What do you want!?’, he pleaded with a subdued squeal. ‘Is it the note? Is it? Please, take it. Take it and leave me be!’
Removing the crumpled yellow paper from his jacket pocket, Henry crunched it into a ball and threw it into the next cubicle. No response was given, save for the ticking, and the quiet breath of the occupant through the thin cubicle wall.
Henry waited. And waited. But no reply came, and as the wait grew longer the intense feeling of sickness increased its hold. He wanted to leave more than anything in the world, but he was paralysed by fear, the fear that this man would catch him and perhaps even resort to physical violence.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Suddenly, the cubicle door shook violently as something impatiently attempted to break in, slamming against its wooden frame. It reached a fever pitch as Henry broke down into tears, curling up on the cubicle floor with his hands cupping his ears tightly. He screamed as the door nearly lifted from its hinges. The smell of urine from the floor stung his nostrils, and for a man so obsessed by hygiene this was an unusually trying place to find himself. But there he lay, too scared to move, too frightened to call for help. There he stayed. Still. Curled up into a ball, clutching his brief case, a warm blanket of structure and normality.
Then, a long-fingered hand slid slowly across the floor from the next cubicle, through the small gap at the bottom of the dividing wall, and touched his face; its fingers spider-legged, searching erratically. Their cold touch spurred Henry into action, but the hand moved quickly, grabbing a clump of his hair and pulling his head towards the gap. He kicked and screamed like a newborn, but the stranger possessed an emphatic strength, one with which Henry was no match. If strength couldn’t free him, perhaps pain could. He pulled and scratched at the hand, digging his fingers deep into lumps of skin as ripples of spongy flesh flaked from the appendage, as if rotten.
This seemed to have the desired effect. The putrid hand let go quickly and as it did so Henry staggered to his feet and rushed from the cubicle, out of the toilets and down a fire exit at the end of the hallway. Panic, terror, fear - they had all mixed together. Paranoia and anxiety clouded his judgement, his heart almost ripping through his chest and his mind ablaze with impossible thoughts as he found himself racing through the busy city streets of Glasgow.
Compulsion and obsession, two of Henry’s closest friends, now exerted themselves, but not for common routine, not for habit, not for ritual, but for that which all people yearn for - home. It was not before Henry had reached Central train station that he came to his senses. His suit was soaked in sweat, his hair a mess and face scarlet with physical exhaustion. Standing under the huge glass dome ceiling of the station, surrounded by the anonymous movements of daily commuters, his first thought was to phone the police, but what would he tell them? A ridiculous story about an undertaker with a pocket-watch chasing him, and the dead body of a homeless man? A disappearing one at that!
Henry gazed intently at the departures board. Looking around, he could see no trace of the tall, thin man. Perhaps he had injured the stalker sufficiently to make him give up the chase. Or maybe the returning of the note was enough to be allowed escape. Henry did not know, all he was certain of was that he wished to forget the message ever existed.
Two words now flashed before his eyes: ‘King’s Park’.
Yes! King’s Park was where Henry had grown up, and his family still lived there. It was only twenty minutes by train from the city centre, and if anyone could help, it would be his parents. Sure, he hadn’t been in touch with them very often over the past few years, but that was down to his meticulous routines and he knew that he could always count on them for support. Above all else even a man of his age still wanted the arms of his parents for reassurance when the world spat at him. He would go there, seek their advice, and maybe then, if pushed, he would phone the police and try to get to the bottom of all this. He purchased a ticket from one of the automatic vending machines and within ten minutes, Henry was on his way.
The train was humble to say the least. It had only three carriages, no toilet, and it was clear that as it was not a priority or popular line, it was decades old. Entering the last carriage, because he was sure that it had the least chance of being derailed in an accident, he chose the window seat which he considered to be the cleanest available to him. The cheap synthetic material used as upholstery was sure to be a playground for bacteria, he thought, but he would rather have been sitting in that quiet carriage than trapped on the floor of that toilet cubicle, that was for sure.
The train rocked soothingly from side to side, and as he looked out of the window and watched the urban areas give way to suburban ones, he began to feel comforted by the thought of home; his real home. After a couple of stops, Henry’s mobile phone suddenly sprung into life. Looking down at the blue flashing display, he was unhappy about the prospect of answering it - it was his boss. He would probably be mad, as usual, but who could blame him? One of his employees screams like a lunatic in an elevator, crawls around the office floor, locks himself in the toilets and then abruptly runs out of the building without finishing his shift. How do you explain that?
Henry gulped and answered.
After an initial ear bashing, he was finally allowed to speak and told his boss that he had been feeling terribly ill and that he was very sorry for leaving without asking first. Eventually his boss calmed down, and even started to show an element of concern beneath his crackled voice acknowledging that Henry never took holidays and perhaps needed a few days to recuperate. The conversation proceeded for well over a minute when the phone suddenly went dead.
Henry would have assumed this was due to a loss of signal as could often happen on the older trains, but when he returned the phone to his pocket, he felt something, an object of utter dread. Fear coursed through his veins, his heart began to race once more, and sweat began to ripple across his forehead. It was the note. Somehow it had been placed in his inside coat pocket, but he had no idea how that was even possible.
Looking at the words on the yellowed paper, he tried to think when it could have been slipped back into his pocket. By a passing stranger in the street on his way to the station? By the spindly fingers of the hand under the cubicle wall? He did not know, nor could he understand its importance. Taking a deep breath he tried to calm himself. Perhaps it meant nothing. Perhaps the man in the cubicle had read the message and now no longer needed Henry. Perhaps he was safe.
The train was now nearing his stop, but just as he was readying himself to leave his seat and exit the carriage, the conductor entered from the return driver’s cabin behind. Henry fumbled for his ticket before finally finding it, but as he looked up to display it to the conductor, realisation was accompanied by the ticking of a gold pocket watch.
It wasn’t the conductor who had entered the carriage.
Henry raced to his feet, his nerves now a shredded mess. Disbelief, utter disbelief. How had he got on the train! Clinging to his briefcase, he stumbled down the carriage yelling for help from the few fellow passengers who sat in isolated seats around him. He begged, he pleaded, but it was clear from the looks on their faces that they thought this unkempt, bedraggled individual shouting at the top of his voice was mad.
Watch in hand, the tall figure slowly walked down the carriage aisle, grinning. Running as fast as he could, Henry burst through the door into the next carriage, but still the strange stalker followed relentlessly, holding the pocket watch in his hand. They were now both in the third carriage, and there was no escape. No where to run - no where.
Henry felt sick to his stomach as fear grated at his insides. Holding up the note in one hand, he screamed as the man approached: ’Take the note. Take it!’, but no reply was offered, all the looming figure did was grin and move slowly along the carriage towards him like the ticking of a clock. Tick, tock.
The train slowed as it pulled into the station and now only a few feet from his pursuer the oddness of the man’s appearance now seemed even more progressed, like illness slowly turning flesh to rot. His teeth were now permanently exposed in a wide, almost lipless grin, and his skin seemed taught and shrunken, producing an unusual sheen to it; as if false, synthetic, but caught in obvious entropy. As he neared, now only a few footsteps away, he removed his hat with a flaking hand in an almost ceremonial way; a deep perversion of courtesy. Henry’s back pressed firmly against the locked door which led to the driver’s cabin. Turning as the hideous grin was almost upon him, he battered and kicked at the driver’s door, screaming to be let in.
The jolt of arrival. The swoosh of opening doors. The train had arrived at Henry’s stop. King’s Park: Home.
With the slimmest of opportunities, he jumped past the tall, hunched figure as it reached out, clambering over a passenger chair and leapt to freedom out onto the platform, but his stalker grabbed at his foot momentarily, causing his momentum to bring his face crashing down onto the gravelled concrete ground. His nose was burst open and a deep cut ran along his forehead, but he still managed to quickly pull himself to his feet and continue running.
Dazed, as tears of fear mixed with blood streamed down his face, Henry hobbled quickly down the long thin platform and up a rather large number of steep stairs, which led onto a quiet street. Looking down at the station below him, the relentless figure of the funeral-clad menace came starkly into view, but as Henry began to run once more, he realised that he had hurt his leg in the fall. Blood seeped through a ripped suit trouser-leg and the pain was sharp and throbbing, causing him to drag his left foot behind him as he tried to flee.
Wiping his eyes clear, he could see a busy road which was flanked on one side by a small piece of woodland which he used to play in as a child, comprised of a patch of grass, shrouded by a good number of tall, contorted trees. Limping badly, he hurled himself towards the traffic, yelling, pleading with drivers to stop and help him. The bloodied mess obscuring Henry’s face, along with his entire dishevelled demeanour, stopped any passer-by from taking the risk of attending to someone who seemed so fervent, and possibly dangerous. Perhaps if he’d had more time someone would have eventually stopped, but the sickness had returned, and he knew that the man, if he could even be described as that, would soon be upon him.
The blood stung Henry’s eyes as he cried and hoped for a saviour, but there was nothing he could do. He had tried outrunning his stalker and failed. This man would keep coming, relentless. But what if he hid? Maybe he could use his old stomping ground to his advantage and sneak away once it had passed?
Dodging the cars on the road, he limped into the small patch of woods, wandering towards the back of them as they climbed a shallow gradient. There was another street only a few metres away, but he knew he had to rest and with his leg in the condition it was there was little chance he would be able to outrun anyone. Knowing the woods helped immensely. While the patch was not particularly large, he could be well obscured if he picked the right spot. And so he made the decision to hide and just hope that he would not be discovered.
Choosing a large and looming tree several times his width, which he had used as a child during games of hide and seek, Henry slumped against it, crawling in-between the thin branches of a large bush at its base. There, he waited, with nothing but the sound of a gentle breeze passing through the woods for company. For a while there was comfort in where he sat. Yes it was damp and no doubt home to a sea of crawling insects, but he remembered sitting there as an eight-year-old kid, hiding from his friends as they wandered between the trees trying to find him. Better days, when anxiety and structure were both distant on the horizon.
Pulled from his thoughts, Henry held his breath sharply as he heard something nearby, out of view. Despite the din of traffic from outside the woods, the unmistakably long and methodical footsteps of someone brushing through the grassy floor could be heard. They were growing in volume, and were getting ever closer. As they did so, they were accompanied by a new, unexpected noise. One which was both humanly possible, yet utterly inhuman in execution: the horrible sound of chattering teeth; the sound of teeth quickly clattering together as if the man were frozen by the cold.
The frantic chattering grew slowly closer with each step, and it appeared to Henry as if the entire area had grown dim, as if the light were frightened by the noise and its originator. He did not have to look to see if the tall figure which had stalked him ever since picking up that damned note, was there - for the subtle tick, tock, of his pocket watch could be heard. This meant only one thing - he was close, and at that thought Henry squirmed inside as he sat with his back against the tree, surrounded by leaves, twigs, and branches. An intolerable perversion of hide and seek was being carried out; however this was not the game he wished to play, nor the one he remembered fondly. His mind raced once more for an answer. He just had to think, but the searing pain in his leg and the blood oozing from his face made it difficult to focus.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. The footsteps and chattering teeth increased in volume. The man was now unbearably close, the sounds of grass moving, of teeth upon teeth, and an antiquated pocket watch counting down the minutes and seconds, came together to create an almost intolerable cacophony of noise in his head. And yet, Henry dared not look behind for fear of being seen. His thoughts turned for a moment to the note in his pocket: What did it mean? Why was it important?
There was no doubt now as the noises ceased increasing, maintaining a steady volume - the man had stopped moving and was standing directly behind the tree. The uncomfortable chattering sound now seemed akin to that of teeth chipping and breaking as they came together, making Henry wince at the thought with each enamelled impact. Henry held his breath, terrified to make a sound. Tick, tock.
Suddenly, the man moved around the tree, and as it came into view, Henry almost let out a gasp of horror before restraining himself from doing so. First an arm appeared, joined slowly by legs and a body, as the figure in that antiquated funeral suit slowly passed by the bush at the foot of the tree which obscured Henry, for how long he did not know. It had not seen him, but now beyond all doubt he knew that the thing was no man, no human being, at least not anymore. From what could be seen from behind the leaves, the tall man was now hunched more than ever. In fact it was as if his entire body had been distended and his upper back had broken in some way, bent unnaturally out of shape as if something from underneath had pushed out from within, protruding from his spine. The jaw was now enlarged, as were its teeth as they clattered and gritted together, and its knees seemed to have buckled, bending in on themselves at the joints. Grey wisps of human hair still clung to the back of its smooth head, and most horrifyingly of all, one of its peculiarly placed eyes seemed to be hanging from a socket in its face.
It was moving farther away, and while he was mortified at the existence of such a thing, Henry cautiously began to feel as if he had outwitted it. That warped conception of human kind was now on Henry’s home turf, and there were plenty of places he knew he could hide along the way towards his family home.
Just as this confidence grew, the misshapen figure stopped, hands outstretched facing away from where Henry hid, the left grasping onto the golden chain of the pocket watch. He did not know what it was doing, but it stood motionless, almost in exactly the same stance which it had done during their first encounter in George Square, at least when the creature still resembled a man. All that was different was the incessant chattering of teeth. Then, slowly, even that ceased.
Was it dead? Was it weakened somehow? Had it given up?
Henry saw his opportunity, and knew if he ever had a chance, it was then. He quietly pulled the crumpled note from his pocket, reading its cryptic message once more before finally throwing it in disgust to the ground. Whatever the message meant, he hoped he never had to cast his eyes upon it again. He waited for a few moments longer, just to be sure his stalker lay dormant - the contorted man stood as motionless as the surrounding trees, stood there lifeless, as if frozen by the failure to find his prey.
While it was only late afternoon, the winter night began to close in and darkness soon threatened to fall. Henry was sure of one thing, he was not going to spend the night in that place with that thing, frozen or not. He moved slowly at first, and his inhuman stalker still did not stir, did not respond. Careful not to make any noise, Henry moved step-by-step as he neared a quiet street on the other side of the woods. Now the moment of truth, he passed within the shape’s line of sight. Still no response, it remained motionless, arms and long sharp fingers raised to chest height, outstretched like the mouth of a demonic bear trap. An abhorrent statue from an unnatural, foul sculptor.
Henry continued more briskly now, his surroundings becoming lighter as the canopy thinned. As he neared the edge of the woods he noticed two young girls around six or seven years old playing at the foot of a garden path on the other side of the street; happily laughing and giggling together. A pleasant sight and a welcome reminder of humanity, one which was a well needed tonic. A breeze blew threw the woods and finally he was at the last few trees before being free of that place. A smile crept across his bloodied face. He just hoped his appearance didn’t scare those girls too much if they saw him.
The first sensation was a viscously strong set of fingers covering his mouth, pulling him from behind the nearest tree and knocking him to the ground. The second was a multitude of hands grabbing at his body, holding him firmly in place.
Henry cried, but his muffled screams could not be heard. He struggled and fought with all his might, but the grasp remained unbroken. As he lay pinned to the ground, he now finally took in his impossible situation. There were six men in full funeral attire in front of him. Each of them had placed their morbid hands on his body, pinning him to the ground with their collective strength.
He hyperventilated through his nose, each breath a premature struggle for life. It was impossible to inhale through his mouth as pallid fingers and hands gagged him. Even if he could have screamed for help, the only ears which would probably have heard him would have been the two little girls playing across the street. Then it began. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Suddenly another noise joined the proceedings, one like teeth against teeth. Then another. And another. Growing in rapidity until the ticking of a pocket watch was drowned out by the chattering of inhuman teeth.
Twisted and abhorrent, the figure now finally came into view. Its hands outstretched, a warped macabre reflection of a man bearing down on its prey. Tears flowed from Henry’s eyes as hope retreated into the woods, and despair hovered closely. In its long almost blackened fingers it held a strange device. What it was for Henry was not initially sure, but its thin elongated body covered in elaborate metallic engravings and symbols, with a long thick metal strand emanating from it, convinced him within seconds that it was a ritualistic syringe of some type.
The clattering teeth and wide, naked grin of his pursuer now stared at him through one watery eye, while the other hung from a gaping socket above its crooked, disjointed nose. With an obscure noise which sounded almost like a language, it seemed to instruct his followers to forcefully prise Henry’s mouth open. He cried in pain as the cold fingers of his oppressors thrust between his teeth and into his mouth, wrenching his jaw painfully into an unnatural gape. The smell and taste from them bringing forth a horrendous gagging noise from the back of his throat.
Brandishing the needle in front Henry’s face, his tormentor seemed curious in watching his subject’s tear-filled eyes follow the syringe as it was waved back and forwards in hypnotic fashion. With one vicious movement, the stalker thrust the long needle into Henry’s mouth, plunging it deep through the tissue at the back of his throat. A foul tasting serum was then injected.
As the syringe was pulled out and the searing pain passed, something was placed into his inside pocket by an unseen hand, and it was then that Henry noticed a weakening in the grip of his attackers. With his last ounce of strength, pushing back his aggressor, he finally broke free from their grasps. He ran as fast as he could through the trees, that place he had loved as a child, and headed straight towards the freedom of the quiet road nearby. Looking over his shoulder for the briefest of moments, he noticed that he was no longer being chased. The men and the stalker were just watching him run, almost as spectators.
Then Henry felt it. In his hand at first. Abject misery, fear, contempt, and anxiety once more took hold. He stopped running as he reached the quiet street alongside the woods, and felt for what had been placed in his pocket. As his hand tightened in agony he crushed the yellowed piece of paper, message and all. He tried to scream at his now motionless pursuers, but no sound came.
Unaware of the violation which had just taken place across the street from them, the two young girls continued to play happily with their toys nearby as Henry staggered at last out from the woods, oblivious to his existence. He had to get out of there. He was near his home. His family could help him, surely someone could help him. Find out what they wanted and what the note meant, what was in that syringe. Surely someone could help!? Henry then breathed his last and collapsed in a heap on the pavement. He was dead.
Then, six men wandered out from the woods over to his bloodied corpse and raised him onto their shoulders, as if a collection of corrupt and twisted pallbearers were taking him to his final resting place, before the procession disappeared into the woods. Henry was gone. Life moved forward, tick, tock; the sky above continued to darken, and it was time for the young girls who had been playing to have dinner, so one of them ran inside to ask their mother what they were having, and if their friend could stay. This left the other girl alone in the garden for a moment, though she did not care as she was now playing with her favourite doll, enjoying the innocence of childhood, unaware that a man had just died close-by, his body taken for an unknown purpose by unknown things. As she held the doll in her arms and giggled at its smiling face, a gust of wind blew something towards her feet. It was a crumpled, old, yellowed piece of paper. She stood and stared at it for a few seconds - tick, tock - then, picking it up slowly, unfolded the paper and read the message within.
Scrawled in jagged black letters were three simple words: ‘Pass it On’.
Something stirred across the street. A tall, thin man dressed in an antiquated undertaker’s suit appeared from the edge of the woods. He grinned at the little girl just out of reach, and then looked down at his pocket watch, counting, waiting.