by Brian LeTendre
Snow will continue to be heavy through the overnight hours, and we are expecting up to an additional seven to eight inches on top of the foot most of the Pioneer Valley has received from storm Howard so far. Wind gusts will mean snow drifts of several feet in certain areas, and visibility will continue to be poor for the next several hours. We’re now going live to Andrew Sanders in downtown—
Amber clicked back over to the crime procedural she’d been watching and pulled the quilt tighter around herself as she lay cocooned on the couch. “I can’t believe you’re going out there right now,” she said in disbelief. “It’s ten-thirty at night.”
“You think I want to go out there?” John asked, a tinge of annoyance in his voice. “The stupid snowblower’s broken and if I don’t hit the driveway at least once before tomorrow, we’ll never dig out.” He glanced over at her as he pulled a large snow boot over the two pairs of socks on his foot. “You’re welcome to join me.”
Amber’s response began with a long, slow sip of the hot tea she was relaxing with. “You’re crazy,” she said, leaving no doubt she would not be joining John outside. “I told you I’d help you in the morning, but there is no way I’m going out there tonight. The wind gusts are forty miles an hour! You’ll be lucky if you don’t get frostbite.”
“If it gets that bad, I’m coming back in,” John promised as he stood up from the couch. “Besides, I’ve got three layers on, and that with that giant scarf your mom gave me, I’ll be wrapped up tighter than the kid brother from that Christmas movie.”
He leaned down and kissed Amber, tasting the Raspberry tea on her lips. “Any more of that left?” he asked, nodding toward her half empty cup.
“Tell you what Yukon Jack,” she replied smiling, “When you get done stumbling around outside in the freezing cold, I’ll make you some, and then you can warm up with me on the couch.”
John was tempted to just forget about shoveling right then and there, but he knew he’d regret it in the morning, especially is the forecast was accurate. “Deal,” he replied. He went into the kitchen and grabbed his smartphone and earbuds off the table. “Tonight I’ll be shoveling to the sweet sounds of 80’s metal,” he said to himself. He tapped on the internet radio app and selected one of the preset stations he listened to all the time, and the chugging rhythm of hair metal filled his ears. I should still pick up the house’s Wi-Fi, even in this crap, he thought.
Earbuds firmly positioned, John tucked the phone in his inside pocket, pulled on his hat and wrapped the large brown scarf around his neck and lower face. As he turned to head out the side door to the driveway, he glanced back at Amber, who was saying something. He pointed to his ears and shook his head, and she rolled her eyes and then blew him a kiss. Smiling, he turned and pulled open the back door.
The blast of cold air that hit him almost made John forget he was still standing in the house. The scene before him looked like something from a documentary about Antarctica. The wind was howling, snow was blowing sideways, and he couldn’t see more than five feet in front of him. He took one glance over his shoulder at the warm confines of the house before pulling the door shut behind him and stepped out into the storm. He immediately noticed how deep the snow was–approaching a foot, and covering the top of his snow boots already.
First things first, he thought, where the hell did I put the shovel? He was hoping it would be laying against the steps by the door, but no such luck. “Probably in the stupid garage,” he muttered, and began taking large, deliberate steps toward the opening that was no more than twenty feet away. Luckily, he had left the large door up when he parked Amber’s SUV in there before the storm, as he would have had no hope of getting it open now with all the show. Their garage had the old style door that swung outward and then up, so it needed a couple feet of clearance in front, which the snow had already erased.
John kept his head down and trudged forward, until he felt his right foot break the barrier of the snow and find the floor of the garage. Just as he suspected, the shovel was tucked just inside the garage opening against the wall, right next to the bucket of rock salt and the extra-long snowbrush that he used for Amber’s SUV. Grabbing the shovel, he turned to face the storm again. Standing in the garage, the scene was even more imposing. Their driveway was about eighty feet long, running along the backyard and the side of the house to the street out front. A stockade fence ran down the left side of the driveway, and with the house on the right, the only places to put snow were in the front and back yards, which meant extra work when shoveling the middle. With most of the curtains in the house closed, the only real light outside was coming from the lone streetlight, and that was barely visible from where he was standing.
Times like these were when John had fleeting thoughts of moving somewhere else, like maybe a condo community, where someone else would take care of all the yard work and snow removal for him. The thought fled quickly as he looked back over at the house though, as he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
A searing guitar riff shook him out of his reverie, and John tightened his grip on the shovel. “Sooner I get started, sooner I can go in and warm up,” he said aloud.
He dug into the wall of snow in front of the garage and smiled. At least it’s light, he thought as he threw the snow toward the backyard. With the temperature hovering around the low 20’s, the snow was coming down in small flakes, making it a lot easier to shovel than the heavy, wet snow that often characterized New England storms.
His plan was to shovel a path alongside the house out to where his car was parked at the end of the driveway. Once he had a clean path to stand on, he’d then start clearing off the rest of the driveway, until he made his way back up to the garage. John’s pace was quick for the first ten minutes or so, the music in his ears fueling each heave of the shovel, and the thought of his wife on the couch under that big quilt still fresh in his mind.
As he got past the garage opening, the wind blasted John once again, almost staggering him sideways. He doubled his efforts to make it to the side of the house, where he had some reprieve from the gusts. He dared not look over his shoulder, for fear that all the snow he’d just cleared would have been filled right back in. After reaching the halfway mark of the driveway, John took a break, leaning against the side of the house and fumbling in his coat pocket for his phone.
“Eleven o’clock, on the nose,” he mumbled into his scarf. He’d been at it for a half hour now, and managed to carve his shovel-wide path only about forty feet. As tempted as he was to quit, He knew that he’d hate himself in the morning when he was shoveling a pile twice as high as what he was currently dealing with. He resolved to get the rest done by midnight, and tucked the phone back inside his jacket. “No more breaks,” he said, zipping his coat again and taking up the shovel.
John put his head down, focused on the few feet in front of him and began shoveling with renewed vigor. He blocked everything out except the sounds of the music in his ears and the shovel scraping against the asphalt of the driveway. He mindlessly repeated the same motion over and over, making his way forward at a methodical pace. He continued this way for an undetermined period of time, almost mesmerized by seemingly endless path of snow in front of him. It was only when he realized that something had changed that John paused.
For a moment he couldn’t figure out what it was, and he stood there, bent over his shovel and staring at the ground. Then it finally hit him–the metal music that was previously pumping in his ears had suddenly stopped. He pulled his glove off with his teeth, fumbled in his jacket and pulled out his phone.
“No signal?” he questioned aloud, seeing there were no bars lit up on the Wi-Fi icon. “But I’m right next to the freaking–”
John stopped short as he turned to his right to look over at his house–his house that was no longer there. He stood there, staring at the spot not ten feet away, where he knew his house should be. But it wasn’t there.
Still staring in bewilderment, John absently tucked the phone back into his pocket and began walking toward where the house should be. He got about two steps in that direction before the ground gave way under him. He let out a yelp, the glove flew out of his mouth, and the shovel in his other hand embedded itself in the snow, which was suddenly up to John’s neck. It was as if he’d fallen into a pit, and widespread arms were the only things stopping him from falling in completely. He desperately tried to find some kind of handhold, throwing up plumes of snow in the process. The more he struggled, the more he could feel himself sinking deeper into the snow.
As panic threatened to overtake him, John stopped squirming for a moment. His shoulders were starting to burn as he held himself aloft, and his ungloved hand was throbbing. He slowed down his breathing and took stock of the situation. The shovel was within inches of his left hand. He tried to lean in that direction, still using his arms to brace himself, but extending his fingers to try and pull the shovel toward him. On his first attempt, his other hand slipped, and he almost fell into the hole completely. On his second careful attempt, John managed to hook the handle of the shovel and began pulling it toward him. He was eventually able to turn the shovel toward his body and angle it over the area that he was stuck in.
Just need to use the shovel to help pull myself out, he thought. He slowly moved his ungloved hand (which had stopped throbbing and was starting to get numb) over to the shovel. He mustered his strength, counted to three in his head and then pulled himself up far enough so that his upper body was out of the hole. He then scrambled and got his legs over the side, rolling onto his back and gasping for air.
Afraid to move, he lay there in the snow and stared up at the sky, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. The snow was stilling falling a fast rate, but the wind had died down considerably, allowing John to getter a clearer look at his surroundings. The first thing he really noticed was the purplish color of the night sky, and the fact that the light was not being provided by the streetlight where his driveway used to be, but from a bluish moon in the sky above.
John rolled onto his side and got up on his knees, his mind searching for an explanation to what was happening. The only plausible explanation he could think of was that he’s somehow slipped while shoveling and smacked his head. The idea that this was some sort of hallucination was not as troubling as the idea he might be laying unconscious in the snow and freezing cod temperatures. Maybe finding a way out of here will wake me up, he theorized, and he stood up, brushing the excess snow off himself.
Before he took a step in any direction, John took the shovel and started poking into the snow, making sure there was solid ground underneath it. A couple minutes of exploration in the immediate area didn’t reveal any more sinkholes, and he actually managed to find his other glove. His hand had gone numb a few minutes earlier, and he tried to warm it up by shoving it under his armpit, but the most feeling he could get back into it was the pins and needles sensation of a limb that had fallen asleep. He pulled his glove back on and hoped there wouldn’t be any permanent damage. “That’s the least of my worries right now,” he mumbled.
No sooner had those words escaped John’s lips than a loud noise came from somewhere in the distance that made his heart leap with terror.
The animal-like bark or roar was not one John had ever heard before, and it felt wrong in his ears. As his mind raced to try and picture what could be making it, the only thing that came close was a hyena’s call. But this wasn’t a hyena. This was something bigger.
He spun around, trying to pinpoint where the sound came from. About thirty seconds later, he heard it again–“Woo-uut!”
That sound, while still off in the distance, was definitely closer than the first. John decided quickly that he didn’t want to find out what was making it, and he started off in the opposite direction, trudging through the almost knee-high snow, using the shovel to prod the ground and pull him forward like the oar of a canoe. He still had no idea where he was going, but he had eliminated one direction, at least.
“Woo-uut!” came the call again. Definitely from behind him.
Less than ten seconds later, a second call rang out, this one off to his left. “Woo-uut!” Same basic sound, but different inflection. There were two of them out there now.
John plowed ahead, refusing to look over his shoulder. He didn’t know what was following him. But he’d seen enough animal documentaries to know what was happening. Whatever those things were out there, they were hunting him.
He tried to quicken his pace, but it was slow going. He could barely feel his right hand, despite seeing he had a firm grip on top of the shovel. Frostbite for sure, he thought as he plunged the shovel down in front of himself. He almost pitched forward, as the shovel sunk straight down–another hole.
“Damn it!” John barked as he turned slightly to his right and headed in that direction, away from whatever those two things were behind him. With the snow coming down, he could only see a little ways ahead, but there was still no sign of his house, his street, or anything else that told him he was still in the real world as he knew it.
“Keep moving forward, John,” he said to himself, plodding ahead. He had to alter his course three more times over the next several minutes, as the entire area he was stumbling around in seemed to be pockmarked with pits and sinkholes that were invisible under the powdery snow.
“Woo-uut!” came another call. “Woo-uut!” the second responded almost immediately. One to the rear and one to the left. Closer than before.
“Wake up, wake up wake up–WAKE UP!” he shouted to himself as he took one difficult step after another. The measured pace at which he endeavored to make his escape from this place and those things that were out there threatened to break the veneer of sanity that John had built up in his mind.
“Woo-uut!” Closer this time, from behind him. “Woo-uut!” the second one answered. They were closing in on John, and he knew it. He wanted to scream, but he knew every noise he made would just bring them to him faster.
John desperately scanned the landscape for someplace he could hide. Although he couldn’t make out what it was, there appeared to be an elevated mass not too far off in the direction he was already heading. John put his head down and doubled his efforts to progress in that direction shifting to the left or right to avoid pitfalls, but keeping the same large mass ahead of him in his field of sight.
The closer John got to the mass in front of him, the more the snow and wind began to let up. By the time he was about fifty feet away, he noticed two things. First, the mass wasn’t just in front of him–it stretched out in both directions as far as he could see. Second, it looked like some kind of a wall, stretching up at least three stories.
“What the hell?” he mumbled as he pushed forward the final few feet and prodded the structure with his shovel. It looked and felt like stone, but it was smooth, almost shimmering. Whatever it was, it wasn’t part of the natural scenery.
Someone built this thing, John thought to himself, and that notion provided some comfort to him. He was still half-convinced that he was asleep, but if this wasn’t a dream, then this wall that someone had put there was the first tangible thing John had encountered since he found himself here.
“Woo-uut!” came the first call from not far behind him. “Woo-uut!” answered the second, from off to his left.
And that’s when the brief smile faded under John’s scarf. Because he had nowhere else to run now. With a sigh, he turned around, holding the shovel in front of him. His right hand was pretty much useless to him now,
“Well?” he shouted into the night.
Slowly, a figure stepped into his field of view, not more than twenty yards away. It seemed to come out of nowhere, almost materializing from the snowflakes themselves. As the form moved closer and became clearer, John had to fight the urge to turn around and try to claw his way through the wall behind him.
The creature walked on four legs, and was the size of a small horse. It appeared to be cover in fur (or perhaps feathers) that was white with streaks of gray running through it. Its hind legs were longer than its front, similar to those of a rabbit. The creature’s head looked like a cross between an owl and a dog, featuring large yellow eyes and a long beak that resembled a snout.
As it stepped slowly toward John, the creature cocked its head to one side, sizing him up just as he was doing to it. John stuck the shovel out in front of himself, and braced himself against the wall behind him. His mind was scrambling both to understand what he was looking at, and to come up with a plan to get away from it.
The creature didn’t wait for John to come up with that plan. When it got within fifteen feet of him, it leapt into the air, letting out a shriek. John barely had time to get the shovel up as the creature landed on him and pinned him to the ground. The handle of the shovel dug into the ground, and the creature’s weight drove the blade into its chest.
The creature gave a squeal of surprise and pain, rearing backward. The blade of the shovel broke off at the handle, and the creature staggered backwards, its dark blood spewing forth from the wound.
But John hadn’t seen any of that. When the creature had pounced, one of its forelegs had landed on John’s right shoulder, shattering both his shoulder and collar bones. The burst of pain was so intense that it gave him a momentary reprieve from being terrified, and because his eyes had been closed, he never saw how close the creature came to taking his head off.
The creature’s squawking kept John from passing out, as it flailed rolled in the snow, which was now stained with splashes of its thick blood.
John looked up to see that the second creature had approached, and was mesmerized by the distress its partner was currently in. The injured creature took a shaky step toward the other, but disappeared in a plume of snow, as it fell into one of the many holes that littered the area. The other creature stared into the hole, as the shrieks of the first continued to sound farther and farther away.
The second creature called out to its partner, but it wasn’t the same “Woo-uut!” noise it made when tracking John. This was a pained, almost howling noise. An anguished noise.
As the second creature stood there and stared into the hole, John thought of when he almost fell into one of those moments ago, and whether he’d still be falling if he had.
He didn’t have long to get lost in that thought, as the other creature eventually turned its attention back to him. It was making another new noise now–a low, constant growling noise that sounded like nails on a chalkboard.
“That wasn’t my fault,” John said as he tried to stand. He gave out a howl of his own as a bolt of pain shot through his right arm. He stumbled, but righted himself with the long piece of the shovel’s handle he still clutched in his other hand.
“Your buddy came at me,” he said through gritted teeth as he got back to his feet. “Self-defense,” he explained, backpedaling until he could once again feel the stone wall at his back.
The creature was moving toward John now, continuing to growl as it tested the ground before it, careful not to suffer the same fate as its partner. John was surprised at this, his assumption having been that the creatures knew this area well, and that’s why they had driven him this way.
As the creature advanced, John moved along the wall, searching for any signs of an opening or handhold, and wielding the broken shovel handle out in front of him. The two did this dance for several minutes, and John took the chance to study his adversary more closely. In addition to the creature seeming tentative on the terrain, it was constantly stealing glances in every direction, as if trying to gauge its surroundings the same way John was. He also noticed the creature seemed to be trembling slightly.
No, not trembling, he thought. Shivering.
“You’re not from around her either, are you?” John said with a forced laugh.
“Scraw!” the creature spat back at him.
“Yeah, well screw you too,” John replied. “I’m finding a way out of this place, and if you stand in my way, you’ll end up just like your buddy.” He had no idea if the creature understood him, and he didn’t know how he would follow through with that threat in light of his busted arm. Still, embracing the situation was the only thing keeping him from going mad with the pain, cold and sheer absurdity of what was happening.
John continued to move along the wall, and the creature continued to follow him. Every couple of minutes, the creature would feint toward him, John would swing the shovel handle in a wild arc, and then they’d both reset and continue along.
John could barely feel anything in his right arm anymore as it dragged along the wall. But a shot of pain up in through his shoulder signaled that something had changed. Keeping one eye on the creature that followed him, John turned slightly and examined the wall behind him. There was a seam running up the wall, as far as he could see. It was the only seam he’d encountered as he followed the wall, and he figured he’d gone at least a quarter mile along it by now. That led him to only one conclusion–it had to be a door.
He turned to the creature. “Listen,” he said as he pointed the jagged shovel handle toward it. “This here’s gotta be a way out, and I need to figure out how to get it open. You can either try to kill me while I do that, or you can let me help the both of us. It’s up to you.”
The creature tilted its head and seemed to contemplate the offer for a moment. When it didn’t immediately attack him, John turned his back and began to examine the seam in the wall. It was a little wider than his gloved finger. Putting the shovel handle down, he used his right hand to try and pull the seam open. He wasn’t surprised when there was no give whatsoever. Also unsurprising was the fact that the fingers on his left hand were starting to go numb now as well.
He stole a glance back at the creature, who was watching him closely. “Nothing,” he said to it. “I can try one more thing.”
John grabbed the shovel handle, wedged it into the seam in the wall, and leaned on it heavily. The wall still wasn’t giving at all, and John could feel the handle starting to snap. If he broke the handle, he knew he’d have nothing to defend himself should the creature turn on him. On the other hand, this was the only thing he could think to do, and he knew he wouldn’t last much longer in the cold, even if the creature left him alone.
As he was about to throw all his weight behind the handle for one last push, a booming voice filled the air. “FINISH THE MATCH,” it said in a deep, almost metallic voice.
John dropped the shovel handle and turned to look at the creature behind him. It was looking toward the night sky, searching for the source of the voice.
“Scraw?” the creature croaked.
The response that came was short, and in the same squawks and howls that was clearly the language of the creature.
John was stunned silent. Finish the match. The words played again and again in his mind. Finish the match.
And then John thought about what had happened since he arrived here, the pitfall-ridden terrain, the creatures hunting him, the stone wall that seemed to go on forever. In all of the insanity that he had experienced to that point, one thing finally made sense to him–he was in an arena.
“That’s what this is?!” he yelled into the open air. “Some kind of fucking game?! You just take people, or things, and you make them kill each other in here?!”
“FINISH THE MATCH,” was the only response he received, in the same booming metallic voice.
“Fuck your match!” John screamed back, angry now. His rage was starting to warm him back up, giving him a new burst of energy. “Send me home!”
“ONLY ONE GOES HOME,” was the response, and it was repeated in the language of the creature immediately afterward.
The creature lowered its head for a moment, and then looked at John.
“So there it is,” John said, and while the creature couldn’t understand him, John could tell from the look of resignation in its eyes that it understood, and like him, resigned itself to what needed to be done. He reached down and tried to grab hold of the shovel handle, but his fingers were too cold to even grasp it anymore.
The creature held John’s gaze as it took a step toward him. Here it comes, he thought to himself, I’m going to freaking die out here. He thought about Amber, sitting on the couch in their cozy little home, waiting for him to come inside. The idea that he would never see her again was too much to bear, and he started to break down.
The creature continued to look into John’s eyes as it slowly moved in for the kill. Or at least, that’s what John thought the creature was doing.
But then something unexpected happened. The creature stopped. It turned its head slightly, as if trying to communicate something to John. And then the creature took one large step to its right, and disappeared in a splash of snow. It did not make a sound as it plummeted down the large hole that John could not see was buried under that snow.
For the second time in the past five minutes, John was too stunned to speak. There was no doubt in his mind that the creature had known exactly what it was doing when it stepped into that hole. It had just sacrificed itself so that he would be the winner.
“Why?” was all John could get out, but he didn’t have time to dwell on that question long, as a strange, blue light started to glow from behind him. He scramble around, and saw that it was the seam in the wall that was glowing, and it was getting brighter each second.
“WINNER,” came the booming metallic voice from nowhere, startling John. He had forgotten all about his mysterious captors.
“Winner?” John mumbled to himself, and as the word turned over in his head, the absurdity of his situation washed over him once again. “Winner of what?” he yelled out, and he could feel the anger and madness rising up within him.
“What the hell is this?” he continued. “You just take someone from their life and make them fight another living thing to the death? Who are you? Where am I? What were those things? Where did they come from?”
The only response he received was from the blue light in the wall, which began to pulsate at a steady, slow rate. John stumbled backward, shielding his eyes from the increasingly blinding light. Slowly, the light from the seam began to extend out from the stone wall, in a ten-foot high rectangular shape. A blue, shimmering block unfolded like a giant movie screen in front of him, and it kept expanding, until it was protruding almost ten feet out from the stone wall.
“STEP INTO THE LIGHT,” commanded the emotionless, metallic voice.
“Get bent,” John blurted out without really even thinking. “I’m not stepping anywhere until you tell me j–”
Before he could even finish his sentence, the wall of light moved forward and enveloped him. He was blinded and couldn’t see anything, and it felt like he was falling, turning over and over in a sort of weightless state. No sooner had he started to get his bearings, than he landed hard, and everything was shrouded in darkness.
The next sensation John felt was a cold wetness, and as he blinked the haze away, he quickly realized he was face down in snow. His first instinct was to pull his arms in and try to push himself up, but the explosion of pain in his right shoulder caused him to fall flat on his face, huffing in pain. He rolled over onto his back, and saw what he thought was the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on.
A street light. His street light. The one at the end of the driveway at his house. Tears began to well up in his eyes as John rolled around like a wounded snow angel, trying to right himself. He finally mustered enough strength to stand up, and raised his fist to the sky, giving cry of joy, which was drowned out by the swirling winds of the snowstorm that was still going on around him.
“How long have I been gone?” he thought. Looking around, it was still clearly nighttime, and John could see through the crack in the curtains of the front window that the light in the living room was still on inside.
He decided he didn’t care, as the tears in his eyes had started to freeze as they rolled down his face, and he couldn’t feel either of hands anymore. He began stumbling through the deep snow toward the back door of his house. As he went back up the driveway, he found the path he’d started shoveling earlier, and it had not yet been filled in by the blowing snow. What had felt like hours in that other place had seemingly only been a matter of minutes here.
John was so ecstatic that he fell down a couple of times as he rushed to get to the back door. Each time it was harder to pull himself back up, but he knew Amber would be waiting for him inside, and he just wanted to be with her in the warmth of his own home, where he could forget about the insanity of what happened out there in that place.
John made it up the back steps and tumbled through the door, spilling onto the floor. “Amber!” he called out. “Come help me! You’re not gonna believe this!”
But Amber didn’t answer. When John looked up, he saw why.
He wasn’t in his house. In fact, he was in a room with a polished metal floor, a metal ceiling, and a metal walls. When he turned to look at the door he had just come through, it was gone. It had been replaced with a field of blue light, exactly like the one that had enveloped him out in the snowy arena several minutes earlier.
“No,” was all that John could muster, as his mind raced to put the events of the past few hours into some sort of logical order. Hadn’t they just sent him home? Why would they just take him again?
“Why?!” John screamed. “Why would you send me home and then just take me back?”
“YOU ARE HOME NOW,” came the same booming metallic voice that he’s heard out in the snow. “PHYSICAL TESTS WILL RESUME TOMORROW. PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS RESUMING.”
The metallic wall in front of him faded to reveal something resembling a giant monitor. A video feed began to stream in front of him. It was the inside of his house. The living room, in fact. Amber was sitting on the couch, sipping her tea and watching her show, with her favorite quilt wrapped around her. He could hear the theme music of the crime procedural in the background, and even the small sipping noises Amber made when she drank her tea.
Words failed John. He began to cry, as he watched Amber stand up from the couch, walk over to the window, and peek outside.
“It’s really coming down,” she said to herself. “Looks like a whole other world out there.” She padded back over to couch and took up her tea.
“I can’t imagine he’ll be out there much longer,” she muttered, taking a sip of her tea.
You can read Drift and a handful of my other short horror stories in the collection Intrusive Thoughts: Volume One, which you can grab on Amazon for $.99.