ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
“You’ll have to drive through trees,” the lawyer had told him, “a lot of them.” Austin smiled. There they were: rows and rows of Virginian junipers, flanking the road on both sides. It was one thing for his car’s GPS to tell him he was getting nearer to his destination; it was something else entirely to see for himself.
Taking off his sunglasses, he drove on, enjoying his new, shadier surroundings. About a mile in, the GPS died, the foliage apparently too dense to allow any signals through. That didn’t really matter, though. At this point, all he had to do was follow the road.
Time passed. The road began curving, first in one direction, then in another, then in yet another. Austin slowed down. Within minutes, the route veered again. More time passed. The trees were now on all sides–left, right, front and back; thanks to the unending twists, he was completely surrounded. Every few yards, Austin had to make a sharp turn. His lips flattened against each other, and he exhaled through his nose. Well, that explained why he had the road all to himself. The car was actually going slower than Austin could walk.
The trip went on like that for another 20 minutes. Then, the road made a final curve and–much to Austin’s relief–led right out of the forest. He laughed and hit the gas. Now, he was driving by a wide-open field, his path going in a straight line once again, and just at the horizon, he could make out a lone building.
His GPS came back to life and told him what he already knew: that he’d arrive at the building, his destination, in 1,000 feet…800 feet…300 feet…50 feet…20 feet. Seconds later, he pulled over, put the vehicle in park and got out.
There to greet him was a gorgeous three-story house. Hands on his hips, Austin stared up at the wonderful structure, the evenly spaced windows and the peaked roof. He sighed. If only he could keep it. He eventually willed himself to look away and get his bags from the car. While doing this, he happened to glance down the road. No houses or any other kind of building, just asphalt and grass as far as the eye could see. His late uncle’s home was isolated in the truest sense of the word.
He made his way around the car and up the stone path to the front door, stopping to admire the decorative columns that held up the porch roof. He shook his head. A lot of love had been put into this place. He pulled a key out of his pocket and went inside.
He found himself in the living room. His face lit up upon seeing a huge fireplace against the far wall. He stepped further in. To his left, he could see a hallway with a colorful, heavy-looking lamp out in front. To his right, there was a kitchen, waiting to be bathed in natural light from the many, soon-to-be-unshuttered windows.
Ever since Austin found out he’d inherited Uncle Jerry’s property, he’d wanted to see the house in person, before it and everything in it were sold off to cover the family’s debts. He knew he’d be kicking himself for the rest of his life if he didn’t do the right thing and help out his many relatives, but he’d also be kicking himself for life if he didn’t act on this opportunity. He began opening all the windows on the ground floor. He’d never been in anything nicer than a track house; he’d never lived in anything nicer than an apartment. Now, not only would he be able to say he’d seen a colonial-style house up close but that he’d spent a night in one too. He smiled again. He couldn’t keep the place, but, for today at least, he could still enjoy it.
* * *
Hours later, Austin shot out of bed, his surroundings a pitch-black void. Within a second, he realized the shattering of glass hadn’t just been a dream. Rapid, heavy footsteps came from the floor below. He grabbed the handgun he’d set beside the bed earlier. As soon as he touched it, he heard a scream.
“Hello!” came a distant voice. The trespasser was still below him. Austin’s grip on the firearm tightened.
“Hello!” the voice sounded again. “Anybody!” After another pause, Austin heard running again and then a door slamming.
Austin took one hand off the gun and grabbed his cellphone from the night stand. He hit 9-1-1 and pressed “send.” Seconds later, he heard a very unwelcome beep. No signal. He clenched his teeth. The phone had worked fine the whole day. He’d even made a call before turning in. Why now, of all times, had reception died? He put the phone in his pocket.
Still holding the gun, he opened the door. Better to take charge; better the intruder be forced to react to Austin instead of the other way around.
Just as he reached the stairs, there was another crash. “Hello!” came a voice, different than the one from before. “Is anybody there? Anybody? Please! I need help!”
Austin was about to respond when he heard the first intruder’s footsteps. He peered down and saw one figure running up to another. “Come with me!” the original man called out.
“Do you live here? Can you help me?”
“No,” the first man said. “Whatever’s out there chased me in here, too. I found a room with a lock. Come on.”
The second man’s tone became incredulous. “You really think a locked door can keep that thing out?”
“There’s no time!” the first man barked. “It might come in here any second now! If you want to take your chances out here, fine!”
“No!” the other man cried out. “No,” he repeated, “but are you sure it’s just us in here?”
“It isn’t,” Austin joined the conversation. The two looked up.
“Who are–” the first man began.
“This is my house,” Austin interrupted. He took a step down. “Stay where you are. I’m armed.”
The first man bolted away. Moments later, Austin heard a door, the one for the downstairs bathroom, slam shut again. The second man had stayed where he was. Austin didn’t know what to think. Was something out there? If not, why had the men spoken to each other the way they had? Had they known Austin was there, listening? Were they trying to mess with him?
“Don’t shoot!” the second man pleaded, interrupting Austin’s train of thought.
“Who are you?” Austin demanded while taking two more steps down. “What are you doing here?”
“My name’s Will,” the figure said, “and I was chased in here.”
Austin kept moving until he reached the bottom step. He gestured. “Move over there. I don’t want to have the other guy at my back.” Will complied, and Austin got off the stairs.
“Appreciate that,” Austin said. “Now, head over to where our friend ran. On the chance you’re telling the truth about something being out there, I’d rather be in a locked room with no windows…or at least near one.” The two made their way to the bathroom.
“Are you in there?” asked Austin once they got to the door.
There was no response. Had the guy hung himself?
Austin forced the thought out of his mind and continued. “I’ve already met Will,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me your name.”
After more silence, the man behind the door spoke. “It’s Dick,” he said.
“Well, Dick, the way you guys acted before you knew I was here makes it seem like you and Will didn’t come here together. I heard you say you ran into my house to get away from something. For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s true. What I’d like to know is what you were doing outside the house to begin with. I mean, this place is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.”
“Dick?” Austin called out.
“I was getting off work,” the voice behind the door said. “I was driving home, and all-of-a-sudden, I just blacked out. When I came to, I was on some unfamiliar road…and my car was driving itself.”
“Driving itself?” Austin asked.
“That’s right,” Dick said. “I tried turning the wheel. I tried hitting the brakes. Nothing worked. It was like the car was being remote controlled. Look, I completely freaked out; I don’t mind telling you that. Bruised myself pretty bad trying to make it stop, trying to get out. After two hours, it finally stopped outside your house.” He paused a moment. “The car let me out; the doors unlocked and everything.”
“And after you got out, the car chased you in here?” Austin asked. This was getting insane.
“No.” The answer came from Will, not Dick.
Austin focused on the other man. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he could make out Will’s features better. Above his narrow chin, the man’s tiny mouth was hanging open. After Will swallowed uncomfortably, he elaborated. “It was a ghost.”
Austin said nothing.
“I don’t know what I saw,” Dick rejoined the conversation, “but it wasn’t human. It floated up in the sky, then dived”–Dick took a few deep breaths–“then rushed straight for me.”
Will spoke again. “It’s bored. And whenever it wants to stave off boredom, it travels the land, finds people and isolates them in some remote area.”
“And then what?” Dick asked through the door.
“Hold on,” Austin cut in. “How do you even know all this?”
Will ignored Austin. “It forces them to kill each other,” he said. “The last one standing goes free. If anybody tries to leave instead of fight, it kills them. Then, once the sun rises and it’s had its fun, it leaves to begin the game all over again somewhere else.”
“Alright,” Austin said, “this has gone far enough. What sounds more likely, that what you said is true or that my house has been broken into by two mentally sick pranksters? I assume the next thing you’re gonna tell me is that you’re the survivor of one of its previous games.”
Will turned away from the door and faced Austin. “No,” he said in a suddenly deadpan tone.
“I didn’t think so,” Austin said. He almost felt proud that he’d forced one of them to blow their cover. It was hard not to smirk.
“To communicate the rules,” Will went on in his still-deadpan voice, “to communicate its expectations, it has to take human form. Otherwise, people will flee from it instead of listen to it.”
“Keep away from me!” Dick’s muffled voice ordered.
“Oh, this is even better,” Austin said. “So what you’re saying is that you’re not a survivor; you’re actually the ghost.”
The moment Austin got those words out, a flash engulfed the room. Austin’s heart all but stopped. No longer was there a scared-looking, little man facing him. Instead, he saw long, glowing white hair flowing from an invisible head; a glowing, white robe covering an invisible body and glowing, white claws extending from invisible hands.
The two faced each other for a moment, motionless. The gun fell to the wooden floor. What Austin was seeing defied all his understanding of how the world worked.
The ghost lunged toward Austin, who screamed.
It rushed past him, gliding down the hall, to the door and then, Austin could only hope, outside. All was dark again.
The bathroom door flew open, and out came Dick. Austin was about to speak when he realized he wasn’t armed anymore. His eyes darted to the floor. The gun had vanished. He looked back at the other man, a man who’d heard what ‘Will’ had said, a man who was taller than he was, a man who–even in the dark–looked more fit than Austin ever did. He realized that he was about to die.
Austin took a step back. There’s no light in here, he thought. Dick might not be able to see I’m unarmed. He put his hand in his pocket, hoping that made it look like he still had the firearm and was about to unholster it. He just had to keep Dick from finding out, just long enough for him to get at something he could use to defend himself.
“Stay back!” Austin warned his fellow prisoner. It worked. Dick raised his hands. Austin continued speaking. “I don’t know if bullets work on that thing, but I know they’ll work on you.” He took another step away from the taller man.
After he’d gone just a few feet, Austin’s throat tightened. Dick had put his hands down. Then, to Austin’s horror, the other man began stepping forward.
“You heard me!” Austin yelled.
Dick kept moving. “If you really have a gun,” he said, “why aren’t you using it?” Austin took a big step back.
“If you really have a gun,” Dick continued, “you could just kill me right now. Then, you’d be free.” Each man took another step. “You don’t actually have a gun, do you?”
“You think I’d come all the way out to this godforsaken house without one?” Austin barked back. “You think after hearing someone break in, I’d come downstairs without one?” Dick came to a stop, apparently seeing the logic.
All Austin had to do was take another few steps backward. Just around the corner was that lamp. He could grab it, then smash it over Dick’s head as he came out the hall.
“That still hasn’t answered why you haven’t shot me yet,” Dick called out, “or why you’re backing away.” He began moving again.
Austin rounded the corner. The lamp was still there. While the ghost apparently didn’t want him to use a gun, it didn’t expect him to use his bare hands either. He could hear the steps getting closer. If Dick hadn’t guessed the truth, he was at least willing to take a gamble. It didn’t matter now, though; all he had to do was take the lamp off the stand. If Dick survived, Austin could finish the job by stabbing him with the pieces. He placed both hands on it.
Austin couldn’t bring himself to lift it. Were these really his only two choices? Dying or doing some evil spirit’s bidding? Maybe there was another way. Just then, he realized something. Even with the open door, the living room was as dark as the hall. He exhaled. There was another way. He let go of the lamp, put a hand back in his pocket and turned around.
Dick exited the hall.
“I haven’t shot you yet,” Austin said, “because that would just give that thing what it wants.”
Dick stood there, facing him. Was the man looking at Austin or at the lamp? What would Austin say if Dick suggested they turn it on?
“Are you saying we should just stand here until the ghost gets bored and decides to finish us off itself?”
“No!” Austin said, louder than he meant to. He composed himself. “Once it stopped pretending to be a human, the ghost lit up the hall; I’m sure you saw it through the door. Right now, we’re in a room with windows, but it’s still dark. That means the ghost is probably on the other side of the house. Maybe it decided to circle it and peer through each window to see where we’d end up fighting.”
“What’s your point?” Dick asked.
“I’m getting to that. Was there another car near where yours was parked?”
“Yeah, right in front of it.”
“Okay then, here’s my plan. We each bolt for our cars. I slept in my clothes; I’ve got my keys on me. Once each of us is in a car, we drive in opposite directions. The ghost doesn’t seem able to be everywhere at once, so if it decides to pursue, it can only go after one of us.”
Dick sighed. “So what you’re saying is that one of us will die either way.”
“For all we know,” Austin countered, “we might be able to outrun it. Maybe we’ll both survive, but it’s the only way we’ll have a chance…and even if we both die, at least it won’t be on the ghost’s terms.”
Dick didn’t reply. Austin braced himself. Maybe the man didn’t like the odds. Maybe Dick felt he had more of a chance against a man with a gun than against a demonic entity. Maybe dying with integrity didn’t matter to him.
“We go on three,” Dick said. As the other man counted, Austin hoped he wouldn’t fall back and then try to attack from behind.
“Three!” Dick hissed, and they both took off.
They bolted out into the night. It was almost pitch black. Good. Each man got out their keys and dove into their vehicles. Once inside, Austin froze. The instant he started his ignition, the Ghost would probably hear it. Would either vehicle be able to drive faster than the ghost could glide? Dick seemed to be thinking the same thing. Neither car started up.
Austin shook his head. Even if the ghost was spending a few minutes at each window, it would eventually come back around, and if it did and saw them, it’d all be over. He might die either way, but if he didn’t act now, he’d definitely die; they both would. He turned the key.
The engine started up; Dick’s followed immediately after. Austin put the car in drive, executed a U-Turn and sped off, refusing to so much as glance in his mirrors or turn the lights on. He’d won; they both had. Now, it was a matter of surviving a murderous sore loser.
He approached the junipers. He’d have to slow down again, but the way he saw it, he and Dick each had an equal chance of escaping. The ghost had gone out the door, so it didn’t seem able to pass through matter; it’d probably have a hard time navigating around the trees; meanwhile, from what he’d seen of Dick’s route, the other man would be able to drive much faster and possibly outrun the thing.
Austin’s journey almost ended a mile later. He just barely missed swerving off the asphalt and into a tree. He slowed down, gripping the steering wheel even tighter than before. He grit his teeth. He could either continue at this awful pace and risk it catching up to him, or he could turn his lights on, allowing him to go faster but telegraphing his exact location. He mentally cursed as he put off the decision, moving forward at a snail’s pace.
An hour passed. Darkness still engulfed him; his bare feet now ached from working the pedals. Every time he tried to tell himself that it must have gone after Dick, every time he thought of turning on the lights and speeding up, the same question plagued him: what if that demon was just out of sight, waiting for some sign to lead it right to him?
Finally, he noticed that the wall of trees had begun to thin out, that the route’s twists had become fewer. Austin took a deep breath, flipped on the lights and hit the gas. He started hyperventilating, sure that he’d just given himself up, sure that he’d see that pale glow again. He increased speed as the road became straighter and straighter. No sign yet. Not that he could tell for sure in the darkness or in his current state of mind, but he figured was likely getting close to the end of the forest. Just up ahead was what he prayed was the final curve.
After turning, he slammed on the brakes.
A few feet from where the car finally stopped, there was a body, a fully-clothed human body. It was Dick. It had to be. He cursed himself. What had he been thinking earlier? The ghost clearly knew where his route would let out, so it must’ve flown through the sky to wait for him at the other end, with Dick’s dead body.
Austin kept the lights on; the idea of prolonging things was unbearable. “We still won,” he said though clenched teeth. He hoped he’d be able to say as much to the ghost when it finally showed up.
Nothing happened. There was no distant glow; he didn’t see ‘Will’ walk up; there was just the hum of his engine. So it wanted to torture him before it killed him. It really was a sore loser.
Then, Austin had an absolutely horrifying realization. It hadn’t lost. The ghost wasn’t waiting for him. It might be miles away by now. It had left the body here to let Austin know that he, not Dick, was the survivor. He and Dick hadn’t outwitted it. His moral convictions and will to resist hadn’t made one bit of difference. His escape plan, his idea of splitting up, wasn’t a way out of the game, it was just another way of playing it, another way for them to compete against each other, another way for one to live while the other died.
Austin, now aware that he was a pawn, if not a slave, to forces beyond his comprehension, turned and vomited onto the passenger seat. Moments later, he killed the engine, got out his phone, and called 9-1-1 to report the body. Reception was working perfectly now.
* * *
Thanks for reading, and please don’t forget to leave a comment!
A note on the cover image:
The Cover art for this story was created from an image by Elliott Brown, who has distributed it under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license
The original, unmodified image, Blakesley Hall – stairs down, can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown/14634631258/
After finding the image, I modified it into the version you see at the top of the page.
While I reserve all rights over the text of Visitors at Midnight, my modified version of Mr. Brown’s image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
It can be distributed (and modified further) provided you follow the license’s terms.