Death Road

Mangled bodies.

They were found lying along the roadside, teen-aged boys and girls, some singly, others in groups. The only commonality was that all of them looking as if they’d been run down by a car. But how they got there, and what car inflicted the damage, no one could figure out. The police department in Preston, Idaho had been finding dead kids along a deserted stretch of road since the 1950’s, and not once had they found a clue why or how the kids had been killed.

In every case, people had seen the dead kids in town only hours before they were found dead. Then they’d just vanished. Gone as if they’d been beamed up, or stepped through a hole in reality.

Getting to Preston turned out to be a pain in the ass. The ‘dog’ dropped me me off in downtown Boise, but getting from there to Preston turned on a simple stroke of luck. I’d been almost ready to start squatting at the Towne Square shopping mall, but an overheard conversation at a coffee stand got me a seat in the back of a pickup truck passing through my destination.

I arrived the same day another kid was found. Lance Portman had been interested in nothing more dangerous than driving the beat-up Honda Civic ‘road racer’ he’d rebuilt himself. His ‘big dream’ had been getting out of town . Then he’d been found on the side of the road, skull crushed, both legs broken, spine snapped in three places. But no tire tracks, no paint residue in his wounds, no fragments of shattered glass on the pavement, nothing.

I heard all this in the small cafe that was the anchor of daytime life in the tiny burg. If I’d been able to pass as an adult, I could probably heard more in any of the half-dozen bars that lined the single main street. Me, I huddled in a space behind the cafe’s dumpster, watching people go in and out of those establishments. I wasn’t hiding so I could sleep, because I’d already learned the undead don’t need sleep. No, I was just keeping out of the way, watching and waiting to see if I could get some sort of clue about what was killing the local kids.

I stayed there, or wandered Preston, for three days. Then, one evening as the Sun sank behind the Bitterroot’s, I heard the rumbling sound of a big V-8 on a short-pipe exhaust system. I wasn’t the first loud exhaust I’d heard in town. Hell, half the pickup trucks parked along the hopefully-named main drag of Prosperous Way had loud exhausts. In those cases, it was a sign of the owner’s poverty. But this engine had the tightly-timed sound of a precision machine, a piece of hardware lovingly tended by its owner. And it had the hollow, echoing sound I’d begun to recognize as coming from a phantom.

I’d been sitting, slowly sipping a cup of tea, when I heard it. You don’t rush out of a cafe in a small town, not if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, so before I could make an excuse to leave, whatever had been making the noise had vanished.

The next morning, the siren of the lone police car in town wailed its way out of town to the scene of the latest discoveries. Being a small town, by lunch, the details of what had taken it out of town were common knowledge. Tad Orrman and Becky Richard had been dating for over a year, and folks had seen them walking down Prosperous Way in the late evening light. Then, like all the other dead kids, they’d just disappeared. They’d been found along the same stretch of road, the old highway to Twin Falls, where all the other kids had been found. They were still holding hands, Tad partially atop Becky as if he’d tried to shield her from whatever had run them down.

It was a sad story, but it gave me the final clue I needed to find my prey. After that, I began walking Prosperous Way, hoping to hear the sound of that V-8. But nothing happened. I had a few kind people stop to ask me if I needed a ride, or a place to stay, but not once did I hear what I hoped to. Then Saturday rolled around.

The Sun was going down and the local kids began coming out. Because I had died young, they accepted me as one of their own, even if I wasn’t from the town. Beers discretely appeared, and as the darkness closed in, the first pair of cars arrived. Bets were shouted and accepted, money placed in the hands of a neutral party. A girl stepped out of the small crowd, the cars lined up, engines revved, and to the waving of a scarf, the cars screeched down Prosperous Way in a cloud of tire smoke. Shouts of triumph mixed with groans of loss as the winner was declared, and another pair of cars lined up.

I move through the crowd, listening to the chatter. How much the kids enjoy the weekly races and the thrill of speed. How sad it is that Tad and Becky died. How they’d been there last week, enjoying the spectacle with everyone else. Everyone had expected them to be together forever, and now they’d never have the chance. I kept listening, hoping someone would mention seeing them leave, but no such luck. When I asked, I found out that Lance Portman usually raced, but had been confined to cheering from the sidelines by a blown head gasket the day he’d disappeared.

So I started cheering the races, and I even managed to win a bet on one of the races before the crowd melted away minutes before the police rolled through. It was full night now, and playing a hunch, I started walking along the road towards the edge of town.

I heard that roar again as I passed the last house. One minute there was nothing but the evening chorus of bird song, then the distinct grumbling of a V-8 slowly turning over drown it out. A glance over my shoulder revealed the outline of a classic hot rod rolling towards me. It had once been a ’48 Ford, but someone had done an outstanding job chopping the roof, stripping off the fenders, and ditching the hood. That put the source of the rich growl on proud display: a flat-head eight with a huge filter mounted atop a chromed carb. No doubt to a mortal eye, it would have been a magnificent sight, but my eyes saw nothing but the shadow of what had once been.

As it comes to a stop beside me, the shade of a young man leans out. In form, he wears a denim jacket and white tee shirt, hair slicked down with enough grease to lube his ride. The ghostly face smiles at me. “Hey, bud, need a ride?”

“No, but I’d love a quick spin in that ride of yours. You do the work yourself?”

The smile takes on a different aspect, not the friendly guy out for an evening drive, but a predator smiling in anticipation of its next meal. “Yeah, you could say that. Climb in and we’ll take a drive out to Deadman’s Curve and back, give you a chance to get a feel for what this baby can really do.”

“Sure, sounds great.”

I go around the phantom hotrod and slide into the passengers seat. I’m so low I feel as if I’m sitting on the ground, but before I can take in the feeling of the seat, the engine’s roar drowns out all thought. Outside, the fence posts are a blur and the telephone pole flash past like they’re part of a picket fence. For all the speed, there is no feeling of acceleration. I feel no pressure shoving me back in the seat, and even with the window down, no wind rushes in.

“Pretty fast, isn’t it?”

I glance at the specter beside me and what I see now is not human. The neatly combed hair has been peeled back, scalp and all, to form a bloody mess hanging off the bare skull. The face is a smashed mask of its former appearance, the eyes glare at me above a toothless smile made hideous by skin hanging off a jaw held in place by the tattered remains of tendons.

Then the world outside seems to freeze. The fence post that had passed so fast they almost disappear are now fixed in place. I hear my door pop open without me touching it and the eyes staring at me flare with a hellish inner light as the mouth opens to release a demented cackle.

“Go on, run! Run as fast as you can. If you’re fast enough, you might even manage to get away.”

I let myself smile. “No, I won’t. I know you want me to run so you can kill me with this car. Is that how you died? Did someone chase you down?”

The light fades, the smile that had been calculated to frighten is replaced by a frown. “What do you mean?”

I sweep my hand to take in the scene beyond the ghostly front window. “You died somewhere around here, didn’t you? A car struck and killed you, this car to be precise. Ever since that day, you’ve been fixed on getting vengeance, aiming you anger at the kids who race their cars and the ones who stand around enjoying it all. You bring them here, where you died, so they can experience what you felt before you died.”

The ghostly driver takes his hands off the wheel and tries to push me out the open door, but his hands pass through my undead flesh. He tries again, to no effect. Now I can see his fear, in his bulging eyes, in the shaking of his hands. I grab his wrists and shove him back as if he weighed nothing, which to me he does. He fixes me with a stare, the look of a rabbit cornered by a coyote or a bird before the snake that will soon eat it.

“What are you?” The voice, so intimidating before, is now that of a young boy facing an unimaginable terror.

“I’m dead, like you. Like you, I couldn’t let go of my old life, I couldn’t accept that I had lost my future. The only difference between us is that I wasn’t killed by a human, I was killed by a spirit. When I came back, my only desire was to kill the…the thing that had killed me. When I finally strangled it, and that monster left the mortal plane, I’d hoped I would be free. But here I am.”

There was a long moments silence, then the whisper of the voice I’d heard before comes from a shape grown vaguer than ever. “Did they find you? Did someone come for you, take you home and bury you?”

Was that the thing that drove this poor spirit, being abandoned along a roadside? “Yes, a friend of mine found me. I felt sorry for him, finding the mess that spirit had left of my body scatter around that terrible room. Didn’t anyone find you?”

“No, no one ever came for me.” The car fades away, leaving me standing on the shoulder of the battered blacktop road with the shade of a young and lonely man. He lifts an arm to point towards a massive thicket of raspberry brambles growing in the fence line of a pasture that stretches out of sight in every direction. “I was walking home out to my family’s farm, when I heard them. Two cars, the roadster I was, and another much like it. They were driving fast, the other car trying to pass the roadsters. It swung back and forth across the road, trying to keep the other car from passing it. I thought it was thrilling, the way they were racing along, then the roadster swung wide again, right at me.” The arm dropped, and I hear a sob like the wind itself feels this boy’s grief. “They never even slowed down. He had to have seen me, and he didn’t even stop to check on me, he didn’t call anyone. He…both of them, left me lying under those raspberries like I was road kill. No one came looking for me, not my family, not my friends, nobody. So I swore I’d make them pay, and I have! They used to race down this piece of road, but I killed enough of them that they started to fear it. So they moved into town and hoped I wouldn’t find them. But I did!”

“But you never found the people who killed you, did you?”

The anger seemed to be feeding the spirit, making it more solid. My question is like a breeze blown into a bank of smoke, fading the figure in front of me to little more than an outline. “No, I never did.”

“You never will, and you know that, don’t you?”

“But I can make their kids pay!”

The form began to solidify again, and I knew I had to play my final card. “But do you know the kids you kill are the kids of the people who killed you? And if they aren’t, what about their parents? Do you want them to suffer like yours did? Is that fair?”

The form fades again, and I walk through tall grass to press aside the brambles with my unfeeling hands. I see no remains, but when I scuff aside the debris, a hint of white tells me the bones are not buried deep. I look back to see a figure so faint it might not be there at all. “I won’t dig you out. I’ll tell the police you’re here so they can come and take proper care of you. Who were you, so I can tell your family you’re coming home?”

“I was James Patrick O’Hearity. Dad died when I was in grade school. Mom…she can’t be alive anymore, it was so long ago. My little sister should still be alive. Tell her I’m sorry for leaving her alone.”
“I will, I promise. Rest now, James, you’re going to go home at last.”

The shape gives a final shimmer, and as it fades, I hear the lost soul of a long-dead boy ask me a question I don’t want to answer. “Thank you, but who are you?”

“Someone condemned to walk the Earth for eternity, it seems. But once, I was George Ishkowa, and I wish I could find a way to follow you. Goodbye James, until I find my own freedom.”

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Dangerous writings

Sam leaned back in his chair and watched the younger man zip up his parka. Scooping up his tablet, he headed out the door to the small basement meeting room the Corner Writer’s Group met in.

“He’s messing with us.”

Sam didn’t say it loud, but his friend Paul Orman heard him. As he usually did, Paul was sitting next to Sam, so he wasn’t surprised when he replied.

“Huh?”

“That new guy, Adam…”

“You mean Alex?”

“Whatever. He’s messing with us.”

Paul gave him a half-smile. “Okay, I’ll bite. How is Alex ‘messing’ with us?”

The rest of the small group had already left, so Sam didn’t bother to keep his voice down. “I mean he’s not some amateur writer like he claims to be. Hell, you read his most recent submission, did it read like something a non-published writer could turn out?”

“Well, he did say he’d written before. What was the name of that paper he said he wrote for, the one out in the western part of the state?”

Sam shook his head. “You mean the Creston Observer? I didn’t even know there was a town by that name in Iowa, and I’ve been all over the state. I had to go online and look the place up. Creston doesn’t have a thousand people living in it, and I couldn’t find a record it ever had a newspaper. No, he’s making that up. He’s some writer, some published writer, who’s decided to sit in on our meetings for whatever reason. Maybe he’s scouting us for ideas or something. I don’t know, but something just isn’t right about him.”

Paul didn’t reply right away, he just stared at Sam like he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Then he gave his own head a shake before speaking.

“Sam, we’ve known each other for a long time, and I’m starting to think that all the research you do for those spy stories you write is getting to you. Not every stranger is hiding a mystery. What you say just doesn’t make sense. You remember that first submission of his, don’t you? It was decent, but it was clear he was way too much of a ‘teller’. He’s improved a lot since then, but some writer spying on us…no, I don’t think so.”

“Damn it, Paul, nobody improves that much that fast! I swear, there’s something that’s not right about that guy.”

Paul stood and laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You need a drink, seriously. Everyone else should be at Tino’s by now for the after-meeting get-together, so let’s head over there and have a slice and a couple beers.”

“That’s another thing.” Sam stood and started to pull on his own winter coat. “Why doesn’t he come to any of the after-meeting gatherings? Hell, how many times did I ask him to join us, and get nothing but some vague excuse whey he wouldn’t come? He’s hiding something, Paul, I can feel it in my bones.”

“Did you ever think that he might just be shy, Sam? He is the ‘new guy’, maybe he’s just afraid of saying or doing something that will piss everyone off. Come on, lets get there before Katie orders one of those god-awful Hawaiian pizzas she loves.”

#

Paullus Lucius Decimus watched the two men leave the library and wondered if he should just move on. He’d noticed the one called Sam was suspicious of him, and had caught the muttered comment about him as he’d walked out of the room. Paullus knew he’d erred when he’d let slip his past writing efforts. When he’d been a reporter for the Creston Observer, back in the late 1800’s, even small towns had newspapers. Now they were confined to the larger cities, and he found it a sad trend. Paullus had been writing since his days as a Roman legionnaire, but in the past few years, the desire to tell his long story had grown. As a reporter, he’d learned the basics of ‘who, what, when’, but that style would never do to tell the history of a man who had live over two thousand years.

So, when he’d heard of the small group of writers who gathered to learn from one another, he’d decided to join them. He wanted to learn to make his words speak through the ages, just as Livy and Pliny still did. But could he risk exposure for what he was, an immortal who had watched the history of much of civilized world unfold around him? He had hoped to tell his story as a modern fable, a fictional account of the thing he had seen. Paullus had hopes that such a tale might help the modern world understand it stood on the brink of the same disaster he’d seen other societies fall into. Factionalism, petty vendetta-driven politics, blind adherence over reasoning, he had seen it all too many times before.

Perhaps he should just kill Sam? He’d been forced to do so more than once. People who pried too much into his business tended to come to violent ends. No, that wouldn’t work, the people who pursued criminals now were far too efficient for him to tempt their attention. Pulling his coat hood down in hopes of retaining some small amount of heat, Paullus turned to go back to his small apartment. It was time for him to move on, to become someone else again.

The death room

It had been happening for about eighty years, but no one wanted to talk about it. All that could be found out about it was little more than gossip and urban legend.

All the stories spoke of young men who were visiting someone in the hospital. Then, they were gone, vanishing without a living soul seeing them…until their dead bodies were found.

The bodies were always found in the same room, an out-of-the-way little room in the oldest part of the hospital. Once, it and the rooms surrounding it had been a sanitarium for TB and cancer patients. That corner of the building had been selected precisely because it kept those patients out of sight, and their disease separated from the rest of the patients.

How the men got to the room no one knew. They were always found in the same spot, lying either in the bed, or after the room was quietly abandoned, on the floor where it had once stood. There was never a sign that the men had been forced into the room, no drag marks or scuffed show prints. No, it seemed they had walked into the room of their own free will.

What they found there, no one knew, but their twisted faces spoke of the sort of terror that might be felt by the condemned as they enter hell itself.

Then the first security cameras were installed, and the strange tale became positively unworldly. At first, it was grainy images of a shadowy figure walking with the men. Later, as the cameras and their recording technology improved, the images became sharper, showing the form of a beautiful young woman walking with the men. Always the men smiled as they engaged in their silent conversations with the figure, for she was clearly not human. Objects, even people, could be seen through her. How other people could walk past the odd couple without noting them no one ever understood, but it happened many times on the recordings.

In every case, the hospital came up with a convincing story for how these men came to die. Sudden heart failure was an early favorite. Later, it became drugs. But no matter what explanation the hospital put forth, and despite their efforts to keep employees silent about the strange deaths, word got out. Families complained, even after they were silenced in court. Employees, no matter the non-disclosure agreements they might sign, still talked. In modern times, that chatter made its ways onto the Internet, to conspiracy theory sites where it was offered as ‘proof’ of secret government programs to control the human mind. Or as evidence of a secret alien holding facility buried somewhere in the oldest section of the hospital for security purposes.

The theories were as mad as the people who believed them, but I didn’t care. The more I researched, the surer I was that some spirit, some evil presence, was causing the deaths. And with the conviction, I knew I must go to Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. I needed to find the truth of what was going on, and more importantly, to put an end to the deaths.

But what in that hospital could be stranger than me? An undead young man, a spirit trapped on the earthly plane by his regrets at not having lived the life he’d hoped for. I had killed the spirit that had ended my life, but that had not released me. With an existence that seemed likely to be unending, I had decided to give myself a purpose, to try to spare others my fate. What an outside observer might have found almost laughable was me riding a Greyhound bus across the frozen Iowa countryside. But hey, even the undead can panhandle, and bus ticket is easier to afford than a car. Besides, how would I explain my lack of a drivers license to a cop if I got stopped? Somehow, ‘Sorry, officer, but they took my license when I died.’ didn’t sound like an excuse a cop would buy.

Carswell’s Corner was a podunk place in the middle of nowhere, too big to be a village, and too small to be a real city. It didn’t even have a taxi service, forcing me to schlep down often-unshoveled sidewalks through neighborhoods of ticky-tacky houses to reach the hospital. Being undead had one advantage: while the locals huddled inside, struggling to keep warm in the near-zero temperatures, I walked without feeling discomfort in a light coat and tennies.

That appearance was my ‘in’ when I arrived at the hospital. After I offered the excuse of needing a place to warm up, I was allowed to ‘warm up’ in one of the waiting rooms. That I would never warm up again, the helpful nurses could never understand, but I thanked them and took advantage of the opportunity to begin stalking my prey.

An fruitless hour in one waiting room, then I moved to another…and another. My left-over pocket change bought a can of soda. It wasn’t that I needed to drink it, but the familiar experience of sipping it was oddly calming. I could see outside from my most recent perch. The Sun had disappeared from the sky, and the sky was taking on that inky dark appearance you only saw away from big city lights.

That was when I saw her. I had no sense that she had walked into the room, no, it was as if she had appeared out of nowhere. She looked young, hardly more than a teenager, and she wore a loose white dress that hid the shape of her body. Her face was thin, with the emaciated appearance of someone who hadn’t eaten in a very long time, but it was still strikingly beautiful. A perfect oval, framed by a flow of blond hair so light it might almost have been white. Her full red lips stood in stark contrast to gauntness of the rest of her face.

It was her eyes that gave her away. They didn’t to fix on me, they looked through me. Even as she approached my seat, her eyes never met mine.

“You look lonely…would you like some company?”

The feeling that voice brought into even to my dead heart was amazing. I wanted nothing more than to be with this woman. I motioned to the seat next to me, and when she sat down in it, I felt happier than I had ever felt in my life.

“Are you waiting for someone, or are you here to see someone?”

The question broke the voices spell, reminding me of why I was here. “Both actually. I’m waiting for the chance to visit someone. What about you? What brings a beautiful women like you to the hospital? Hopefully nothing serious.”

Her smile was warm and bright, almost enough to make me forget she might be a murderous spirit that had haunted this building for decades. “Oh, I’m a patient here…but I won’t be for long. They’re just keeping me for observation. My sister should be here soon to pick me up.”

I smile at her, doing my best to appear charmed but wondering what part of her story is true, and what part is just to get me to go with her. “Well, I hope your sister arrives soon. I bet she’s just as good looking as you are.”
The smile disappeared, replaced by a serious frown. “As a matter of fact, my sister looks just like me, we’re twins.” Then the smile came back, slier now, almost teasing as her eyes scan me up and down. “Don’t you find it awful chilly here? I do. I’m going back to my room where it’s warm. Do you want to join me?” She leaned close, her mouth near my ear, but there was none of the warmth of a human in her presence. “Maybe we could…warm up together? Would you like that?”

She rises, as do I. I follow her out of the room and down a hall that will take us towards the old part of the hospital.

“I’m glad you wanted to join me, it can be so lonely here.”

I wonder if this is how she entices her victims to their deaths. Did she appear to them as a lonely wanton, willingly offering herself to them to draw them to their doom? I know she expects me to talk to her, so I ask her the question I want the answer to the most. “How long have you been in hospital? Were you sick, or were you injured?”

Her glance at me is sudden and sharp, as if she wonders why I would ask such a question. Then she gives me another sly smile. “You ask a lot of questions, don’t you? I’ve been here a while, but I won’t be here much longer. They’re going to let me out soon.”
So she knows to be wary, to not give away too many details. But is she cautious enough to keep secret the information I need? “Sorry if I pried. Would it be impertinent of me to ask the name of a beautiful woman like you?”

Her smile is sweet, she doesn’t know why I ask. “Alice is my name, Alice Preston. My family has been in Carswell’s Corner since it was founded. Father is on the board that runs this hospital, it’s why I have a lovely room to myself. Come, let’s get there so we can…warm up.”

Alice picks up her pace, threading the confusing maze of corridors with the surety of someone who’s walked them many times. I follow her into the oldest section, down a dimly-lite hall lined with empty rooms. Or so they seem at first. As we progress, I hear coughing and moans, like the people who had died in these rooms still remained in them. Or was I just reliving her memories of this space as we came closer to the room I was now sure she had died in? She stops at a doorway, hands behind her back and her hips swaying slightly. Does she think the display will further spur my desire for her? Another beguiling smile, her most beautiful feature, and she stretches a hand towards the door.

“Here’s my room, let’s go in before someone sees me sneaking you in.”

I enter, and my eyes behold two scenes. The reality of the room is a small, dark box with a sliver of a window giving the only illumination. The walls are covered in peeling paint and the floor looks as if it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks. But as I see this, I see the room as she knew it. In that ghostly image, the window is the same, but the walls are brightly painted and small paintings hang everywhere. A hospital bed of antique design stands facing the window. I pull out my cell and type her name into the web browser while beside me, she whispers.

“Come, let’s get in bed together so we can warm up. You want to do that, don’t you? You don’t want to play with that silly little thing when you have the chance to play with me, would you?”

The browser comes back with a long list of names, so I narrow the search by adding the town name. A shorter list comes back, topped with a link to the local newspapers web site. The link takes me to an old obituary, and I begin to read it out loud.

“Alice Jean Preston died April 14, 1925 of tuberculosis at Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. She is survived by her twin sister Anna Jane Preston, her father…”
“No! I’m not dead! It’s not true, it isn’t! My sister, she promised she’d come get me out…she promised…” The face before me is a shell, skin stretched tight across the skull beneath, the full lips like two thin, pale lines. The hair that had once been a flowing mane is now thin, and the hands that she cradles her cheeks with are more like jointed bones than a living person’s hands. She stares at me, her eyes fill with hatred. “Why would you say such a hateful thing? Why did she promise to come for me and never do it? Why would she steal the only man I ever loved? Why are men so unfaithful, why?” Bony hands frame my face and the hatred in her eyes seems to become a living flame, intent on burning her anger into my soul.

So this is how Alice kills her victims, by letting her anger out, by scaring them to death.

But I am dead already, and after staring into my eyes for a long moment, the malice in Alice’s eyes fades, replaced by bewilderment.

“Why aren’t you dead? All the other men, all those cheating, unfaithful…creatures, every one of them died, as they should. Why aren’t you dead?”

“The dead can’t die again, Alice. I was killed by a vengeful spirit, but I came back to make sure no one else had to suffer my fate. You died here, thinking you had been abandoned by your family. They didn’t abandon you, they were just scared of catching the disease you had.” I look at the screen of my phone and follow the second link my browser had supplied. “On July 23, 1927, Thomas Loweden Preston dedicated the new sanitarium at Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. Named in honor of the daughter he tragically lost to the disease, the Alice Preston Memorial Tuberculosis Clinic is intended to treat patients suffering from the deadly malady…”

I stop speaking as Alice buries her face in her now ghostly hands. Then her face rises, filled with anger again. “But Johnathan…he should never have married Anna, and she should never have tempted him away from me. She wrote me, she told me about their courtship, about their wedding night, about the thing she had taken from me, the only thing I ever wanted.”

“But Alice, how are you punishing either of them by killing young men who’ve done nothing to you. How is tempting them here and killing them justice? Your sister was cruel to you, but was your Johnathan wrong to fall in love with your sister? Would you rather he married you and died of your disease? Is that what you think justice is? Give up your anger, let go of your hatred..or I’ll have to kill you myself.”

“You say I can’t kill you because you’re dead, so how do you think you can kill me?”

She started to laugh, but the sound died in her throat as my fingers wrapped around her throat. Alice’s eyes bulged as her finger tried to move my wrist. She couldn’t, and after a brief struggle, she subsided.

“Alice, I was killed, so I don’t want to kill you or anyone else. Accept your death. Let go of your anger, your obsession with what you wanted, and leave.”

Alice’s form becomes more transparent, and I feel my grip on her become more tentative, less like grasping flesh and more like holding a balloon. Her mouth opens, and like a whisper out of a vast empty room, I hear her ask her final question.

“Will I be free at last?”

“You were always free, Alice. The only thing that held you here was you.”

Alice’s smile is the last thing I, or anyone else, see of her. I wonder what will happen to her next. Will she see heaven? Did hell await her for all the young men she has killed? Or will she have what I hope for some day, the peace of oblivion?

I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I make my way towards the main part of the hospital and the exit looking at my phone. There are other stories to investigate, and more spirits that are tormenting the living. They are my business in this world now, and my next task awaits me.

Who are you?

“I’m going to kill you.”

The voice came from everywhere, like I was standing in the middle of a crowd, all speaking in one voice at the same time. There was no one in the small, dusty room but me.

“I’m going to kill you, and I’m going to enjoy killing you.”

The temperature dropped. A small puddle, the last remnant of a pool that must have formed and evaporated many time from the rings on the floor, went from murky liquid to slushy mush to solid ice in front of my eyes. Then I saw movement, a thickening of the shadows in one corner, like the darkness was taking form. The shape of a man, if such a rough outline of of a man could be called a man, stepped away from the wall to stand in front of me.

“I’m going to tear you apart, disassemble your body piece by piece like a cheap watch. I’ll listen to your screams and smile as you beg me for mercy. I haven’t had fun with a human for years now, not since I messed up and let that kid escape after he caught me ripping his friend apart. So you’re going to have to make up for all the fun I’ve missed in the mean time.” A crescent-shaped glow, like the a smile shaped of hell-fire, appeared in the upper part of the shape where a head should be. “Do you want to beg for mercy, fool? Do you want to try to run away? Please, do! It will make what follows just that much more enjoyable for me.”

The shadow slid across the room so fast it might almost have vanished before rematerializing in front of me. A rough arm-shaped projection sprouted from its side and swept down at me…only to pass through my body. A moment’s pause, and the shape did the same thing again…then again, and again before stopping.

“What is this? Why can’t my power effect you?”

The voice conveyed none of its former arrogance, only puzzlement. My own hand shot out, fist balled, to hit the shadow where its stomach should have been. The form shot backwards like some cheap Hollywood stunt. Before it could move, I was on top of it, a hand where the neck should be, pinning it to the floor.

“What….how can you do that? Humans are at my mercy, I am all-powerful compared to them. How?

I lean down bringing my face, or what appears to be a face, almost in contact with my victim. “Do you not know me? Look on my face, and remember.” I let my form change, taking on again the shape of the scared boy I was before I died in this accursed house. “You took my life from me, killed me on the day I confessed my feelings to the girl I loved. You killed me and enjoyed tormenting me. But you didn’t hear what I said as I died, did you? I swore to myself I’d come back, that I’d kill you. Now, I’m here to fulfill that promise.”

The shadow take form, becoming a child even younger than I once was. Now, the voice has none of the menacing, hollow boom it once had. It is a scared young boy’s voice, crying in the face of his doom. “No, I’m sorry! I just killed you, killed all of them, because I had nobody to play with. No one ever played with me when I lived here. My parents kept me locked in a room because brothers and sisters weren’t supposed to have children. Don’t kill me, please!”

You might ask, ‘Can those who are already dead fear death?’

Yes, they can. I killed him, grinding my hands down on what should have been his throat until he stopped struggling, and there was nothing but fear in his eyes as he died. He lost definition, then the very shape dissipated, leaving nothing but me, kneeling in the middle of a filthy room in an abandoned house. My purpose for staying was gone, the task I’d wished to accomplish, the reason I’d never been able to pass to whatever awaited me, was done. Yet I remain.

Why?

Were my regrets still so strong that I could not give up on the physical world? And if that were so, what would become of me? Would I become like this hollow shadow-child, condemned to torment the living for my own pleasure?

No, there had to be other places like this, other vengeful spirits that preyed on the living. If I couldn’t go to the afterlife, I could at least spare others what I had suffered. I would become a hunter of those real monsters.

“Where to next?”

I pull the smart phone from where I stored it inside myself and begin searching the Internet for tales of destructive spirits.