Bethany Howell is an aspiring writer from Florida. She is currently earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Entertainment.
Jackson sat in front of the lawyer's desk with a tight frown on his face. Every time he heard a scratch from the lawyer's pen he had to stop himself from flinching. Jackson thought he was obnoxious. Everything about him made to much unnecessary noise. He watched as the Lawyer mumbled while he read the document. "That looks like the last of it," the lawyer said as he handed a pen to Jackson. "I just need you to sign a few papers, and we'll be done here." He grabbed a pen off his desk and signed wherever he saw circled. They both stood, and shook hands.
"What happens now?" Jackson asked.
The lawyer hovered by the door with his hand on the doorknob. "You try to rest and recover. That's the only thing, you have to do." He pulled the door open and gestured toward the empty waiting room.
"Thank you for your help," Jackson said as he walked out of the room. The lawyer nodded and closed the door behind him.
He left the building and sat in his car. There was nothing else for him to do but wait. He no longer had a job to worry about, and soon he wouldn't have a rent to worry about either. He leaned back in his seat and told himself to close his eyes. The warm stream of sunlight eventually lulled him to sleep.
He woke up to the obnoxious sound of someone pounding on his window. It was an older man with a neon security coat on. His face was lined with deep wrinkles that seemed to push his face into a permanent frown. He pointed to the watch on his wrist. Jackson looked up and noticed for the first time that the sun was about to set. He jumped up and wiped his face. When He looked at the security guard he had stepped back from the window. He waved his hand and drove out of the parking lot. When he finally got back to the apartment he threw himself down on the couch.
A familiar honk shook him out of sleep. Dazed, he stumbled out of the couch and felt around the table for his phone. The time on it read three-thirty in the morning. He threw it on the couch. Before renting the apartment, he knew that living between a train track and an airport might get a bit noisy, but he never thought that he would hear the noise from them so late into the night. After a full year of living here, he thought he would be used to the sound. However, he still jumped awake whenever he heard it.
He knew from past experience that going back to sleep tonight would be impossible. Instead, he decided to go outside for some fresh air hoping it would calm him down before he had to get ready for the long drive. When he walked out at first, the cool spring air did help, but the distant sound of a police siren broke through whatever trance it had put him in. He swatted at the insects that had crowded around the porch light and walked back inside.
His first thought was to put on a cup of coffee while he was in the shower. It wasn't until he found the empty bag in the cabinet that he remembered that he had drunk the last of it two days ago. Jackson wondered if the laps in his memory were also from not getting enough sleep. He threw the bag in the trash and walked to the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later he was dressed and ready to leave. He sat in his car and looked in the mirror. The deep purple bruising had gotten worse paired with how bloodshot his eyes had become made him look as haggard as he felt. Despite the long drive he had ahead of him, he felt relaxed. This was the last time he would ever have to see this place again.
When he finally got there, he was surprised by how abandoned it really looked. The yard had grass to his knees and was covered with different types of wild plants. The house was intact, but the windows were covered with filth. The inside of the house wasn't much better. Dust covered every inch of the house and cobwebs filled every corner. This was nothing like the beautiful house he saw in the picture. The forest around the property looked a lot closer as well. He decided that once he was settled the first thing he was going to do was build an electric fence to keep the animals out.
He knew it was his fault he had neglected the property far too long. Tomorrow he would have to drive into town and buy some supplies, but for tonight he would have to sleep in his car.
The space in the back of his car was restricted. He couldn't stretch his legs, and he had to keep the windows open because of how stuffy it got. Despite that, he woke the next morning feeling renewed.
The town was a lot smaller than he thought it would be. The only hardware store was almost a full hour from his own house. It was a small building with a large open field for a parking lot. The building itself was a faded blue with paint chipping off on the sides. When he walked into the store he was surprised to see how empty it was. The few people that were around stopped and openly stared at him as he grabbed what he needed. For a person, new to the town it was a bit intimidating.
It was very different from the image he had of small towns where everyone wanted to help each other and baked each other cobblers. If anything, it appeared to him that being there confused them. By the time he got to the register, he was more than ready to go home.
The man behind the register was young with shaggy hair that covered the upper half of his face. He scanned Jackson's items with a frown on his face.
"I'm guessing you’re new," he said not bothering to look up from the register. Jackson looked up at him surprised that he spoke at all.
"Yeah," he said before he cleared his throat. "I just moved in last night."
"I could tell," the cashier said still scanning the items in front of him. Jackson couldn't tell if he was being aggressive or not. His tone was neutral, but his body language seemed tense.
"That'll be sixty-one dollars," he said glancing around the store. Jackson nodded and pulled out his wallet with the last of his cash. The cashier reached out and grabbed Jackson,s hand. He pulled him close enough for Jackson to see the purple bruising under his eyes. "Try not to go out into the woods at night," the cashier whispered pulling away from him. "They say it's haunted." He looked up at Jackson's face and for the first time, he could see his eyes. They were bloodshot with black lines that danced around the sclera of his eye.
Jackson nodded and walked out of the store feeling their eyes on his back the whole way back to his car.
When he got back home he tried his best to forget about the whole trip. He told himself that it was a trick of the light. He was tired and the new moved wasn't helping. In the end, he came to the conclusion that the cashier just had eyelashes in his eye. That was what he told himself the whole time he was cleaning or whenever he saw what he thought was an insect.
By the time the sun set he had successfully cleared out three rooms. With the warning still repeating in his mind, Jackson made sure that he locked the doors and closed all the windows. He tied bed sheets on all the windows that didn't have curtains. He closed the door to his room and stuffed the crack underneath it with his dirty laundry. He sat on the air mattress with his arms crossed.
"He's probably pranking me," he said out loud hoping to fill the silence in the room. "He had to have known that this was my house." He laid back on the bed and laughed. "Going by how they were looking at me this was probably the only empty house for miles.
He grabbed his phone and plugged in headphones. He spent the next few hours listening to different songs before he fell asleep.
The next morning, he woke up to ringing in his ears. When he looked in the mirror, he noticed that the tips of them were red. "So, sleeping with earbuds in is probably not a good idea."
He inched out of the room and into the kitchen to grab ice for his ears. When he didn't see anything, he threw himself on the couch and put the ice to his ear. He felt like a fool for falling for that prank. After the ringing in his ears stopped he began to remove the sheets and opened the windows. With every window, he felt more at peace and he became more confident. By the time he reached the window by the back door he almost didn't notice that the sheet had fallen down during the night.
The window was lightly lifted and there were scratches on both sides of the window. The scratches were what calmed him. They had to have been made by a real thing something that he could physically fight. He lived in the middle of a forest. The opening was too small to belong to a human. He reasoned that it had to have been a raccoon that noticed that the window wasn't closed all the way and crawled in. The problem was getting it out of his house if it was even still in there.
He spent the rest of the day cleaning the house. By sundown again he covered the windows again and locked the doors. Although not with the same urgency. He laid in his actual bed and put his phone on the nightstand next to it. He went to sleep.
He woke to the sound of scratching and a pounding headache. He jumped out of his bed and reached for his phone. It was four in the morning. Annoyed he grabbed a dumbbell from his closet and went on the hunt for the creature. The sound seemed to be coming from everywhere and it was driving him nuts. He searched for the creature until the sun began to shine through the dark sheet he had on the wall. He pulled down all the sheets from the windows. When he got to the window by the back door he noticed that once again it was slightly open. The scratches were now covered in a black substance.
With no other option, he decided to go back to the hardware store. He picked up nails and wooden blinds. When he got to the register the same cashier was there with the same frown on his face. He didn't laugh when Jackson came up to check out. He didn't even look at him. Jackson silently paid and watched the cashier. Behind his mop of hair and tight-lipped frown, Jackson was sure he saw him smirk.
That night he put up the new blinds and nailed the windows shut. When the scratches started up again he turned up the music on his phone and wrapped himself in a blanket.
After a full week of the scratches, Jackson felt far worse than then he ever did in his old apartment. The stress combined with lack of sleep had caused him to have terrible nightmares. When the migraines started he decided to call up a professional.
A stocky man with a clean-shaven face and sunglasses greeted him by the door. He didn't smile or try to make small talk. With a blank expression on his face, he asked, "where the problem was?"
"Everywhere," Jackson grunted out through the kaleidoscope of colors dancing across his vision. The exterminator nodded and walked into the house. Jackson watched as he pulled down the attic ladder and climbed up. While he waited he laid down on the couch with a bag of ice to his face.
When he opened his eyes again the sun had begun to set. The exterminator stood over him with the same bored expression on his face.
"It was a raccoon," he said pointing to the cat carrier in his hand. Jackson tried to stand up but was hit by a wave of dizziness. He laid back down on the couch.
"Payment," he mumbled out squinting up at the exterminator.
He shook his head and placed a hand on Jackson's shoulder.
"It's on us," he said staring down at Jackson. "Welcome to town." He walked out of the room and Jackson heard the front door close behind him. He closed his eyes and stayed on the couch.
When he woke up again the sun had just started to rise and the whole house was painted orange. Jackson woke up to the feeling too hot and went to wipe the sweat off his face. The warm liquid spread across his hands and face. Disgusted Jackson slowly made his way to the bathroom. His vision blurred and he had to blink several times to get them to focus. He turned on the water and brought his face down. When he looked down the sink he saw spots of red drip down into the water.
The color of it seemed to shock him out of whatever trance he was in. He rushed to grab a tissue and held it to his nose. For the first time in what felt like weeks, he looked in the mirror. Warm red liquid oozed out of his nose and ears but what shocked him was his eyes. Just as bruised and bloodshot as they had ever been but now long black hairy tendrils seemed to dance across them. He turned his head and brought a shaky hand to his eye. The black tendril jumped away from his finger. A sharp pain jumped from his eye and he felt it move to his ear. He turned his head to look at it and the long black tendril inched out of his ear. He reached up and grabbed it. The scratching noises became louder as he pulled at it and he screamed. More liquid poured out and he fell to his knees.
"It's finally quiet."