Johnny was a brave boy. One could even call him foolhardy; he would just as soon run into a dark alleyway in the narrows to grab a stray dollar as he would a burning building to save a child. He was mischievous in his adventures, breaking into abandoned houses just to see what was inside. There wasn’t an old house whose door he hadn’t been jimmied, no dreadful night he hadn’t crept out on, and no hidden cranny that hadn’t been explored by his hand.
So it came as no surprise to his friends that when tales of the old shotgun house reached his ears, he set out to find it. At first he was skeptical–after all, he’d been to every empty old house in town–but the idea that one might be out there that he’d missed intrigued him. His interest only grew with every tidbit he heard; it was home to a cantankerous old man a few years back, a recluse who was rarely seen outside in the day. How and when he died changed depending on who was telling the story; he choked on a piece of meat, died alone of pneumonia, had a heart attack, fell victim to a prowler. Maybe it was two years ago, maybe three, or even four; they might have found him right away, or maybe weeks or even months passed before they noticed. Maybe they found nothing at all.
Of all the stories’ varying details, there was one recurring factor that they all shared: the recluse–as bitter and cranky as he was–could not stand to be in the shadows. Every light had been on in the old shotgun house, all day and all night, for the man’s entire life. Even when the state discontinued his power they disconnected the power after he had died, the lights continued to shine, burning embers of flickering yellow creeping through the gaps in the wooden shutters and burning in the night. Or so the stories said, as Johnny didn’t consider such a detail possible; if the lights were on, surely someone was paying the bill.
But even if this impossible house were too good to be true, Johnny found the tales too tempting to ignore. He didn’t question why he’d only heard of its existence so recently–he wasn’t exactly popular, and the few friends he had avoided taking part in his adventures–and as for why he hadn’t stumbled upon it himself, he simply assumed he’d have missed any house where the lights were still on. After all, entering a vacant house may be trespassing, but doing the same to an occupied house could easily lead to one being charged with burglary.
It still surprised him though that the house was so near his home.
It was a tiny one bedroom house with clapboard siding and a shake-shingle roof. It had seen better days; the paint was peeling off every surface, and the shutters were in obvious disrepair. It looked brown and musty, and even from a distance it smelled strongly of mildew; from the coat of dirt on the front steps, it was clear no one had been in and out in quite a while. Yet this was all betrayed by the pale yellow flicker of light coming from behind the shutters, a glow that seemed to fit the house’s condition, but should have only been seen in an occupied house. Still, everything he saw told him it must be abandoned, save the presence of lights, which–although even he thought should have–did not deter him one bit.
As he crept up to the front of the house, he tried to peer in through the keyhole. To his surprise, the old house seemed to have a more modern lock than it should have–surely it had been retrofitted by the people who now owned it–and as such, there was no gap to look through. He ran his finger over the brass fitting, feeling the pits and scratches that showed its age; no, whenever this lock was added, it wasn’t recent at all.
Leaning over the side of the porch, he tried to peer into a gap through the shutter. There he caught the sight he’d wanted–an old house, with a wooden plank floor and decaying papered walls, but empty of furniture, save the one lamp in the center of the room. There may have been a couch or chair just barely out of view–he couldn’t tell–but he saw no shadows, no footprints in the dust, just years of sediment and that damned yellow lamp. Gathering his breath, he reached for the door and turned the knob slowly. The door creaked open.
Johnny stepped inside, his eyes slowly adjusting to the flickering lamp. There was indeed a couch–an old, ragged divan draped in a ragged Persian rug and haphazardly lined with ratty pillows. It was run along the western wall of the den, with a small wooden ottoman on the end closest to the door. The ottoman was topped with a single dusty cushion and placed so close to the sofa that any gap between them was invisible from where he stood.
“Is someone here?” The frail voice seemed to echo throughout the room, for a moment disguising its origin. It seemed coarse and breathy, as if the mouth it came from were tired and listless, with a slight muffle that deepened its high masculine pitch. Following it was the grind of something dragging on the worn floorboards, this one clearly coming from behind the door to the next room. As Johnny began to back outside, that door’s knob slowly turned, and before he could sneak away the door opened.
Johnny stood in disbelief. Behind the door was an elderly man dressed in rags, a worn-down oxygen mask held to his face by a thin, trembling hand. In the other hand, the old man was dragging the tank, propped up on two barely-functional wheels.
“I’m sorry sir,” he said, turning to step out the door. “I didn’t think anyone lived here–”
The old man removed his oxygen mask and smiled, an almost toothless grin that seemed to crease his wrinkled face. Johnny couldn’t help but notice the blank, emptiness of the old man’s eyes, or how even that wide smile seemed to lack an effect on their outline. It should have been reassuring or even creepy, but Johnny found it outright disturbing, as if there were something strangely inhuman about it. “Don’t go,” the old man said, his voice now having an added enthusiastic ring. “It has been ages since anyone has even knocked on that door.”
Johnny felt his skin crawl. The dirt on the porch–it seemed as if it had been undisturbed for years. This old man clearly could not have lived there for long–he’d have run out of food, after all–but it seemed unlikely that this frail old man could have even climbed the steps in his condition.
Still, Johnny was a brave boy, and there was no way a man this ravaged by age and health could even lift his hand against him. “I’ll stay,” Johnny said, “if you really don’t mind.” He hid his discomfort, and stepped back into the old house, closing the door behind him with a slight thunk.
“Have a seat, child,” the old man said. He began moving toward the sofa, dragging the tank behind him and beckoning Johnny to sit on the ottoman.
Johnny took note of his gait–shambling and lurching forward, slightly bent at the knees and ankles. He noticed the curvature of the old man’s spine, forcing his body forward in an arc, and watched as each lumbering footstep somehow failed to kick up the dust he’d expect. It took several seconds of easing and shaking for the old man to sit at the far end of the couch, a feat accomplished by using the oxygen tank and his opposing elbow for support. Yes, he thought, this old man couldn’t swat a fly. He moved confidently toward the ottoman and took a seat on its side, facing the old man as the light darkened for a fraction of a second.
He was astonished to see the old man’s eyes sharpen and gaze firmly at the lamp, his uncanny smile briefly giving way to one filled with anxiety. Johnny turned to see what had startled the old man, but saw nothing–just the cobweb-addled lamp returning to its flicker.
“Tell me child: are you afraid of the dark?”
Somehow, the old man’s words seemed far more sinister than they should have. Johnny sharply turned back to face him, and noticed that the smile had disappeared beneath the mask. “No,” he said, “I’m not.”
“I am,” the old main said. As the light dimmed again, casting another set of shadows, his weary but frightened eyes began to scan the corners of the room. “I know what lurks in the shadows at night.”
Johnny began to feel a bit more nervous. His mouth felt dry, and his through a bit sore, as if something had just drained his body of water. With a surreptitious gulp, he managed to ask in a calm voice, “Really? What’s in the dark that isn’t in the light?”
The lamp flickered a bit, and the old man began breathing a bit more heavily. He reached out to adjust the flow of the tank, and with a few puffs gave a grin that seemed designed to give the boy some reassurance. It made things worse instead.
“I suppose that’s true,” the old man said, his voice now sounding far more empty and hollow. The room went silent save for the hiss of air pouring from the mask.
An alien yet seeming primal fear began to creep over the boy. He began to notice how off the room was–an empty, lifeless room where not even spiders had taken refuge in the nooks and crannies. The room was too small, even with its lack of furnishings, and he was beginning to feel trapped and closed in. It wasn’t a fear he could rationalize–the room was as big as his bedroom, not huge but big enough to fit a table and chair if the old man wanted–and the dankness of the air was something he wouldn’t have felt out of place in even a run-down hotel. Still, there was something about the house itself that seemed to scare the hell out of him, and though Johnny couldn’t place it, he was beginning to regret not leaving when he had the chance.
It didn’t help that there wasn’t a shadow in the room. It was almost as if darkness had be scrubbed from the house itself. It had been replaced by the flickering, pale yellow light of a dying lamp, somehow enough to fill the entire room, but too dim to brighten his mood. Every once in a while, the flickering became prominent enough to let the darkness try to creep back in, and when that happened, the old man’s eyes would fixate on the lamp for a moment, before dashing across the room in a maniacal frenzy.
He was almost afraid to ask why.
The room was now too quiet. Save for the hiss of the mask and the sound of the boards creaking beneath Johnny’s toes, there wasn’t a sound. An old house like this should groan and crack with the night–but this one seemed oblivious to the world outside. There wasn’t even the chirp of a cricket to add color to the room. Even the old man–who now seemed to gasp and pant–somehow failed to make a sound, as if he had suddenly been rendered unable to speak.
It was unnatural.
Something else was beginning to bother Johnny. He felt that beyond the walls of the room, something was stalking the two of them, something unseen. He felt the sensation of countless eyes peering at him from somewhere unknown. Soon enough, when the lamp dimmed, Johnny thought he could see shapes moving the shadows along the walls; he was paranoid and his hands were shaking with fear. But even as the urge to flee grew overwhelming, he could not bring himself to leave the old man’s side. Something about him was beginning to intrigue Johnny, although he had not yet put his finger on it.
The light dimmed again, and the old man began to wheeze. Johnny began to stand, his eyes having caught something on the wall opposite them. Another shadow seemed to dart across it, this one with a bit more form; he could swear it was almost canine in shape, but not quite right.
The light returned, and the old man’s wheezing began to subside. Though clearly still terrified, he began to let himself fall back onto the sofa, into the pillows, and draw a deep breath from his mask. Then, as Johnny began to return to his seat, the old man said the first word in what seemed like hours: “Diabolyocul.”
The light dimmed again, and Johnny jumped off the ottoman in fright. Struggling to catch himself, he watched the old man’s eyes begin to grow wide with terror, and before he knew it he’d slammed his elbow into the lamp, knocking it over and sending it smashing across the floor. Then, with one last flicker, the light went out, and Johnny stared in shock at the mess on the floor.
He turned back to see the old man, his eyes now bulging in fright. Though his hand remained at his face, the old man had let his mask slip from his grasp, and it now dangled from his wrist. The old man’s mouth was agape in horror, and his gaze fixed at the wall. He didn’t utter a word, didn’t moan, or make even the slightest sound–he just sat there, petrified, at whatever had caught his eye.
A cold chill began to fill the room. The darkness of the room seemed to intensify and spread out from its corners, enveloping him and the old man like a blanket. Johnny turned to see another shadow begin to move across the wall, then another, and soon enough there were many, all rolling across the paper like animals prowling around a kill.
Johnny froze. He couldn’t speak, and even with his growing terror he couldn’t bring himself to move. He watched as the shadows began to take a more sinister shape, as the previous silence began to give way to the creaking of old wood.
He heard whimpering, which seemed to grow into a quiet but forceful prayer. He turned to see the old man, now curled atop the cushions, his body trembling in fear. The old man’s eyes made quick, distrustful glances at the boy, but he was fixing them on the forming shadows for increasingly long periods of time.
A deep, rumbling growl filled the room. The multitude of eyes that Johnny had felt watching him seemed to fall away, but their menace now seemed to fill the room. As he watched on in horror, the shapes were now scattered across the walls, growing larger–no closer–at a steady pace. The boy’s voice began to scream in the back of his mind, defying his urge to flee: Stand your ground, Johnny. Don’t be a sissy. Stand your ground and face them like a man. Mustering his courage, he forced himself to plant himself in front of the old man, and immediately regretted that he did.
The shadows began to leave the walls, taking the form of a pack of dogs. They were short-haired, matted and starved, covered in dingy brown fur and sporting eyeless sockets as black as the abyss behind half-closed lids. They were covered in massive boils, which seemed to move as if something was alive between each of them, but as he stared at the sores it became clear that they were the source of the menacing gaze from before–as each one opened for just a moment, he could see that they were instead massive eyes, each capable of passing for human in appearance if not for the their placement and their host. As each eye opened, they fixed their gaze on the old man, and the dogs’ jaws began to salivate as they began to approach.
The fact that the old man was pleading for his soul did not faze them. The larger two held back, circling around to the rear, giving time for the smaller, less decorated dogs to close in for the kill. As these beasts lunged past Johnny, the old man screamed in terror, silenced only when the first strike wrapped itself around his throat. Johnny fell to the ground, watching as the other dogs fell back, and the beast before him began to rip the old man apart, messily and hastily devouring him, flesh, bone and all.
Johnny became fixated on a bare spot on the dog’s back, which seemed to melt away to form an empty black hole. A white, shimmering ooze began to fill the gap, solidifying into a pale wet orb which began to swirl in the socket. Slowly a black spot began to form, and around it a pale ring of gray, filling itself with valleys and peaks of blue and violet until it became clear that what it was: a new eye, one formed from the old man himself, now randomly scanning the room, seemingly unable to see Johnny.
Then the beasts seemed to regroup. Johnny shielded himself as they began to form a circle. He shut his eyes and prepared himself for the inevitable, trying to convince himself that it wouldn’t hurt, that somehow, it wouldn’t be as bad as it looked.
But the inevitable never came.
He opened his eyes to see the beasts descend back into the shadows. The tension in the air began to lift bit by bit as the overwhelming darkness fell away, until finally the glow from the streetlights outside began to seep through the gaps in the shutter and lighten the room, just as that yellow glow had done to the porch outside.
Johnny stood, his heart pounding in his chest. Sweat dripped from his face, and his hands began to shake. He gulped and raised his head to see the lamp once again upright, its cord coiled around its base, no bulb inside. The couch and ottoman were covered in a white sheet that had not been present before, and the room–which had previously seemed lifeless–now seemed completely empty.
Without further hesitation, Johnny raced out the door. He ran as fast as he could, passing from one yard to the next, throwing open the front door of his house and not stopping until he was in the safety of his own room.
The quarter moon cast a soft light on his bed. Johnny collapsed against the wall, staring up at the darkened fixture on the ceiling. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he reached out and–with a degree of urgency that alarmed even him–flipped on his light.
Johnny was afraid of the dark.