by Marleigh Green
The bone-deep chill of the night air brushed across Abraham’s skin, triggering a shudder that his tattered clothes were unequipped to contain. He wrapped his arms around himself, cradling his knobby elbows, his hollow eyes called to the shadows that hovered in the crevices of the artfully worn brick buildings that loomed around him, tracking for any movement. The comfort he’d always associated with walking the streets of Poitou-Charentes eluded him, the scent of the coastal night air a bitter taste in the back of his parched throat. Abraham barely noticed the feeling of his bare heels scraping against the cobblestones beneath him as he shuffled down the sidewalk, his shoes long gone.
His only company was his ragged breaths, the beige-toned street empty of cars and other people, at least for now. The animalistic instinct that sensed he was being watched poised on the back of his neck like a scorpion, ready to strike. Abraham kept walking, shooting a furtive glance over his raised shoulder, but not daring to let his eyes linger on the deepening shadows. His head snapped forward again when he thought he spotted steely, claw-like fingers creeping around the edge of an alleyway at his back, casting shadows of their own.
A low, manic hum left his throat. His frayed vocal cords butchered the beautiful tune of Deux Arabesques, but he doubted Debussy would mind.
A figure shifted in the shadows ahead, drawing his gaze and sending his heart shooting into his throat. The fear gave way to hope as he took in the sight of her habit and the golden crucifix swinging from her neck as she strode towards him, alone. He lunged at her, and she instinctively threw her hands up in defense, her wide eyes bulging with terror as he seized her by her narrow shoulders, towering over her. His once-sunkissed, now chalky hands gripped the black fabric and warm flesh with every ounce of desperation that shined on his gaunt face.
“Pardon, mademoiselle,” he begged her, “it haunts me. It wants me dead. You must help me!”
She screamed shrilly, the sound sharp in his tortured ears, and twisted her body, wrenching herself from his grip. His hands slipped from her shoulders, and the force knocked him onto the ground, ripping the breath from his lungs. Searing pain shot through his back and right elbow as he landed, and he hissed in pain, rolling onto his side and screaming breathlessly after her retreating back, “Mademoiselle!”
Without a backward glance, the nun disappeared into the night.
Abraham panted breathlessly and sat up, shutting his eyes, the brief hope sinking like a stone in a pond. He should have known. Every single word that left his mouth sounded like the ravings of a madman, and she probably mistook him for a vagrant, as he certainly looked like one.
His once-tailored clothing was tattered and loose on his bony body, unwashed hair hanging lank down his face. His stomach grumbled with hunger, and his tongue hung dryly inside of his mouth, heavier than a brick. He knew better by now than to try and eat or quench his thirst. It wouldn’t let him.
Five days had passed since he fled the dig site where the thing found him, but fleeing had proved pointless soon enough. His life ended the second he entered Mt. Hermon. Nobody else had seen or felt the thing looming over them the way he had; they thought he was mad for believing some creature lingered in the darkness, awakened by their foolish foray.
It followed him from the black depths of that wretched Syrian mountain all the way back to his home. When he tried to eat, it choked him. When he tried to sleep, he could feel it standing over him, breathing so softly that it was barely above a whisper.
Weakly, he lumbered to his feet and kept walking. His tired eyes widened when he finally saw his destination ahead: the blanched bricks of the Church of St. Hilaire. He hastened forward, ignoring the worn down soles of his feet, and mounted the steps, shoving the heavy doors open with his weary body. He stumbled into the foyer and found the church’s neat, wooden pews empty.
The silence of the white interior of St. Hilaire was so absolute it was almost a living thing itself. Bloody tracks appeared in his wake as he shuffled across the pristine floor, the air just as cold within as it had been outside, but mercifully absent of the chilling coastal breeze.
He padded to the altar and picked up a match, striking it.
The match burned his fingers as Abraham lit the candle, the dim, orange glow of the other burning wicks illuminating his weary face. He waved it around until the flame went out and set it atop the altar with the others, the smoke still rising from the charred end.
Abraham knelt in reverence to the pale statue of the Virgin Mary. His dead satellite phone hung heavily in his pocket, useless without a power source or a signal. Every time he’d tried to call for help, in the same way he’d tried to beg that nun, his words made no sense.
He wasn’t crazy. Of that he was certain. What was happening to him was real.
His knees dug into the marble floor beneath him, knobby and weak. They could no longer carry the weight he was burdened with, his body betraying him more swiftly than if he was in his eighties instead of his thirties. Pain shot through his overburdened legs and he grimaced, wiping away the tears that had begun to roll down his cheeks.
“Please,” he moaned, looking up at the statue.
The stained glass windows cast vague, colored shapes onto the floor around him, his lone figure blocked by the marble Mary’s sphere of influence. He didn’t expect her to answer his prayer as she gazed blindly forward, omnipotent and indifferent. He supposed he didn’t deserve her mercy after all he had done in this life.
Like any self-respecting archeologist, he had ignored his critics and the bleating of the uneducated locals when the excavation was announced. The Syrian people believed a fire-breathing daemon named Hemah lived inside of Mt. Hermon, but Abraham wasn’t about to be deterred by myths and fairytales. What was happening to him now was the kind of shit that only ever happened in movies.
A shiver crept up his spine, and fresh beads of sweat grew on his forehead, rolling down his cheeks. The candles flickered, as if caught in a breeze, and he shut his eyes, willing himself not to see the shadow.
Though he was a man of little faith, he had become a believer in evil.
Here he had hoped that the church would somehow shield him from it, but that was just another fairytale. Or, perhaps, he just didn’t deserve God’s protection.
“Abraham.” Its cold exhale made goosepimples rise on his skin.
He forced his eyes shut and shook his head, covering his ears.
“You know what you have to do.”
Sobs wracked his weary body, the tears leaving clean tracks on his filthy face, dripping onto the marble floor beneath him.
“I just want it to stop,” he whispered.
The shadow responded, “I can make it stop. I can make it all go away.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“Letting go will mean your freedom, Abraham. You know this.”
He wiped his running nose with the back of his hand. Yes, of course it would mean his freedom. He would no longer be burdened by the shadow’s presence, smirking at him and waiting in the dark for him to drop his guard, constantly watching. If this went on much longer, he was going to die anyway.
The shadow was a breathing, sentient thing that, for reasons unknown to Abraham, wanted him dead and needed him to do it himself.
It placed a clawed hand on his shoulder, and he shuddered and moaned. It reeked of soil and dust and death, and its touch was unnaturally cold, like everything else about it.
“Just tell me what you want,” he said. “I’ll do anything.”
It slid its fingers down to his hands, cupping them with its icy, damp, rotting appendages like a lover embracing him from behind. He let out an unnaturally high-pitched wail that echoed through the hallowed building, the high wooden beams sending his voice back to him.
Using his own arm, it pointed at a mirror. Abraham rose and approached it, looking at his bedraggled body and broken expression. The thing that stood behind him had no reflection.
Abraham brought his fist against the mirror quickly, shattering it. Glass pricked his knuckles as broken bits rained onto the floor, slicing his bare feet. He hissed in pain as he picked up one of the shards, kneeling on the ground. He brought the sharp edge against the vein in his left wrist and pressed it into his skin, blood bubbling out and running over his palm. “Good,” the shadow whispered.
Author Marleigh Green:
“Most of the people who try to give you advice are going to come from a place of bias. Don’t be afraid of failure. Be afraid of what will happen if you don’t try, and when you start to fear the worst case scenario, train yourself to imagine the best case scenario, too. After all, what if it works out?”