The House in Town Salem

The House in Town Salem

A Story by Blizzy Fox
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Horror Short Story (Five Chapters, 10k words) Jacob Butler, a quiet accountant living in the bustling metropolis that is Diamond City, goes missing. His former close friend, Henry William, teams up w

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Chapter 1

 

Jacob stood unflinchingly in the middle of an empty street, head raised in the blistering cold, fist clenched. His eyes were fixed on the colossal brown wooden door barring him from the patient host, who skulked inside what was ostensibly a derelict house. His feet sank deeper into the snow, touching the slick asphalt, his body teetering in the chill wind. For a fleeting second, Jacob was mesmerized by the silence, transfixed by the stark colors in a world of immaculate white. The strings that tethered this stricken body to the puppeteer were pulled terse, and the transient thoughts that coursed through his turbulent mind were no more than his final will, his dying wish.

 

It was a scene he saw a long time ago, the cursed memories of which had since been the progenitor of innumerable nightmares, not to mention a multitude of sleepless nights. To live in such constant agony, and to be hemmed in by the unwavering fears of a stricken past, had taken a great toll on both his corporeal body and his mental state. Such attrition had its silver lining, however, for all he could feel at that very moment was indifference. He was face to face with what he had been exposed to for so long, and his consternation was all but subdued. No living soul, if cursed with the secrets Jacob was privy to, could stay sane upon this lurid sight.

 

Houses lined both sides of the street. He stood before one that was no different from the rest, flaunting its fancy gothic design as it huddled tightly in the frigid cold, tucked away in the quietude of the forlorn expanse. There was a dearth of human warmth in the surroundings. After all, this was the place shunned from human civilization, eschewed by the bustling prosperity of the northern cities. The dilapidated town was a far cry from the busy metropolis he knew from his childhood. On his way to his destination, he could recognize a few vague features of his former hometown from the harrowing sights; they did not invoke any sense of familiarity, nor a tinge of nostalgia, but rather the wistful melancholy of a shattered visage.

 

His final destination nestled submissively before his very eyes. The toils and travails that brought him here were irrelevant, for he was only moments away from realizing the stuff of dreams. Finally, he could take solace in the peace, where all his yearning comes to rest. Finally, he could patch up the holes of his past, to speak to her, and to join the ranks of his people. Finally, he could return home, to put a line to all those conflicting thoughts and mixed emotions that crushed his soul.

 

Jacob took a deep breath and walked up the stately stairs. The contours of the house were writhing and squirming, its walls melting and cracks melding. It was resplendent. The unassuming edifice slowly aligned itself to the images he envisioned in his wildest reveries, a colossal brute with flashing teeth and flying claws, eager to break away from its foundation and lash towards him with its mesomorphic build of ancient concrete. They were the old horrors that haunted him, and yet in such pristine beauty it presented itself, in such glamorous tangible form it was manifested, he was slowly infatuated. The affability of the host defied his expectations. He was eager to go, knowing full well that he was helplessly ensnared, at the mercy of his very own nightmares.

 

Jacob fell deeper into the maelstrom of ethereal images. The warmth that effused through the door cracks took the load off his haggard legs, along with his doubts and reluctance. His body was an empty shell housing only scant memories of the detour that he took - ten years’ worth of life. Flashbacks played in his head, reminding him of the good days, now a lifetime away.

 

The door opened its gaping mouth, unleashing the all-encompassing darkness that roiled in its bowels. He could see the caricature of a familiar figure, the sight of which was chiefly carried away by the torrents of time, the rest he actively strived to forget. There she stood in the waiting. She did not age at all, her splendid beauty still breathtaking to behold. It was like the ten years never happened. His affections endured through time, along with the scanty vestiges of their time together, soon to engender more in the future.

 

His eyes welled up. He spoke her name as he strained to curb his emotions.

 

"Amelie."

 

The words stroked his tongue and caressed his lips. He whispered them when he left his apartment. He whispered them when he drove down south. He whispered them when he entered the town. As the labored breathing subsided, the echoes of which traveled the length of the barren landscape, raising somnolent spirits from the snow, calling slumbering sentinels to their feet; still it articulated the word, loud and clear, as if there was an enduring quality, a timeless beauty that touches the callous heart and conquers death itself. It was the mark of a man, his destiny, his last words, manifested in the form of a most euphonious melody.

 

The door closed upon itself, restoring tranquility to the terrene town. The nightmare that accosted him for a decade kissed him on his cheeks, confessing of her love.

 

Chapter 2

 

Henry Williams was a senior manager working for a big business firm in Diamond City. There weren't a lot of corporations of such size and scale even for a place many foreigners regarded as the Star of the North, and yet through sheer dedication and hard work, Henry won the hearts of his superior and climbed up the ladder. Humility and kindness were the defining traits of his character, and they made him an incredibly popular figure in the community, albeit being a man of few words and a constant lurker in every party he was invited to. Still, the community in Diamond City was more than welcome for a character like him. He owned a luxurious house by the cliff, boasting an incredible sea view. It was located in the affluent Eastern district about a mile away from his office. Despite being single, Henry relished in the many close friendships he made with people from work and his neighborhood. It was a life craved by many. Henry knew that to be true, and he did not ask for more.

 

One slow Thursday morning, as Henry was sipping his morning coffee, he read about Jacob Butler's disappearance on the news. It was utterly shocking to him, for not only was Jacob a member of his business firm, they were also close friends, or at least they used to be. Henry immediately tried contacting Jacob, but he drew a blank. Jacob's wife, Mrs. Emily Butler, sobbing as she answered his call, informed Henry of the police at their house. She hung up abruptly. Henry was distraught as he left for work early. When he arrived at the office, he immediately visited Jacob Butler's cubicle, which was located at the far end. It was where they used to chat during lunch breaks. Its appearance did not deviate much from his memory - opened folders, crumpled paper, pencil scribbles, a broken monitor, a precariously dangling lamp, all before a slanted wooden chair, even though he had not been there for a long time. Henry returned to his own room. He sat in his chair, deep in contemplation and listening to the muffled conversations outside. There was a knock on the door. His assistant informed him of the police at the entrance. Before his superiors and coworkers could join the fray, Henry quickly went out to greet them with alacrity. He invited them to his room, and ordered his assistant to procure them with delicious green tea. They declined, but thanked him for his hospitality. Questions were asked regarding Jacob. Henry was sure that no one else in this company could provide as much relevant information about a man as reticent as Jacob Butler, so he was keen to tell his story to the police. Jacob joined the company five years ago, applying for the position as an assistant. At first, Henry was dubious of the mysterious young man who seemed to come out of nowhere, but quickly felt sympathy for the bad shape he was in. He learned that Jacob had just moved into the city, and he was finding a way to fit in. Henry immediately lent him a helping hand, by endorsing his job application and by finding him a proper place to live. He gave him basic financial support for daily necessities, and told him the ins and outs of this new world. Jacob's condition gradually improved and gained familiarity with his surroundings. Jacob was a hard worker like Henry, and an even faster learner. He quickly grew into his job and received praise for his work efficiency. In a matter of months, the company found it fit to promote him to a formal accountant, entrusting him with the company finances. Although Jacob became financially independent and no longer required Henry's aid, the two remained close friends for a few years. Jacob reciprocated Henry's magnanimity by allowing him into his quiet life, often inviting him to his tiny apartment in the western district for a quick chat, or a heartfelt conversation that lasted the night. Their topics spanned from the gleeful to the downhearted, from the humorous to the austere, from the intimate to the macabre. Henry was fascinated by his personality, and he indulged in his vivid imagination, especially his nightmares. Jacob lived in a constant state of depression, and his cheerful countenance belied his stricken soul. Henry tried his best to assuage his sadness, albeit in vain, and he stopped after realizing it was not in Jacob's interest to be helped, but rather to be understood.

 

When Jacob got married, Henry was the only person that attended his wedding, a nice private occasion for which Jacob had scrimped a year's worth of wages to pay. Henry canceled all his appointments and gatherings for a full day at church. Mrs. Butler was a glamorous lady whom Jacob met at a random bar. She did not mind Jacob's lowly status and his lack of social ties, and it was perhaps why Jacob loved her so much. Three years had gone by since that day. Their marriage was not free of conflicts and arguments, and Henry could tell it from Jacob's voice. However, he also assumed that they could solve their problems within themselves, for they were always transparent with each other, a quality lacking in most marriages.

 

Over the past year, Henry became a busier man, while Jacob had other business to care for, and a wife to tend to. They no longer talked as often as before, and they would go on long periods without seeing each other. While they still greeted each other courteously when bumping into each other in the office, Jacob would refrain from talking about his personal life. From Henry's perspective, there were never any signs of falling out, nor were there any obvious conflicts between them. Perhaps it was the reason behind the apparent coldness, he thought. All good memories taper through time; some remember them more fondly than others.

 

Jacob's backstory was shrouded in secrecy. During the first few years of their acquaintance, Henry would repeatedly try to pry about his past, and the man would turn quiet, give a blank stare, and drift into deep thought, as if Henry had inadvertently dredged up memories that should be better left buried. Henry was baffled and the mystery only goaded him to speculate more. One day, Jacob finally gave in and divulged the secret that he had long kept. They were sitting at Henry's balcony, savouring the sunset view and counting ships, when Henry asked the age old question once again.

 

"Fine, fine,” Jacob sighed. “It's worse if you keep making me think about it. I was born and raised in Town Salem. I was there for twenty years."

 

"Town Salem? I know that place. Do people still live in Town Salem? Last time I heard there was a mass exodus, and no one cared to look into it since," Henry responded, enthused.

 

"Let's just say, I urged myself not to think of it, let alone finding out."

 

"What about your family or friends? Have you ever reached out to them..."

 

Jacob gestured to stop. Quite uncommon for his friend to end a conversation abruptly, but he closed his eyes, and his face was grim. With respect, Henry obliged.

 

Henry was about to go on about Jacob before he was ground to a halt. The police had been sitting for three hours straight. Their throats were parched and the cold tea was tantalizing them. They had asked the necessary questions, and the rest of Jacob's story was superfluous. Their tidy notes slowly progressed into haphazard scribbles. So they asked courteously to leave, leaving Henry slightly dismayed. The police left without an inkling of Jacob's whereabouts, and nor did Henry.

 

Henry called Jacob's number several times to no avail. This left Henry rather sad, for he expected Jacob to notify him whenever he was about to do something utterly outrageous, regardless of how obdurate he was. This was almost like a running joke, a pact that they tacitly acknowledged, which seemed to have dissolved. He thought he knew the man well.

 

Henry did not do any work at all except a casual scroll through his business email. He deferred all the important work matters to the next day and left early. It was then that he decided to pay Mrs. Butler a visit in the hopes of getting more information. It had been some ten months since he last entered Jacob's apartment. He remembered arriving there in the middle of a heated argument, an embarrassing memory that all involving parties had since deemed terribly awkward and slightly hilarious.

 

Upon arriving at the Butler apartment, Henry immediately recognized the scent of Earl Grey sifting out of the cracks on the wall. When Emily Butler saw his husband's old friend, her worried face took on a merry excitement. They exchanged a few words and took a seat in the living room. As Mrs. Butler stoked the fire, Henry took a sip of the succulent tea and scanned around the living room, taking note of all the broken furniture and shattered decorations that had since been partially patched up, yet nevertheless left a sense of lingering melancholy imbuing the tiny living room.

 

"What do you know, Mrs. Butler?" asked Henry. "Forgive me for not catching up to Jacob's condition lately, for I never seem to find the time. But for old times sake, you can put your trust in me, don't you think?"

 

"I count on you more than I count on those imbeciles dressed up in police uniforms!" said Mrs. Butler. "They asked me some basic things. I told them everything I know. Five minutes later they stood up, told me that they would do their darndest, and left in a hurry. Yes, they are sending search parties, but my expectations are as low as their professionalism."

 

"We can try to solve this before the police do," said Henry, nodding. "Did he tell you anything before he left, and what was he doing the last time you saw him?"

 

Mrs. Butler shook her head.

 

"It has been three days. The company called me a few times reporting his absence. I didn't give much thought into it because he's always one to throw a fit, so I thought it was normal behavior. I saw him the night he left, but I didn't talk to him. There is a cold war between us two, and it has been that way for almost two weeks now. "

 

"I thought you two made up ages ago," Henry responded.

 

"We did, but it can never be all sunshine and rainbows; how could it be? You know who that person was, Henry, but you are not up to date with what he has become. He is even worse than before, his depression, or if I say the demons in his head. He is hiding more than he needs to. I have a great capacity for tolerance, but I cannot stand the sporadic fits that he throws, and how he magically conjures problems out of thin air, all while he drags me deeper into his insanity by the day."

 

"He didn't contact us both," Henry mused, stroking his chin. "I find it uncanny that he puts us out of the loop. You would assume it is some furtive matter, but what else that we shouldn’t know about? What should drag him into such obscurity? What did this insanity bring him? Beats me, Mrs. Butler. Beats me."

 

He was not out to kill himself, Henry was fairly certain of that. Jacob had been on the brink of suicide several times. Henry knew it to be true that Jacob was never secretive about any of his ultimately botched attempts. Every time he tried it, he would at least let Henry come to him and share a moment together. They would talk for hours on top of a random skyscraper in the city center. They would laugh it out, setting aside whatever fatalistic thoughts that simmered under the surface. However, those conversations were always met with the same ending.

 

"I almost got distracted," Jacob would chuckle as he stood up from the ledge, "You're right, Henry. I almost let the trivialities of this city distract me. It would be stupid that I made it this far and perish in a place that was marked with so much joy and happiness. If I shall die, I shall not die here. My body belongs somewhere else, somewhere that at the very least deserves it."

 

Jacob's words had baffled Henry for the longest time. It is common for a suicidal person to realize he is not in the right mood, or it is not the right time, or there are still things to live for. It is not common, however, that a suicidal person fancies the idea of dying somewhere more "deserving". However miserable he feels, an unceremonious plunge down a random hundred feet tall building in the western district of Diamond City just wouldn't do, as if there was a legacy to build, an obligation to fulfill, a memory to live down. 

 

Was he always tentative about embracing death, or was it the opposite?

 

The two pondered in silence. Suddenly Mrs. Butler raised her eyebrows and jolted forwards from her seat.

 

"Henry," she asked. "What did Jacob tell you about that woman?"

 

Henry was startled. He gave Mrs. Butler a nervous glance, meeting her stern eyes.

 

"What's with a woman?" Henry muttered under his breath.

 

"Don't you play me as a fool! Amelie. You must know that name, for I know my husband, and I know he has told you all about her. You don't expect your dear friend can keep the secret for the entire duration of his marriage, do you? "

 

Henry placed his hands on his head. He gave a faint smile. How folly he is to assume they can keep it away from Emily forever! 

 

"Don't be silly now, Henry," Mrs. Butler continued. "I don't mind at all, or I can pretend not to care. That woman may be his old flame, but I am his wife, and I do not fear her a single bit. Now my husband is missing, and he did not tell me where he went. I'm half certain he is on his way to find her, being so disgruntled with his current marriage. Does that make any sense to you, Henry?"

 

Henry stared at Mrs. Butler. She was simpering, as if gloating over her own intelligence. He nodded amiably.

 

"With this out of the way, I also think he had divulged to you more than what I could fish out of his cot of secrets. Tell me. Does that name lead us anywhere in this confusing enigma?"

 

"You speak in codes, Mrs. Butler," responded Henry.

 

"I'm as frank as I can be, Henry," Mrs. Butler bickered. "Let's say you tell me, at the spot, where that old crush of his lives, so we can just get on with it and finish what would likely take the police eons to accomplish, shall we? If you didn't want more of what you saw last time, which I must admit did not age well, I can go by myself, although your company would be very welcome."

 

Henry chuckled. He was looking at the crack on the concrete wall that was tearing out of the wedding portrait and towards the edges of the hearth. The embers crackled and the fire whimpered. The pale white sky swirled into a seamless amalgamation of flaming red and orange, smoldering below the flaming clouds, scintillating behind the setting sun.

 

Henry was always eager to offer help. Many years had passed since he first offered Jacob his assistance, and he almost thought he would never live to see the day Jacob makes another request. The circumstances were impossible to predict, of course. but he always knew that no matter what, he would never turn a blind eye to someone who had held such a special place in his heart. Henry sighed and looked at Mrs. Butler, whose confident facade meticulously hid her growing sense of desperation and concern.

 

"Are you sure you don't want police involvement?"

 

"I want my husband back as soon as possible."

 

"Then surely you are inclined to wait until morning?"

 

Mrs. Butler gave him a look of disapproval, and hastily grabbed her handbag from the sofa. 

 

"We set off at dusk. We return by dawn."

  

Chapter 3

 

"Amelie!" Jacob shouted. The streets of Town Salem ran like a maze, and constant heed was imperative upon treading each narrow and cluttered lane, for the hapless were bound to get lost. They ventured far out of their neighborhood and into the unfamiliar waters of the southern city fringes. Jacob had given up groping his way home, so his only task left was to find Amelie, who had once again run off on her own, chuckling as she did. She made what should have been a simple walk down town ten folds more complicated by turning it into a frantic game of hide-and-seek. Although Jacob had played such games bountiful times before, especially with Amelie, he would rather not be embroiled in one today. Amelie should know that he was physically drained, after witnessing him spending an entire morning doing house chores by looking up through his bedroom window. Jacob could boil it down to some sort of retribution act, the reason behind which he could not wrap his head around.

 

"What is she onto this time?" Jacob grunted as he jostled through the crowd. He crossed the town hall and entered the fountain plaza where the southern town was at its least claustrophobic. As he was catching his breath, he heard the bell chime from the top of the southern tower, the tallest artifact ofTown Salem. There was a huge line in front of the cathedral, ten-folds that of the northern church he attends. The low-lying fog dissipated, and the grandiose mansion poked its head from the masquerade, skulking behind what he assumed was the town's parliament hall. People were gathering at the empty spaces; some were sitting by the fountain, resting; some were feeding the loitering mongrels with leftover meat; some were standing still on their feet, watching as a flock of pigeons circled around their heads, casting shadows of many changing patterns.

 

Jacob barely ever visited southern Town Salem. When he was young, he considered this place to be the stuff of legends, a mystical domain where countless benign spirits might as well live. To visit a place he thought he knew was enticing to him, even though at that very moment he could feel nothing but dread and desperation.

 

Jacob did not stay for long. He cleared his throat and shouted her name again as he stumbled down another random street.

 

Jacob and Amelie had been playmates for the longest time. They met each other at school when they were around the age of nine. Although everyone at their age was never shy to make new acquaintances, he knew that Amelie was no ordinary friend, and the feeling was mutual. They would spend the entire weekend in each other's house and play all sorts of fun games and activities. Their other friends were envious of their special connection, but some deemed their friendship a beacon of light in a melancholy town. Now at the age of fifteen, the beacon continued to shine as very bright as ever before.

 

Jacob was very fond of Amelie, but in his eyes, she was an incredible friend, not a love interest, despite his teenage friends telling him otherwise. Who are they to tell him how he feels? Jacob denied all speculations. From Jacob's perspective, there are two kinds of girls in this world, those that make Jacob fall in love with, and those that make him laugh, cry, rage, fear, and fret over their safety. Amelie unequivocally belongs to the latter.

 

This is what he loved about Amelie, the kaleidoscope of emotions she evoked in him whenever she was in his company. Unlike those saccharine girls who threw themselves after him, Amelie was not afraid to throw a fit, and she was not afraid to give him a good scare. He loved the extent to which she would go to elicit a funny response from him, and he loved being the recipient. He loved her character. He loved her energy. He loved her aura. He loved her, except he didn't really.

 

Darkness fell. Streetlights illuminated the tenebrific world of restless vehicles and busy men, the gears of Town Salem still grinding and growling deep into the night. Jacob perked his ears, straining to pick up any faint hints of a female voice. The sound of the metropolis was deafening. He gravitated towards relative silence, be it brooding in the darkest dirtiest alleyways, lumbering as he carried his weary vessel farther to the town fringes. He found himself in a lonely street. The sign displayed the name. Avery Street. A figure crept into view, and to his utter delight and relief, he recognized the embroidered sweater, the ripped jeans, the blonde hair.

 

"Okay," Jacob gave a sigh of relief as he limped towards her. "You've got some explaining to do."

 

"How are you not dead yet?" the girl responded, her arms against her hips. "I would have gone further had I known you were such a fighter."

 

"At least you should tell me what I've done, so we can settle like civilised people."

 

"Well, are you really that stupid? It's hidden in plain sight."

 

 She started walking down the street, with Jacob trailing a few steps behind her. 

 

"Please enlighten me," said Jacob incredulously. 

 

Amelie did not answer. She waited a few seconds before turning to face him. He could see the anger simmering in her eyes. 

 

"Why did you do it? Why did you kiss her?"

 

Oh, so that's the crux of the problem, said Jacob to himself. 

 

Two days ago, he was caught kissing a girl in the school library during a break. The news spread like wildfire. It must have bothered a lot of people, he reckoned, mostly people he didn't care to know, especially girls with whom he unwittingly shared passing acquaintances with. What bothers him? The gossip that he played no part in? The enmity that he cared not to quell? The broken hearts that he was not inclined to rejuvenate? The triviality of explanations in the wake of a singular act! He intended to let them tell the truth amongst themselves. He opted not to speak, such that silence convinces and speaks for him.

 

What Jacob could not imagine was that Amelie, out of all the people, would pay heed to his affairs with a random girl in town. 

 

"I guess an apology would be appropriate, but rather unnecessary," said Jacob slowly. "I did not think it would bother you at all, and I still don't. I thought it was commonplace, and I don't need to explain..." 

 

"You shouldn't just go off with somebody else," said Amelie, her voice cracking. "You just shouldn't."

 

"Why?"

 

Amelie refrained from answering, for she was on the verge of tears. As they proceeded down the street, Jacob quietly waited for her response, eyeing her curiously.

 

They were halfway through when Amelie stopped. She looked at the house to her right.

 

"What's the matter?" asked Jacob. He scanned the vicinity. There was not a single soul on the street. The ambient noise of the town began to die down, leaving only the shuffling of fallen leaves as the wind grated them along the black asphalt. The air was cold and tense, a far cry from the snugness, warmth, and fervor that defined the northern neighborhood that Jacob was accustomed to.

 

Amelie continued to stare unflinchingly at the house. A flight of stairs, around six steps, led up to a single brown wooden door. The house itself was nothing special, a masonry wall painted white, with touches of flashing red on its features. Jacob had seen similar designs near his residence, and every house on the street looked more or less the same. The door, however, was rather oversized for a house of such unassuming scale. It felt incongruent; the surface too polished, the doorknob too immaculate, the carvings too fancy. All evidence pointed to the house being unoccupied, for the windows were blocked with planks, the chimney sealed with concrete, the verandah layered with dust. The white paint was shedding off, revealing a plethora of cracks and forming irregular patches outlined with mold. It was not a pretty sight to behold, and in normal circumstances, it does not entice the ordinary pedestrian.

 

"I heard a voice in my head," said Amelie. "It spoke to me."

 

"Are you sure it's not just the wind?"

 

The sentence sounded better in his head. He came off as frivolous, but he was not joking, for he knew Amelie was in no mood for that.

 

"We should go," Jacob spoke again. "It's getting late, and we still need to find our way home. This place is giving me the creeps."

 

"I'm not scared because you are here with me. And yet, you are scared and you are asking me to feel scared as well. What does that make me?"

 

"Apparently, it does not change you a bit."

 

"Exactly. I am learning not to care."

 

Amelie started up the stairs. Jacob felt anxious and worried, for the looming night, for the imminent homebound search, and most of all, for her rogue friend who was still determined to make him mad. The words left him empty and gutted, but he could not find the words to respond. He stared hopelessly at the back of her childhood friend as she ascended with no intent to stop.

 

"I'm sorry," Jacob shouted. "Is that what you want to hear? Had I known it would make you angry and jealous, I would have chosen not to do it."

 

"Jealous?" Amelie turned; her gaze interlocked with Jacob’s. He could see the searing fury flashing, carrying with it a tinge of sadness, the enduring agony of a betrayal. "There is no jealousy involved, Jacob. There is only rage, and the strong desire to consciously wrap my fingers around her neck and impetuously tear the pulsating vessels off her flesh, to enthusiastically savor the taste of blood dripping from my palm as she choked in it. Yes, it is easy to forgive, but what good is a world where anything is solved by forgiveness, a mere excuse for the person to suffer from more pain?"

 

She pulled away from his eyes and turned to face the door. She raised a fist and gave it a resounding knock.

 

The door blasted open. A powerful gust surged out of the darkness and into the open. Jacob barely managed to stay on his feet. He crouched over, raising an arm to cover his face. A brutal force grabbed and tugged against him, and a horrid stench of rotten flesh and mold assailed his senses. He gasped for air, but all he did was take in more of that thick scent, which was starting to creep up to his head. He blanked out. Reality had pulled the curtains on him, and he did not know if the world itself had turned dark, or if he was blinded by the intense sensations shivering down his nerves. When the pain abated, he came to his senses and blinked franticall. Everything seemed to have returned to normal. Houses around him sat solemnly at their respective spots. Street lights were turned on, and the moon was sidling up the night sky. It was the street as it was a couple seconds, or a couple hours ago. The door in front of him was now closed. Jacob looked around. Amelie was nowhere to be seen.

 

"Amelie!" Jacob shouted her name once again. He ran towards the door and looked through the peephole. He could not see anything. It was too dark inside. It was a world untouched by the fervid warmth of sunlight.

 

Someone let out a piercing shriek. Jacob could recognize Amelie's timbre, although the sound itself was drastically different. It was low and croaking, carrying no resemblance of a teenage female's voice. It slowly morphed into something far less human, the voice of an old toad, a stricken pig, a demented cow, until it finally settled on what was incomparable to any earthly being, be it the crying of an angel, or the choking of a demon, or the cooing of a god.

 

Jacob could parse, as he froze at the spot, the clear articulation of distinct words, spoken in a language he could barely comprehend.

 

"Come here, Jacob."

 

Amelie's face appeared through the view of the peephole. She was no longer the same, and a certain corruption had taken on her countenance. Her skin was peeled off, revealing beneath her a layer of molding blackness. Her eyes were replaced by bottomless holes. Her nose was reduced to bare nostrils, and her teeth were churned into charcoal. The only recognizable feature on that festering amalgamation was the hair, which still retained part of that golden hue, albeit not for long.

 

It was too much of a sight for Jacob to take in. He scampered out of the street with a scream and bolted towards the crowds from which he came from. Southern Town Salem never felt safer.

 

Jacob did not speak a single word to the police the day after Amelie's disappearance. No one, including his family and friends, could pry open his tightly sealed mouth. Thus, the inexplicable case was never solved, and the police could do nothing to console the weeping parents of the girl. Jacob spent the next three years of his teenage life in a constant state of apprehension and alert. He grew quiet, as if he had lost a part of his soul that fateful day, and his friends could do nothing to help. Jacob entered his adulthood as a broken human being. He moved out of his family apartment and lived all by himself at the further north of Town Salem, a dirty and crowded area marked by vagrants and former criminals. He subsisted for another two years selling newspapers. One day, he saw on the front page something he had long dreaded - missing people cases at southern Town Salem, growing by the day. He read it in detail, and without hesitation threw the paper into the gutters, took every last bit of his savings, and set off to the far north. No one understood why he proceeded with what came off as a rash decision to many, for it was generally easier to make a living in Town Salem than in the northern cities. They didn't know Jacob. He might have lost his voice, and perhaps his sanity with it, but he did not lose his wits.

 

The people in Diamond City did not care much about Town Salem. Both places were after all rather similar, in that they were bustling with urban activity. Jacob was glad that Diamond City was unmolested by the terrors brooding in his hometown. He could only imagine what it looked like back at home, and what had become of his hapless family and friends, along with the people he sacrificed by not giving them warning. He thought about them, and he thought of Amelie. He tried to forget the person he knew so well, for that final look of hers threatened to consume him. As the years went by, however, the nightmares were too prevalent that they failed to pester him anymore, while other memories were distilled out, putting the same person under a different light, which brought him new sensibilities he never felt in the past.

 

Jacob knew that his serendipity would not last a lifetime. It was fate that binds both the man and his hometown, and one day he was obliged to return to the loving embrace of Town Salem, although it took him some years to understand why he should.

 

Chapter 4

 

"This is not what I expected," Mrs. Butler groaned as she circumvented a roadblock barricading the path. Henry parked the car outside the fringes of Town Salem, after deeming the roads inaccessible by ordinary vehicles. In the dilapidated demesne of snow and dust, the two marauders found themselves ambushed by an eerie silence, beset by a looming darkness.

 

"Town Salem was a metropolis with a decent population just like Diamond," mused Henry. "I haven't caught up with the news over the past few years, but at least there ought to be people around. Look at all these infrastructure, buildings, and amenities. This seems like a lovely place, or at least it used to be. Jacob might be poor when I first met him, but he was already accustomed to the urban hustle and bustle. Given what his hometown looks like, I know why it is the case, although there are still a lot of burning questions left unanswered."

 

The ghastly look of Town Salem posed a shock to Henry, and the sentiment was shared by Mrs. Butler. They were the only witnesses of what was apparently an uninhabited ghost town, and their flashlights shone two cones of bright light flying across all directions, illuminating the dilapidated remnants of what was considered human civilization. The snow was clean and immaculate, unmolested by human activity. The lights were off, and lamp posts reflected off the pallid moonlight. The stores were closed, and thick layers of dust veiled their front displays. The vehicles were empty, and flimsy cobwebs covered their interiors. Henry peeked inside what was presumably a convenience store at the crossroad, finding nothing but ranks of empty shelves and rows of expired products. The wind carried tiny snowflakes across the stifled air, drenched in a mélange of malodorous scents. A mongrel emerged from the shadows and scoured the lonely lanes. It stopped in the middle of the road, his fur glittering in the silver gleam, and his ears perking and swiveling. Cats gathered by the fountain, sitting on their haunches as they glanced into the distance. Behind the crumbling skyscrapers and upon precipitous slopes, distant bell towers, cathedrals and mansions coalesced into a single mass of amorphous concrete, on which as well as a hundred crows quietly perched. A pack of rats scurried by, digging into random trash cans and garbage bags that filled the dark alleyways. Tiny sprouts plunged out of gutters, wavering and whimpering in the battering cold. Nature had taken over Town Salem, retaining the last of its zest and vigor, although it could not emulate the boisterous ardour of men, and thus could not bring the city back to life.

 

"Are we sure we are heading in the right direction?" asked Mrs. Butler. She mustered up courage and strength to lumber through the snow on low heels.

 

"This is our only lead," answered Henry, glancing at the road signs on the street corners. "If I remember the address correctly, and if your husband's drunken words are to be trusted, we should be there in no time."

 

"But what if this Amelie no longer lives here?" asked Mrs. Butler. "I mean look at this place. It is as if everyone vanished into thin air."

 

"The exodus of Town Salem did not involve the entire population," explained Henry. "When people first went missing, not everyone believed it was necessary to move out. Soon the situation exacerbated, and people found it apt to consider other options and seek refuge in the northern cities, for safety's sake. However, some locals stood the ground, the steadfast descendents of generations who dwelled here all their lives and were the most loyal. In fact, they might still be living here. Look at all these cars just sitting around. Why would anyone in their right minds leave them here if they decide to move out?"

 

"Look around you, Henry. How can you even convince yourself? It is night time and not a single window is lit up. The street lights aren't even on. This town is completely dead! This is a trap!"

 

"Listen, this is not a trap," Henry strained for an answer, a word of comfort, or a logical conclusion, but he drew a blank. It was indeed uncanny that everything seemed so orderly and neat. There were no traces of warfare, nor were there signs of a disaster. Save for the slight erosion and rusting that were inevitable to any place that lacked maintenance, the town was in surprisingly orderly and neat condition. It was just another ordinary day in Town Salem, frozen in time.

 

Mrs. Butler could barely keep up with Henry's pace. She was about to stumble onto the ground when Henry came to a stop, and she gave a sigh of relief. Henry raised his flashlight over his shoulders. A bright image was cast on the black canvas of a masonry wall. The words "Avery Street" popped into view.

 

"This should be it," said Henry. He ran his flashlight down the full length of the street to his left. A residential district, quiet, empty just like the rest. "This is the place he had mentioned so many times. He did not like it very much. In fact, he dreaded it. This so happens to be where she lives."

 

"The houses are not numbered," said Mrs. Butler, as she scanned the surroundings. "How do we know which is the one we are looking for?"

 

"Jacob never told me the number," said Henry, his voice turned quiet. "He said he didn't know. At first, I thought he was trying to hide it from me, but on later occasions, he would tell me that he never learned of the number, and you do not need to know the exact house in order to find her."

 

"This is rather confusing," said Mrs. Butler in disbelief. "No, it is rather stupid. I trusted in you. I thought you could lead me to him. What have you brought us? We’re in the middle of nowhere! Why did I follow you to this festering place? What is this, a ghost hunt?" 

 

"This is what you wanted, Mrs. Butler. You are the one who asked if I know where she lives. Here it is. I don't care if this is a dead-end, I will search to the ends of the earth and find Amelie before..."

 

The sound of the word echoed through Town Salem, tumbling down the dormant streets and weary lawns, suffusing every nook and cranny. It rocked the city to its core, shaking the thick layer of snow off its callous skin, unveiling the dormant beauty that had rested for an eternity. Light poured out of every window, filling the streets with a sparkling glow as strong as a thousand suns. The cacophony of conversations filled the air, and so was the excitement of street music. Vehicle engines churned, accompanied by the cankering of machines. Town Salem, the Pearl of the South, had sprung to life, brimming with an ardent readiness as it siphoned years of pent up energy into an exuberant display of colors and sounds. They soared through the cracks of crumbling cathedrals, through the gates of grandiose mansions, through the top of tottering skyscrapers. The cathartic cry of Town Salem galvanized all, including the lowly lands of Avery Street. A swirling gust encircled the show's only audience, two fragile human beings, whose intrepid quest brought them to the unlikeliest of circumstances and the strangest of worlds. Their jaws dropped in awe at the metamorphosis that unfolded before their very eyes, while they were caged in by the powerful wind, utterly helpless and lost.

 

The doors opened themselves, and black tendrils poured out of the houses on Avery Street, wrapping around the two bodies with relentless force. Mrs. Butler screamed, but her plea for mercy was quickly stifled by the dark particles that covered her mouth. They could not move a single muscle, and with fearful eyes they could see black figures swarming out of each house and forming a circle around them. They were humanoid in shape, with heads, limbs, and torsos of human proportions. But the resemblance only goes so far, for their bodies were consisted entirely of black smoke curling and twisting over each other, and in place of the human face was a bubbling flat sphere devoid of facial features. They were different in height and breadth, each of them with their own unique characteristics. There were ones with crooked backs. There were ones with slim waists. There were ones with missing limbs. There were ones that stood half the size of others. 

 

Henry and Mrs. Butler were too shocked to think straight, and they did not realize that what stood before them were Town Salem's finest men and women, their most loyal denizens, who would defend their ancestral houses until the end of time.

 

The brown door sprang open. The crowd of black figures paved the way for the King and Queen, who strode out of the house and towards the very front of the commotion. The King's head was dipped, and despite the absence of facial expressions, conveyed the heaviness of ineffable sorrow. The Queen, however, held her head high as she scanned the two visitors in detail, posing like a tiger gushing over its succulent prey, a spider gleefully folding its slimy web. She flew towards them, her stern gaze passing through the whirl of black matter and meeting their wide-open eyes. The King cried and fell to his knees, his head drooping and touching the ground. The Queen did not care. She was adamant, blinded by roiling rage that her mind was set on unleashing.

 

"Amelie..."

 

The Queen could hear her name spoken feebly. It was not mouthed, but rather transmitted through telepathy. She glanced at the King, who was still kneeling in anguish. The sound did not come from behind, but from the front. It was Henry, conveying his desperate message through his intense gaze.

 

"Please, listen to me..."

 

You come to take him away.

 

The Queen's voice sounded in Henry's head. It was deep and grating. He could not believe it was of feminine origin.

 

"Forgive me, Amelie, for I didn't know," Henry pleaded. He tried to open his mouth, but it remained tightly shut. Speech adulterates words; they are at their purest and most pristine in the head.

 

"Jacob was a good friend of mine. He told me he would come to visit you someday. He said it for the longest time. I feel happy for you, that he finally did. I truly am. No, we do not intend to take him back. If we had known what this place is all about, we wouldn't have come. I am sorry that we disturbed you."

 

You knew.

 

"There is no lie to be found. He never told me what you have become. He said it was never important, for me to know, and for himself to remember. It was what you used to be that defined his love, the games, the conversations, the playful banter. He wished he could relive those days. Your time together was short and fleeting. I feel very sorry for you, but I can assure that he savored every bit of those memories, and your future will be as beautiful as those glorious days of the past."

 

The King let out another cry of despair. The wind continued to rage. The dizziness in Henry's head swelled into a full-blown headache. He felt he was about to faint, but he was determined to carry on, like how a person’s death throes spur the dying vessel to exceed its physical limits. Henry expended all his strength and will to speak his last words.

 

"I believed in your love, Amelie. You can forgive him for spending all these years away from home. You can forgive him for marrying another person, whom he thought he loved. You can forgive him if it meant your love could be fixed, and that you two can unite in harmony. What fault is it to mete out forgiveness again? What cost should bother you, if to forgive is so innocuous and so rewarding? What fun is it to watch everyone suffer under your wrath? What is this implacable anger that threatens to kill everyone, including the only witness to your love, the only guest to your wedding?

 

"Forgiveness does not beget pain; it is pain that begets forgiveness, and forgiveness in turn kills the pain. For the sake of Jacob, and on behalf of everyone here. Free us. Let us be."

 

After Henry conceived his final statement, his eyes closed and he fell unconscious. The wind howled, drooling ravenously, but the Queen did not make her move. She grew silent and stared at the fainted man for the longest time. The whole town waited anxiously, the old and the young, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor. The King wailed, all alone. 

 

She sighed. The tendrils slithered away from Henry's limp body and dropped him onto the wet asphalt.

 

The King raised his head, his crying stopped as he wiped tears off a tearless face. He scrambled forward and looked sadly at the man lying supine on the ground. He turned to his right and saw the Queen gliding towards the other person, her tendrils tightening around the woman's neck.

 

You must be the wife.

 

Mrs. Butler screamed at the top of her lungs. The Queen closed in on the grip and crushed the brittle bones propping up the woman's neck. Blood squirted out of the gaping wound like a torrent, and the scream was hastily stifled. The Queen pulled, and the head of Mrs. Butler was completely severed from her body. It flew through the air, adorning the white brick walls of the house with red, before landing hard on the doorstep of the Butler residence. The brown door watched gravely as a trail of blood trickled down the stairs and entered the dirty drains in the street below. The town saw every second of the tragedy. The air was solemn and the wind died down. The churning of distant engines began to quell, leaving only the King's anguished cry, and the chiming of a distant bell as the northern tower bid the night sky a long adieu.

 

The loitering spirits of Town Salem decided to leave. The show ended early, for there was no more attention to seek. The dark figures followed each other back to their houses, leaving only the King and Queen in each other's embrace, softly weeping. The lights extinguished one by one, and darkness took reign once more, the vistas of a prosperous Town Salem slowly evanescing. Snow was conjured out of thin air, covering every surface of the ground, hiding the town’s secrets with a sheet of white. The bodies of Henry and Mrs. Butler were both buried to the top, the former springing out of his snowy grave after a few minutes, gasping for air as he struggled to his feet, alive and well.

 

He stumbled around, stupefied. Once again, the woman was nowhere to be found. Once again, the houses huddled tightly on the quiet street. Once again, the man ran as fast as he could into Town Salem's welcoming arms.

 

Chapter 5

 

Henry William was lucky to abscond from what he could only assume was certain death. He drove as fast as he could into the dazzling lights of Diamond City and laid on his bed with his eyes open, still burning with the horrific sights from hours ago.

 

The Queen had many options to choose from. She could murder Henry like the cursed woman who believed herself to be Jacob's rightful wife. She could also turn him into the eternally living and welcome him into the lovely community of Town Salem, formed by the missing townsmen she hand-picked over the last decade, so that they can happily dwell together in eternal peacefulness. Lastly, she could just let him go and live what she could only assume was a scarred life, an option she refrained from choosing, but nevertheless did, because she knew it was what he wanted.

 

A new day had arrived in Diamond City. The morning sun was beaming in the cerulean sky, casting a golden shower upon the undulating waves. From Henry's balcony view, Diamond City was beautiful beyond words. He took his time taking in the vistas as he took a sip from his morning coffee. Henry had spent hours playing certain scenes of a nightmare in the back of his head. The experience reminded him of an old friend who was prone to these nightmares, and he would always tell Henry about it. Henry would listen attentively and strive to extricate him from his incessant anguish and depression. Henry smiled sadly. However he loved those moments, he knew that they were no more, for the friend had left him, carrying with him the wonderful times he loved to revisit.

 

He did not sleep at all that night, and he woke up feeling mentally and physically drained. Despite that, he was determined to go to work that day. After all, he had never, in all these years, missed a single day of work.

 

As he sat in his office and tidied up his desk, scenes of the horrific night were played again and again in his head, cluttering his mind with fear and anxiety. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The Queen had underestimated Henry. He was unlike Jacob, and although yesterday's memories were irrevocably etched into his conscience, he would carry through with sheer will and determination, just like how he dealt with everything else in life. He promised himself that no matter how powerful and overbearing the darkness is, he would constantly remind himself that in this mirthless and macabre world there is still light, be it in the past or at present, be at the ends of the worlds or at plain sight, be it in his heart or in the hearts of many strangers that await him. There is always light to be found in life, and it can conquer the darkness. 

 

So the first thing he did was logging onto his personal email account where dozens of old conversations with Jacob were archived. He decided to spend some time glossing over their contents, to reminisce about the old days, in a bid to paint over the darkness with bright colours of nostalgia. 

 

Two hours later, a group of police officers paid an unexpected visit to Henry's office. They were stymied on the Jacob Butler case and an early morning visit to the Butler apartment did not pay off; no one answered the door. Troubled and perplexed, the officers decided to return to Henry and ask him additional questions on top of the ones from yesterday. Most of them turned their backs against the idea. They were in no mood for another three hours long droning on someone they do not care to know, all while the garrulous stranger imprisons them in his office. In spite of that, they found themselves once again at the same spot as yesterday.

 

The police knocked. For the second time in the same day, the police were given the cold shoulder. It is not acceptable, so they barged into the room. They found Henry lying on his desk, face down. They checked his pulse, confirming his death, and determined that he died around thirty minutes before they arrived. His lifeless hand was still clutching onto his cup, which contained a special formula he taught his assistant to brew, Chamomile herbal tea. This time, however, he added cyanide for extra flavor.

 

The news of Henry's death took Diamond City by storm. His closest friends and neighbors from his tight-knit community were the first to mourn for his death, and his funeral was attended by many, including strangers who were inspired by the great human being Henry was. Henry was the paragon of a good manager, smart, diligent, and well-beloved. It was a tremendous loss for both his coworkers and his company, which struggled to find a replacement after his untimely death. Without his input, the police closed the case temporarily on the disappearance of Jacob Butler and his wife Emily Butler. It was not until a month later when the border registry revealed new evidence to the police, a record that showed Henry exiting Diamond City in his car with Emily Butler. The case was hence reopened as the police searched for more incriminating evidence showing that Henry was behind the possible deaths of the two victims.

 

One lazy afternoon, the investigator assigned to work on the mystery discovered an email on Henry's laptop. The email was received four days before his suicide in his own office, but it was opened and descried only thirty minutes before it, meaning that the email must have flown under his radar for four days before he happened upon it. At first, the investigator found it strange that a meticulous worker like Henry would allow such a mistake, but his bewilderment was soon cleared as he found out that the email was sent to his personal account, which he largely shunned, for all his focus was on managing his business account.

 

The investigator opened the email.

 

"Dear Henry,

 

At the moment of you reading this letter, I would be off visiting a friend, and I don't expect to return for a very long time. Before you make the move to find me like you did all those years back, which I am fairly certain you would be successful, please allow me to speak before your rash actions put you in great jeopardy. Henry, my dear friend, do not come and find me. You know that I must go back someday. You know that I can never fully turn away from the shadows, and the happy days in Diamond City are but refuge that I gratefully accepted in preparation for my timely return. I am conflicted about my decision. Life is better here, but then again, I love her, and I am bound by an obligation to return to my friends, my family, my people. Also, what better time for just that when my marriage is in shambles? This decision is better for both me and Emily than to file for a divorce, which I have sworn not to do. Anyways, it has been a decade since I saw Amelie. I did not know I loved her, but looking back, the feeling has always been love, and I miss it very much. I hope for her forgiveness, and I hope you can play a part in my voyage by wishing me luck. Henry, my dear friend, I want you to settle on the fact that I am safe and sound where I am, a place where I can seek endless joy and relief. It is also a place where your intervention will be unwelcome, so please, I implore you to abide by my words, for the sake of our friendship. Putting you in grave danger would be the least of my desires, and the worst of my nightmares.

 

Speaking of which, it has been some five years since we first met. God, how time flies. I remember the old times like they were just yesterday. Your friendship was the best thing to happen to me. I cannot put in words how thankful I am to be part of it. Over time, my life has been through many ups and downs. The vicissitudes of life have given me a headache, and coupled with the accruing thoughts and my troublesome marriage, I've grown cold to the world, and this is probably why I did not talk to you as much as we used to, for I feel like a burden. Do not take this as a showing of antipathy, or a sign of ingrate! Deep down, I cherish our friendship as much as I did five years ago. When you find yourself in doubt, please be assured that I always reminisce about the wonderful times we shared together. I hope you still remember all our best jokes, our favorite places, our funniest secrets... save for those nightmares that, in retrospect, I rather have kept to myself instead, lest they haunt you as they did to me. Anyways, I know you are a strong person just like me, aren't you? But truly, I thank you for all you've done, and I thank the many lives I have crossed paths with in Diamond City. I never deserved all of this. I thank you for your kindness, however irrelevant it seems from this current point of view. I truly believe good deeds pay off, and you reap what you sow. Since I have failed to reciprocate all the kindness you have shown me, I trust that fate would procure you with commensurate amounts of what you so deserved, be it success, tranquility, or good health!

 

As I lay down my thoughts, my body shakes uncontrollably and tears are streaming down my cheeks. I have dreamed of this day many times, and yet when reality hits, not even the most prepared are immune. Do you remember our conversations on the roof? The scenes still play out vividly in my head. I said that I wished to die, but not any kind of death. I wanted the autonomy of death, and to remove the tethers of some misplaced obligations and twisted love! Never were those words so hard-hitting than it is now, and never did they better portray my conflicted state of mind. When it is your time to go, which I hope will never come to you, be sure to remind yourself of the privilege to die, the freedom to embrace death! Anyways, all these memories will stay with me for an eternity.

 

Also, one last thing before I go, please take good care of Emily for me, will you? You are no stranger to the troubles of my marriage. Although it seems as if this is the catalyst that led to my decision, I never believed it to be Emily's fault. It has never been her fault. I don't want her to feel bad at all, for I know for sure that she loves me still. She gave up so much of her life to bring color to mine. God, I'm so bad at giving back. Please, if you find yourself with the time and energy, pay a visit to my dear wife, and tell her that I have left home to explore new opportunities at the ends of the world, a voyage I chose to take on my own, and I will come back when it is due time. Do not tell her the truth; she need not know it. She shall understand, for she is a good friend just like yourself, not to mention the love of my life. Make sure that she lives a long and happy life, and tell her that I am sorry for everything. Seems like all that I do is to ask for everyone's forgiveness, doesn’t it? Heh. Perhaps this is the meaning of my life - to force happy endings into an otherwise bleak tale. Welp, there goes Jacob Butler, I guess. Blah blah blah, and the banalities. All that aside, please tell her that I truly love her, okay?

 

I know I can count on you, my dear friend.

 

Yours truly

 Jacob"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© 2020 Blizzy Fox


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Added on September 5, 2020
Last Updated on September 5, 2020
Tags: Horror, Supernatural, Love, Lovecraftian, Non-linear

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Blizzy Fox
Blizzy Fox

Kowloon City, Kowloon, Hong Kong



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