THE THREAT by Josh Vanderwillik

old villageThe moon hung in the sky, casting a pale glow on the village beneath it. A figure slipped through the milky light into the most secluded of the houses. It pushed open the door, and stepped inside. A single candle illuminated the figure’s face. It was a woman, whose hair was streaked with grey. Lines of care and worry creased her brow and cheeks. There were lines of laughter and joy, but the most recent were years old. She gently laid her pack on the ground, opened it, and withdrew a slightly stale loaf of bread. Taking the loaf, she opened her cupboard and deposited the crusty chunk inside.

She padded softly to the back of the house and eased open the door. The crack of light revealed a quivering body, curled up on a bed. The woman walked over and looked on the shaking form with concern. She reached out and gently rested the back of her hand on a young boy’s cheek. He flinched away from her touch and curled up tighter. He lay in the exact center of the bed, as if the distance between him and the edges of the bed could keep the darkness at bay.  His hands clenched over his ears as he whimpered softly; his eyes were screwed shut.

Outside the house, a wooden shingle slid off the roof, hitting the ground with a thud. The woman caught her breath and looked nervously around. She slid open the window, and peered outside. Then she shut the window tightly, locked it, and pulled a moth eaten curtain across the opening.
She turned back toward the bed. A ratty old blanket sat in a crumpled heap beside the bed, so the woman picked it up and gently laid it across the boy’s shivering body. She then strode over to the door, slipped out, and shut it quickly. Darkness filled the room once again as the boy’s whimpers grew to a feverish pitch.

In the main room, the light of the candle still flickered softly. The woman walked in and around the sparse furnishings, tidying with a practiced ease. When she had finished, she let herself down onto a wooden chair. All was silent but for her soft breathing and muffled noises from the back room. The woman’s face creased in thought; her hand slipped absentmindedly into her pocket. She withdrew a tattered bracelet. It was loosely woven, and somewhat sloppy; it looked like the handiwork of a young child, the kind of gift a toddler presents a parent in exchange for praise and affection. The cords were tired and faded with age. The woman’s eyes became misty as her fingers passed over the rough strings. After a period of contemplation, she placed the bracelet back in her pocket. The chair creaked slightly as the woman got up. She checked over the house, making sure the windows were all sealed shut and covered. Then she walked over to the door, picked up her pack, and slipped out into the night.

That morning, I woke up in a dark room. At first I thought it was still night, but there was light streaming through the cracks in the windows. I was relieved, because the light seemed to cut through the darkness in the room, it gave me hope to replace my fear.
As I went into the kitchen, if you could call it a kitchen, I smelled some bread. It wasn’t the warm doughy smell of freshly baked bread, but it was bread nonetheless. I struggled with the cupboard latch for a moment, but finally got it open and began to eat the bread. It was stale. No matter, I’m sure Anna, the woman who looked after me when she could, had tried her best.
My heart jumped in my chest as someone started to pound on the door, shouting for me to open it. I had to hide, or they would try to drive me out of the village.
When had I returned from the darkness surrounding the town, they had viewed me with suspicion. They claimed I’d never come back at all, but that the darkness had possessed me. They were just afraid of what they didn’t know. I had to hide though, because they’d managed to pry the door open.

They burst through and began searching everywhere. I was afraid, so I curled up into a tight ball under my bed. I could hear them in the other room, searching behind curtains, in cupboards, and anywhere else they imagined I’d hide. I could also hear them slamming doors and overturning tables when they didn’t find me.The room my bed was in must have looked run down or abandoned; two of them circled the room once, then left, but not before smashing one of the windows. After they argued sufficiently, with a lot of shouting, they left the house, slamming the door shut behind them. Once I was sure they were gone, I relaxed slightly. I peeked my head out from under the bed, and looked around. I slowly eased the rest of my body out, constantly checking around to make sure they were gone. Nothing had happened so far, so I tiptoed through the house, trying not to make any noise. As I walked into the main room, I was shocked to see the damage they’d done. Most of the cupboards were smashed in and fragments of busted furniture was scattered around the room. I walked around the room, trying to take it all in, not really paying attention to where I was walking. In my absent mindedness, I stepped on a fragment of wood about as long as my forearm; it broke with a large snap. The snap rang in my ears I held my breath, looking fearfully at the door. After a moment or two’s pause, nothing had happened, so I slowly walked to the window, eased it open, and looked outside. The men’s backs were turned as they walked away. I was safe, for now.

The door burst open as the lot of us stumbled through it. We spread out and began to search throughout the house, checking every crack that dirty rat might be hiding in. I was sure he’d be hiding in the cupboards. He seemed to have a knack for fitting in tiny spaces. He wasn’t in there, so I slammed the cupboard door in frustration. A few of us split off and went into the back room of the house. I heard a smash, and started to walk toward the room, but they came out a moment later with shards of broken window stuck in their boots. He wasn’t in there either.
When the rest of the men realized that he wasn’t in here, they flew into a rage, and started to smash things. They were fighting back because they were afraid. I can’t say that I blamed them, either. The boy had shouted a bunch of nonsense about him being free, last time we caught him, but I wasn’t convinced. No-one goes into that place and gets out. That darkness had to be using him to get to us. Eventually the men decided that he wasn’t here, and we began to single file walk out of the house. We stood outside the door for a bit, talking about where he could have gone, but no-one had any good ideas. After some talk, we all started walking down the street, most of them were going to the saloon to drown their fear in a pint. I hung to the back of the group for some reason. I thought I’d heard a snap behind me. It was probably nothing. Just my mind getting to me.

The shadows crept under the door, and along the walls, creating shapes that darted and pulsed with an otherworldly life.Color runs and hides as the darkness covers it. The floor is empty, barren. What space objects failed to occupy, the darkness gladly did. The shadows to grew and swirled and receded in the blank space. The pale streams of light that peek through the cracks in the window frame lived to touch the floor, but they got no further. Even the warm comforts of the bed cannot ward off the dark chills that creep around the edges of the room. The invisible tricks of the imagination that are almost seen, but mostly felt, dance around the bed. The night transforms the tattered curtains into hooded figures, waiting to attack in my sleep, or ghastly apparitions here to haunt me. The whiteness of the covers seemed sickly compared to the black of the room. The cold sucked my breath out of the air, and a chill began to creep over my head, the only uncovered part of my body. Parts of the ceiling sagged threateningly near the center; the little cracks spiderwebbed across the surface, thinning out as they approached the wall. The sound of the wind pushing the shingles around on the roof sound more like the clack and clank of ghostly chains than wooden tiles. The wind picked up and howled around the corner of the house; it was a chilling sound, the shrieks of the night. Despite the unearthly calls and the creeping shadows, the room was empty, without companion or comfort. A particularly strong gust of wind knocked a bucket off of a windowsill, creating a loud bang. The wind then quieted down into ghastly whispers, muttering softly to the darkness; it shifted silently in reply.

The boy lay in his bed, covered by blankets up to his chin, trembling slightly. Just then, a frenzied knock came at the door. The boy’s eyes widened, and he lay still; the knocking continued, accompanied by an urgent whisper,

“Open the door, quick! They’re coming!”  After a moment’s hesitation, he slowly eased out of bed, keeping his blanket wrapped tightly around himself. He edged through the center of the room, glancing nervously around at every corner, wall, and dark space. Every groan and pop of the house made him whip around, trying to find the source of the noise.

“Shh, quiet”, he said, “go away.” His toes curled inwards, as if trying to stay as far from the outer edges of the room as possible. His body shook with intense shivers as he tried to keep the blanket wrapped around him. Time seemed to still. There was no motion except for the erie night wind gently swaying the curtains; the boy’s eyes darted back and forth, trying to catch the elusive haunts of the night. Eventually, he got himself moving again, and he slowly edged toward the door. Once he reached the closed bedroom door, he stood contemplatively for a moment, as if deciding how to best open it while keeping his extremities safe. He carefully nudged it open with his blanket covered arm; flinching back as the door creaked open slowly. The boy slowly walked through the door, trying his best not to touch the frame. As he blindly felt his way through the main room, he kept the blanket curled close around his frame. He half stumbled around the furnishings in the room without letting arms or legs be exposed to the dark. The frenzied knocking at the door continued, but instead of increasing his speed, the boy moved more carefully because of it. Despite his care, his toe met the sharp edge of a table leg. A short cry escaped his lips, but he quickly silenced it, lest the dark use his words to take form. The voice on the other side of the door heard his cry, and pleaded more strongly for entrance. As the boy reached the door, he slowly opened it, letting the form of an older woman through. She quickly closed the door and made sure every window was shut tight. Then she turned and looked at the boy. Through whatever small rays of light managed to find their way into the confined room, she could see his silhouette shaking. The pale glow revealed small gleams at the corners of his eyes. The woman’s face creased with concern as she embraced the trembling form. “Are you okay, son?” she asked. “No,” he grunted, squeezing her tightly, “it comes.”
“What’s coming?”
“Dark. Everywhere, all around. Coming for me. Must escape it”
“Son, we talked about this” She pulled him back slightly, and looked in his eyes.
“You escaped, there’s nothing coming for you. The darkness in this town is lifeless and empty.
He shook his head, eyes watering with fear. “I feel it”, he whispered, “it’s here, waiting. Why is it waiting?” A hysterical edge crept into his voice as he spoke the last words.
“Shush up, you hear?” She held him close one again” I don’t know what you you feel, but it’s safe here. Nothing’s going to get you, at least, no shadow.”
“You run”
“Yes, well, some of the people in this town aren’t as reasonable as I’d like. They’re afraid, see? That’s why you need to be brave. Fear does things to people, make’s ‘em think all backwards.”
The boy pondered this statement for a moment. “Feel no fear…?”
“That’s not what I said, son.” The woman put her hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Fear is gonna come whether you like it or not. You have to choose to not let your fear affect how you act. You need to be brave despite the fear.”
“So, feel fear. Act brave. Ignore fear?”
“That’s right”, she said, enclosing him in one final embrace, “the fear is lying to you. You’re safe here”
At those words, the sun peeked over the horizon.

The sun shone brightly over the town, acting as the spotlight of the faceoff taking place in the main square. A mid-sized woman with greying hair was shouting angrily at a tall, withered man with a thinning patch of hair atop his head. He struggled up from the bench he was sitting on to shout back.
“Anna, you cannot risk all our safeties for the sake of that boy! We need him out of here, and we need it now!”
The woman sighed, and pushed back a few unruly strands of hair.
“Johan, you don’t know that anything is wrong with that boy.”
“He’s crazy!!”
“No, he’s scared. He had a traumatic experience, and you are not helping him get over that.”
The old man blinked in surprise a few times before his resolution solidified.
“No, he needs to go. I would normally love to help a child in need, but nothing ever comes out of, well… that place.”
“And he is just that, Johan, a child. You need to stop treating him like a monster.”
The old man sighed, “You’re sure you won’t tell me where he is?”
The woman set her jaw firmly. “No”
The old man sighed, sat his hat on top of his head, and walked away.

The woman looked tired, but she gathered up her things and began to walk back towards her house. She passed the church and markets, mostly void of people. She also walked past the saloon, now overflowing with men. The afternoon shift had just ended, and they men had all come to see how to best spend their earnings. As she passed by the mostly intact windows, a few men looked up from their drinks and stumbled out the door after her. They managed to catch up with her as she turned into an alley. The leader of the men drunkenly stumbled up to her and shoved her against a wall. “Yer gonna tell us where you hid that boy, hear? And yer gonna do it quick”.

“You might want to think through what you’re doing”, the woman calmly replied.
The man spat to the side. “No! You tell me where he is, right now.” The man pulled a knife out of his belt, and held it against the woman’s throat. A fierce look entered his eye. “Or else”
The woman clenched her jaw as she spoke. “Do your worst, I’m not telling you.”
The man took a deep breath and tightened his sweaty grip on the knife. But before it could cause any damage, a large rock thudded against his skull. He abandoned his grip on the woman, howling in pain. This comrades looked around, searching for the owner of the rock; they saw a small figure duck down on the rooftop and scurry to another. The group ran after him with shouts and hollers as their leader stumbled away, clutching his head. The woman looked fearfully along the roofs with a sad look on her face. Her hand was buried in her pocket, clenched around a rough string bracelet.

Footsteps pounded over the roof as the boy ducked and weaved over loose tiles and chimneys. Once he stumbled over an uneven shingle and nearly lost his advantageous position. Occasionally he stopped to pick up a pebble or small wood block to toss at his pursuers. The shouts of the enraged men could be heard throughout the streets as they chased. Shouts of astonishment came from the houses. Heads poked out to discover the source of the pounding feet and angry cries. The boy came to the edge of a string of houses and teetered precariously on the edge of the roof. The large crowd of men massed beneath the ledge, all clamoring for the best position to capture the boy if he fell. Time slowed to a crawl as the boy flailed his arms wildly, grasping at the air for balance. After a moment’s uncertainty, he found his footing, turned on his heel, and took a running leap for the next row of houses. The men underneath gawked as the boy soared over their heads, barely landing on the next rooftop.

His slender frame sped over the wooden tiles, trying to place as much distance as he could between himself and the men behind him. He tried to stay low, running in a crouched position. Trying to confuse his assailants, he wove a complex and winding path around the town’s rooftops. Once he was relatively sure he’d lost them, he ducked behind a chimney, and waited.
All was silent. When he was sure there was no-one following him, he peeked his head over the edge and looked around. The street was empty. As he began to crawl out on the ledge, a group of men ran through the street, frantically scanning the roofs for a sign of life. Immediately, the boy pulled back and pressed himself against the tiles. The boy again waited until he was sure they were all gone. Again he peered over the edge to check for life. Again, the street was empty. Slowly, carefully, the boy slithered to the edge and checked the street: empty. He dropped to the ground with a soft thud, and began to climb through the back window of the house. Just before his feet touched the floor inside, a hand grabbed him roughly by the collar and hauled him out. “Gotcha, ya little monster, you can’t hide no more”

It was a tall man, rippled with muscle. His hands were large and accustomed to hard labour. Those same hands held the kicking, biting child as he dragged him down the street. Shouts of excitement drew the mob as the man entered the town square, captive in tow. A rough circle of people massed around a pedestal in the center of the square. The man pulled through the crowd and threw the boy against the pedestal. He stepped back, wiping his hands on his legs, as though trying to rub away the touch of the boy’s clothes. The boy curled up in a ball against the carved stone with his arms over his head. His mouth moved in silent wimpers. The man faced the crowd.

“Right then!”, the man bellowed, hushing them “We have the little rat; Anna tried to hide him, but we got ‘im!” The crowd cheered. “There’s only one question, what do we do with him now?” Another man in the crowd hoisted a fist sized rock in the air.

“I say we do him in”. Some of the crowd roared in agreement, others looked uncertain with this decidedly violent turn of events. Children clung to the legs of their parents, and mothers held their children close, shielding their eyes and ears. Fierce arguments broke out among the crowd about what the fate of the boy should be. Most of them wanted something done, but none of them wanted to take care of it personally. The arguments grew fiercer and noisier and more and more forceful. The first man stood in the center, looking around, waiting for a consensus. He didn’t find one.

Eventually he shouted “enough!”. The crowd became silent. The man circled the inside of the ring of people. “If none of you will deal with this,” he said, prodding with his finger to punctuate his words, “I will.”
His breath reeked of alcohol, and the people in the crowd drew back from it. The man wheeled and held the boy aloft by his collar.
“Whatcha gonna do now, boy? There’s nowhere to hide now.” A wicked sneer spread across his face.
“Let’s see how durable you really are”, the man said maliciously as the young boy squirmed; his eyes were wide with fear.
The man’s eyes fell on a loosely woven bracelet on the boy’s wrist. “How ‘bout we start with this?”

Anna broke through the crowd, carrying a broken table leg. She slammed it into the tall man’s stomach, and he fell with a grunt. “You leave him alone!” she screamed. The man got up, caught the leg as she swung it again, and wrenched it out of her hands.

“You stay out of this, woman”, he spat. She glared at him, the man could almost feel the heat of her gaze burning away at his skin.

She swung around and beseeched the crowd, “Please, be reasonable! He’s just a boy, afraid and very alone. You don’t have to do this to him.” The crowd shifted uneasily, refusing to look her in the eye. “Do you want his blood on your hands?” Still no answer.

Suddenly, the crowd parted slightly and a withered old man walked into the circle. “Mayor”, the woman said, and bowed her gaze. The tall man also lowered his head out of respect for the elder. “Please spare him”, the woman said quietly. At this, the tall man gritted his teeth, but offered no argument. The mayor stood in silence, taking this in.

“He’s done nothing wrong”, she said.

At this, the man spoke up.“You know what’s out there! No-one comes out of that place.You have a duty to protect this town, to protect them”, he nodded his head toward the women and children.

The old man’s brow knotted in thought. Then it loosened, and a sad look crossed over his face. He looked up at the woman.

“Anna”. His cracked voice silenced the muttering in the crowd. “You know I don’t want to hurt a child, but I need to protect this village”. He nodded to some of the men, “take him outside the border”. At these words, the boy’s eyes widened in pure terror. His mouth opened in a silent scream and he crawled back against the pedestal. Some of the men grabbed him and started to pull him down one of the streets, towards the edge of the town. The boy kicked and squirmed and fought. He yelled at the men to let him go. He bit and twisted. But the men were too strong. Once he managed to pull an arm out of the man’s grip, but all that accomplished was ripping his bracelet off on the way. The arm was soon recaptured.

Near the edge of the town, the bright sunny day sunk into blackness. The sun still hung high in the sky, but the outskirts of the town were circled by a thick veil of black. The men stood at the edge, still holding the terrified, convulsing child. On the count of three, they threw him into the mist. The boy’s shouts ended with a grunt as he hit the ground. The people could hear whispers from beyond the curtain. The boy began to whimper as he realized what had happened, then shriek as he found his voice. The shrieks escalated to horrified screams. Suddenly, the screams were cut short. There was no further sound from within the blackness. The crowd stood in stunned silence. The only sound that could be heard was the soft weeping of Anna. In her trembling hands sat two tattered, torn bracelets.

Fin

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2 thoughts on “THE THREAT by Josh Vanderwillik

  1. An intriguing discussion is worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you ought to publish more about this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people do not speak about these subjects. To the next! Best wishes!!

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