by M.R. Merrick
Rachel applied the last stroke of mascara and turned the power off on the stereo. The music that pumped from the speakers stopped and silence fell around her. This was the first time in her life she’d lived on her own without roommates and getting used to the solidarity was taking longer than she expected.
A loud bang sounded behind her and she jumped. Darkness filled the hallway behind her and she stared into the shadows. Chills ran down her spine as the hairs rose on the back of her neck, and she crept forward.
“Hello?” she asked, but naturally there was no answer. Her bare feet pressed into the carpet as she stepped closer to the edge of the hall. The silence was a weight bearing down around her and she jumped as something moved in the shadows. A dark blur slid from one room across to the other, and she shivered. Rachel swore the chill wasn’t just in her bones, the room was colder now.
As she came to the opening of the hallway she reached for the light switch but hesitated. The thought of dipping her hands into the shadows for even a moment had her on edge. Images of a rotting hand with sores and callouses pulling her into the darkness flashed through her mind and she pulled her hand back.
Cool air tingled along her neck like someone was blowing against her skin and Rachel flinched, quickly flicking the light switch up and turning around, but there was nothing there. She rubbed the side of her neck and found her skin cool to the touch. She shivered again and stared down the now well-lit hall.
This wasn’t the first time she’d had a strange feeling about this place, but the rent was cheap and cheap was what she could afford. Not having roommates was a little harder on her bank account.
“This is ridiculous. Get yourself together,” Rachel said, storming down the hall and flicking on the lights to each room. With the exception of the bathroom and her bedroom, all the other rooms were empty. No furniture and definitely no corpses that roamed in the shadows.
She turned the lights off and went back to the kitchen, slipping on her high heeled shoes. A loud horn honked from the street outside and her pulse leapt again. A checkered yellow cab idled on the street, waiting to take her to the party.
Tucking a loose strand of hair that dangled around her face behind her ear, she adjusted her outfit in the mirror. After a quick once-over of her ensemble she gave a silent nod of approval. She took a few items out of her purse and transferred them into a small clutch, taking only what she needed for the night and snapped it shut. Smoky, her poised black cat leapt onto the table, rubbing against her arm and pawing at the clutch. A single white tuft of hair formed a triangular patch on her chest and she meowed in protest.
“I’ll be home soon, baby,” Rachel whispered, scratching Smoky just under her chin. The purring response was immediate.
The horn sounded again and Rachel sighed. “I’m coming!” she yelled, as though the driver could hear her scream from inside. “You be good.” She smiled and gave Smoky a long, smooth stroke along her back before moving towards the door.
As she walked past the mirror she’d just spent hours in front of something moved in the reflection. She took a few more steps and then stopped, debating whether or not to take a second look.
After getting herself worked up in the hallway she refused to be pushed around by her own imagination and she gave into her curiosity. Stepping back in front of the mirror she found a long couch and a single painting of the ocean looking back at her.
“I told you,” she said, looking herself in the eye.
She tore her gaze away as Smoky meowed again. The cat sat perfectly poised on the table, studying her face with vibrant green eyes. The horn honked again and Smokey released another meow. “I’ll be home later,” she said, trying not to sound annoyed and turned back towards the mirror.
The couch and painting were gone, blocked by a mass of decrepit faces and bodies that filled her living room. Solid white eyes stared back at her, while flaps of skin dangled from their faces. Green rot and blood-stains filled in the gashes along their skin, and they stood silent, staring into the mirror.
Rachel screamed and ran into the kitchen. Her heels clacked twice along the tile before she slipped.
One shoe folded out sideways beneath her and her leg twisted hard and fast to the side. She lost her balance and pain split across her ankle. She fell to the ground and hit the kitchen table with her hands, pushing it a few inches in the opposite direction.
Adrenaline pulsed through her veins and her heart palpitated like it was going to be torn from her chest. A gut-wrenching pang twisted in her stomach and she turned onto her back, skittering backwards across the floor. But to her surprise, nobody was after her. In fact, her living room was empty.
Heavy pants slipped through her freshly painted red lips and her eyes panned the room. She could hear a pounding in her ears as her heartbeat raced. Smoky stood between her and the living room and hissed at the air. Goosebumps trickled down Rachel’s shoulders and she trembled.
She took a few deep breaths before recomposing herself. She slipped her shoe back on and climbed to her feet. Her ankle hurt, but not enough to cancel a night of fun with the girls. She’d been waiting far too long for this, plus, it was her favorite night of the year: Halloween. Nothing was keeping her down. Not tonight.
She cautiously approached the mirror and the goosebumps prickled up and down her arm with each step. She looked into the living room, then took another step forward and peeked into the mirror. A sign of relief filled her as the painting and couch were back in the reflection or a near-empty room.
She let out a deep breath. “What’s gotten into me?” She asked, looking down at Smoky. “I need this night out more than I thought.” She grabbed her clutch and disappeared out the door towards an impatient and aggravated cab driver.
After hours of dancing, drinking, and laughing with friends, Rachel returned home feeling renewed, exhausted, and more than a little off balance. She fiddled with her keys and stumbled into the doorway, kicking her shoes across the floor. Smoky meowed, awaiting her arrival on the kitchen table.
“Hey kitty,” she said, the words somewhat slurred from her mouth. She threw her clutch and keys on the table and ran her fingers through the cat’s fur. Opening the fridge she grabbed a cold bottle of water and flicked off the kitchen light. “I may have had one drink too many,” she said, pausing to stare blankly at the cat. After a moment she snapped out of her daze and smiled. “Bed time, Smoky, let’s go.”
Drinking half the water bottle in her first gulp, she screwed the cap on and placed it on the bedside table. She tore her clothes off piece by piece and left them strewn about the room. While pulling back the purple and red duvet on her bed, a strand of crispy hair fell from its place on her head and danced along her shoulder.
“Dammit. I can’t go to sleep with all this crap in my hair.” Rachel sighed and ran her hands through the sticky hair-sprayed locks.
The bathroom was already full of steam as she dropped her underwear to the floor and stepped into the shower. Hot water nipped at her skin while her body adjusted to the temperature, and all the warm feelings of her evening began to wash away. She tilted her head back and water splashed over her face and hair, breaking down the product she’d invested hours of time putting into it.
As the buzz of alcohol began to run down the drain, images of what she’d seen in the mirror flashed through her mind. Both of her eyelids shot open and tension crept into her shoulders. Hard streams of water beat against her skin as the fear returned and she felt something slide over her shoulders.
She paused, standing still in the water, telling herself it was all in her head. She tried to picture something else, remembering the tray of shots they’d had at the club. When that didn’t work she pictured the young kid who still appeared to be in his ‘awkward’ phase hitting on her. One cheesy pick-up line after another echoed through her head, but even that memory was overrun with anxiety when she realized the feeling wasn’t leaving.
The water seemed to tighten its hold, squeezing her skin. That gut-wrenching pain filled her stomach again and her breath caught in her throat. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. This isn’t happening, she thought to herself. It can’t be. She slowly lifted her eyes and glanced down at her shoulder, but there was nothing there. The water continued to splash against her skin, and although she couldn’t see it, she could still feel something squeezing against her skin.
The feeling vanished as Rachel turned in the shower, and her fear faded. She was looking at a tile wall littered with drops of water that looked back at her - there was nothing in there with her. “I’m having serious issues tonight?” She shivered and let the water rush over her face, but even in the heat of the shower, the chill didn’t leave her bones. It ran down her arm and along the sides of her body, only to find its way back up to her neck.
She stayed in the water until after the hot had turned cold. She let the stream snap her back to reality and sober her up. When she finally summoned the courage to move, she leaned forward and turned off the water.
Pulling back the shower curtain in a rush, she stepped onto the fuzzy bathmat and turned on the ceiling fan. The steam drifted upwards and as the room cleared, she saw what looked like hand prints in the foggy mirror.
She tried to ignore them. It was nothing. She didn’t know what she’d seen earlier. Maybe it was just the hype from Halloween. She was excited, she’d had a few pre-party beverages and now, after more drinks than she could count, she was over-tired and intoxicated.
Living on her own had her imagination running wild and tonight, she was letting it play tricks on her. She’d lived here for four months and every once in a while she got these strange feelings. So far, she’d just chalked it up to the adjustment. No roommates, no boyfriend, just her and Smoky; the way she wanted it to be. It was a big change and all of this was just part of it. As she got used to being alone, it would fade. At least that’s what she kept telling herself.
As she crawled into bed, the duvet felt cool against her skin. Rachel squirmed against the silky white sheets and let them wrap themselves around her.
“Come on, Smoky,” she called, but the cat didn’t come. Strange, she thought. Smoky is always waiting in bed for me. She waited a few moments and called out again, but still, nothing. “Suit yourself.”
Rachel turned in the bed, spreading out along the cool sheets and stirring as she tried to find the perfect position. She tried her left side, then her right, and finally her back, but she couldn’t get comfortable. It was like there was something bulging from her mattress that refused to allow her comfort.
Using her shoulders and feet, she lifted her body up and dropped it against the bed. Over and over again her body hit the mattress until she was certain she’d broken in her spot and found a way to get comfortable.
She pulled the blankets up to her chin, glanced at the clock, and closed her eyes. It was after three in the morning and the house was silent. She fought to keep her eyes closed, hoping she could bask in the quiet and fall asleep, but when the bed creaked, the stillness of the room became overwhelming. She waited to hear the footsteps of Smoky crunching across the duvet, but they never came.
The creak came again and the muscles in Rachel’s shoulders tensed. Deep breaths in and out were all that kept her from jumping out of bed. This is all in my head. I’m getting myself all worked up, and thinking about it is only amplifying everything. She flipped onto her back and repeated those thoughts again and again.
The bed squeaked and this time she felt something putting pressure on the far end of the mattress - more pressure than a cat could manage.
That’s it. I can’t do this. She tried to sit up, but her body wouldn’t comply with the demand. Cold air brushed her feet as the blanket lifted slightly and her pulse became thick in her throat. She wanted to pull her feet back but she couldn’t. She couldn’t move at all.
Chills shuddered across her shoulders as something trickled across her ankle. With the panic that lunged in her chest came the pain of twisting it in the kitchen all over again. She gasped and tried to scream, but all that came out was air.
The blankets moved again and more cool air washed over her legs. She could feel the weight of something…someone, moving up the bed beneath the covers. The blankets shifted and moved and she felt fingers sliding up the outside of her ankle.
This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
The fingertips walked higher, moving along both sides of her legs.
This is just a dream. No, it’s a nightmare.
The fingers’ pressure increased as they scaled her body, digging into her flesh. Her heart flung from one side of her chest to the other, ready to burst at any moment. Sweat had gathered on her brow and she realized she was moving, but it wasn’t in the way she wanted. Her body trembled and shook violently as beads of salty sweat ran down her face.
On three, I’m going to wake up.
She winced in pain as the fingers turned into full-on grabs.
Fingers nipped at her hips and tore themselves up her torso.
The duvet moved again and the cool air touched her skin as another set of hands joined the first.
Three! She shouted in her head, but nothing happened.
The second set of hands squeezed against her calves and Rachel cried out silently, her voice ensnared in her throat.
Stop. Please stop.
The mattress shifted as something climbed higher up the bed.
Smoky! She screamed the name in her head. Smoky where are you?
The first set of hands pulled at her breasts and moved higher over her chest. She could feel the invisible intruder’s fingers reaching for her throat. Tears streamed down her face as her body convulsed. She was sobbing uncontrollably but there was still no sound escaping her lips.
Cold, unseen fingers wrapped around her throat. She screamed silently for Smoky again. Please come. Please help me…
The hand began to squeeze and the air was slowly stolen from Rachel. A loud hiss came from the door way and the hand around her throat pulled away. The cold fingers slid down her body and across her stomach before they vanished. Another hiss came, this time it was louder, and the mattress moved as something heavy moved across it.
Smokey jumped onto the bed and the duvet crunched beneath her paws. It was too dark to see, but Rachel could feel a strange energy coming off the feline. She was so close and the cat gave off an aura of protection. The mattress shifted and something retreated as Smoky stalked across the bed until eventually, Rachel felt whatever it was slip off the edge.
“Oh god, thank you, Smoky!” she said, and the words managed to spill from her lips. She tore her body up from the mattress and covered her face, crying so hard it hurt.
Smoky meowed and crawled up the blankets, nuzzling her head against Rachel’s chest. “Thank you, baby, thank you,” she whispered, pulling Smoky close. Her limbs were still shaking and her heart hammered inside her chest, but as the cat began to purr, it pushed calmness inside her.
Rachel didn’t move from her bed for the rest of the night. She sat perfectly still, gripping Smoky against her body. She watched as the red digits on the clock changed every so often until sunshine crept through her blinds, breaking away the cold energy of the room. Only then did she have the nerve to pull the blankets back and move.
When she finally managed to coax herself out of bed, she found red scratches, swollen skin, and finger-shaped bruises that covered her from her neck to her feet. A chill had instilled itself inside her bones and no matter what she did, she couldn’t shake it.
She called her friends later that day and tried to explain what had happened, but naturally, nobody believed her. They claimed she must have had too much to drink, or perhaps it was a nightmare. One of them even asked if she’d taken any drugs that night. Rachel wasn’t surprised by their reactions, but she knew it was none of those things. It was something in this house and if it wasn’t for Smoky, well, she didn’t like to think what might have happened if Smoky hadn’t been there. One thing was for certain, whether her friends believed her or not, she wasn’t staying here. The next day was the first of November and the perfect time to find a new place to live.
Shift by M.R. Merrick
Published: February 1st, 2012
Reading Level: Young Adult
Series: The Protector, #2
Devastated by a terrible loss, Chase is trying to balance the life he’s been left with, a family he’s still getting to know, and power he never thought he’d have. He doesn’t understand why the Goddess has named him the Protector and granted him two gifts: the Mark, a tattoo that now covers his back, and the ring. But between getting interrogated by the Circle and psychic attacks from Riley, the Mark is the least of his concern. There’s a demon inside Rayna that’s fighting to be released, and it’s not her inner witch. It’s something else—a monster threatening to tear her apart.
As Chase struggles to control his magic, his enemies are closing in. Everyone has staked a claim on his ring, and destroying it may be his only chance to stop Riley. But Chase must decide if stopping him is worth risking the lives of everyone he cares about, or if protecting the ring will be enough to save his world.
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Don't forget to check out Lisa's Haunted Halloween post for today!