When I think back to the day I received the Item, I think about all of the good that I have done. I have saved lives, real lives, but at the same time I think about everything that I have lost. I often wonder, is this all worth it? Before any of this, I had a great life. Everything was planned out. My future was set. I had a good job, good friends, and a woman who I loved more than anything. Now, all I have is my self-appointed duty. I save people, that’s what I do and frankly I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but the cruelest irony in all of this is that no matter how many people I save, I couldn’t save the one person that mattered. She is the one that slipped through my fingers and the reason behind why I do any of this.
All of this started when my girlfriend, Angela, and I went on our annual trip to the winery. It was something we started doing when we first started dating and had done every year since. Because it had become a yearly tradition, I had every intention on proposing that day. Unfortunately, I knew she wasn’t feeling well and decided to put it off because she had been nauseous for part of the day, opting for grape juice over wine during our tour. When I did finally pop the question I didn’t want to worry about her throwing up. So instead I tabled it for later, certain that I had plenty of time. In fact I still have the ring. It’s the only item I didn’t pawn or leave behind.
The moment we stepped into the store, I was taken aback by the barren shelves and dust laden counters. Most antique shops were over filled with items that it would take one over an hour just to examine everything but this one had been picked clean. Even from where we stood I could see the outline of items cutting through the thick dust that was building up all-around us.
After glancing around the store, not seeing anyone behind the counter, Angela turned to me, appearing just as confused as I was. "Is this place open?"
"I really don't know." I said looking at the door but finding no closed sign or hours of operation. "Hello?" I called out. As I did, I heard my voice echo which was strange because the shop wasn’t that large. I ignored it but instinctively pulled Angela closer to me.
Barely a second passed when we heard the sound of shuffling footsteps as an old man appeared from the backroom. His age was apparent, no doubt well into his golden years. With sallow skin and hollow features he looked more like a corpse than a man. Though aged, his clothes were impressive, especially for a small wine town in the heart of the Midwest. The three piece, gray suit was impeccable, unsullied by any of that dust that was all around him. He glanced up at us and offered a toothy smile.
"Welcome to my shop." The man said his voice as decrepit as his appearance. "Come and browse my goods." As he spoke he offered a slow, sweeping gesture with one hand and that’s when I noticed in his other he held a small object. With the quick flick of his thumb I heard the distinctive click of metal as he exposed the flint of a lighter. Angela and I exchanged glances as we looked at the empty shelves. There wasn’t a single thing around us. Nothing but mites and bunnies of the dust variety.
"Senile or Blind?" I whispered to her, grinning. As he did so, he clicked the lighter shut.
Though clearly stifling her laughter, Angela slapped my chest. "Be nice." She scolded. We didn't want to be rude, so we accepted the offer and looked around, which didn't really take that long. Shelves lined the walls and several free-standing shelving units were in the center creating fairly large aisles. This would have been impressive, if there were actual items for sale. Instead we simply played along as we made our way to the back of the store and to the counter where the old man stood.
As we went, I noticed something odd. As I said the shelves were covered with dust but upon closer inspection that was only half true. While dust was everywhere, in it, cut with the finest precision, was an imprint. It was as if something had been sitting for a long time but was recently moved. It was impossible to tell what once sat in those vacant spots. Some were long but narrow, short but wide, oblong, circular, square, even triangular. I pointed this out to Angela but she dismissed it, telling me I was just over thinking things. It was October after all and with Oktoberfest in full swing, it was likely the man was wiped out by the drunken revelers. I agreed with her, but with noted reservation.
"Welcome to my store, is there anything here that interests you?" The man asked as we approached the counter. Again he clicked his lighter open and closed, habitually. He smiled again but seeing it I felt uncomfortable. From a distance his smile appeared almost pleasant but up close there was something sinister about it. He looked almost… hungry. Then when my eyes met with his, I swore that his irises were blood red, but as I blinked all I saw was a milky brown.
"Well, there's not much left, is there?" Angela said with a light laugh. The man cocked his head. His face slackened as he considered her words before bursting out with laughter. It was less of a laughing sound and more like a dry wheeze.
"Oh, yes, I forget that you can't see what I see." He said still laughing. I shot Angela a nervous glance, but before she could say anything the old man reached under the counter and pulled out a black, wooden box. "But perhaps you can see this?” The box was perhaps a foot wide and about half as tall with a tarnished brass lock on the front.
"What is it?" I asked.
Angela gave me a wry smirk. "It's a box, honey." She said, elbowing my stomach. I frowned, playfully pushing her back.
"I can see that." I said. "I just meant is it a tool box, a box for an Urn or something?"
"Do you like it?" The man asked, watching us intently.
"It's cool." Angela said. She grabbed the lid but it refused the move. "It's locked. Do you have the key?" The man's eyes narrowed slightly, and again I thought his eyes had gone red.
Reaching into his breast pocket, he produced a tarnished brass key that had a small plate at the end of it. He examined it for only a moment before presenting it to her. Angela smiled as she accepted it but as she did she paused. She later told me that she felt a jolt shoot through her entire body. It didn’t hurt, but the sensation was deep inside her body. She couldn’t explain it any better than that and we just assumed it was the weirdness of that store and dropped the subject entirely. Regaining her composure quickly, Angela examined the key. She told me that the plate was blank, but with a deft enough hand one could etch a word, or a name, onto it. Taking the key, she inserted it into the lock and twisted, but the key didn't move.
"It's jammed." Angela said as she struggled with the box.
"Here, let me." I said reaching for the box. Angela moved aside, looking slightly annoyed. I suppose it was the damsel in distress situation that bothered her, more than anything else. As a pretty independent woman she didn’t like having to rely on anyone for help. For the first year we were together, she refused to let me help with anything even if it meant taking twice as long. Eventually, she became used to the idea that she didn't have to do everything by herself. Of course, it may not have anything to do with acceptance and more of attrition.
Taking a firm grip of the key, the metal surprisingly cold to the touch, I gave it a hard twist, but as before it would not move. Looking at the old man I grimaced. "Yeah I think your box is broken." I said but the old man laughed once more.
"It seems that it doesn’t wish to open now." He said. "Please take it home with you and try your luck there."
I looked at the old man, perplexed. "Yeah, I'm not paying for box with a broken lock." I told him but as I did the man cocked his head.
"Pay?" He asked as he played with the word. "Pay. Whoever said you had to pay for this fine item?" He asked. Angela and I exchanged a glance.
"Well, this is a shop right?" Angela asked, "You sell things in shops." I don’t think she intended to sound so condescending but the idea of not paying for something in a store was highly suspect. The old man smiled, but rather than appearing pleasant, his thin lips stretched into painful rictus. Seeing this, I thought that his skin would tear from the strain.
"I have no intention of selling you this marvelous item." He said, "No, no, no. This is a gift."
"A gift?" Angela asked, sounding even more confused. The man nodded.
"Yes, you see I do not simply dole out trinkets to anyone." The man explained, "No, I find the just right person and give them the right item. And for you, it is this item," He patted the top of the box, almost lovingly. I looked at Angela, bemused. I didn’t think he was hitting on her, if he were it would have been adorable. No, it was the way he was looking at her. He was leering.
"I'm sorry I can’t just take this." Angela said, but the man raised a gnarled finger and wagged it three times.
"Nonsense," The old man said, "This is for you and you alone."
"So I guess I 'm not allowed to touch it?" I joked. The old man snapped his head toward me so quickly that I thought the bones in his neck would shatter. That smile looked even wider, like a deformed jack-o’-lantern.
"Oh, I have something very special for you." He said practically brimming with excitement. "The next time you visit my store, you may have it."
Looking to Angela, I whispered, "That is never going to happen." Angela smiled as she accepted the gift but grabbing the box, she jumped back in complete surprise.
"Whoa." She exclaimed.
"What?" I asked. Angela moved her fingers around, the digits dancing in the air. Before saying anything, she touched the wood again.
"It's nothing." She said, but I could tell her feelings toward the box shifted within that instant. Pushing the box back toward the old man, Angela said, "I changed my mind. You can keep the box."
I expected the old man to look insulted or upset in some way but instead he simply smiled, shaking his head. "Like I said, this gift is for you. It is yours now." The man said with that terrible smile. Without saying another word, I grabbed Angela by the arm and pulled her toward the door. She didn't fight me one bit. While I kept my eye on the front door, she stared at the box and the old man who was cackling wildly. As we stepped out into the biting wind, I heard the old man’s laughter, a deep and horrible sound. Even after the door closed and the October wind roared in my ears, I swear I could still hear his awful laughter following us.
After our experience in the shop, we decided to call it a day. We had a lot of fun, as we always did, but both agreed that next year we may want to try a different winery. On the way home Angela had fallen asleep and while normally I don’t mind driving in silence, I felt uncomfortable. I needed noise and I didn't care what it was. For half the drive I listened to country music and the other half it was Christian Rock. Again, I didn’t care what the noise was, just as long as there was some.
Almost two hours later we were home, the store and the man, hundreds of miles away. When we pulled into the parking lot for our apartment, the lamps around the perimeter were at full power, the sun having set almost an hour earlier. Even with the bright light, it still felt too dark. I was never really scared of the dark, but that exchange at the store left me feeling… off.
Angela awoke when we arrived, though she didn't look like it. Her eyes were half lidded and body sluggish. I practically carried her into our apartment. Thankfully we lived on the first floor so it wasn't too difficult. I guided her into the bedroom and she was out before her head even hit the pillow. Kissing her cheek, I took off her shoes and pulled the covers over her. With another kiss I whispered good night in her ear and, surprisingly, she wished it back.
I could have joined her but I was feeling antsy. I guess the evening had a different effect on me. She was exhausted. I couldn't sleep. So, I decided to be constructive and gather our things from the car. There wasn’t much only her purse and a few bottles of wine that we purchased while in town. As I grabbed our things, I saw that there was something else was in trunk, pushed back into the shadows. At first I wasn't quite sure what it was but when I pulled it into the light I gasped, taking several steps back. It was the box the old man had given Angela. The key was still sticking out from the lock like a finger, beckoning me. I stared at it trying to figure out how the box had gotten into the trunk in the first place, but frankly I didn’t care. All I knew was that I wanted it gone. I snatched it up, marched over to the dumpster and tossed it inside, slamming it shut for good measure. I even patted the lid for a touch of finality.
After bringing the rest of our things inside, I sat on the couch and turned on the TV to watch something, anything, to ease my mind. I knew I should be tired but I couldn’t bring myself to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes it felt like someone was staring at me. More than once I got up to check the windows but saw nothing but a parking lot. Even after I closed the blinds and curtains, I still wasn't satisfied. It wasn’t until almost two in the morning when I finally I lost the battle against sleep and passed out on the couch.
That night I had an unusual dream. I was in the store again, alone this time. Angela was gone and I remember feeling sad, distraught to be more exact. I was holding a baseball bat. The air was thick, fetid. Through the windows, the sky was dark red, the wind whipping black trees back and forth as the leaves were ripped from the branches. The old man stood behind the counter, looking just as I remembered except that there were two large bat-like wings with dark black veins running through the thin membrane protruding from his back. On the counter in front of him was a leather bound book and a top of it, a pen. From the tip a single drop of blood beaded and fell onto the book’s cover with a heavy thud. The man's smile was impossibly wide revealing a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. I remembered screaming at him, but I don’t know what I said. I only remembered him smiling back at me before saying only two words: Maledicta Vivificantem.
I woke up doused in sweat, my heart racing. The TV was off, though I didn't remember turning it off before falling asleep. I tried shaking off the feeling of unease as I grabbed my phone to check the time. 3:33 a.m. I sighed, tossing my phone back on the coffee table. It was still so early but I had no desire to go back to sleep. Especially if it meant having more dreams like that. Instead, I turned the TV back on and waited for sunrise. It wasn’t until around 9 in the morning when Angela finally got out of bed.
"Good morning." She said with a stretch. She looked well rested and full of life, while I had dark circles under my eyes and in need of a shower. I met her in the kitchen, kissing her as she pulled out the jug of orange juice.
"Hey." I said with a yawn. She paused, clearly taken aback by my appearance.
"Michael, you look awful." She said examining me. "Didn't you get any sleep?"
"I tried, but had a really weird dream." I admitted. "Plus I couldn't get comfortable."
"Well you were sleeping on the couch. That probably has something to do with it." She said playfully.
"I didn’t want to wake you up." I said.
"You could have jumped on the bed and not wake me up. I was out."
She made me promise to try and get some sleep later that day which in truth didn't take much effort. With the sun was shining, I felt that sleep would come much easier. Unfortunately, this illusion fractured when we sat down for breakfast. We didn't do anything special, frozen waffles and heat-and-eat sausages. However as we sat down to enjoy our meager feast, Angela paused mid bite, eyes wide. At first I thought she was staring at me, but as I watched her, I noticed her gaze was slightly off as if she was staring at something past me. I turned and was on my feet backing away from our bookshelf. Sitting on top of the small shelving unit was the black box, the key still in the lock. The box looked ever darker in our apartment and though the sun was shining, I felt that the room grow darker as if the box was drawing the light into it, like a black hole.
"What is that doing here?" Angela asked, gripping me. Her fingers dug into the flesh of my arm but I didn't care. My biggest concern was the box that I knew I threw out the night before.
"I... I don't know." I told her, trying to think of something comforting to say, and failing. “I threw that away.” I said. She looked at me questioningly.
Without any thought, I repeated, “I threw that away. It was in our trunk last night. I found it in our trunk and I threw it into the dumpster.”
“What do you mean it was in our trunk?” Angela asked.
“I just found it there. And I got rid of it. I threw it away.” I told her almost shouting. I immediately had a dark thought that someone had broken into our home while we both slept and placed the box on the shelf. However looking to the front door I saw it was not only locked, but the chain was still set. One could pick a lock from outside but no criminal, no matter how good, could reset a sliding chain lock.
"Get rid of it." Angela pleaded. “Please Mike get rid of it.”
Foregoing any formalities, I grabbed the box, ignoring the icy feel of the wood, and bolted out to the dumpster. For the second time in twenty-four hours, I tossed the box into the garbage. I returned to my apartment, wiping my hands furiously against my pants as Angela waited for me in the doorway, a faint smile on her lips.
"My hero." She said, as she kissed me. I didn’t quite feel like a hero but if it made her feel better then that's all that mattered.
With the box gone, the room felt lighter. For the rest of the day, Angela and I lounged around the apartment, not really feeling like doing anything else. Instead of being productive we decided to watch TV. Being the month of October, Halloween movie marathons were in full swing and so we watched Michael Myers slaughter teenagers and zombies devour survivors. You would think that we would want to avoid that sort of content but we just experienced a truly strange event and survived. We were feeling pretty good. Eventually I did end up falling asleep about halfway through Halloween 4 but unlike before, I slept soundly. Even with the screams for help from innocent victims of the supernatural serial killer, I passed out. All in all, it was a great day and I would give anything have that feeling back. The peace. The happiness. Angela.
Things took a drastic turn the following morning. We went to bed early since we both had to work the next day and everything was fine until I woke up in the middle of the night. There were no loud noises like a car backfiring or neighbors arguing. No, I just woke up, like some internal alarm clock went off. I checked my phone and saw it was 3:33 a.m. I sighed, annoyed that I was woken up yet again at three in the morning. I turned over, trying to get comfortable when I realized that I was alone. I sat up and in the dim light of the room, I saw that Angela was gone. I tried turning on the lights but as I pulled the switch, I heard the lamp click but there was no light. I pulled again but still nothing. The power must have been out or perhaps the bulb died. Whatever the reason, I simply curse and threw the blankets off.
Grabbing my phone, I turned on the flashlight app and within moments there was light. The phone's battery was at 93%, plenty of power left. I climbed out of bed, calling for Angela but heard nothing save for the random creaks and groans of the settling foundation. I stepped out of my carpet bedroom and into the hallway where I shrieked as my bare feet touched the hardwood. The floor was like stepping onto ice. I went back to the side of the bed where knew a pair of socks were laying and slid them on. Once again I stepped onto the floor and even though the cold was slipping through the fabric, it was now much more manageable.
I called for Angela again but there was still no response. Now the apartment wasn't that large. It was a single story two bedroom with a kitchen and living room. There was no reason that Angela wouldn’t be able hear me. Using the light from my phone I investigated our spare bedroom/office. There was a closet but the doors had been off the hinges since the day we moved in. Shining my flashlight into the room I saw nothing but our laptops.
I stepped back into the hallway and shined the light toward the living room but saw nothing. The downside of using your phone as a flashlight was that it wasn’t as powerful as a real one. While I was certain that nothing was wrong, that maybe she was simply asleep on the couch, I had this nagging fear clawing away at the back of my mind. At the time I had no reason to be scared but I was. The normally cozy apartment, in a relatively safe neighbor, bore this unnatural tension that I couldn’t explain.
I stepped into the living room, the flashlight guiding me but the darkness in that room was almost solid. The light barely broke through those shadows. It was like stepping into a heavy fog, the beam only traveling inches from the source. This darkness wasn’t the only anomaly though. As I breached the threshold of the room, the temperature immediately dropped. In that dim light of the phone, I saw white mist appear and vanish with each labored breath. It had to be at least thirty degrees colder than it should have been. I felt goose pimples cover my entire body as I struggled to keep from shivering.
"Angela." I called out, but as I spoke I heard my voice echoed into the darkness. Our living room was small and with all of the furniture it was impossible to cause an echo, but in that darkness, my voice carried far… too far. Stepping into that room, I didn’t feel like I was in my apartment but instead in the middle of nowhere with civilization hundreds miles away.
As I walked into my living room I realized that I had taken far too many steps. The room was only about three hundred square feet. On any other day, it took about ten paces to walk the length of the room but in that darkness I had already walked five times that and saw nothing. The first two paces should have taken me to the couch, the next one pace to the coffee table. In fact, I should have bumped into the damned thing by now, but I was yet to even see it. I shone my light around me but I saw nothing. Even as I turned back toward the hallway I saw nothing. I couldn’t even tell where the hall was.
The darkness was expansive, spreading out for as far as I could see. All around me was shadow, consuming my once welcoming apartment. However as isolated as I felt, I knew that I wasn’t alone. All around me, in the dark I could hear something moving in the distance. I could clearly hear the sound of clicking nails against cold stone. There was something else with me in that darkness, something that would not let me see it until it was too late. More than once I felt the lightest sensation on the back of my neck, like a cold finger just touching the shortest hairs. However, every time I spun around, I saw nothing but darkness. And every time it was always followed by distant laughter. Whatever it was, it was just on the outside of my field of view, beyond the range of my meager light.
I have no idea how long I searched the dark, how many times I called for Angela and heard only the distant laughter of my pursuer. Time meant nothing. Distance was an illusion. I walked that darkness for what felt like hours before finally my light passed over something that grabbed my attention. I paused, shining my light back and seeing a huddled mass sitting on the floor in front of me. In that dim beam I quickly realized that it was Angela. I called out relieved that I finally found her, but she said nothing. She didn't even seem to notice me. I circled around her and in the light from my phone, I saw that her skin was sickly sallow. I kneeled down next to her, still calling her name, but Angela simply stared at nothing but the darkness before her. I touched her arm and gasped, pulling my hand back. She was ice cold and for a second I thought she was dead, but as I stared at her I noticed her fingers moving. She was slowly rolling a small, narrow object between her thumb and index finger. Bringing my light closer to it I realized that it was a small, polished brass key.
The key was only a few inches long with two small teeth at one end and a flat plate at the other. I examined it and saw that etched into the metal was a single, ornately lettered word: Angela. Moving my light again I saw that sitting in her lap was the box, but this time the lid was open. Curiously, I shined my light into the box, peering down into it but saw nothing but blackness. It was like staring into a bottomless pit or into the gaping maw of a monster. I leaned in closer to get a better look but still saw no bottom. The box wasn’t that large but I still saw nothing. Part of me screamed to stop, to cast away the box, but the other part needed to know what was going on. Just how deep was it?
Carefully, I slid my hand through the opening and hissed as I was met with freezing cold. It was painfully but I pushed further into the darkness, first my hand, then my forearm until I was all the way up to my shoulder. As I fell further into the box I felt no bottom, no sides. Like the world around me, there was no edges, no finite space. I started to pull out my arm when I suddenly felt something fiercely grab me. Pain ripped through my arm as whatever it was squeezed and yanked me back down into that hole. I screamed as I slammed into the edges of the box but whatever had me would not be deterred. It continued to pull and I felt such terrible agony as the thing continued to rip at my arm. I screamed once more, my voice echoing into that darkness. I called for Angela to help me but she simply stared blankly into the dark. Then, in a single agonizing moment I felt my shoulder give way as the arm was torn free.
I jolted awake in bed, heart racing and my body slick with sweat. Sunlight shined through the blinds, dust floating inside the beam doing lazy circles in the air. The darkness was gone, the sunlight banishing the shadows. I had never been so happy to see the sun in my life but even though I was now bathed in sunlight, the dream lingered in my mind. The darkness, the fear, the pain all seemed so real. So real that I stared at my arm and felt relief to find that it was still attached.
I glanced over and saw my phone still on the nightstand. Wanting to check the time to make sure I didn't oversleep, I pressed the home key but nothing happened. I tried it several more times but still the screen remained blank. That was when I noticed that the charging cable was lying on the floor. I always plugged in my phone when I went to bed, a habit I had since the moment I got my very first phone but now it was unplugged. Jamming the charger in it took several moments before the phone came to life and I saw that battery power was at 1%. The phone was dead, something had drained the entire battery.
Confused, I put my phone back onto the nightstand to charge and looked over to see Angela asleep in bed next to me. Unlike the dream version, her skin was vibrant and warm to the touch. I guess I spent a bit too long feeling her arm, because eventually, she turned to look at me.
"Hey, good morning." She said, her voice tired.
"Hey, how'd you sleep?" I asked. She grimaced.
"Lousy. I had the worst dreams." Angela said. Gently, I caressed her face and as I did she pressed into my hand, kissing the palm.
"You look tired, babe." I said, "Maybe you should stay home today." Angela considered it and quickly agreed.
Angela was kindergarten teacher, a job she absolutely adored. She has come home with flus, colds, various other illnesses and still functioned. That morning, however, she was barely awake. Chasing around a bunch of six year olds was out of the question. So while she slept I called the principal to let them know she would not be in. When asked as to why, I just said that she had food poisoning and that was the end of the conversation. I wanted to stay home with her, but she wouldn’t have it. Angela insisted that she could take care of herself and that at least one of us needed to be the adult and work. While I argued that men, as a collective, were perpetually twelve, I ended up going in. In the end I convinced myself it was probably best that I was gone, since she needed her rest and I would only be a distraction. However as the day progressed, I found that I couldn’t focus. My mind kept wandering no matter how hard I tried to focus. I couldn’t stop thinking about Angela and my dream from the night before. More than once I found myself staring at my hand and could still feel the pain and the cold. It was around noon when I decided that I would work a half day and spend the rest of it with her.
I arrived home around one, the sun high overhead and not a cloud in the sky. There was a biting chill in the air but I wasn't sure if it was from the cold or from something else. I stepped into my apartment to find my girlfriend lying on the couch, watching TV. The volume was turned up well over halfway and I had to shout in order to be heard. As a rule we never turned it up more than a quarter, because the walls were thin and more than once we got into a screaming match with our neighbors regarding noise.
"Oh hey, what are you doing home?" She asked, finally lowering the volume to something more respectable. As I removed my jacket, I saw her tired expression. She looked even more exhausted than before.
"I took a half day. Decided being with you was more important than being at work. How are you feeling?" I asked, though I was certain I knew the answer. She moaned, collapsing back onto the pillow.
''I'm tired." She said as her gaze returned to the TV where there was a repeat of a ghost hunting program.
"Did you get any more sleep after I left?" I asked as I took a seat next to her on the couch.
"I tried, but our neighbors were being so loud." She said. "They kept banging on the walls and screaming at each other. That's why the TV was so loud." As she told me this, I paused. I suppose she saw the concern on my face because she asked, “Mike what’s wrong?” I postured, feeling uncomfortable. You see, the lot was communal so everyone in the complex shared it. The problem was that when I pulled up, I saw that we were one of the only ones left. I knew that our neighbors on either side had day jobs. I know this because I always ran into them either leaving or coming home.
"Um, Angie," I said my voice uneven, "The neighbors are gone. I saw them leave this morning. There shouldn’t be anyone home." At that moment noise erupted from all around us. It sounded like dozen people were taking sledgehammers to every wall and ceiling. The framed photos bounced up and down, some even falling to the floor with the shatter of glass. Angie screamed as she jumped to her feet, running into my arms.
The banging lasted only a few moments and then died just as quickly. However as the commotion ended, we saw the TV began to flicker, the images disappearing into a sea of static. That was when we heard the voice, filtering through the white noise. The words were not English, or any language I have ever heard before, but with each word, the voice grew louder and angrier until it was screaming. As the voice reached its crescendo, there was a single sharp roar before the TV went blank. And with that, we were gone. We grabbed our phones, our keys, our coats and were out the door in seconds.
We went to my parent's house which was about a twenty minute drive from our apartment. They must have suspected something because they did not question us when we asked if we could stay the night with them. I'm sure they noticed we didn’t have any luggage, but my parents did not press the issue until after we were settled in for the evening. When they finally did ask, I lied. After all, how could I expect them to believe that we were chased out of our apartment by some monster? Instead, I told them that Angela was being threatened by a crazed ex-boyfriend and that the cops were already looking into the situation but for now it was best if went somewhere safe. They dropped the issue and were just thankful that we were safe. I decided I would go back tomorrow to get some clothes and a few other odds and ends. We didn’t know what was to be done in the long run, but for now we just wanted to be away from there.
The rest of the day passed without incident. We had dinner with my folks and afterward watched a movie together. The tension of the day faded, leaving me and Angela feeling relaxed. After the movie we decided to call it a night, both of us feeling exhausted, but not before thanking my parents for everything. They assured us it was nothing and that they would help us in any way they could. That night when we went to bed, Angela and I took refuge in each other's arms. We hugged, we kissed, we made love. It wasn’t because of lust but rather the desire to be together, to be connected to one another. When we were with one another we felt safe and that was all I could ask for.
Feeling tired, drained, at peace we drifted off to sleep, and as we did she spoke to me. The words were slurred and I whispered for her to go to rest, but she kept speaking as if unable to stop. Though her eyes were closed, her lips continued to move. I listened to her, trying to hear everything she said, and even answered back. She must have still been partially awake because when I spoke, she responded.
"I love you, Michael." She said.
"I love you too."
"I'm sorry for what's happening."
"It's not your fault, babe." I told her.
"And I'm sorry for what's going to happen." As she said this I paused.
"What are you talking about?" I asked her, but she didn’t answer my question.
“I was going to tell you but I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“I know you love surprises.”
“Angie, what are you talking about?” I asked again but still she spoke as if never actually hearing the question.
"I love you. And I want you to do the right thing."
“Do the right thing, Mike. Do it for me.” And then she was out. I told her I loved her once more, kissing her forehead one last time before finally shutting my eyes. And then everything went wrong.
I woke up in the middle of the night, the clock on the nightstand reading 3:33 a.m. The memory of my dream from the night before came screaming back into the forefront of my mind and for a brief moment, I found myself back in my apartment surrounded by darkness. I almost screamed but stopped when I saw the moonlight and lights from neighboring houses, coming through the blinds. I was miles from my apartment, safe. Even so I rolled over, intending to wrap my arms around Angela only to find that she was gone.
“Angie?” I called but she didn’t respond. I jumped out of bed, turning the lights on and that was when I noticed something on the bed. In the darkness of the room I didn't see it, but under the pale light of my lamp I saw a large red mark. On the otherwise clean white sheet was a single handprint but it was from no hand that I have ever seen before. The hand was large, perhaps twice the size of a full grown man and the fingers were very long and ended in narrow points. Leaning in close I saw small tears in the fabric as if someone had drug someone sharp across it.
I didn’t bother to put on any clothes, my mind far too consumed with fear as I realized that the thing from our apartment had Angela. With keys and phone in hand I ran out the door in only my boxer briefs. I must have woken my parents with all of the noise I was making because as I was getting into my car, I heard my father call my name. I ignored him and continued driving because my focus was on Angela and her alone.
The twenty minute car drive was cut down to ten as I sped as fast as I could to our apartment. I didn't know why I went there first, but my gut told me that whatever took her was there. The roads were practically barren at that time of night and I didn’t even see any cops. And frankly I'm glad I didn't. Not only was I going twice the speed limit, I was in my underwear and didn't have my license.
I pulled up to the apartment and found that the normally over full parking lot was strangely empty. There were only a few cars when I knew that there should have been over a dozen. Perhaps whatever was inside, was keeping everyone else away. Or it had cleared out the apartments in another, more gruesome way. I didn’t spend long thinking about it as I stepped out of my car. Looking at my apartment I saw that it was not the only one that was dark. The entire building, the entire complex was consumed by darkness. I reached my phone but decided against it. I had a far better idea for a light source. I popped the trunk and removed a large Mag-Lite. To better my odds, I switched on the high beams of my car, the light casting the shadows away.
I paused only once as I stepped toward the front door. It was my primal fear, screaming at me to stay away, but I couldn’t listen. The love of my life was inside the apartment and I had to make sure she was safe. I loved her with every fiber of my being and would do anything to get her back. With a deep breath, I pushed through the fear and moved forward.
The door was unlocked which I remembered later was because I didn’t bother to lock it during our flight. I expected to see the apartment from my nightmare but instead it was just a regular apartment. That darkness from the night before was gone. The light broke through without any trouble. I could see everything in the light and the very first thing that caught my eye was the box. It was in the center of our living room sitting on our rug. It was as black as ever, the light seemingly absorbed by it and jutting from the shining brass latch was the key.
I took a deep breath, struggling to calm my fraying nerves. I quickly realized just how naked I was but I kept moving forward. I was about halfway to the box when the lights from my car suddenly shut off, sending the room into near darkness. I could have run back outside to check the car but a part of me thought, or part of me knew, that no matter how many times I turned on the lights, they would always shut off. Fortunately, I still had the flashlight clutched in my trembling hand. Steeling my nerves, I kept moving toward the box, each step sapping what little strength I had.
I reached the box and carefully kneeled down in front of it. I was just waiting for something to jump out of it like some evil jack in the box. Nothing did though. Swallowing back nervous bile, I took my free hand I touched the surface of the box. It was cold, much like the day we first saw it. My mind was screaming at me to stop but something kept me moving. I don’t know how it knew but I was certain there was something in the box. So, going against every instinct, I gripped the key and twisted until I heard a soft metallic click. Then with a deep breath, I lifted the lid and gasped.
I dropped the flashlight and scrambled away from the box until I struck the entertainment unit and stopped me. The memory of that box continues to haunt me to this very day. I remembered the feeling of my stomach clenching as I rolled onto my knees, throwing up all over the floor. Tears rained down my face, mixing with the vomit that now stained the hardwood. Coughing and choking on my own sick, my gaze moved away from the floor but the beam of my flashlight fell up upon something else something just as horrific. I had found Angela. She lay on the sofa, her skin pale and eyes open and glassy like that of a doll’s. Though her face was slack, expressionless, I knew she had suffered terrible pain. Her body was a bloodied mess. There were two ragged holes in her chest and stomach. Seeing this, all of the pieces came falling into place and then shattered into minute fragments.
Within the confines of those small wooden walls were two items. One was a human heart and the other was small barely developed fetus. I now understood why Angela didn't drink on our trip and what she meant when she told me she wanted it to be a surprise. She wanted to make sure she the pregnancy stuck. Angela was pregnant. She was pregnant… with our child. As I came to this horrifying realization, dark laughter erupted from the darkness around me. The thing cackled and mocked me, crowing over its victory. It stole not just one life, but two.
After that thing went slightly fuzzy. I remember brief flashes of headlights and the roar of an engine. I know I was cold, but didn't bother to turn on the heat. I know that I drove very far, in a very short amount of time. The first thing I remember with any clarity after leaving my apartment was when I pulled in front of a shop. The store was black, the only lights coming from street lamps. When I saw the shop, I realized where I was and what I needed to do. So, I climbed out of the car, popped the trunk and removed the baseball bat I kept in there for security.
I didn’t bother to even try the door handle. With a good, swift swing, the wood connected with the glass, shattering it. The bottoms of my feet were cut by the fragments as I stepped through the now open door but it didn't matter. I didn't feel a thing. My focus, my hatred was solely on the man who brought that box into our life. I wanted nothing more than to take my bat and cave in his withered old skull.
The store felt cold, far colder than the night itself. A shiver ran through me, but I gripped the bat to help me regain focus. I was scared but I would not be stopped. Approaching the counter, I heard a slight shuffling noise from the backroom much like the other day. My heart raced, my body slick with sweat. All I could think about was wanting to end this man, I needed to. Because of him, the woman I love was dead as was my child, the product of that love. He stole my life and now, I would take everything from him.
"But I have only one more thing to take." A voice called from behind. Upon hearing the voice, my body stiffened, my muscles tensed but I didn’t freeze. Spinning on my bloodied heels, I turned to face the old store owner. He still wore that same impeccable three piece suit and that horribly wicked smile. He flicked the lighter opened and closed, the light sound echoing through the store. The man looked exactly the same except for one thing. It was his eyes. His eyes were bright red and glowed in the darkness of that store. I was prepared to strike him when a small voice of reason within me called out. It took me a while to realize that my inner voice sounds just like Angela. It was the voice, it was Angela who asked me one simple question before I swung that bat: how did he know what I was thinking?
"Who are you?" I shouted. The man's smile widened.
"My true name is not for you to know. My given one is Maledicta Vivificantem; the giver of curses." The man said with pride. "You may call me Mal."
"Well, Mal, I'm going to fucking kill you!" I screamed. I took a single step forward but as I moved, he vanished. There was no puff of smoke or flash of light. He was just gone. All I saw was the shattered glass and my own bloody footprints.
"Kill me?" Mall called from behind, laughing. Turning, I saw him behind the counter, head propped up by one withered hand as the other opened and closed the lighter. "And what are you going to use?" He asked. "That snake?"
The question puzzled me. After all what did he mean by snake? But as I considered the answer, I heard a hiss and felt a slight tickle against my ear. I turned to see that I was no longer holding a bat but instead a hissing python. I screamed throwing the snake away and scrambling backward. However what hit the shelf wasn’t the snake but instead my bat. There was a howl of laughter as I looked back to see the old man cackling up a storm. I turned to see Mal, flicking that lighter open and closed again.
"How did you do that? What are you?" I asked. My voice wavered as the courage and rage that consumed me ebbed back into the recesses of my mind.
"Now that is a good question." He said, flicking the lighter open. Standing up straight, he beckoned me closer with a wave of his gnarled hand. I didn't move, unwilling to trust him. "Come now, I'm not going to hurt you." He said with a frown as he flicked the lighter shut, "What would be the fun in that?"
To call what I heard in his voice sincerity would be vastly overstated, but I did believe him. I knew that if he wanted to kill me he could have done it ten times over. No, I was certain that he had other plans in mind and that my death was not part of them. Mal tapped the counter with his lighter, urging me to hurry. I despised this man but he knew something that I didn’t. Angela died for a reason and I needed answers. This man had them. Then once I learned everything I could, I would kill him.
"Why did you kill… why did you take Angela away from me?" I asked as tears began to fall. Mal cocked his head, his smile never wavering.
“Technically I didn’t.” He grinned, “I merely gave you an item that happed to contain a fairly nasty entity.”
I slammed my fists against the counter screaming, “You killed Angie! She’s dead because of you and if you don’t start talking I am going to take your skull and slam it into this counter and keep doing it until there is nothing left!” Mal’s smile widened as he flicked his lighter open and closed over and over again.
"You certainly have a lot of fight in you. That will serve you well. Now, if you will allow me explain I will tell you everything and when I am done I will offer you a choice. How does that sound?" I said nothing. "Fair enough,” Mal said, taking my silence as my affirmation. “If you have not yet realized, I am not human. Not anymore. You see back in my youth I was charged with the crime of witchcraft and hanged. Unlike many who were hanged, I was a true practitioner of the dark arts. So when I passed through the nexus, I was condemned to the Pit. Now, I wasn't about to be a victim, to suffer torment like the others. I had far too much pride for that. So, I struck a deal with my tormentor, a demon named Rixas. We agreed that if I fulfilled my end of the bargain, I would become the tormentor rather than be the tormented. I was given my task and sent back into the land of the living as a demon. Well demonish we’ll say. I would live, age but never die.
“You see my duty it to distribute cursed items amongst the innocent lambs of the world. Once given the items would then destroy their owners and then wreak havoc on those foolish enough, or unlucky enough, to stumble upon them. I am not bound by land as my shop moves from place to place as I find the proper owners for their proper items.
"I have given away a small two round silver derringer that will always take the life of the owner and his or her lover. There was a doll, possessed by a demonic entity. The doll will consume the life of anyone around it, flesh and bone, leaving nothing behind. Once the owner is gone, the doll will wait until another family claims it and the process repeats itself over again. I have given away a typewriter that conjures anything into existence that is typed using it. You’d be surprised what one will bring to life if given the chance. One of the more modem items was a video camera with a tape already inside. The curious owner will watch the tape and then be drawn to the location they saw and then vanish entirely. The camera will be found by another and then another and then another until doomsday.
"You see, Michael, your beloved was only one of the hundreds of thousand that have suffered and millions more will continue to suffer as long as the items remain in circulation. Now you may wonder why I chose your beloved Angela as the bearer for that box. Well that’s because while others may wield the items, they are always given to a specific person first. Once the original owner is gone, one way or another, they can be taken by anyone. And they all have. Each one has been scattered throughout the world. There a hundreds of items. To date, the last item I have given was item number: six hundred and sixty-five. And this is item number: six hundred and sixty-six."
Mal reached behind the counter and placed a leather bound book with the word "Ledger" stamped on the front in gold lettering. In the corner with that same gold writing was a number: 666. I silently spoke the word to myself playing with its meaning. Six hundred and sixty-six. I wondered if the black box had the same gold lettering somewhere on it. Perhaps on the bottom, proof that it was this cursed item he claimed it to be.
"What is that?" I asked. Mal patted the book lovingly, brimming with pride.
"This is Item Number: Six Hundred and Sixty-Six. My final item. It contains a list of all of the items that I have given out throughout the centuries. As well as all of the names of the original owners and all of the curses attached to the items. With this, the items may be tracked down and perhaps even reclaimed." Mal explained. I narrowed my eyes, certain that there was a catch. There always was.
"Why would you do this? Why would you give out a book that could undo… everything you've done?" I asked. Mal laughed as he flicked the lighter open and closed.
"And Michael this brings us to your choice." He said. I cocked my head slightly, forgetting entirely that he told me a choice would come my way when he was done. I postured trying to appear more menacing but in my current state it was difficult to do so in a pair of striped boxer briefs.
"And what is that?" I asked.
"You see you could turn away and leave, denying me my task. If you did, I would be cast back into the Pit, my demonic powers stripped from me, and tortured and ripped apart over and over again. You see this item was always meant for you. You must be original owner. To say no would ensure that I would suffer for all eternity. It would be perfect justice for the crimes I have committed. However, those items I have given out would be lost to you and they would continue to destroy those around them. You would get your vengeance but at a terrible cost. Just imagine how many innocent lives would be snuffed out if you said no." Mal explained, flicking the lighter opened and closed. He was positively giddy at the thought. Even the idea of his own damnation didn't dampen his excitement.
"And if I accept the book?" I asked. "What happens then?" I didn't think it was possible but he looked even happier.
"Then my work is complete. I would maintain my demonic status and return to Hell in order to take on the mantel of torturer. I would be out of your reach, but you have a sizable steppingstone toward the salvation of countless lives. I claim my prize, but you can save innocent lives." Mal explained.
I immediately understood that the item itself was not cursed, not in the way the others were. If I turned away I would have innocent blood on my hands, gallons and gallons of it. I knew he wasn't bluffing. There was no point. He was already on the verge of victory. The items were out in the world, six hundred and sixty-five of them, and people were dying and more were going to die. As I considered my options Angela flashed across my mind as she lay on the sofa, her body a ragged mess. Then, just as quickly the brief conversation we shared during out last night together came to me and now made so much sense. It was as if Angela, part of her anyway, knew how this was going to end and that she was urging me to do the right thing.
So now I had a choice to make. Do I allow Mal to succeed and save lives, or damn him but damn others? In the end, the choice was obvious.
The police are looking for me. This isn’t very surprising since not only did I flee from the scene of a crime but my fingerprints where everywhere. After I left the shop, I drove back to my apartment to collect a few items to pawn, grabbed some clothes, cash and other various supplies I may need. And I made sure to collect the box, or as it’s called in the ledger: The Dybbuk Box. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it yet but I had to make sure no one else got their hands on it. I removed the… contents, placing them where they… should go. As I grabbed the box I noticed the key that once bore Angela's name was blank. It was no doubt ready for another name but I would not allow that to happen.
Before I left, I kissed Angela, the love of my life, once more before covering her and our child with a blanket. I then made my way to the bank and waited until it opened and cleared out our accounts. Once I had the cash I called the police and told them Angie was dead and back at our apartment. I couldn’t stay to explain the situation to them. After all, what was I going to say? A demonic entity killed her after a cursed object was given to us by a quasi-demon who was sent to Earth by an actual demon? If I did it would either be lock up or a psychiatric ward. I had only one choice: keep moving and focus on doing what I could to stop these items. It's what Angela would want me to do. What she wants me to do.
I sold any valuables we had and got out of town as fast as I could. I called my parents with a burner phone later that day to let them know how I was and that I wasn’t responsible for what happened to Angela. Once they and the police realized that I lied about the fake ex-boyfriend I was their prime suspect. In spite of what the police were accusing me of, they believed that I was innocent. I speak to them every so often but not for very long just in case someone is listening.
I keep moving, never settling for too long. I grew out a fairly thick beard and let my hair grow out and even where fake glasses to further disguise myself. I take on odd jobs for money or flat out steal, which I have to say I'm pretty good at. I’ve become a pretty good fighter since I've had a lot of practice as I try and track down the items. My most recent sparring match came after running into some less than reputable people when trying to acquire the Siren’s Music Box. It took some effort and a few bullets but I managed to get my hands on it.
It was less than a year ago, I was an average guy with a normal life. Now I've jumped headlong into a world that I never would have believed existed. In the process I've made allies, but lost my friends and family. I have collected over a dozen objects, keeping them in a massive vault an associate of mine happened to have on his property. It didn’t take me long to learn that I can’t destroy the items by any means I know of yet. All I can do is contain them. I know I may never find all of the objects; in fact I'm sure I will die trying. However as long as I live, I will do whatever it takes to save as many people as I can. I only pray that one day I will be with Angela once again and for now that's the best I can hope for.