The Dark Thing

Fall was fast approaching. Soon enough winter would sweep in on grand icy white wings, but for now, it was early September, and the leaves on the trees had just begun their change. Brilliant yellow-greens and bright oranges speckled the treetops.

Mara stood at the backdoor, with her hands on her hips, eyeing the trees suspiciously. It was too early for fall. She wanted just a little more of that beautiful summer heat. The wind picked up, making the tree branches sway back and forth gently, as though they were dancing the most wondrous ballet of nature. She watched, not knowing she held a frown on her face, as individual leaves shook free from their rightful places and twirled, floating down to the earth.

Slowly, the woman stepped down from the doorway and out into the afternoon sunlight. It was a beautiful day, orange leaves or not. Mara supposed she could make the best of the coming season.

Then she saw it, or thought she saw something.

She was just about to head back inside and put away a batch of canned tomatoes she’d just finished, when she saw something-something small and black, about the height of an average five-year old. The thing moved so fast she couldn’t make out any other features. It raced around her shed, and disappeared into the doorway of the abandoned barn that sat at the back of her property.

She blinked hard, repeatedly, unsure if she’d really seen anything at all.

Drawing a deep breath, Mara stood still, half afraid of what she saw (or thought she saw), and half curious what it might be. She was a bright woman, and despite not having graduated from college, was said to be the best tutor in the state. Mara knew there was a thick, heavy line between the ludicrous and the truth, having always been a reasonable woman who took stock in logic, math, and science. Yet, she had seen something.

After a serious moment’s consideration, Mara went back inside to put away her canned goods, dismissing the whole thing as a trick of the eye.

Later that night, as she prepared for bed, Mara went around to each window and door on the house and made sure all latches were secured tightly. Once the house was safe and secure, she changed into her pajamas and crawled into bed with a book.

Mara read for nearly two hours before she began to feel her eyelids start to droop. Sleep was creeping in, and so she shut off her bedside light, snuggling beneath her blankets and closed her eyes.

Dreams were an odd occurrence for Mara. Tonight, however, while sleeping, she slipped from one dream to another, unable to discern one from the next. They all blended together, mixing on the edges, like a tie-dyed shirt.

Finally, she’d waken in her own bedroom, and sighed with great relief. Mara pulled her blankets closer around herself and closed her eyes. Then, movement sounded in the room. It was an unidentifiable scratching, as that indicative of a rodent infestation. Unsure why, Mara felt fear, great and so overwhelming it made her nauseous. There’s something in my room, she thought with alarming unrest. Yet, there couldn’t be. She had gone through and checked every window and every door.

Mara was afraid to move, afraid to breathe, as the scratching became louder, more insistent. Suddenly the scratching shifted, and it was no longer in the room, but instead in her brain. She felt it and heard it, scratching at her skull.

Then it was all gone, just as suddenly as it began. Mara awoke in her bedroom, afraid, shaking, and skin moistened with sweat.

She lay still, panting like a dog, and staring at her blank ceiling. It was just a dream, all of it. Mara soothed herself, mentally, and after she got her breath back, she began thinking how ridiculous she was. As though something really could have gotten into her home.

Though it was night, Mara’s house was not completely dark. Every night, she left the hallway light on. It wasn’t that she was afraid, but the need for a light had become habit after a childhood fear of darkness. Mara knew she was no longer afraid of the dark, but she still felt comforted having a light on.

Her throat had dried from the panting, so Mara threw back the covers and sat up to get a drink. Motion in the hallway caught her eye.

It was short, and black, and just as fast as last time. But Mara could not, would not, admit (even to herself) that she had seen something in her backyard. It was impossible, she told herself, though a part of her whispered that it was not.

Determined not to be that scared woman living alone, she stepped off her bed. Slowly, she tip-toed across the room to the doorway. Mara leaned, peering out into the hallway.

There it was! Again.

The dark shape zoomed into her kitchen, leaving through the backdoor in a hurry. The door slammed back on its frame, and Mara nearly jumped out of her skin.

Her heart raced, thrumming dully in her head. Her mouth dried and hands trembled. She had to steady herself by holding onto her bedroom door fame.

It took her a few minutes, but Mara was finally able to regain control of herself. Still, she stared at the back door through the hallway and kitchen. Reaching over, she clicked on the light in her room.

With the darkness now gone, and her entirety bathed in light, Mara found herself thinking more and more that it had just been another nightmare, and her body, having believed it true, had gotten out of bed and come to the doorway while still sleeping. It was completely plausible and could be supported by thousands and millions of cases of sleepwalking.

Yet, a small part of her was uncertain. What if there was something in her house? What if something somehow broke in?

“Impossible,” she whispered to herself.

But the doubt remained.

As she saw it, there was only one way to be sure. First, she would check the backdoor, making sure it was locked securely as it had been before she fell asleep, then, she would put on her shoes and a jacket, grab a flashlight, and inspect that old barn as well, being sure to lock the house behind her and take keys, just in case. She was a lone woman, living out in the boonies, an easy target for any manner of pervert or psychopath.

After taking a deep breath, Mara strode down the hallway and through the kitchen, confident that the door would be locked. She decided that if it was, it would prove she had seen nothing, and she could return to bed, leaving the barn to be inspected in the daylight tomorrow.

The latch was turned the right way. Mara, however, was not the type to leave well-enough alone. She grasped the handle, and found that it turned easily in her hand.

Her heart pounded again, sending blood rushing through her ears with a dull roar. Mara felt herself swoon. Something was wrong here, something was very wrong. She knew it now with an unshakeable certainty. Mara could feel it just as she could feel her heart beat against her ribcage.

Hands shaking, she reached for the light switch and turned on the back porch light. This comforted her enough to give Mara the strength to open the door.

Carefully, she pulled it towards herself, peering around the edge with unease. The backyard was lit a third of the way, the light not being bright enough to illuminate the whole yard.

Mara watched from the doorway intently, alert to any motion or noise. Yet, she found that there were none, something strange for all the wildlife in the area. The wind did not blow, and there was no rustling leaves on the trees or tall swaying grasses in the field. Crickets did not chirp, birds did not sing or twitter, and even the sky hid the brilliance of the nightly stars and moon. It was as though the whole world around her held its breath.

She too, found that she’d been holding her breath, and drew in a great gasp of air. It whistled into her lungs, and suddenly, Mara felt extremely exposed. She felt eyes on her from every angle, yet she could not see them. She heard whispers in the dark that were not really there. The vulnerability was staggering, frightening, and panic inducing.

Mara stepped back, slamming the door shut. She fought with the lock, trying desperately to get it to latch. It disobeyed, impervious to her trepidation and rushed state.

Emotion swelled inside Mara. Fear, anxiety, and paranoia rushed up her throat like sour bile, and came spewing out in the form or great choking sobs. Tears ran down her cheeks. She felt as if her whole world was rupturing at the seams.

She couldn’t do it. Mara knew she didn’t have the strength to journey back out there, into that terrible darkness. She didn’t have the strength.

When finally Mara realized that the door lock was broken, and she would not be able to get it working again tonight, she turned around and sat with her back against the door.

She sat there all night, worrying, debating, and fretting over her own sanity, until at last, she slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep

Bright sunlight filtered in through the many windows in the kitchen, touching Mara’s still sleeping eyes. She awoke slowly, as though swimming through a thick bowl of oatmeal up and into consciousness. Her head throbbed like she had too much to drink the night before, and pain shot through her back when she moved. Mara had forgotten for a minute what happened the night before and became disoriented. How did she get here, she wondered, standing carefully.

Then it all came back to her in one massive rush. The dream, the shape nearly flying past her bedroom, herself getting out of bed, the shape bursting out the back door, the sound of the door slamming, her fear, trepidation, and the meltdown she had upon discovering the door was no longer locked and no longer working.

It made her dizzy, and Mara had to steady herself by putting a hand on the kitchen counter. Now, standing in the bright morning light, it all seemed ridiculous, like a terrible nightmarish hallucination. She considered what she remembered of the night, and found that her memories weren’t as clear as she had just seen them all together. Her mind was losing the details, just as it would with a dream. Mara found it easier to dismiss it all now.

She turned to the kitchen door, and found it locked. That was it for her. None of what she remembered from the night before really had happened. The locked door was proof.

Mara expected embarrassment to tingle at her cheeks upon this realization, but found that only one emotion remained with her as a result of what happened the night before: uncertainty.

Slowly crossing the kitchen, Mara busied herself with making a pot of coffee. She had work to do today and could not let a nightmare get in the way. Work on her third novel was not something Mara could put off, even for a meltdown.

Checking the time, she was surprised to find it was nearly ten o’clock. She should have begun work on her novel two hours ago. That meant she would now have to work until four instead of two, and she would get almost nothing done besides her writing. It was a shame, Mara wanted to weed her flowerbeds one last time before fall. She told herself that if she could work more efficiently today, maybe she’d let herself off working early, that way she would be able to get everything she wanted done today.

With the coffee brewing, she went to her bedroom to change her clothes. Mara stopped short. Her heart raced, pressure pulsed behind her eyes.

Small black footprints littered the hardwood floor of the hallway.

Suddenly dizzy, Mara swooned. It wasn’t possible. No way. She couldn’t believe, wouldn’t believe that last night had been anything more than a terrifying nightmare. Yet, here was the proof.

Steadying herself against the hallway wall, she knelt by a footprint and inspected it.

They appeared to be the footprints of a child, small woman or a midget. Mara wiped at the prints with her hand. Nothing smeared. She leaned closer. It looked-no, impossible.

But possible or not, Mara was nearly certain the footprints were burned into her floor. She ran her fingers across it again, feeling the slightly warped, dry, charred wood. It was only now that she noticed the smell of burnt wood, faint, but lingering in the hallway.

Standing, her eyes followed the footprints from her front door, down the hallway, and through the kitchen.

An apprehensive squeak escaped her throat. Mara saw that the footprints were burned into the tile of her kitchen floor as well. Her breath came in short ragged puffs, and she reached out for the wall again for support.

After minutes of standing there, too shocked to move, Mara slowly gathered herself, and went to the front door.

She tried the doorknob, only to find it locked. Nothing made sense anymore. Mara felt that her world had been upended. Her safety and privacy were violated, but by whom, or what?

After changing her clothes and having a cup of coffee, Mara still felt no better. She rolled the situation over and over in her mind, searching for weak points, for a truth, for something that made sense. None of it did though, and that scared her most.

She sat down at her desktop computer and fired it up. After pulling up the file for the novel she was working on, Mara sat there, staring at the screen.

For the better part of an hour, the woman sat, waiting for inspiration to strike, or at least a minor urge to write. When she checked the clock and saw just how much time had passed her by and that she hadn’t achieved anything, she shut the computer down and resolved to occupy her mind with something else.

Going outside, she was surprised to find the sun had gone, hidden behind low laying grey clouds. The day had turned gloomy, not helping how Mara felt. She frowned at the sky, her hands on her hips.

She went to a flowerbed and knelt, then deciding she would like a view of the old barn out back, she repositioned so she could see it easily. Mara went to work, pulling what didn’t belong and watering her flowers.

Around noon, Mara decided it was time for lunch, and stood, wiping sweat from her brow and appraised her work. One full flowerbed now done, she had four left to do. It was slow going, but Mara enjoyed spending her time working on her flowers, they were her pride and joy. She smiled softly, satisfied with what she had done, and went to the house.

Just as she was about to step up to the door, her eye caught movement near the barn. Her heart leapt in her chest, galloping against her ribcage.

Mara turned slowly, her whole body tense with apprehension. She stared intently at the barn.

A shadow came around the far corner of the barn, slipping along side the grey barn board walls, then disappeared into the open door.

Anger bubbled up inside Mara. Enough was enough. She was going to end this here and now.

Throwing her weeding gloves to the ground, she strode confidently towards the barn, crossing her large back lawn slowly. Inside she was a knot of tension. Her heart continued to race, and she found herself unable to calm it.

Finally she stood before the two large, open doors. Blood roared through her ears, making it impossible to hear anything.

She swallowed once, hard, readying herself. Mara looked longingly back at her house. How she wished she could just go inside, make herself a cup of tea and a sandwich, then go about her business weeding the flowerbeds. However, she couldn’t. Mara knew she would never feel safe in her own home again if she didn’t face this.

Taking a deep breath, she held it, and stepped through the doorway.

Inside was dark, more so than it should have been. Mara couldn’t see a thing, but she felt this-presence, for lack of better word. There was something in here, she was certain, and could feel it all around her, watching, waiting. But for what?

She stepped farther inside, trying to remember where the light switch was.

Suddenly she heard a thousand voices whispering all at once. They whispered to her, yet Mara couldn’t understand what they said.

Her whole body trembled. Mara wanted to turn and run from the barn, never come back. She found that her feet wouldn’t obey. Standing rigid, still, she drew one ragged, fearful breath after another.

The voices, they were coming closer. Mara could hear them closing in on her, and still she was powerless to do anything.

The whole building seemed to be filled with the thickest, blackest shadows she had ever seen, swirling together to create a single massive shadow.

Something brushed by her shoulder. Mara jumped and nearly screamed, but stifled it to a gasp instead. There was more movement and more, until suddenly it felt as though she was standing in the middle of a windstorm. Air rushed past her at every angle. Her hair splayed out in the air around her, dancing and twirling.

Tears rolled down Mara’s cheeks. She wished she’d stayed away from this cursed barn, but felt it was too late now. Whatever was in here now had her surrounded, and she knew it would not let her go.

As she sobbed, the darkness closed in, tightening around her. Mara felt it coming and closed her eyes. The darkness took over, and suddenly, Mara was gone.

In the weeks following, the mailman noticed that Mara’s mailbox was never emptied, but he was too busy to worry about some woman who was more than likely on vacation.

She was finally reported as missing by her agent, Sally, whom after weeks of trying to call, made a trip out to see one of her top earning writers. When Sally found Mara’s house empty, her car in the garage, and nearly a month’s worth of mail sticking out from the overfilled mailbox, she called the authorities. Mara would have told her if she was planning to leave for a vacation, and even that wasn’t the writer’s style.

Police and rescue workers searched the home and property. All they found were small, child size foot prints, burned onto the floor.

Two months later, a woman was checked into the local mental hospital. She had been found wandering in the three hundred acres of state land, having survived on insects and plants. The hospital workers processed her and evaluated her. They could not figure out what happened to this woman or who she was. She refused to speak, eat, sleep, or bathe.

Eventually the staff had to insert a feeding tube through her nose in order to provide her body with nutrition. She fought everything they did, and after three months there, she finally spoke but one word before expiring.

“Shadows,” she had whispered loudly in the face of a young frightened med student, clutching at the front of their scrubs with an iron grip. The student reported that her eyes began to roll and she dropped back against her bed, dead.

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