The Deadline

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


Elliott Shaw was a writer, close to becoming a household name in the horror genre, until tragedy struck, changing his life forever. He must face his own demons before he loses everything he's
worked so hard to build. On Halloween night, things take a turn for the worse when he's pressured to take up writing once more. Can he finally overcome the memories of living through his very own
nightmare, or will he succumb to the pain?



This was a short story that I wrote in October 2015, for a contest on a forum, that required a Halloween theme. It is also my first attempt at writing in the horror genre.

Submitted: November 05, 2017

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Submitted: November 05, 2017

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“You gotta give me something,” his agent said, his voice traveling through the phone to Elliott’s ear with an obvious tone of frustration.  “I’ve been covering for you for months now.  You need to give me a reason that makes risking my job worth it.  You’re becoming too much of a liability.  I need something by tomorrow morning or we’re going to have to go with someone else.”

“I know, and believe me, I’ve been trying—” Elliott started to say.

“Well, there’s your problem.  Don’t try … do.  Call me when you stop trying.”  The dial tone felt like a slap in the face.

Sighing, Elliott dropped his phone on the desk, with more force than he’d intended.  He crossed the room to the bay window that overlooked his neighbor’s front yard, across the narrow stretch of pavement that separated their properties.  The sun was setting over the quiet town of Slanesville, West Virginia, painting the sky in shades of pink, red and orange.  Leaning on the window’s seat for a closer look, he could see the slight outline of pumpkins, tombstones and ghosts that littered the yard, silhouetting the figures amongst the small amount of light that had yet to be snuffed out from the darkness.  Cobwebs hung from trees scattered throughout the lawn, long dead from the cold October chill, their mangled branches twisting every which way.  Every year his neighbors pulled out all the stops for Halloween, and this year was no different.

His own yard was bare, completely devoid of anything that brought even a hint of remembrance of that dreadful holiday.  It had only been a year since he had been forced to watch his wife’s murder, helpless to stop the crazed lunatic who stabbed her repeatedly, even after her heart had stopped beating.  Before that night, Elliott Shaw had been a successful writer of the horror genre, close to becoming a household name.  But after living through his own nightmare, not unlike the ones that he so carefully pieced together, something inside changed.  He became numb to his emotions, to his life.

And he hadn’t been able to write anything since.  Definitely not anything that his agent, Leon Townsend had deemed worthy to publish.


*****

 

About an hour later, Elliott sat at his desk, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen, counting how many times it appeared and then abruptly vanished.  He got to sixty before he realized that he’d just wasted a full minute.  He stared absent-mindedly at a spot on the bookshelf behind his desk, where a frame had been pulled face down.  All he saw was Anna’s face.  The way her face lit up when she smiled, strands of auburn hair falling in front of her hazel eyes.  The sound of her laughter filled his ears, making him wish he could hear her voice just one more time.  No, he scolded himself, get out of my head.

This had been happening to him ever since the murder.  Every time he sat down to write, she invaded his thoughts, distracting him indefinitely.  But this time he wouldn’t let her win.  He had to push through the distractions in his mind and get something, anything, on the screen.

Suddenly, he felt something soft wrap around his shin.  He pushed back from the desk, the wheels of his chair rolling across the room, along with the black Bombay wrapped around his leg.

“Roscoe!”

The cat looked up at Elliott with contempt.  Something in the way those golden eyes were staring back at him caused him to shiver as if someone had just walked over his grave.  At the same time, a book slid off the bookshelf from behind the picture frame that had distracted him moments before, crashing to the hardwood floor with a loud thud.  The frame had been dragged into the fall as well, and when Elliott walked over to pick it up, he noticed a crack in the glass, distorting the photo behind it.  He replaced the book and the frame and turned back to the cat.

“I don’t have time for your games,” he said.

 

Elliott sat slumped in his chair, glaring at the laptop’s blank screen.  He was about to lose his one big break since his wife’s untimely demise.  Leon had promised him a feature in the New Yorker as a kind of reboot of his career, to let his fans know that he wouldn’t let tragedy take away everything he’d worked so hard to build.  And if he didn’t come up with something before that deadline Leon had mentioned earlier in the evening, he knew the spot would go to someone else.  There was always someone else.  All he needed was an introduction, which would tide him over until he could figure out the rest.

He glanced at the figures on the bottom right of his screen that told him it was a quarter past nine o’clock.  He was quickly running out of time.

Anna’s face came back to him once more.  She wore the same expression, a shy smile on her lips.  Thick tendrils of smoke began to curl around the sides of her face, engulfing it completely, and he saw her eyes grow wide with fear before the image vanished into the haze.  He glanced around quickly, panic overtaking him in a way that he had not experienced since that night.  After a few moments, her face reappeared, her skin white as a ghost, as if the life had been sucked out of her right then and there.  Her mouth was moving as if she was trying to tell him something, but he couldn’t hear her voice.  Tears trickled down her cheeks, stained by crimson flecks of blood.  He reached out to her, his hands catching only the swish of the empty air in front of him.

After a few seconds, Elliott felt a sudden pressure on the tops of his thighs and at the same time his hands connected with something furry and warm.  Yet he could only see what was in his mind and it was Anna’s face that he held, her skin crumbling into dust to reveal the skeletal features underneath.  Screaming, he tossed the skull across the room, with every bit of strength that he could muster.  There was an audible series of thumps, followed by an absolute stillness in the air.  Elliott was abruptly brought back to the reality of the situation. 

His eyes traveled to the back corner of his living room, where he could just barely make out a splash of dark red, standing out against the ivory-painted wall.  Cautiously, he walked over, expecting to see smashed bits of bone from the skull, though somewhere in his mind, he questioned why there would be blood from a skull.  What he actually saw threatened to push him over the edge of sanity.  Roscoe lay on the floor, his body limp and unmoving; a small pool of blood already forming around his head.  The sight of the blood instantly brought everything back to Elliott’s mind, fresh from the bottle he kept it hidden in, inside his thoughts.  His vision blurred as he saw two figures appear in the distance, and heard the faint sound of laughter…


*****
 

“Hon, grab that bag in front of you,” Anna called, as she stood at the edge of the aisle, holding their basket packed with Halloween treats.

“Do we really need—” Elliott glanced at the bag, “a forty ounce bag of Muskefears?”

“Of course!  Why wouldn’t you want a 3 Musketeers bar with spooky red nougat?” she replied, laughing at the corny play on words.

Smiling, he walked over to her and kissed her cheek as he placed the bag in the basket.

“Next year, let’s not wait until the last minute, okay?  I mean, we only have a few hours until we’ll be handing this stuff out to the kids,” Anna said.

“Yeah, yeah, you knew how much of a procrastinator I was when you married me.”

She rolled her eyes.  “And I’m reminded of that every day.”


About fifteen minutes later, after gathering the odds and ends that they needed for the house, the couple piled their bags into the car and started on their way home.  It was a beautiful evening, and perfect weather for trick-or-treating.  They expected to have lots of traffic, even for the slightly isolated neighborhood that they lived in.  It was the kind of town with more roads than buildings, so there were groups that would be traveling in from other nearby areas as well.  Anna looked out the window at the developing sunset, casting shadows on the pavement from the hemlock trees lining the road.  As they veered left onto Bloomery Pike, she thought of the new life growing inside her.  She looked down and smiled, cupping her hands around her belly.  Elliott reached over, placing one hand over hers.  They met each other’s eyes for that fleeting moment, and grinned.  When she had told him about the baby at dinner earlier that evening, his reaction had lifted a large weight from her shoulders.  She’d been so happy that he was excited to start this new chapter in their lives, because she’d feared that this unexpected pregnancy would make him feel trapped.  His career was advancing to the next level and she didn’t want anything to interrupt that.

As they traveled further down the road, she saw the Slanesville Elementary School approaching on the right.  Staring at the red brick building as it passed, the colors and texture blurred together, and her mind wandered, imagining their child’s first day of school; first teacher-parent conference; first sports event; first school dance…

She was ripped away from her brief reverie by a series of sudden jolts.  The car sputtered as Elliott’s foot pressed down on the accelerator and he warily guided the car to the side of the road, away from the path of the other drivers who happened to be traveling that night.  Elliott pushed on the brakes and once the car came to a stop, he turned the key back and forth, trying to start it up again.  The car only gave a noisy grunt in response.

“What happened?” Anna asked.

“I’m not sure.  Everything just died, all at once.”

Anna looked around, wary of their surroundings on the lonely country road.  Of all the nights for the old Volkswagen to break down, it had to be this one, the night of All Hallows’ Eve.  She couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched, by some creature hiding in the bushes that she spotted in the distance.  She felt it was best to keep moving, instead of stranded like sitting ducks on the side of the road.

“How far are we from the house?”

Elliott glanced at Anna, the sunset’s colliding forces of light and dark creating contrasts in the contours of her face.  “I’d guess about a mile, give or take.”

“Alright, let’s just walk from here then.  We can carry everything home and deal with the car in the morning.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Around twenty minutes later, they finally saw their modest one-story house amongst the trees.  It was dark inside, with one small outside lamp illuminating the front door.  Elliott glimpsed what he thought looked like a hooded face from behind the glass window that covered the top half of the door, fading away just as quickly as it had appeared.  He immediately froze where he stood and instinctively reached an arm out in front of Anna to stop her from moving any closer.  He’d written this very incident before and he knew what would inevitably come next.

“Anna, call the police,” Elliott whispered.

“Why?  What did you see?”

“Someone looking at us through the window of the door.”

Anna’s eyes opened wide as she dug in her purse for her phone, the plastic shopping bags hanging on the elbow of her arm.  Her hands shook, her fingers trembling with each tap of those three crucial numbers.  With the phone glued to her ear, she turned away from the house, waiting anxiously for someone to answer.

While Elliott could predict that the moment he stepped foot inside his house, he’d be met with, at the very least, a punch to the face by this careless intruder; what he could not predict was a second accomplice using the element of surprise, who came running at him with a hammer, effectively knocking him to the ground.  He heard his wife scream as the phone was wrenched out of her hand and thrown to the floor, landing about twenty feet from his face.  His head was pounding and his vision was rapidly fading into a sea of black.  The last thing he saw clearly was the bag of Muskefears spilled out in the grass among the rest of the Halloween candy.

Elliott’s vision came back to him in a mess of blurry shapes and shadows.  He felt as if he was spinning in place and couldn’t pick one area to focus on.  He heard angry voices but he was unable to pinpoint where they were coming from.  Is this a dream? he thought.  This can’t really be happening.  He tried to reach up to rub his eyes, but his hands did not respond, nor did his feet when he tried to stand up.  Leaning forward slightly, he looked down only to realize that his feet were bound to the legs of his chair with heavy black zip ties; his hands in a similar fashion behind his back.  The blurry images were starting to form some clarity now and he could see two men standing across the living room, with Anna forcibly on her knees in between them, facing towards him.  Her mouth was gagged, and her hands and feet were tied, judging from her stance.  Her eyes were wide with fear, pleading with him to do something drastic.  In a sudden panic at the realization of the seriousness of his situation, Elliott struggled to escape his confinement, the ties scraping at his skin as his wrists twisted back and forth.

“Let her go!” he tried to scream, his voice rough and barely audible.  How long was I out?

“Boss, he’s awake,” said the burly man to Anna’s right.  He had a bushy dark brown beard that hung well below his chin, with beady eyes that never seemed to blink.

The other man glanced at Elliott, with a look of animosity.  “Really, Deets, I hadn’t noticed,” he replied, his deep voice drenched in sarcasm.  His face had an oblong shape to it, with gaunt features and narrow slits for eyes that seemed to sink back into the curves of his high cheekbones.  His dark complexion contrasted with his spiked blond hair that was the obvious result of a bad dye job.  There was a visible tic to his right eye that he could not seem to control.

“No, that’s not at all what we’re going to do,” he said.

Elliott felt the anger rising to the surface, powerless to stop what was about to happen.  “Who are you?  What do you want from us?” he asked in exasperation.

“Oh, we’re your #1 fans, Mr. Shaw,” he paused, a bizarre smile taking over his face.  “And you’re the writer here.  You should know exactly what we want.”

#1 Fan.  The words instantly triggered an unmistakable sense of shame.  It was the title of a book he’d written, way back in his early years after becoming a full-fledged author.  And it was the most cliché thing he’d ever written.  He had been baffled that it had done as well as it had.  Every author has that one piece of work that they regret writing the minute it gets published.  This book was his.  And these maniacal fans were about to re-enact it.

“No,” he said, unable to keep the frantic tone out of his voice.

Deets walked across the room to stand behind Elliott as Twitch whipped out a long curved knife.  He hastily grabbed a handful of Anna’s hair, pulling it back towards him, forcing her face upwards.  Seeing the knife, muffled screams of protest erupted from her gagged mouth, overwhelmed by the terror she felt rising within her, like bile slithering through her intestines.

A force unknown to Elliott took over him, consistently fighting to rip through the zip ties that just wouldn’t budge.  He could feel the blood dripping from his mangled wrists, but there was nothing that would stop him from trying to escape to save Anna.  Even when the knife sank deep in her chest and he saw the last signs of life leave her eyes, he refused to give up.  He screamed like a madman, writhing in his own prison.  The only sound he could hear was the sickening crunch of her ribs cracking as the knife cut into her flesh, time and time again.  He closed his eyes and tried to look away, but Deets’ hands had cupped his face from behind, forcing him to watch his dead wife, surrounded by a pool of her own blood, her lifeless body sagging to the floor with multiple chest wounds.

 

*****

 

Reality came rushing back like a flood.  Elliott’s head jerked up, a popping sound emanating from his spinal cord.  He reached back, wrapping his fingers around the nape of his neck, relieved that he had use of his limbs once more.  Disoriented, he tried to remember what had just happened, and why he was flat on his back in the corner of his living room.  He was interrupted by the chiming of the grandfather clock in the hallway, eleven rings that resonated into deep vibrations all throughout his body.  His sense of smell kicked in and something pungent filled his nostrils.  That’s when he remembered the blood that had triggered the flashback. 

Elliott carefully lifted the cat in his arms, carrying him out of the house and into their side yard.  He walked idly over to the small wood-paneled shed that he used to store equipment for what little yardwork he did, among other odds and ends.  He grasped the handle of the shovel leaning to the right of his snow blower, the door shutting with a bang behind him.

As if in a trance, Elliott stuck the shovel deep in the soil, pushing hard on the handle until he could barely see the top of the blade.  He felt an odd calming sensation as he went through the motions of digging a small grave.  He placed Anna’s once-beloved cat inside the embedded coffin within the ground.  Roscoe looked so peaceful in the dirt, despite his snapped neck and visible gash on his head.

“Goodbye, little guy,” he said.  And with that, he returned the disturbed dirt back to its original location, covering the cat’s cold black body.

 

It was now a quarter until midnight and the cursor on the screen still gave him an accusatory blink with every second that passed.  This is hopeless, he thought.  I should just go ahead and tell Leon to give the feature to someone who deserves it.  Though he knew if he did that, Anna would be disappointed that he was no longer the man she’d fallen in love with:  the man with the strength to overcome obstacles while staring failure straight in the face, to fight for what he wanted with a passion far greater than anyone could possess.  He could still feel her presence with him sometimes, guiding him through what was left of his life.  He argued back and forth with himself over and over again… until the clock struck midnight, twelve deep chimes ringing in his ears long after the sound had ceased to exist.

Halloween had begun.

Almost instantaneously, Elliott heard a faint rustling in his yard, as if a small animal was skulking around his house.  Annoyed at yet another distraction, and fully aware of what had occurred last year on this day, he rushed to the windows, checking every gap and crevice he could find.  When he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, he returned to the computer, fingers poised on the keyboard.

Scraaaaatch-scratch.  Scratch-scraaaatch.

His head whipped up so quickly at the sound of the incessant scraping on his front door that he was forced to wait a moment while his breath caught up.  He froze in place, his pupils moving from one side to the other as he frantically attempted to see the door behind him, while his head remained completely still.  He slowly stood up and turned around, making sure not to make any sound that would betray his position.  He crept to the window to the right of the door, sliding his fingers between two blades of the blinds that hung down, careful to only open them as wide as necessary.  At first he saw nothing but the darkness looming over his property.  Then a translucent red-and-blue flashing light appeared on the street right outside his house.  After a moment, he realized he was only seeing remnants of his memory, the law enforcement officials who had been alerted to his situation and burst in the door, just mere moments after the fatal incident had taken place.

The scraping transitioned into a loud pounding as something rammed itself against the door, over and over, until it came crashing to the floor, splintered wood covering the surface of the foyer like a welcome mat.  Forced back to reality, Elliott glanced at what had been causing all of the commotion.  It was a four-legged beast with short black fur that stuck out at every angle, plastered with specks of dirt and Halloween debris.  It stood nearly six feet tall, its body corded with muscles that hadn’t been used in what seemed like decades, yet somehow appeared simultaneously scrawny for its size.  It was the eyes that gave the creature away.  That golden gaze had stared at Elliott just a few hours earlier.  His tail thumped rhythmically against the doorframe.  He started to walk forward and the air around him seemed to palpitate with revenge.

Elliott cowered under the beast’s glare, paralyzed by a mixture of shock and fear at this mind-boggling vision of his dead cat.

“Roscoe?”

 

*****

 

The click of the tumbler snapped open on the heavy steel door that separated him from the outside world, followed by a sharp screech as a woman pushed the door open and stuck her head in through the crack.

“Mr. Shaw?” she said by way of greeting.  “You have a visitor.”

He paid no attention to the patronizing voice, too lost in his own disturbing thoughts.  He was sitting on a mattress with white sheets and a white pillow, blank papers scattered in front of him.  The walls were padded with white cushions, pinned with white buttons to create a mesmerizing diagonal pattern.

“I’m busy,” he said, in an exasperated tone, his eyes never leaving the blank pieces of paper.

“You should make time for this one.  It’s important.”  The woman ducked out of the room momentarily, closing the door with a bang.  When she came back, her arms held a black Bombay cat, his tail coiled around her elbow and his mouth curved into what appeared to be a devilish grin.

Elliott finally looked up when his senses caught sight of the movement at the door.  He took one look at his very-much-alive cat and immediately leaped off the bed and backed into the wall, trying to push himself through the cushioned surface.  The papers that had shuffled to the floor were now covered back to back with senseless scribbles and drawings that had not been visible, just seconds before.

“NO!” he screamed.  “Get that monster away from me!  Roscoe is dead!  Roscoe is dead!”  He repeated it like a chant, unable to control the terror that filled his head.

Alerted by the commotion, guards rushed into his room to restrain him from all sides, paralyzing him against the wall while a doctor calmly walked in, holding a syringe.

“Now, now, Elliott, have you forgotten to take your meds again?” He clucked his teeth together as he slowly stuck the needle in Elliott’s arm and gave him a sickening smile that stretched from ear to ear, drawing attention away from the occasional tic of his right eye.  As his vision gradually faded, Elliott caught a glimpse of the man’s face:  the same face of his #1 Fan.


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