by Blizzy Fox
Horror Short Story (Five Chapters; 10k words)
“This is not what I expected,” Mrs. Butler groaned as she circumvented a roadblock barricading the path. Henry parked the car outside the fringes of Town Salem, after deeming the roads inaccessible by ordinary vehicles. In the dilapidated demesne of snow and dust, the two marauders found themselves ambushed by an eerie silence, beset by a looming darkness.
“Town Salem was a metropolis with a decent population just like Diamond,” mused Henry. “I haven’t caught up with the news over the past few years, but at least there ought to be people around. Look at all these infrastructure, buildings, and amenities. This seems like a lovely place, or at least it used to be. Jacob might be poor when I first met him, but he was already accustomed to the urban hustle and bustle. Given what his hometown looks like, I know why it is the case, although there are still a lot of burning questions left unanswered.”
The ghastly look of Town Salem posed a shock to Henry, and the sentiment was shared by Mrs. Butler. They were the only witnesses of what was apparently an uninhabited ghost town, and their flashlights shone two cones of bright light flying across all directions, illuminating the dilapidated remnants of what was considered human civilization. The snow was clean and immaculate, unmolested by human activity. The lights were off, and lamp posts reflected off the pallid moonlight. The stores were closed, and thick layers of dust veiled their front displays. The vehicles were empty, and flimsy cobwebs covered their interiors. Henry peeked inside what was presumably a convenience store at the crossroad, finding nothing but ranks of empty shelves and rows of expired products. The wind carried tiny snowflakes across the stifled air, drenched in a mélange of malodorous scents. A mongrel emerged from the shadows and scoured the lonely lanes. It stopped in the middle of the road, his fur glittering in the silver gleam, and his ears perking and swiveling. Cats gathered by the fountain, sitting on their haunches as they glanced into the distance. Behind the crumbling skyscrapers and upon precipitous slopes, distant bell towers, cathedrals and mansions coalesced into a single mass of amorphous concrete, on which as well as a hundred crows quietly perched. A pack of rats scurried by, digging into random trash cans and garbage bags that filled the dark alleyways. Tiny sprouts plunged out of gutters, wavering and whimpering in the battering cold. Nature had taken over Town Salem, retaining the last of its zest and vigor, although it could not emulate the boisterous ardour of men, and thus could not bring the city back to life.
“Are we sure we are heading in the right direction?” asked Mrs. Butler. She mustered up courage and strength to lumber through the snow on low heels.
“This is our only lead,” answered Henry, glancing at the road signs on the street corners. “If I remember the address correctly, and if your husband’s drunken words are to be trusted, we should be there in no time.”
“But what if this Amelie no longer lives here?” asked Mrs. Butler. “I mean look at this place. It is as if everyone vanished into thin air.”
“The exodus of Town Salem did not involve the entire population,” explained Henry. “When people first went missing, not everyone believed it was necessary to move out. Soon the situation exacerbated, and people found it apt to consider other options and seek refuge in the northern cities, for safety’s sake. However, some locals stood the ground, the steadfast descendents of generations who dwelled here all their lives and were the most loyal. In fact, they might still be living here. Look at all these cars just sitting around. Why would anyone in their right minds leave them here if they decide to move out?”
“Look around you, Henry. How can you even convince yourself? It is night time and not a single window is lit up. The street lights aren’t even on. This town is completely dead! This is a trap!”
“Listen, this is not a trap,” Henry strained for an answer, a word of comfort, or a logical conclusion, but he drew a blank. It was indeed uncanny that everything seemed so orderly and neat. There were no traces of warfare, nor were there signs of a disaster. Save for the slight erosion and rusting that were inevitable to any place that lacked maintenance, the town was in surprisingly orderly and neat condition. It was just another ordinary day in Town Salem, frozen in time.
Mrs. Butler could barely keep up with Henry’s pace. She was about to stumble onto the ground when Henry came to a stop, and she gave a sigh of relief. Henry raised his flashlight over his shoulders. A bright image was cast on the black canvas of a masonry wall. The words “Avery Street” popped into view.
“This should be it,” said Henry. He ran his flashlight down the full length of the street to his left. A residential district, quiet, empty just like the rest. “This is the place he had mentioned so many times. He did not like it very much. In fact, he dreaded it. This so happens to be where she lives.”
“The houses are not numbered,” said Mrs. Butler, as she scanned the surroundings. “How do we know which is the one we are looking for?”
“Jacob never told me the number,” said Henry, his voice turned quiet. “He said he didn’t know. At first, I thought he was trying to hide it from me, but on later occasions, he would tell me that he never learned of the number, and you do not need to know the exact house in order to find her.”
“This is rather confusing,” said Mrs. Butler in disbelief. “No, it is rather stupid. I trusted in you. I thought you could lead me to him. What have you brought us? We’re in the middle of nowhere! Why did I follow you to this festering place? What is this, a ghost hunt?”
“This is what you wanted, Mrs. Butler. You are the one who asked if I know where she lives. Here it is. I don’t care if this is a dead-end, I will search to the ends of the earth and find Amelie before…”
The sound of the word echoed through Town Salem, tumbling down the dormant streets and weary lawns, suffusing every nook and cranny. It rocked the city to its core, shaking the thick layer of snow off its callous skin, unveiling the dormant beauty that had rested for an eternity. Light poured out of every window, filling the streets with a sparkling glow as strong as a thousand suns. The cacophony of conversations filled the air, and so was the excitement of street music. Vehicle engines churned, accompanied by the cankering of machines. Town Salem, the Pearl of the South, had sprung to life, brimming with an ardent readiness as it siphoned years of pent up energy into an exuberant display of colors and sounds. They soared through the cracks of crumbling cathedrals, through the gates of grandiose mansions, through the top of tottering skyscrapers. The cathartic cry of Town Salem galvanized all, including the lowly lands of Avery Street. A swirling gust encircled the show’s only audience, two fragile human beings, whose intrepid quest brought them to the unlikeliest of circumstances and the strangest of worlds. Their jaws dropped in awe at the metamorphosis that unfolded before their very eyes, while they were caged in by the powerful wind, utterly helpless and lost.
The doors opened themselves, and black tendrils poured out of the houses on Avery Street, wrapping around the two bodies with relentless force. Mrs. Butler screamed, but her plea for mercy was quickly stifled by the dark particles that covered her mouth. They could not move a single muscle, and with fearful eyes they could see black figures swarming out of each house and forming a circle around them. They were humanoid in shape, with heads, limbs, and torsos of human proportions. But the resemblance only goes so far, for their bodies were consisted entirely of black smoke curling and twisting over each other, and in place of the human face was a bubbling flat sphere devoid of facial features. They were different in height and breadth, each of them with their own unique characteristics. There were ones with crooked backs. There were ones with slim waists. There were ones with missing limbs. There were ones that stood half the size of others.
Henry and Mrs. Butler were too shocked to think straight, and they did not realize that what stood before them were Town Salem’s finest men and women, their most loyal denizens, who would defend their ancestral houses until the end of time.
The brown door sprang open. The crowd of black figures paved the way for the King and Queen, who strode out of the house and towards the very front of the commotion. The King’s head was dipped, and despite the absence of facial expressions, conveyed the heaviness of ineffable sorrow. The Queen, however, held her head high as she scanned the two visitors in detail, posing like a tiger gushing over its succulent prey, a spider gleefully folding its slimy web. She flew towards them, her stern gaze passing through the whirl of black matter and meeting their wide-open eyes. The King cried and fell to his knees, his head drooping and touching the ground. The Queen did not care. She was adamant, blinded by roiling rage that her mind was set on unleashing.
The Queen could hear her name spoken feebly. It was not mouthed, but rather transmitted through telepathy. She glanced at the King, who was still kneeling in anguish. The sound did not come from behind, but from the front. It was Henry, conveying his desperate message through his intense gaze.
“Please, listen to me…”
You come to take him away.
The Queen’s voice sounded in Henry’s head. It was deep and grating. He could not believe it was of feminine origin.
“Forgive me, Amelie, for I didn’t know,” Henry pleaded. He tried to open his mouth, but it remained tightly shut. Speech adulterates words; they are at their purest and most pristine in the head.
“Jacob was a good friend of mine. He told me he would come to visit you someday. He said it for the longest time. I feel happy for you, that he finally did. I truly am. No, we do not intend to take him back. If we had known what this place is all about, we wouldn’t have come. I am sorry that we disturbed you.”
“There is no lie to be found. He never told me what you have become. He said it was never important, for me to know, and for himself to remember. It was what you used to be that defined his love, the games, the conversations, the playful banter. He wished he could relive those days. Your time together was short and fleeting. I feel very sorry for you, but I can assure that he savored every bit of those memories, and your future will be as beautiful as those glorious days of the past.”
The King let out another cry of despair. The wind continued to rage. The dizziness in Henry’s head swelled into a full-blown headache. He felt he was about to faint, but he was determined to carry on, like how a person’s death throes spur the dying vessel to exceed its physical limits. Henry expended all his strength and will to speak his last words.
“I believed in your love, Amelie. You can forgive him for spending all these years away from home. You can forgive him for marrying another person, whom he thought he loved. You can forgive him if it meant your love could be fixed, and that you two can unite in harmony. What fault is it to mete out forgiveness again? What cost should bother you, if to forgive is so innocuous and so rewarding? What fun is it to watch everyone suffer under your wrath? What is this implacable anger that threatens to kill everyone, including the only witness to your love, the only guest to your wedding?
“Forgiveness does not beget pain; it is pain that begets forgiveness, and forgiveness in turn kills the pain. For the sake of Jacob, and on behalf of everyone here. Free us. Let us be.”
After Henry conceived his final statement, his eyes closed and he fell unconscious. The wind howled, drooling ravenously, but the Queen did not make her move. She grew silent and stared at the fainted man for the longest time. The whole town waited anxiously, the old and the young, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor. The King wailed, all alone.
She sighed. The tendrils slithered away from Henry’s limp body and dropped him onto the wet asphalt.
The King raised his head, his crying stopped as he wiped tears off a tearless face. He scrambled forward and looked sadly at the man lying supine on the ground. He turned to his right and saw the Queen gliding towards the other person, her tendrils tightening around the woman’s neck.
You must be the wife.
Mrs. Butler screamed at the top of her lungs. The Queen closed in on the grip and crushed the brittle bones propping up the woman’s neck. Blood squirted out of the gaping wound like a torrent, and the scream was hastily stifled. The Queen pulled, and the head of Mrs. Butler was completely severed from her body. It flew through the air, adorning the white brick walls of the house with red, before landing hard on the doorstep of the Butler residence. The brown door watched gravely as a trail of blood trickled down the stairs and entered the dirty drains in the street below. The town saw every second of the tragedy. The air was solemn and the wind died down. The churning of distant engines began to quell, leaving only the King’s anguished cry, and the chiming of a distant bell as the northern tower bid the night sky a long adieu.
The loitering spirits of Town Salem decided to leave. The show ended early, for there was no more attention to seek. The dark figures followed each other back to their houses, leaving only the King and Queen in each other’s embrace, softly weeping. The lights extinguished one by one, and darkness took reign once more, the vistas of a prosperous Town Salem slowly evanescing. Snow was conjured out of thin air, covering every surface of the ground, hiding the town’s secrets with a sheet of white. The bodies of Henry and Mrs. Butler were both buried to the top, the former springing out of his snowy grave after a few minutes, gasping for air as he struggled to his feet, alive and well.
He stumbled around, stupefied. Once again, the woman was nowhere to be found. Once again, the houses huddled tightly on the quiet street. Once again, the man ran as fast as he could into Town Salem’s welcoming arms.