Paul Melniczek has come a very long way in a very short space of time. Although he only started writing horror fiction a year or so ago, he has already made quite a name for himself as an author of truly terrifying tales. Paul, who comes from the U.S. of A, has had stories published and accepted by the likes of Darkness Rising, Fangoria, Dark Legacy, Demontia, Black Petals Magazine, Flesh and Blood, Midnight Gallery, Shadowkeep... well, the list goes on and on. His excellent first collection, Restless Shades, has also just been published by Double Dragon Books.
I stared down at the answering machine as if expecting the device to give me an explanation as to what I'd just heard. The message was by far the oddest one ever left on the tape. Several calls were captured - the normal credit card solicitations, one late payment notice, nothing special. But the last was from Joe Lander, one of my best friends. We talked every week and spent time together, so keeping in touch was pretty much a routine. I hadn't expected what was recorded.
'Andy, I need you to do me an extremely important favor. You'll be receiving a round trip ticket to Florida in the mail today. You've got to leave tomorrow, I'll explain when you get here. I've bought another house. Please come.'
And that was it. No reason given, nothing else.
My friend was a very unusual guy to begin with, but the situation could be acceptable if it wasn't for one thing in particular. Joe was the most confident and in- control person I'd ever known, by far. No one else could come close. He was independently wealthy, fit enough to be a professional athlete at virtually any sport imaginable, and looked two decades younger than his thirty-nine years.
All this said, Joe was someone who instantly became the focus of attention in any group setting. Women gravitated to him because of his looks and money, and men fawned over him out of a grudging jealousy to unlock his secrets. I'd attended school with him, and we remained good friends, although I'd never achieved his financial or social status. And now he'd left me this strange request.
That in itself bothered me little. It was his tone - Joe sounded distressed, frightened. Something was terribly wrong. Of that fact there was no question. I couldn't say no to him, so I sat down on my sofa and grimaced at the thought of breaking off my weekend plans with my girlfriend Crystal.
Oh well, I thought. Being single wouldn't be that bad. Maybe I would move to Florida with Joe. He would owe me big time after this.
The plane ride was boring.
Standard delay at the airport, sitting around for an extra two hours, reading a thriller novel, and small talk with other passengers. Not enough to make me forget the fiery confrontation with Crystal. The mixed drinks of rum served a better distraction, as well as the friendly stewardesses. Life goes on.
My driver was exactly where he should be and I located him with ease. I spotted him holding the "Mr. Carpenter" sign in bold letters, and I was happy to leave the crowds of bustling travelers behind. We didn't talk much, partly because of the man's heavy accent, his sentences fragmented as he gestured furiously with his hands. May have been from Brazil, but I wasn't positive.
The scenery was just as I had remembered. The Florida landscape never fails to captivate my emotions. It's like a different world than lower New York where I was born and raised, and still remain. The sun was a blazing sphere of orange radiance, parching the uncaring inhabitants below. We were in the sluggish days of late summer, the heat sweltering on that Friday afternoon when I arrived. As we drove on, I noticed a distancing from populated areas, and wondered again what had made Joe take up and leave in such a brief time.
'Are we almost there yet?'
The driver looked back and smiled, mumbling something that was only partly intelligible. I just hoped he knew where he was going. After nearly an hour from the airport, we approached an upscale suburban neighborhood, with few houses, all of them built on ample estates. He halted in front of a large gate, locked by formidable iron bars that stood over ten feet high.
Stretching my arms and legs, I made my way out of the cool sedan as the driver grabbed my one large suitcase. He stood there and I thanked him, but he made no move to leave. Reaching into my wallet, I pulled out a ten which caused him to frown, and he muttered some choice words under his breath. I shrugged my shoulders and yawned, peering up at the enclosed gate. The driver peeled away, leaving me alone.
It was then that I noticed the cameras fixed to the sides of each metal post. As I scanned the area I saw that there were others positioned as far as I could see, running along the whole length of the high fencing. Was Joe in fear of something? Running from someone? I held no knowledge of my friend's plight, but an ominous feeling crept over me. Maybe Joe had made some dangerous enemies in his rise to fortune, I thought. But why the move to here? This place was somewhat out of the way, but not what I would consider isolated.
He had some explaining to do, all right. The idea occurred to me that I might not want to be so quick to get involved in his troubles. No, I thought. He was my friend, and we had always been close with each other. As if in answer to my silent decision to continue, a metallic "click" sounded, and the gate opened from remote control, the hinges squeaking as they parted. When they were fully apart, I walked onto a paved lane leading through a grassway, brooding trees edging the path. I saw the house looming in the distance, but it sat several hundred yards away.
Sweating and curious, I trudged down the road and felt the full glare of the sun as it found several wide openings through the branches overhead. I went on for a few minutes, admiring the articulate landscaping that accented the property. Lofty palm trees, exotic grasses, even a koi pond, complete with cascading falls and tropical plants. Good taste, Joe, I thought. I was nearly upon the house when a strange noise reached my ears.
A loud zap, as if from a large bug light.
Every hair on my body felt charged, a static feeling but much more unpleasant. Looking up in fright, I saw an intense display of lightning in the sky overhead. No clouds were in sight - never had I seen such a thing before. Flashes of blue and gray crackled within a small area of the sky, and I shuddered at the crackle of energy that I felt, fearing for a moment that I'd been struck by a bolt of lightning.
And then the oddest thing happened. As I stared upwards, the region of disturbance vanished. It disappeared, leaving behind the fading blue of the heavens. I was left there gaping, stunned by the freakish weather pattern. I knew that storms could be short and severe in this part of the hemisphere, but this was uncanny.
I shook my head in wonder. Maybe I'd just witnessed an incredible display of electrical heat energy, but I remained mystified. After pausing for a moment, I walked on towards the front entrance, as the afternoon was growing long. A great wooden door greeted me, locked with several deadbolts and bordered by additional cameras. I didn't have time to knock as the locks snapped and the door swung outwards. A middle-aged man stood there, and I wondered if the driver had left me off at the wrong address.
'Hello,' I said. 'I might be lost, but I'm looking for-'
I never finished my sentence as the sudden realization struck me. This man was Joe. He'd changed drastically in the two weeks since I had last seen him. Barely able to pass for twenty-one before, he now appeared to be well over fifty. Joe had aged decades. His eyes were creased beneath with wrinkles, dark smudges staining his cheeks. His hair was now colored a deep gray. I gasped in astonishment, and a sad look crossed his face.
'Come in, Andy. It's getting late.'
My legs moved forward in wooden motion, and I could find no words. I heard the door lock behind me and I shuffled into a large sitting room, with barred windows and a network of monitors sitting on two flat tables pushed together. Scattered around the chamber were various weapons including a sub-machine-gun, pistols, and a rifle with an electronic scope fixed to the top.
'Have a seat, Andy. I know you have a lot of questions, but I'm glad to see you.' I slumped onto a tan sofa straddling the center of the room, unable to take my eyes off Joe's face.
'What happened to you? What's wrong?' I kept shaking my head, throat dry and my stomach nauseous.
'Things have changed, Andy. Time has come looking for me, you could say.'
'In two weeks?' I gasped. 'Impossible!' Joe rubbed callused hands over the once-handsome face, trying to voice his response.
'Better have a drink first - you'll need it.' He reached over to a table filled with bottles of liquor, and poured a stiff glass of rum on the rocks for us both. I drank deeply, the liquid harsh and unforgiving.
'Are you sick? Some rare disease?'
Joe shook his head. 'No. Nothing natural about what's happened to me. It's all my fault, though. I've brought it on myself.'
Uncomprehending, I set my drink down and felt such a helpless pity for my friend. He was a ruined man.
'I guess you could say that I'm finally paying the price for my success. You see, my good fortune has come to a finish. An ending that I was too blind or stupid to admit even existed.' One of the computer screens flashed, and Joe sprang up to check the settings. He frowned suspiciously, then nodded to himself.
'Just going into infra-red mode.' He appeared satisfied and rejoined me on the sofa.
'I know how bizarre this all must seem - and it is. But I don't have a lot of time to spare, so I'll be as short as possible.' I shifted my gaze, reluctant to stare into the pained eyes.
'Andy, I haven't lived a normal life, obviously. It probably seemed, what should I say, charmed? Well, it has been. All the money, health, good luck. People think I have a secret to it all. Sorcery, occult maybe? I do.' Joe's breathing grew heavy, and my heart was filled with trepidation. What diabolical confession was he about to reveal?
'But not what you think.' His face drew closer.
'Many years ago, I discovered a way to tap into resources that exist around us. Unseen, but there nonetheless. Do you remember the car accident I suffered my freshman year in college? The concussion?'
I nodded. Joe had been in a deadly collision. An oncoming car swerved into his lane, driven by a career alcoholic who should never have been allowed to get behind the wheel that terrible night. The accident had been fatal to the forty-year old drunk, and Joe was hospitalized with a severe concussion.
'That man didn't die from the accident.' I looked at Joe in shock, dreading the insinuation. 'What do you mean?' I gushed, fearing something sinister.
'Something changed in me that night. I lay there in a pool of my own blood, life slipping away from me. The other driver got out of the car, hardly a scratch on him. The bastard was going to walk away.'
The fire in Joe's pupils was ghastly.
'My consciousness was fading, and there wasn't much time left. I felt such an incredible despair, the unfairness of it all. He was uninjured, myself in agony. Consumed with hatred, my passion unlocked a hidden chamber in my mind somehow. He was a vessel filled with life, vitality. I reached into him. Not physically, but on a different level of awareness.'
Joe raised himself up, one hand clenched into a tight fist.
'I stole his strength! His energy - his will to live. Left my pain and injuries behind. I didn't yet know how I had managed this incredible act, but it came instinctively - bridging the gaps of physical and mental limitation. The blow to my head opened up some area of psychic ability that man has only dreamed about.'
My stomach groaned and I held my breath at the fantastic tale. It was outrageous, and I felt alarm for Joe's sanity along with his state of health.
'I had tapped into the aura of energy that surrounds all life. The invisible cloak of thriving sustenance. The power.'
Joe dropped his head, looking exhausted and beaten.
'It has shielded me from aging. At times enabling me with limited clairvoyance, prescience. And now, after years of taking and using, the balance has shifted. I'm not the only one who uses this energy of life.'
His were haunted - twin pinpricks of utter terror.
'There are others who tap into these energies besides myself. I became greedy, taking too much in my lust for youth and desire for wealth. Revealed myself to creatures that are not of this world.'
His hands trembled.
'How can you know this?' I said. 'Even if you do have the ability that you claim. What makes you believe there is some being from somewhere else, watching you?'
Joe lowered his voice, eyes slashing nervously as if the walls were predatory beasts. 'They sense me. Even now, they are searching. I am being hunted. This isn't the mad ravings of an insane person, Andy. I've seen them.'
Spider-chills crawled along my neck and downwards. It was shocking, but Joe did not waver - he seemed totally convinced, or completely mad, I added. Although the degradation of his body was indisputable, I couldn't believe his ramblings.
'Andy, for the love of everything, I wish it weren't true. They came for me two weeks ago. In my house.'
Outside, night had fallen. The house was comfortable within the artificially-controlled environment, but his story made me shiver in contemplation.
'Tracker, my beautiful shepherd.' His dog was well-known to me. Solid brown and muscular, friendly to a select few like myself.
'He was agitated by something. I sat in the kitchen as he yelped outside near the pool. Barking furiously, I thought there was an intruder in the yard. I banged on the window, and watched as the air shimmered. And then, they appeared.'
Joe was overcome with fright, his hands trembling. I finished the last swallow from my drink and wished I had never come to Florida.
'Three creatures - living monsters. Before my eyes they attacked Tracker with such savagery that I almost collapsed right there. Small bodies, thin pointed heads and limbs. Suction cups on the ends of their hands. In seconds the dog was a husk of dried bones. He was consumed.'
Joe stared with vacant eyes at the monitors.
'They waited there for a moment, and then looked at the house. At me.' My heart thundered, and he continued.
'I was too stunned to move. When they began to stir, they seemed to fade away. They became transparent, and the air was electrified. I could feel the energy from inside the house.'
Joe turned his back turned from me, unaware that I slowly stood up.
'A vortex of lightning, small but powerful. The creatures were drawn into it, and crossed back to wherever they came from. And I dare not tap into it again, for fear of bringing them into our world. That is why-'
Joe looked towards me and stopped, scorching me with his stricken gaze..
'Andy, what is it! What do you know?' He ran over to me, grabbing my shirt.
'Outside, on my way up to the house,' I stammered. 'Streaks of colored lightning - there wasn't a cloud in the sky.' My words were nails of terror, driving into Joe's chest.
'Oh no - no. They're here. Found me already. I've got to leave!' He launched himself to the monitors, frantically scanning each one.
I looked out the enclosed windows, feeling no comfort in their iron fastenings. Fantastic as his story was, my eyes had glimpsed the energy vortex before I'd heard him speak. The shadows in the house loomed menacingly around us.
'I have the garage control, just need to grab my wallet and the rifle, although I'm not sure if these things can be hurt by normal means. You can take the convertible, and drive as far away as you can. Wanted to make you my estate executor, but I'll have to get in touch with you when I'm out of the country. That's my next move.'
Joe shouldered the rifle, stopping dead in his tracks. We both felt a tingle in the air around us, heavy with static. The dreaded words seeped from his lips, poisoning my heart. 'They're here-'
He whimpered like a terrified child, and I felt numb. This wasn't happening. Could not be happening.
'Go! The garage!'
Joe bolted through the house and I blindly followed him. We ran through the dining area but I ignored everything except the back of Joe's head. Somewhere behind us a loud zap sounded and I knew that his story was a nightmare which defied rationalization. Joe stumbled into the kitchen and I was a step behind him.
'This way,' he gasped, moving down a hallway branching off from the side of the kitchen. Joe reached a closed door and paused to enter a code into an alarm box.
'Damn.' He swore, his fingers pressing the keys frantically. I looked back and saw nothing, but this failed to ease my worries. Something had entered the house. Every fiber of my body felt electrified, pulsing with irritation. The hunters had crossed over into our world.
The door opened and Joe burst through. I was on his heels as he fumbled for the light switch. Three vehicles sat inside the garage - a two-door convertible, a large sedan, and Joe's pickup.
'Here,' he said, flipping me a set of keys which hung from the wall. 'They're not after you, but get as far away as possible. I'll call you when I can.'
'Where will you go?' I asked, making for the small sports car.
'Airport, out of this country, as far away from those monsters as possible.' He was a desperate and hunted man. Joe sprang into the truck and I hastily tried the convertible. He pressed a master button as all three garage doors opened simultaneously.
'Good luck,' I yelled, but the engines drowned out my cry. Joe floored the truck and was screeching out already. At this point I was torn between distancing myself and staying with my friend at the same time. One thing I did know, and that was to get the hell out of that place as fast as possible. I shifted the small car into gear and drove out, forgetting even to put my lights on. I could see Joe in the truck, racing toward the front gate.
Despite his head start, I caught up to him as he stopped before the entrance. The gates were still shut and I waited behind him, looking back at the house for any sign of pursuit. There was none. Several tense moments passed and the gates remained closed. Joe stepped out of the truck and hurried towards me.
'The master control isn't working, I've got to crash through. If those things catch me-'
He didn't need to finish. Nodding, I was eager to escape the property. And Florida. The whole damn world, for that matter.
Joe turned around and froze. The area directly above the gate erupted with energy. Flashes of electricity arced within a small but incredibly condensed spot. A spectrum of brilliant colors twirled into a tight vortex, charging the air with its growing strength. 'Too late!' Joe hesitated in front of the convertible as we looked on at the fantastic display.
The hideous noise breached the night as the very fabric of all we knew to be real was torn apart, laid bare to unknown realms of existence. The creatures had tracked him down, drawn to his presence, and hungered for his life. He had nowhere to run, and stood in mute fascination. As I watched in horror, a transparent mist coalesced and several forms moved inside, becoming more substantial. Had I attempted to imagine such demons, I would have failed miserably.
Monstrous figures appeared, small but grotesque. Weaponless and cornered, an animal cry of terror pierced the darkness and Joe met the consequence of his fortuitous life. The creatures sprang on his cowering body with a savagery that left me gaping. That scene would be imprinted on my mind permanently, etched with horrific detail into the darkest regions of my humanity. Three or four of them latched onto Joe and in seconds he'd become a lifeless skeleton - a lingering scream hovering in the air, burrowing into my mind, engraved forever in my blackest fantasies. They were parasites to a victim host, unrelenting demons from another dimension, and I saw them more as nightmare shadows than living creatures. His clothes and skin were burned away, leaving behind a pile of smoking bones. If they had come after me, I would have been finished. Fortune was on my side that night as they ravished my friend and disappeared quickly, satiated by finding their quarry at last.
I cannot begin to comprehend the world they came from, or what defined their existence, but ever after I realized that we share the universe with beings that dwell beyond our frame of reference, above our science and superstition, and lurk at the fringe of our darkest dreams.
We can stretch out our hands and see the dimensions and limitations, but what lies further on remains outside the boundaries that we call familiar, and skepticism is merely another name for ignorance of the unknown.
(C) Paul Melniczek 2001
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.