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The Collective: A Short Story _ Part 2

After a few moments, I realized I was holding my breath. Stomp, stomp, stomp. The mysterious thudding in the basement continued to reverberate up through the floor. “Let’s get out of here,” I commanded. “Where’s the other brother?”

We found him in his usual location, still stuck in his book, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The brother who was recently playing the game snatched the book from the other’s hands, and placed it on the coffee table.

“What?” asked the brother who was recently reading.

“We got to get out of here! Let’s go, all of you.” Mom dragged the brother to his feet and began ushering us toward the back door, but not before I had time to glance at the book title. The Collective. Had that always been the title? I couldn’t be sure.

Astonishingly, mom pried open the door. My mouth fell open as, just for a moment, I glimpsed a bit of the outside. All my instincts told me to run and never look back, but we were missing a person. “Wait,” I exclaimed. “Where’s dad?”

In answer we heard footsteps on the basement stairs. We turned from the door, never to remember it was there again. Around us, the air began to thicken. Almost passed the edge of my awareness, I thought I saw condensation begin to form and slide down the nearby wall.

“What’s going on?” Dad asked. I noted that the stomping in the basement had stopped.

“I don’t know,” mom said, dazed, and rubbed her eyes.

“I heard the noise in the basement and went down there to look. Nothing is there.”

“That’s nice,” mom yawned. “What noise?”

Dad shook his head. “I…”

His words were interrupted by a large crash way above our heads. In horror, we all looked up toward the origin of the sound. Silence. I was breathing a sigh of relief when I heard a brother give a shout.

“Mom!” his voice a mixture of fear and anguish

We all turned. Mom was gone. One moment she had been there, and the next, no sign of her remained. Frantically, we searched the room for her. We even began to search the rest of the house, though it hardly made sense to do so. What could have happened?

Finally one of the brothers suggested that we go down to the basement and try stomping on the floor. After all, he explained in response to our bewildered faces, that’s what was said to be helpful in the game. What else did we have to go by to try to get mom back?

So that’s what we did. For hours, and hours, and … we yelled and stompped ourselves silly , having convinced ourselves there was no other solution. In truth, we could not remember whether there was any other solution.

Finally, dehydrated, malnourished and exhausted, we collapsed on the floor, and fell silent. But the room would not be silent for long. At first, I could not determine the location of the many voices. Men, women, and children of all ages spoke at once together, in perfect unison. Chills ran down my spine.

For a moment, I thought I could pick out my mother’s voice from among the many. How? I wondered whether I could be sure. After a moment I decided I couldn’t be. I had already forgotten what she sounded like.

I tried to warn my brother to not go looking for the source of the sound, but he was practically compelled. Upon discovering it I heard him exclaim, “They’re communicating through the vents!” Then I lost track of him.

I had to focus instead on not listening to the voices. Somehow I knew that if I paid too much attention to them, I would bring attention to myself. But inevitably, I tuned in. “The people who previously stayed here ran away before we had the chance to welcome them face to face,” toned the united chorus. “How rude of them, really. For years, there was nothing here for us but to wait. Our number grew malnourished and weak. But the waiting was worth it, for you came. We have greatly appreciated your memories. We were hungry. You belong to us, now. We are the collective.”

I heard, and a cauldron of defiant anger began to bubble up inside me. It threatened to overflow, and for once I did not check my emotions. Belong to them? Who on earth did they think I was? Certainly no one who would ever put up with being in someone else’s control.

I jumped to my feet, which I noticed was oddly an effort. “Get up!” I hollered in frustration at my remaining family, who sat as if hypnotized on the floor staring in the direction from which the chorus of voices had come. “Move! Shout! Don’t stop. You have to throw yourself into your actions, those can’t be taken from you. Insist on your life as your own. At least we can put up a fight!”

I continued yelling phrases like this and staying in motion, although I did not know how I came by the words, although the air was getting thicker, although my body protested every attempt at moving and it took all I had to not slow down. I kept going like this accompanied by four strong other moving bodies and voices … then three … then two … then …

Slowly the silence grew louder and louder, until I was hushed still by the deafening recognition of absence. I was alone. Where was I? With growing terror, I opened my eyes which I did not remember closing.

I had never seen the room before. I tried, but couldn’t place it. The solid four walls mocked me. No escape. No way out. I screamed, and my voice was muffled, even to my own ears. It was as if this entire space was sealed shut. Who would hear me? In desperation I screamed one more time, before panic robbed me of the ability to speak.

Around the time I realized that no one would ever find me, even if they went looking, I began to feel like I was being watched. I blinked. Something was odd about the grey shapeless patterns on the walls. Were those eyes? At my thought of the eyes, they turned simultaneously, and fixed me with a calculating, heart-wrenching stare. I froze. And then it, they, came for me. I had put up a valiant fight. Now I would have to accept defeat.

***

The next thing I knew, I was lying in a bed. A woman sat beside me, talking to me quietly, gently wiping sweat and tears away from my face with a wet cloth. My first instinct was to panic, and I began to scream again. But over time, her calm voice and assuring presence dissolved my fears.

“It’s okay,” she soothed, “I’m your neighbor from next door.

“What happened?” my voice came out a shaky croak.

“I heard a racket at your house and came to see what was the matter. I kept hearing the scream, and your back door was open, so I went inside. I found you lying wet and cold on the basement floor, barely breathing. It was very odd. I continued to hear the scream, but it was certainly not coming from you. I could not pinpoint the origin. You smelled like plaster and ancient mold, though the basement was spotless and well ventilated. I hurried you over here as fast as I could. It’s all right, you’re safe now.”

“Mom, dad, the brothers?” I inquired with dread in my heart.

“I found no one else, just you. I’m so sorry. Can you tell me anything that happened which could help us find them?”

“I can’t remember.” I answered miserably.

My neighbor looked worried. “I’m very concerned about you, can I ask you some questions?”

“Sure,” I gave a weak nod. I felt suddenly exhausted.

“Can you tell me your name?” she asked, and the long silent response was somehow louder than screams could ever be.

“What’s your name! Emily, tell me your name!” she demanded, unable to hide the alarm in her voice.

“I don’t know,” I said at last, saddened to not be able to give her the answer she wanted. “Who’s Emily?”

***

It took many, many years for me to regain my memory. But once I had, there were times I wished I’d continued in my ignorance. I miss my family the most: their voices, their love. Since my escape, the house has been demolished. The bodies of my family were never found, and eventually all investigations ceased.

But I know better than to think it is over. Sometimes, late at night in my dreams, I find myself again alone in that dark forsaken room, with no windows or doors. I look around. The grey wallpaper is punctuated at intervals by sets of staring, hungry, haunted eyes. Slowly what looks like the wallpaper begins to peel away, sliding silently, until a disembodied mass surrounds me with single-minded purpose. In unison eager hands reach for me, but I am transfixed by the eyes, which seem to be the only remnants of individuality allowed to remain, nameless now. They watch me intently with an aching longing, pleading with me to give them back what they lost, what they barely remember had once belonged to them. But I cannot. And then I wake, full of an intense gratitude that I am free to be my own person.

But the collective is still out there, seeking to assimilate any it can make its own. It lurks in the shadows of the forgotten, just waiting, biding its time. Remember not to be next.

You can read Part 1 here:
The Collective Part 1

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The Collective: A Short story _ Part 1

I can’t recall the day we moved into the three story house. It was the first house I lived in which had a basement and an attic, not to mention more stories than one. I do remember the basement being quite friendly. The previous owners built it up into almost another floor, with real walls and carpeting, and even a tiny bathroom. My brothers and I used it as a general playroom and often hid down there from our parents.

The rest of the house was standard enough. We settled into the three bedrooms upstairs, my brothers sharing a room to themselves, and I, being the oldest and only girl, taking a room to myself. On the middle floor above the family room, mom set up a warm and welcoming kitchen area, and at first, I would sit at the table, talking to her while she made our meals. My brother, Billy, seemed to have an almost permanent claim on the desk in the dining room, where he played computer games with his new expensive surround sound speakers. Carl, my other brother, was far more quiet and serious. I remember that sometimes I would find him reading on the couch, a distant look in his eyes.

At first, nothing was odd or out of the ordinary except for the story of the people who lived there before us. Apparently none of the neighbors ever saw them out and about, and then one day, the place was abandoned. The woman next door walked home one night to find the doors wide open, the family car feebly idling in the front yard, and a lone child sized flipflop forlornly lying on the cement, apparently not important enough to come back to retrieve. Concerned, the neighbor cautiously peered inside, turning on a light.

“It was the strangest thing,” she explained to us on the day before we moved in. “The place looked as if it were in the middle of being lived in. A book on the coffee table, all furniture in the usual places, an untouched casserole sat on the counter, a day past its prime. The TV chattered away in the living room with no one to watch it. The only thing missing from that house were the people who lived there. They just… disappeared… and took nothing with them but the clothes on their backs.”

After the house remained abandoned for several months with no sign or communication from the family, the landlord went in there to clean it up: sold what he could, took quite a bit else to the dump. Then he went up into the attic, shocked to discover what appeared to be an entire family’s belongings, the kind of items someone would have owned 70 or 80 years ago. Much of it was rotten and molding, to the point that it would be dangerous to breathe the air up there. So he sealed it up with plaster, and that was that. We didn’t mind. This house was bigger than any we had lived in before, and we didn’t need the extra storage room.

For two weeks after we moved in, dad went to his new job, mom ran errands and cooked meals, and we went to school. But each morning when we’d wake to start the day, it became harder and harder to leave. The closer we got to the door, the thicker the air around us became, until it was hard to think, or move. For a while we pushed doggedly ahead, ignoring the lethargy and our increasing lack of motivation and focus.

Thus began the great forgetting. At first we forgot our lunches, our backpacks, our keys. Then, gradually, my parents for got to go to work. They forgot to get the mail, buy groceries, pay the bills. After that, my brothers nd I could barely recall our school. Its recollection seemed to dissolve at the first touch of thought, like a footprint in sand washed by a wave.

Life became disjointed, unintelligible, without rhyme or reason. Occasionally I would come to with a start, with the feeling that something was very, very wrong, and we needed to leave. I would try to rally everyone else, but it was like attempting to teach sleep walkers to surf, and I gave up shortly after any feeble attempt, due to a pervasive exhaustion which would inevitably come over me.

One day I woke to find my brother Billy on the computer game, and Carl reading his book… the same book he’d been reading for … with a start, I realized I could not remember how long we lived here. I could not remember where we lived before this. Perhaps we lived here all our lives, and never lived anywhere else? I tried, but could not picture anything that could possibly exist beyond our four walls. The idea that there was a thing called somewhere else felt absurd. This was all there was. There was no outside. As I felt my feet turn from the path to the door back into the hallway, I shook my head in bewilderment at my ridiculous musings.

Slowly, as the memories of the outside world slipped away, so did the memories of who we were. At first, we forgot our ages, but soon afterward, we forgot what we liked and didn’t like to do. We forgot our goals and dreams, we forgot our extended family and our friends, even our earliest childhood friends. Recalling past experiences became more and more arduous, exhausting, and futile. And then, at some point, we could not remember our names.

And then we ran out of food. Our hunger seemed to jolt us back into some semblance of linear time, as if suddenly waking from a dream.

Mom ran into the living room. “How many days have you been playing that computer game!!” she shouted. I looked up, interested. Days? I hadn’t heard that word in so long, I had to rack my brain for what the word meant. I turned to look at my brother. He was thin and had black circles under his eyes. He was filthy. His hair tangled and matted on his head, and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in … days, indeed. Maybe weeks had passed while he endlessly played his game.

“What’s so interesting about it?” I asked, eager to break more of the silence which I now noticed had been slowly crowding out conversation from our house. I could not remember the last time we spoke to one another.

“It’s about a family who moved into a three story house. I’ve almost reached the last level of the game. The family is slowly dying, but can’t remember how to leave.”

“That’s a strange game,” I admitted uneasily. “Why can’t they leave?”

“I’m not sure. But the reason has to do with the attic.”

The thought began nagging at me that this was not your typical sort of game. “What does the house look like?” I asked, not sure I wanted the answer.

My brother furrowed his brow. “Strange enough, a lot like ours. But that’s purely a coincidence. It’s not about our family. I mean the characters in the game have … names … like Billy and Carl.”

“Oh,” I replied, suddenly yawning and feeling rather listless and bored. What’s the game called?” .

“The collective,” he replied absently. Then a moment later his mood brightened. “I’ve reached the level where I can win the game,” he announced excitedly.

“Well then, how do you win the game?”

“You have to go down to the basement and make a lot of noise,” he said, as he expertly scrolled the mouse around the screen.

With growing trepidation, I listened to the surround sound speakers as they broadcast the tap of his character’s footsteps down the basement stairs, the hurried feet of the other children running down behind him, and the stomp, stomp, stomp of their feet on the basement floor.

“You need to get up and do something else!” scolded mom, who was standing a few feet from me.

Somehow, my brother obeyed. I heard the sound of the computer shutting down the game and the speakers. But the stomping continued, several floors below.

Sky Hunter: A Ghost Story

Here is the song to play with the story, which will make it even spookier.
Samhain Eve by Damh the Bard

Outside, the wind rustled the many colored fallen leaves, golds and browns, fraying at the edges, as if even after death and drying, disintegration could continue with its own haunting sentience. Outside, the large maple tree scraped its branches together slowly, ominously, while the clouds that had begun their traversing across the sky after several hours of clear and quiet blue, moved like migrating birds in strange pattern formations, onward, away. Outside, the world breathed, silently, expectantly, hushed.

Inside, the girl’s room felt safe and familiar. She was twelve years old, in that strange liminal place her parents called the ‘tweens, the age of not believing. The girl’s window was shut against the October cold, as well as the piles of snow that came in early the night before. The desk did not face the window. Instead, the window opened out along the wall to the girl’s left as she sat at her laptop checking email. The door to the girl’s room stood slightly open behind her, and she could hear her parents’ murmurs, the low somber tones of their voices that characterized their talk during this season, in contrast to their more buoyant, joyful and louder registers which lasted from Winter Solstice through Fall Equinox. “This is not a time to draw attention to ourselves,” her mother would often tell the girl, along with the girl’s younger brother, in years past when ghosts and goblins and witches with pointy hats and long root like fingers, boney and gnarled as if pulled ruthlessly from the earth, had seemed imminent and real. But her mother never told her why. Now, the girl thought adamantly, she was too old for such foolish things. At least this is what she told herself, safe and sheltered in her room, the light casting a 4 o-clock shadow across her carpeted floor, and the comforting noises of her parents’ conversation and the ding, ding of her brother’s video game floating in to her from down the hall. But blood runs cold, even for such a girl, now presumably freed from the night terrors of a child.

“Hello, little girl,” read the subject line of the newest email she was looking at, from an unknown address. How odd, the girl thought, for an email from an unknown person to have come in just now, with a subject that sounded like a greeting specifically for her. Was it spam, she wondered. The subject made no claims of false dire needs for help or an advertising scam. She opened the email. “You have caught my attention,” it said. That was all. The girl blinked uneasily. She looked again at the “from” line. From: 4231I936. No name. Was it her imagination, or had this email come in exactly when she had been thinking about her mother’s warnings about drawing attention to yourself? The coincidence did not go unnoticed. She glanced quickly out the window. Nothing strange could be seen, only the clouds had moved closer, darting across the roof of the house as if chased by the wind.

October 31st dawned with a sky that for several minutes appeared blood red. More clouds came to cover the girl’s view, clear to the horizon, and around noon it began to rain. The girl had been wary about turning on her computer and looking through her email, but it was Saturday, and she wanted to talk to her friends. There were very few emails from friends, and too many from 4231I936. With increasing fear and trepidation she read the messages. “I have sent the wind to find you.” “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. I know you. I will be waiting for you.” “I am not as far from you now as you might think. I wish for company… I will come for you.”

The girl’s blue eyes paled. Someone was stalking her. A secret admirer? A man? Could he see her from the window? She closed the blinds tight. Was he that close? How did he know her? Feeling slightly sweaty with fear, the girl ran to join her parents. They were in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and marinating meat for the feast of Samhain come evening.

Samhain for the girl had always been a mysterious, slightly terrifying holiday. It marked their family’s observance of the New Year, but that would be officially celebrated tomorrow, after it was clear that the pursuers in the wild hunt had passed by the family household without snatching a hapless soul. Tonight the vale between the worlds grew ever thinner, so that the chill of the storm felt like it must have originated straight out of the otherworld, the land of the ancestors and the sidhe.

The girl shivered despite the warm coziness of central heating and the security of home. They would set a plate of the feast her parents were preparing out on the lawn for their ancestors, light several candles and wish well the departed whom they could name, and then go trick-or-treating with their friends. The girl wondered whether she was getting too old for trick-or-treating, but was glad that the nebulous status of her age made it still possible for her to bravely step into the night, safely flirting with the possibilities of begrudging fairy folk and vengeful hags without ridicule.

As she approached the kitchen, the girl overheard her parents talking about the status of the sky. “A fierce storm is brewing for tonight,” her father was saying, “Dy you think we’ll see more than we bargained for this year?”

“Hush,” her mother shushed him, spying their agitated daughter standing in the doorway. Turning to her she said, “What’s wrong?”

Alarm danced along the girl’s down-turned mouth, and in her narrowed eyes. She sat heavily on a stool near the gas stove. She didn’t know how to explain the stalker, the emails, or the dread threatening to explode from inside her. “Has anyone ever been caught by the hunt across the sky?” was all she could ask. If she said more, she thought, she might upset her parents too much.

Her mother smiled. “Oh no, darling, it’s just a metaphor for the seasons, the death of summer.” Children have such endearing fears she thought, wistfully.

It was just after eleven when the girl slogged through the front door, done with her breathless night of trick-or-treating. She had left with a cloth sack to keep her candy dry: the rain came down fiercely, and now it was beginning to snow. Without knowing why, once the girl had gone into her room to change out of her wet clothes she had an irresistible urge to check her email to see whether another message was waiting for her. At the sound of the tone indicating new messages, a large clump of snow fell heavily off the maple tree, smacking the window with a loud thump. The girl jumped, and almost screamed. She could have sworn it sounded like a knock at the window.

“”We’re going out to watch for the sky riders!” her brother hollered down the hall at her. This was another of their Samhain traditions. She remembered Samhains past when she was small enough to be carried in her father’s arms, and how she had squinted up at the sky secure in his sturdy embrace, hoping, and yet not hoping, that the hunter and his hounds would appear. It was fifteen minutes to midnight. She glanced at the email from the strange address that was sitting in her inbox, as if drawn to reading it through some magnetic pull. There was now a picture attached to the email of a cloaked figure wearing a set of antlers, carrying a club and a spear, and under that, the words, “Don’t you want to live an extraordinary life, little girl?”

“No!” and, “not anymore,” thought the girl, startled. A moment later, terror tore through her. What if this being, whoever he was, could read her mind, had read her mind? She shut her eyes. Extraordinary was definitely over rated. The girl wanted from now on to spend every day eating cereal for breakfast, hugging her parents good-bye as she left for school, doing her homework, and promptly going to sleep afterward. No more day dreaming about the world out there, running through fields, making a huge difference, and whatever else might draw any attention to her inadvertently. She wanted to be left alone, forgotten.

The girl ran out of her room without looking back. Joining her brother and parents on the back porch out of reach of the snow drifts and the howling wind, she proceeded to cram herself between her mother and father who had been standing with their arms around each other. They were startled by her sudden need for affection, but held her close anyway.

“Look!” her brother shouted excitedly., “The sky hunter! I see him, I see him!”

“What’s that…” the children’s mother began, but trailed off into stunned silence.

And then, unbelieving, the girl raised her eyes, too, from where they had been squarely fixed on the various types of rock in the pavement. Far off, perhaps a mile off, a dark shadow loomed on the horizon. Slowly, deliberately, it came striding over the sky, through the clouds, as if for this strange being air had a solidity it would not lend any other. From the direction of the dark figure came a mournful, eerie howl, only partly masked by the gale of the storm picking up around them. The far off sound seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere, ebbing and flowing, a tide of baleful voices that were decidedly not human. It seemed to the girl that the wind suddenly found an awareness of its own breathing, wailing it’s sorrow through the frenzied clouds for the first time.

The humans on the ground stood motionless, too shocked to move. As the figure approached, it grew larger, but still just as darkly undifferentiated. It appeared to be clothed by shadow, wrapped in it, like a great umbral shawl. The howling grew in intensity, now made out in individual voices, snarling and baying, hungry for the living. The girl shivered and tried hiding in her mother’s down jacket, but she was not quite small enough for that.

“Run inside!” the father shouted above the unearthly calamity over their heads. But at that moment the clouds dispersed, and the moon, still almost full, shown bright and piercing through the sky, its light like arrows, sharp and defining. The girl turned, dazzled by the sudden appearance of the light, that aberrant brightness incongruously illuminating the darkness beyond her, and saw the great hunter in the sky, poised in mid air. The fact that he hunted without companions and had no horse with him, made his image more eerie, his pursuit more ominous. He carried a spear on his back and a club in hand, his long, unruly black hair streaming out from under a full set of antlers, his ancient face grave and mocking. The long beard gave him the look of one with wild authority, as he hovered gracefully around fifty feet away and twice as high above besides. Three hounds stood on either side of him, and though they were temporarily stayed, they continually pawed the clouds with impatience.

For a second, action failed the girl, and she simply trembled violently. Then the family vanished indoors. The clouds returned with a vengeance. The door slammed. No words were exchanged. All entrances and windows locked. Candles and lights turned off. The parents and the children huddled deep under their covers and fell asleep. The girl slept next to the window, the blinds drawn against the moon, and the images of that haunted scene, now seeped into her dreams.

Outside, the ground lay heavy with mist and a deafening silence. Outside the maple tree shuddered and shook in the frenzied encroaching dark. Outside, he was waiting… waiting… until the third hour, he waited. Inside, the family began slowly to stir, and then to wake. Inside the girl’s room, nothing stirred, not even the air, and only emptiness remained to greet the day. She was gone.

***

This story is almost entirely based on a dream I had many years ago, long before I ever heard Damh the Bard’s song on the same subject. In that dream, I became the little girl, even though my waking age was around twenty-four. I awoke before she disappeared. For those who dare curiosity, go and ask the hunter of the sky what fate has befallen her, for there is always more than one version of a story to be told. However, I advise that if you do get his attention, you should probably not even bother with the locks on your windows on Samhain Eve. He’ll be waiting for you …

***

Click here to read about the wild hunt as told in different ways around the world:

The Haunted House: Some Haloween Fun

Bats are rustling in the eves
Spiders a crawling out from places unseen
Tattered old webs hang from windows and doors
Slugs and newts ooze along the floors
No one has lived here since… we can’t be sure
Why don’t you come in, see if there’s anything more?
Why don’t you come in, see if there’s anything more?

The upstairs mirror shatters each night before dawn,
A faucet starts dripping, one light keeps turning on
The floor’s been a creaking and the pipes, they moan,
Why don’t you go knock, see if there’s anyone home?
Why don’t you go knock, see if there’s anyone home?

A window starts to shudder, or is it you just being scared?
I watch as you climb those rotten rickety stairs,
As you stand breathing hard, another breath starts to rasp
Just a few more feet, and you’ll be in my grasp.
Just a few more feet, and you’ll be in my grasp.

A single eye glued to the peep hole in the door
Eying every move, until I sense you are sure,
I heard your scream as you turned and ran:
The knocker you gripped, a clammy ice cold hand.
The knocker you gripped, my clammy ice cold hand.

I stare you down as you make your descent,
Your foot falls through a crack and you sprawl on the cement,
Surely you’d die from my stairs’ decay?
You could have died like me if I had had my way.
You could have died like me, oh if you hadn’t got away, …

You’d be a bat a rustling in the eves,
A spider crawling out from places unseen
A slug or newt oozing ’round the floor…
They were people like you, ’till they were people no more.
They were people like you, before they knocked on my door.

I’ve put up a recording of the song on my soundtrack page. It’s about 3/4 of the way down the page, go have a listen… if you dare!