Featured man in black shorts in water

The Most Dangerous Game

Click on the video to view the classic film adaptation of this fine horror tale.

by Richard Connell

Ship-Trap Island

“Off there to the right–somewhere–is a large island,” said Whitney. “It’s rather a mystery–” 

“What island is it?” Rainsford asked. 

“The old charts call it ‘Ship-Trap Island’,” Whitney replied. “A suggestive name, isn’t it? Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don’t know why. Some superstition–” 

“Can’t see it,” remarked Rainsford, trying to peer through the dank tropical night that was palpable as it pressed its thick warm blackness in upon the yacht. 

“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh,” and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.” 

“Nor four yards,” admitted Rainsford. “Ugh! It’s like moist black velvet.” 

A bad one

“It will be light enough in Rio,” promised Whitney. “We should make it in a few days. I hope the jaguar guns have come from Purdey’s. We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great sport, hunting.” 

“The best sport in the world,” agreed Rainsford. 

“For the hunter,” amended Whitney. “Not for the jaguar.” 

“Don’t talk rot, Whitney,” said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?” 

“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney. “If you were lost in the jungle without a gun perhaps you would view the Jaguar differently.”

“Bah! They’ve no understanding.” 

“Even so, I rather think they understand one thing–fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.” 

“Nonsense,” laughed Rainsford. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes–the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. Do you think we’ve passed that island yet?” 

“I can’t tell in the dark. I hope so.” 

“Why? “ asked Rainsford. 

“The place has a reputation–a bad one.” 

“Cannibals?” suggested Rainsford.

“Hardly. Even cannibals wouldn’t live in such a God-forsaken place. But it’s gotten into sailor lore, somehow. Didn’t you notice that the crew’s nerves seemed a bit jumpy today?” 

“They were a bit strange, now you mention it. Even Captain Nielsen–” 

“Yes, even that tough-minded old Swede, who’d go up to the devil himself and ask him for a light. Those fishy blue eyes held a look I never saw there before. All I could get out of him was ‘This place has an evil name among seafaring men, sir.’ Then he said to me, very gravely, ‘Don’t you feel anything?’–as if the air about us was actually poisonous. Now, you mustn’t laugh when I tell you this–I did feel something like a sudden chill. 

“There was no breeze. The sea was as flat as a plate-glass window. We were drawing near the island then. What I felt was a–a mental chill; a sort of sudden dread.” 

“Pure imagination,” said Rainsford. 

“One superstitious sailor can taint the whole ship’s company with his fear.” 

“Maybe. But sometimes I think sailors have an extra sense that tells them when they are in danger. Sometimes I think evil is a tangible thing–with wave lengths, just as sound and light have. An evil place can, so to speak, broadcast vibrations of evil. Anyhow, I’m glad we’re getting out of this zone. Well, I think I’ll turn in now, Rainsford.” 

“I’m not sleepy,” said Rainsford. “I’m going to smoke another pipe up on the afterdeck.” 

“Good night, then, Rainsford. See you at breakfast.” 

“Right. Good night, Whitney.” 

Someone had fired

There was no sound in the night as Rainsford sat there but the muffled throb of the engine that drove the yacht swiftly through the darkness, and the swish and ripple of the wash of the propeller. 

Rainsford, reclining in a steamer chair, indolently puffed on his favorite brier. The sensuous drowsiness of the night was on him.” It’s so dark,” he thought, “that I could sleep without closing my eyes; the night would be my eyelids–” 

An abrupt sound startled him. Off to the right he heard it, and his ears, expert in such matters, could not be mistaken. Again he heard the sound, and again. Somewhere, off in the blackness, someone had fired a gun three times. 

He struggled up to the surface and tried to cry out, but the wash from the speeding yacht slapped him in the face and the salt water in his open mouth made him gag and strangle. Desperately he struck out with strong strokes after the receding lights of the yacht, but he stopped before he had swum fifty feet.

A certain coolheadedness had come to him; it was not the first time he had been in a tight place. There was a chance that his cries could be heard by someone aboard the yacht, but that chance was slender and grew more slender as the yacht raced on. He wrestled himself out of his clothes and shouted with all his power. The lights of the yacht became faint and ever-vanishing fireflies; then they were blotted out entirely by the night. 

Rainsford remembered the shots. They had come from the right, and doggedly he swam in that direction, swimming with slow, deliberate strokes, conserving his strength. 

For a seemingly endless time he fought the sea. He began to count his strokes; he could do possibly a hundred more and then — 

Rainsford heard a sound. It came out of the darkness, a high screaming sound, the sound of an animal in an extremity of anguish and terror. 

Despite an effort he did not recognize the animal that made the sound; he did not try to; with fresh vitality he swam toward the sound. He heard it again; then it was cut short by another noise, crisp, staccato. 

“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on. 

Ten minutes of determined effort brought another sound to his ears–the most welcome he had ever heard–the muttering and growling of the sea breaking on a rocky shore. He was almost on the rocks before he saw them; on a night less calm he would have been shattered against them. With his remaining strength he dragged himself from the swirling waters.

Jagged crags appeared to jut up into the opaqueness; he forced himself upward, hand over hand. Gasping, his hands raw, he reached a flat place at the top. Dense jungle came down to the very edge of the cliffs. What perils that tangle of trees and underbrush might hold for him did not concern Rainsford just then. All he knew was that he was safe from his enemy, the sea, and that utter weariness was on him. He flung himself down at the jungle edge and tumbled headlong into the deepest sleep of his life. 

When he opened his eyes he knew from the position of the sun that it was late in the afternoon. Although sleep had given him new vigor, a sharp hunger was picking at him. He looked about him, almost cheerfully. 

“Where there are pistol shots, there are men. Where there are men, there is food,” he thought. But what kind of men, he wondered, in so forbidding a place? An unbroken front of snarled and ragged jungle fringed the shore. 

Leering gargoyle

He saw no sign of a trail through the closely knit web of weeds and trees; it was easier to go along the shore, and Rainsford floundered along by the water. Not far from where he landed, he stopped. 

Some wounded thing–by the evidence, a large animal–had thrashed about in the underbrush; the jungle weeds were crushed down and the moss was lacerated; one patch of weeds was stained crimson. A small, glittering object not far away caught Rainsford’s eye and he picked it up. It was an empty cartridge. 

“A twenty-two,” he remarked. “That’s odd. It must have been a fairly large animal too. The hunter had his nerve with him to tackle it with a light gun. It’s clear that the brute put up a fight. I suppose the first three shots I heard was when the hunter flushed his quarry and wounded it. The last shot was when he trailed it here and finished it.” 

He examined the ground closely and found what he had hoped to find–the print of hunting boots. They pointed along the cliff in the direction he had been going. Eagerly he  hurried along, now slipping on a rotten log or a loose stone, but making headway; night was beginning to settle down on the island. 

Bleak darkness was blacking out the sea and jungle when Rainsford sighted the lights. He came upon them as he turned a crook in the coast line; and his first thought was that be had come upon a village, for there were many lights. But as he forged along he saw to his great astonishment that all the lights were in one enormous building–a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows. 

 “Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked iron gate. The stone steps were real enough; the massive door with a leering gargoyle for a knocker was real enough; yet above it all hung an air of unreality. 

He lifted the knocker, and it creaked up stiffly, as if it had never before been used. 

He let it fall, and it startled him with its booming loudness. Although he thought he heard steps within, the door remained closed. Again Rainsford lifted the heavy knocker, and let it fall. The door opened then–opened as suddenly as if it were on a spring–and Rainsford stood blinking in the river of glaring gold light that poured out. The first thing Rainsford’s eyes discerned was the largest man Rainsford had ever seen–a gigantic creature, solidly made and black bearded to the waist. In his hand the man held a long-barreled revolver, and he was pointing it straight at Rainsford’s heart. 

Out of the snarl of beard two small eyes regarded Rainsford. 

“Don’t be alarmed,” said Rainsford, with a smile which he hoped was disarming. 

“I’m no robber. I fell off a yacht. My name is Sanger Rainsford of New York City.” 

The menacing look in the eyes did not change. The revolver pointing as rigidly as if the giant were a statue. He gave no sign that he understood Rainsford’s words, or that he had even heard them. He was dressed in uniform–a black uniform trimmed with gray astrakhan. 

“I’m Sanger Rainsford of New York,” Rainsford began again. “I fell off a yacht. I am hungry.” 

The man’s only answer was to raise with his thumb the hammer of his revolver. 

Then Rainsford saw the man’s free hand go to his forehead in a military salute, and he saw him click his heels together and stand at attention. Another man was coming down the broad marble steps, an erect, slender man in evening clothes. He advanced to Rainsford and held out his hand. 

In a cultivated voice marked by a slight accent that gave it added precision and deliberateness, he said, “It is a very great pleasure and honor to welcome Mr. Sanger Rainsford, the celebrated hunter, to my home.” 

Automatically Rainsford shook the man’s hand. 

“I’ve read your book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet, you see,” explained the man. “I am General Zaroff.” 

‘He is a Cossack’

Rainsford’s first impression was that the man was singularly handsome; his second was that there was an original, almost bizarre quality about the general’s face. He was a tall man past middle age, for his hair was a vivid white; but his thick eyebrows and pointed military mustache were as black as the night from which Rainsford had come. 

His eyes, too, were black and very bright. He had high cheekbones, a sharpcut nose, a spare, dark face–the face of a man used to giving orders, the face of an aristocrat. 

Turning to the giant in uniform, the general made a sign. The giant put away his pistol, saluted, withdrew.

“Ivan is an incredibly strong fellow,” remarked the general, “but he has the misfortune to be deaf and dumb. A simple fellow, but, I’m afraid, like all his race, a bit of  a savage.” 

“Is he Russian?” 

“He is a Cossack,” said the general, and his smile showed red lips and pointed teeth. 

“So am I.” 

“Come,” he said, “we shouldn’t be chatting here. We can talk later. Now you want clothes, food, rest. You shall have them. This is a most-restful spot.” 

Ivan had reappeared, and the general spoke to him with lips that moved but gave forth no sound. 

“Follow Ivan, if you please, Mr. Rainsford,” said the general. “I was about to have my dinner when you came. I’ll wait for you. You’ll find that my clothes will fit you, I think.” 

It was to a huge, beam-ceilinged bedroom with a canopied bed big enough for six men that Rainsford followed the silent giant. Ivan laid out an evening suit, and Rainsford, as he put it on, noticed that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke. 

The dining room to which Ivan conducted him was in many ways remarkable. There was a medieval magnificence about it; it suggested a baronial hall of feudal times with its oaken panels, its high ceiling, its vast refectory tables where twoscore men could sit down to eat. About the hall were mounted heads of many animals–lions, tigers, elephants, moose, bears; larger or more perfect specimens Rainsford had never seen. At the great table the general was sitting, alone. 

“You’ll have a cocktail, Mr. Rainsford,” he suggested. The cocktail was surpassingly good; and, Rainsford noted, the table appointments were of the finest–the linen, the crystal, the silver, the china. 

They were eating borsch, the rich, red soup with whipped cream so dear to Russian palates. Half apologetically General Zaroff said, “We do our best to preserve the amenities of civilization here. Please forgive any lapses. We are well off the beaten track, you know. Do you think the champagne has suffered from its long ocean trip?” 

“Not in the least,” declared Rainsford. He was finding the general a most thoughtful and affable host, a true cosmopolite. But there was one small trait of the general’s that made Rainsford uncomfortable. Whenever he looked up from his plate he found the general studying him, appraising him narrowly. 

“Perhaps,” said General Zaroff, “you were surprised that I recognized your name. 

You see, I read all books on hunting published in English, French, and Russian. I have but one passion in my life, Mr. Rainsford, and it is the hunt.” 

The most dangerous

“You have some wonderful heads here,” said Rainsford as he ate a particularly well-cooked filet mignon. “ That Cape buffalo is the largest I ever saw.” 

“Oh, that fellow. Yes, he was a monster.” 

“Did he charge you?” 

“Hurled me against a tree,” said the general. “Fractured my skull. However I got the brute.” 

“I’ve always thought,” said Rainsford, “that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game.”

For a moment the general did not reply; he was smiling his curious red-lipped smile. 

Then he said slowly, “No. You are wrong, sir. The Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game.” He sipped his wine. “Here in my preserve on this island,” he said in the same slow tone, “I hunt more dangerous game.” 

Rainsford expressed his surprise. “Is there big game on this island?” 

The general nodded. “The biggest.” 

“Really?” 

“Oh, it isn’t here naturally, of course. I have to stock the island.” 

“What have you imported, general?” Rainsford asked. “Tigers?” 

The general smiled. “No,” he said. “Hunting tigers ceased to interest me some years ago. I exhausted their possibilities, you see. No thrill left in tigers, no real danger. I live for danger, Mr. Rainsford.” 

The general took from his pocket a gold cigarette case and offered his guest a long black cigarette with a silver tip; it was perfumed and gave off a smell like incense. 

“We will have some capital hunting, you and I,” said the general. “I shall be most glad to have your society.” 

“But what game–” began Rainsford. 

“I’ll tell you,” said the general. “You will be amused, I know. I think I may say, in all modesty, that I have done a rare thing. I have invented a new sensation. May I pour you another glass of port?” 

“Thank you, general.” 

The general filled both glasses, and said, “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter. 

My hand was made for the trigger, my father said. He was a very rich man with a quarter of a million acres in the Crimea, and he was an ardent sportsman. When I was only five years old he gave me a little gun, specially made in Moscow for me, to shoot sparrows with. When I shot some of his prize turkeys with it, he did not punish me; he complimented me on my marksmanship. I killed my first bear in the Caucasus when I was ten. My whole life has been one prolonged hunt. I went into the army–it was expected of noblemen’s sons–and for a time commanded a division of Cossack cavalry. But my real interest was always the hunt. I have hunted every kind of game in every land. It would be impossible for me to tell you how many animals I have killed.” 

The general puffed at his cigarette. 

“After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. I, luckily, had invested heavily in American securities, so I shall never have to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris. Naturally, I continued to hunt–grizzlies in your Rockies, crocodiles in the Ganges, rhinoceroses in East Africa. It was in Africa that the Cape buffalo hit me and laid me up for six months.

As soon as I recovered I started for the Amazon to hunt jaguars, for I had heard they were unusually cunning. They weren’t.” The Cossack sighed. “They were no match at all for a hunter with his wits about him, and a high-powered rifle. I was bitterly disappointed. I was lying in my tent with a splitting headache one night when a terrible thought pushed its way into my mind. Hunting was beginning to bore me! And hunting, remember, had been my life. I have heard that in America businessmen often go to pieces when they give up the business that has been their life.” 

“Yes, that’s so,” said Rainsford.

The general smiled. “I had no wish to go to pieces,” he said. “I must do something. 

Now, mine is an analytical mind, Mr. Rainsford. Doubtless that is why I enjoy the problems of the chase.” 

“No doubt, General Zaroff.” 

“So,” continued the general, “I asked myself why the hunt no longer fascinated me. 

You are much younger than I am, Mr. Rainsford, and have not hunted as much, but you perhaps can guess the answer.” 

“What was it?” 

“Simply this: hunting had ceased to be what you call ‘a sporting proposition.’ It had become too easy. I always got my quarry. Always. However there is no greater bore than perfection.” 

A new animal

The general lit a fresh cigarette. 

“No animal had a chance with me any more. That is no boast; it is a mathematical certainty. The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason. When I thought of this it was a tragic moment for me, I can tell you.” 

Rainsford leaned across the table, absorbed in what his host was saying. 

“It came to me as an inspiration what I must do,” the general went on. 

“And that was?” 

The general smiled the quiet smile of one who has faced an obstacle and surmounted it with success. “I had to invent a new animal to hunt,” he said. 

“A new animal? You’re joking.” “Not at all,” said the general. “I never joke about hunting. I needed a new animal and I found one. That’s why I bought this island, built this house, and here I do my hunting. The island is perfect for my purposes–there are jungles with a maze of trails in them, hills, swamps–” 

“But the animal, General Zaroff?” 

“Oh,” said the general, “it supplies me with the most exciting hunting in the world. 

No other hunting compares with it for an instant. Every day I hunt, and I never grow bored now, for I have a quarry with which I can match my wits.” 

Rainsford’s bewilderment showed in his face. 

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. “So I said, `What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.’”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford. 

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.” 

“But you can’t mean–” gasped Rainsford. 

“And why not?” 

“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.” 

“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.” 

“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.” 

Hunting humans

The general laughed with entire good nature. He regarded Rainsford quizzically. “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war–” 

“Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder,” finished Rainsford stiffly. 

Laughter shook the general. “How extraordinarily droll you are!” he said. “One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class, even in America, with such a naive, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view. It’s like finding a snuffbox in a limousine. Ah, well, doubtless you had Puritan ancestors. So many Americans appear to have had. I’ll wager you’ll forget your notions when you go hunting humans with me. You’ve a genuine new thrill in store for you, Mr. Rainsford.” 

“Thank you, I’m a hunter, not a murderer.” 

“Dear me,” said the general, quite unruffled, “again that unpleasant word. But I think I can show you that your scruples are quite ill founded.” 

“Yes?” 

“Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. 

“The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt humans, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships — lassars, Chinese, whites, mongrels–a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.” 

“But they are men,” said Rainsford hotly. 

“Precisely,” said the general. “That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. Hence they are dangerous.” 

“But where do you get them?” 

The general’s left eyelid fluttered down in a wink. “This island is called Ship Trap,” he answered. “Sometimes an angry god of the high seas sends them to me. But sometimes, as well, when Providence is not so kind, I help Providence a bit. Come to the window with me.” 

Rainsford went to the window and looked out toward the sea. 

“Watch! Out there!” exclaimed the general, pointing into the night. Rainsford’s eyes saw only blackness, and then, as the general pressed a button, far out to sea Rainsford saw the flash of lights. 

See for yourself

The general chuckled. “They indicate a channel,” he said, “where there’s none; giant rocks with razor edges crouch like a sea monster with wide-open jaws. They can crush a ship as easily as I crush this nut.” He dropped a walnut on the hardwood floor and brought his heel grinding down on it. “Oh, yes,” he said, casually, as if in answer to a question, “I have electricity. We try to be civilized here.” 

“Civilized? And you shoot down men?” 

A trace of anger was in the general’s black eyes, but it was there for but a second; and he said, in his most pleasant manner, “Dear me, what a righteous young man you are! 

I assure you I do not do the thing you suggest. That would be barbarous. I treat these visitors with every consideration. They get plenty of good food and exercise. They get into splendid physical condition. You shall see for yourself tomorrow.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“We’ll visit my training school,” smiled the general. “It’s in the cellar. I have about a dozen pupils down there now. They’re from the Spanish bark San Lucar that had the bad luck to go on the rocks out there. A very inferior lot, I regret to say. Poor specimens and more accustomed to the deck than to the jungle.” He raised his hand, and Ivan, who served as waiter, brought thick Turkish coffee. Rainsford, with an effort, held his tongue in check. 

“It’s a game, you see,” pursued the general blandly. “I suggest to one of them that we go hunting. Give him a supply of food and an excellent hunting knife, I give him three hours’ start before I follow, armed only with a pistol of the smallest caliber and range. If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game. If I find him” –the general smiled– “he loses.”

“Suppose he refuses to be hunted?” 

“Oh,” said the general, “I give him his option, of course. He need not play that game if he doesn’t wish to. If he does not wish to hunt, I turn him over to Ivan. Ivan once had the honor of serving as official knouter to the Great White Czar, and he has his own ideas of sport. Invariably, Mr. Rainsford, invariably they choose the hunt.” 

“And if they win?” 

The smile on the general’s face widened. “To date I have not lost,” he said. Then he added, hastily: “I don’t wish you to think me a braggart, Mr. Rainsford. Many of them afford only the most elementary sort of problem. Occasionally I strike a tartar. One almost did win. I eventually had to use the dogs.” 

“The dogs?” 

“This way, please. I’ll show you.” 

The general steered Rainsford to a window. The lights from the windows sent a flickering illumination that made grotesque patterns on the courtyard below, and Rainsford could see moving about there a dozen or so huge black shapes; as they turned toward him, their eyes glittered greenly. 

“A rather good lot, I think,” observed the general. “They are let out at seven every night. If anyone should try to get into my house — or out of it — something extremely regrettable would occur to him.” He hummed a snatch of song from the Folies Bergere. 

“And now,” said the general, “I want to show you my new collection of heads. Will you come with me to the library?” 

“I hope,” said Rainsford, “that you will excuse me tonight, General Zaroff. I’m really not feeling well.” 

“Ah, indeed?” the general inquired solicitously. “Well, I suppose that’s only natural, after your long swim. You need a good, restful night’s sleep. Tomorrow you’ll feel like a new man, I’ll wager. Then we’ll hunt, eh? I’ve one rather promising prospect–” 

Stalking sapiens

Rainsford was hurrying from the room. 

“Sorry you can’t go with me tonight,” called the general. “I expect rather fair sport — a big, strong, mongrel. He looks resourceful. Well, good night, Mr. Rainsford; I hope you have a good night’s rest.” 

The bed was good, and the pajamas of the softest silk, and he was tired in every fiber of his being, but nevertheless Rainsford could not quiet his brain with the opiate of sleep. 

He lay, eyes wide open. Once he thought he heard stealthy steps in the corridor outside his room. He sought to throw open the door; it would not open. He went to the window and looked out. His room was high up in one of the towers. The lights of the chateau were out now, and it was dark and silent; but there was a fragment of sallow moon, and by its wan light he could see, dimly, the courtyard.

There, weaving in and out in the pattern of shadow, were black, noiseless forms; the hounds heard him at the window and looked up, expectantly, with their green eyes. Rainsford went back to the bed and lay down. By many methods he tried to put himself to sleep. He had achieved a doze when, just as morning began to come, he heard, far off in the jungle, the faint report of a pistol. 

Leave this island

General Zaroff did not appear until luncheon. He was dressed faultlessly in the tweeds of a country squire. He was solicitous about the state of Rainsford’s health. 

“As for me,” sighed the general, “I do not feel so well. I am worried, Mr. Rainsford. 

“Last night I detected traces of my old complaint.” 

To Rainsford’s questioning glance the general said, “Ennui. Boredom.”

Then, taking a second helping of crêpes Suzette, the general explained: “The hunting was not good last night. The fellow lost his head. He made a straight trail that offered no problems at all. That’s the trouble with these sailors; they have dull brains to begin with, and they do not know how to get about in the woods. They do excessively stupid and obvious things. It’s most annoying. Will you have another glass of Chablis, Mr. Rainsford?” 

My idea of sport

“General,” said Rainsford firmly, “I wish to leave this island at once.” 

The general raised his thickets of eyebrows; he seemed hurt. “But, my dear fellow,” the general protested, “you’ve only just come. You’ve had no hunting–” 

“I wish to go today,” said Rainsford. He saw the dead black eyes of the general on him, studying him. General Zaroff’s face suddenly brightened. 

He filled Rainsford’s glass with venerable Chablis from a dusty bottle. 

“Tonight,” said the general, “we will hunt–you and I.” 

Rainsford shook his head. “No, general,” he said. “I will not join in hunting humans.” 

The general shrugged his shoulders and delicately ate a hothouse grape. “As you wish, my friend,” he said. “The choice rests entirely with you. But may I not venture to suggest that you will find my idea of sport more diverting than Ivan’s?” 

He nodded toward the corner to where the giant stood, scowling, his thick arms crossed on his hogshead of chest. 

Avoid the big swamp

“You don’t mean–” cried Rainsford. 

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “have I not told you I always mean what I say about hunting? This is really an inspiration. I drink to a foeman worthy of my steel–at last.” The general raised his glass, but Rainsford sat staring at him. 

“You’ll find this game worth playing,” the general said enthusiastically. “Your brain against mine. Your woodcraft against mine. Your strength and stamina against mine. Outdoor chess! And the stake is not without value, eh?” 

“And if I win–” began Rainsford huskily. 

“I’ll cheerfully acknowledge myself defeated if I do not find you by midnight of the third day,” said General Zaroff. “My sloop will place you on the mainland near a town.” 

The general read what Rainsford was thinking. 

“Oh, you can trust me,” said the Cossack. “I will give you my word as a gentleman and a sportsman. Of course you, in turn, must agree to say nothing of your visit here.” 

“I’ll agree to nothing of the kind,” said Rainsford. 

“Oh,” said the general, “in that case — But why discuss that now? Three days hence we can discuss it over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, unless–” 

The general sipped his wine. 

Then a businesslike air animated him. “Ivan,” he said to Rainsford, “will supply you with hunting clothes, food, a knife. I suggest you wear moccasins; they leave a poorer trail. I suggest, too, that you avoid the big swamp in the southeast corner of the island. 

“We call it Death Swamp. There’s quicksand there. One foolish fellow tried it. The deplorable part of it was that Lazarus followed him. You can imagine my feelings, Mr. Rainsford. I loved Lazarus; he was the finest hound in my pack. Well, I must beg you to excuse me now. I always’ take a siesta after lunch. You’ll hardly have time for a nap, I fear. You’ll want to start, no doubt. I shall not follow till dusk. Hunting at night is so much more exciting than by day, don’t you think? Au revoir, Mr. Rainsford, au revoir.” 

General Zaroff, with a deep, courtly bow, strolled from the room.

From another door came Ivan. Under one arm he carried khaki hunting clothes, a haversack of food, a leather sheath containing a long-bladed hunting knife; his right hand rested on a cocked revolver thrust in the crimson sash about his waist.

Played the fox

Rainsford had fought his way through the bush for two hours. “I must keep my nerve. I must keep my nerve,” he said through tight teeth. 

He had not been entirely clearheaded when the chateau gates snapped shut behind him. His whole idea at first was to put distance between himself and General Zaroff; and, to this end, he had plunged along, spurred on by the sharp rowers of something very like panic. Now he had got a grip on himself, had stopped, and was taking stock of himself and the situation. He saw that straight flight was futile; inevitably it would bring him face to face with the sea. He was in a picture with a frame of water, and his operations, clearly, must take place within that frame. 

“I’ll give him a trail to follow,” muttered Rainsford, and he struck off from the rude path he had been following into the trackless wilderness. He executed a series of intricate loops; he doubled on his trail again and again, recalling all the lore of the fox hunt, and all the dodges of the fox. Night found him leg-weary, with hands and face lashed by the branches, on a thickly wooded ridge. He knew it would be insane to blunder on through the dark, even if he had the strength. His need for rest was imperative and he thought, “I have played the fox, now I must play the cat of the fable.”

The devil himself

A big tree with a thick trunk and outspread branches was near by, and, taking care to leave not the slightest mark, he climbed up into the crotch, and, stretching out on one of the broad limbs, after a fashion, rested. Rest brought him new confidence and almost a feeling of security. Even so zealous a hunter as General Zaroff could not trace him there, he told himself; only the devil himself could follow that complicated trail through the jungle after dark. But perhaps the general was a devil– 

An apprehensive night crawled slowly by like a wounded snake and sleep did not visit Rainsford, although the silence of a dead world was on the jungle. Toward morning when a dingy gray was varnishing the sky, the cry of some startled bird focused Rainsford’s attention in that direction. Something was coming through the bush, coming slowly, carefully, coming by the same winding way Rainsford had come. He flattened himself down on the limb and, through a screen of leaves almost as thick as tapestry, he watched. . . . That which was approaching was a man. 

It was General Zaroff. He made his way along with his eyes fixed in utmost concentration on the ground before him. He paused, almost beneath the tree, dropped to his knees and studied the ground. Rainsford’s impulse was to hurl himself down like a panther, but he saw that the general’s right hand held something metallic–a small automatic pistol. 

The hunter shook his head several times, as if he were puzzled. Then he straightened up and took from his case one of his black cigarettes; its pungent incenselike smoke floated up to Rainsford’s nostrils. 

Rainsford held his breath. The general’s eyes had left the ground and were traveling inch by inch up the tree. Rainsford froze there, every muscle tensed for a spring. But the sharp eyes of the hunter stopped before they reached the limb where Rainsford lay; a smile spread over his brown face. Very deliberately he blew a smoke ring into the air; then he turned his back on the tree and walked carelessly away, back along the trail he had come. The swish of the underbrush against his hunting boots grew fainter and fainter.

The pent-up air burst hotly from Rainsford’s lungs. His first thought made him feel sick and numb. The general could follow a trail through the woods at night; he could follow an extremely difficult trail; he must have uncanny powers; only by the merest chance had the Cossack failed to see his quarry. 

Rainsford’s second thought was even more terrible. It sent a shudder of cold horror through his whole being. Why had the general smiled? Why had he turned back? 

Rainsford did not want to believe what his reason told him was true, but the truth was as evident as the sun that had by now pushed through the morning mists. The general was playing with him! The general was saving him for another day’s sport! The Cossack was the cat; he was the mouse. Then it was that Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror. 

Malay mancatcher

“I will not lose my nerve. I will not.” 

He slid down from the tree, and struck off again into the woods. His face was set and he forced the machinery of his mind to function. Three hundred yards from his hiding place he stopped where a huge dead tree leaned precariously on a smaller, living one. 

Throwing off his sack of food, Rainsford took his knife from its sheath and began to work with all his energy. 

The job was finished at last, and he threw himself down behind a fallen log a hundred feet away. He did not have to wait long. The cat was coming again to play with the mouse. 

Following the trail with the sureness of a bloodhound came General Zaroff. Nothing escaped those searching black eyes, no crushed blade of grass, no bent twig, no mark, no matter how faint, in the moss. So intent was the Cossack on his stalking that he was upon the thing Rainsford had made before he saw it. His foot touched the protruding bough that was the trigger.

Even as he touched it, the general sensed his danger and leaped back with the agility of an ape. But he was not quite quick enough; the dead tree, delicately adjusted to rest on the cut living one, crashed down and struck the general a glancing blow on the shoulder as it fell; but for his alertness, he must have been smashed beneath it. He staggered, but he did not fall; nor did he drop his revolver. He stood there, rubbing his injured shoulder, and Rainsford, with fear again gripping his heart, heard the general’s mocking laugh ring through the jungle. 

“Rainsford,” called the general, “if you are within sound of my voice, as I suppose you are, let me congratulate you. Not many men know how to make a Malay mancatcher. 

Luckily for me I, too, have hunted in Malacca. You are proving interesting, Mr. Rainsford. I am going now to have my wound dressed; it’s only a slight one. But I shall be back. I shall be back.” 

Tore his feet loose

When the general, nursing his bruised shoulder, had gone, Rainsford took up his flight again. It was flight now, a desperate, hopeless flight, that carried him on for some hours. Dusk came, then darkness, and still he pressed on. The ground grew softer under his moccasins; the vegetation grew ranker, denser; insects bit him savagely. 

Then, as he stepped forward, his foot sank into the ooze. He tried to wrench it back, but the muck sucked viciously at his foot as if it were a giant leech. With a violent effort, he tore his feet loose. He knew where he was now. Death Swamp and its quicksand. 

His hands were tight closed as if his nerve were something tangible that someone in the darkness was trying to tear from his grip. The softness of the earth had given him anidea. He stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so and, like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig. 

Burmese Tiger Pit

Rainsford had dug himself in also in France when a second’s delay meant death. That had been a placid pastime compared to his digging now. The pit grew deeper; when it was above his shoulders, he climbed out and from some hard saplings cut stakes and sharpened them to a fine point. These stakes he planted in the bottom of the pit with the points sticking up. With flying fingers he wove a rough carpet of weeds and branches and with it he covered the mouth of the pit. Then, wet with sweat and aching with tiredness, he crouched behind the stump of a lightning-charred tree. 

He knew his pursuer was coming; he heard the padding sound of feet on the soft earth, and the night breeze brought him the perfume of the general’s cigarette. It seemed to Rainsford that the general was coming with unusual swiftness; he was not feeling his way along, foot by foot. Rainsford, crouching there, could not see the general, nor could he see the pit. He lived a year in a minute. Then he felt an impulse to cry aloud with joy, for he heard the sharp crackle of the breaking branches as the cover of the pit gave way; he heard the sharp scream of pain as the pointed stakes found their mark. He leaped up from his place of concealment. But t he cowered back. Three feet from the pit a man was standing, with an electric torch in his hand. 

“You’ve done well, Rainsford,” the voice of the general called. “Your Burmese tiger pit has claimed one of my best dogs. Again you score. I think, Mr. Rainsford, I’ll see what you can do against my whole pack. I’m going home for a rest now. Thank you for a most amusing evening.” 

At daybreak Rainsford, lying near the swamp, was awakened by a sound that made him know that he had new things to learn about fear. Although it was a distant sound, faint and wavering, he knew it. It was the baying of a pack of hounds. 

Wild chance

Rainsford knew he could do one of two things. He could stay where he was and wait. 

That was suicide. He could flee. That was postponing the inevitable. For a moment he stood there, thinking. An idea that held a wild chance came to him, and, tightening his belt, he headed away from the swamp. 

The baying of the hounds drew nearer, then still nearer, nearer, ever nearer. On a ridge Rainsford climbed a tree. Down a watercourse, not a quarter of a mile away, he could see the bush moving. Straining his eyes, he saw the lean figure of General Zaroff; just ahead of him Rainsford made out another figure whose wide shoulders surged through the tall jungle weeds; it was the giant Ivan, and he seemed pulled forward by some unseen force; Rainsford knew that Ivan must be holding the pack in leash. 

They would be on him any minute now. His mind worked frantically. He thought of a native trick he had learned in Uganda. First he slid down the tree. Second he caught hold of a springy young sapling and to it he fastened his hunting knife, with the blade pointing down the trail; with a bit of wild grapevine he tied back the sapling. Third he ran for his life. The hounds raised their voices as they hit the fresh scent. Rainsford knew now how an animal at bay feels. 

He had to stop to get his breath. The baying of the hounds stopped abruptly, and Rainsford’s heart stopped too. They must have reached the knife. 

He shinned excitedly up a tree and looked back. His pursuers had stopped. But the hope that was in Rainsford’s brain when he climbed died, for he saw in the shallow valley that General Zaroff was still on his feet. But Ivan was not. The knife, driven by the recoil of the springing tree, had not wholly failed. 

Rainsford had hardly tumbled to the ground when the pack took up the cry again. 

“Nerve, nerve, nerve!” he panted, as he dashed along. A blue gap showed between the trees dead ahead. Ever nearer drew the hounds. Rainsford forced himself on toward that gap. He reached it. It was the shore of the sea. Across a cove he could see the gloomy gray stone of the chateau. Twenty feet below him the sea rumbled and hissed. Rainsford hesitated. He heard the hounds. Then he leaped far out into the sea. . . . 

Better luck…

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. 

For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly. 

General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game–so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, 

“Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light. 

A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there. 

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?” 

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.” 

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.” 

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. 

“Get ready, General Zaroff.” 

The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . . 

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

Take a quiz about this story!

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Featured The Willows, Part 1

The Willows, Part 1

A scary chat story in four parts

By Algernon Blackwood

Adapted to Chat Story format by Captivated Chat

Tap on arrow to listen to the story.
Click arrow above to play carefully selected, cinema-style, theme.
Me
What a river! To think of all the distance and varied waters we’ve traveled from its source.
Swede
The river won’t stand much nonsense now, though, will it? That first week in the Black Forest, in contrast, was all getting out and slogging through shallows and pushing our boat, eh? We’ll have scary chat stories to share on our phones for years!
Me
But today we were only concerned about the boat possibly being ripped open by the jagged shale beneath those rapids. Yet despite it all, we made it! Now you rest on the sand right where you are. You single-handedly tugged our boat ashore, after all, so rest and I’ll survey this little willow island of ours in preparation for camping here. *********
Me
I’m back, and it really is a small place and quite as overgrown with willow bushes as the shopkeeper warned. It’s enough to make walking unpleasant, but I made the tour. The island is triangular, wind-swept — with almost no full trees — and quite unwelcoming.
Swede
Certainly, I could see those last features from here. Any luck?
Me
Yes, there is a slight depression in the island’s center, where we may pitch the tent. The surrounding willows break the wind quite a bit there.

**********

The rising wind

Swede
A poor camp it is, with no stones and precious little firewood. This sandbar won’t hold up against the flood for many hours; I’m for moving on early tomorrow — you?
Me
Sure. Later this evening we can set about collecting a store of wood to last until bedtime.
Swede
With that incessant cold wind, this is not a fit place for a man.
Me
What’s worse, willow bushes drop no branches, and so driftwood will be our only source of fuel. I hunted the shores pretty thoroughly. Everywhere the banks are crumbling as the rising flood tears at our tiny island and carries away great portions of it every few minutes.
Swede
The place is much smaller than when we landed. It won’t last long at this rate. 
Me
We’d better drag the canoe close to the tent, and be ready to start at a moment’s notice. I shall sleep in my clothes.

‘The wind is still rising’

Swede
Ho-ho-ho, ha-ha-ha! By Jove!
Me
I heard your laugh, but now you are hidden by the willows, where are you?
Swede
But what in the world’s this?
Me
Suddenly you sounded quite serious. Stand still; I’m coming right over.
Swede
Good heavens, it’s a man’s body out there! Look!
Me
All I see is that black thing, turning over and over in the waves.  It keeps disappearing and coming up to the surface again.
Swede
No, it’s an otter, by gad! Ho-ho, ah, ha-hah!
Me
It is an otter, very alive, and out on the hunt, yet it looked just now like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current. 
Swede
You saw it too? Thank heavens, for the mind plays tricks when you’re tired. Look, there goes a boatman along the far shore!
Me
He’s crossing himself! Look, he’s making the sign of the Cross!
Swede
I believe you’re right.
Me
He tried to call to us beforehand, but the wind is still rising and it drowned him out.
Swede
But what in the world is he doing at nightfall on this flooded river? 

Not welcome

Me
Where is he going at such a time, and what did he mean by his signs and shouting? D’you think he wished to warn us about something?”
Swede
He saw our smoke, and thought we were spirits probably, ha-ha, ha-hah! These Hungarians believe in all sorts of rubbish; you remember the shopwoman at Pressburg warning us that no one ever landed here?
Me
She said it’s because it belonged to some sort of beings outside man’s world!
Swede
I suppose they believe in fairies and elementals, possibly demons, too. That peasant in the boat saw people on the island for the first time in his life, and it gave him a scary story to chat about, that’s all.
Me
Heh. If they had enough imagination, they might very well people a place like this with the old gods of antiquity.
Swede
The river’s still rising, though, and it will be under water in two days.

‘The psychology of places’

Me
True, two days at most.
Swede
I wish the wind would go down. I don’t care a fig for the river.
Me
The scarcity of wood will make it a business to keep the fire going. The wind that’s driving the smoke into our faces right now will make a fierce cross draught. 
Swede
We can take turns fighting it and making expeditions to grub in among the bushes for wood. **********
Me
When this next bundle of branches is in camp, I shall turn in. So I’ll make this final expedition brief.
Swede
Good. I’m dog tired.
Me
Glad to hear you are tired, it proves you can get tired. I’m bushed and all your loads of wood have been twice as heavy as mine. So long for the moment, Swede!  
Me
(Thinking) The psychology of places is vivid for the wanderer; thus camps have a note, either of welcome or rejection. And the note of this willow-camp has become unmistakably plain to me; we are interlopers, trespassers; we are not welcome. The damn willows are against us.
Me
(Thinking) And talking of bad omens, I could swear that boatman, if it was actually a man, was warning us against some danger, warning us off this filthy island.

Look for Part 2!

Or read another scary story concerning travel and adventure, The Most Dangerous Game.

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Featured The Willows, Part 2 of 4

The Willows, Part 2 of 4

Scary chat stories, by Algernon Blackwood

Adapted as scary chat stories by Captivated Chat

Tap arrow button above to hear theme music called Monster at the Door, by Sir Cubworth.
Tap arrow above to listen to this story being read.

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Me
I have been gone so long you probably thought something happened to me, so you came out after me! (Thinking: But there is a look on your face that conveys concern. I certainly see the real reason now for your coming after me: the spell of the place has entered your soul too, and you did not like being alone with your own scary chat stories about this.)
Swede
River’s still rising, and the wind’s relentless.
Me
Luckily our tent’s in the hollow. I think it’ll hold up. But I can’t hold up searching for wood in this wind much longer, what with the increasing difficulty of finding any.
Swede
(Nodding) We will be lucky if we can get away from this island without disaster!
Me
I am almost angry at you for putting my own thought into words. There is trouble coming, and soon.

I awoke at around midnight and looked out. Feeling some disquiet, I crawled quietly out of the tent. I noticed the tops of the bushes opposite, with their moving tracery of leaves. It was incredible, surely, but there, opposite and slightly above me, were shapes of some indeterminate sort, and as the moonlit branches swayed in the wind they grouped themselves about these, forming a series of monstrous outlines that shifted rapidly.

Me
The village shopkeeper was right.
Swede
Then you saw these beings?
Me
Yes. They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes—immense, bronze-colored, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying of the branches.
Swede
You saw them plainly?
Me
I saw them plainly and noted, when I came to examine them more calmly, that they were very much larger than human, and indeed that something in their appearance proclaimed them to be not human. 
Swede
Were they malevolent?
Me
Certainly. Men fear this place with good reason, clearly.
Swede
I have felt that was a possibility since we landed.
Me
They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that swayed and twisted spirally in the wind. 
Swede
What did their faces look like?
Me
I never could see. They were nude, dull bronze, fluid shapes, passing up the bushes, within the leaves, almost—rising up in a living column into the heavens. 
Swede
What proof have you?
Me
I admit, none. It may have been an optical illusion. It must be a subjective experience, I argued to myself — none the less real for that, but subjective. These pictures formed upon the mirror of my imagination, and for some reason I projected them outwards and made them appear objective. Perhaps it is just that.
Swede
I’d have thought so, of course, if I had not had the opportunity to observe otherwise.
Me
You too? What was your experience?
Swede
Outside on the tent there was a sound of many little patterings. In spite of the hot night, I woke feeling clammy and cold. Something was pressing steadily against the sides of the tent and weighing down on it. 
Me
Was it possibly caused by wind or the spray and rain?
Swede
No. I raised a flap and rushed out to see. But when I stood upright I saw that the tent was free. There was nothing impinging, no fallen bough, no rain or spray, nothing approaching, either. I walked around it and then into the bush to look.
Me
What did you see?
Swede
From the shadows a large figure went swiftly by. Someone passed me, as sure as ever a man did….
Me
So you saw one of them!
Swede
Yes, and arriving here, a dreadful discovery leaped out at me, as well, and compared to it my terror of the walking one seemed like nothing.
Swede
For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the landscape. The bushes now crowded much closer—unnecessarily, unpleasantly close. Certainly they had moved nearer!
Me
I noticed it, too, but I was afraid to believe my eyes.
Swede
Denial was my first reaction, as well. Then the truth followed quickly. Their attack will come, and is coming.
Me
Well, we can do nothing tonight. We must rest, sleep or no.

**********

Swede
The porridge is cooked and there is just time to bathe. 
Me
I welcome the aroma of that frizzling bacon.
Swede
River waters around this wild island are still rising, and several islands out in mid-stream have disappeared. Our own island’s become much smaller.
Me
Any wood left?
Swede
The wood and the island will finish tomorrow in a dead heat, but there’s enough to last us till then.
Me
I plan to plunge in to bathe from the point of the island. 
Swede
I did the same. But stay in close.
Me
Right, and I will be quick about it, for we’d better get off sharp in an hour.
Me
(Thinking: The island has changed a lot in size and shape overnight. The water feels icy, and chunks of sand are flying by like countryside from a speeding car. Bathing under such conditions will be at best exhilarating.)
Me
(Thinking: What did Swede imply? He no longer wishes to leave quickly? “Enough to last till tomorrow”—he said. What changed his thinking?

But the state of his mind is more interesting than anything in his words. He has changed it overnight. His manner is different—a trifle excited, and shy, with a sort of suspicion. I am certain he has gotten frightened, this brave man who is not given to imagining things. He ate little at breakfast.

Me
We’d better get away within the hour.
Swede
Agreed. If they’ll let us.
Me
Who’ll let us? The elements?
Swede
The powers of this awful place, whoever they are. The gods are here, if they are anywhere in the world.
Me
Stop looking down at that map. You can’t tell me you believe the elements can stop us.
Swede
Yes. The elements are always the true immortals.
Me
So you have said, and I agree if you mean the weather, however we can handle the things going on right now. Agreed?
Swede
We shall be fortunate if we get away without further disaster.

This was exactly what I had dreaded, and I screwed myself up to the point of asking the direct question.

Me
Further disaster? Why, what’s happened?
Swede
First — the steering paddle’s gone.
Me
The steering paddle gone! This was our rudder, and canoing the Danube in flood without a rudder is suicide. But what could —
Swede
Secondly, there’s a tear in the bottom of the canoe.
Me
A tear in it?
Swede
There’s only one. But here it is.
Me
Yes, a long, finely made tear. Thank heavens you spotted it. 
Swede
Had we launched without observing it, we’d have foundered. 
Me
At first the water would have made the wood swell so as to close the hole, but once out in mid-stream the water would have poured in and our low-riding boat would have filled and sunk rapidly.
Swede
There you see an attempt to prepare a victim for the sacrifice. Mmmph, two victims, rather.
Me
Hmm.
Swede
It wasn’t there last night.
Me
We must have scratched her in landing, of course. The stones are very sharp. I know just as well as you do how impossible my explanation sounds. We both examined the boat last night, but we were tired.)  
Swede
And then there’s this to explain too. The paddle, look at this blade.
Me
(Thinking: The blade is scraped down all over, beautifully scraped, as though someone had sand-papered it with care, making it so thin that the first vigorous stroke would snap it.) 
Swede
Well?
Me
One of us walked in his sleep and did this thing.
Swede
Ah, you can explain everything. (Turning away) Ha-ha-ha.
Swede
I see.
Me
One of us must have done this thing, and it certainly was not me.
Me
(Thinking: To even suppose that my friend, the trusted companion of a dozen similar expeditions, could have knowingly had a hand in this sabotage is a thought not to be entertained. But just as absurd is to say this imperturbable, densely practical fellow has suddenly gone mad and is busied with insane purposes.)
Me
But he is suddenly nervous, timid, suspicious, aware of goings on he does not speak about. 
Swede
What do you make of the many deep hollows formed in the sand around our tent?  
Me
I noticed them: basin-shaped and of various depths and sizes. The biggest is like a large bowl. The wind, no doubt, was responsible, just as it was for lifting the paddle and tossing it to where it got caught among the willows as the eroding sand and the flood sanded it down.
Swede
Really? 
Me
The rent in the canoe is the only thing that seems quite inexplicable; and, after all, it is conceivable that a sharp point caught it when we landed. 
Swede
Ah!
Me
(Thinking: My examination of the shore does not support this theory, yet I must cling to it with my diminishing reason. An explanation of some kind, however, is an absolute necessity.)
Swede
Please set the pitch melting, and soon I’ll join you, although the canoe can’t be safe for traveling until tomorrow. 
Me
Of course it won’t.
Swede
You know those hollows in the sand? They’re all over the island. But you can explain them, no doubt!
Me
Wind, of course. Have you never watched those little whirlwinds in the street that twirl everything into a circle? This sand’s loose enough to yield, that’s all.
Swede
Hummph!
Me
(Thinking: He is watching me, and yet listening attentively for something I cannot hear. Why else keep turning and staring into the bushes, and up, and out across the water through the willow branches?) Sometimes he even puts his hand to his ear. Why?)
Swede
Ummph!
Me
(Thinking: Fortunately he says nothing as he works, because I vaguely dread he will speak of the reason for the willows’ changed aspect. And, if he has reached the same conclusion, my thought that “it’s just our imagination” will no longer be a sufficient response!)

Look for part 3

.

Featured Scary chat story otter in The Willows

The Willows, Part 3 of 4

By Algernon Blackwood

Tap arrow button above to hear theme music called Monster at the Door, by Sir Cubworth.
Tap arrow above to listen to this story.
Swede
Oddest thing about that otter last night.
Me
  Ha-ha! I had expected another of your scary chat stories or at least something totally different.
Swede
I mean—do you—did you think it really was an otter?
Me
What else, in the name of heaven?
Swede
You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed—so much bigger than an otter.
Me
The sunset as you looked up-stream magnified it, or something.
Swede
It had such extraordinary yellow eyes.
Me
That was the sun too. I guess you’ll wonder next if that fellow in the boat—
Swede
You just decided not to finish that sentence, I notice.
Me
Damned if you are not listening for them again, turning your head to the wind, with something in your expression that makes me wonder. 
Swede
I did rather wonder, too, if you want to know, what that thing in the boat was. I remember thinking at the time it was not a man. The whole business seemed to rise quite suddenly out of the water.
Me
Excuse me but I must laugh, only this time out of impatience, and a strain of anger too.
Swede
You are angry at me?
Me
Look here now, this place is quite queer enough without going out of our way to imagine things! That boat was an ordinary boat, and the man in it was just a man, and they were both going down-stream very fast. And that otter was an otter, so don’t play games!
Me
And, for Heaven’s sake, don’t keep pretending you hear things, because it only gives me the jumps, and there’s nothing to hear but the river and this thundering wind.
Swede
You fool! That’s just the way all victims talk. As if you didn’t understand just as well as I do!
Swede
The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you’re forced to meet it.
Me
Well, please don’t sneer! (Thinking: I do know your words are true, and that I have been the fool, not you. Up to a certain stage in the adventure you kept ahead of me easily, and I think I felt annoyed to be out of it!)  
Me
But you’re right about one thing, and that is that we’re wiser not to talk about it, or even to think about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens.
Me
A good thing the wind has died down.
Swede
Come and tell me what you make of it. Hold a hand to your ear. Now do you hear anything?
Me
I hear only the water’s roaring and hissing. 
Swede
Wait. The willows for once are silent, so it should be a good chance to hear the other sound.
Me
Yes, faintly I hear a peculiar sound—something like the humming of a distant gong. It is repeated at regular intervals, but it is certainly neither the sound of a bell nor the hooting of a distant steamer. I can liken it to nothing so much as to the sound of an immense gong, suspended far up in the sky.
Swede
A fair description.
Me
The wind blowing in those sand-funnels, or the bushes rubbing together after the storm perhaps.
Swede
It comes off the whole swamp and from everywhere at once. It comes from the willow bushes somehow—
Me
But now the wind has dropped. The willows can hardly make a noise by themselves, can they?
Swede
It is because the wind has dropped that we now hear it. It was drowned before. It is the cry, I believe, of the—oops!”
Me
Oh, the stew was about to burn! No wonder you dashed back without finishing your thought. Come and cut up bread for the pot. This stew-pot holds sanity for us both, and that silly thought makes me laugh. (Thinking: He has emptied the entire contents of the provisions bag on the ground-sheet!)
Me
Hurry up! It’s boiling.
Swede
There’s nothing here! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Bread, I mean. It’s gone. There is no bread. They’ve taken it! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Me
You’re kidding.
Swede
Hah! Ha-ha-ha.
Me
Hah-hah, hah-ha. Must be the strain, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Swede
Hah-hah, ha-ha-ha.
Me
Hah-hah, hah. But, no! How criminally stupid of me! I clean forgot to buy a loaf at Pressburg. But that chattering woman put everything out of my head, and I must have left it lying on the counter or—”
Swede
The oatmeal, too, is much less than it was this morning.
Me
There’s enough for tomorrow, and we can get lots more at Komorn or Gran. In twenty-four hours we shall be miles from here.
Swede
I hope so—to God. Unless we’re claimed first as victims for the sacrifice. He-he, Heh-heh, he. Mumble, mmmph –.

Our meal was beyond question a gloomy one, and we ate it almost in silence, avoiding one another’s eyes, and keeping the fire bright. Then we washed up and prepared for the night.

Me
There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction. We are in unsafe modes, somehow.
Swede
I don’t think a tape recorder would show any record of that ‘gong.’ The sound doesn’t come to me by the ears. The vibrations seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard.
Swede
I agree that we have strayed into some region or some set of conditions where the risks are great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lays close about us. 
Me
What made you decide to become the spokesman for it?
Swede
Face the terrible facts. This is a new order of experience, of horror, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
Swede
It’s the deliberate, calculating purpose that reduces one’s courage to zero. Otherwise imagination might account for much of it. But the paddle, the canoe, the lessening food—
Me
Haven’t I explained all that once?
Swede
You have; you have indeed, however unconvincingly. These outsiders have demonstrated a plain determination to provide a victim. 
Me
I can’t disguise it any longer, I don’t like this place. There’s something here that beats me. I’m in a funk. If the other shore was—different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!
Swede
(Staring me down) It’s not a physical condition we can run away from. We must sit tight. There are forces close here that I expect could kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only chance is to keep generally still. Our insignificance may save us.
Me
That seems rather far fetched. What do you mean?
Swede
I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not found us—not ‘located’ us, as the Americans say. 
Swede
They’re blundering about like men hunting for a leak of gas. The paddle and canoe and provisions prove that. I think they feel us, but cannot actually see us. 
Me
We must keep our minds quiet—it’s our minds they feel. We must control our thoughts, or it’s all up with us.
Me
Death, you mean?  
Swede
Worse—by far. Death, according to one’s belief, means either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don’t suddenly alter just because the body’s gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substitution—far worse than death, and not even annihilation. 
Swede
We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours, where the veil between has worn thin—a horror portal! 
Me
But who are aware?
Swede
All my life, I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region—not far removed from our own in one sense, yet wholly different in kind—where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with more expressions of the soul—
Me
I suggest just now you hold back — stop your exposition!
Swede
You think it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings have absolutely nothing to do with man, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own.
Me
Your words somehow are so convincing, they’ve set me shaking a little. So what do you propose?
Swede
A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could get away, just as the wolves stop to devour the dogs and give the sleigh another start. But—I see no chance of any other victim now.
Me
The gleam in your eye is terrifying.

Look for Part 4!

Featured The Willows, Part 4 of 4

The Willows, Part 4 of 4

A horror story presented here in 4 parts

By Algernon Blackwood

Adapted to chat story format by Captivated Chat

Tap arrow above to play cinematic-style theme music.
Tap on arrow above to hear story read aloud.
Me
But you really think a sacrifice would solve our problem? Thanks for another of your scary ghost stories—
Swede
If we can hold out through the night, we may get off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered.
Swede
Wait! The gong-like humming just came down very close over our heads as you spoke. Hush! They’re nearby!
Swede
Do not mention them or refer to them by name. The name is the inevitable clue, so our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may ignore us.
Me
Even in thought?
Swede
Especially in thought. Our thoughts make something like spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds. Here, rake the fire.
Me
Certainly. I have never longed for the sun as I long for it now in the awful blackness of this summer night.
Swede
Were you awake all last night?
Me
I slept badly a little after dawn, but the wind, of course—
Swede
I know. However the wind won’t account for all the noises.
Me
Then you heard it too?
Swede
The multiplying countless little footsteps I heard, and that other sound—
Me
You mean above the tent, and the pressing down upon us of something tremendous, gigantic?
Swede
It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?
Me
Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been altered—had increased enormously, so that we should have been crushed.
Me
And that gong overhead. What do you make of that?
Swede
It’s their sound. It’s the sound of their world, the humming in their region. The division between us here is so thin that it leaks through somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you’ll find it’s not above so much as around us. It’s in the willows. It’s the willows themselves humming.
Me
I could not follow exactly what you meant by that, yet the thought and idea in my mind are beyond question the thought and idea in yours.

I realized what he realized, only with less power of analysis than his. Then he suddenly thrust his face again close into mine across the firelight and began to speak in a very earnest whisper. He amazed me by his calmness and pluck, his apparent control of the situation. This man I had for years deemed unimaginative, stolid!

Swede
Now listen, we’ll go on as though nothing had happened, follow our habits; pretend we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape. Above all, don’t think, for what you think happens!”
Me
All right, all right, I’ll try, but tell me one more thing first. What do you make of those hollows in the ground, the sand-funnels?
Swede
No! I dare not, just dare not put the thought into words. If you have not guessed, I am glad. Don’t try to. They have put it into my mind; try to prevent their putting it into yours.
Me
I will not press you to explain. There is already just about as much horror in me as I can hold. Please be qui-I —

I stopped in the middle, seized anew by the old horror. I tried to smother the sound of my voice as something sacrilegious. The Swede, of course, heard it too—the strange cry overhead in the darkness—and that sudden drop in the air as though something had come nearer.

He had turned ashen white under the tan. He stood bolt upright in front of the fire, stiff as a rod, staring at me. The terror had caught him at last.

Swede
After that close call, we must go! We can’t stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on—down the river.
Me
In the dark? That’s madness! The river’s in flood, and we’ve only got one paddle. Besides, we only go deeper into their country! There’s nothing ahead for fifty miles but willows, willows, willows!
Swede
What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?
Me
It is all right, my friend. You will soon be eating roast beef in London with me and we will laugh at this all.
Swede
I was as frightened as any man ever before. But when you looked in my eyes and mentioned roast beef, I forgot all of it. 
Me
I as well. We’ll make one more blaze, and then turn in for the night. At sunrise we’ll be off at full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself together a bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!
Swede
The commonplace feeling introduced by your food mention broke the spell. I shall say no more. 
Me
In some measure it will be a relief for us both to get up and make an excursion into the darkness for more wood. We’ll keep close together, and look among the bushes and along the bank. 

The humming overhead never ceased, but seemed to me to grow louder as we increased our distance from the fire. It was shivery work!

Swede
Look! By my soul! There, in front of the dim glow, something is moving.
Me
  I see it through this veil that hangs before our eyes like the gauze drop-curtain used at the back of a theater—hazily. It is neither a human figure nor an animal. 
Swede
It’s shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface—coiling upon itself like smoke.
Me
It is settling down through the willows.
Swede
Look, by God! It’s coming this way! Oh, o no! Ehh! They’ve found us.

I gave one terrified glance, which just enabled me to see that the shadowy form was swinging towards us through the bushes, and then I collapsed backwards with a crash into the branches. 

But it was the pain, he declared afterwards, that saved me; it caused me to forget them and think of something else at the very instant when they were about to find me. It concealed my mind from them at the moment of discovery, yet just in time to evade their terrible seizing of me. He himself, he says, actually passed out at the next moment, and that was what saved him.

Swede
I lost consciousness for a moment or two. That’s what saved me. It made me stop thinking about them.
Me
You nearly broke my arm in two.
Swede
That’s what saved you! Between us, we’ve managed to set them off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It’s gone—for the moment!
Me
A wave of hysterical laughter is about to seize me again.

Neither of us said a word. We both knew that sleep was the safest thing we could do, and to bed we went without delay, having first thrown sand on the fire and brought the provision sack and paddle inside the tent with us. The canoe, too, we propped at the end of the tent so that our feet touched it, and the least motion would disturb and wake us.

In case of emergency, too, we again went to bed in our clothes, ready for a sudden start.

It was my firm intention to lie awake all night and watch, but the exhaustion of nerves and body decreed otherwise, and sleep after a while came over me with a welcome blanket of oblivion. The fact that my companion also slept quickened its approach. At first he fidgeted and constantly sat up, asking me if I “heard this” or “heard that.” 

A difficulty in breathing woke me, and I found the blanket over my face. But something else besides the blanket was pressing upon me, and my first thought was that my companion had rolled off his mattress on to my own in his sleep. I called to him and sat up, and at the same moment it came to me that the tent was surrounded. That sound of multitudinous soft pattering was again audible outside, filling the night with horror.

I called again to him, louder than before. He did not answer, but I missed the sound of his snoring, and also noticed that the flap of the tent was down. This was the unpardonable sin. I crawled out in the darkness to hook it back securely, and it was then for the first time I realized positively that the Swede was not there. He had gone.

I dashed out in a mad run, seized by a dreadful agitation, and the moment I was out I plunged into a sort of torrent of humming that surrounded me completely and came out of every quarter of the heavens at once. It was that same familiar humming—gone mad! A swarm of great invisible bees might have been about me in the air. The sound seemed to thicken the very atmosphere, and breathing was difficult.

But my friend was in danger, and I could not hesitate.

The dawn was just about to break, and a faint whitish light spread upwards over the clouds from a thin strip of clear horizon. No wind stirred. I could just make out the bushes and river beyond, and the pale sandy patches. In my excitement I ran frantically to and fro about the island, calling him by name, shouting at the top of my voice the first words that came into my head. But the willows smothered my voice, and the humming muffled it, so that the sound only traveled a few feet round me. I plunged among the bushes, tripping headlong, tumbling over roots, and scraping my face as I tore this way and that among the preventing branches.

Then, quite unexpectedly, I came out upon the island’s point and saw a dark figure outlined between the water and the sky. It was the Swede. And already he had one foot in the river! A moment more and he would have taken the plunge.

I threw myself on him, flinging my arms about his waist and dragging him shorewards with all my strength. Of course he struggled furiously, making a noise all the time just like that cursed humming, and using the most outlandish phrases in his anger about “going inside to Them,” and “taking the way of the water and the wind,” and God only knows what more besides, that I tried in vain to recall afterwards, but which turned me sick with horror and amazement as I listened. But in the end I managed to get him into the comparative safety of the tent, and flung him down breathless and cursing, where I held him with one foot until his fit had passed.

I think the suddenness with which it all went and he grew calm, coinciding as it did with the equally abrupt cessation of the humming and pattering outside—I think this was almost the strangest part of the whole business. For he had just opened his eyes and turned his tired face up to me so that the dawn threw a pale light upon it through the doorway, and said, for all the world just like a frightened child:

Swede
My life, old man—it’s my life I owe you. But it’s all over now anyhow. They’ve found a victim in our place!
Me
I feel it, too.
Swede
  River’s falling at last; that’s one good thing.
Me
The humming has stopped too.
Swede
  Everything has stopped, because—
Me
Because they’ve found another victim’? 
Swede!
Exactly. I feel as positive of it as though—as though—I feel quite safe again, I mean.
Me
How do you know?
Swede
Come, I think if we look, we shall find it.
Me
Wait half a  mo-, I’m coming.
Swede
We will need a stick of wood from here! 
Me
What for?
Swede
To poke among the sandy bays and caves and little back-waters.  Here now, to the river banks.
Me
I am right behind you, Swede!
Swede
Ah! Look!

He was pointing with his stick at a large black object that lay half in the water and on the sand. It appeared to be caught by some twisted willow roots so that the river could not sweep it away. A few hours before the spot must have been under water.

Swede
See, the victim that made our escape possible! If I can turn it over, umph! There! It is the body of a peasant, and the face was hidden in the sand. 
Me
Clearly the man has been drowned, but a few hours ago, and his body must have been swept down upon our island somewhere about the hour of dawn—at the very time the fit passed.
Swede
We must give it a decent burial, you know.
Me
I suppose so. Poor fellow, poor, poor old man.
Swede
Come along.

Halfway down the bank my companion suddenly stopped and held up his hand in warning; but either my foot slipped, or I had gained too much momentum to halt, for I bumped into him and sent him forward with a sort of leap to save himself. We tumbled together on to the hard sand so that our feet splashed into the water. And, before anything could be done, we had collided a little heavily against the corpse.

Swede
Oomph, ouch!
Me
Oww! What in the –! It’s them! They are humming inside the corpse, like hornets in the nest!
Swede
We must get away. But the filthy things are leaving him, ascending into the air. It seems we disturbed the rotten creatures at work.

But before either of us had time properly to recover from the unexpected shock, we saw that the current was turning the corpse round so that it became released from the grip of the willow roots. 

Swede
We must save the man. He must have a proper burial! Oh dear God!
Me
I saw it! The skin and flesh of the face and chest are indented with small hollows, perfectly formed, quite similar to those beings’ damned sand funnels.
Swede
Their mark! Their awful mark!

And when I turned my eyes again from the dead man’s ghastly face to the river, the current had done its work, and the body had been swept away into mid-stream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter.

Featured The Tell-Tale Heart, Part 1

The Tell-Tale Heart, Part 1

By Edgar Allan Poe

Click arrow above to hear this story read aloud.

The first of four scary chat stories under this title.

Click arrow above to enjoy related video.

Me
You are nervous! I must say as an experienced detective, nervousness could be a sign of madness.
Suspect
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? 
Click arrow above to play a carefully selected musical accompaniment while you read, a creepy, cinema-style tune titled Lurking, by Silent Partner.
Me
Not I, but some may say it. Doubtless you have a nervous disorder, some disease perhaps dulling or destroying your ability to sense what is real.
Suspect
True, but the disease has sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. 
Me
Please explain the difference. And pray tell how then you did not hear anything of the old man’s destruction and disappearance?
Me
Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

The whole story

Me
Let’s back up to the beginning of this scary chat story of yours. Tell me the whole tale, by all means; you clever fellow!
Suspect
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object? There was none. Passion? There was none. 
Me
You did not dislike the old man?
Suspect
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.
Me
You must have disliked something about him! What could it have been?
Suspect
I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Me
But that’s so trivial, so pointless! And yet you say you are not mad?
Suspect
Now this is the point, you fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. 
Me
I did see you. 
Suspect
Now that, too, seems mad. You are the detective, as you stated, although how you came here so quickly after—
Me
You were saying?
Suspect
: You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. 
Me
Ah! So, you admit you actually did it!
Suspect
Every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!
Me
But I dared not laugh in observing you! Any audible sound might have been your undoing, or the old man’s, who you loved! The lantern revealed an angelic face in slumber, did it not?
Suspect
I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this?
Me
Doubtless it seemed wise to you at the time. But does it still seem so wise after your confession? However, I digress; pray continue, and tell us why we have not found the corpse.

***********

Look for Part 2!

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Featured Scarlet Plague Place

The Scarlet Plague, Part 1

by Jack London

Adapted to chat format and condensed by Captivated Chat

Me
I am recording the scary plague story of mankind only for myself, for my own sanity, perhaps even from some age-old sense of duty. For I have not the slightest hope that it will ever be read by any living human being.
Me
I was a professor in the great university at San Francisco, Professor James Smith, a man who believed in reason and abhorred blood, but that was before the terror and the madness. This morning I killed a small animal with my bare hands, then squatting down I tore a hunk from my prey and ate it raw.
Me
It began simply on a Monday morning. I was having breakfast at the counter in the campus cafeteria. A friend was glancing over some news sites on his cell phone.
Bill
I don’t know why I do it, Jim.
Me
Do what?
Bill
Read these news updates every morning. Nothing changes: senators all back on the Hill after a whirlwind Asian tour; crimes of passion in Louisville; bomb threats.
Me
Good citizenship compels you, maybe.
Bill
Perhaps, but what about this item down in the corner? Way down in the corner: New York fights scarlet death! Some news reporter’s pipe dream, I suppose: nine persons have died since last night of a strange malady that has left doctors at Manhattan hospitals admittedly baffled.
Me
That’s terrible!
Bill
The disease strikes without warning and slays its victim in less than an hour.
Me
How sensationalistic that reporter is!
Bill
The first symptom is a feeling of well-being, with a slight rise in temperature. Then a fiery red rash appears on the hands and face and spreads rapidly over the body. Within thirty minutes comes a coma and death.
Me
What do you think?
Bill
Ridiculous, after all there’s no disease that attacks like that. It’s food poisoning, Botulism, something of that sort.
Me
Bill, I’m eating!
Bill
Medical authorities are unanimously agreed, however, that no general danger exists, and that there is no cause for public concern or alarm. That’s double-talk for we don’t know what it is yet.
Me
Hmm. What about a mutation?
Bill
Mutation apart, how do I know?
Me
You’re a physiologist!
Bill
Oh you’re talking about those occasional scary plague stories, I suppose, harmless virus or bacteria mutates and grows into some new deadly bug. Antibiotics won’t touch it. Medical science helpless, a million people wiped out overnight?
Me
Sure, it’s a possibility, isn’t it?
Bill
No, Jim, bacterial and viral strains are always mutating and usually the mutation is less harmful than the parent. But that other idea’ has been overworked for years! Pass the cream, please.
Me
Hmm. Is it a possibility or not?
Bill
Yes, it’s a possibility.
Me
Okay.
Bill
You’re stalling, Jim, that rook’s the only piece you can move, and you know it.
Me
Don’t rush me; we’ve still got the queen back here!
Bill
Let’s see, and here is the latest development on the Red Death: up to now the death toll in greater New York is 321 persons; in Boston, 94; in Chicago, 181. Medical findings expected soon, with every liklihood that the cause will be isolated and an effective treatment prescribed.
Me
 How can it spread so fast?
Bill
It’s hard to tell, not knowing the period of incubation, whether it’s airborne, contagious by contact, or how long it’s contagious before the symptoms show up. However, just one thing is sure, something’s got to be done fast!
Me
I guess we can call ourselves lucky out here; fact is, there hasn’t been a case reported in San Francisco.
Bill
No, not yet.

* * * * * * * * *

Ten minutes later

Me
I sat for a long time in my empty classroom paralyzed with shock by a fear of the unknown. A girl had walked in the class smiling and talking and now she lay dead at the back of the room. But why, and why so fast? I went to the Faculty Club where Bill was sharing a scary plague story.
Bill
Greater New York estimated two hundred eighty-four thousand deaths! Philadelphia, estimated 220,000 deaths. Here’s a bulletin! London: the scarlet plague is raging in Europe. The death toll in Moscow at 180,000.
Me
No word of any cure, Jim? I just walked across the campus: it’s completely deserted.
Bill
Guess the back of the club here is the only holdout, and at that there are only four, four counting you and the security guy, plus our Blake. She went over to her room to pack. Dr. Barnes is out in the kitchen getting us all some drinks.
Me
Bill, that girl who died in my class a while ago? One minute she was all right, and a minute later she was dead!
Bill
Well it’s fast, that’s one thing.
Me
Can you get it from contact? I touched her forehead with the back of my hand.
Bill
Nobody knows how you get it. Transmission couldn’t be mainly from contact, not millions of cases in less than 48 hours.
Me
Why can’t they find a cure? They’ve had two days now, what are they all doing?
Bill
Dying, Jim, like everybody else.
Barnes
There you are! Have a Zombie, Smith?
Me
Oh, hey Dr. Barnes.
Barnes
Yeah, maybe this will help.
Me
Scotch?
Barnes
Certainly, Why not, there’s a whole case of it out there. I think it might be a good idea to turn that radio on. How much longer?
Radio
Vehicles are being stopped and turned back at army control points. Stay where you are: do not attempt to travel!
Bill
Yes, you’re right, Dr. Barnes, we’d better learn from media while we can. How much longer can services like radio, television, and transportation go on?
Me
Sure, I guess you are no safer in one place than another: after all, the plague is everywhere.
Bill
I’ll try to raise some news somewhere else, maybe my cellphone.
Radio
…The United States and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a bulletin just handed to me. Johns Hopkins states that Dr. Theodore Von Zwickler who had announced near success in identifying the cause of the plague has just died. But unfortunately Dr. Zwickler left no notes on his work.
Me
What’s happened to the lights?
Bill
A power failure. I guess it was bound to happen soon. There’s a flashlight in that desk drawer.
Me
I got it.
Dr. Barnes
There’s a portable radio with batteries in the game room.
Bill
Oh let’s leave it for the moment.
Me
Oh yes, the liquor sounds better than the news!
Bill
Well in that case, wonder what’s keeping Miss Blake? After all, she said she was coming right back.
Me
Hey, wait a minute, where’s that light coming from?
Barnes
Looks like a fire.
Me
Maybe we can tell more from the windows.
Bill
It’s not one fire, but a thousand fires, down there toward the bay. Berkeley, Oakland, and over in the city.
Barnes
Why? What started them?
Me
Hear that?
Bill
Gunfire!
Me
Yes, they’re not waiting for the plague to do the job.
Bill
No, and they’re already out in force.
Barnes
Who?
Bill
Looters, neighbors, robbers.
Me
Certainly, anyone with a hate or a grievance. It’s started already.
Bill
But it’ll get a lot worse.
Me
Oh yes, it’ll get worse.

[Look for Part 2]

Featured Death of a Flint Skin, Part 1

Death of a Flint Skin, Part 1

by Karen Adkins

“Poor old Fred,” sighed Lucy, as she watched a smoke ring slowly rise to the ceiling.  She and Ricky had just finished their third cup of Irish coffee, emphasis on the Irish,and things were moving at a leisurely pace.

“Poor old Fred,” echoed Ricky, oblivious to the fact that he was, again, repeating what his wife had just said.  He had been doing it all morning, to her irritation.

“Well, it isn’t as if he wasn’t a lot older than us…it shouldn’t come as that big of a shock,”snapped Lucy.  The friendly feelings produced by the whisky were beginning to wear off.  She ground out her cigarette and lit another.

“That would be fine, ‘cept he din’t die of old age.”

“I know he “din’t”— really — can’t you speak proper English?  You “din’t” just get off the boat.  I just can’t get over it — Fred falling down those basement stairs like that — he knew every inch of this building.”

“Even if he din–PARDON ME–DIDN’T–take care of every inch of it,” murmured Ricky scratching a flurry of paint flakes loose from a place near the window.  Looking down on him from the ceiling were several large, brown stains.  They served as reminders of how wet spring weather and a landlord’s scrimping on roof maintenance could add color to a room.

“Ricky, don’t speak ill of the dead!,” hissed Lucy, as if she was afraid it was Fred’s spirit, and not tobacco smoke, floating above their heads. “He’s only been gone three weeks. So he wasn’t perfect and didn’t keep the building up the way he should have.  So he was miserly where money was concerned, whether it was for repairs or for Ethel — he hardly ever let her get a new hat or dress.  She had to fight him for the money to get her hair done, even though the building was in her name and she did most of the work!  I don’t know how she put up with him for all those years…”

“Poor ol’ Fred,” repeated Ricky mournfully as he stared out the window. He wasn’t listening.  Again.  Lucy stuck her tongue out at his back.    

“I think I’ll go give Ethel a call and see how she’s holding up.”

As soon as Lucy left, Ricky regained conciousness.  He furiously ground his cigarette to bits. Finally some time alone.  And some quiet.  Two things he was constantly seeking and rarely found in his life with Lucy.

Poor old Fred — Ha!  That’s a good one!  That old ham — always pesterin’ me for a part in my show — thinkin’ people would still get a kick out of his stale, third-rate, vaudeville routines.  A real flint-skin — he din’t fix a thin’ in this broken-down, rat-trap unless it was an emergency.  And all of that money I “loaned” him!  Like I had a choice, when it’s winter and he’s controllin’ the heat!  Never saw THAT money again.  Always puttin’ me off when I brought it up, sayin’ he couldn’t get his hands on it now, but he’d have it for me soon, then changin’ the subject.

I wonder what he wanted it for.  Gambling probably. 

Ricky had come across some racing forms when he’d gone to the basement to get Fred for a card game.  The basement (and the roof when the weather was good) was Fred’s not-so-secret hideout, and Ricky knew he spent a large part of each day there with his tip sheet and forms, his radio and a bottle, ducking work and his wife, dreaming of hitting it big. 

 And eavesdropping.  Fred had told him he had a pretty good thing going: he found he could (plainly) hear his tenants through the furnace pipe whenever the furnace wasn’t on.  Seeing Ricky’s shocked face, Fred had hurried to defend himself:

“It’s just smart business Rick!  A landlord always has to be a step ahead of his tenants.  He has to know who’s planning to skip out before the end of the month; who’s gonna try to hand you what hard-luck story, instead of cash.  Ethel may fall for their stories, but not me, brother. You don’t get ahead in this business by being a pushover.”

Then he’d wiped off his bottle with his sleeve and offered Ricky what was left, which, declined, Fred finished off in one loud gulp, followed by an even louder burp.  As he wiped his mouth on his other sleeve, he chuckled and began talking, almost to himself:

“Yep, a landlord has to know every trick in the book…a master key helps…but this clues you in to things you’d miss, a lot of things…” 

Then he’d roused himself (from his reverie) and painfully clapped Ricky on the back.

“And Rick, old boy!  You wouldn’t believe the goings-on!

It’s better than television!  It’s right up there with goin’ to the track and winning a bundle!”

 Then he said that the h’actin’ bug had been bitin’ him again an’ maybe I could “find” a part for him–better yet, why not plan a bunch of shows aroun’ him and his vaudeville bits,ay-yi-yi!  Din’t seem to care if the club folded–an’ when I told him, sorry ol’ man but no, he said no, HE was sorry but he would have to tell Lucy ’bout Valerie. 

Ricky pressed his forehead against the window and listened to the pigeons cooing on the ledge.

Ah, Valerie!  Complete opposite from Lucy — quiet, almost shy.  He smiled thinking of the peaceful hours they’d shared and winced as he compared them to the shrill voice, the  quarrels, the questions.  Where had he been?  Why was he so late and why didn’t he call? Why can’t I be in the show, Ricky?

He poured another drink, minus the coffee this time, and lifted his glass.  Sorry ol’ man, but I like to eat my cake and have it too.  An’ you thought you were goin’ to put a stop to that…

Lucy slammed the receiver down on another busy signal.

Drat–will you look at that nail?  A perfectly manicured, blood-red polished nail had torn, threatening her nylons. 

Honestly–there’s so much”upkeep” to keep up with, Lucy thought, filing the nail smooth.  That done, she sat down at her vanity and began to brush her naturally curly, naturally red hair.  (She divided the recommended hundred strokes throughout the day.)  She glanced sideways at the bedroom door, remembered it was locked and parted the mass of curls covering her forehead.  Brown and silver roots were now visible in what had been uniformly, if artificially, red.  Darn it!  It seems like I was just at Henri’s!  I’ll have to see if he can fit me in for a touch-up.  I can’t afford to look less than perfect with all the glamorous dancers Ricky works with.

Lucy eyed herself critically.  She was paler than usual and her makeup couldn’t completely hide the circles under her eyes.  She hadn’t been sleeping well.  For the last several months, Ricky had been keeping more late nights.  Much later.  He used to come home directly from the club.  He used to bring her flowers for no other reason than that he thought she might enjoy them.  There were a lot of things he used to do. Now, a couple of nights a week he’d get in at dawn and tiptoe around, trying not to wake her.  Fat chance of that; she’d been listening for him and only pretended sleep on hearing his key in the door. 

One day after discussing her suspicions with Ethel, she’d run into Fred coming up from the basement where he claimed he’d been working on the furnace.  He said he hoped she and Ethel weren’t too sore about the late nights he and Rick had been keeping lately.  They’d been taking in some late fights, with drinks afterwards, and started up their old poker sessions again.  One of the boys had it pretty rough right now and they were just trying to be pals. 

Now that Fred was gone, Lucy thought Ricky would keep more regular hours, but he stayed out just as late as before.  Unasked, Ricky said that he and the”boys” were now keeping the poker games going in Fred’s honor and that he didn’t know what he would do without them.       

At first, Lucy felt relieved.  It was a perfectly reasonable explanation but she couldn’t help wondering if it was the real one.  Was Ricky running around on her?  With one of those big-eyed dancers with the twenty-three inch waists?  She looked at her waist.  It seemed enormous–surely it wasn’t THAT big.  Add “diet” to the list of things I need to do, she wrote down mentally.  And where on earth did all these wrinkles come from?  With her forehead free of curls for the moment, the lines stood out plainly.  There weren’t that many yesterday.  She’d had plenty of chances to see those dancers up close–everything about them was taut and smooth.  Even their foreheads. 

Lucy furiously brushed and rearranged her hair, dabbed on some rouge and re-did her lips, admiring the crimson impression they made when she blotted them.  That’s better.  She stood up, smoothed her dress and checked her front and rear views.  If I ever found out that Ricky was cheating on me and that someone was covering for him … the thought brought more color to her face than rouge ever could.

Read part 2 of the story!

Copyright: Karen Adkins

Featured No Place Like Home

No Place Like Home

By Karen Adkins

Sylvia stretched and wriggled her toes, still pleasantly aware of wearing slippers at ten a.m. Retirement agreed with her. Being home agreed with her. She took another sip of coffee and looked happily around the kitchen. After years of re-modeling and re-decorating, everything was exactly the way she wanted it.

Recalling the junk she had thrown away, she wished every irritation could be disposed of as easily. She had in mind a particularly nettlesome one: her neighbor Agnes Braxton.

Agnes was an annoying woman who always scheduled noisy outdoor projects for the break of day, often on Saturdays and, almost psychically, on her neighbor’s days off. Also, she conducted one sprawling, ongoing garage sale from April to December.

Agnes would wrap up business early in the evenings so she could get what she dubbed her “beauty sleep.” Her calls complaining about Harry’s barking, other sounds and bright lights could be expected shortly after eight o’clock.

For once Agnes’ early-to-bed habit was about to benefit, rather than disturb, her neighbor.

Walking Harry, a wire-haired terrier, Sylvia checked to see if Agnes’s lights were out. All but one. She always left the light in the bathroom turned on “so burglars will think someone’s awake.”

By eleven-thirty, the surrounding homes would be dark, despite Mrs. Braxton’s complaints of late-night parties. At midnight, Sylvia slipped out her freshly oiled side door, crept close along her juniper bushes, then darted across her neighbor’s yard and onto the front porch. Patches of ice still remained there.

Sylvia planned to turn the woman’s front porch into a skating rink and cause one of those accidents she had read about so often. She laid a section of her garden soaker-hose over the porch, supported by a pair of stone gnomes. She turned it on.

Sylvia had found it all too easy to get used to sleeping late again. She had to force herself to open her eyes and keep them open. Ten-thirty! She jumped out of bed and tore open her curtains. Nothing had happened. The street was deserted.

She pulled on sweats, attached Harry to his leash, and strolled out. To Harry’s dismay, Sylvia stopped abruptly. Everything was melting — it must be at least forty degrees!

She had called for the latest forecast before setting her plan in motion. The robust voice had advised her to expect “flurries tonight and much colder temperatures toward morning, well-below freezing, and wind chills in the single digits.

“What did we ever do to deserve such great weather?,” asked Mrs. Darby brightly as she surveyed the world from her driveway.

“Just lucky I guess.”

Returning home, Sylvia noticed the light flashing on her answering machine. So she pressed the message button releasing a booming voice.

“Hello? Are you there? (A large pause. . .I know you’re there, pick up the phone!) This is Connie Braxton. (Another pause. . .now that you know it’s me, I’m sure you’ll want to pick up.) Aunt Agnes had an accident. . .she fell down the escalator at the mall. They took her away in an ambulance! It was just a bad sprained leg and some deep bruises. Of course, she’ll be on crutches and painkillers for a while. I know you’ll want to get her mail and help her out. Aunt Agnes said you wouldn’t mind, with all the time you have on your hands now. Bye-bye.”

She watched the light blink, dumbly. Her plan ruined, only to be drafted to help Agnes. Pushiness thy name is Braxton! She considered her next move.

Sylvia’s mind drifted back to last summer:

“What are you up to Syl? Pulling weeds I hope. I was wondering why I have so many dandelions this year. . .must’ve come from your yard. While you’re at it, yank those tiger lilies—they’re over for the year—I wish you’d dig ’em up and plant something nice.

Now that the pain was lessening, Sylvia could think. Press your advantage; she’ll be more wobbly than ever; any accident now will be put down to her injury.

Many of the next-door neighbors held each other’s key as insurance against being locked out; Sylvia had Agnes Braxton’s.

The rusty black box sporting the name BRAXTON in curling plastic letters was stuffed with catalogs, bills and ads. No letters.

She remembered the times Agnes had said she was so sorry but the mail carrier must have made a mistake. She’d already opened it before realizing it wasn’t addressed to her.

Now Sylvia let herself in, dropped the mail on a dusty entry table and went into the kitchen.

Dirty coffee cups smeared with lipstick dotted the counter and table. Smatters of dried egg and bits of burnt toast decorated dishes stacked in the sink.

In the midst of the clutter, four throw-rugs caught her attention. The worn chenille had not been attractive when new. She tested one rug with her foot. It immediately bunched and slid forward. Sylvia knew just what would set things in motion: the silicone spray she used to lubricate her treadmill.

But how could she get Agnes to come out here? She needed her to come tearing into the room, not paying attention to what she was doing. She would not be moving around much, let alone racing into rooms.

Something would have to demand her attention. Something impossible to ignore. The smoke detector!

She had seen one in the kitchen. It didn’t take much to set these older models off: dust, a wisp of smoke or steam from the stove. The ear-splitting noise had led many people to remove the batteries, including Mrs. Braxton.

Sylvia wondered whether she had the right batteries at home. Her gaze wandered to an empty humidifier. Its mist could set off the smoke detector. The rugs could be arranged just so. Hurriedly, she straightened the room. She refilled the humidifier and then darted home, undetected.

She gave Harry food and water and retrieved the silicone spray and some thin latex gloves. Next she found a fresh battery. She shoved everything in her coat pockets and popped next door.

Sylvia took a stepladder from the laundry room. She climbed up, attached the battery and pressed a button. The shrieking was immediate. After resetting the detector, she returned the ladder and took out the silicone. She sprayed the linoleum and rearranged the rugs in the path to the detector.

While admiring her handiwork, she heard a car pull up. From the peephole, she watched Connie attempt to help her aunt out of the car.
Sylvia bounded outside. “Sorry to hear about your accident, Agnes. How do you feel?”

“How d’ja think I feel? Damn pills. Want to go to bed.”

Connie rolled her eyes and muttered: “She’s a load.”

“Stop griping and let’s go. I’m cold,” snapped Agnes.

Connie looked as though she might use what energy she had left to push her aunt onto the driveway before peeling out.

“I’ll get her inside,” Sylvia said quickly. She offered a shoulder and arm to Mrs. Braxton who leaned on them heavily.

Connie fished around in her aunt’s bag for her medicine with no success until, exasperated, she took it to the more brightly lit bathroom and dumped it on the counter.

“It says `take one pill every four hours,’” yelled Connie. “I’ll get some water.”

“If that doctor thinks I’m wakin’ up just to take his damn pills,” said Agnes.

Connie returned with the water and medicine.

“I heard that. Just take this pill and I’ll set your alarm for four hours. You must follow the doctor’s instructions,” said Connie.

“I can cope,” mumbled Agnes. “Gonna sleep late. I’ll call when I want you.”

“I’d be glad to check on her tomorrow morning.”

“Thanks Sylvia, but I have some early errands to run anyway.”

“Quit gabbing and go! I’m tired!”

They laughed their way to the front door as Connie regaled her with a less-than-flattering anecdote about Aunt Agnes.

“I’ll lock up.”

Sylvia waved as Connie sped away. Then, she turned off all but the kitchen light and glanced at the clock. The second hand lurched between ceramic bunches of now-gray grapes. Her gloved hand switched on the humidifier, pointed the nozzle at the smoke detector and adjusted the mist to high. She turned off the light and locked the door behind her.

Sylvia made coffee and waited. She wasn’t sure how long it would take. She decided she’d return in two hours. If her plan failed and Mrs. Braxton was still alive, she’d say she’d come to check on her. If her plan succeeded, everything would have to be cleaned up and put back. Nothing must seem out of place.

She tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. The coffee wasn’t helping her nerves. How could she have thought she’d need it to stay awake? She began to pace and, with increasing frequency, to stare out her bedroom window at Mrs. Braxton’s house.

The house sat as quiet and dark as any other on the street. An hour crept to an end. Sylvia couldn’t stand it any longer. She would get Harry and take a closer look from outside. Then “hearing something,” and being the good and concerned neighbor she was, she’d go in to check on Mrs. Braxton.

Harry strained at his leash, determined to go everywhere, smell everything and claim new territory. Sylvia struck a pose of annoyance mixed with boredom at being dragged out of bed at this hour by her dog, in case any wayward neighbor might be driving by or looking out a window on the way to get an antacid. She was anything but bored, however, and all her senses were primed for any clue as to what was happening next door. But it was no use. The only one getting anything out of this expedition was Harry. She couldn’t detect anything from the front.

Harry didn’t need any prodding to redirect his operations to the back of the house.

The kitchen window shouldn’t be dark. She should have turned on the light when she went to disconnect the alarm. So what is going on?

Sylvia took Harry home, then returned and let herself in through the back door. The only sound she heard was the muffled whooshing of the furnace. From the kitchen doorway, she saw the steady stream of mist continue its climb towards the smoke detector. On the floor lay an overturned stepladder and a crumpled heap of flannel that had once been Mrs. Braxton.

It had worked. Finally.

“I wondered when you’d get here,” said a familiar voice from the darkened living room.

Sylvia jumped. Trying to keep her voice calm, she said, “I didn’t know you were here, Connie…I was out walking Harry and thought I heard a noise so I came over…”

“To check on my poor aunt,” Connie finished. “That’s very neighborly of you. I think that’s the main reason I’m going to enjoy living here. . .the neighborliness.”

“Living here?”

“My aunt objected to relatives living too nearby, but that obstacle has been removed…thanks to you.”

“Me? I was just coming by to check on her and see about the noise…”

“Oh yes, the noise,” said Connie as she shifted her position on the couch and drew her aunt’s afghan closer around her. “Do you think it might have come from something like this?”

Connie held up something small that Sylvia had trouble making out. She had a sinking feeling she knew what it was.

“In case your eyes haven’t adjusted, it’s the battery you installed in the smoke detector tonight.”

“I didn’t…”

“Don’t interrupt,” snapped Connie. “She always used to interrupt: another of my aunt’s lovable traits. The smoke detector used to go off while she was cooking, so she disabled it years ago. Said she’d rather take her chances. But when I came by to check on her, it was blaring away.

I found her on the floor. Thought she must’ve lost her balance, but when I got out the stepladder to stop the noise, I slipped on one of those damn throw rugs I’ve been asking her to get rid of for years and almost broke my neck.”

Sylvia, who was periodically wiping her sweaty hands on her jacket and eyeing the nearest door, managed an “oh?” 

“When I went to put the rug back, I slipped again and noticed the floor there was slick. I checked under the other rugs and found the same thing. I assume that’s your doing, also? It sure isn’t from cleaning. My aunt was never one for cleanliness…I don’t know the last time she mopped the linoleum. A lot will have to be done to bring this place up to my standards.”

Sylvia could only nod as though hypnotized. Connie seemed to know everything; what was the point of denying it?

“I don’t see any reason why you should have to spend your retirement in prison…if you do as I say.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Sylvia eased herself carefully onto her couch, groaning as she did so. She was stiff and sore all over, as if she’d been in a gardening marathon. She was engaged in a type of marathon, though it involved nothing as enjoyable as gardening. Every day now, beginning at dawn, she started a long-distance relay race whose seemingly unreachable goal was to carry out Connie’s wishes.

Connie’s wishes, her orders, were relentless and exacting. From morning til night Sylvia had to divide her time between the moderate sprucing up of Connie’s soon-to-be previous residence and the extensive, cleaning, repainting and redecorating required to make Agnes Braxton’s home habitable.

It was just past nine now; pleased with her progress, Connie had let her knock off early.

A real treat, thought Sylvia, bitterly sipping her cup of decaf. She gathered a week’s worth of unread newspapers toward her and began skimming them, starting with the oldest. In a matter of minutes she tossed it aside. The news was stale. The radio she listened to while working kept her abreast of major stories. She was just looking for items of local interest: weddings, divorces, births, deaths. A couple more, then bed. (Now that mornings were so ridiculously early, bedtime had to be too.)

Sylvia skimmed several more papers and yawned. Responding to the noise, Harry rearranged himself on the floor but still slept with his back to her, silently protesting all the recent departures from his routine.

Sylvia was about to toss the last paper on the pile when a small item caught her eye: “Accidental overdose causes death.”

She read on: “The coroner’s jury, Wednesday, ruled an accidental overdose was the cause of death of Agnes Braxton, age 76. Braxton was found dead in her home at 64 Laurel Lane, February 23. Autopsy results indicated an overdose of a painkiller recently prescribed for injuries received in a fall. Interviews with relatives led to the verdict of accidental overdose.”

Sylvia was suddenly wide awake. An overdose killed her, not the fall. She read it again. There was no mention of injuries from a fall as the cause, or even a contributing cause, of death.

She took another gulp of coffee. Sylvia tried to recall exactly what happened when they were getting Agnes ready for bed. She remembered Connie saying something about how often the doctor wanted her to take the pills, then Agnes arguing, Connie bringing in the medicine and the water to take it with…

“Interviews with relatives led to the verdict…” 

Connie had been Agnes Braxton’s only living relative. And she had handled the medicine. And the water. Plus she was there waiting for Sylvia that night. And wasn’t Connie with Agnes when she had that fall on the escalator? 

Sylvia jumped up and began to do a little jig, until her sore muscles reminded her who was boss. She was free! 

Tomorrow she would sleep in. Have a big breakfast. Read the morning paper at an unhurried pace. Not dress until noon. When Connie called, threatening her for being late, Sylvia would inform her she had recently caught up on her reading and found it most interesting. So would her attorney if ever anything should happen to her. 

Sylvia smiled and (painfully) bent down to pat Harry before turning out the light. 

So, Connie Braxton was going to be living next door. 

Did she say living?

© Karen Adkins

 

The Phantom Coach

Part Two

Master
Mr. Murray, you are welcome here. But please excuse me, as I must resume my studies.
Me
Thanks!
Master
We can chat over dinner.
Me
I look forward to it!

* * * * * * * *

Master
I have but the homeliest farmhouse fare to offer you, sir. Your appetite, I trust, will make up for the deficiencies of our larder.
Me
Ham and eggs! I have never eaten anything so delicious.
Master
I think it’s time I join you, if you don’t mind.
Me
Please don’t be so formal at your own table. I am anxious to chat about your philosophical thoughts and devices. I trust you don’t mind trading information.
Master
Not at all! I have lived thus in strict retirement for three-and-twenty years. I have not seen many strange faces here, and I have not read a single newspaper. You are the first stranger who has crossed my threshold for more than four years. 
Me
I will happily favour you with a few words of information respecting that outer world from which you have parted! Pray interrogate me on it later, for I am heartily at your service, but I asked for your opinions first.
Master
I shall start with that field which lies beyond the boundary line of even conjectural philosophy, and reaches no man knows whither. Pray heed the voice of personal experience, as I talk of ghosts and the supernatural.
Me
You amaze me, sir!
Master
The world grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. They condemn as fable all that resists experiment.
Me
But so much falsehood is spread through the untested beliefs of the superstitious.
Master
Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly? 
Me
I know, but surely…
Master
Show me any fact in physics, in history, in archæology, which is supported by testimony so wide and so various. Attested by all races of men, in all ages, and in all climates, by the soberest sages of antiquity, by the rudest savage of today, by the Christian, the Pagan, the Pantheist, the Materialist, this phenomenon is treated as a nursery tale by the philosophers of our day. 
Me
What evidence is there in favor though, really?
Master
Much. Circumstantial evidence, however, which weighs as a feather in the balance with them. The evidence of competent witnesses is dismissed. He who believes is called a dreamer or a fool.
Me
I keep an open mind, so no need to extend your argument. Were you a victim of the intolerance you are hinting at?
Master
I spoke just now with the bitterness of first-hand experience. For I, sir, investigated, believed, and was not ashamed to state my convictions to the world. I, too, was branded as a visionary, held up to ridicule by my contemporaries, and hooted from the field of science in which I had laboured with honour during all the best years of my life.
Me
I am truly sorry, sir. But these things inevitably happen to the fearless iconoclasts who are the pioneers and visionaries. You must have known that sad reality back then?
Master
I took my fellow scientists at their open-minded word. I expected integrity from them! These things happened just three-and-twenty years ago, and the wounds remain fresh.