Welcome to Greyhollow, a small town with a dark past and even darker secrets...
Inside the office, the principal sat behind a lacquered mahogany desk which bore an official name plate. "Headmaster Hartness." It said in gold lettering, a sign of his British heritage. Behind the desk, a large number of rugby trophies glinted. Hanging on the wall above was a crest depicting a moon, a book and a dragon. It was the official crest of St. Andrews University, a prestigious institution which Hartness attended. He took great pride in his alumni status, often mentioning experiences of his time there to the chagrin of students and teachers alike.
Tristan squinted at the motto below the crest, a string of Greek words which were said to mean "Ever to Excel." Aiden would often say that Hartness had translated it wrong, and it was 'Ever to Expel.' This didn't seem very far fetched, considering the strict manner which he ran the school and his quickness to hand out severe punishment.
Principal Hartness opened a drawer and removed some forms, humming a jaunty tune. He moved at a deliberate pace, perhaps enjoying the sight of his wards squirming with suspense. Placing them next to a folder, he stroked his perfectly groomed mustache and eyed the group thoughtfully.
"Normally, I would have brought you in one by one." The accent reminded Tristan of a Bond villain, suave and insidious. "But as we Brits say, we've got you all bang to rights." Dylan whimpered. Hartness grinned toothily. "Oh yes, and I'm chuffed to bits about the whole thing. You four thought you were having a lark, wagging off to have a couple of gaspers eh?"
Clara leaned over to Tristan and whispered, "What's he saying?" He shrugged back as the principal continued. "I've been trying to nab you lot for a fortnight, ever since the Staff Lounge was stench bombed." Aiden snickered and tried to turn it into a cough. This only seemed to further boost Hartness's unnaturally jolly demeanor, he chuckled while opening another drawer. "Yes, bravo. It was extraordinary, really. The janitor did his best, bless him, but he hasn't quite gotten the smell out yet. Of course we can't pin it on anyone, but this time we can."
He reached into a drawer and removed a clear plastic bag which he triumphantly displayed. "Here is your undoing!"
Three dirty cigarette butts were inside, damning evidence from the previous day. Tristan paled and saw his friends wearing a similar expression. Practically giddy, the principal chortled with glee. "Blake informed me there were students mucking about outside, right where I found these. So I checked with the teachers and found that you four all played hooky during the same class. You'd think I lived on Baker Street."
Stomach twisting, Tristan's mind raced as he tried to come up with an excuse as to why they skipped out. Practically in tears, Dylan looked on the verge of a breakdown. Aiden stared at the bag blankly, as if he had never seen it before. Speaking up, Clara noted that there was four of them but only three cigarettes.
"Still, one of you was present with the other three. In for a penny, in for a pound." Hartness dropped the bag on the desk and sat back, surveying the guilty party. "Back in my day..." Tristan groaned inwardly as the British man began to regale about how at St. Andrew's things were harsher and they did things better then and if he had his way the four of them would have been expelled long ago.
"... But you Yanks do things differently, so regrettably I will have to settle for a five day suspension." The last three words hit them like a death sentence. Wide eyed, the four of them watched in shock as their judge wrote four slips detailing the circumstances and the punishment. "You will hand these to your parents, if they would like to dispute this I would be more than happy to discuss it with them."
He rose and stood beaming at them, as if he'd just handed out glowing report cards. "It begins at once. You have until next period to collect your things and leave. Good day!"
And with that he shooed them out of the office and shut the door.
"Guys don't worry, I have a plan." Aiden whispered conspiratorially. "Oh sure, like your plan to skip class and get us screwed over?" Clara snorted as they walked down the vacant halls. "Just meet me in the parking lot and I'll explain. In the meantime don't say anything, otherwise we really are screwed."
He raced off, sneakers squeaking down the corridor. As the echoes faded away, Tristan clapped Dylan on the back. "Let's get out of here and drown our sorrows in a thick milkshake. Waddaya say?" This managed to brighten his spirits somewhat and Dylan managed a small smile. "There he is!" Cheered Tristan.
"I'm going to kill Blake." Muttered Clara, a venomous look flashing in her eyes. "I want in." Tristan ground out, clenching his fists. Even Dylan jumped aboard the murder train, offering to bring the shovel. Fortunately for Blake, the trio didn't cross paths as they headed out to the parking lot, where a familiar rusted black jeep was running.
"Shotgun!" Dylan crowed victoriously. "We'll let him have this one." Clara winked at Tristan as they clambered in the back. In the driver seat, Aiden was bobbing his head to music thudding from fuzzy speakers. "Freedooom!" He roared as they sped away from school and towards Greyhollow.
"So brainiac, what's the big idea?" Clara cocked an eyebrow at the groups' mastermind. "Hold on, I'm trying to decide here." Aiden said from behind a menu. After yesterday's failed attempt they were once again seated at Harry's Diner, stomachs rumbling with anticipation. The diner was mostly empty, a typical slow morning. Tristan wondered why they elected to let Aiden make the plans, more often than not everything went sideways and fell apart in spectacular ways. Dylan was gazing out the window nervously, scanning the horizon for possible dangers. "I still think this isn't smart. What if someone sees us and tells our parents?"
With a sigh, Aiden dropped the menu. "You worry too much, you know that?" "And you don't worry enough!" Tristan tossed aside the napkin he'd been playing with and backed Dylan up. "The man has a point. We're taking a risk out here."
Running fingers through his reddish brown hair, Aiden let out another exasperated sigh. "Okay look, here's the deal. He gave us four slips, right? Most schools would call our parents, or send something in the mail. But Principal Hardass is so set on making our lives hell, he wants us to deliver them in person."
Clara wrinkled her nose. "I don't like where this is going."
Holding up a hand impatiently, Aiden continued. "I'm not finished. So he went to some British school or whatever and has some code of honor, which he expects us to follow. But we don't HAVE to play by his rules, you see?"
Dylan's face brightened as he caught what Aiden was getting at. "No letter, no problem!"
"My man." They high fived and cheered while Clara and Tristan had some misgivings about the proposed plan. "I have my doubts about this..." He muttered to her. Putting her blond hair in a pony tail, Clara agreed, voicing her dissent to the two celebrating.
"So what are we supposed to do instead of going to school?" Dylan and Aiden stopped the festivities. Everyone looked at the brainiac as he thought for a second and then stuck his thumbs towards himself. "Hiding out at this guy's house! Awww yeah!"
Dylan high fived him again and they resumed partying, throwing their hands in the air and whooping. Shaking his head Tristan glanced at the only other sensible one in the group. "We are so screwed." She said.
"By the way," Clara dug through her massive purse and spent a few minutes grumbling until she found it. "I have an old phone you can use, since yours kicked the bucket." Handing him a pink flip phone, she smiled sheepishly. "Sorry about the color." Ignoring laughter and mockery from the other two, Tristan gratefully accepted the gift. "Wow, this is amazing! I was wondering how I was going to get ahold of you guys." Clara did a double take. "Wait, seriously? You'd use it?"
Flipping it open, he started playing with it. "Duh, a phone's a phone." Aiden said something about Tristan texting his boyfriends and Dylan snickered. Tristan pretended to blow it off, but his face reddened with shame. Shooting dirty looks at the pair, Clara fished the charger out. "My number's in there already, so you'll have someone to talk to besides these jackasses." Tristan was at a loss for words. It was the most thoughtful thing anyone had done for him. Before he could say anything Jez sauntered up with her notepad
"Not gonna skip out this time, are you?" She teased and caught sight of Tristan's new phone. "Think pink! I like it." This brought a fresh wave of giggling as Tristan buried his head in the menu. Clara talked over the commotion. "Ignore the children. I'll have a diet Coke, mozzarella sticks and the Blue Buffalo."
Noting the order she turned to the red faced boy. "Poor kid, are they picking on you?" Tristan put down the menu and said, "It's okay because Aiden's paying for this round." That wiped the grin off his face. "Say what now?"
It was Tristan's turn to gloat. "I think I speak for us all when I say you owe us." Unsurprisingly, Dylan agreed along with Clara. Facing a majority decision Aiden sensibly caved in, grumbling that he couldn't afford eating out all the time.
"What a shame," Jez sighed dramatically. "I'm going to miss seeing you all the time."
"Just how often DO you come here?" Clara narrowed her eyes at Aiden, who avoided the question and opted to rattle off his order.
"Okie dokie, Tristan?" Looking down at the menu he was the process of making a final decision when something burned his chest, causing him to cry out. Everyone looked at him in concern as Tristan clutched at his shirt, below which the amulet radiated an unnatural heat. Clara put her hand on his shoulder. "Are you okay?" Wordlessly he nodded, wincing.
The bell jingled as the door swung open, bringing a cold draft which swept through the diner. A figure stood in the doorway, sniffing loudly. He wore a black trench coat with an upturned collar, and a low brimmed hat. The clothes had an oily sheen to them, as if he had been walking in heavy rain. Beneath the hat it was difficult to make out features, but his skin appeared blotchy and uneven.
"Be right with you, go ahead and take a seat!" Jez called out before she turned back to the grimacing boy. The amulet pulsed with warmth, almost like a beating heart. From the doorway, the man turned his head towards the group and sniffed again.
"Sir? You can have a seat, I'll take your order in a moment." Silently, the stranger moved to the booth in front of them. "I'll just take the special today. With a water." Tristan managed a weak smile. Jez nodded and flipped the page over. "Be back with your drinks, k?" She moved to the newcomer's table and asked what he was having.
Clara put her hand on Tristan's shoulder, worry in her eyes. "Hey. Are you sure you're feeling alright?" He tried to play it off as if it was nothing, but convinced no one.
"Meat." The stranger's voice was thick with phlegm, almost a gurgle. "I'm sorry?" Said Jez, looking perplexed. "Bring me meat." "Sir, you need to be more specific." He put a hand inside his coat and withdrew a stack of bills which he placed on the table. "I want it raw." The nails on his hands were long and dirty. Jez looked at the money and shrugged. "Well we can't be liable for food borne illnesses..." The man hissed unpleasantly, pulling out some gold coins. Jez scribbled on the pad and smiled. "Okay sir, I'll be right back."
With her departure, the newcomer turned his focus on the four in the booth before him. Tristan could feel his gaze crawling across him and felt as though he was about to be sick. "I'm okay, just gotta go to the bathroom real quick..." He rose unsteadily and tottered off to the bathroom.
Leaning on the sink for support, Tristan closed his eyes and counted to ten until the nausea faded down. Feeling somewhat better he pulled out the warm amulet and gasped. What the hell...? The outer edges of the eye seemed to spin while the jade iris shone with a
powerful glow. Tristan was shocked it wasn't visible outside his shirt.
On impulse, he turned off the light and looked in the mirror. There were no windows, Tristan stood in total darkness except for the amulet's glow. A faint green orb encased him, the center of which lay the silver eye, winking with each pulse. He stood marveling at this new discovery when the bathroom door squealed open and in walked the man.
The door creaked shut.
Tristan froze as the figure crept around the room, sniffing. He couldn't see the stranger, only hear the footsteps as he slowly paced the floor. Bile burned his throat as another wave of nausea swelled with the man's presence. Gripping the amulet tightly, he shivered as the room grew chilly. The flip phone loudly buzzed in his pocket. From the back of the room Tristan heard a final sniff and then silence.
Every instinct was shrieking at him to run but his legs refused to move. Paralyzed with terror, he stared wild eyed at his reflection, pleading for help. The glow illuminated his face from below, giving Tristan a ghoulish appearance. And then another face appeared.
Behind him, the man approached.
Hatless, his head appeared like a skull with loose fitting skin stretched over it. Nearly bald, patches of hair had fallen out in chunks, leaving shiny red scars. Shadows filled vacant eye sockets like empty holes. Below jutted a malformed nose, seeming to possess several nostrils. Tristan wanted to scream as the monstrous vision grew nearer, the slit-like mouth opening to extend a long worming tongue. Saliva slid from the sickly yellow appendage, dribbling as it tasted the air beside his head.
Cold breath wafted over his neck, carrying the scent of rotten meat. It was almost upon him, rasping as the probing tongue writhed excitedly.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
"Tristan?" Clara called out. "Everything okay in there?"
The creature hesitated.
"I'll check on him." Dylan said, muffled through the door. Slinking back, the creature hissed and melted back into the darkness.
The door swung open, light spilling in as Tristan's legs gave out. He collapsed to the floor as Dylan shouted for Aiden to help.
Somebody flipped the switch and florescent blubs flickered to life, washing away the darkness. With fuzzy vision, he made out figures rushing towards him, panicked voices babbling. The world slipped away as arms picked him off the cold tile and everything faded to black.
Drifting through the subconscious, he gradually became aware of the outside world. Murmurs formed into words as Tristan swam up through the ethereal haze. Disoriented, he cracked open a heavy eyelid. Blurry images slowly came into focus, blinking at his new surroundings while struggling to comprehend the situation at hand.
Tristan was lying on something soft, in a hot room. Something sizzled in the background underneath the dull roar of a fan. The scent of browning beef hung thickly in the air. As he regained his senses it became apparent he was in the kitchen. Pots and pans hung from steel ranks above the skillet, where patties were cooking unattended. The cook was arguing with Jez, waving a greasy spatula about. "I don't know where Harry put the first aid kit!"
Turning his aching head, the woozy boy found that he was lying on a pile of laundry. Beside him sat Clara, tight lipped with worry. Her head was tilted as she listened to her phone. "... No, he just collapsed. I don't think he has a history of epilepsy. Can you please just send someone?" The blonde girl pleaded with the responder. "What do you mean you need more information?" She snarled.
When Tristan stirred, Clara nearly dropped the cell in relief. "Oh my God, he's awake!" Her outcry brought a flurry of movement, curious faces peering from every angle. Rushing in from regions unknown, Dylan and Aiden joined the small crowd around the recovering boy. "What happened...?" He muttered as he tried to sit up. Gently, Clara pushed him back down. "Actually, that's what we wanted to ask you. You passed out in the bathroom."
A flood of memory washed over Tristan, thrashing in rising hysteria as he remembered the hideous visage in the mirror. "The man!" He cried fearfully as hands gently held him still. "The man with the twisted face..." Shuddering, the panic ebbed away as soothing voices reminded him there was no threat.
"You mean the weird guy with the hat?" Inquired Jez, wrinkling her brow in thought. Tristan nodded, swallowing nervously. Holding up a familiar oily fedora, Aiden shrugged. "I found this in a stall after we brought you back here, the creep must have made an escape during the commotion." Clara squeezed Tristan's hand comfortingly. "It's okay, we'll look out for him."
"Think we need the ambulance?" Dylan asked the others. The cook shrugged and flipped a blackening burger with a sigh. "He looks okay to me. I don't mean to be an asshole, but we've had customers coming in and I'm way behind." Off in the distance, the bell ringed again. Cursing, Jez hurriedly gathered her notepad and pencil. "Be right with you!" She called out before turning back to the group, brushing red curly hair out of her face. "Sorry, but he's right. If you need anything I'll be out front." With a saucy wink, she vanished.
"Hello? Oh I'm sorry." Clara apologized, listening to the emergency dispatcher. Shaking her golden head, she confirmed there was no immediate threat and asked if the first response team could be cancelled. "Oh you never sent them in the first place?" She hung up in disgust.
"I need a Triple Bacon Delight!" Jez called out to the short order cook, who grumbled as he tossed a slab of the aforementioned meat on the grill. Fat hissed and spat, showering on the teens huddled below. "Think you can stand?" Dylan said, covering his head. "I love food as much as the next guy, but I don't want to wear it."
"Yeah, I think so." Helping him to his feet, Aiden carefully guided Tristan out the back where he had previously stashed the Jeep. "Hey kids," The cook hung his head out the door. "I packed your food to go." He handed them two white paper bags, covered in grease stains. Steam rose from the open tops, exuding a mouthwatering scent. Dylan was beside himself with joy, thanking the benefactor profusely. "Figured you should get some food in those bellies before one of youse faints again." He chuckled. "Jared, I need two pigs in a blanket!" With a sigh, the weary cook waved farewell and went back to the sweltering kitchen.
"Where are we going?" Tristan asked blearily. The smell of fries and juicy beef wafted through the car as the driver swatted Dylan's impatient hands away from the stuffed bags. "I said wait! Bad Dylan." Glancing back, Aiden switched lanes. "My house, duh. I thought you guys knew what the game plan was."
It wasn't really a house, but nobody cared to correct him whenever Aiden referred to the apartment above his dad's tattoo parlor. The glass window out front displayed the name "STINGIN' INK" in an eye-catching font. Within, photos and stencils of assorted images hung above two padded leather chairs. Most were common tattoos which held popularity, such as crosses or roses. If someone requested something a little more elaborate, there was a massive book which held intricate designs requiring multiple sessions.
In the back, a staircase led to the living quarters which Aiden called home. Cramped though it may have been, he managed to get the larger of the two bedrooms and spent an inordinate amount of time making it cozy. Posters of favorite bands plastered the walls, bringing splashes of color which covered nearly every free space. A lava lamp stood on his worn nightstand, casting a green glow over the interior.
The four sprawled around the bedroom, Tristan flopping next to Clara on the cracked leather couch. Sinking into a orange bean bag, Dylan eagerly opened the take-out bag. He tossed a foil wrapped burger to Aiden, who lay stretched out on his futon. "Food of the gods." Clara spoke through a mouthful of fries. For a few minutes, the only sound was lips smacking and grunts as the teens scarfed the meal down at an alarming rate. Belching loudly, Dylan rubbed his stomach and sighed happily. "I thought we would never eat."
"Talk about an emotional rollercoaster." Aiden said, wiping ketchup off his mouth. Feeling as though he could take a nap, Tristan opened one eye when Clara elbowed him. "So what the hell happened back there? You scared the hell out of us."
They listened wide eyed as he recounted the events that transpired, gasping at the description of the monstrous stranger. "I knew something was up with that guy." Clara shivered. "The worst part is that he's still out there." Dylan said quietly. Nobody knew what to say after that, looking at each other nervously. Someone pounded on the door, making them jump.
"Aiden, I know you're in there." A voice slurred behind the wooden entrance.
The muscled teen rolled his eyes. "Relax guys, it's just my dad."