It Looks Back

The noise that woke him made the darkness a different kind to the one he was used to. It painted the canvas of black with a speck of life, its shrill tone harmonising with the hum of the night. He lay where he woke, tensed, holding his breath as if he might scare the noise from sounding again. In the moments of waiting, his vision poured figures into the parts of the wooden hut that the fingers of moonlight did not reach. It was not these that he was afraid of, he knew it was his mind. It was not always good to him, but he knew his mind. His need for breath outweighed his curiosity and he was forced to suck the air in. He coughed, panicked, and put his hand over his mouth to muffle the outbursts. He waited, but the sound did not visit again. His feeling of solitude returned in some form and he pulled the itchy, woollen blanket off from on top of him. The chill in the room immediately spilled into his bones and settled on the sweat of his brow, causing his skin to prickle. With every movement he stopped to listen, but, all he heard was the ringing of fear in his ears.

He sat up, pulling on the front of his nightshirt to stop it from sticking to his chest, and swivelled himself round to place his feet on the iced planked floor. He itched his sideburn and ran his hands over his face to wake himself up. The moonlight caught the plume of his breath as his hands groped around the floor for his oil lamp, it didn’t take long for his fingers to wrap around the cold brass handle and lift it up. Then, he reached for the matches next to it, struck one with a hiss, lit the wick, and brought some warmth to fight against the enveloping harshness of the room. The light of the flame coloured the view of his hut, reflecting slightly in the glass of the only window: which showed the swaying branches of a naked tree outside.

As his eyes adjusted, something was revealed to him. Two pairs of small, glowing orbs, like eyes, suspended next to each other behind the pane of glass. He took a sharp intake of breath, stood up, and crept towards the window. As he got closer, he could see that the orbs were outlined by two, separate shapes. Human-like, but transparent. He raised his hand to touch the glass, but, before he could do so, the noise came again. He span around, almost dropping the lamp. But, the hut was empty. Remembering himself, he turned again to look out the window. The orbs had gone, and their shapes had gone with them. His shaken breath trailed behind him as he walked to retrieve his jacket from the hook on the door, its bright red colour hued by the night. He put it on, passing the lamp from one hand to the other, and pulled it tight. Next, he slipped on his trousers, complemented by a red strip running down each side, and his black leather boots, tying them tight too. He approached the door, but, before he opened it, something caused his hand to hover over the door knob. A thought, a memory of something left behind. He turned his head to look at a chest at the back of the hut. The light of his lamp flickered and he spun on the ball of his foot to approach it.

He knelt down, placing the lamp on the floor with a slight thud, and opened the cracked leather lid of the chest. It didn’t creak, but it did come loose. He placed the lid on the floor, leaving a trail of rotten material in its wake, and lifted his lamp again to flood the chest with light. Barely reflecting the flame on its dull iron casing was the thing that had stopped him. His revolver. A tingle felt its way up his spine. It felt like a lifetime since he had used it last, and for good reason. He placed the lamp back on the floor and reached for the lid. The sound came again. Then, the door to his hut burst open, slamming against the wall next to it and causing a cup to fall from a nearby shelf, unaided by the wind that now bellowed in. He jerked his head and turned to see what now stood at the entrance, the shapes, with the orb-like eyes. Before he could act, the shapes blended back into the darkness. It took a moment for him to realise that the coldness in his fingers was not fear, but the metal touching the grip he now had on his revolver, pointed at the door with the hammer pulled back.

He caught his breath as it clouded around him, grabbed the lamp, and got to his feet. He kept a firm hold on his gun and exited the hut. The wind chill hit him first, causing his thick, medium length black hair to flow across his face. He turned his head into the wind to let his hair flow backwards and studied his surroundings as his eyes adjusted to the moonlight. The mud path, caused by use, led into the encircling woods: the source of the sound. The trees, dark smudges on the starlit sky, danced to the wind and sung a choir of rustle and sway. He stood rooted to the spot, shaking not from the cold, and listened. Threaded into nature’s chorus was the sound again, barely perceptible before being carried away by the wind. It was not quite a scream, or a wail, but it was something. It was out there, in the woods somewhere. Feeling a calling he could not quite grasp and took his first weighted step. Then, he took another, and another, and entered the darkness of the trees.

The light from his lamp scattered as it was dashed to pieces by the branches and trunks, engulfed by distance and the night. His small haven of vision surrounded him and allowed him to navigate forward, but into what he did not know. As he entered the forest, the sound of the swaying dampened and became a backdrop to the crunching of branches under his boots. As his eyes adjusted he began to see shapes in the darkness, moving. But, he knew his mind. However, unfamiliarity still visited him as a sense of unease crept upon him. He stopped in his tracks, and glanced backwards down the path he had been walking on. He could not see their shapes, but he could see the orbs, watching him. But, as always, they disappeared upon sight. He pulled his jacket around him tight and continued forward on his path. There seemed to be only one way to go, and so he took it.

Step after step took him to a new sight, slowly emerging in the distance. At first, he assumed it was the orbs. But, the colour was different, and, it moved. It was firelight. He breathed in, sucking the iced air into his lungs as if it would give him some form of protection. An iced armour, given by nature to protect him from the unnatural. As he approached, the fire became brighter. He began to see that the light didn’t come from a single source, they were torches suspended by frames. Then, he froze, stuck to the spot in a jolt. Out of the night suddenly came voices, and figures materialised through the trees. He crouched, peering through the branches and hoping he wasn’t as exposed as he felt.

He could see movement, and he could hear voices. Then, he heard the sound again, this time it was trailed by a gurgle. He moved to get a better view, every step stalked by the fear of being seen. As he got closer, his fear dissipated slightly as he saw that the figures were looking away from him. The four of them were forming the corners of a square, looking inwards towards something. As he got closer still, he could see that the figures were robed and hooded. But, they were not the same. Each one had a distinct characteristic, although they each held a chain in their hand leading into a pit in the middle, down into somewhere he could not see. One of them jittered, their shoulders shaking as if from the cold, and their head jerked from side to side at sporadic intervals: looking for something. The one next to him would lash out randomly, punching a nearby tree, stomping on the ground, or punching the air. He would pull on the chain and slam it into the ground. The figure opposite to him was sat on the ground, holding the chain loosely and bobbing their head as they drifted in and out of a slumber. Then, next to this figure, and completing the square, was a figure that paced. They had their hands raised, writhing them. They would drop the chain, walk away a few paces, before returning to pick it up and repeat the cycle once again. He could not see the mouth, but there was something in its movement that told him they were mumbling to themselves. Then, suddenly, he heard the noise again. It was a scream, and something felt familiar about it. The chains rattled and the figures held on until they stopped, before returning to their usual routine. When the sound of the chains subsided, he could hear what sounded like someone, whimpering, crying. He felt a sense of courage lace his boots, and that call again. He stood up, gripping the pistol tight.

Stepping forward, the crunch of branches under his foot caused the figures to look in his direction. Faceless hoods of empty darkness. He paused for a moment, raised the gun and fired a shot into the air. All four flinched and scurried away, almost scrambling over each other to dissipate into the surrounding woodland. A bead of sweat, reflecting the torchlight in front of him, made its way down the side of his head. His shaken breath puffed out in front of him, carried by the cold air. He waited until the sound of running footsteps faded before lowering the pistol, the barrel creating a path of thin smoke as he did so. He kept it ready and pointed it at the pit as he approached it. The whimpering and sniffling grew louder with every step he took. But, he noticed something else too. With every step, the sound became less in the air around him and more in the spaces in his skull. It vibrated his body. The chains clinked slightly with movement as he reached the lip of the pit and peered in.

He lifted his lamp to illuminate the target that his pistol was pointed at. The first thing that caught his eye was the red jacket, dampened by dirt and soot but still showing its colours, next, the dark trousers and boots. Tattered, full of holes, and revealing a leg that was more bone than flesh. These clothes draped over the body of a man that was now too thin for them, slowly rotting away inside their threads. Each chain was attached to a limb, clamping around the clothes and body, glimmering slightly as the lamplight reached the face of this being. He took a step back. The face was his own, at least a version of it, staring back at him, its wide eyes holding a deep, dark pool of fear. The skin hung tight to the cheek bones and stretched thinly across the brow, the eye sockets sunk into a dark and bruised hollow. The hair was thin, as were the sideburns, covered in a mix of white ash and black soot. He lowered his pistol and the being opened its mouth to reveal a gum filled gape. This time, the scream happened inside his head.

The being sat up, never taking its gaze from his own, and wobbled as its body tried to support itself. Its skeletal fingers gripped the side of the pit and it pulled itself up. The ash and soot fell from its body and caused it to move inside a smog-like cloud. He tried to raise his pistol again as the being stepped out of the pit, the chains dragging and clinking with its every move, but something stopped him. His body betrayed him and refused to respond to his commands, he felt paralysis drape itself over him as he was forced to watch the being slowly step towards him, its steps weighted and heavy. In his peripheral vision, he could see the orbs that had been following him floating on either side of him. His breathing echoed in his ears as the pistol and lamp fell from his grasp. The lamp ignited the floor next to him, illuminating the being in dancing shadows as it moved. When it reached him, it stopped. He could see the sickly sweat on its brow and studied the features of this mirrored face, trembling as it stood in front of him.

It raised its hand and placed it on his shoulder. But, it did not land as it should of. Instead, it melted into him, blending into his fibres and spreading through him. He felt a deep coldness flow through his veins, pulsing with the beat of his heart. The being stepped forward, and everything faded.

The doctor dipped his pen into the nearby inkwell and placed its steel tip on the line of the form, dated 31 October 1881, that read ‘Full Name of Patient’. A noise caused him to look up over his glasses, which reflected the candlelight and made his eyes look like glowing orbs, and peer through the window that glazed the observation room he was in. He returned his gaze to the form and wrote, with a steady hand, ‘Steven Notlo Dalbuts’.

“Does it seem that the medicine is working?” his assistant said, walking to stand beside him and holding a small vial. He too wore glasses that reflected the candlelight.

The doctor cleared his throat, “I’m afraid not. The patient is still showing signs of severe hallucinations and hysteria.”

“Shall we increase the dosage?” the assistant said.

“No,” the doctor replied, “He can’t take any more for tonight. Let’s retire and revisit him in the morning. Tell the nurse to offer him some food on your way out.” The assistant nodded and left. The doctor stayed for a moment, staring at the man in the room through the window. He sat in the corner, the strait jacket clinging tightly to his body, jittering and staring vacantly into nothing. The doctor shook his head slightly, blew out the lamp and exited the room. When the sound of the door closing faded, all that was left was the room. All that was left was an enslaved man, sounds that never were, and the creeping feeling that there was something out there, in the woods somewhere.

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