Something You Don’t Want To Find By by Annie Neugebauer

Something You Don’t Want To Find
by Annie Neugebauer

Synopsis:
Horror stories pray on the power of imagination. Your mind can make a Haunted Carnival become too real for comfort. All you need to do is think of something else. Don’t dwell on the darkness. Don’t look behind you..

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Chris heard it somewhere in her room.

At first, her parents didn’t believe her when Chris told them she could hear the scorpions—not until she was proven right so many times. The clinking of her blinds? It could have so easily been a single slat caught on the lever of the lock, slipping back into place through a combination of air current and gravity, but it had indeed been a scorpion nestled within.

The home her family had moved to was new, built on some wooded land in the country where the hot, dry climate sent scorpions hunting for cool, damp spots like the inside of an air-conditioned house. She overheard a neighbor tell her mother about a scorpion that fell on her head from the ceiling; scorpions can walk upside down. Her older brother told her that since they have exoskeletons instead of spines, they can thin their bodies down to the thickness of a credit card to slip through cracks.

Chris recognized their noises in the darkness of her room. The soft shifting of a plastic bag in the closet, the dry rustle of a piece of loose notebook paper, the almost imperceptible grate of something against the wall paint—they all had proven true.

Her parents became annoyed, then incredulous, then worried.


Chris’s father paid a professional exterminator to spray the whole house, but scorpions are arachnids, not insects; like spiders, they don’t groom their legs as often as roaches. Because of this, they don’t ingest the poison until days or even weeks after walking through it; at which point, they’re already inside the home, crouching in crevices during the day and prowling at night, when Chris would hear them.

To her, they seemed otherworldly with their gelatin insides, sticky-clicky legs, warped segmented tails, and big, threatening pincers. The old ones were large and dark, plated armor all scattered with hair, nearly blackened by sun. But even the small ones, still yellow and brown in their youth at only an inch or so long, were monsters that had never belonged on this Earth.

Now, lying in bed, Chris stared into the darkness above her and wondered if one was crossing overhead. She envisioned its lithe body as it navigated nearly blind by some instinct she couldn’t fathom. What if it stopped? What if it grew tired or the air conditioning kicked on, and the breeze jolted its hold on the texture of the ceiling? Where would it land? On the carpet? On her quilt?

On her face?

Picturing this, Chris couldn’t bear to shut her eyes. She stared into the void until she couldn’t remember if her eyes were open or closed, if she was awake or dreaming, if she’d just gone to bed, or if dawn was coming.

Chris knew, even at the young age of twelve, that she was inviting trouble by lying awake and listening for them. She tried to sleep, but the fear rode her like an electric current that she couldn’t break contact with, until it became too much, and she knew she must break loose or die. She must seek the shelter of her parents. But it was childish fear controlling her, so she convinced herself that she would grow tired if she stayed in bed. She willed fear to ebb and sleep to flow.

Again, a sound.

A strange, groaning sound like a sweaty palm against polished wood. From the side of her bed. The floor, maybe?

It was nothing. A scorpion couldn’t make that sound. It was the house settling.

Even if there were a scorpion in the room, it wouldn’t come near her. To such a small thing, a bedroom must seem like a planet, and how could a single creature find her on an entire planet?

Just to prove to herself that she was wrong, she reached into her nightstand to grab her flashlight. With small, trembling fingers, she turned it on, searching the floor next to the bed. She shined the weak yellow light on carpet, baseboards, and stuffed animals lined up in a row. She climbed the walls with it, then the ceiling, but nothing was there.

“I told you,” she chastised herself, but the relief was too strong for anger.

She used the beam to light the open shelf of her nightstand, ready to flip it off and put it away. But spotlighted in perfect relief, wicked tail raised up over its head in full attack display, was another scorpion, perched right where she’d grabbed the flashlight from.

She didn’t even choose to move; she was just suddenly racing down the hall toward the living room. Her father sat up watching late night TV.

“Dad,” she said, panting, “There’s a scorpion in my room.”

He sighed and let down the footrest of his recliner. By now, he knew better than to argue with her. She stood aside and let him lead the way back to her bedroom, as if his sheer physical presence could protect her from something so small, so insidious.

By the time they got there, the scorpion had dropped from her nightstand and was skittering across the carpet. Chris shrieked. Her father made a mad scramble to smack it, knocking aside stuffed animals as the scorpion scurried away. But he wasn’t in time, and Chris watched as the thing disappeared into the crack underneath the baseboard—a crack thin enough to give a flathead screwdriver trouble working in—and she knew she would never be safe.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I missed it.”

She looked at him in dismay. They would have to move.

He propped her stuffed animals back upright and stood, smoothing down her hair. “But it’s gone now. He’ll crawl through the wall and back outside. We scared him real good. He won’t come back.”

Chris stared. Her father looked like a stranger, telling her these lies.

“Go back to sleep. You’re safe.”

He tucked her into bed, then stood by the door, hand hovering over the light switch. “You going to be okay?”

“I can hear them, Dad. When I get quiet, I hear them crawling around in the dark. When I check, I’m always right.”

Then her father gave her the advice that would change her life.

“Chrissie, why are you trying to hear them? Don’t look for something you don’t want to find, sweetheart.”

He blew her a kiss and turned off the light, closing the door behind him.

 

###

 

The older she got, the more she realized the wisdom of her father’s advice. It was indeed senseless to search for the thing you don’t want to find. This new practice, combined with the prolonged effectiveness of the new exterminator, resulted in fewer and fewer scorpion sightings. Her family was relieved and grateful, as was Chris.

Over time, it became easier to pretend she didn’t hear them. Occasionally, she would stumble across one in plain sight, with the lights on, and she’d send her dad in for the kill, but she slowly grew out of her obsession.

By the time she hit adulthood and moved out on her own, the “scorpion phase,” as her mother liked to call it, was merely a bad memory she kept buried under logic and distance.

It felt, in truth, like a scorpion locked in a tin can; maybe if she left her obsession in there long enough, it would die. The problem with that plan was that sometimes, she saw the tin and was tempted to peek. What if the scorpion got out?

Chris learned that it was better not to check this metaphorical tin; she learned to trust that the scorpion was in there—dead, nothing more than a dry, skeletal husk curled inside a crevice. It was best not to open that lid.

 

###

 

“You’re not chickening out, are you?” Rachel’s voice was softer than the words buzzing through the phone line.

Crisp October wind lifted the bangs off Chris’s forehead, and she wrapped her sweater closer with one hand, the other holding her cell to her ear.

“Nope, I’m on my way.”

“Really?” Rachel sounded relieved.

Chris smiled. “Really. I told you I’d do it, so I will.” After a pause she added, “I’m not going to like it, though.”

Now Rachel’s tone was absolutely indefatigable. The girl was more optimistic than a marshmallow-coated unicorn. Why she loved such freaky shit, Chris didn’t understand. “Give it a chance. I bet you’ll become a total enthusiast, like me.”

The heels of her boots made a sassy snap on the sidewalk, and Chris took a deep whiff of autumn in the city before saying, “Rach, I’m never going to like haunted houses.”

“Never say never.”

“I just did.” Chris pictured Rachel rolling her eyes. A street sign told her she was nearing her destination. “I’ll be there in, like, three minutes.”

“We could watch horror movies together!” Rachel shouted into the phone.

“Don’t hold your breath,” Chris said. “This is a one-time thing. Just a favor, since Lilly bailed on you.”

Rachel made a knowing mm-hmm. “See you soon.”

Chris tucked the phone into her jeans’ back pocket. In her other pockets, she had cash, an ID, and some lip balm. Apparently, a purse might get in the way at a haunted house. When Rachel told her that, Chris almost backed out. Almost said she needed to stay home and study. She actually did have a lot of work to do for o-chem, but Rachel assured her that the actors weren’t allowed to touch the customers. “It’s all for show,” she said. Against her every instinct, Chris agreed.

She was one block away from “Dr. Barlaam’s Haunted Carnival,” a traveling attraction Chris had never heard of before—not that she frequented this type of thing. As she walked, focusing on the sound of her heels, the street became more crowded, and the air grew warmer. She smelled grease and sugar and sweat all rolled into one great fist of scent that punched her in the gut. She tightened her arms around her waist and kept walking, listening to her heels.


Eventually, she realized that her pace was speeding up to match her heart rate. The sound of a carnival barker drifted in and out of the street, and she forced her feet to slow.

This was silly. All in good fun, she told herself. There was nothing to be afraid of here.

She turned the final corner, and the carnival lights burst into view.

 

###

 

“It can’t be that bad, if it’s this bright,” Chris said.

A hand grabbed her arm, and she started. “Of course it’s not bad. It’s fantastic!” Rachel stood behind her. She wore a little skirt and denim jacket with brown ankle boots. Her glossy dark hair was pulled back into one of those messy ponytails that somehow looked both effortless and chic.

Chris put a hand over her chest, where her heart was trying to make a mad escape.

Rachel cocked an eyebrow. “A little jumpy, huh?”

Chris nodded, trying to laugh it off. All around them, people pressed through, into the heart of the carnival’s tents and food stands. The body heat made her feel claustrophobic. “I told you—I don’t like haunted houses.”

A strange, nasal male voice swooped down from above. “Well, tonight is your lucky night then, birdie, for this is no haunted house. It’s a haunted carnival!”

Chris jerked her head up to find a tall, thin man perched on top of a cotton candy booth. Black feathers covered his skin, and a long sharp beak protruded from his face. He cocked his head at them, shifting from foot to foot.

Rachel laughed and pulled Chris into the flow of people, but Chris looked back at the man. He pretended to preen his feathers with his beak. It looked eerily real. Good makeup, she told herself. This place must be expensive.

They hadn’t been stopped at the entrance to buy tickets.

Her gaze was dragged forward by a large man completely covered in hair, even on his face and neck, when he bellowed, “Welcome to Dr. Barlaam’s Haunted Carnival, home to freaks, frights, and fritters.” Then he smiled, and his canines were unusually pointed. His dark brown eyes met hers when he said, “I hope your visit brings you much pleasure.”

Chris broke eye contact, hustling forward with Rachel, who was giggling like a high schooler. “I think he likes you.”

Chris gaped at her. “That was real,” she scolded. “That man was covered in hair! It’s not right to turn people with real physical issues into some sort of freak show. Think about how he must feel.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “It isn’t real, dork. It’s good makeup. These are all actors.”

Chris looked over her shoulder at the wolfman, who was still watching her. He waved. His nails were long and filed to points. She shook her head. “It looks too real. You can see where the hair of his eyebrows grows into his forehead fur. He’s one of those people with Ambras syndrome.”

Rachel stomped her foot on the hard-packed dirt. “Don’t you dare get all sciency on me, Chris. This is supposed to be fun, remember? No medical conditions. No social injustices. Just spooks and junk food.”

Chris swallowed her reply and repeated, “Spooks and junk food.”

Rachel nodded in approval and urged her deeper into the crowd. Too hot, too close, too loud. But Chris kept looking back at the wolfman, searching for some sign of sadness in his dark eyes, some proof that he was a real person, forced by circumstances into this role. Instead, she saw only a sparkling, malicious joy. Whatever he was, he enjoyed scaring people.

The tendril of unease that had been snaking through Chris began to thicken, coiling in the pit of her stomach.

When they lost sight of the wolfman, a piercing howl split open the night like a ripe melon, ready to be devoured.

 

###

 

Chris spent the whole walk to the haunted house section of the carnival staring at the freaks, trying to pinpoint one tiny mistake in their makeup, something to prove that this was another performance. It had to be; some of the freaks were physically impossible, like the birdman. Others, like the wolfman, seemed uncannily real.

Rachel stopped in front of a tent that read Madame Metasoma. “What’s up with this one? That basket’s empty.”

Chris peered in the opening to spot the basket in question: an enormous cylindrical container as tall as her shoulders. There was a matching woven lid lying on the ground beside it.

“What do you think she keeps in there?” Rachel said.

A dark-eyed woman in a purple headdress rushed to them from the back, her face taut with some emotion. Her eyes never stopped moving, roving the inside of the tent, landing everywhere but Chris’s gaze. “We’re closed,” she snapped at them, jerking the tent flaps shut with both hands.

“Wow, rude,” Rachel muttered. “Come on, let’s get to the good part.”

Chris’s skin was trying to crawl off her bones, so she wrapped her arms tightly around herself to keep it in place. Her jaw ached.

The “haunted house” was actually a huge, portable warehouse draped in circus tent fabric. The handpainted sign above the entrance read HOUSE OF HORROR: Enter at your own risk! Shrieks, groans, and chainsaws echoed from inside.

Rachel touched her arm, and Chris flinched. “Do you want to go home?”

It hurt to swallow past the dryness in her throat. “No, I promised you I’d do this. I’m fine.” Her voice was thick and raspy.

“Yeah, but when you said you didn’t like haunted houses, I didn’t realize…” Rachel cleared her throat. “I had no idea you would be this scared. I don’t think you’re going to like this. I won’t be mad if you don’t want to go.”

Chris wondered where the exiting customers came out. Probably in the back. She wished it was at one of the sides, so she could stop one and ask how bad it was. Did she want to back out? Hell yes. But one look at the disappointment on Rachel’s face told her she needed to do this. She’d bailed on her friend to study too many times. Somehow, she had the feeling that if she left now, Rachel wouldn’t be inviting her to any more things. She could do this. She needed to prove that to herself.

“I’ll go,” she said quietly.

The surprise on Rachel’s face almost made it worth it. “Really?”

Chris forced a smile. “Yeah. I might close my eyes, though.”

Rachel hopped in place, clapping. “Okay! You can hold my hand. I’ll protect you!”

Chris laughed. “But I don’t need protection, right? They aren’t allowed to touch us.”

Rachel was already moving forward as the line neared the entrance. On either side of a wide double-door stood two identical men, tall, pale, and dressed in tuxedos. They had on top hats that added more height to their thin frames, and their dark, pointy goatees stayed stiff as they spoke.

“Welcome to the House of Horror,” they said in unison, their voices cultured monotones. “May we please tear your tickets?”

“I don’t—”

Rachel pulled two tickets from her back pocket and handed one to each of the men, which Chris thought was a strange choice. “I bought them ahead of time,” she told Chris.

The men tore the tickets simultaneously, handing them back to Rachel with slender, white-marble hands. “Thank you for your patronage,” they intoned, jaws moving at exactly the same rate. “We hope you enjoy the horror.”

Chris shot Rachel a glance, but she was grinning, peering into the darkness beyond the doors. “Do you guys always speak at the same time?” Chris asked.

“We do.”

Chris realized that was probably the most common thing they got asked. For some reason, she felt an overwhelming desire to trip them up and break their perfect routine.

“What’s your favorite movie?” she asked them, crossing her arms over her chest.

They blinked at the same time. “We do not watch…movies.”

She frowned. “What’s your favorite color?”

“Black.”

“Black is not a color,” she pointed out.

“Black is the absence of color,” they droned.

She glared at them. Their tuxes had thin red piping around wide lapels pierced by a single red rosebud. “How do you do that?”

As one, they pointed their inside arms down at the floor between them. Only then did Chris notice a pale, fleshy tube trailed across the double doorway. It looked like a small intestine stretched between them, the ends trailing up and disappearing beneath their tuxedo tails. She knew it was fake, but shuddered anyway.

“Enjoy the horror,” they told her as one. She stepped over their tube.

Rachel grabbed her hand and tugged her inside. Cool darkness engulfed her, scatter-shot with shrieks of fear and pain, mad laughter, and evil chuckles. A chainsaw revved in the distance.

Already, she wanted to turn back.

 

###

 

The warehouse was divided into narrow hallways that led into bulbous rooms staged with different scenes. Actors roamed about, creeping up behind customers as well as acting out scenes of what Chris could only consider torture. Their special effects were horribly realistic. After watching one woman who was chained to a wall get eviscerated, Chris closed her eyes and plugged one ear, letting Rachel drag her through by her free hand.

This was way more graphic than she expected. Haunted houses had become much more adult and visceral since the ones of her childhood. This was awful.

“It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real,” Chris told herself.

At one point, after they’d come to a standstill, she felt heat on her neck. But her arm was extended away, which meant it wasn’t Rachel breathing on her so closely. Chris opened her eyes to the darkness of the warehouse. A man wearing an evil clown costume complete with bloody lips was standing inches from her, panting onto her skin.

She cringed and shrank back, but he edged closer. “You can’t touch me,” she said over the clamor all around them. “You aren’t allowed to touch me!”

“That’s what you think,” he said, chuckling. He walked two fingers over the hairs on her arm, scarcely not touching her.

Chris yelped, lurching ahead of Rachel. “I want out of here,” she shouted back.

Rachel’s face was pale and sweaty, slack with fear. She wasn’t having fun anymore. “I’ve been trying,” she yelled. “The path is so long! I think it’ll be quicker to finish than to go back.”

Chris nodded jerkily, too many times, and forced herself to stop. Her palm was slick against Rachel’s, their bones pressed together with the force of their grip.

They couldn’t go much faster; there were people everywhere. It was loud and confusing and hot. Scenes of revolting realism splayed themselves in every corner. To one side, a blonde teenager sobbed, hugging a wall. She wore a glow-stick necklace.

“Hey, are you okay?” Chris shouted.

“I lost my group!”

Chris’s heart dropped. “It’s okay,” she said, beckoning the girl forward. “You can come with us.”

She reached out her free hand, and the girl took it. Her palm was small and cold. She hiccupped, her face pink and blotchy from crying. “Thanks,” she said.

“Sure. I under—”

Before Chris could finish her sentence, a seven-foot man wearing a white mask picked the girl up by her armpits and ripped her away. The girl screamed, flailing her arms and legs, trying to break free. She screamed and screamed, staring into Chris’s eyes as the man yanked her backward. Chris was frozen, her palm extended in empty air.

Behind him, three little people in mime outfits swarmed forward. The girl was shoved against the wall, where she slid to the floor, legs out in front of her. The rest of her was obscured by the clown and mimes. Blood and thicker things flew into the air until the screams abruptly halted in a wet gurgle.

Inside Chris, something broke. She started screaming.

“She was an actor,” Rachel shouted at Chris. “It was a trick; she was an actor, too!”

But she hadn’t been an actor; she’d taken Chris’s hand. The actors weren’t allowed to touch the customers. Chris couldn’t stop screaming. She ran.

She had to get out before the clown and mimes finished with that girl.

Chris ran and ran, screaming, dodging through clusters of people, not letting her mind absorb the scenes she passed.

Finally, she stopped screaming because she couldn’t breathe. She was panting too hard; she thought she might hyperventilate. She put her hands on her knees, leaning over. Both hands. Her head jerked up.

“Rach?” When had she let go of Rachel’s hand? “Rachel?”

Chris looked around, chest heaving. The area was nearly silent, the sounds of chainsaws and chaos muted.

She stood fully, taking in this new area. It was empty and white, devoid of a set like the other rooms she’d run through. Where was the fake blood? The table full of surgical equipment? The tattered cloth and overeager actors? Had she accidentally veered into a staging area?

Her sudden solitude magnified the pounding of her heart. She was hot and sweaty, her skin swollen with exertion. She’d gone from being-scared nervous to doing-something-bad nervous, like finding this room was against the rules. She should go back to the main path and look for Rachel.

But she didn’t want to. Her father’s advice drifted through her head. Don’t look for something you don’t want to find.

What did she want to find? An exit. She wanted to go the hell home.

She turned in a circle, examining the room. There were two doors. One was an open door frame, which must lead back to the circuit. The other was closed. Did it lead to a side exit? She turned the knob.

The door opened inward on well-oiled hinges. The room beyond was so dark, Chris couldn’t tell how large it was. She began to back out and shut the door behind her, but a dim red glow caught her eye.

An exit sign.

She almost shouted with relief. She stepped through, leaving the door open. Without the dim light from the first room, she wouldn’t be able to see anything at all in this room. As it was, her eyes fought to adjust. The room appeared large and empty.

The exit sign looked so small and far away. But there was nothing in her path.

Chris found herself stepping slowly forward, easing from heel to toe as silently as possible. She didn’t know why.

Five steps into the room, and the light from the doorway ended. Ten steps, and the exit sign didn’t seem to get any bigger. Fifteen steps, and she heard a sound.

Did she? She stopped, right foot forward, and held her breath, listening.

Silence.

She’d imagined it. Or heard her footstep echo.

The exit sign flickered ahead. She took several strides forward and froze.

Another sound. An almost imperceptible grate, like something was up against the wall ahead, near the exit. Another dim flicker of the red glow.

Chris wondered if she should turn back. Was someone in here? Was this part of the House of Horror and not backstage after all? Would she get in trouble?

She stood silently for a full minute, staring at the exit sign, trying to decide what to do. As she waited, her heart racing faster and faster, her eyes continued to adjust to the dark. That’s what it felt like, anyway, as a large shape took form above the exit, where the wall met the ceiling. A crouching silhouette. Large, the size of a man. But with too many lines coming from it.

A person in costume? Chris shook her head. No, a person couldn’t hover near the ceiling like that. And why would they bother hanging décor in the staging area? Her eyes were playing tricks on her, that was all. It was so dark in here that she was experiencing phosphenes.

She forced herself forward. Now she saw the exit sign clearly, and beneath it, dimly, the door. It was a normal, industrial door with a bar in the middle that must be depressed to go outside. She was so close.

The light flickered again. She saw it from the top of her eyes without looking up. A dark shape about the size of a thin arm swiped in front of it from above.

Had she imagined that?

Chris didn’t look up. She couldn’t look up. Out of the top of her field of vision as she stared at the door, she saw black shadows shifting. Every hair follicle on her body tightened. Every instinct she had told her to look up. She had a vague impression of something that might be a human face, but it was black and leathery and flattened, with several glossy orbs that might be eyes at the front corners.

Look look look, it urged her silently.

Chris promised herself she was imagining it. She wouldn’t look. She wouldn’t look. She would not look for something she didn’t want to find.

Another subtle sound, this one behind her.

She bolted. Her arms pumped like an Olympic sprinter as she ran for the door. She kept her head tucked down, her breath held. She jutted her arms out straight in front of her. The metal bar on the door compressed beneath her hands, and the door groaned.

A sharp burst of air past her cheek, a coarse bristle rustled her bangs, and she was hurtling into clear, cool air.

She didn’t stop.

Chris distantly smelled grease and sugar; she heard cries of laughter and screams of fright. She’d come out some backdoor of the House of Horror, and she ran through an empty field until she got to a parking lot, then she ran until she found a sidewalk. Her feet ached from the heels on her boots, and she nearly rolled her ankle three times, but Chris didn’t stop running until she was one block from home, and then she only slowed because she didn’t want to scare her neighbors—all elderly like her grandmother, who rented the place to Chris on the cheap. She hustled into her apartment, flipped on the light, locked and deadbolted the door, and leaned against it, panting. Her body felt hollow and shaky and not at all like hers.

She was home. She was safe. She told herself to calm down.

What the hell just happened?

 

###

 

After every light in the bottom floor of her apartment was on, it only took Chris about five minutes to start feeling silly. How on earth had she let herself get so carried away? Her face felt flushed from embarrassment.

She pulled out her phone and sent Rachel a text: “So sorry—freaked out and ran home. Please don’t be mad. I owe you one.” If Rachel was too pissed to respond, Chris would call her tomorrow.

Desperate for some background noise, she flipped on the TV. Usually, Chris loved living alone. She’d served her two-year penance with a dorm roommate, but at times like these, she did feel the absence of simple human company.

It opened to the local news, a smiling female reporter standing in front of Dr. Barlaam’s Haunted Carnival. She jammed the up button. She’d had plenty of that already. She flipped through channels until she found a syndicated sitcom so familiar that she didn’t have to watch it to know what was going on. She got a glass of wine, took off her boots, and rubbed her feet until the audience laughter set her heart rate back to normal.

Chris couldn’t believe how swept up she’d gotten. The fear had ravaged her, taken over. It was painfully obvious now that the things which had scared her so greatly were cheap tricks and planned kicks. That was why people went to the carnival, after all. The actors made things as realistic as possible in order to scare people. Their livelihood depended on it.

She checked her phone. No response from Rachel. She was mad. Chris sighed and finished her glass of wine. It was nearly one in the morning, and the loss of adrenaline left her shaky and exhausted. With heavy feet, she went over the bottom floor of her tiny apartment, tidying up and shutting off lights. She left on a single lamp in front of the window and double-checked the deadbolt. Then she climbed the stairs to get ready for bed.

 

###

 

Chris pulled on a hairband to hold her bangs off her forehead. She turned on the tap, waiting until the water got warm before bending over the sink to wash her face. She closed her eyes, splashing handfuls over her skin. Then she reached out blindly, by habit, and got two pumps of face wash. Her hands worked it into a foam, and she gently spread it onto her cheeks and forehead.

It felt so good to clean off the sweat from the night. She took her time, massaging as she washed.

A sound, downstairs.

Chris paused. Had she heard something? It was hard to tell over the water. It was probably the autumn wind against the front door; sometimes it pushed so hard that the wood groaned. She cupped her hands beneath the water stream to rinse her face.

A creak on the stairs.

Okay, had she imagined that? She shook her head, eyes clenched against the soap that had started to run through her eyebrows. She was just jumpy. She’d had a rough night.

She splashed clean water over her skin, rinsing away the face wash. She shut off the water, and the silence seemed abrupt and overwhelming.

Chris stood there, bent over the sink, both wrists on the edge of the counter. Water dripped off her nose and down her neck, but she didn’t reach for the towel. She listened.

There was nothing, no sound. But the room felt different, like the air pressure had changed.

Like maybe, there was something behind her.

“There’s not,” Chris whispered, but her voice echoed differently, like the bathroom wasn’t as empty as usual.

She reached slowly to the right, and her fingers brushed the terry cloth of her hand towel. She pulled it off its metal ring, burying her face in its dry softness. She patted her skin, rubbed her hairline, sniffed. Her face was clean and dry, but still, she kept it buried in her towel.

There was someone—some thing—behind her. She remembered the dark, many-legged shape crouched above the door at the House of Horror. She pictured its black, glossy eyes that she hadn’t truly seen. She imagined the thick, leathery skin that her peripheral vision had told her was there. The thing she hadn’t looked at before running home.

Don’t look for something you don’t want to find, she told herself. Don’t look.

Don’t look.

But she had to lower the towel. She inched it down her face. Her eyes, wide and shocked, were staring back in the mirror.

Then, she looked behind her.

©Annie Neugebauer
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Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer is a short story author, novelist, and award-winning poet. She has work appearing or forthcoming in over two dozen venues, including The Spirit of Poe, Underneath the Juniper Tree, So Long and Thanks for All the Brains, the British Fantasy Society journal Dark Horizons, and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies' prize anthology Encore. She won second place in the 2011 Edwin M. Eakin Memorial Book Publication Award sponsored by the Poetry Society of Texas.

Annie graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007 with highest university honors and a degree in English. She's also a member of the Horror Writers Association, vice president of the Denton Poets' Assembly, and president of the North Branch Writers' Critique Group. She lives in Texas with her husband and two diabolical cats.
Annie Neugebauer

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You can visit Annie Neugebauer at AnnieNeugebauer.com/ for blogs, creative works, free organizational tools for writers, and more.
  • klstevens

    Great story, Annie! As I said on Facebook (sorry I didn’t think to post it here first!), I love stories that explore the “letting your imagination run away with you” because I suffer from that way too much.

    Heck, just yesterday I was working late… the guys turned off the lights on their way out… and I started to question every little bump. It’s funny when an avid fan of the horror genre can get so worked up over a tiny thing like the dark… but it’s that overactive imagination!

  • Amanda M

    Ha. When I was a teenager living in Texas (near Denton!), I actually did have a scorpion drop off the ceiling right in front of me. Creepy. Very creepy story, too. Obviously, the moral is that you should always stay in, do your homework, and eschew all contact with “friends.”

  • Lisa Morelli

    Nicely creepy. I could feel her anxiety. So much better than those horror stories that are just about gore.

  • Jolina

    Great story, Annie! Your descriptions make the tension bowstring-tight. As a kid, I used to be scared to close my eyes when I washed my face. The ending brought this back!

  • Wow! You can really write. I loved many lines, but especially this one:

    Chris’s skin was trying to crawl off her bones, so she wrapped her arms tightly around herself to keep it in place.

    Thanks for the delightfully creepy story! I really enjoyed it! 🙂