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A Winter’s Morning

By Micah Castle

I

Stephen returned to his bedroom, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a small plate of toast in the other. Pinned underneath his arm was the Cherry Brooke Gazette, which he took from the doorstep of his cousin’s home. The house he currently resided in for the holidays.

He sat in the chair near the bed and placed the coffee and plate onto the nightstand. Opening the paper, he quickly turned to “The Rundown,” an article that covered the important news of the city.

After a few minutes, he folded the paper over his lap and began to eat his breakfast. When he went to pick up his cup, it trembled before him. Stephen set down the toast he was about to sink his teeth into and eyed the cup. He tried to pick it up again, this time with the other hand, but the cup again shook.

“What the hell?” he said, as he sat up and started to look into the cup, but was jerked away by the sound of someone pounding on the front door.

“Thomas,” he yelled to his cousin. “Get the door!”

II

Thomas heard Stephen scream from the guest bedroom.

“You get the door! I’m busy!” He shouted away from his wife, Cindy, who laid against him underneath the blankets in bed.

“It’s your house!” Stephen retorted. “So you get the door!”

The knocking at the door continued, even after Thomas tried his best to ignore it by returning to Cindy. He asked her if she would get the door, but even she refused to get out of bed that winter morning. After a few moments, Thomas slid out from underneath the covers, muttering some unfavorable words. The cold air stung his skin like needles.

“I really need to get that heater fixed,” he said under his breath. “Whoever’s knocking better have something important or so help me God. . .”

He paced out from the room, passing Stephen’s room, down the stairs, and to the front door.

He swung open the door and began to say, “Hello, sorry for keeping you, was sleeping and—” but his words faded away when he realized no one stood on his doorstep.

He looked out the door and down both ends of his street, to find no one was near his brownstone. With a shrug, he closed the door and began to walk back upstairs. The pounding on the door began almost immediately.

“I told you to get the damn door!” Stephen shouted from his room.

Ignoring his cousin, he trudged to the door and swung it open. “Look! I’m not going to play this game all da—” Thomas said, stopping to find his doorstep vacant.

But before him stood something. Not a person, no, but a medium sized cardboard box.

III

Stephen had not moved an inch since the last time the cup shook. Perplexed, he merely sat and stared, mulling over what would cause something like that to occur. There was only coffee in the cup. He was well rested and he was pretty certain he was not hallucinating. He had not touched any drugs for half a year, and he had not taken a sip of alcohol since last week.

Maybe Thomas caused the movement? Maybe when he got out of bed, he shook the ground enough to shake the cup? Although Stephen did not feel the floor shake one bit, he assumed that was the case. Since Thomas was at the front door, he concluded, the cup should not shake again.

With this in mind, Stephen grinned and reached for the cup with his pale hand. But before his bony fingers could wrap around the porcelain, it shook again, so much so, some droplets of coffee splashed against the floral wallpaper.

“Damn it!” he spat, getting up to his feet. With his hands on his waist, he stared down at the coffee as if it was a dog who had soiled the floor. “Why won’t you let me touch you?” he asked. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to. You’re just a cup!”

Stephen paced the room for some time, trying to think of a logical reason as to why the mug shook only when he tried to touch it. Eventually he came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a logical reason, and all he just wanted was to drink his damn coffee.

“What’s the worse that can happen?” he asked, as he threw caution to the wind and turned to the cup. He lurched forward and snatched the cup with both hands.

This time, it did not shake.

IV

Thomas had picked up the box, took it into the kitchen, and set it down on the granite topped island. He shouted for Cindy to come downstairs, who arrived grumbling.

“I don’t see why I have to come downstairs. It’s so cold.”

“This came in the mail,” he said, pointing towards the box.

“So?” Cindy initially said, but she grew curious as she sat down on one of the kitchen stools. “Who’s it from? Your mom?”

“There’s no return address, so. . . I guess I should open it.”

With a letter opener taken from one of the cabinet drawers, he cut the tape and unfolded the box. Another box was inside, a much smaller one, wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper and tied with a bright red bow. An envelope was next to it. Thomas took the box and letter out, pushed the large box onto the ground, and set them both on the countertop.

“READ BEFORE OPENING” was written in large, bold letters on the envelope. Following orders for no particular reason, Thomas opened the envelope first, and slid out a long letter.

“What’s it say?” Cindy asked.

He took some time to skim through it, making sure it was not something private. What he gathered from the letter was completely unbelievable, simply impossible. Flabbergasted to the point of no words, he merely handed the letter to his wife, and nodded for her to take a look.

Aloud, she began to read what was on the paper.

V

A grin crept over Stephen’s face. He felt the warmth coming through the porcelain cup, and he wanted it to be inside him. He took a big gulp of the brew, but immediately he knew it was wrong, all wrong. It wasn’t the strong, warm taste of coffee that covered the inside of his mouth — no, but rather sticky gunk that tasted like swamp water mixed with an unpleasant gelatin.

Quickly he tried to spit it out, but it stuck to his teeth and gums like glue. He set down the cup and began to pry the substance from his mouth with his fingers, pulling with all his strength. It would not give, no matter how much he pulled.

Perspiration covered his face, and his greasy black hair stuck to his forehead. Panic was setting in. He had to get this stuff out from his mouth. Frantically he searched his room for anything sharp, quickly finding a pen lying underneath the bed stand. He picked it up and used the pointy end to pry away the gunk from his teeth.

Several times Stephen accidentally stabbed the inside of his cheek, or the roof of his mouth. It was awfully tough to use a rounded end to unclog his teeth and gums, but eventually he succeeded. Finally, the gunk fell from his mouth and dropped to the floor like a ball of cement.

Stephen eyed the black blob, taking a few steps back. This was not coffee; this was nothing he had even seen before. After several minutes, he decided something had to be done. He couldn’t just stand there all day. The blob would probably stain or outright ruin the floorboards. But, he thought, he wouldn’t bring this to his cousin’s attention. Thomas wouldn’t do anything anyway.

He tried to pick it up but it moved, rippling. Stephen’s hand stopped before touching the dark thing and he quickly returned it to his side. He watched as the thing continued to ripple and vibrate, and as his eyes widened, small tears in its body opened up and began ejecting sickly green fumes.

“What the hell. . .”

VI

December 1, 2001

Greetings Thomas,

We haven’t spoken in quite some time but this was the last chance to send you this. Before I reveal to you what’s inside the box, I must reveal to you how I obtained it. I work at the Cherry Brooke Museum, mostly sorting what we receive from researchers, or donations, and so on. Basically I’m a jack-of-all-trades there.

One day we received several things from a writer who committed suicide. The chilling thing was that when his body was discovered, in his typewriter was a note, reading one short sentence: “It never stops.” Anyway, in this man’s will he clearly stated he wanted all his belongings to be given to the museum — something about most of his childhood was spent there. We wanted to fulfill his last dying wish. However, the museum doesn’t accept just anything. So, in the morning, I began sorting through everything.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of books. Unfortunately none were worth much of anything. There were notebooks stacked to the ceiling, all filled with his stories, unfinished or not. From the ones I skimmed through, they weren’t very good. On and on I went, clothes, pens, pencils, typewriters, even his coffee maker, all of which was put into a heap in the corner of the room to be thrown away.

I felt bad for him, but what did he expect?

Finally, after what felt like eons, I came upon a metallic sphere stashed away in a small black box. It looked brittle and sounded hollow, but was very sleek underneath the light. I thought it was a Christmas ornament at first, but upon closer inspection, I didn’t think that was the case.

Entirely it was queer. I felt like it possessed something that couldn’t be explained. Standing there, holding it in my hand and looking at it, in some part of my mind I truly started to believe there was more than met the eye. For instance, why only one sphere? And it was so random: it didn’t match any of his other belongings.

It was beyond my understanding at the time.

V

The green vapor filled the room to the point that Stephen was forced to open the only window the room possessed. The already-cold room became frigid, with the winter winds and flakes of snow floating in. He was unsure of what to do with the black mass on the floor, but as abrupt as it began, the spurting fumes stopped. As the smoke gradually drifted out the window, Stephen neared the black thing, eyeing it.

Although his rational mind told him to get out of the room, get Thomas, see what could be done, he stayed still, pondering what the thing was. It doesn’t seem harmful, he thought. I don’t think it could move either. It has no arms or legs, no mouth or eyes. It’s just a black tar ball. Though the fumes could’ve been toxic, they’re gone now. I wonder, hmm. . .

He continued to ponder the perplexity of the thing on the bedroom floor while he took the pen out from his pocket. He knelt down and, as if threading a needle, he carefully took the point of the pen and poked the black mass. It rippled and nothing more. So he decided to poke it again, but a bit harder. When the tip of the pen stabbed through the gelatin coated skin, the thing’s insides clenched down onto the pen, wrenched it out from Stephen’s hand, pulled it into itself, then ejected it out from the opposite side.

He saw the pen shoot across the room, as if it were a dart, and stick into the wall. Stephen walked over to it, inspected it, but stopped abruptly when he heard a gurgling noise behind him.

When he turned around, there was now more than just a small black tar on the floor.

VI

Thomas could hear some weird noises coming from his cousin’s room, but he ignored them, focusing his attention on Cindy and the letter. After she got herself a cup of peppermint tea, she continued to read the letter aloud.

The next two days were spent throwing away what we could of the writer’s things and incinerating the rest. At last, on Friday, I was able to spend some time with the sphere. I still didn’t know exactly what it was, but I was so enthralled by it, it was like it had its own force about it, keeping my attention entirely. I noticed there was a slit in its middle, all the way around, implying it could be opened. So, with one question in mind, I began trying to pry it open.

First I used an exacto knife to see if I could simply push it apart, but that didn’t work. Then I tried pulling it apart with my hands, which led to no results. For a few hours I attempted other things, like pliers, a mallet, a screwdriver, and so forth. Nothing, not a single thing worked. Surprisingly, it was sturdier than I anticipated. I couldn’t even scratch its surface or break it open.

Near the end of the day, I gave up and began returning my tools. The sphere stood on the desk below me, the tool box to my side, and as I was sliding in the exacto knife into its sleeve, I accidentally sliced my finger. Not too bad, I might add, but enough so that some drops of blood escaped my skin and splashed onto the sphere below.

And, at last, something happened.

VII

The blob was no longer a small bubbly thing, but something rippling, trembling, growing. It shook and expanded. The fumes of sickly green spurted out, filling the entire room despite the open window. A large and long tarry arm shot out from its left side, then another one from its right side. It pressed down onto the floor, black dripping tendrils sank into the wood, and pushed itself up, as if pulling itself out from a pool.

A round head formed. An eyeless face with a gaping mouth leered at him from across the room. And as its body rose towards the ceiling, towering over Stephen, trunk-like legs sprouted out from the bottom of its body, slamming onto the ground.

Stephen looked up into the face of what he once thought was just coffee, and screamed.

VIII

Thomas heard Stephen’s screams from downstairs but, as before, ignored them. His cousin was prone to “screaming along” with his favorite metal musicians. It was annoying, to say the least. Thomas now sat next to Cindy, drinking his own cup of peppermint tea. The letter was coming to an end and he waited for Cindy’s response to it all. She continued to read aloud.

The sphere ingested the blood. In amazement, I watched the small drops be sucked into it. At first I didn’t know what to do, but then it dawned on me. It required blood to activate. I cut the tip of my finger and squeezed as much as I could onto the sphere. Apparently I provided enough, for indents of zigzagging lines shooting downwards appeared, forming some kind of archaic design. Each line filled red with my blood and covered the entire sphere.

Then something clicked from its inside, and the top half lifted up a centimeter or so. I twisted it off and set it down. Before I could really see what was inside, the overhead lights flashed off then on. Shrugging it off, chalking it up to the decades-old wiring in the building, I finally looked down with excitement at the sphere to find. . . nothing. It was empty! It was like an Easter egg without any candy inside! A shell of air!

Frustration and disappointment flooded me. I set the sphere down and sat onto my chair. God! I thought. What a waste of time. All for what? Nothing, that’s right. Eventually I gathered my things put the sphere in one of the desk drawers and set out for home. Before I could get out of the museum, the administrator, Mr. Huber, tried to convince me to go out to the bar, but I shrugged him off. I’d rather stew in my anguish than drink it away.

From the museum, I took the bus to Chestnut Street, walked a few blocks, then caught another at Cherry Springs Ave. Night was setting in and, although I sat at the back of the bus, I felt like I was being watched, or worse, followed. Every ten minutes or so, I’d turn around, expecting someone to be there, but of course all there was to be seen was the bus’s back wall.

Finally, nearly at eight o’clock, I was at my apartment building. Only a few flights of stairs, I thought, then home free. That feeling of being watched didn’t cease, however. It’s a big city, a lot of weirdos out at night, and I’m just an old man, so I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried. I looked down one end of the street then the other, but both were empty, except for the parked cars on the side of the road and the glowing streetlamps.

I got into my home without any issue, thankfully, and slid right into bed.

Still felt something looking at me, even while I slept.

IX

Immediately Stephen’s body went into overdrive. His wide frightened eyes darted from the monster to the door beyond it, and back again. There was no way for him to escape. He quickly looked over his shoulder and out the window, realizing he was two stories up and what laid below was concrete. His heart slammed against his chest like a hammer.

The monster began to come towards him, its massive arms at its sides, and its trunk-like feet sliding along the ground. It left trails of steaming black ooze as it went. Its yawning mouth opened wider and longer as it neared him, and its eyeless sockets became deeper and deeper, as if they truly were bottomless pits.

There wasn’t anything he could do. Trembling, Stephen backpedaled onto his bed and pushed himself into the corner of the room. He pulled the blankets, sheets, and pillows over himself, as if it was all just a nightmare and it would all just go away on its own. He closed his eyes and prayed the thing would disappear and nothing would be there but his cold coffee on the nightstand.

When small black drops of liquid seeped through his cotton barrier, he knew his prayers were not answered and he screamed once more.

X

For weeks, the letter continued, I was followed or watched by something I could not see. Every time I was in my kitchen, I could feel its eyes upon me; each moment I sat in my office at the museum, it was there, up in the corner of the ceiling; when I walked home, I could faintly hear shuffling behind me, in spite of when I looked nothing was ever there. It was maddening, and I had no idea what to do.

And it only grew closer with each passing day. Eventually I believed it was right on my heels when I walked anywhere, or that it hovered right above me when I slept. But what was I to do? I didn’t even know what the hell it was!

I believed that I was nearing the end with whatever followed me. For I assumed that once it became so near that it was touching my body, it wouldn’t only graze my flesh, but enter it! It would seep through my pores, enter my bloodstream, cover my organs like a black toxic sheet of death and ultimately kill me from the inside out!

There was another theory, however: once it had entered my body, it would not kill my physical being, just my mental one, and take over the empty shell it hollowed out. . .

I digress. . . I figured I should go back to the source of the sphere. So I went back through the the writer’s files and found his name and address, a George Fritzwick, then went to his house. It wasn’t a house but rather an apartment above a convenience store. I managed to secure the keys from the store manager, who owns the apartment, and in passing he said he hadn’t been up there to pick up the mess. I told him it was fine and went up the narrow flight of stairs, unlocked the aged brown door, and stepped into the the writer’s cold home.

It was smaller than I imagined. A dusty maroon rug filled the center of the room. There was an empty oak desk against the far wall with a rickety chair tucked underneath, and vacant bookshelves lined the eastern wall. Offshooting the main room in the back was a kitchenette and bathroom. Where does he even sit when he’s not writing? I thought.

Not knowing what exactly I was looking for, or even if I would find it, I began searching Mr. Fritzwick’s home. I looked behind his bookshelves; peered underneath his desk and opened all its drawers; pulled out the fridge and sifted through all the kitchen cabinets; and lastly the bathroom. Nothing, not a goddamn thing. I hoped he might’ve wrote down something about the orb, some kind of instructions to help the unlucky soul who just happened to fall into its madness.

When I walking back to the door, from the desk, my foot caught the rug and I fell hard onto my knees. I winced and cried out, an old man falling on his knees isn’t the best thing for him. I tripped on the rug but I found something underneath it. There were black streaks, of what looked like parts of letters.

Hastily I got to my feet and yanked the carpet from the floor, throwing it into the kitchen. Scribbled on the floor in what I believed to be charcoal was a note, presumably from George.

Once opened, death follows.

Trade hands, save life.

Discovered, too late.

“Jesus,” I said in a gasp. Faster than I ever moved before, I left the apartment, caught the bus, got to the museum, ran into my office, and began writing this letter.

Thomas, I’m sorry for this predicament, albeit an extremely selfish one, but this must be done. You’re the only one I could think to send this to, unfortunately. I guess I could have buried the damn thing, but I don’t believe that would’ve worked anyway. Like Mr. Fritzwick said, it must trade hands. If you open the sphere, send it somewhere, send it to the damn moon if you have to, to save yourself.

I still don’t understand if whatever it is follows you once the sphere is in someone else’s hands, or until it’s been opened again. God, I haven’t the faintest clue.

If I’m too late, don’t let me die in vain.

Your Grandfather,

Christopher.

XI

The blankets were sucked up into the vortex of the monster’s mouth. Stephen looked up into its bottomless eyes, crying and screaming, pleading for it to take mercy. It stood on the bed, pushing the frame down into the floor. Stephen frantically looked for an escape. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion. To his right was the wall, no room to run, and to his left was blocked by the monster’s enormous arm. However, between its trunk-like legs was a small slit of room to slip through. God! If he wasn’t quick enough, the monster would merely squish him into oblivion.

He had to take that chance.

XII

Cindy looked at Thomas and asked, “Do you think it’s true?”

Thomas winced at the screams coming from upstairs, and shouted towards the ceiling, “Keep it quiet up there Stephen! You’re only here for a week, don’t push your luck!” Then he faced his wife and answered. “No, I don’t think so. Before he got the job at the museum, if I remember correctly, he was a writer. This is likely just another one of his stories, just in time for the holidays.”

He stood up, undid the bow that tied the gift together, then lifted the cover from the box. The metallic sphere was inside. It glistened without any light, and when Thomas picked it up and held it, he felt coldness emanating from it.

From the countertop, he picked up the letter opener and asked Cindy, “Didn’t he say it works from blood?” She nodded, hesitation and mild fear showing on her face. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen, babe.”

He leaned over, kissed her cheek, then placed his finger over the sphere, propped against the box. With a small slice, he cut his fingertip and squeezed as much blood as he could onto the metal orb. Drops of red splashed onto the metallic surface and were instantly absorbed.

“Holy shit. . .” Thomas said under his breath.

Cindy had seen enough, the fear that was just once a speck in the back of her brian consumed her entire mind. The thing needed out of their house, out of their life — now. She jumped up to her feet, yanked the sphere from the table, threw it into the box, shut the lid, and while it was pinched in between her arm and body, went and got her shoes and jacket.

“We’re taking this to the river and dumping it. I don’t care if what your grandfather said wasn’t real, or that maybe it was. It doesn’t matter, we’re not doing this Thomas. I’m not having this kind of stuff in our house, especially if there’s some kind of creature inside that shiny bubble.”

She was at the door before he even got the chance to put a bandage on his finger. Dumbly he looked at his wife, and although his curiosity was peaked by the sphere — perhaps a genetic thing, he thought — he understood his wife’s concerns.

Once he got his heavy jacket and boots on, they stood at the door. He shouted up the stairwell to Stephen, but his words became lodged in his throat when he saw what erupted from his cousin’s room.

XIII

Stephen scrambled in between the monster’s legs and toppled onto the floor from the bed. Quickly he got up to his feet and ran to the door. His sweaty palms wrapped around the cold doorknob, and tried to wrench open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. At first he didn’t understand it, his mind did not catch up to the reality before him. When Stephen looked up, it all made sense. The monster’s dripping black arm held the door shut.

He continued to try to yank the door open, using all the strength his body could muster, but quickly the monster yanked Stephen away from the door and threw him onto the ground. It circled around him then stood before him, towering over his writhing body. Tears streamed down his face. His red ringed eyes were wide with terror, and steadily a puddle of urine formed underneath his backside.

With both arms the monster picked up the man. It opened its long, yawning mouth and threw Stephen in, then clamped its jaw shut.

Inside the abyss that was the monster’s body Stephen fell and fell and screamed and screamed. He would continue to do so, forever.

“Stephen, we’re leaving! We’ll be right back!” The monster heard Thomas from behind. Its heavy body swiveled to face the door, and with a powerful jerk, lurched from where it stood and rammed through the wooden barrier.

Pieces of wood splattered the floor of the hallway, some sprinkling the top of the stairwell. It stood atop the stairs, peering down at the man and woman at the bottom. Black steamy liquid oozed underneath it, dripping slowly down the steps.

Thomas and Cindy screamed, scrambling towards the front door. Cindy got to it first and pulled it open. The frigid winter air blasted their bare flesh, but they didn’t notice, their fear paramount over all other feelings and emotions. They both made it to the small set of concrete stairs, but that’s all they managed to accomplish before two large black tendrils wrapped around their bodies, and pulled them back in.

XIV

Officer Wilkinson received a call at twelve in the afternoon, about a possible breaking and entering on 1723 Wing Street. He pulled up to the street then parked near the curb. He took a deep breath before going out into the cold. He hated the winter.

With a lurch, he swung his large body out from the seat and onto the sidewalk. An empty cardboard box laid in the gutter, and there were small pieces of wrapping paper littering the pavement. He ignored these as he climbed the small set of stairs.

A large gust of wind flooded the street. It flowed over him like water, making him wince and glance down at his hand. The wind bit into the wound on his palm, blood began seeping through the poorly self-wrapped bandage. Damn muggers, he thought, always using knives. I’ll have to fix that later.

Wilkinson knocked a few times on the front door. No answer. As he waited five minutes, giving enough time for anyone to come to the door before he would try to open it, he looked down to see there were two sets of footprints in the snow and some kind of metal orb. He quickly picked up the sphere. It felt even cooler on his wound than the wind and oddly soothing.

At last he tried the doorknob, it wasn’t locked, so he gave it a little push. The door opened smoothly, and he put his body halfway inside, noticing that it was nearly as cold inside as it was outside.

“Hello! This is Office Wilkinson from the Cheery Brooke PD! We got a call about a possible breaking and entering! Anyone home?”

Only silence answered him.

He entered the house and slowly closed the door. From where he stood he could see the kitchen through the living room, and up the set of stairs. On the floor of the kitchen, he thought he could see a box, and a sheet of paper. The stairwell was much different, parts of wooden shrapnel littered the steps, and they all seemed to be covered in some kind of black liquid that stunk of cheap cigarettes.

He lifted up his jacket, undid his holster and took out his pistol. Although it was cold in the home, his palm was sweaty against the metal handle. He neared the stairs then went up cautiously. Trying his best not to slip on the dark liquid, he pocketed the sphere, and held the oak banister for support.

At the top of the stairwell, there were even more jagged and sharp pieces of wood and a puddle of the dark liquid. He followed the water with his eyes, across the hallway, through a doorway without a door, and into a bedroom.

“Anyone in there? If you are, please come out with your hands up! I’m with the Cherry Brooke PD!”

Silence, again.

Hesitantly he crept to the opening, quickly put his head through, looked, then pulled his head back. He couldn’t see anything harmful. He walked into the room, looked at the wall with a pen jutting out of it, the bed soaked through with the dark water, and the floor covered in it. Atop the nightstand was a knocked over porcelain cup, and some toast on a plate.

The Officer knelt down, touched the cold liquid, then put his fingers to his nose.

It smelled a lot like coffee.

“What the he— what was that?” He began to say, then heard a click come from somewhere in the room. He spun around and held out his gun. No one standing in the doorway. He looked over the room again. Nothing had changed. He felt something expand in his pocket. He took the orb out and looked at it, saw the zigzagging etched in red lines, and the top half slightly raised.

Wilkinson holstered his weapon and without effort, he spun the top half of the orb off and looked inside. As if a shadow flashed over the light coming in from the window, everything in the room darkened, then quickly lightened again.

The sphere was empty.

This story originally appeared in the short story collection Who Spoke on the Other Side
Edited by Tochukwu Okafor

Micah Castle is a weird fiction and horror writer. His stories have appeared in various magazines, websites, and anthologies, and has three collections currently out. While away from the keyboard, he enjoys spending time with his wife, aimlessly spending hours hiking through the woods, playing with his animals, and can typically be found reading a book somewhere in his Pennsylvania home.