This is the place where nightmares dwell
Where darkness reigns and terror fell.
In every part where dead things skulk
Deathly quiet, amassed in bulk.
They await the stranger from the skies
Hiding in the dark with an awful surprise.
Come one, come all, and do not fuss
Come see the man whose soul belongs to us.
And all around lie deserted homes
Where the wind does not whistle, but moans.
This is where those who have died an unspeakable death are doomed to forever wander in endless misery…
Every nook and cranny of this place stank of horror. In every corner, Sean could see blood, could hear screams, could smell death. He could feel the terror that clung to the walls like a creature of the deep sea wrapping its tentacles around its petrified victim as it drags it to the depths.
He vomited again. First time in a few weeks. He wondered if it was the memory of this place or the sickness that came with it. Or perhaps it was his own guilt, knowing that he had a major part to play in what had happened here.
He was in somebody’s house. The person, or people who lived here did not know Sean, and he had never known them. But he knew important details about them, enough to know that he never wanted to meet them. He had feared deep inside that eventually there would come a time where he must encounter them. It had been one of the many, endless fears that kept him awake at night.
It hadn’t taken long.
On his third night here, the lady in red came to visit him.
Or rather, he had visited her.
He had been the one that had invaded her house, after all.
He had been lying on top of a dirty mattress, watching the snow fall gently and soundlessly to the streets outside when he heard her footsteps. He was frozen to the bed in terror. His body went rigid, and it took a moment for him to even be able to turn his head towards the door of the bedroom he was in.
By the sound of the footsteps, he judged that whatever was coming was currently on the staircase. The old wood of the steps bent and creaked with each ghostly step.
He held his breath.
Outside the door, the footsteps stopped and were replaced by a slow scratching sound. The handle moved slightly and shakily as the thing behind the door fumbled with it, most likely trying to grasp on properly to push open. And then he heard what could only be described as a manic sort of moan.
Sean tensed his body. His eyes were wide circles beneath his sweating forehead.
And then the door opened. And there she stood. The lady in red.
Only, she wasn’t wearing anything red. Sean couldn’t tell if she was really wearing anything at all. The red was unmistakably blood, appearing to pour all the way down the woman’s body and soak the floor beneath her.
Sean screamed at the sight of her.
She screamed back.
Hers was a scream of haunting sadness mixed with unabated fury. It was enough to make Sean feel like throwing up. She stumbled into the room and began making awkward, jagged movements as she did so. She looked as though she was searching for something as her hands began patting the walls, leaving bloodied marks everywhere. She frantically searched the far wall and then stumbled, fell to the floor and crawled to another, all the while maintaining that desperate scramble.
And then she turned and faced Sean. Her face was scarred and burned. Several white blisters covered her dark, twisted face. Her eyes were fire; looking at Sean with a fury so deep it would have unsettled the most evil and unspeakable of demons.
His body finally allowed him to move when the lady sprung towards him. He shot up off of the mattress and flung himself out of the window, falling from the second floor and crashing into the thin layer of snow beneath. He pushed himself to his feet and sprinted down the empty streets without looking back, frantically patting away the snow on his body.
In the distance, the lady screamed.
He hadn’t slept that night. He roamed the abandoned streets, trying to take some form of comfort in the gentle snowfall, but he could find none. He wondered for a moment why he didn’t just allow himself to leave this place.
Because I shouldn’t, was his answer. If I leave, I shall be doomed to live a worse nightmare than even the one found here.
He decided to spend each night in a different house. The change of scenery settled him somewhat, and he imagined it reduced his likelihood of another run-in with the red lady. He could picture her stumbling and dragging herself around each house, carefully checking every room for him. What exactly would she do with him when she caught him? His mind turned to every dark possibility imaginable. It made his very soul shiver.
The sickness had set in some two weeks later. He’d thrown up multiple times, and twice he found blood mixed in with the rest of the foul things ejecting from his body. His skin began to itch, lightly at first but eventually his arms, legs, neck and face were red and began to blister. By the third week, there was constant bleeding. He began to struggle to breathe, and when this eased off a little, it was no longer difficult, but incredibly painful. A consistent agonising cough began, and some of these again were accompanied by blood.
I’ve lost so much blood I should be dead already, Sean thought.
He’d been having nightmares of late; ever since he’d first learned of the impact of Caroline. He was mostly haunted by her, and the awful images in his head of her annihilation. And he couldn’t help but compare himself to her because after all, he was more to blame than her for what had happened. When he dreamed of Caroline, he saw her in all her clear ugliness. Others would describe her as beautiful, as Sean would have before he arrived here. But now, every inch of her was weaved with sadness and distress. He dreamed that she could somehow walk, and as she did she would extend arms that were never there before outwards in an attempt to grasp him and drag him down to her own despair.
In another nightmare, he dreamed that it had stopped snowing. Outside he could hear an unfamiliar sound: joy and laughter. He peered out of the window (of a lovely, untouched and perfectly made-up bedroom) and he saw that outside the streets were filled with people, happily walking up and down, walking dogs, playing with children. This happiness was contagious, and Sean felt filled with it. It was as though Caroline had never happened at all.
Where is she now? She can’t be here among all of this!
He threw on a coat and a pair of shoes and ran outside to meet with all of these hearty spirits. He whizzed down the stairs and swung open his front door. With a wide smile spread gleefully across his face he looked out -
- at the dead people on the ground.
Every soul he had spotted outside of his window lay in front of him now in a horrific mess. Bodies were cluttered everywhere, some in disorganised piles and some in pieces, lying dejectedly alone. He found that sometimes his eye would catch the wide-open eye of one of the corpses and he couldn’t bear to keep looking for more than a brief second.
Sean walked over to one of the bodies. A small boy. His eyes were closed, and remarkably, he had little sign of injury. Sean fell to his knees beside him, in grief. He began weeping and he started to feel sick again. And then the boy woke up.
He had black, frightened eyes and his mouth was missing all of his teeth. He had opened his mouth to speak, but Sean couldn’t understand what he was saying. Eventually, he discovered that the boy was saying help me, before his black eyes and his body went still.
Sean wept all the harder and now took the boy in his arms and clutched on. He pressed his face against the boy’s cheek and embraced him closely. He had woken up clutching on to a dirty pillow with a stain on it which painted a blurry image of the dark-eyed boy.
By the fifth week, Sean’s nightmares were becoming unbearable. One night, after he finally fell asleep following a fit of bloodied coughs, he dreamed he was awoken by screams. He stood up and ran outside his house. When he flung the front door open, the screams got louder but nobody was there. He called out to the ghostly, invisible people, but nobody answered. He ran down the empty streets, and as he did the screams continued escalating in volume. They got so loud that he covered his ears with his hands in a failed attempt to cut the noise out, for it was louder still when his hands were at his ears. He took them away from his head and looking down at them, he saw that there were thousands of tiny, terrified faces on his hands screaming loudly.
Suddenly the sky lit up in a huge beam of radiant brilliance. The light seemed to make Sean’s scars burn badly, and it was too much for his eyes which he now tightly shut and placed an arm over her forehead to try to block out some of the pain. The little people on his hands howled louder than ever as Sean cried out the only word that was on his mind. The name that haunted his every waking moment.
Finally, the light faded to darkness, but the faces continued to shout and now Sean joined in on the wailing. Every single face was staring at him, wide-eyed and petrified. They seemed afraid of him. He pleaded with them to stop screaming, but they wouldn’t. He felt as though it was driving him to madness.
He felt he had to do something about it.
He ran into the nearest house and found the kitchen. Inside one of the drawers, he took out the sharpest knife he could find and placed his hand face down on the counter.
The faces on his left hand began crying out and pleading.
No! Please! Don’t cut us off!
You can’t do this!
Sean ran the blade back and forth across the top of his left wrist. The pain was searing, but he continued madly slicing into his skin while the red faces of the people on his hand continued moaning in horror. He eventually passed out.
And when he awoke in the same house, with the same scarlet knife in his hand and no faces but a new, deep gaping wound in the top of his wrist, he realised that it was no dream at all…
After that, the sickness seemed to disappear. The vomiting stopped, his breathing was clearer, and the sight of blood had not been present for several days, save for the wound on his wrist. He’d wrapped his hand in toilet paper temporarily until he’d found some proper bandages two days later. He found nothing else to treat his wound with however, and it stung and throbbed painfully. He should have had enough bandages to keep replacing the old ones with for about a week, but the bleeding was so severe that they were soaked within minutes.
Why am I even bothering to bandage it up? Sean found himself wondering. Why not just bleed out and end all of this?
Because you need to see it all. You need to see Caroline’s destruction. You need to understand fully the extent to which she ruined lives.
Why? I’ve seen enough!
No. You can linger here in this place for a thousand years, and still you would not know the terror and utter desolation that she caused. You could never know it. And that’s why they hate you.
Sean knew that “they” hated him for more than the simple reason of being unable to understand or appreciate their pains. They hated him because of much more than that. Oh yes. If they could, they would drag him down with them into the very depths of their despair to show him, just for a moment, what the word “pain” really meant. They would tear his very being from him, crumple it up and throw it into the nothingness beyond what was waiting for them. And even then, he would know nothing of their everlasting anguish.
He was eventually visited again.
This time it was a pale spectre of a being. He’d been unable to sleep and was staring out of the window at the falling snow (oh, why was he still pretending to himself that it was snow?), when he heard a noise coming from the bathroom. A slight bump followed by what sounded like soft weeping. Shivering, Sean got out of bed and walked quietly down the hall and stood outside the bathroom door.
Undeniably, something was in there, and it was crying.
The sobs were soft and delicate. They depicted a great, hopeless sadness. It sounded to Sean like the most fragile, melancholy music that one would hear and be compelled to switch off for fear of being dragged into the same depression that the music was born from. For a moment, he was unafraid and stuck in his own grief. So much so, that some tears of his own began to form in his eyes.
He wanted to see this person. The bathroom door was open a mere fraction, just enough to let out a thin strip of light if there had been one on inside. He carefully placed the fingertips of his right hand on the door and gently pushed.
The door creaked loudly.
It opened just far enough for Sean to see the figure at the other side of it spin round and face him, less than two feet away. Through the thin gap in the door frame, he could see a terrified face. He didn’t know whether it was male or female, old or young. It was as pale as the light shone from a full moon but where its eyes should have been there were two large, black holes. Its mouth was much larger than it should have been for the size of its head, and it twisted into a shocked and scared expression.
Like the lady in red, it screamed. But there was no anger in this scream, no fury. It was the terrified wail of someone that feared for their life.
The last sounds of its life, no doubt.
It pulled the bathroom door fully open, and Sean jumped back. The thing moved swiftly out of the room crying and screaming, never taking its huge black eyes from Sean. It floated down the hallway and disappeared.
Sean was frozen stiff, listening out for the spectre and wondering where it might have gone. The hallway was too dark to see anything in much detail, and it was impossible to know which way it went. Deciding that the thing clearly didn’t want anything to do with him, he walked slowly back to the bedroom. Upon opening the door, he found it there, sitting on his bed.
It shot its head up upon Sean entering the room and wailed once more in terror. Once more, it flew past him and disappeared. Sean decided to try a different house for the night, remembering that the lady in red had not followed him, but it was no good. Each house Sean visited, the spectre was there, screaming in terror in sight of him. He tried sleeping in one of the houses that the spirit had fled from, but peculiarly, it kept coming back into his room, seeing him and fleeing in terror again. Its screams were the most unpleasant sound that Sean had ever heard. It would be a while, he thought, before he felt safe enough to sleep again.
Ultimately, the sickness returned. The nausea, the bleeding, the difficulty breathing. But this time it was more severe. Sean felt as though his time was nearly up. He felt exhausted all the time. Everywhere he walked, he left blotches of blood in the “snow” below his feet.
But finally, he found what it was he was looking for. It came in the form of a little girl.
She stood around four feet tall. Her clothes were ragged – full of holes and tears of every shape and size, revealing a dark, scarred skin, a mixture of black and deep scarlet. She had no hair, and a face so deformed that it was impossible to see anything that resembled human expression. A hideous set of dark, crooked teeth were revealed by lips that had somehow been pulled back or ripped away. One eye was missing, and the other was swollen to the point where it seemed as though it might burst upon the slightest of touches. Her nose with nothing more than two deep slits in the middle of her head.
‘It’s you!’ Sean wailed. ‘Caroline!’
She moved slowly towards him, every painful step coming awkwardly and painfully. Sean could almost feel the endless agony of every movement.
She extended an arm out to him and only then did Sean notice that three of her fingers were missing. Minimal casualties of a much greater struggle. The hand limply fell onto Sean’s cheek, and the girl stood, crookedly staring into Sean’s face.
The two of them stood there for a moment, looking at each other. And then the girl spoke.
‘You… Did this...’
It sounded almost like a question, and Sean nodded bleakly because he could not work up the courage to speak any more.
‘Caroline...’ the girl croaked.
And finally, Sean broke. Tears streamed down his face, and he wailed in anguished despair, just like the pale spectre as the girl stood, disfigured arm still holding on to his cheek. He wept for what seemed like a long time, and then the girl collapsed to the floor, limp. Sean picked her up and carefully cradled her in his arms. She was as light as a dark, ghostly shadow. He carried her out of the burned ruins of the house he was in, outside to be softly buried in the greyish white falling from the stars above.
As he walked out of the house and into the road outside of it, he continued to weep. Just ahead of what used to be the gate of the house, one of the girl’s arms dropped and then snapped off like a twig, hitting the floor with a thud. Sean lowered the girl beside it then bent onto his knees and wailed into the darkness.
‘Caroline! It was me who dropped you! I am the bringer of your destruction! I confess! I confess!!’
And as though in answer, the streets became swarmed with many dark creatures that had been hiding. The lady in red and the terrified pale spectre were there among thousands of others, all of them looking to be in similar pain to anyone else. Scarred and blackened faces, missing limbs, faces so deformed that if Sean were to survive this, would haunt his every moment of life henceforth. As they moved in towards him, they began whispering and moaning:
‘Caroline! Caroline! Caroooooline!!!’
And finally, they reached him, and Sean let them take him. At first, he did not know what word to use to describe what was happening to him, but around three seconds before his death, he thought of the perfect word to describe it.
We saw a man come wandering
His heart was sore, his face was grim
Lost he was, and murmuring
So then we went and ate him
"Caroline" is one of fifteen short stories in the collection "Which Way is North?", available in paperback, Kindle and audiobook formats. Read more about it on its Amazon page.