by Richard Brandt
David had been lying in bed for hours, wide awake, staring at the darkness his eyes had adjusted to long ago. It was happening again. Another night in a long row of nights. Ever since the move, whenever he started to doze off, he’d jolt suddenly and be wide awake again. As the days went on the worse it got. He didn’t know what was causing it.
Laura chalked it up to him just taking time to settle in the new house. Easy for her to say. She was fast asleep beside him, back turned, breathing softly. A fraction of movement from her, but otherwise she was out cold. Alone all night in the dark, he found himself conjuring theories of his own. It didn’t feel like this sleeplessness was coming from within him at all. It felt like something else. Something external. A subconscious sense that he had no control, or comprehension of, as though something was forcing him to stay awake, but for what he didn’t know. All he knew was he couldn’t take much more of it. He didn’t tell her though, because he couldn’t explain it to himself never mind another person. She wouldn’t understand anyway. She was too logical. She’d only laugh.
In the daytimes he was more rational. Found himself thinking maybe it was the house? In their old place he was fine. The problems only started after the move. His side of the bed faced the window now, and the dour orange light from a street lamp crept in from the edges of the curtains. Was that sliver of light really enough to keep him awake though? The house had been empty a long while, so maybe they’d disturbed dust when they moved in? Possible. Maybe even likely. But that didn’t explain why the house creaked every night. Or why those creaks seemed to travel around the building in a pattern like something was walking around. Even when he was the only person in the house, David never felt alone.
Laura said she’d never heard any of these creaks when he’d asked her about them. Not once.
He’d never had trouble sleeping before. Not since he was a kid anyway.
At three a.m. there was a noise in the bathroom. Another creak, but louder than the usual ones. Enough was enough. He needed sleep, and the only way he’d get it was to find out what the hell was making that noise. He got out of bed and walked out into the corridor, closing the bedroom door behind him.
He stopped dead when saw the bathroom door was wide open. He always closed doors. Always. It was instinctive to the point where he didn’t realise he was doing it, an ingrained habit from growing up in a house without central heating. In the moonlight filtering through the frosted glass window, he saw the cold tap in the sink was on. He looked around him, down the stairs, but he was alone. He crept over to the sink. It was just a mild flow, not enough to make a dent in the bills, he thought. As he turned the tap off, he remembered that Laura had gone to bed before him. She was already asleep when he’d come up to bed and he’d closed the bathroom door. She hadn’t woken in the last four hours, so how was this on?
Out in the corridor, he heard the stiff, staccato squeak of door hinges. The bedroom door. The only one he hadn’t got round to oiling yet. He knew it would be Laura and he knew it was him that had woke her. She had to be up for work in three hours, so asking her about the tap could wait until later.
“Sorry I woke you up, darling. I’ll go downstairs and sleep on the couch.” David whispered.
He turned, and what he saw at the far end of the corridor, facing the bedroom door, was a thing of pure impossibility. Hidden by the darkness, it was just a shadow, a shape of the thing, yet he recognised it all too well. It shouldn’t exist. The scream he let out was one of primordial terror. It came up from a place so deep within that it left him on the verge of collapse. Only his hand on the edge of the sink stopped him from falling completely. The thing in the corridor didn’t react to him, it didn’t look. It just walked into the bedroom where Laura lay sleeping and left the door wide open.David cried out for Laura to run.
A moment later she staggered out of the bedroom, unharmed, shielding her eyes from the light, confused to find David huddled in the bathroom corner, legs pulled up, head down, trembling and sobbing into his hands.
“You want to talk about it?” Laura filled the cafetière with water and stirred it with a long metal spoon.
“No.” David said from the other side of the kitchen. He was pouring a cup of tea. They had their backs to each other.
“It’s alright. You can tell me. If it was a nightmare, it’s-”
“It wasn’t a nightmare, alright?” He said through his teeth.
“So what was it then, a ghost, or something?” She sniggered.
“Bloody hell, will you let it go? I said I don’t want to talk about it, didn’t I? And don’t make fun of me like that. God.”
“Well, it’s not normal to just start screaming in the middle of the night, is it? I know this sleep problem’s making you depressed, but this can’t go on. You need help. Go see a doctor and get some sleeping pills, or something.”
David sighed. “It’s not that. And I’m not depressed either. I keep telling you, it’s not the house, or the move that’s keeping me awake. It’s something in the house.”
Laura rolled her eyes. They finished making their drinks in silence. She didn’t want to start an argument only to go to work in a few minutes and leave it unresolved all day. She heard David humming something to himself. A nursery rhyme, but she didn’t recognise it. Before she had a chance to ask what it was, he muttered something to himself and took his mug upstairs.
David stood in the bathroom and looked out at the corridor to where he’d seen it. Seen him. The helmet, the thick arms and legs, the emaciated hands, the rotted skull face. Even though it was in the dark, he didn’t have to see it all to know who it was. All logic and reasoning told him that he couldn’t be real. He wanted so much for Laura to be right and it just be a side-effect of sleep deprivation. But he was real, and now David knew it.
He couldn’t expect Laura to understand. She hadn’t seen him. He’d heard him walking around the house at night, making those creaks in the floorboards. And he knew that it was his sleeping problem that had called him to their house. For now, in the daylight, he was safe. He wouldn’t return, not until tonight. Captain Augustine couldn’t come until the night.
He heard Laura wish him a good day from downstairs. He absently did the same and a moment later he was alone. The house was silent. No creaking, no wind hammering on the windows. He told himself again that he was safe. David walked along the corridor, ready to start work and found that the door to his office was already open.
A text message from Laura asked how his afternoon was going. He didn’t reply. Instead he slid his phone into the top desk drawer and leaned back in the black leather office chair. Work was going slowly. At least that was what he planned on telling Laura anyways. Truth was, work wasn’t going at all, but at least today he had an excuse. David closed down his laptop and took his empty mug downstairs for the sixth time that day. He closed the door behind him.
As he waited for the kettle to boil, he took some meat from the freezer and put it on the window ledge to thaw for later, then used the last few drops of milk to make a very dark, but passable cup of tea. He held the teabag on the end of his spoon when he heard it.
A squeaking upstairs. The bedroom door.
He tensed and placed the spoon down. “Augustine, Augustine…” David whispered to himself, then hummed the next line. He was already shaking. From where he stood he could only see the bottom few steps of the staircase, the rest were behind a wall. He didn’t move from his spot. “Augustine, Augustine, hmm hmm, hmm hmm.” There were boots coming down the stairs.
His legs began to weaken. He wanted to run so much but couldn’t bring himself to move. From the top of the stairs he heard him speak. Dry, hoarse vowels seeped from his skinless mouth, attempting to form David’s name, but without the lips to do so. The boots were half way down the stairs, heavy thumping muffled by the carpet.
Blood surged through his ears, making a deafening screech in his head. Already short of breath, David ran for the back door. Get out before you can see it. Before the Captain can get you, he thought. He ran to the front of the house and stopped in the middle of the terrace road. No neighbours nearby to see him, none to ask for help, so he waited, expecting to see the Captain open the front door and come after him.
Up in the bedroom window, the curtain pulled aside, then fell back just as quick. David’s heart clenched tight in his chest and he ran. Though he’d only seen a sliver of the thing through the slit in the fabric, he knew that what was looking down at him was not Captain Augustine.
“Slow down, Dave. So you’re saying our house is haunted now? You know I was joking when I said that, right?”
“No, I’m not saying that. Haven’t you been listening? There’s something there. And it’s not some bloody ghost.”
“Look, you’re going to have to tell me what this Augustine thing is then. Just take a deep breath, calm down and tell me straight. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it.” She took a deep breath herself to stop getting more irritated with him.
David did as he was told. His heart hurt, and his lungs burned from the running. Laura thought he’d gone insane. He’d ran into the accountant’s office raving, wide eyed, and covered in sweat from running a mile and a half. He kept saying “How can he come out in the day? He can’t come out in the day. There’s something else in the house. It’s not safe.” So she hurried him into the staff kitchen to get him away from everyone. After apologising to her boss, she made him a tea and tried humouring him. It took him some time, but he did quieten down.
“OK, here goes. Captain Augustine is a story my cousin told me when I was about four or five. He was ten years older than me and he made it up just to scare me. Augustine’s this soldier who was buried alive in the Gulf and comes after kids who can’t sleep.”
“Was this your cousin Ricky?” He nodded. Laura rolled her eyes.
“Anyway, it went like this:”
Wars he had fought,
Abandoned and caught,
Buried and killed,
Curse be fulfilled,
Now listen here
If th’ captain is near,
If sleep makes you blue
He’ll come back for you.”
“Bloody hell.” Laura said.
“I know. It gave me nightmares for months. Every night I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d try and get to sleep as quick as possible, but because I was trying to, it wouldn’t happen. It used to terrify me.” David was trembling again, staring off into nothing as he spoke. “And last night I saw him walk into our bedroom.”
“But there was nothing there. See, I’m fine. I only got up, because I heard you. No ghosts or undead soldier thing got me. You’re just run down. It’s making you delirious or something, but you can’t come here and bother me at work. You’ll get me fired.”
“I know and I’m sorry. I just…” His eyes were welling up again. He rested his forehead on his hand. He was still in his pyjamas and they reeked of sweat. “I don’t want to go home. Not on my own. I feel pathetic. Scared of this at my age. And that thing in the window… If Ricky knew about this, he’d still probably laugh. I just… I don’t know what to do.”
Laura had never seen that look in his eyes before. Not on anyone. Eyes wide open, narrowed pupils, fixated on something, on nothing, glaring out at the void. It wasn’t natural, and although she would never admit it to David, it unnerved her to see him like this. Something had clearly spooked him, but for her own sake she couldn’t allow herself to believe his story.
“Let me have a talk with Neil. I’ll ask if you can stay in here ‘til I finish, alright?” She said.
David nodded, drying his eyes on his t-shirt. He could smell himself on his clothes.
David lay awake, but this time it was on purpose. The sleeping pills Laura picked up from the chemist on the way home were stashed down the side of the bed. He’d flush them in the morning, so she wouldn’t know. He lay on his side, breathing slowly, eyes almost closed, imitating sleep. Stay awake. Stay alert. Part of him wished he’d kept the same pyjamas on, so the dried sweat smell would keep him awake, but Laura had insisted he change them. The house was empty when they’d got back. She’d made him follow her around and check every room. First, she went in, told him it was empty, then he saw for himself. All the doors were closed, his laptop was still on standby and his tea had gone cold. She hadn’t spoken to him for the rest of the evening. He reached over to the nightstand and made sure the camera on his phone was ready to go at the touch of the screen. Staying awake would make Augustine come, or whatever he’d seen in the window, and now he’d be able to prove it.
At three am there was a noise in the bathroom. Only faint, but it wasn’t the tap like he was expecting. He didn’t know what it was. A sound like phlegm rattling, sniffing, then a deep groan that was almost like a sigh. David moved as silent as possible around the bed, phone tight in his hand. He kept his eyes almost closed. Open enough so he would see it, but not enough for it to scare him. He’d oiled the hinges on the bedroom door in preparation for tonight and now it opened without a sound.
The sounds in the bathroom continued.
His bare feet were silenced by the thick carpet. The bathroom door was open. The moon wasn’t out tonight, but his eyes had adjusted to the dark hours ago. There was something in there by the washing basket. A shape. About two thirds his height, it’s back hunched above its head, standing on legs too needle-thin to be a man’s. Not the shape of a soldier. Not the shape of anything he’d seen before.
Between the groans, the thing made a wet sound like it was sucking on something. David saw its eyes open ever so slightly. Two thin slits of cloudy yellow-white with no pupils. They closed again as its bottom jaw jutted out from its face with a bony click, and a row of needle-like teeth all moved individually to pull something into its mouth. Whatever it was gorging on, it seemed to enjoy it. Its groans sounded like pleasure.
David was at the bathroom door now. Forgetting about the phone, he reached for the light switch.
The creature’s head darted as the room lit up. It let out an almost human yelp as David’s pyjama t-shirt, hanging from its jaw, fell to the floor, and David fumbled to get his phone ready as the thing realised it had been seen.
Now he could see it, all flesh and sinews. Its ribcage and spine poked out underneath its blackened skin. Its fingers stretched out into talons and its hunch seemed to come naturally to its curved spine. Its bottom jaw retracted, and the barb-like teeth slotted between the upper row, protruding slightly.
David saw it. And it saw David.
Then the black creature was gone, and where it stood was now the tall, lumbering figure of Captain Augustine. His rotten fatigues were smeared with blood and mud and it lurched fast towards him, head lolling to one side. David cried out in sudden shock as it crossed the bathroom and closed in on him in a second. A dried hand reached out for him. David fell backwards. The thing leaned forward, and its dry, bony fingers wrapped around his throat. With a strength the skeletal creature beneath looked as though it shouldn’t possess, it pulled David up off the floor by his neck, bringing him closer, so that the empty eye sockets of Captain Augustine’s met his. This close up, David could see through the visage his fears had created and see the creature beneath. Its breath smelled like stale sweat.
Augustine’s eyeless skull turned to face her, and in a blink the skeletal soldier was gone. Standing in its place was something taller, hunched because it was too tall to fit in the doorway. Man shaped, but deformed. It’s abnormally long and muscular arms slouched down, almost touching the floor. Dressed in white, covered in tattered hair, foam dripped from the side of its mouth. The thing’s focus shifted entirely on Laura and it dropped David on the floor. The man-thing’s legs didn’t bend at the knees. Instead it shuffled from side to side in a way that looked agonising. Its face twisted with pain with every hopped step it took.
Laura screamed the way David had the night before as that same primordial fear gripped her. She understood why David was so scared of Augustine, because now she was watching Jack Hopper, not the man, but the image she’d had in her mind when he’d escaped from prison when she was a girl, shamble towards her.
David was still on the floor. He saw Laura cowering against the wall, face red with tears as the giant thing reached for her. He got to his knees and he threw his phone at it. Jack Hopper disappeared and became the black skeletal thing once more. It let out a sound like knives scraping against a plate. David and Laura covered their ears to stop it hurting. As they were incapacitated from the noise, the black thing darted back into the bathroom. Its wiry legs stepped on David as it passed him, pushing him down onto the tiled floor. Laura saw the thing look back at them both. For an instant it was both Augustine and Hopper at the same time, then the true form, then it leaped through the bathroom window. They heard it shriek as it ran off through the garden and beyond.
Neither Laura or David could move. Paralyzed by what they’d seen, by memories from their past, now dredged up and shown to them. They stared at the bathroom window.
“What the hell was that?” Laura murmured. David turned to her. They both had the same expression. They got up and joined each other, and together, arms linked, they walked over to the window. Wind blew in through the empty frame. Rain landed on the tiles. It was too dark to see anything out there.
“You reckon it’ll come back?” Laura asked. David said nothing.
They both took the same guess. They wrapped their arms around each other and felt the other trembling. Neither of them could hold back the tears that came a moment later. Fear. Tension. Relief in the knowledge that David wasn’t losing his mind, and dread over the same thing. What else could be real now? David looked down at his pyjamas on the floor. They’d been in the creature’s mouth. Those euphoric sighs were coming from this. He showed it to Laura, but she didn’t understand either. They both felt her skin writhe.
“I’ll put these in the bin.” He went downstairs, scrunched up his pyjamas into a ball and put them in a black bag, making sure not to touch the sweat-stained underarms that the thing had been sucking on.
There were tracks in the garden. Tiny scratches in the soil and torn up clumps of grass in rows of five, marked where it had run. In the morning, Laura followed them and they led her to the sheet metal shed at the far end of the garden. Muddy scuff marks on the metal told her the thing had climbed over it. Tracks on the roof said it had gone over the fence. She followed it. Past the garden was a square mile of grassy field. Kids used it as a park. A dirt track ran through the middle, a couple of benches at either end of the path and at the far end to Laura’s left, the land sloped downwards into a wooded area the council had classed as a nature reserve.
The tracks led that way.
She headed into the trees. The tracks led her through bushes and heather and through a small stream until she came to a ruin of moss-covered bricks far from the path. Waist height. Weeds and thorny branches had grown through it and the top was covered over in soil. Loose bricks sat in the wet mud, hidden by plants, and coming from underneath the mound she could hear water. She looked around the area for more tracks. The canopy of trees made the woods dark, making the trail difficult to spot, but after a while she became certain. The tracks stopped here.
She phoned David and told him to bring some gardening gloves and two shovels from the shed.
They were scraping away, pulling at weeds, and shovelling away bricks until mid-afternoon, but what they found was an empty hollow. A layer of reeds and mud, black from damp was underneath the bricks, matted together to form a canopy that bowed inwards when they pressed a shovel head down on it.
“I bet it’s in there.” Laura readied her shovel. David nodded and did the same.
Neither of them wanted to find out what was down there. Both felt that by breaking through that canopy, they were crossing a boundary into an unknown, unseen world that had they had recently learned lived alongside them.But they told themselves they had to. There was no other choice. No going back. They were already in it. They readied themselves.
“On three.” Laura whispered, and on the third count they thrust their tools downwards, penetrating the top layer of weeds and mud. They expected more resistance from the soil, but it gave way with ease. The ends of their tools splashed into a pool of black water.
“What the hell is it?” David asked.
“Looks like it’ll have been a well, or something. We’ll just have to dig a bit more and find out.”
It didn’t take them long. They scooped out shovels-full of thick, muddy water, whittling down the top layer until David told Laura he’d caught something heavy. She helped him pull it out of the water and they placed what he’d dredged up on the ground. The clothes were rotted away almost to nothing. Blackened by mould and eaten away by insects.
“Holy shit.” David said.
“Jesus Christ.” Laura echoed.
“Should we get the police?”
“And when they ask us why we’ve been digging up a nature reserve, what do we tell them?”
“Good point. This is weird, Laura.” David said.
They both shuddered when they realised the implications. David used the end of his shovel to unfold the tan shirt out on the muddy ground. At the same time, Laura stuck her shovel back in the hole and brought up another bundle of clothes and dumped it beside the shirt for David to unfold.
The sun had sunk down beneath the trees in the last half hour. Unblocked by the canopy, they saw the clothes more clearly in the failing light. The collar was too big to be a modern shirt. The trousers were flares.
“No one would be seen dead in that kit nowadays. They look like they’re from the seventies. And look.” David said. Laura looked down at the clothes lying side by side. At first she didn’t get what he was pointing at, then when she realised, she felt that numbing fear of the unknown writhe beneath her skin again.
The clothes were child-sized.
Laura rummaged in the well again, but came up empty. “There’s no body.” She said.
David sighed. He knew this had to be related somehow. He looked at the well, then back at the clothes.
“Buried alive? Drowned?” Laura said.
“He must have been terrified in there.”
“But there’s no body.”
“Not in the well, no.”
“He’ll have died absolutely terrified in there.” She whispered.
“If he died. The clothes are empty.”
Laura felt cold inside. Her skin grew goose pimples. It sounded insane. She knew it and so did he. It would have been better if David had been losing his mind with all this ‘Captain Augustine’ stuff. At least that could be explained. People would believe it.
“Why’d it run here?” David said. Laura shrugged. “And why was it sucking on my clothes?”
“Maybe it was eating something?” Laura said.
“But they were covered in sweat from the night before.”
“When it first came and scared you?”
David nodded and at the same time, they both realised what the thing was eating. It wasn’t the sweat it was engorging on. It was what was in the sweat. What had brought it out of him. The emotion. The primordial emotion. The one innate feeling that we rely on as a species to survive.
Laura was overwhelmed with pity for the creature. Had it once been this boy whose clothes they had laid out in front of them? How had it happened? Trapped down there, soaking wet and cold, alone in the dark, did he call out for help until he hadn’t the strength to speak? Did he cry for help and home, for his mother? Was he down there for days? Weeks? Did the fear overtake him? And when he did finally escape the hole, naked and covered in the blackness of the water, did he find that fear had changed him? Laura wondered if the boy had lived in their house, decades prior, and it wanted it for itself?
It was getting dark. The sun retreated behind thick grey clouds and already the woods were like night. Something was different. They couldn’t describe what it was, but they felt it within themselves and outside of themselves also. In the chill of the wind that came with the coming dusk. In the rustle of the leaves and in the squawk of the birds. There was no warmth to any of it anymore. No comfort. No sense of familiarity. Leeched of any former sentiment, leaving only indifference. The bird’s sound, once a welcomed sign of the season, was now harsh, shrill. They linked hands and held each other for comfort, but it wasn’t enough. The four-inch space between their shoulders felt too far apart. Was it themselves that were different now? Had they crossed over into another world? A dark reflection of our own where most never see, and where they were never meant to tread? They felt lost. They had each other, but who could say how long that would last? In the last twenty-four hours their sensibilities had been pushed up against the glass of the world and they were forced to look through to the other side. See it. Understand it. Fear it.
Monsters were real. They always had been.
Fear. It was all they had left.
They waited up for it. They left their dirty clothes in the bathroom, closed all the doors and pretended to sleep. In the days that followed they took shifts to catch up on actual sleep. Four hours each, but it didn’t come easy. They were plagued by their memories. They tried to act like they’d let their guard down. They went about their daily routines with one eye behind them. They’d pretend to talk and pretend to laugh, and after every time came a beat while they listened for sounds of scuffling, of doors opening, but only silence went on.
As the weeks went on they talked less and smiled little. Their hands never held anymore, and they were rarely awake at the same time. At night they kept watch in silence. Life before the monster was just a dream they’d shared. The waking world was difficult. All they needed was for the thing to come back, just once. It would validate them. They could capture it, maybe even kill it. Then and only then could they get back to the dream.
Laura didn’t go to work anymore and money was running out. They received messages of concern, offers of assistance from relatives, but they ignored them. Those people didn’t know what was really out there. They were still in the dream. They were so fortunate.
As money dwindled, things became less important. Television and lights were sacrificed, food started coming out of tins, grooming and cleaning became unimportant. The house grew cold and dark. Mould grew through the walls and damp filled the air. David and Laura became thin from living off morsels, and as winter came they both got sick. Still they waited for the thing.
They existed in silence now. In the dark. Hunched and shivering. Mute. Living off the remaining scraps. One asleep, one awake, both keeping watch. Hollow. Pains in the bones. Sick. Unable to keep food down. Hungry for something different, but they didn’t know what. They existed alongside the real world now, in a dark corner, longing so much to return to the dream.
At three a.m. one night they heard something. Only faint, but sure enough to alert them. They shot up out of bed. For the first time in months they felt such excitement they were giddy. They looked at each other, each seeing what the other had become. Their eyes were the most changed. They felt such sadness and lament for their past lives, but for the briefest of moments, dared to hope that tonight they might get it back. Back to the dream. They hungered for it.
In the house across the street, someone was screaming.
About the Author
The author is 31 years old and from Yorkshire, England. Richard spent three years as a police officer and is currently writing a memoir of his experiences. His favourite writers include Hemingway and Derek Raymond. He has two kids and in his spare time he enjoys playing the guitar.