Far above the cold earth below, the moon held herself among the stars and smokey grey clouds in the sky. Half of her face was shrouded in darkness and she looked like a timid child peeking from behind a door. She had a good reason to be shy of what lay before her. The land far below was desolate, abysmal, and offered little solace to one such as her.
Trees that followed the bending curves of the ravines were silent. Their once green leaves lied on the ground in hues of yellow, brown, and orange. The trees themselves took on the color of the night as their branches stretched into the sky like they said one last prayer before losing their will to live. In the distance, long strands of dead grass drooped over at the base and overlapped each other in a pattern that oddly resembled waves on the open sea. Yet, they do not move. They merely lied motionless with a thick layer of glittering frost that kept them frozen in time.
The crickets had long since retired to the warm soil far below the frost and their musical harmony did not grace the night. Instead, a pack of coyotes wailed, howled, and yipped in the most sorrowful chorus and an owl hooted when their rounds of calls fell silent.
Every ear perked up as a rumble echoed far in the distance. The ground below them trembled ever so slightly. Every animal ceased to move. Their noises halted and only the increasing volume of the rumble filled the frozen air. Over the horizon, a sharp light flooded the hilltop. Field mice scurried into their burrows and foxes retreated into their dens. The noise grew louder and louder. The light became more distinct as the object came over the hill. Two bright lights shined into the valley far below; every animal eye glowed and every speck of frost sparkled like crystal.
The two brothers silently admired the natural beauty they encroached in as they traveled down the road and deeper into the crevasse of the valley. They'd been on the road for quite some time and it showed on the heavy bags under their eyes and the red venous glaze that surrounded their pupils. They had tried to keep themselves entertained for the last few days, but there were only some many things to talk about before they found themselves repeating conversations from days before.
Both of them were east bound for home after a long stint in Canadian Rockies working odd jobs and taking in all the freedom mountain life had to offer. Tom, the brother driving, kept one had on the wheel and the other on a cigarette that slowly burned with a stream of smoke that crept its way out of his open window. His brother Jordan sat across with is head resting against the passenger door.
The constant drone of the tires went on as they descended deeper into the valley, but suddenly, a loud pop shook them both into a higher state of alertness. "I don't like the sound of that." Tom said with a hint of uneasiness in his otherwise calm demeanor.
Jordan spoke with a more reassuring tone, "It's probably because we're going downhill." His theory was thwarted as the road leveled out and another loud pop came from the exhaust pipe. Jordan then lifted his head and looked over at his brother, "How are we on gas?" he asked with an almost accusing tone.
"Three quarters of a tank." Tom said as he increased the speed of the car in preparation for the upcoming hill. He went on to say, "I don't think it's the hills. We never had this problem in British Columbia." Just as he finished his comment, the motor suddenly dogged down leaving them to exchange worried glances with each other. Just when the motor was about to die, Tom quickly pulled the choke knob out and the engine suddenly sputtered back to a sickly kind of life. "I bet there's shit in the carburetor." Tom said with mild anger.
Jordan thought about it for a minute, but disagreed with his brother, "No, we gave it a good cleaning two weeks ago, and the old girl doesn't usually gunk up that quickly. Even if that is the problem, driving with the choke on is only going to make it worse." Tom nodded his head and they both agreed that they would examine the problem when they got to the next town. Unfortunately, that never came. The motor gave one last sputter before going completely quiet and rolled to a halt.
After addressing the issue with the proper amount of profanity, the two exited the vehicle to look under the hood. As soon as Jordan stepped out, the bitter cold hit him with its icy claws gripping the exposed areas of his face and hands, "God damn, its colder than a witch's tit out here!" he exclaimed.
Tom folded the collar of his jacket upwards to shield his cheeks. "Vancouver wasn't much better." They went right to work on dismantling the carburetor to find the problem. After the air filter had been lifted and the valves exposed, Tom pulled out his lighter to brighten the area the hood light could not. Tom then snarled, "Christ alive! She's clean as whistle!"
Jordan peered into the mechanism and confirmed what his brother said was true. "Maybe the fuel pump went to shit?" he asked in a brainstorm. Tom went back into the cab to retrieve a screwdriver and then loosened the clamp around the rubber fuel line. With a hard tug, the line came loose from the barb and a small splash of a gasoline dripped from the line.
"Turn her over a little." Tom demanded as he held his thumb over the opening of the line. Jordan sat back in the cab and turned the key. The as soon as the starter engaged Tom yelled out, "Woah! Woah! Stop!" Jordan exited the vehicle again and immediately the strong scent of gasoline filled his nostrils. "It isn’t the fuel pump. Old bitch squirts more than that gal we met in Jasper." Tom remarked.
The two continued to toil with trouble shooting without much success. With every new idea, they studied the suspected part, made a minor adjustment, and tested their theories with a turn of the ignition switch to no avail. The life of the battery slowly began to deteriorate as they tested the alternator, contact points, spark plugs, throttle cable, and any other parts they could think of.
Soon enough, on one attempt the key was turned and the only sound that emanated from under the hood was a rapid click, which meant the battery was far too weak to turn over the motor anymore. The brothers cursed their luck as they retreated back into the warmth of the car, which had faded significantly since they stopped. They were silent for some time as they both pondered on what the problem could be, but neither one of them had an answer they hadn't already tried.
Jordan eventually broke the silence with a grumble, "In times like these, I think dodging the draft wasn't such a good idea."
"We're alive." Tom reminded him.
Jordan looked at his brother with a look of disgust, "But at what cost? What are they going to do when they find out were back in the States? They'll probably throw us in jail before too long."
Tom's anger from the faulty car only intensified with Jordan's words, "Hey, we became Canadians before Uncle Sam decided to shove his star-spangled, red, white, and blue cock up everyone's ass."
"I hope you're right."
"Of course I'm right! We're under the radar! They can't issue a draft card when you renounce your citizenship!"
"But what will our friends think? No one that knows us will give us a job when they find out that we're cowards. I mean, I wish I would have been more like Chuck and enlisted. Hell, I scored high enough on that test to get an office job!"
Tom clenched his teeth before yelling, "So did Chuck! He signed up to be a clerk! Instead they gave him a rifle and told him to go play a game of hide-and-go-shoot-a-gook!"
"But Chuck isn't stranded in bum-fuck nowhere!"
"Don't you remember? Chuck! Is! Dead!" And we sure as hell aren’t going back to a country where we’re wanted for murder!”
Silence filled the car once more. Jordan was still worried about his future and was equally conflicted by the decisions of the past. Tom lit up another cigarette and quickly drew the red cherry down to the butt. He then lit up another one. Jordan snuggled himself into his coat as the cab became colder and their doom seemed to be closing in on them.
Suddenly, Tom leaned forward in his seat and announced, "Fuck! I know what the problem is!"
Jordan's words were muffled by the coat that now covered his mouth, "What is it?"
"Don't you remember what we had to do when we first got to Alberta?"
"The elevation man! The fuel needle is all fucked up now that we're closer to sea level!"
"Too bad the battery is toast."
"We have jumper cables in the back, all we have to do is wait for someone, charge the battery, adjust the needle, and we're home free!"
"Tom, we've been screwing around out here for the two hours and no one has come yet. I don't foresee anyone coming either, considering it's close to one in the morning."
Despite Jordan's logic, neither one of them wanted to expose their skin to the burning cold outside. As the temperature inside slowly dropped, Jordan curled himself into a ball within his jacket and Tom fruitlessly tried to keep warm by smoking one cigarette after another. Just when he was about to light up his last he spotted something far in the distance.
There in the gloomy cold air, he saw three small yellow and blurry squares tucked away far in the trees. He knew right away that they were windows belonging to what was most likely a home. Tom brought them to his brother's attention and a glimmer of hope sparked within them both. They thought that they could at least get some help from the kindness of a stranger, or maybe a warm place to bed down for the night. Perhaps they would be kind enough to provide a hot meal in the morning? The more the two pondered over it, the more tempting the lights became. The only problem was someone had to go out in the cold.
They both realized that it would be silly for both of them to go at once. After all, the owner of the property probably had a car they could use to pick the other one up. Like most brothers do, they debated with each other on who was to make the long walk. Their conversation quickly became heated as they brought up past wrongdoings from their childhoods in order to compel the other into taking the journey. Eventually, they reached the final argument of all brothers; they played a game of Rock Paper Scissors over the matter. Tom tried to argue best-two-out-of-three, but Jordan held firm to the outcome.
Tom reluctantly left the car as Jordan watched with a self-satisfied smirk across his face. Seeing the foggy breath Tom left behind almost warmed him a little inside. Almost.
When his brother had disappeared in the darkness of the trees, Jordan reclined in his seat and tried to keep warm in the increasing cold. The lonely silence proved to be as menacing as the cold. With no noise and no one around, his mind wandered into recent past. He sat absolutely still as the vivid memory tramped back to life in his mind.
The terrible muffled screams of a woman stuffed inside of an old linen chest rattled around in his brain. He knew it was wrong for him and his brother to leave her bound up to die in the cold. What started as a terrible accident evolved into a horrific murder. It was an accident they were both responsible for, but were far too afraid to face the consequences. The only solution they came up with was to get rid of the only witness that would tell. And that involved dragging the poor soul into the woods off the highway. Neither one of them had the courage to end it all, so they decided to let the cruel forces of life do their bidding.
Long after the headlight of their car had been replaced and the blood washed off, they eventually found her. Her body had been left still for months and all the ravenous creatures that dwelt in the wilderness had their fill of her existence. When she was identified, the media had their say about the matter. As it turned out, someone reported seeing a vehicle that matched the description of theirs near the scene of the crime that night.
They both had a suspicion of who that person was too. They did not know his name, and they probably never would, but they knew of his likeness. When they walked out of the woods, far away from the screaming, and got back into their car, they saw a tall dark figure standing far in front of their single headlight. He wore a pin stripped suite with a wide brimmed hat the covered most of his facial features. He was walking towards them slowly and confidently. Fearing that the man would spot the blood on their bumper, they whipped the car around and sped off in the other direction.
This man haunted both of their dreams since the incident. There was never a peaceful night between them. They both kept seeing the same figure slowly approaching them in the darkness, and getting closer with each passing night.
Jordan gripped his head and shook the imagery out of his mind. He then fought his cloudy conscience by trying remember the good times he had with his family. Before long, his thoughts drifted to life back home and he imagined warm family dinners with the sound of his friends creating mischief down on the corner. He never thought he would be so happy to see New York again, but he was. He began to feel his eyes droop from the spiritual warmth of his dreams.
Jordan was suddenly and violently awoken by his intense shivering. His entire body burned from the cold and his teeth chattered to the point of pain. Thick vaporous clouds came from his mouth with every short and quick breath. He pulled up the sleeve on his left arm and glanced at his watch. To his dismay, more than an hour had passed since his brother left to find help. A sense of worry struck his heart with more chill than the air around him.
He looked in the direction where his brother had previously pointed to the three squares of light, but all he saw was a thick layer of frost on the glass. His entire body was stiff and it felt as if the air itself was some sort of thick goo that slowed his every movement. He shakily got out of the car and examined his surroundings. Everything appeared to be as it was before, but with one exception. The three squares of light they had seen before were gone and all that remained was a faint outline of a house far in the distance.
Jordan immediately suspected that a cruel joke was being played on him by his brother. "That bastard!" he shouted into the empty void of the night. The thought of his brother taking refuge and sleeping in warm home without bothering to get him absolutely drove him to a state of hysteria. He stomped his feet on the road and small flakes of ice fell from the fabric of his jacket. Fearing the worst would come if he were to stay with the car, Jordan proceeded to briskly walk in the direction that his brother had more than an hour ago.
The moon had the generosity to shine some light down upon the earth that night and the frost shimmered like a jewel. As Jordan met the side of the road, he noticed a very distinct pattern of frost that had been crushed and disturbed. He recognized the long dark marks in the grass to be footprints left behind by his brother. Jordan took care to follow them exactly as he ventured forward.
With every step, the long cold grass crunched beneath his feet. He began to worry about his toes since they had gone numb and the feeling was not returning to them. Curse words directed to his brother flowed from his mouth in think clouds of fog that became thicker the more he thought about it all. His hands were not in much better shape either. He tucked them into his armpits and the returning warmth that came to them burned worse than the cold ever had.
The tracks led him to a wide path that cut through the dark thicket of trees. The change of scenery made him a bit nervous. His imagination began to play a cruel game with him as he glanced up towards the sky. The long straggly limbs and branches reminded him of the warped twisted hands of a demonic being about to take hold him in their clutches. He was not sure what to really think of to put his mind at ease other than to keep trudging on. Despite his best efforts, he could not shake the feeling that he was being watched.
A time came when he stopped to examine something peculiar. There on the path, his brother's tracks suddenly stopped in front of a wide circular path of disturbed grass. At first he dismissed it as his brother taking a break from the walk to do who knows what. However; the idea lost its merit the more he gazed upon the site. He noticed one of his brother’s shoes lying in the frost. There was another set of foot prints that came from the woods and met up with the spot. They did not resemble his brother's stride either. They were vastly different. They were wider. And they were longer. Even more puzzling was what lied beyond the spot.
As far as Jordan could see into the darkness, the strange tracks not belonging to his brother stretched down the road. And beside them was a thick streak of darkness, as if whom ever made the prints was dragging something at its side.
"Tom?" he softly said aloud, "Tom, are you near?" There was only silence. He took in a deep breath and said a little louder, "Tom, where are you?" Again, no one was around to answer his question.
Reluctantly, he started walking down the path again feeling overwhelmingly anxious. His senses became heightened as the blood started to flow quicker through his veins. The distant wails of Coyotes made his frostbitten ears perk up and every crunching step he made set him on edge.
He detected something strange happening around him. Before, the sound of his own steps were merely neglected, but now his full attention was set on them. To his left he heard the crunching grass louder than it was to his right. He deliberately stopped and looked all around him. There was a quiver in voice as he yelled out, "Tom? Is that you?" There was only silence.
His pace quickened. The sound of crunching was still louder on his left and this worried him. His mind desperately tried to explain this phenomenon. He reasoned that the trees were thicker on the left and were somehow bouncing the sound back at him. The more he listened, the more he thoughts were transfixed on them.
Their timing was not entirely in time with his own. As in they sounded to be off beat with his. It was like someone were trying to match his pace.
His eyes darted side-to-side trying to scan for any kind of figure shifting in the darkness. He was unable to see anything to cause alarm. In a moment of pure instinct, he stopped his walk just before his shoe hit the ground.
His heart sank deep into his chest when the sound of three more footsteps filled the air before suddenly stopping.
He bolted up the path in utter panic. Short shrieks left his mouth between every breath and his heart pounded in his chest. "TOM!" he screamed, "TOM! Where are you?" He called out his brother's name over and over, but a response never came as he sprinted through the trees and up to the house.
When the structure came into view, he spotted a door and made a bee line for it. He raced up the front steps and wrapped his hands around the knob. He desperately gave it a few twists but soon found it was locked. He then bashed his hands against the wood while yelling, "Tom! Tom! Open the door!"
The commotion he made was loud and it would have garnered a light to come on within the house, but it never did. With fear came impatience and Jordan quickly reasoned that he would not stand around while his pursuer closed the gap on him. He quickly turned around, ran away from the door, and went along the side of the building in search of another way in.
As he rounded the corner, his shoe caught on something and it sent him falling to the ground. His head hit the frozen earth before any other part of his body did and it took a toll on his senses. He tried to quickly get back to his feet, but a dizzy sensation sent him back down. He tried once again and got the same result.
The injury did not stop his will to escape his unknown follower. He quickly crawled along the side of the house until he saw something that made him stop. At his level, there was a basement window that was just above the stone foundation and the wooden frame around the glass looked fragile from years of decay.
He rolled over on his side and then proceeded to hastily kick it. It was stubborn to break at first, but the more he struck it, the more concentrated his effort became. The glass finally cracked and shattered. After a few more strikes to clear the remaining shards around the frame, he crawled head first into the small rectangle of darkness that was just wide enough for him to get through.
When the last of his body made it through, he fell onto the basement floor. By that time, he was beyond the point of exhaustion and needed to catch his breath. The adrenaline from the run and other excitement began to wear off and the pain from hitting his head began to cloud his entire cranium. He rolled around on the cold floor while cradling his skull.
He listened carefully for any suspicious sounds, but all he heard was the quiet whistle of a light breeze coming through the now broken window. In time, the worst part of his pain dulled and he was able to regain his faculties. He slowly stood and tip-toed along the floor with his hand running along the stone wall. He began to get his bearings of the new and unfamiliar place as his eyes adjusted to the faint light pouring through the basement windows.
He came across another window and slowly peeked outside to check if the danger had followed him. All he saw at first was the darkened trees that surrounded the property and the path of crazed tracks he'd left behind. He then noticed a peculiar object sticking up from the ground. It took him a while to realize what it was, but he eventually realized it was a short artesian well pump. From what he could gather, it was one of those very old cast iron types that had to be manually pumped. Alongside of it was a concrete dome constructed of stone and mortar with a cast iron hook and ring embedded into it. He reasoned that it was probably a cover for a cistern.
Those two items where the objects he could see outside worth noting. Everything else was just darkness and trees. He began to feel foolish for panicking in the way that he had. For all he knew, there could have been an animal in the trees that was just as scared as he was, but that still didn't explain the odd tracks or the reason why his brother left his shoe behind in cold weather like this. He tried to shake off the thought entirely by switching his focus to getting upstairs.
Soon enough, after striking his lighter, he spotted the silhouette of stairs along the wall opposite to him. He stepped carefully and slowly as to not trip on anything like he had outside. When he reached them, he ascended them slowly while the wood creaked and groaned with his weight. When the door came into view, he twisted the very loose knob and gently pushed.
The sight he was greeted with was a kitchen. Cupboard doors were left hanging open, some of them merely dangled by a single hinge. Pots, pans, and other cookware were strewn about the counter tops and floor. It almost looked like the work of an enraged housewife that caught her spouse having an affair. Oddly enough, the kitchen table did not suffer the same fate. Instead there were six perfect placements of fine China, candles, and silverware. The more he looked around the room, the more the scenery did not sit well with him. There were cob webs all over the place and a thick layer of dust covered everything. The basement was one thing, one expects a neglected place to have signs of neglect. The kitchen was a different matter entirely. This was a place where people, ate, talked and prayed. It was not supposed to be a place of neglect. The lights they had seen before should have meant there were inhabitants, but this place looked like it had been hastily abandoned long ago.
Jordan spotted a light switch to along the wall and flicked it upwards. Nothing happened. He then pulled one of the candles off the table and lit it to save on his lighter. That's when it hit him.
How could've the lights been on before?
The thought only added to his increasing confusion. "Tom? Are you in here?" he softly asked. He was too afraid to yell out his brother’s name in case someone outside was listening. He began looking around the house for his brother and he suddenly realized something else. This was not the warm house they were expecting. This place was just as cold as it was outside and it showed on his foggy breath.
With ever step, the old rotting floor sunk as if he were walking across a trampoline and the boards groaned like an ensnared animal giving up on life. He then came across what looked to be a living room or parlor. The room reeked of mold and age. Pieces of furniture were tipped over and the wallpaper around the room was either torn or bubbling at the seams. There was a broken window along the wall and the crookedly hung curtains swayed in the wind.
He walked over to the curtains and pulled back on them slightly to look outside. He saw the same scene that he had before with the pump and cistern, but something was different. The stone cover that once sealed the cistern was now partially open leaving a crescent of darkness on the ground.
He did his best to quietly wander around the house in search of warmth. He did see a fireplace in one of the rooms, but starting a fire was out of the question. If the light of a roaring fire didn't give him away, the smoke certainly would. He explored the rest of the house only to find every room ransacked like the previous owners fled with what they could carry.
His search eventually ended in one of the rooms upstairs. Upon opening the closet, he saw an antique linen chest. Although he was looking for his brother, the idea of extra clothes to keep warm with was too great to be ignored. He knelt down in front of it with his candle on the floor and quickly undid the six buckles. He took the candle in his hand again and opened the lid.
There were no clothes inside.
Just the skeletal remains of a human.
Jordan instantly jumped back and stumbled onto the floor.
His heart raced in his chest as he screamed, "What the hell is this place?" He then leapt to his feet and quickly paced the room while tugging his hair. He walked around in circles trying to process what he saw. As he made laps around the room, he saw a new horrific detail in the chest. Old tangled lumps of hair surrounded the skull and a few of the teeth were missing. The leg bones were tucked along the sides of the rib cage, showing that the person's body was bent and twisted to fit in the tiny space.
There was one final detail that stopped him in his tracks. The lid had hundreds of a deep scratches carved into it. The person was thrown in the chest alive and left to rot. "Tom! Where the hell are you?"
"We need to get out of here Tom! We need to leave before it finds us!"
Suddenly, every light in the house came on and his heart ceased to beat for a moment. He ran out of the room and dashed down the stairs while crying for his brother. As he stormed into the parlor, the front door swung open and viciously banged against the wall.
There in the door way stood a tall figure in a clean pin striped suit. A wide brimmed hat shadowed his eyes and left only his mouth to be seen which only hinted pure contempt. He then spoke with a deep voice that rattled Jordan's soul, "I've been looking for you."
The lights suddenly died and the entire world went black. A terrifying scream echoed outside and it sounded like it came from a tunnel. The lights flickered back on and the man at the door disappeared. Jordan sprinted outside and screamed, "Tom! Where are you?"
"Over here." a familiar and calm voice answered.
Jordan ran to where he had heard the scream and found himself by the cistern again. "Tom!"
"Down here Jordan."
He looked down and saw the face of his brother looking up at him in the crescent of darkness. He dropped down on his stomach and stared into his brother's eyes. Frantically, he said, "Tom, we need to get out of here! There's someone after us!"
The look on Tom's face was calm and sorrowful, "Get in Jordan."
"Get in the hole"
Jordan flinched in surprise, "What are you talking about? We need to get out of here. We need to get away from him!"
Tom was unwavering, "He's our friend, Jordan."
"Listen, I saw some shit in that house and we're leaving. Here, take my hand."
Jordan stretched his arm into the hole, but his brother did not take it. He then suddenly noticed something he hadn't before, "Tom, why isn't your breath fogging up?"
"It's warm down here brother. I like it and you'll like it too. All of our friends are down here too. Even Chuck."
"Tom, you're talking nonsense!"
"We've all been waiting for you for so long."
Jordan's patience had run out as he angrily grabbed his brother's hair, "You're getting out of that hole! We're getting the hell out of here! And we're never coming back!" He threw all of his weight upwards in a desperate attempt to sway his brother's decision with pain.
What he wasn't expecting was to fall backwards from a lack of resistance and what he saw made him shriek louder than he had in his entire life. What he held in his hand was the severed head of his brother.
It only took a moment to process the image before he released his grip in terror and let the head fall into the black abyss below.
Suddenly, flames shot out of the cistern and stretched high into the sky. In an instant, the fire disappeared and Jordan was left with the familiar sight of a man dressed in a pin stripped suit standing over the hole.
Jordan started crawling backwards with his mouth agape in horror. The man's eyes, mouth, and fingertips burned with fire and the strong smell of sulfur emanated from his body. Jordan got up to run, but a burning hand wrapped around his neck and hoisted him high into the air.
He was then carried the short distance to the cistern and was held over it. He looked into the man's burning hollow eyes and whimpered, "Why?"
His question was answered by the deep thunderous tone, "You chose it."
The man's grip suddenly released and Jordan fell down into the warm embrace of the darkness.