They Gathered

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They Gathered

S.E. Eaton

 

 

Sam hid behind the shield of his mug, suckling the acrid muck with deliberation as he looked through the kitchen window.   There on the sidewalk stood a man, stiff with a fine suit and a notable matching posture. The sight wove a tight knit in Sam’s brow, because from what he could tell, the gentleman hadn’t moved from his spot for at least ten minutes.  Neither had his stoic gaze, which was fixed upon Sam’s house.

The gentleman lifted his arm. Sam froze and watched, his empty mug still pressed to his lips. The stranger reached into his coat, retracted and opened a gold-colored pocket watch.   Sam’s eyes darted back and forth as he surveyed this new development.  Cautious as intended prey, he lowered his mug from his lips and set it on the counter.

After checking the time, the man returned the watch to his pocket and his gaze to the house.   A leaden sensation took up residence in Sam’s gut.  It begged its host to remain in the kitchen, but Sam dragged the ominous feeling with him as he walked out the backdoor to the carport.   The January air bit his exposed arms.  He cupped his elbows and shivered as he walked across his side yard towards the man.

The man kept his eyes trained on the house as Sam stopped two feet in front of him. “Hello,” Sam said.  The man kept silent, and while his eyelids flickered in standard blinks, his face was void of even a ripple of recognition.

Sam arched his brow.  “Can I help you with something?”  The man checked his watch again.  Sam allowed himself a closer glimpse of the contraption.  It seemed odd to pair such an item with well-kempt garb.  Splotches of dull gray covered its brassy shell and a crack splintered its face.  “Waiting for something?” Sam asked. The man maintained his apparent vow of silence as he returned the watch to his pocket.

Yearning for the protection of ordinary company, Sam shifted his gaze to down the street.  He spotted someone else, blocks away, but couldn’t tell if the person was walking further away from or towards the house.  A child’s laugh pealed somewhere in the neighborhood.  A dog barked.  Another dog answered it.

Sam regarded the man again with a quick glance.  “…Didn’t think any buses came this way.”  He scratched his head and took a few steps back from the stranger.  “Well if you don’t mind, Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”  The man remained where he stood.

Sam followed the man’s line of vision.  Streaks of embedded dirt coated the house’s paneling. A starling emerged from the juniper bush his sister planted and hopped around on the frost-covered embankment.   Sam glanced again at the man in his periphery.  “Any particular reason you’re staring at my house?”  The man checked his watch again.

A scornful smirk crept onto Sam’s lips.  “Hmm…alright.”  He shook his head.  “Alright, Buddy, but I’m calling the cops.  If you’re not gone by the time I return to my house, I’m calling the cops.  Okay…? It’s….time to move along.”   Sam looked at the man’s eyes for any sign that he had heard him.  He caught a few more blinks, but their rhythm didn’t suggest such a notion.

Sam scowled and hastened back to his kitchen.  He locked the door behind him and clutching onto the edge of the counter, looked back through the window.  The man was still there.  Muttering a swear word, Sam shut the blinds and fished his phone out of the pocket of his sweatpants.  The pads of his sweaty thumbs left smudge marks on his screen as he dialed.

A saccharine female tone chimed through the receiver. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

Sam poked a finger into the blinds and peered at the stranger as he spoke. “Yeah, uh, there’s a…man…?  …Standing outside my house…just…standing there, watching me, watching my house, I don’t know….I asked him to leave, but he won’t.  …Doesn’t say a word.  Keeps checking his watch, doesn’t move otherwise.”

“How long as the man been there, Sir?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe.  Thought he might be waiting for a ride, or something? …There aren’t any bus stops on my street.  And like I said, he’s…staring at my house, facing my direction.  Won’t talk, won’t move.  Doesn’t really look like he’s waiting for a ride, I guess.  Just looks like I’ve got myself a stalker.” A nervous laugh took him by surprise as it spilled out of his throat.

“Does he have a weapon, Sir?”

“Uh….” Sam lowered his head and scrutinized the man again through the blinds.  “I don’t see a gun or anything, no. But he could be hiding one, I guess.”

“I’ll send a car your way, Sir.  He’s probably just a homeless man looking for a meal.”  Sam regarded the fine details of the stranger’s three-piece suit, his clean-shaven face, his erect stance.  “I don’t think he’s homeless.    Doesn’t look the part…looks more like a catalogue model.”

“Mhmm, I’m sure he’ll move along soon enough, Sir,” she said.  Sam wrinkled his nose, envisioning the dispatcher patting him on his head, as though he were a child reporting monsters under his bed.  “Is there anyone else in your house with you?” she asked.

“No,” Sam said.  He swallowed hard.  “Oh, uh, shoot, my, uh…sister…is coming over later.  I’ll…text her, tell her to stay home.”

“Exactly what I was thinking, Sir,” the dispatcher said.  “Just stay calm…deep breaths, okay?  An officer will be there before too long.  In the meantime, lock your doors and windows and don’t attempt any further interaction with the man, okay?  That’s important.  You don’t know what he wants or what he might be capable of.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He looked outside as the man again checked his watch.

“Do you want me to stay on the line with you, Sir?”

“Uh, no,” Sam said.  “I’ll be fine, thanks.”  He pressed end, pulled up his phone contacts and peered through the blinds again.  The leaden feeling spread from his gut to his chest and poured like concrete into his extremities. His phone started to slip from his hand.   A second man, just as well-dressed, had joined the first.  He stationed himself next to his comrade and he, too, fixed his gaze at the house.  Sam worked moisture into his mouth and swallowed hard.  A few thudding heartbeats later, the second man checked his watch.

Taking large, determined strides, Sam locked the front door and all six lockable windows.   He pulled out his phone again and brought up a blank message field, addressed to his sister, Ashley.  He started to type, but paused.  No need to make her worry.  Worry would bring out the hero streak in his well-meaning little sister, and it could mean her life.

Can we reschedule?  Callie’s here, he typed.  A blaring silence gelled in the air.  Sam paced in the living room, waiting for her response.  His stomach swelled with nerves as his phone buzzed.   He read her reply.

Blow me off for your stalker ex-girlfriend? What is it this time?  Another make-believe pregnancy?  DON’T give her any money, Sam.  I’m serious.  I will kick your butt so hard.

Nothing like that, Sam replied.  She just wants to hang out.                 

Whatever.  Just… be careful, Sammy.

 Sam aimed a wary glance over his shoulder towards the kitchen before typing his response.  Yup.  

 He slid his phone back inside his pocket, crept back to the kitchen and looked through the window again.  The men now numbered five, all in suits, all staring at Sam’s house.  Two were dark brunettes and the rest were various hues of blond.  The rounded cut of the jawlines and shorter stature of two of them told Sam they were women, but all five had the same crew-cut.  At various intervals, they checked their watches.   But not a one of them regarded the others. A car rumbled by, and Sam watched, but the driver didn’t seem to notice the line of people gathered on the sidewalk.

 

Sam sank into a wobbly, punctured-cushion kitchen chair. Hours ticked by, and though Sam kept checking through the window, but saw no sign of the police.  “…Typical,” he muttered.  He took out his phone again, and dialed 9-1-1, but hesitated, his thumb hovering over the green CALL button.   He clicked the red button instead, several times for good measure, and unlocked the back door.

With quick, adrenaline filled-strides, he plowed through his yard towards the strangers.  A sixth man joined them as Sam confronted the first in line on the left.  “HEY!” he said, shoving his hands against the man’s chest.  The man teetered, but regained his stance.  He didn’t look at Sam but checked his watch again.  Sam pushed the man again. “…Who do you think you are?  What’s your business here?” He did a sweeping view of each of them, but none acknowledged his presence.   “What…what do you all want?  What are you waiting for…? Why do you keep checking your watches? What are you doing here?”  No one answered him.  Sam threw up his hands in exasperation and let them fall limp against his sides.   He positioned his body squarely in front of the man he had shoved.  The man’s brown eyes seemed to look right through Sam.  Sam balled his fists. His jaw twitched. “What do you WANT?”   The man checked his watch again.

Sam ran the tip of his tongue over his front teeth and backed up towards the house.  “The cops are on their way!”  He slammed his back door shut and with quaking hands, locked it again.

A knock on the front door lodged a lump in Sam’s throat.  His stomach clenched, he shuffled into the living room and pressed his eye up to the peep hole.  At the sight of his sister’s face on the other side, his heart gave a violent throb.  With her parked outside and with the thick hedge lining the front of his yard, she likely hadn’t seen the intruders.

“I know you’re in there, loser,” Ashley said.

Sam’s face crumpled as he leaned his forehead against the door frame.  His eyes popped open and he sighed.  “Go home, Ash. I’m—sick.”

“Open the door!” Ashley said.  With sour deliberation, Sam rolled away from the door and opened it.

“…Wow, liar, much?” Ashley barged into the house.  Her dramatic turn fanned her commanding air throughout the living room. She pointed at Sam.  “Callie’s car isn’t here. You know, if you wanted to be alone you should have just told me.” Her eyes lit up with a sassy gleam. “But you lied to your baby sister, so now I’m your new special best friend for the rest of the night!”  She poked a finger into his chest. “I’m ordering pizza and you don’t get any.”

Sam thrust his fingers along his scalp.  “Ash…there’s something going on.”

All mirth left his sister’s face.  “You killed Callie.”  Her lips twitched.

Sam sighed. “Listen to me for a minute. I didn’t want you to come over, because I’m not really sure what they want, but….” He scratched the back of his neck. “Well, truth is, if anyone can figure this out, it’s you.”

A slow arch lifted her brow.   “…Uh-huh.”

Sam gestured with a tilt of his head for her to follow him as he walked into the kitchen.  He peeked through the blinds.  His heart sank.  “They’re still there.  Even more, now.”   With a lazy wave, he gestured to the window.

Ashley gave a wrinkled glance to her brother.  Sam’s eyes widened as he nodded to the window again.  Ashley lifted up the plastic band and looked outside.  “…Whoa.”

“Yeah,” Sam said.  “…But whoa doesn’t freaking cover it, Ash.”

Ashley lifted the blind band higher. “How long they been there?”

“Five hours,” Sam said.  “I called the cops, no one showed.  I shoved them, demanded to know what they want…nothing.  They won’t move, won’t say anything.”

“That one just checked his watch,” Ashley said.

Sam nodded.  “That’s the only thing they do. Check those damn watches ever so often…no rhyme or reason behind it, far as I can tell.”

The blinds whirred and flew upwards as Ashley tugged their string.  She pounded on the window.  “HEY!”

Sam looked on over her shoulder.  The strangers remained unperturbed. “See?” Sam said.  “Nothing.  No reaction. No response.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes.  “Get me a pencil and piece of paper.”

“For what?” Sam asked in a frown.  He heaved a sigh and got into a drawer behind him, pulling out a dull pencil and an unopened bill.

“You said they’ve been at it for five hours?” Ashley asked, taking the materials from him.

Sam nodded. “Give or take a few minutes.”

“How often do they check their watches?” Ashley asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know….a lot.”

The chair groaned as Ashley plopped down at the table.  She checked her phone.  “So…three, about…is when you first noticed them?”

Sam nodded.  Ashley scribbled on the envelope and got to her feet.  “Here,” Ashley said, thrusting the paper and pencil into Sam’s hands.   She had written the time at the top, along with the words Sam’s New Friends. “Watch them,” she said.  “Every time they check their watch, write down the time they checked, and a brief description of which one did the checking.”  She stood and turned the backdoor’s knob.

“You’re going out there?” Sam asked, tossing the envelope and pencil to the table. “I tried that already, nothing fazes them.”

Ashley smiled.  “They haven’t met me, yet, Sammy.”

Sam’s stomach tightened.  “Yeah, just, uh…be careful, Ash.”   She offered him a curtsy and shut the door behind her.

Sam grabbed the pencil and notepad and hoisted himself up onto the brim of the kitchen sink. There were thirteen of them now.  The third from the right checked his watch as Ashley appeared in Sam’s periphery.  Sam checked his phone.  8:23. He jotted down the time and identity.    Ashley put her hand on her hips and faced the man in the middle.    The man second from the left checked his watch.  8:24.   Sam made the note.

Ashley moved on from the man in the center, taking two paces to the left to stare at one of his blond counterparts.  The one next in line to the blond in front of Ashley checked his watch.  8:26.   He frowned, watching as Ashley reached out and patted the man’s sleeve.   Inexplicably, she nodded.  Dread climbed up Sam’s throat as he realized she was looking at the man’s watch.   He held it out for her to see, though his gaze was still fixed on the house.

Sam felt a trickle of relief as Ashley turned and walked back towards the house.  He ignored the sensation to help her in the last few feet with a forceful shove.  She slipped back into the kitchen, her eyes glistening and her smile compliant.  She sat down at the table.

Sam stared at her. “Well…?”

Ashley shrugged.   “I think they’re just waiting.”

For what…?” Sam asked, a crease in his brow as he slid into the seat next to his sister.

Ashley sighed and pointed at the envelope.  “Keep recording the times, Sam, okay?”  She sent a cautious glance towards the window.

“Okay…what happened out there?” Sam asked.  “Did they say anything to you?  Why did look at his watch like that?  Was he…showing it to you?”

“Look, I’m…” Ashley said, scratching her head.  “I’m gonna take off, Sam.”  The complete lack of Ashley on her face scared Sam, almost more than did the strangers outside.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked.  The chair scraped on the floor as Ashley got to her feet.  “Ash, you can’t leave…you have to help me figure this out…please, don’t leave. You can’t…!”  Lacking her Ashley ambled towards the front door.   Sam followed her.

Ashley put her hand on the knob, but paused.  Turning, she smiled up at Sam.  She pressed her cold palm against his cheek. A thick veneer of elsewhere clung to her eyes.

Sam darted in front of her, blocking her exit, but with an unexpected strength, she shoved him to the ground.  Sam scrambled back to his feet.  “Ashley!”  His sister sprinted towards her car.

The door shut itself with an angry snap. Sam yanked on it, but it wouldn’t budge.  A slew of swear words tumbled from his panicked lips.   He jogged to the backdoor.  The knob turned but the door remained lodged into its frame.

“God, help me….!”  Numb, Sam looked through the window again.    There were at least fifty now, the cue layered three or four lines thick.   A chirp of a siren sounded.   Sam took in a shaky breath and licked his lips as a cop car came to a stop outside.  Even as two officers emerged from the car, the strangers kept their stances.  The cops approached the man at the end of the cue.  One removed his gun from its holster.  Sam jutted his head forward, his eyes wide as the officer held out his hand, his gun resting on his open palm.   A hoarse whisper escaped Sam’s lips.  “No…”  The stranger took the gun and slid it inside his coat.

Sam’s eyes swiveled to the other officer.  She tipped her hat to the intruder and surrendered her gun to the next man in line. As he pocketed it, the officer looked over her shoulder.  Sam’s muscles stiffened as the officer trained her eyes on him.  In jerky motions, she tipped her head towards her shoulder as a slow smile blossomed on her lips.  The vision of it wrapped itself like tentacles around Sam’s mind, sucking the moisture from his mouth.    His pulse thrummed as he stared while the officers fell in line with the strangers.  His phone buzzed with life on the counter, making him jump and suck in a sharp breath.  With a shaking hand, he checked the message, sender Unknown.

Have another cup of coffee, Sam, the message read.  It’ll be a while. 

Sam gave a sidelong glance to the strangers outside and took large strides through the dining room and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him with a soft click.  Night cloaked his numb shoulders.  Sleep would not come easily.  He grabbed a bottle of cough syrup from his nightstand, ingested several mouthfuls, and pulled the blankets over his head.

It was still dark when Sam woke.  Groggy from the cough syrup, he stumbled into the kitchen.  Filled with dread, he glanced out the window.   His gut flew up into his throat and his eyes danced back and forth. Blinking several times, he leaned into the window and craned his neck to get a closer view.  The men were gone.

The phone rang. Sam’s brow shot upwards.  Unknown number, his phone read.   He felt a prickle on the back of his neck as he cleared his throat.  “…Hello?”

Heavy breathing ebbed and flowed on the other end and mingled with the crackle of static.  Sam scowled and looked out the window again.  The street was still void of the strangers.  “Who is this?” Sam asked.

More static sounded, making it difficult for Sam to identify the owner of the sharp, pain-ridden inhale that he heard next.   “…Ash?  Ashley?”    Sam griped the edge of the counter.  Ferocity twisted his features as he pressed the phone closer against his face.  “Where is my sister?” An unintelligible whisper drifted through the earpiece.  Pressure build behind Sam’s panicked eyes.  “…Ash?”

The static cleared. A man spoke. “Check your watch, Sam,” he said. “…It’s time.”

 

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“Compulse” is now available! WOO HOO!

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I cannot wait for my loyal fans to check out this gruesome collection, “Compulse”!  This three-part horror anthology is now available on Amazon.  You can buy it now, or wait for a special treat the week of Halloween!  The three stories in “Compulse” are “A Sunflower for Daddy” (creepy kids have always scared the you-know-what out of me!), “Alienation”, (the aliens have arrived, and they’re hungry), and “The Watcher” (chances are, you know this serial killer’s next victim quite well).

Buy “Compulse” here.    Don’t forget to leave a review!  Thank you, thank you! Happy Halloween!

“Belinda” Update and Other News

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 “Belinda” is in really good shape!  I still have more work to do, but right now it’s looking so FANTASTIC, I am just oh so tempted to hand it off to my beta readers right NOW!    But…I won’t, because it’s still not my best work, though it’s pretty dang close.  Still one minor character role I need to tweak, and then need to check for use of 5 senses, description, word choice/style, etc.  But the plot?  Solid.  The characters?  Most of them POP, buuuuut some of them still need a bit of work, I think.  January 5th is my deadline!

In other news, I’m eagerly (excuse the adverb, I’m all “strong-verbed” out, atm) awaiting the arrival of the proof for my horror short story anthology, “Compulse”.   It should be here tomorrow or the next day, after which point if all checks out, I will click the publish button, and voila!  Y’all can read it and leave your reviews!

In other other news, I’m getting ready for another reading binge.  I’m thinking Stephen King as well as a few indie author works.    And maybe the back of the shampoo bottle while I’m on the can.  If I get to it.

Alright, time to go pet a beagle.  I suggest you do the same.  ❤

Excerpt from “Alienation”, Part 2

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From “Alienation”:

Ruby stared up at Amos from where she was seated, her brown eyes and mascara-coated lashes magnified to startling proportions through her coke-bottle glasses.  She fiddled her thumbs and stared at his waistline.  “H-hello, Amos,” she said, her voice a hairline less mild than that of a timid schoolgirl.  She sniffed, wiped her nose with her hand, and scrambled to her feet to pull his chair out for him.

Amos put up his hands in mild protest.  “Please,” he said, latching on to her hand to bring it to his lips. He planted a gentle kiss just above her first and second knuckles. It was all he could do to not let his tongue slip out for even a lick of her flesh.  “…Don’t get up, unless it’s to show me that…scrumptious body of yours.”  Ruby broke into a fit of snorts and giggles.

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Thank you for reading this excerpt from “Alienation”, from the horror short-story anthology “Compulse”, available here..  Read another free excerpt from “Alienation”.

Excerpt from “The Watcher”

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From “The Watcher”

She is number eleven, bound and gagged like the last ten, and her peaches and cream cheeks are turning a deep shade of indigo.  I release the string and switch it out for a knife.  I press the blade and plunge it into her neck, and bask in relief as I let the blood seep onto my freezing hands.

I shove the shoestring back into the pocket of my hooded sweatshirt, and crawl in quick, jerky movements on my knees to her feet.  Her shoes are dirty, but her laces–a dazzling white.   With a panicked haste, I run to my truck and rummage in the backseat for a rag and a jug of water.  I couldn’t bear it if those beautiful laces got one drop of her blood on them.   My hand is on the jug’s handle when I feel someone’s eyes on me.  A quiet gasp shoots up into my nostrils, but I stay focused on my task.  Still, I can’t pretend to not be delighted that someone has taken an interest in my work.  Someone knows my secret and someone wants to be body number twelve.

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Thank you for reading this excerpt from “The Watcher”, from the “Compulse” short story anthology, available here. 

Excerpt from “Alienation”

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From “Alienation”

It was at first a single whisper, hot and quick, tickling my ear.   It grew into many whispers from sources unseen, their fervent voices hissing through the shadows.  I inclined my head to listen.  I knew the whispers were for my ears alone, because it was only I who had need for them.  The whisperers were joined by others innumerable, swelling into a cacophony of murmurs and shouts.  The shouts softened while the whispers engorged into a crescendo, harmonizing into a single tone, which buzzed like the pluck of a stringed instrument, sweet, crisp, and metallic.  The tone repeated, gaining volume with each passing interval, until I became aware of its purpose—to take formation inside my mind as two distinct thoughts.  They awakened every perception of self within me.  Survive.  Swim.

Without a tether, I would have no safeguard against drowning.  But the walls gave me little consternation, because though they were layered and substantial, they were also pliable, and would succumb with ease to the sickle-shaped claws curling out from my fingertips.  Yet my survival would not be guaranteed. And I must live, for without me, there would be nothing.  Mine is the only existence that has worth.

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Thank you for reading this excerpt from “Alienation”, from the “Compulse” short story anthology, available here.  Read another free excerpt from “Alienation”.

Excerpt from “A Sunflower for Daddy”

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From “A Sunflower for Daddy”

The smell of soiled bedding and rotting fruit wafted into the hall as Abigail approached Dottie’s room.   Her door was open, and the faint sound of a laugh track did its best to breathe life into the stale atmosphere.  Abigail paused as the memory of what happened washed over her mind.  Her nose wrinkled. She could almost still smell the bleach that permeated the bedroom air that day. Before it happened, it was Dottie who had made the sandwiches.  Before it happened, Abigail had still referred to Dottie as Mommy.

But the day Abigail had found Daddy in what was then Grandmother’s room, with his head in his hands, all that changed.  “Grandma was just so old and sick, Abigail,” Daddy said, his eyes glossed with tears, “and Mommy just couldn’t cope with it.  She’s…”  As Daddy spoke, Abigail’s eyes swiveled to a dark spot on the peeling paisley wallpaper.  “…Mommy’s in the hospital, Abigail,” Daddy said.

At the hospital, Abigail thought Mommy resembled a dead cat, with its eyes wide open and its body stiff like a rolled up rug.  After Daddy left to get a cup of coffee, Mommy grabbed Abigail’s arm. “Daddy’s done a terrible thing,” Mommy said, her eyes shining with dread.  “…Now it’s only a matter of time…don’t listen to them, Abby…..”  Silence befell her. The milky substance of an absent mind invaded her gaze.  Mommy never said another word again.

When Abigail had returned home that day, she spoke to the sunflowers.  “Daddy has a secret,” she whispered. She walked along the line of towering blossoms, reaching up to each one to stroke their petals.  Her toe hit an obstruction in the grass.  She looked down and saw the shears.   A thin smile formed on her face as she took the shears and pried open the blade.   She tilted her chin as she returned her gaze to the flowers.  The smile slipped from her face.   “But you won’t ever tell, will you?”

 

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Thank you for reading this excerpt from “A Sunflower for Daddy”, from the “Compulse” short story horror anthology, available here.