What Lays Beyond

“Beware! Beware! He comes! Feel the ground tremble at his approach. Hear the echoes of his ragged breathing. Can you feel the intensity rise within the very fabric of the air? He’s here! He’s here! All to attention, he’s here! Let us honor our most distinguished warrior!” I roared while running and jumping amidst the obstacles of the locker room. Ted seemed to transform into a cherry. For our college’s best full-back he was very shy and too humble. As I rustled my way across the sweat-gripped jungle I laughed and slapped the bare backs of our compatriots. A landslide of playboys from Aaron’s locker was nearly the death of me, but I dodged and trudged until my arm was around Ted’s shoulders. “A fine night, eh, Teddy? You were like the INS out there, tonight, except far more terrifying! What!” The room filled with laughter and I turned to catch a high five. I gave Ted his nickname Teddy because he was more like to hug someone than to throttle them. Yet, when he was on the field it was like he changed from a plush stuffed animal to a growling grizzly. He was literally the full-back to my running-back. He was my personal bodyguard on the field, and my brother off of it. His timidity off the field, however, was so stark compared to his on-field personality that I was his bodyguard.

“Thanks, Reggie. You did great, too,” Ted said with his usual modesty.

I squeezed and released his shoulders, then howled.  The locker room filled with the enthusiastic cries befitting our team. “We are the Wolves! Beasts of Warwick! Arrooow!” We beat our chests and celebrated. As the rest of the guys showered, Ted and I changed and prepared to leave. He was very shy about the public showering aspect. Some of the guys whispered rumors that he was ashamed of his manhood, but a football racing along the triple digits towards their mouths is a very persuasive viewpoint that quickly changes their opinions.

We waded through the sea of students and family and drunkards, smiling and receiving congratulations along the way. Some hotties threw their numbers at me and invited me to parties. I flashed my most charming smile and made excuses. I sensed something was wrong with Ted. We took the normal route home, the college being only a few blocks from the street we lived on. We still lived with our parents, despite our age. It was a pretty sweet deal, though, considering the amount of money we’d saved from just one year, Some of our peers thought this as a source of amusement but I could care less. Besides, Ted and I spent more time chilling at each other’s houses that we might as well be roomates. Ted and I have known each other since we were children. He moved to the house on the other side of the street when we were both five years old. We both liked football and lasagna so we became fast friends, although he ate far more lasagna than me. A friendship lasting this long meant we could have conversations for hours.

We walked through the gloom without a word.

The silence was making me nervous. I’d experienced Ted’s disquiet when something was troubling him. I’d seen it a lot, actually. But something was different this time. I studied his large blocky head. His brow was furrowed in deep concentration and his normally bland, empty eyes were filled with an electric I’d rarely seen.

“You feeling alright, big guy?” I asked. He didn’t hear me so I slapped the back of his shoulder. “Wake up, Dreamweaver!”

“W-where?” He stuttered and looked around, unknowing of where he was. Something was terribly wrong.

“Finch street. We’re halfway home. What evil spirit’s got you in your trance?”

Ted turned white and looked at me. “Spirit? What do you mean?” He demanded.

“Calm down, Hamlet, it’s a metaphor. Don’t get that crazy look in your eye.” I’d nearly forgotten Ted’s outlandish fear of ghosts. Just the mention of them would banish him into one of his silence fits, which it did. I cleared my throat and said, “I got two cases of Mountain Dew and cheeseburger Dorritos. Tomorrow’s Saturday and we don’t have practice so what do you think about a night of caffeine, stomach aches and Call Of Duty? A good day is never complete until you frag someone!” I chuckled and slammed a fist into my palm, trying to change the mood.

“No thanks, Reggie. I’ve got . . . work to do. Let’s do it next weekend.”

As far as I knew, he had no homework or chores to do. I frowned for a moment but decided it was best not to press. We came upon his house an instant later. We shared our usual farewell, a high-five handshake that slides into a fist-bump, then I jogged across the street to my house. I had my hand on the knob and was about to turn it and enter when I saw the resonance of a light flashing on the house, like a lightening flash. I looked to the sky but there were no clouds. I turned around and, for a split second, saw a silhouette outlined in a grayish haze. There was no definition to its shape and no sense of reality to it either, except for its eyes. It’s black, black eyes. The rest of the world seemed to melt around it until there was no feeling but for the terror I felt in my heart and for the winter it stormed upon my soul.

I clenched and unintentionally turned the knob and fell into the house with a shout. I kicked the door and it slammed shut with a BANG! I crawled backwards until I came against a wall. My chest was heaving and my heart was sprinting but my eyes were unwavering. I stared at the door like it was the only thing keeping me alive; As if to look away would be to allow whatever fell creature lurked outside to break in. So intense was my focus on the door that I failed to notice the sounds of hurried footsteps and yells of concern. A light sprayed into life above my head causing a surprised yip to escape my lungs. Within seconds my mother was standing over me.

“Reggie? Hon? Are you okay?” The fear I felt was reflected in her eyes. I opened my mouth to say something but then dad turned the corner and distracted me. Instead, a whimper escaped my lips and I pointed to the door. Wordless, dad approached the door. I whispered, no, but he either didn’t hear me or ignored me. He glanced back at  my mother for a moment before opening the door. I blanched against the wall, my eyes got wide and my mouth fell open, ready to scream.

There was nothing.

The porch was awash in light from the overhanging lamp and the street lights served ample light, else wise. There was no haze, no red eyes, not even the sense of dread that seemed to sting the air. All that stood in the doorway was a studious father and, beside me, a concerned mother. I tried to think of an excuse for what had happened, but nothing came to mind. I felt myself deflating under their gazes and simply stared at the floor.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“No, mom, I’m not on drugs.” I reiterated for the seventh time. My parents had been hounding me about the whole ordeal for the better part of the night. My eyes were agitated from the lack of sleep so I held my face in my hands. “Why would I do drugs? I have no problems and I don’t think it’s cool so, please stop asking!” My hands muffled my yell into a growl.

“Your mother is only trying to help, Reg. What happened tonight wasn’t normal so we have to suspect the worst. When’s the last time your mother or I came into the house screaming and slamming doors?” My dad asked.

“The last time the Steelers lost?” I asked derisively. He made a stern face but said nothing.

I sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, but it was nothing; just my imagination getting the best of me. I’m beat from our game tonight, you should have been there. Teddy was like a charging bull and I scored, like, four touchdowns. It was sick!”

“You’re changing the subject.” Dad pressed. Mom looked from him, to me. She was becoming increasingly distressed so I decided to cut it short.

“I’m too tired right now, we can talk about this tomorrow?” I asked. “I smell terrible.” My parents looked at each other. After a moment they both relented.  I quickly left to shower, leaving them to their worries and me to mine.

I turned the water on and stepped inside the shower. As the water treaded its fingers across my skin and the steam thickened I seemed to lose myself. I wasn’t concerned. I don’t recall hearing anything, not even the drone of the shower-head or the crashing of the water. All I felt was the warmth all around me. I turned off the shower head, stumbled to my towel and dried my face. I seemed to float. I clung to the sink and stared into the blurry images of my life. My friendship with Ted began racing through my mind. It was startling at first, yet subtle, but soon began to simmer. I fought it at first, clenching my teeth and pawing at my head. I felt a scream flow from my throat but still I heard nothing. I opened my eyes and, before me, was a still image of my best friend and brother. Then it faded. I allowed the emptiness to withdraw my sensibilities and as everything that defined me lost its definition, I became one with my surroundings. I became transparent.

Until I heard their screams.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

I awoke with a sudden ferocity that caused an immediate sense of paranoia. I was in my bed. Sunlight spilled in through the shutters, displaying a solar system of dust. I felt my hair, it was smooth, clean. I was so confused. How did I get here? Where did the rest of the night go? Who was screaming? I stared at my white-washed ceiling for ten minutes and pondered as I tried to slow my breathing. My face was wet with sweat and I could feel the fear of the unknown pressing inward, like thinking of what happens after death; If there is no afterlife. My mind was trying to wrap around an emptiness of infinite shape and the feeling was so sinister that I had to shake it from my mind, lest I go mad. I must have forgotten, I concluded. The right answer is often the simplest, after all.

I hurried through my morning routine, adding an incentive to rinse my face, then texted Ted. I decided I would face my father’s interrogation later. It wasn’t like anything would change between morning and afternoon. When Ted didn’t text back I walked outside and crossed the street, first staring into the empty space where that… thing had been floating the night before. I jokingly mused that I was simply going insane and entertained the thought of asking for a strait jacket for my birthday. When I reached Ted’s porch I jumped up the tri-step and knocked three times. No answer came, even after I knocked a few more times, so I tried the knob. It turned freely. I entered and squinted, as usual. I never understood why every corner of the house had to be bathed in light. Ted explained that his parents were Obsessive-compulsive. They had to be surrounded by light at all times, even when they slept. He never told me why, instead, shrugging it off as a mystery.

The stairs creaked as I walked up them. Despite the brightness it was a very creepy house. I turned at the top of the stairs and arrived outside Ted’s door, enlightened by the excess of light and also blinded. I knocked softly and, upon hearing no answer, burst into the door yelling, “Wakey wakey, Teddy! The sun is shining and the day is –“ I looked around the room and the sinister feeling returned. The room was empty, or without the familiarity that made it Ted’s room. The space by the window where his bed once inhabited was filled with boxes. The room was unlit, unlike the rest of the house, the only light a scant ray of sunshine pervading through the cracks in the stack of boxes. I shambled around the dimly lit room, the specter of a ghostly memory. I felt the dusty walls where posters once hung, saw the empty space where an old science project stood on a table like a proud sentinel behind a myriad of football trophies. I felt the emptiness humming in my chest. I knew I should feel confused, sad, panicky, crazed even, but I felt nothing. Somehow it made sense. It was natural. This is the way it should be. The only question I couldn’t ask was, but why?

I was peering into an empty closet when I heard her shout. I blanched sideways into a wall. Ted’s mom was gawking at me through the open door, one hand over her heart, the other clutching a telephone. My own heart was pounding in my throat. I wasn’t used to seeing Ted’s parents, they were usually at work or hiding in their bed room doing who-knows-what, but something about the way she was looking at me expressed that this was more than a mere fright.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Florrent,” I began, “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was looking for Ted and the door was open, so I –“

“What are you doing in my house?” She interrupted. “I have nothing of worth. Leave. Now. I have already called the police.”

“No, please. I’m sorry. It’s me, it’s Reggie . . .” I sputtered.

Her eyes resigned in recognition. “Wait, I know you,” She said, “You’re Susan and Carl’s boy.”

“Y-yeah,” I said, feeling inscrutable. She seemed a stranger. It was like she didn’t know me. “I’m Ted’s friend. You know, you’re son?”

The look she gave me frightened me more than the words she used next. “My son? You’re mistaken, boy. I have no son.” My throat locked up. I tried to say something, to ask her what she was talking about, but all the sound that escaped my mouth were gasps and stutters. Again, it felt right. The words she used seem to click. She had no son. But, that didn’t make sense. She did have a son. Her son, Ted. My best friend. Concern colored her face and she asked me, “Are you alright?”

Instead of answering I ran. I ran past her, despite her protest. I ran out the door. I ran down the block and into the woods. I ran from the look on her face, but I couldn’t run from my fear. It followed me like an evil spirit, a poltergeist lurking within my shadow; a haunting in each step I took. I finally broke from my run by a small stream and fell to my knees and as I stared into my reflection with my knees sinking in the mud, at the tears filling my eyes, I began to question reality. Perhaps it was all a dream, a nightmare inspired by a frightful moment and an overstimulated mind. Perhaps Ted was playing a prank, but I would never believe that. He was far too mature and courteous for something so callous. Perhaps I really was going crazy. From the side-walk shade to the shower and the missing time and ending at Ted’s disappearance, it seemed the only logical conclusion.

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