I AM NOT A clever man. Apparently everyone knew that the blizzard was coming – everyone except me, that is. And not only did I decide to continue with my journey that night in my ramshackle old heap of a car, I also didn’t tell anyone else where I was going. Or even make sure my phone was fully charged. Yeah, I’m an idiot alright. But that still doesn’t make what happened any easier to deal with.

So of course the car broke down in the middle of nowhere just as the blizzard was really beginning to bite, leaving me stranded on a little country road that I’d never been on before with no way of getting help and no sign of any passing cars to come to my aid. Everyone else was too sensible to be out on a night like that: a night so bleak and wild, and only two days before Christmas.

I sat there for a while, cocooned in the relative warmth of my useless vehicle while the snow whirled around outside. There had already been a few significant falls over the last couple of days, but this blizzard was on another level entirely. Although the night was relatively still, the sheer volume of snow that was falling meant that the road would soon be impassable, and that if I wasn’t careful, I could pretty soon be in real trouble.

Even in the short time I had sat there, the snow had started to settle on the windscreen of the car, blocking out the snowbound scene beyond. The car’s heater was already starting to struggle, and the longer I waited the harder it would be to trek through the snow and find some kind of shelter. I put on my gloves, zipped up my coat and stole myself to venture out into the freezing night.

Thankfully, the situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I remembered passing a small cottage just before the car had given up the ghost: it couldn’t have been more than half a mile or so away, which would be difficult but doable provided the weather didn’t worsen.

The going was hard from the outset, with the snow already thick on the road. Within a minute or two I was all but smothered by the swiftly falling flakes, which clung to me with a clammy obstinacy that no amount of brushing could free me from.

By the time I could see a hazy light shining through the swarming snowflakes I was soaked to the bone and thoroughly exhausted. My feet were like blocks of ice, and my face was numb and frozen. But the warm orange glow of the light spurred me on, giving me the boost I needed to soldier on just that little bit longer.

When I finally arrived at the front gate, I could have wept with relief. The cottage was picture-postcard perfect, a little bastion of comfort and warmth huddled against the glowering darkness and the vicious, penetrating cold of the blizzard. Lights blazed happily from its windows, and two snowmen even stood as silent sentinels over the barely-visible garden path.

But something wasn’t quite right. When I got to the front door it was already open, and little flurries of snow spilled into the otherwise warm and inviting hallway. I stepped in and slammed it shut behind me. An eerie silence suddenly engulfed me, and at that moment I felt like an intruder, awkward and out of place.


My voice sounded flat and lifeless in the cramped little hall.

“Is there anybody there?”

No answer came. I walked through each room of the cottage in turn, knocking gingerly on each one before poking my head in. The place was utterly deserted.

It seemed as though whoever lived there had just stepped out for a moment: a fire blazed in the grate, and the dishes from their evening meal were neatly stacked in a pile by the sink. There was even a Christmas tree with an assortment of presents tucked underneath it in the living room. But there was no sign of any living soul in the place.

I sat down on the very edge of the couch, almost afraid to touch anything. A log popped in the fire, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I took a deep breath and chuckled slightly at my own nervousness. Okay, it was a strange situation, but I was out of the cold, I had a roof over my head and I wasn’t likely to lose any toes to frostbite any time soon. All I had to do was wait: the family would return eventually, the blizzard would die down, and soon everything would be right with the world again.

Ten minutes passed, then twenty. The only thing that kept me company was the steady ticking of an old grandfather clock out in the hall. After perhaps an hour of waiting, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed to do something, even if only to distract myself from the laborious passing of time.

I made a quick check of the house for a phone, but there was nothing. Still, that wasn’t so odd – lots of people don’t have a landline now that mobile phones are everywhere. I found a pen and a scrap of paper in the kitchen and wrote a quick note explaining the situation which I then pinned to the front door: I thought it best to give the family as much warning as possible on their return before they found a strange man in their home.

Peering out of the window, the snow was still falling with the same languid, heavy insistence as before. The two snowmen, lumpen and misshapen under the fresh weight of snow, seemed to be craning forward and staring back in at me. I shuddered and pulled the curtains closed.

It felt like I was taking advantage of the kindness of strangers as I walked through their house. There was a photograph on the mantle above the fire: two cute-looking kids, a boy and a girl of maybe seven and eight, and their father, an unsmiling, severe man who looked as though he’d seen more than his share of harsh times. No mother, but that wasn’t particularly peculiar in this day and age.

I told myself I was looking for some kind of clue as to their whereabouts as I crept through the cottage, but in reality I think I was just being a little nosy and wanted a peek into the lives of my unwitting hosts. The cottage itself was pristine: it looked like it must have been cleaned on a daily basis, and even the room that the kids shared was remarkably sober and neat. In fact, the only thing out of place in the whole house was a smashed plate which I found in the corner of the kitchen, which I swept up and put in the garbage. It only took two minutes, and it was the least I could do considering the hospitality I’d already helped myself to.

I went back and sat on the couch again, after turning on their ancient TV set, only to find the screen as full of snow as the night sky outside. It was now well past midnight, and there was still no sign of the father and his two kids. I felt a little like Goldilocks as I lay down on the couch, spread my coat over my self and settled my weary body down to sleep.

I jolted awake hours later after an unsettled night. A clock radio had clicked on, sending the velvet tones of Bing Crosby ‘s White Christmas echoing eerily through the otherwise silent house. I felt stiff and unrested, almost as if I hadn’t slept at all night. I had vague memories of some awful dream, but it melted as swiftly as a snowflake under the weight of the fresh new day. My wrists hurt abominably: maybe the cold had got into my bones during my walk through the blizzard the night before.

The house was still empty. I checked the front door, and my note was still in place. Opening the curtains, I saw that the snow was no longer falling, but it covered everything in drifts that looked at least a couple of feet deep: I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The rest of the day I spent in a kind of limbo, wandering idly from room to room, resisting the temptation to have a rummage through my host’s possessions and try to find out more about them. It was odd: usually you can tell a lot about a family from a quick stroll through their house, but this little cottage was like a blank slate. It was all antiseptic surfaces and neatly folded bedclothes – there weren’t even any kid’s drawings stuck to the fridge. It was a completely neutral space, devoid of any personality whatsoever. The broken plate I’d tidied away had been the only human touch to the whole place.

The day passed slowly. I ventured outside for a time, tramping through the deep snow in an attempt to get the measure of the place now that it was light. The thick snowdrifts muffled every sound, giving the whole scene a strange sense of unreality. I felt like I was walking around on top of a giant wedding cake.

There was a small shed in the corner of the garden: it looked like a rustic version of Santa’s grotto swathed as it was in sagging layers of snow. The door was open, but it seemed far from welcoming. Nevertheless, I trudged towards it, eager to see what secrets it might hold.

The interior was dirty and dingy, in marked contrast to the immaculate house. There were cobwebs everywhere, and the tools that hung from the walls were old and rusted. Except there was a single blank space on the tool board, a space with no dust or dirt or mess surrounding it, where some well-used tool had recently been taken.

The cold drove me back indoors again, and I soon got the fire started from last night’s embers. In amongst the loose papers provided for kindling I found a sheaf of what looked like crude children’s drawings. Once the fire was lit, I settled back down on the couch to examine them.

One drawing in particular caught my eye. It featured a clumsy yet still recognizable rendition of the cottage, with three figures standing beside it. Two of them seemed to be standing with their hands on their hips, with large, unhappy frowns on their faces and bright blue tears streaming from their eyes, while the third, drawn much bigger, had furious red eyes and appeared to be holding what looked like a snake.

Something about the drawing intrigued me, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. The rest of the pictures had a childhood innocence about them, but this one disturbed me.

I spent the rest of the day leafing through some old paperback Westerns I found in the main bedroom, but none of them were interesting enough to really hold my attention. My mind kept returning to this strange little family and the odd, isolated life they must lead out here. Maybe it was normal for them to disappear for days at a time. Maybe it was some kind of twisted Christmas tradition. Although somehow I doubted it.

Time dragged. I made another circuit of the house, just for something to do, and stoked up the fire in the evening ready for another night on the couch. I turned in early.

I slept in fits and starts, probably because I wasn’t dog-tired like I had been the first night. Strange sounds, muffled and distorted by the thick blanket of snow, kept me awake, and I dreamed bizarre half-nightmares of the missing children and their stem, faceless father.

I rose early, peering through the window to find that a thaw had set in overnight. The blanket of snow had retreated somewhat, and the bright sun edging over the horizon held the promise of further melts. Trekking back to the village would be tough going, but it was certainly doable and wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. Besides, I felt like I’d overstayed my welcome as it was, and it would be good to get out of this peculiar, limbo-like house.

I wrote a short note explaining the situation and left it on the kitchen table, along with a little money – “think of it as an early Christmas present,” I wrote – and headed out the door.

I cut straight across the garden between the two snowmen towards the gate. The thawing snow now had a crust of ice on top, which made a satisfying crunch with every step I took. I hadn’t gone far when my foot caught on something under the snow, almost sending me flying. Looking down, I saw a gnarled human hand poking up from the surrounding sea of white.

Instantly I dropped to my knees in the wet snow and began to dig, raking back armfuls of ice and quickly uncovering the body beneath. I knew who it was immediately: the father of the family, his face oddly serene in death, with an ugly, bloody dent in the side of his head. He must have slipped in the snow and knocked himself out – a large stone lay under his head like a pillow – and the cold had done the rest.

I stood for a moment over the corpse, taking in the scene in all its eerie stillness, with the squat little cottage looking on. It was then that I looked at the dead man’s other hand, and saw what he was clutching in his stiff, white fingers. A coiled bullwhip, old and obviously well-used.

The child’s drawing I had found leapt into my mind, and shock stole the breath from my body. I turned to the two snowmen, which were now little more than shapeless pillars of white. I bounded towards the nearest and pushed at it with desperate hands, hoping to find solid, hard packed ice beneath my fingers.

But I knew I wouldn’t. The snow was light and fluffy, disintegrating even as I touched it. In a matter of moments I had demolished the towering lump of snow to reveal what my heart already knew would be there: another body, this time that of a young girl, with her arms tied behind her back and securely fastened to a stout wooden fencepost.

I dropped to my knees, tears pricking my eyes. I couldn’t begin to imagine what they must have suffered. Maybe they’d been relieved at first when their father had fallen, thinking that they had delayed or even escaped their punishment, with their relief turning to panic as they slowly realised their father wasn’t getting up again. It was all so senseless, so pointlessly tragic.

In the days since then the children have continued to haunt me. I wonder if there was anything I could have done, if the two of them we perhaps still alive in their icy tombs when I was walking through their cosy and welcoming home, utterly oblivious to their existence. I think a part of me will forever remain there, in that little wintery garden, staring at two bodies frozen in silent screams as the first few flakes of snow begin to meander downwards again out of a heavy, leaden sky.

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THIS IS A STORY I don’t share. I think everyone has a repertoire of stories that they like to tell again and again – over time, they get worn smooth with the telling, all the rough edges get knocked off, and, eventually, they bear no resemblance at all to the actual experiences that spawned them. They get worn smooth, like pebbles on the shore. Well, this story isn’t like that. Not like that at all.

I’m a distance runner. I’ve got a pretty stressful job and hectic home life, so in my spare time every chance I get I like to lose myself in distances. I’m not fast by any means, but I’ve been at it for years, so my endurance is pretty good. I can go for hours at a time even over the roughest terrain, and it’s a great way to leave everything else behind and just be alone with myself for a while.

This all happened on a weekend like any other. Work had been particularly rough that week, and things were bad at home, so I had a big run planned in the mountains – 20-odd miles out in the middle of nowhere, on a remote path I’d heard about but never actually explored before. Hard as it might be to believe, this was actually my idea of heaven.

Things started off smoothly enough. The day was bright but with a cooling breeze blowing over the mountain – perfect running conditions – and I was making good time for the first couple of hours. After that, things got a little precarious underfoot as the path sort of faded away, but I was confident I could find it again, and as far I was concerned this was a good thing, as it meant there would be a lot less people on the route.

Half an hour later, though, things weren’t looking quite so rosy. I hadn’t caught so much as a sniff of the path since it’d tapered off, and the breeze had brought with it a swirling mist that threatened to descend with a vengeance at any moment. I wasn’t worried exactly, but I was starting to become a little concerned.

So initially I was glad to see a splash of bright colour half-hidden in the scrub some way off in the distance. Colour like that out in the middle of nowhere usually means it’s a piece of garbage that someone has thrown away, and that means it’s in the general vicinity of a path, or at least a place that someone else has been to fairly recently. So I headed towards it, hoping that it would give me a chance to get my bearings again and get back on the right track.

I loped towards it at an easy jog, the mist growing thicker with each footfall. Mentally, I was cursing my own stupidity – I should have been more certain of the route beforehand, paid more attention to being sure of where I was. I wasn’t worried; just irritated that I’d gotten myself into a situation that was going to be a bit of a chore to get out of. What should have been a diverting, exhilarating run was now going to be a pain in the ass. And I had only myself to blame.

I kept on, step after step, stride after stride, my breath steady and regular like the ticking of a metronome. With each pace my target grew nearer, while the mist closed in at the same, steady rate. Although I was getting closer, the visibility seemed to be getting incrementally worse as well, which meant that whatever it was seemed to remain always indeterminate as I tried to fix my eyes upon it. At one point it looked like an abandoned backpack; at another like a spilled sack full of clothes. With so few visual cues around it, it was hard to give it any real sense of scale.

I think I knew something was wrong, even then. I kidded myself that it was the lowering mist that was causing the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the thought of how difficult it was going to be to get back, but I think that was just my head trying to rationalize away what my gut already knew.

Looking back now, the things that flashed through my mind as I ran towards that unknown shape seem absolutely ridiculous. In the time between one footfall and the next, I wondered if it might have been an animal carcass, or maybe even a discarded showroom dummy – anything but what it actually was.

I’d never seen a dead body before.

It took me a long time to consciously acknowledge that that was what it was. It was the one thing I really didn’t want it to be, so I think I projected as many different possibilities on it as I could before I was literally standing over it and couldn’t deny it to myself any longer. It was a corpse. Lying face down on the ground, with its cold white alabaster limbs folded underneath it as if it was simply sleeping.

By this time the mist was all but overwhelming. Visibility was only a few feet – it was like being in a whited-out bubble, or wrapped up in cotton wool. This only added to the sense of unreality around the whole situation. My own breathing sounded flat and hollow, as if the heaviness of the air deadened all sound that tried to pass through it.

I don’t know how long I stood there, just trying to take in what I was looking at. I didn’t even think to check for a pulse or any other vital signs – there was no point. The thing had an odd kind of weight to it that is utterly absent from anything living. Even a sleeping or an unconscious body is never entirely still, but this thing was purely an object, with as little life in it as a stone or lump or rock.

I shivered, suddenly realising that the heat I’d generated from running had dissipated, and that the cold was starting to bite into my bones. I knelt down over the body, not sure what I was going to do – in fact, there was very little at all in my head at that moment. Before I knew exactly what I was doing, I’d placed a shaking hand on the body’s shoulder and rolled it over on to it’s front, only for my heart to stop cold in my chest.

I found myself staring down into my own dead, unblinking eyes.

There was no mistaking it. The face was exactly the same as mine in every detail, only deathly white, twisted into a frozen grimace and streaked with dirt and plant matter. A single ant crawled across its lips. It even had the tiny scar on its chin that I’d picked up in a childhood accident.

It was me. My own body, lying there limp and lifeless like an empty husk. For a few weird seconds I wondered if this was one of those out-of-body experiences, if that was the real me and the me watching was just some kind of spirit or echo of myself, but that dizzying feeling only lasted for mere moments.

I was left with just the cold, hard reality of the situation. I tried to pull myself out of my daze by focussing on what do to next, on taking some sort of action, but what could I do? Leave it there, mouldering in the dirt while I ran off and ignored it? Report it to someone? To the police? Somehow, I couldn’t imagine that. That would make it all too real, having them comb the area and perform all their tests and forensic investigations on the corpse to try to determine its identity. The very thought of it made me sick to my stomach.

So, without really thinking about it and without any real plan in mind, I started digging. I had my pocketknife with me as I always do: I used it to break through the hard crust of the dry earth to the sandy soil beneath. Before long I was scraping out dirt by the handful, digging like a man possessed, like a wild animal scrabbling blindly in the dirt.

The frenzy left me as quickly as it came, and then I was just kneeling there, hands dusty and bleeding, with my breath coming in harsh, ragged gasps, sunk in a rough hole that was maybe a foot deep with dirt piled up on each side. I got up and took a moment to find my equilibrium again, then pushed the body unceremoniously into the makeshift grave with my foot. It provided little resistance as it slid noiselessly to the bottom of that crude, shallow grave.

I covered it over, surprised to find tears pricking my eyes as I pushed the piles of dirt and soil back in place. After I was finished, I just sat there for a while, staring at the raised mound of earth, sobbing silently to myself.

Eventually I collected myself together enough to start the run back. The mist was already starting to lift again, and by the time I got back to my car the evening sky was clear and bright. I poured a little water from a water bottle over my hands, and they were clean and fresh again in a matter of moments.

But I left a part of myself on that mountainside that day. Some stories are worn smooth by the telling, but this is like a stone that sticks in my craw, and its ragged, sharp edges wear away at me from the inside as I go over and over it in my head. I’ve grown more and more disconnected from the people around me since it happened – even my loved ones, my closest friends and family.

It’s as if there’s something missing from the very core of me now. These days I feel more and more like a ghost as I move through the world, barely able to engage with anything in any meaningful way. I still run, but I’ve never been back to that spot – I doubt I could find it again even if I tried. I run differently now. I run with a kind of hollow desperation in every stride, but I’m never sure if I’m trying to run away from something terrible or just running headlong into a fate I’ve already glimpsed.

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A Face in the Crowd

THEY SAY YOU SHOULD never really believe anything until you’ve seen it with your own two eyes. Well my eyes have seen more than most, and I still don’t know what to believe. One thing’s for certain, though: I know my own fate is sealed, and has been for some time. And let me tell you – it doesn’t end well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first. I’d better tell you how it all started.

Just another normal day, in a normal town, with me, a normal guy, going about my business. And running late, as usual. I don’t drive, so I find myself on buses a lot. I’m an engineering student, so mostly I’m going back and forward to and from classes. Headphones on, music blaring, skimming through notes from my last class trying to figure out where I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to be doing and exactly how late I already am. Bus rides give me a little slice of time when I can almost relax and try to catch up with myself again.

So I’m half zoned-out, not really paying attention to anything but the music in my ears and the complexities of my schedule in my head, when I glance out of the grimy bus window. And my eyes randomly settle on something that instantly stops my heart in my chest.

There’s a corpse walking around out there.

It’s a face I only glimpse for a moment, in a crowd of people waiting to cross the road, but it’s smashed and bloody and horribly misshapen, one side of its skull squashed so flat that there’s no way it could belong to a living person. The sight of it steals the breath from my lungs. The bus moves on and I turn in disbelief to look more closely at this impossible sight, but it’s already lost in a sea of people, in the surge of the crowd as it spills over the crosswalk.

I put it down to overwork: to tiredness, to an overactive imagination or a dirty window or to anything else that I can think of, but a part of me still knows what I saw. That was a dead thing. A dead thing up and walking about in the middle of a bright sunny day.

But I can’t think that. That’s insane. So I put it out of my mind, and get back to being late and making excuses and trying to catch up with all the reading and studying I should be doing…

Only the next day I see it again. I’m travelling back from a morning class this time, and as the bus belches and farts from stop to stop I happen to look out through the window and there he is. Sitting alone on a bench in the park, with people walking past him as if he’s a perfectly normal person. But he’s not normal. He’s a corpse. His skin is ivory white, streaked with blood from his horrific injuries. His limbs are broken and twisted. His body looks as though an evil giant has picked him up and just squeezed. Sharply splintered bones poke through his flesh, lacerating him from the inside out, and no-one seems to notice but me.

By now I’m sure I’m seeing things. Obviously I’ve watched too many zombie movies or something, and I’m having some sort of breakdown. The bus rolls on oblivious, and soon he’s out of my sight, leaving me wondering whether the whole world’s gone mad or whether it’s just me.

For the remainder of the journey I scanned every face in every crowd through the filthy window of the bus, half afraid of what I might see, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Everything was as it should be, and the world carried on as before. But that was twice I’d seen him now. The same person each time. My head was spinning, and I felt sick to my stomach.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night. The next day, getting on the bus again, my nerves were even more strained. Was I going to see that mangled, bloody body once more? I pressed my face to the window of the bus like a wide-eyed child, determined to spot the walking corpse if it was out there again.

So I almost didn’t notice him when the bus stopped and he walked right on.

Waited in line, paid his fare, and nobody batted an eyelid. And of course he strolls down the centre of the bus and sits down right next to me.

I can’t move. I’m paralysed by a mixture of fear, revulsion, and an overwhelming sense of unreality. I mean, this can’t really be happening, can it? Dead men don’t just get up in the morning and decide to take a trip into town. And if they did, wouldn’t people make a little more of a fuss?

I can’t bear to look at him, but I can feel his obscene presence beside me the entire time. His hand rests on the top of the seat in front – it looks like it’s been ripped to shreds, with stark white bone poking out from the torn flesh. The cuff of his shirt is pristine and neatly pressed. His arm bends unnaturally between the wrist and the elbow, and again between elbow and shoulder.

I steal a glance at his face out of the corner of my eye: the right side is a destroyed mass of shredded tissue, his eye socket a gaping hole, and his skull has been flattened like an eggshell, with clumps of scalp trailing from clumps of blood-matted hair. It’s all I can do to stop myself throwing up.

I try to focus on the person in the seat in front of me, on the street outside the window, on anything other than this nightmarish monstrosity sitting next to me, but even though I’m not looking at him he’s all I can think about. The rest of the world seems washed out and out-of-focus. I can even hear him breathing – a dead man’s breath rasping in his throat. I feel like I’m going to pass out.

Eventually, after I don’t know how long, the bus grinds to a halt again and the corpse gets up and wanders off as if it’s the normal thing in the world. Nobody stares after it, nobody screams as it walks out into the world again: nobody seems to care in the slightest. Except me. I’m a nervous wreck, half hoping to wake up at any moment in the warmth and comfort of my own bed. Only of course I don’t.

I stumble off the bus in a daze a few stops later, and shamble through the streets like a zombie myself. I need to collect my thoughts, so I wander into a coffee shop, get myself a coffee and take a seat. The world seemed to be spinning on its proper axis again, so I wanted to take some time to catch it up.

So what had I seen? Was I being haunted? That didn’t seem likely – although I’d seen the corpse three days in a row now, it seemed to ignore me just as other people ignored it. Was it some kind of ghost? Doubtful. Ghosts seldom have change for the bus.

As I sat there, lost in my own thoughts as my coffee went cold, I began to notice something happening on the street outside. Cars were stopping, and a small crowd had gathered, all with faces turned upward, looking at something I couldn’t see. Curiosity got the better of me, so I left my coffee untouched and went outside to see what was going on.

I left the shop and turned my head to follow the gaze of the crowd. Just as I did so a series of gasps and screams pierced the air, and I saw what I first assumed to be a bundle of rags tumbling from the roof of a building across the street. It wasn’t until it hit the ground with a jarring thud that I realised it had been a body.

I kept walking towards the scene in numb surprise as most of the bystanders turned away in shock. I could hear the sound of police sirens in the distance growing louder. In just a few paces I found myself looking down on the crumpled tangle of flesh and bone: he had landed on his right hand side, leaving half his skull crushed almost flat, and his face a familiar mess of shredded flesh.

I later found out that he’d been a local, a man who’d lived a largely reclusive life with few friends who had finally succumbed to loneliness and despair and decided to end it all that day. There was a picture of him in the newspaper – he looked normal, ordinary, and I even felt like I half-remembered seeing him around somewhere.

Somehow, for some reason I couldn’t for the life of me understand, I’d seen his death before it had happened. Seen it made real in his flesh before the event. But why? And why me? I hadn’t known the guy, and I wasn’t in any position to help: so what was the point of it all?

I did my best not to think too hard about it, but that’s easier said than done when you’ve literally rubbed shoulders with death. Luckily my schedule was as hectic as ever, so I was kept busy and didn’t have too much time to dwell on things. I found myself walking to classes a lot more, though: bus journeys had somewhat lost their appeal.

Things seemed to be getting back to normal, until just a few days later. Picture the scene: another ordinary day, another ordinary class. And me, running late, as usual.

I sneak in to the back of the class a good ten minutes after it’s started, and try to look inconspicuous as I shuffle around getting all my stuff out and ready to start taking notes. It’s a big class, so I’m thinking I’m doing a good job at not attracting too much attention to myself. Then I notice something out of the corner of my eye.

There’s a guy a couple of rows down, hiding at the back like me, who doesn’t look quite right. At first I think maybe he’s fallen asleep or something, because his head seems to be at an odd angle and it looks like he’s nodded off, but I know something is badly wrong when he turns slightly to the side and his head lolls sickeningly on his shoulders. His neck is broken. It’s then I notice that his skin is a washed-out lifeless blue, and what I first took for a necklace around his neck is actually a livid welt from some kind of rope or cord.

So it looks like I’ve got another corpse on my hands. Or a potential one at least.

But maybe this time I can do something. Maybe things aren’t as inevitable as they were with the first guy. Maybe I can help.

All through the lecture I’m formulating plans, thinking of ways to approach this guy, what to say to him, how to stop him from doing the terrible thing that I can see in him. All without seeming like a lunatic myself, of course.

Finally the lecture finishes, although I haven’t taken in a single word. All my plans – such as they were – fly out of my head as I see the guy get up and move quickly towards the door. I’m out of my seat in a flash and after him, pushing my way through the crowds to try and catch up.

But he’s too fast for me. At one point he turns around and catches a glimpse of me running after him, flashing me a look with his glassy, dead eyes that I cannot fathom. I follow him for as long as I can, but he’s soon lost in the sea of people surging through the corridors.

For the next few days I turn private detective, asking around to see if anyone knows him or where I might find him. It was hard going – he didn’t seem to have many friends, and he kept himself to himself for the most part.

What I did manage to find out only worried me even more. Apparently he’d had mental health issues in the past, and recently he’d been becoming withdrawn and distant. I found out where he lived and knocked on his door several times, but there was never any answer.

I was beginning to despair. I resolved to give it one last try, this time waiting until late at night to call round to his house in the hope of finally catching up with him.

I climbed the by-now familiar steps up to his apartment door, and was pleased to see signs of life. There were lights on inside, and loud music was playing. I hammered on the door, but no-one answered. Trying the handle, I was surprised to find it unlocked, so I slipped in, my heart racing in my chest.

The apartment was a mess, like the cave of a wild animal, with rubbish strewn everywhere and meaningless symbols scrawled on the walls. I think I knew what I was going to find even before I pushed open the door to his bedroom. His body was hanging from the light fitting, swinging gently back and forth as if pushed by an invisible breeze.

I cut him down as quickly as I could, but it was already too late. He looked just as he had when I had seen him in the lecture room: neck broken, lips black from suffocation, and quite, quite dead. I laid him on the bed, called for police and an ambulance, and waited.

I felt hollow and strangely numb. On a small writing desk in the corner of the room was a handwritten note. Reading it turned my blood to ice in my veins.

He had obviously been delusional, caught up in some terrifying fantasy where secret government agencies were watching him and out to do him harm. In recent days, he wrote, the situation had worsened, and he had realised that his only escape was this drastic measure he had now taken. Someone had been making enquiries about him, pumping his friends for information, and even calling at his apartment while he hid, terrified, inside.

By trying to help him, I had pushed him over the edge. Killed him as surely as if I had placed the noose around his neck myself.

I felt sick to my stomach. An overwhelming sense of guilt and hopelessness rushed over me. What was the point of being able to see these horrors if there was nothing I could do about it? If all I could do was make things worse? It all seemed so senseless, like something out a bizarre nightmare. Only I knew there would be no waking up from this.

These days I don’t get out much, and I try to keep myself to myself. I don’t make plans or look towards the future anymore – what would be the point? I try to avoid mirrors and shop windows, because every time I catch a glimpse of my reflection I see a white, cadaverous face, with a neat round bullet hole in one temple, and an ugly, jagged exit wound on the other side of my head.

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I SUPPOSE THIS IS a love story, of sorts. One of those tales of lost loves and might-have-beens, only mine is more tragic than most, and it takes a much darker turn. Most people don’t realize that there are many types of love in the world, some that take a lot more than they give, but, despite how things turned out, I’m still glad that she came into my life, and sometimes knowing that a part of her lives on in me is the only thing that keeps me going.

I wish I could say that I fell in love in Julia the first time I set eyes on her, but that’s not the way things happen in the real world. We barely noticed each other at first – we both went to the same art college and saw each other around a lot, but we were each too wrapped up in our own lives to pay too much attention to the other.

Art college can be a crazy place. Most of the people there are straight out of school with very little life experience, yet they’re expected to produce meaningful works of art that say something deep and profound about the human condition. So a lot of the people you meet tend to over-compensate for this by exaggerating their personality, trying to become louder, more outrageous and eccentric to convince people that they are interesting and different enough in themselves to be worth paying attention to.

Sorry if I sound a little jaded here, but while it’s entertaining at first to meet all these supposedly larger-than-life characters, believe me, after a while it gets old pretty quick. You meet so many of these self-consciously “arty” types that you soon see everything they do as just a cry for attention – they’re all style and no substance, and for the most part they’re a lot less interesting than they think they are. There’s nothing beneath the surface.

Julia, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish entirely. I think that’s why I never really noticed her at first: in a sea of students all trying to be as different as possible, her quietly calm and understated manner went entirely under my radar. But as time went on we began to run into each other more and more, and I slowly became to appreciate her for what she was: a genuine, bright, witty and caring person, with a profound sense that life was a mysterious and magical thing, and that art might be the best means to plumb those ineffable depths.

There was no whirlwind romance or dramatic confessions of love: we just seemed to drift together over the weeks, like planets trapped in each other’s orbits. We went from acquaintances to friends to best friends, and soon we were spending almost all our time together – I don’t even remember when we first became lovers, as it just seemed to happen so naturally without either of us having to consciously decide on it. It was as if we both shared the same skin.

For a time things were perfect. When we were together, things felt easy for the first time in my life – I didn’t care what other people thought of me, and I’m sure she felt the same. As long as we had each other, we didn’t need anybody or anything else.

Even as it was happening, I think a part of me knew that it couldn’t last forever. Perfection never does. Still, I could never have imagined the way in which it would all fall apart. All over such a small thing. Such a tiny thing.

I thought nothing of it at the time. We were lying in bed, basking in the shared warmth of an idle Sunday summer morning, when suddenly she jumped as if she’d received a mild electric shock. “What’s the matter?” I asked offhandedly.

“Nothing.” She rubbed a patch on her stomach. “I think something just bit me.”

“Let me see…”

There was nothing there. Just the usual warm, pink expanse of skin. I’ve been over this moment in my head countless times since then, but I’m positive there was nothing to see. Not so much as a pinprick.

As the day went on, however, she kept worrying at it, scratching at the same spot until the skin was red and raw-looking. “Itching will only make it worse,” I warned her, but she couldn’t leave it alone. She hardly slept a wink that night: I know because she kept me up too, twitching and fidgeting, raking at her belly with her long fingernails until the skin was red raw and bloody.

We tried every lotion and cream we could to stop the itching, but nothing seemed to work. In fact, over the next few days it got worse – she started developing angry-looking rashes all over her body, and she couldn’t get a moment’s peace from the incessant prickling discomfort she felt across her entire skin.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not by a long shot.

She began to complain of a tickling sensation beneath her flesh. “It’s like hard little pebbles under my skin,” she explained, “I can feel them moving around. Squirming.” She took my hand and placed it on her belly. “Feel.”

The skin was red beneath my fingers and felt slightly hot, but I couldn’t feel anything apart from the steady rise and fall of her breathing. After a second or two she gave a little shudder and moved away. Her eyes looked intently into mine. “Did you feel it?” I had never seen her look so serious. “There’s something alive in there.”

The days after that were a blur: a mix of doctor’s waiting rooms, hospital visits and hour after hour of reading up on every type of worm and parasite I could find. Everything we tried drew a blank. The doctors could find nothing wrong with her, and her symptoms didn’t match any known cause: no fever, no sickness, just this continual sensation of crawling beneath the skin.

She described it to me once, one night when we were both awake long into the wee small hours again.

“It’s maddening. Like a series of tiny pinpricks just beneath the surface of my skin. I can feel them burrowing and squirming inside me, wheedling their way across my body in small clumps and clusters. They feel smooth, but hard, like tiny beetles burrowing under my skin. Every time they move my muscles tense up in disgust and revulsion, like an electric shock, or like I’m trying to unconsciously squeeze them out of me. It’s horrible. I can feel them scurrying through my flesh, pushing themselves through sinews and tendons… It’s worse at night, when there’s less to distract me. I can feel them crawling through my insides, hear them scraping against my bones…”

She burst into tears, and I held her vulnerable, besieged body as she rocked back and forth sobbing uncontrollably. I held her as tightly as I could, as if I could force the invisible insects out of her, half expecting to feel the tiny intruders she’d described swarming beneath her skin. But there was nothing to feel. Her skin was as soft and as smooth as ever as it pressed desperately against mine.

After that, things went downhill rapidly. She was hardly sleeping, and now she rarely left the house. We seemed to have ruled out all the physical causes of her situation, but any attempts I made to get her to see a psychiatrist were met with outright hostility. If I even brought the subject up she’d turn on me with fury in her eyes, accusing me of not believing in her, of calling her a liar, even of calling her crazy.

Tempers wore thin. I felt like I was forever walking on eggshells around her, and I think I began to resent that. She sensed that in me, and our relationship deteriorated.

Things came to a head one night after I’d been out with a few friends. Of course, she hadn’t wanted to come, and to be honest it had been a relief to get away for a few hours. But when I returned I came back down to earth with a sickening crash.

I found her in the bathroom, naked, lying in the bath. She had a small pair of nail scissors in her hand, and was covered in bloody scratches all over her body. She had been trying to dig out the insects she believed were burrowing beneath her skin.

She was very drunk and barely coherent. The cuts weren’t deep, but they crisscrossed almost every inch of her, including across her face and hands. A mess of blood and tears, she kept mumbling apologies to me as I tried to clean her up as best I could.

That did it for me. I finished with her the very next day. Looking back, I have no idea how I could have been so heartless, so cowardly, but I thought I had to leave for the sake of my own sanity. I still loved her, but I just couldn’t handle the situation.

For the next few months we avoided each other. With the college campus being so small, it was no easy job. I heard from mutual friends that my leaving seemed to have made her less of a recluse – apparently, now she was going out almost every night, and she had thrown herself into her work to get over the breakup.

I was relieved to find that she seemed to be getting on with her life. To lessen my guilt, I told myself that perhaps the breakup had been the best thing for her, that it had shaken her out of her neurosis and maybe even banished the imaginary insects from her body forever.

Weeks later I received an invitation to an exhibition. Julia had managed to secure herself a showing in a local art gallery – at the bottom of the invitation she’d simply written, “I’m sorry for everything. Please come.”

Perhaps foolishly, I saw this as a sign she was getting better. After all, she had to be functioning pretty much normally again if she’d managed to pull of a show. I was excited by the prospect of seeing her again, and maybe even of the two of us getting back together, and of things being like they’d once been.

I went on my own, the day after it opened. I didn’t want there to be too many other people around to get in our way if we bumped into each other.

As it turned out, there was no danger of that. The gallery was virtually empty when I arrived, and I soon found her exhibition tucked away in a side room. Not without some trepidation I opened the door and walked into the room.

The entire room had been painted a deep, foreboding red, streaked with splashes of purple, crimson and putrid yellows. Heavy drapes in similar colours were hung from the walls, giving the room an oppressive, claustrophobic feel. On one side of the room a pile of old CRT television sets were stacked up on top of each other, their screens a flurry of hectic, non-stop motion.

But it was the sound that really hit me at first. There was a dull, constant crackle looped in the background, punctuated by sharp, screeching noises that cut through my nerves like nails on a blackboard. Loud scratching sounds came in brief, staccato bursts, each one hitting me like a blow to the stomach.

I took a closer look at the bank of TV screens. Each one was showing different footage, but in each one the camera was travelling down some kind of pipe or tunnel: in one it seemed to be a sewer system, in another an underground cave system, and in a third what looked like a mining tunnel. In each case the colours had been altered – the footage looked overexposed and washed out, bleached a sickly red. The films had been sped up so that the viewer appeared to be rushing down an enclosed space at a dizzyingly breakneck, jerky speed.

The overall effect was horribly jarring and disconcerting – it was a real assault on the senses, all the more so because I knew this was Julia’s best attempt to convey what she had been feeling for so long now. Standing there, in that womblike room, surrounded by a cacophony of grating noise and a blizzard of unsettling images, I got my first real taste of what how life had been for her day in day out for months now. I finally felt like I understood.

I turned to leave, and there she was, standing in the doorway. She looked pale and drawn, a shadow of her former self, and her skin was red and blotchy. This was what she’d been reduced to, this frail, skeletal shape that had had all the life sucked out of it.

I took her in my arms for the first time in weeks, and it felt like that was where she had always belonged. We kissed, and in that moment I suddenly knew what I had to do. To free her from her pain and torment.

I slipped my hands around her neck, which was as thin and fragile as a bird’s. She didn’t struggle as I tightened my grip, and after a short time her body went limp, and I laid her carefully on the floor. She finally looked at peace: as if she was in a deep and dreamless sleep. I flicked a switch on the wall and the room went silent and dark. For her, it was all over.

But something passed between us in that kiss. As the life went out of her, I felt on her lips a peculiar tingle, like a brief electric shock, or perhaps the bite of a tiny, burrowing insect.

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The White Room

THIS ALL HAPPENED SOME time ago, so I apologize in advance if I’m a little hazy on the details. I was a very different person back then, so it’s difficult to dredge it all up again like this.

Looking back, I was probably depressed in some way. On the face of it, everything seemed to be going fine in my life: I had a beautiful wife, a great job, and a young baby daughter. Everybody always told me I was so lucky. But I wasn’t really happy – deep down within myself there was always this nagging sense that something wasn’t right, that my life was just happening around me while I cruised through it on autopilot. It was like I was on rails and just going through the motions every day, doing what was expected of me, and never really being myself.

Of course, it’s hard when you’ve got a young child. All of a sudden you never get a moment to yourself, and your life isn’t your own. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her with all my heart, but sometimes, in my darkest moments, I would wonder what my life might have been if I’d made different choices. I’d even think about just running away, although I knew I’d never actually do it. It was just a notion I entertained every now and again.

I’d reached that stage in life where all your friends are settling down and having kids, and it feels like you have to book time weeks in advance just to meet for a couple of drinks or something. Like I said, I had a good job, but I was just beginning to realize that it was going to probably be my career for the rest of my working life, and if I really wanted to get the most out of it I’d have to stop marking time and start making a concerted effort, even though my heart really wasn’t in it.

So I suppose I was looking for some kind of refuge, a space in my life that was mine and mine alone, where I didn’t have to pretend and there was no-one relying on me. I guess I found a pretty strange way to do it, though: I took up lucid dreaming.

I’d always been fascinated by dreams, ever since I was a kid. My dreams were always incredibly vivid and seemed a lot more coherent than most people’s – they seemed to have more substance to them, more reality. Maybe more than my actual life had at the time. I can still remember my first lucid dream. I wish I could properly describe what it felt like, that sudden realization that everything around me was an illusion, and an illusion that was totally under my control. It was literally like becoming a God.

After that first time, I began using every spare moment I had to read up on the subject. Methods and techniques for achieving lucid dreams, other people’s accounts of their own adventures in their subconscious mind – I devoured everything I could find, and quickly became an expert. I built entire kingdoms for myself in my sleep, and would retreat there every night, finding there the freedom and excitement that didn’t exist in my waking world.

I was the architect of my own imagination, and travelled through the farthest reaches of space and the deepest fathoms of the ocean with equal ease. I led armies, fought epic battles against fearsome monsters and founded nations which hailed me as their king. I began living solely for the hours of darkness, for the moment when my head hit my pillow and I could leave my humdrum life behind and enter an existence that felt more truly my own. I didn’t mind my job anymore, I was getting on better with my wife, and my daughter was once again the apple of my eye. Things were good. Or so it seemed.

Slowly, though, an intruder began to impinge upon my perfect little world. At first I sensed him more than saw him – a figure always on the edges of things, a presence that disturbed and intrigued me in equal measure. After a while I began to get glimpses of him. I’d see him for a second through a dirty window pane, or speeding past in a car, only for a moment, but he was always staring directly at me, and always grinning a leering, maniacal grin.

He was a tall, gangly man always dressed in white, with wild eyes full of dark intent and a shock of black hair that made his pale, high-cheekboned face even more intense. He unsettled me deeply. Whenever I encountered him he ruined whatever fantasy I was playing out, yet I could never approach him or confront him directly – despite my unlimited powers in the world of dreams, he always slipped away from me, and this fact alone ruined each dream he appeared in. He became a constant reminder of the unreality of my dreaming world, and made me aware of the fact that all this was just make-believe, just so much meaningless idle fancy.

And then I began encountering the White Room. I’d be in the middle of a fantastic dream, running through a door in an ancient medieval castle or diving through an airlock in a city-sized spacecraft, when suddenly I’d find myself plunging into a completely white, featureless room with no doors, no windows and no exit back to where I’d been.

And he’d be there. The gangly man. Grinning at me with his twisted, unnatural grin, fixing me fast with his crazed, evil eyes.

He didn’t speak at first. He’d just watch me as I pounded on the walls and explored every inch of the room looking for some means of escape. All my powers were gone – usually I would have just blasted my way out with the power of my mind, or created a trapdoor that would have got me out of there, but somehow no matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do. There was just me, and him. Standing there in the White Room for what seemed like hours at a time, until eventually morning would come round and I’d wake up, pale and shaking and bathed in a sheen of cold, clammy sweat.

This went on for months. Now, as soon as I fell asleep I was there, in the White Room, and I stayed there all night. I began to dread sleep as much as I had once loved it. I scoured through all the books and articles I had collected on lucid dreaming to see if anyone else had experienced something similar, but couldn’t find anything. It seemed I was totally alone. Just me and the gangly man, night after night, until I was afraid even to look at him.

Eventually, he began to talk to me. He’d wait until I’d given up in my dream and curled into a ball on the floor, then he’d slowly approach, crouch over me and begin to whisper in my ear in a low, calm voice. A slow, even whisper without tone or inflection. A whisper that would crawl into my ear like a snake and take up residence in my brain no matter how hard I tried to shut it out.

I won’t repeat the things he said. They were truly unspeakable. Terrible, evil things: what he was going to do to my wife, to my infant child. The agonies he would put them through, every tiny detail of the tortures he would inflict on them. All in that same careful, measured whisper, that same quiet tone that betrayed no emotion whatsoever. Hour after hour of this from the moment I fell asleep until the moment I woke up.

It sickened me: sickened my very soul. And it was all the worse because I knew this was part of my dream – on some level it was me thinking those awful, horrible things. His voice was my voice, and his whisper was really mine. It was like a cancer inside my head, eating away at me from the inside out like a worm in an apple. I could no longer look my wife in the eye, and I took no joy in seeing my daughter even though I loved her more than ever. Always the echoes of that terrible whisper would come back to me, and I would hear his voice silently in my ear throughout my entire waking life.

By this time I was at my wit’s end. I felt like a hollow shell of a man poised on the brink of insanity. I decided to take sleeping pills before bed, hoping to enter a deep and dreamless sleep with no sign of the gangly man and no more of his horrific whispering.

My plan backfired. I awoke unexpectedly in the middle of the night, my eyes blinking open and my mind instantly alert and totally awake. I sighed inwardly, lay there for a moment, and then decided to get myself a glass of water.

Except I couldn’t move. In reading about lucid dreaming, I’d heard of sleep paralysis before, but never experienced it. The reality was far worse than I’d ever imagined. I was trapped in my body, lying on my back and staring up at the ceiling, unable to move so much as a muscle no matter how hard I tried. I felt both strangely disconnected from my body because I was no longer in control of it, and utterly rooted to it in a way I never had before. I could feel every inch of my skin, each fibre of the bedclothes tangled around me, yet even if a spider were to slowly crawl across my eyeball there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I was terrified. Sleep – even if it meant another visit to the dreaded White Room – would have been infinitely preferable to this. I don’t know how long I lay there, my mind whirling like a maelstrom while my body remained as immobile as stone. I was a prisoner in my own skin, as helpless and vulnerable as my own newborn baby. Eventually, slowly and deliberately, a shape loomed out of the darkness into my vision, creeping inexorably into my line of sight, a familiar shape: a shock of jet black hair framing a deathly white face, eyes wide and lurid mouth grinning…

The next thing I knew I woke up screaming, lashing out with my arms and legs and yelling at the top of my lungs. It took me a few moments to come back to myself and realize that I could move freely again, but by that time the damage had been done. My wife was standing by the side of the bed, clutching the bedclothes around her with a look of utter terror on her face. An ugly red welt was spreading across her cheek, and her eye was already swelling and closing up. She looked desperately scared and vulnerable. All I wanted to do to was hold her in my arms and protect her, but she flinched and backed away as I moved towards her.

I hadn’t meant to do it, but I’d caught her hard across the side of the face with my hand as I’d woken up. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to hurt her, but within an hour or so a black, brooding bruise had formed across her face and her eye was swollen shut. I felt more scared and guilty than ever.

We both took the day off work and talked about what had happened. She’d noticed that I’d been growing more distant over the last few months, but she’d put it down to the stress of the new baby. I wanted to tell her the truth, but how could I? Mentioning the White Room and the gangly man would just make me sound like a lunatic, and I couldn’t repeat to her any of the things that were whispered to me in my dreams.

I persuaded her that I’d just had a bad reaction to the sleeping pills, that I’d been having a hard time at work recently and hadn’t been getting enough rest. We spent the rest of the day just watching movies and playing with the kid – it was good to take a bit of a break and just do nothing for a change – but that night she insisted that I sleep in the spare room. I assured her I wasn’t going to take the sleeping meds again, but she was obviously still wary of me, and, given the angry-looking bruise on her cheek, I couldn’t say I blamed her.

That night as I lay there, alone in that empty, darkened room waiting for sleep to come, I thought through the events of the previous night. It must have been just a dream. Had to be. The alternative was just too outlandish to contemplate. I put it down to the sleeping pills. The gangly man had been on my mind, so when the sleep paralysis caused by the pills kicked in, it’s natural that if I was going to hallucinate, it would be him that I’d see. There was nothing more to it than that.

At least that’s what I told myself.

I don’t know when I finally drifted off to sleep. Part of me was dreading it, but I was mentally and physically exhausted, so it was inevitable that I’d eventually succumb.

My eyes flicked open again what felt like only seconds later, but I knew I must have been asleep for some time. I was almost expecting to see the stark, empty walls of the White Room around me, but instead the spare room was filled with the bleary half-light of an early morning, in the hours before dawn, before the day has properly begun.

Once again I was completely wide awake, as if a switch had suddenly been flipped in my brain. But this time my eyes roamed round the room seemingly at random, taking in every detail. To my huge relief, there was no sign of the gangly man anywhere.

I tried to get up, but to my dismay I found that I couldn’t. I willed myself to move, but nothing happened. The fear rose inside me again, the fear of being rooted to the spot for hours and hours once more.

Then my hand moved.

I felt it slide up from under the covers, then slowly push them back. Only it wasn’t me that was moving it. I tried to stop it, tried with every fibre of my being to put my hand back down, or force it out to the side – anything but let it continue what it was doing against my will.

But there was nothing I could do to influence it. Despite the fact I had directed the full force of my will against it, my muscles were not even tense – the hand moved easily, smoothly, and completely out of my control.

I sat up. Again, I played no part in the movement. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. My legs swung over the side of the bed onto the floor. If I had been a prisoner in my body before, now I was simply a passenger. I stood up. I felt my mouth twist into a grin, a wide, demonic grin that felt like it would split my face in two. I felt my tongue touch my teeth, the roof of my mouth, my lips – I could hear myself whispering, whispering in a low, hushed monotone. I recognized the voice immediately.

Despite the blind panic within me, I could do nothing as I walked calmly and quietly out of the room and down the hall, towards where my wife and daughter lay innocently sleeping.

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