Places that should be full of people but aren’t are just creepy. Think about it: empty schools, malls, hospitals.
Empty playgrounds have to be one of the scariest things of all — that’s why you always see so many of them in horror movies — mist creeping in, swings creaking eerily.
This playground was not creepy for being empty but for what was in it. What had creeped in with the mist and made the swing creak.
The first time I saw it I thought I was dreaming. Or that my friends were playing a prank on me. It had been a fine day and so it was a cold twilight, clear skies. I was walking home. The icy air was making the breath fan out in front of my face, so every time I breathed out, I couldn’t see clearly.
As I was walking through the empty playground the birds suddenly took flight from the trees in one mass group, like a dark cloud, then flew out into the sky in formation. I freaked out for a moment before I reminded myself that it’s autumn: of course they’re flying south.
The street lights popped on in successional banks down the road as I trudged along, every five connected to their own circuit. They threw their fluorescent light out weakly — just enough to pick out faded circles of vague shapes in bleached out colours at their feet. I picked up my pace. In this light the world had become an unnatural place — grainy, like an underexposed photo. The wind picked up, kicking leaves and debris into the air.
I felt it before I saw it. Felt a cold dread shivering through me.
Then I saw it, through the hazy air. The wind started screaming, a deafening roar, and I was suddenly drowning in sensations.
It’s not right. It’s not right. It’s unnatural. It’s not right was all that I could think.
I started breathing too fast. And too loud when I wanted to be still and unseen.
Before I could even understand what I was looking at at, it all happened at once: things speed up, and I was moving forward, fast forward, physically propelled, or pulled, toward the last thing I wanted to be near.
Disorientated, still frozen, I couldn’t fight it, this thing that drew me closer. The street lights were flickering harshly, and there was a buzzing noise; a grinding, echoing.
Then everything shifted again. And I saw it up close and in terrible detail — the moment seemed to stretch. Stretch out. Stretch on for minutes that were only seconds.
I was right. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t human. Not even humanoid. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen or could even imagine. Not in my worst nightmares.
There came a gutteral noise. Things around me started to blur, going in and and out of focus like an adjusting lens. I blinked my eyes and saw one thing — the creature, dark and horrible, gurgling against a blinding white background. I blinked again, and saw the creature in xray white outlines against an all consuming black. The void.
I don’t know what happened next. I never do. I lose time. I wake up or come to in a different mundane place, like home or the back of the public library in one of the study kiosks. The time is always different, but only by a few minutes. But a few minutes could be any amount of time where I’ve been. Time enough to do anything. My body doesn’t hurt but my mind is dazed as if its been overpowered.
In the aftermath I smell ashes.
Today I came to in the park on the other side of town. I had lost five minutes, but it was a twenty minute walk from where I’d been. Now, walking home, I try to talk myself out of it, muttering fragments of sentences as I try to straighten out my confused brain.
What was it? What was it? It seemed so real.
Seeing it’s form in my mind, I shiver and walk faster.
As I reach our yard, the washing begins to flap wildly in the suddenly rising wind. The lights are out in the house, even though the daylight’s fading. There’s been electrical outages a lot lately. Mum shouldn’t have to deal with these things. She shouldn’t have to be alone. My Dads such a dick to leave her like this. To leave us all.
Mums hovering over the gas stove in the kitchen when I come in.
“Power’s out again, June?”
She hates it when I call her by her first name but this time she doesn’t say anything. Strange.
Instead, she nods, “the weather’s been so changeable lately, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah…that storm we had the other night,” I stick my head in the fridge, looking for snacks, “… all that lightning… was awesome.”
I look up with a grin. I don’t want to worry her.
“Yeah,” she smiles, “right.”
She’s not convinced.
I grab a snack and head out to the hall to go to my room, passing mum in all her artificial brightness. Just as I pass by her the light shines fully on her face, a shaft of dying sunlight bursting in through the gloom, and she looks completely blank: devoid of features. In the next moment I shift slightly and I can see her fully; she’s back to normal.
In my room, I grab my Instamatic camera. I’m going to try and get a picture of this thing that’s terrorising me. Next time, I’ll have the camera on me and I will use it. I won’t be a frozen victim anymore, I swear to myself. Although I don’t know how I’m going to do it.
I grab the camera. I haven’t used it in a while. I look around for something to test it on but everything’s too dark. And then I remember that shaft of light on mum in the kitchen.
I go back into the kitchen. She’s moved out of the light, doing something at table. I take a picture of the stove. When the photo develops a few minutes later it’s dull but clear. It’ll probably do. I think I’d better try it on a person to make sure. Mum’s moved back into the shaft of light. I raise the camera toward her and look through the viewfinder.
At first, I think I’m seeing a reflection or a refraction — the image seems fractured, or warped, like how things in an angled mirror sometimes do. Almost as if the lens is cracked. I pull the camera away slightly and check the lens, intent on what I’m doing. It all looks good. I look through the viewfinder again.
I see my mother though the camera and the sounds begin — first an incomprehensible hum, then whispering, sighing, voices layered one over the other, echoing, until I can’t make out what any of them are saying. And a rattling noise, like the sound I imagine insect antennas might make when they’re rubbing together.
Feeling that familiar frozen sensation again, I fight it enough to lower the camera so I can see what is there.
There is red light seeping under the door behind my mother. Her profile is carved out against the light. Her head, as I know it, has gone. In its place, there is something bursting up from the collar of her shirt with an eel like writhing — fleshy, surging, flicking, strobing, the thing that was my mother makes an eery, high pitched sound that reverberates through my brain.
I stare at her, my eyes wide and unblinking.
And I know it’s too late.
Words in bold are linked to the continuing story in other submissions.