by Blizzy Fox
Horror Short Story (Five Chapters; 10k words)
Henry Williams was a senior manager working for a big business firm in Diamond City. There werenâ€™t a lot of corporations of such size and scale even for a place many foreigners regarded as the Star of the North, and yet through sheer dedication and hard work, Henry won the hearts of his superior and climbed up the ladder. Humility and kindness were the defining traits of his character, and they made him an incredibly popular figure in the community, albeit being a man of few words and a constant lurker in every party he was invited to. Still, the community in Diamond City was more than welcome for a character like him. He owned a luxurious house by the cliff, boasting an incredible sea view. It was located in the affluent Eastern district about a mile away from his office. Despite being single, Henry relished in the many close friendships he made with people from work and his neighborhood. It was a life craved by many. Henry knew that to be true, and he did not ask for more.
One slow Thursday morning, as Henry was sipping his morning coffee, he read about Jacob Butlerâ€™s disappearance on the news. It was utterly shocking to him, for not only was Jacob a member of his business firm, they were also close friends, or at least they used to be. Henry immediately tried contacting Jacob, but he drew a blank. Jacobâ€™s wife, Mrs. Emily Butler, sobbing as she answered his call, informed Henry of the police at their house. She hung up abruptly. Henry was distraught as he left for work early. When he arrived at the office, he immediately visited Jacob Butlerâ€™s cubicle, which was located at the far end. It was where they used to chat during lunch breaks. Its appearance did not deviate much from his memory â€“ opened folders, crumpled paper, pencil scribbles, a broken monitor, a precariously dangling lamp, all before a slanted wooden chair, even though he had not been there for a long time. Henry returned to his own room. He sat in his chair, deep in contemplation and listening to the muffled conversations outside. There was a knock on the door. His assistant informed him of the police at the entrance. Before his superiors and coworkers could join the fray, Henry quickly went out to greet them with alacrity. He invited them to his room, and ordered his assistant to procure them with delicious green tea. They declined, but thanked him for his hospitality. Questions were asked regarding Jacob. Henry was sure that no one else in this company could provide as much relevant information about a man as reticent as Jacob Butler, so he was keen to tell his story to the police. Jacob joined the company five years ago, applying for the position as an assistant. At first, Henry was dubious of the mysterious young man who seemed to come out of nowhere, but quickly felt sympathy for the bad shape he was in. He learned that Jacob had just moved into the city, and he was finding a way to fit in. Henry immediately lent him a helping hand, by endorsing his job application and by finding him a proper place to live. He gave him basic financial support for daily necessities, and told him the ins and outs of this new world. Jacobâ€™s condition gradually improved and gained familiarity with his surroundings. Jacob was a hard worker like Henry, and an even faster learner. He quickly grew into his job and received praise for his work efficiency. In a matter of months, the company found it fit to promote him to a formal accountant, entrusting him with the company finances. Although Jacob became financially independent and no longer required Henryâ€™s aid, the two remained close friends for a few years. Jacob reciprocated Henryâ€™s magnanimity by allowing him into his quiet life, often inviting him to his tiny apartment in the western district for a quick chat, or a heartfelt conversation that lasted the night. Their topics spanned from the gleeful to the downhearted, from the humorous to the austere, from the intimate to the macabre. Henry was fascinated by his personality, and he indulged in his vivid imagination, especially his nightmares. Jacob lived in a constant state of depression, and his cheerful countenance belied his stricken soul. Henry tried his best to assuage his sadness, albeit in vain, and he stopped after realizing it was not in Jacobâ€™s interest to be helped, but rather to be understood.
When Jacob got married, Henry was the only person that attended his wedding, a nice private occasion for which Jacob had scrimped a yearâ€™s worth of wages to pay. Henry canceled all his appointments and gatherings for a full day at church. Mrs. Butler was a glamorous lady whom Jacob met at a random bar. She did not mind Jacobâ€™s lowly status and his lack of social ties, and it was perhaps why Jacob loved her so much. Three years had gone by since that day. Their marriage was not free of conflicts and arguments, and Henry could tell it from Jacobâ€™s voice. However, he also assumed that they could solve their problems within themselves, for they were always transparent with each other, a quality lacking in most marriages.
Over the past year, Henry became a busier man, while Jacob had other business to care for, and a wife to tend to. They no longer talked as often as before, and they would go on long periods without seeing each other. While they still greeted each other courteously when bumping into each other in the office, Jacob would refrain from talking about his personal life. From Henryâ€™s perspective, there were never any signs of falling out, nor were there any obvious conflicts between them. Perhaps it was the reason behind the apparent coldness, he thought. All good memories taper through time; some remember them more fondly than others.
Jacobâ€™s backstory was shrouded in secrecy. During the first few years of their acquaintance, Henry would repeatedly try to pry about his past, and the man would turn quiet, give a blank stare, and drift into deep thought, as if Henry had inadvertently dredged up memories that should be better left buried. Henry was baffled and the mystery only goaded him to speculate more. One day, Jacob finally gave in and divulged the secret that he had long kept. They were sitting at Henryâ€™s balcony, savouring the sunset view and counting ships, when Henry asked the age old question once again.
â€śFine, fine,â€ť Jacob sighed. â€śItâ€™s worse if you keep making me think about it. I was born and raised in Town Salem. I was there for twenty years.â€ť
â€śTown Salem? I know that place. Do people still live in Town Salem? Last time I heard there was a mass exodus, and no one cared to look into it since,â€ť Henry responded, enthused.
â€śLetâ€™s just say, I urged myself not to think of it, let alone finding out.â€ť
â€śWhat about your family or friends? Have you ever reached out to themâ€¦â€ť
Jacob gestured to stop. Quite uncommon for his friend to end a conversation abruptly, but he closed his eyes, and his face was grim. With respect, Henry obliged.
Henry was about to go on about Jacob before he was ground to a halt. The police had been sitting for three hours straight. Their throats were parched and the cold tea was tantalizing them. They had asked the necessary questions, and the rest of Jacobâ€™s story was superfluous. Their tidy notes slowly progressed into haphazard scribbles. So they asked courteously to leave, leaving Henry slightly dismayed. The police left without an inkling of Jacobâ€™s whereabouts, and nor did Henry.
Henry called Jacobâ€™s number several times to no avail. This left Henry rather sad, for he expected Jacob to notify him whenever he was about to do something utterly outrageous, regardless of how obdurate he was. This was almost like a running joke, a pact that they tacitly acknowledged, which seemed to have dissolved. He thought he knew the man well.
Henry did not do any work at all except a casual scroll through his business email. He deferred all the important work matters to the next day and left early. It was then that he decided to pay Mrs. Butler a visit in the hopes of getting more information. It had been some ten months since he last entered Jacobâ€™s apartment. He remembered arriving there in the middle of a heated argument, an embarrassing memory that all involving parties had since deemed terribly awkward and slightly hilarious.
Upon arriving at the Butler apartment, Henry immediately recognized the scent of Earl Grey sifting out of the cracks on the wall. When Emily Butler saw his husbandâ€™s old friend, her worried face took on a merry excitement. They exchanged a few words and took a seat in the living room. As Mrs. Butler stoked the fire, Henry took a sip of the succulent tea and scanned around the living room, taking note of all the broken furniture and shattered decorations that had since been partially patched up, yet nevertheless left a sense of lingering melancholy imbuing the tiny living room.
â€śWhat do you know, Mrs. Butler?â€ť asked Henry. â€śForgive me for not catching up to Jacobâ€™s condition lately, for I never seem to find the time. But for old times sake, you can put your trust in me, donâ€™t you think?â€ť
â€śI count on you more than I count on those imbeciles dressed up in police uniforms!â€ť said Mrs. Butler. â€śThey asked me some basic things. I told them everything I know. Five minutes later they stood up, told me that they would do their darndest, and left in a hurry. Yes, they are sending search parties, but my expectations are as low as their professionalism.â€ť
â€śWe can try to solve this before the police do,â€ť said Henry, nodding. â€śDid he tell you anything before he left, and what was he doing the last time you saw him?â€ť
Mrs. Butler shook her head.
â€śIt has been three days. The company called me a few times reporting his absence. I didnâ€™t give much thought into it because heâ€™s always one to throw a fit, so I thought it was normal behavior. I saw him the night he left, but I didnâ€™t talk to him. There is a cold war between us two, and it has been that way for almost two weeks now. â€ś
â€śI thought you two made up ages ago,â€ť Henry responded.
â€śWe did, but it can never be all sunshine and rainbows; how could it be? You know who that person was, Henry, but you are not up to date with what he has become. He is even worse than before, his depression, or if I say the demons in his head. He is hiding more than he needs to. I have a great capacity for tolerance, but I cannot stand the sporadic fits that he throws, and how he magically conjures problems out of thin air, all while he drags me deeper into his insanity by the day.â€ť
â€śHe didnâ€™t contact us both,â€ť Henry mused, stroking his chin. â€śI find it uncanny that he puts us out of the loop. You would assume it is some furtive matter, but what else that we shouldnâ€™t know about? What should drag him into such obscurity? What did this insanity bring him? Beats me, Mrs. Butler. Beats me.â€ť
He was not out to kill himself, Henry was fairly certain of that. Jacob had been on the brink of suicide several times. Henry knew it to be true that Jacob was never secretive about any of his ultimately botched attempts. Every time he tried it, he would at least let Henry come to him and share a moment together. They would talk for hours on top of a random skyscraper in the city center. They would laugh it out, setting aside whatever fatalistic thoughts that simmered under the surface. However, those conversations were always met with the same ending.
â€śI almost got distracted,â€ť Jacob would chuckle as he stood up from the ledge, â€śYouâ€™re right, Henry. I almost let the trivialities of this city distract me. It would be stupid that I made it this far and perish in a place that was marked with so much joy and happiness. If I shall die, I shall not die here. My body belongs somewhere else, somewhere that at the very least deserves it.â€ť
Jacobâ€™s words had baffled Henry for the longest time. It is common for a suicidal person to realize he is not in the right mood, or it is not the right time, or there are still things to live for. It is not common, however, that a suicidal person fancies the idea of dying somewhere more â€śdeservingâ€ť. However miserable he feels, an unceremonious plunge down a random hundred feet tall building in the western district of Diamond City just wouldnâ€™t do, as if there was a legacy to build, an obligation to fulfill, a memory to live down.
Was he always tentative about embracing death, or was it the opposite?
The two pondered in silence. Suddenly Mrs. Butler raised her eyebrows and jolted forwards from her seat.
â€śHenry,â€ť she asked. â€śWhat did Jacob tell you about that woman?â€ť
Henry was startled. He gave Mrs. Butler a nervous glance, meeting her stern eyes.
â€śWhatâ€™s with a woman?â€ť Henry muttered under his breath.
â€śDonâ€™t you play me as a fool! Amelie. You must know that name, for I know my husband, and I know he has told you all about her. You donâ€™t expect your dear friend can keep the secret for the entire duration of his marriage, do you? â€ś
Henry placed his hands on his head. He gave a faint smile. How folly he is to assume they can keep it away from Emily forever!
â€śDonâ€™t be silly now, Henry,â€ť Mrs. Butler continued. â€śI donâ€™t mind at all, or I can pretend not to care. That woman may be his old flame, but I am his wife, and I do not fear her a single bit. Now my husband is missing, and he did not tell me where he went. Iâ€™m half certain he is on his way to find her, being so disgruntled with his current marriage. Does that make any sense to you, Henry?â€ť
Henry stared at Mrs. Butler. She was simpering, as if gloating over her own intelligence. He nodded amiably.
â€śWith this out of the way, I also think he had divulged to you more than what I could fish out of his cot of secrets. Tell me. Does that name lead us anywhere in this confusing enigma?â€ť
â€śYou speak in codes, Mrs. Butler,â€ť responded Henry.
â€śIâ€™m as frank as I can be, Henry,â€ť Mrs. Butler bickered. â€śLetâ€™s say you tell me, at the spot, where that old crush of his lives, so we can just get on with it and finish what would likely take the police eons to accomplish, shall we? If you didnâ€™t want more of what you saw last time, which I must admit did not age well, I can go by myself, although your company would be very welcome.â€ť
Henry chuckled. He was looking at the crack on the concrete wall that was tearing out of the wedding portrait and towards the edges of the hearth. The embers crackled and the fire whimpered. The pale white sky swirled into a seamless amalgamation of flaming red and orange, smoldering below the flaming clouds, scintillating behind the setting sun.
Henry was always eager to offer help. Many years had passed since he first offered Jacob his assistance, and he almost thought he would never live to see the day Jacob makes another request. The circumstances were impossible to predict, of course. but he always knew that no matter what, he would never turn a blind eye to someone who had held such a special place in his heart. Henry sighed and looked at Mrs. Butler, whose confident facade meticulously hid her growing sense of desperation and concern.
â€śAre you sure you donâ€™t want police involvement?â€ť
â€śI want my husband back as soon as possible.â€ť
â€śThen surely you are inclined to wait until morning?â€ť
Mrs. Butler gave him a look of disapproval, and hastily grabbed her handbag from the sofa.
â€śWe set off at dusk. We return by dawn.â€ť