“Life isn’t for sissies.” Her mother had always told her that, and she was right. Life had been hard for as long as she could remember. It had laid waste to her soul and had stripped it as bare as trees in the dead of winter. It had taken its toll on her and she felt battered….broken as of late. Between the past coming back from its shallow grave to haunt her and the hurt from recent heartbreak, she needed respite. So, she had come to Grandfather Mountain to heal, to regroup and get her feet set firmly back under her. This was a safe place. He was a safe place; this dear man, with a vast and bottomless heart.
It had been years since Candy had seen Scotty face-to-face. They had lost contact, over the years, both simply preoccupied with the business and chaos of living but she had found him again. She had gone on a quest to find the people in her life that she had cherished, that had brought light into her dark world – people that she had lost along the way. It had been a personal treasure hunt, of sorts. He was one of those people and finding Scotty had brought her a deep sense of peace.
She couldn’t explain how or when the nightmares and flashbacks started. She had been on a path of transformation. With transformation, comes reflection. When the memories had closed in on her and was followed by the recent despair and had sent her into a tailspin, Scott had told her “Candy, Come here to me. You can stay a week, a month or forever. That’s up to you but come here. I’ll take care of you.” The sound of his voice – the slow, low drawl had soothed her soul. It felt like coming home.
He had wired her the money to make the trip. She left on a whim, had thrown away most of her possessions and packed the remaining clothes, books and photographs, along with her beloved dog, Ness, into her worn-out car, and had set out on the long trek, driving through the night, stopping only to gas up and use the rest room. It had been an arduous trip through the mountains in the height of an ice storm. Her mind had raced along as briskly as the auto had. She sped along the steep, curving interstates, eager to get to the security of Scotty’s presence.
The sun was beginning to break brightly upon the horizon as her tires crunched their way up the long driveway. “Ironic.” she mused “The dawn of a new day.”
He was waiting for her outside as she pulled in and turned off the ignition. As she stepped from the vehicle, he scooped her up in a massive bear hug. She had forgotten what a giant of a man he was. They embraced tightly for a couple moments. “It’s okay, you’re okay. You’re here now. I’ve got ya.” He set her back on her feet and they stood silently, for a moment, looking at each other. They had both aged. It had been a long time. He pointed to her canine companion. “You call that a dog?” he pointed at Ness “It’s not big enough to be a dog, but she’s plenty big enough for you, I guess!” She smiled broadly. Yep, it was Scott.
“You must be exhausted, let me show you your room and you make yourself at home. If you need anything, just holler.” He led her to her room and as she sat on the edge of the bed, she realized just how exhausted she really felt. It had been days since she had slept. She stretched out and fell instantly into a deep and dreamless slumber.
When she awoke later the sun was high overhead. Scotty was sitting quietly in his recliner in the living room outside her bedroom door. She felt safe.
The days passed in quiet casualness. They fell into a companionable routine. She explored the mountains, forests and town while he was at work and in the evenings they sat together watching television, reading or reminiscing.
As spring emerged she found herself spending more time wandering the vast nearby landscape. She loved the solitude, the smell of earth and pine, the warmth of the sun on her face, the sound of the breeze through the mighty trees. She gazed with startled awe at the soft pastel wildflowers contrasted against the jagged hardness of the mountains. Daily, she hiked and pondered all that she had lived through. Sometimes it amazed even her.
It was on one such jaunt that the oddities began. It started out vaguely enough with a sense of unease. One day, as she made her way along the path she caught sight of a shadow cast alongside of her own, keeping pace with hers. Abruptly, she stopped, turning, expecting to see someone behind her but there was no one. When she turned back, the shadow, too, was gone.
More and more she found these sorts of occurrences happening. Shadow people, as she began to think of them, skirted around in her peripheral vision. The shadow people often weaved their way through the trees moving along with her.
She refused to acknowledge them. If she didn’t acknowledge them then they weren’t really there – they didn’t really exist. She didn’t want to think about them - didn’t want to think too hard about who or what they were or what they wanted.
The shadow people only came to her when she was alone. As much as she savored her time out here, by days end she was consoled by going back to the sanctuary of Scott’s home and the tranquility it provided.
She was troubled when Scotty announced his impending business trip, although she tried her best not to let it show. It was something he was obligated to do and she didn’t want to concern him. He already looked dismayed to be leaving her alone. He would only be gone a few days. He would be home on the weekend. She assured him that she would be fine, she was a big girl. “Not really, Darlin.’” He said with a wink.
She rose early Monday morning to see him off. She hugged him and admonished him to be safe. When he promised her that he would, she reluctantly released him. Worry once more flashed in his eyes. Patting his shoulder she said “I will see you Sunday!” As she smiled and waved him down the driveway she had the eerie feeling that she was being watched. When he was out of sight, she slowly turned in a circle scanning the property. She saw no one.
Walking into the house, she ran through a checklist of things that she would do in his absence. 1. Work on the book she was writing. 2. Sort out some future plans for school. 3. Make some long overdue phone calls. 4. Give his house a thorough cleaning. Although, for a man, it wasn’t too bad, but it definitely needed some tlc. …and… 5. Give some thoughts as to what to do with her messed up life. That last one overwhelmed her. Where to begin? First things first; she would shower and ready herself for the day.
Standing in the shower, she broke down and wept. Why had her life been this way? She often felt as though she was born under a curse and she hated that about herself. People bemoaning their abusive childhood or pathetic lives annoyed her. She had grown up with the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality and felt that she had been doing so well. This latest blow left her shattered, feeling alone…. Scotty was there for her. She knew that but she couldn’t bring herself to open up the Pandora’s Box to him. She had dared to open it to only one other person…. and that person had left her. It told her that she was defective, unworthy. So here she was, trying to decide where to go from here…. and trying to decide if she even wanted to go at all. She was in a very dark place now and was having a hard time finding the way back to the light.
She took a towel and turned to wipe the mirror. She froze, hand suspended in mid-air. There traced into the steam was the message “We are here.” She hesitated, confused, fighting the rising panic. She wiped the mirror more vigorously than necessary, almost angrily. From the corner of her eye there was movement past the open door. She walked to the doorway, craning her head she looked out, to the left and then right – nothing. Exhaling audibly, she muttered to herself – “Candy, you are soooo losing it!” Retrieving her wet towel from the floor, she spared a glance at the mirror, brow furrowed. Her reflection was pale, her eyes wide and haunted. Shifting her focus she could see where the writing had been on the glass. What did that mean? Maybe it was Scott’s idea of a joke and I just missed it before. Certainly, that had to be the explanation.
Taking a notebook and pen, she made her way out to the deck. Thoughts…..questions, clouded her mind and made focusing impossible. Tipping her face to the sun, she closed her eyes and breathed in the cool air, holding it in as long as possible before releasing it, centering herself. Opening her eyes, she studied the tree line. A tall shadow crept among the wood. It seemed to stop and stood observing her. She peered, deliberately, at it, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hands cupped around her eyes, trying to make out details, she could not. She tipped her head to the side in wonderment. It did the same. A shiver ran through her. Hugging her notebook to her chest, she hurried back inside.
A sense of vulnerability set in. The feeling of being watched constantly remained with her, it was unnerving. The shadow people continued their patrol, while she continued to ignore them.
Scotty called each evening to check in and to make sure that she was alright. His company, even if by telephone, was welcome. She did not confide to him about the shadow people. What could she say that didn’t sound insane? Perhaps, too, there was the fear that she was.
In the ensuing days, she tried her best to keep herself occupied. She busied herself, bleaching counters and fixtures, rearranging cabinets, vacuuming and mopping floors. It was mindless work but she could concentrate all of her energy on the mundane tasks and ignore the herd of elephants in the room.
By Friday, she was frayed and could detect, in herself, a breaking point. She knew that she should go into town – that the self-imposed isolation was not helping, but she just could no longer muster the fortitude to do so.
She turned in early Friday night, snuggling down after grabbing a cup of tea and a book that looked to be a good distraction, hoping that it would keep her attention long enough to lull her to sleep, and it worked. The tensions of the week caught up with her and she quickly gave in to them and drifted away. However, her dreams were restless and surreal and she was awakened in the wee hours, sitting bolt upright, disturbed and disoriented, having dreamt of rambling through an ever changing house. There was a sinister quality to the house and she somehow recognized the feeling. It was familiar to her.
She lay back, drawing the covers up, protectively around her, trying to get her bearings. At first she thought it was the sound of a distant radio or television, disjointed voices. Her first thought was that she had, inadvertently, left the radio on in the kitchen. She cautiously climbed out of bed and padded toward the kitchen but she could see both the television in the living room as well as into the kitchen from her bedroom, though, so she already knew the answer.
For a moment, she thought, perhaps, Scott had come home early and was in his bedroom. The thought flooded her with relief and she quickly went and knocked on his door. When there was no reply she quietly opened his door and peeked inside. The room was still and silent – no Scotty.
Slowly, she trudged back to her room, straining to listen, to decipher the noises.
It was whispering, she realized. It was low voices, whispered tones. The realization brought a chill up her spine. It was coming from around her, in the house. She couldn’t make out the words but she was certain that that was what it was. Was it the shadow people talking?
It was a fitful sleep for the remainder of the night, and she was up at the break of day. The dreams of the night before clung to her. Ominousness hung in the air. She turned on the television to provide background noise and to drown out any whispering.
As she sat at her laptop, working on the book, there was a sudden knock at the door. Opening the door, she found a young man standing, with clipboard in hand. He was a rather awkward sort, bespectacled and anxious. “May I help you?” She ventured. He murmured something about the cable and the post, waving his clipboard vaguely while flashing a name badge. “I will be on the property working today.” He finally offered, loudly enough for her to catch. “Oh, okay then. That’s fine. Thank you.” She said as he stepped off of the porch and she returned to the laptop.
Late morning as she walked Ness down by the pole barn, she spied the young man standing out on the ridge, watching her. When he raised his hand in a sort of salute, she returned the wave. Off and on throughout the day she saw him roaming about. ”He never seems to actually be doing anything productive” she thought. ”but that is none of my business. That’s between him and his boss.”
By late afternoon she was physically and emotionally weary and lay down across the bed to try to get some much needed rest. She quickly fell asleep, only to return, in her dreams, to the evil, twisting house. She traversed through it, facing demons and trying to find a way out. Again, she rose with a sense of knowing that she had been there before.
She had to go out and get some air. She set out towards the woods, admiring their stark beauty against the fading sky. Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket, she fumbled it out ~ SCOTTY. She hit the button and answered with “Hey, Big Guy!” “Hey, Darlin’. How are you?” he replied. As they chatted, he detected her disquiet. “I am leaving tonight, Candy. I will be home by morning. I will be there soon.”
She hadn’t heard his approach. Arms suddenly enveloped her from behind in a violent, unwelcome embrace, causing her to drop the phone. She could hear Scott’s voice calling out to her. “Candy? Are you okay? Candy, what’s going on? CANDY!”
As he clutched her, she felt an inward shift. It was a strange and terrifying sensation. Something else was there with her…..inside of her. She shrank back inside of herself, into the darkest corner of her soul, curled up and held her breath. She waited silently.
She turned her face to the left to look at her attacker. It was the awkward young man. He turned his face to hers, a smug look of triumph etched upon it.
Inches apart, they looked at each other, she watched, from the shadows, as his expression changed from self-satisfied to stark, stone-cold, terror. He looked into her eyes and saw what she, herself, could only sense. She opened her mouth to speak to him and her voice was swept away by an utterance that was otherworldly. It was the sound of a legion shrieking into an immeasurable void. It reverberated with mockery, fear, pain, suffering and despair…..and it hungered.