The Clearing

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I don’t know how I came to find myself in that dreadful hollow. The events which preceded my arrival are a terrible blur, though I’m able to glimpse with my mind’s eye but a handful of moments with some clarity – Elise’s desperate wailing… The burning pyre… That… That thing. I can envision it so plainly, that undulating despicable horror that no one should ever have to look upon for even a second.
No more! I can’t bear the thought of it any longer! There I found myself, aching, splayed in the cold mud of this accursed place, beneath a sky so black it was if an illimitable pall had been cast over the firmament. Gasping, I struggled to my feet and, with trembling hand, removed my cell phone from my back pocket, hoping to avail myself of its flashlight lest I be left stumbling through the boundless dark and abandoned to the cruel whims of that thing.
An outburst of idiotic joy burst from my lips when I discovered that there was still life left in my phone’s battery. Not much, but – I hoped – enough. I activated the flashlight feature. Feverishly, I shone the light around me. Roughly twelve feet to my left was a rudimentary footpath, which I instinctively began to follow. My tread was neither measured nor straight, but rather a delirious, almost drunken stagger. I heard not a sound as I haphazardly wove about the path. Of the scenery, I could only discern what meager light my phone afforded me – the damp and ill-trod path which I followed and snatches of the overgrown vegetation which surrounded me. Mostly though, it was simply darkness. I bumbled along for what felt like nearly an hour, my glance darting all about in hopes that I would not encounter my pursuer. Occasionally, I fancied that I heard the terrible metallic screeching with which it would announce its presence. Fear welled up in my chest.
Suddenly, the disconcerting silence was punctuated by a brief yet shrill cry I instantly recognized as belonging to Elise. I couldn’t tell from which direction it came, so I continued hurrying along the footpath. I had to get to her before that thing did. Not caring whether or not I roused its attention, I called out Elise’s name. This elicited no response. My phone’s battery was nearing the end of its charge, and I agonized over the prospect of being left alone in that boundless black wilderness. Five minutes later, my fears were realized. My phone was dead.
I paused, unsure of what to do. By all accounts, I was fucked. Just fucked. Whether or not I pressed on, my demise at the hands of the thing seemed all but an inevitability. My breathing grew heavier as the anxiety mounted to a nerve rending crescendo. I nearly gave in right there. All was lost. I wasn’t coming out of this alive, or if I did somehow manage to survive, I doubted that my sanity would survive with me.
Just as I was about to collapse in defeat, I heard Elise’s horrified cries again. This time, I was able to place where they had originated. They seemed to be coming from several hundred feet in front of me, and I pushed through the darkness, calling her name repeatedly. After maybe ten minutes, I arrived at a small grove which was illuminated by a wholly unearthly glow, as neither moon nor stars punctured the screen of darkness around me. Something about the light was nauseating. In the center of the clearing was what appeared to be a crude fire pit, roughly six feet in diameter, containing piles of black ash, charred fragments of timber, and, to my horror, the charred and disfigured remains of a human being. I vomited. Directly in front of the fire pit loomed a ghoulish tree. Its gnarled branches meandered out from its contorted trunk with no apparent plan and teemed with a peculiar quivering black foliage. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that these leaves were not entirely herbaceous, and seemed to be somewhere between a plant and a fungus, and were coated in a transparent ooze.
As I studied this ghastly piece of flora, I beheld with utter terror an image carved right in the dead center of the grisly trunk. The image itself was crudely hewn, but I recognized it instantly – the vaguely simian visage, with lips curled into a hateful sneer revealing a mouth of craggy fangs, the skeletal indentation where a nose should have been, and the ludicrous bulging eyes whose lifeless stare seemed to bore straight through me. It was the thing.
I could only conjecture as to the nature of this grotesque shrine, but I assumed it had some sort of religious significance. I dared not ruminate any further. Elise was still missing and several minutes had elapsed since last I heard her anguished cries. I frantically scoured the area for any kind of path. I saw none – even the crude footpath that had led me to this place seemed to have been swallowed up by the forest. I rushed to and fro about the clearing calling for her, indifferent to whether or not I alerted that thing to my whereabouts. My calls went unanswered.
This time, I did collapse. I clawed wildly at the moist, squishy ground, gnashing my teeth and cursing the awful darkness around me. Suddenly, the earth began to tremble, and throughout the air, the appalling metallic screech of that thing resounded. It seemed to reverberate within the very walls of my skull. I clutched my ears and wailed in an attempt to drown it out. The sickening luster of the clearing grew until it nigh blinded me. I think I vomited, but I’m not certain. That’s when I saw it – towering above the tree line, was the thing. It’s bulky, writhing form was vaguely humanoid, though in composition it resembled something reptilian or amphibious perhaps, and appeared to be coated in the same viscous substance as the leaves of the tree which bore its image. Its limbs were aberrantly long, skeletal, and grossly disproportionate to its bulbous torso. Its neck extended far into the heights, a thick, fibrous, throbbing stalk which culminated immediately in that apelike visage. It released a gut-clenching shriek that seemed to rend the ochre skies asunder. I shut my eyes tighter than I had ever shut them, and flailed about the accursed ground before ultimately slipping out of consciousness.
When I awoke, I was laying in a hospital bed. I had no recollection of how I ended up there. The nurse informed me that I’d be unconscious for three days, and that when I had regained sufficient strength, the police needed to ask me some questions. I feebly asked where Elise was, but the nurse furrowed his brow and offered no other response.
After two days, I was feeling only marginally better, and I was visited on the afternoon of the second day by a detective Sneeringer. He was a middle-aged man, stocky, with beleaguered eyes and rough stubble covering the lower half of his grave face. After a cursory introduction, he informed me that I had been discovered by a group of hikers in a relatively secluded clearing just off one of the trails of a major state park, which housed a communal fire pit. The hikers had intended to make use of the aforementioned fire pit when they found me in my unconscious state.
I interrupted the detective to ask him where Elise was. He grew quiet, and his already grave expression grew darker. “Where is Elise?” I demanded again. He cleared his throat.
“Mr. Merrow…” he began, “The remains of your wife were found in the communal fire pit, burned nearly beyond recognition, though due to the efforts and ingenuity of our forensics team, we were able to make a positive identification.” I choked on a sob. The detective continued –
“An empty bottle of grain alcohol was found elsewhere in the clearing, and on your person, we found a book of matches. Obviously, you’re our only suspect in this investigation, Mr. Merrow. All that remains is to fit all the pieces together. You were also holding this….” and here the detective produced a scrap of weathered paper which had been hastily folded. With great care, he unfolded the paper and showed it to me.
“We aren’t sure what to make of this, Mr. Merrow, but I was hoping that you would be able to enlighten me. What the hell exactly is this drawing?” My vision was still a bit hazy, and I was not wearing my glasses. I moved my head closer and squinted my eyes. I swooned with seething horror when I realized what was depicted.

-r. miller

Darkness

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I awoke to the sound of screaming, coming, it seemed, from just beyond my window. I wasn’t afraid necessarily, but I was concerned that there would be somebody screaming so loudly at such an hour. Not knowing what to think, I groggily shuffled to the window. I saw nothing unusual, merely the darkness of night faintly illumined by the row of streetlights lined on the sidewalk. Nothing unusual whatsoever.

Still, I gazed out of that window for a full five minutes, contemplating the night, the mysteries of that grizzly black. I marveled at the very concept of darkness. Amazing how it transforms something like a quaint main street in a small town like mine into something sinister, how it thrusts open the castle gates of the imagination, allowing all manner of phantasms and specters and devils to storm the Keep, eager to feast on the sanity within. What a tremendous thing, darkness…

My reverie was broken by the sound of screaming. Startled, I realized that it wasn’t, in fact, coming from just beyond the window, but from within my own goddamned house. My heart surged. I crept to my nightstand, where in a locked drawer, I had stashed a 9mm handgun. A homeowner has the right to defend himself after all.

After loading the pistol and switching off the safety, I tiptoed into the hall. The screams had come from the crawlspace, I was sure of it. I slinked like a shadow down the stairs, and approached the entrance to the tiny room. I placed a damp hand on the knob, and slowly, ever so slowly, pulled the door open. The creak it made resonated through the entire house. My heart picked up speed as I flipped the light switch. What I saw shocked me.

There, amidst the dismembered corpses of my previous victims, was my latest prey, chained to the wall. She had somehow managed to loosen the gag I had so carefully (though not carefully enough, evidently) tied around her mouth.  It was apparent that her frantic wailing was an attempt to garner some attention to her plight. I shook my head, and promptly delivered a significant kick to her exposed stomach. She hollered at the impact. I retied the gag.

“Some of us are trying to get some fucking rest,” I growled as I kicked her again to drive the point home.

-r. miller