When I was a child, my mother used to talk a lot about Those People.
When dad drove us to get ice cream after Sunday morning mass, mom would spy a group of teenage guys messing around on their skateboards and start muttering about the “godlessness of Those People.” Sometimes she’d spit it at a single mother who had the gall to be coddling her baby in public. I admit that as a child, I didn’t really know who Those People were supposed to be: my mother seemed to consign everyone different from us to that dangerous group.
Of course, there are some differences that children are unable to see.
When I was about seven or eight, I was waiting outside the elementary school for my mom to come pick me up from school. She was late again and most of the other students had already gone home. I was sitting on the sidewalk, playing with a hapless lady bug that had crossed my path, when a tall man in a long, dark coat approached me.
I don’t remember him very well, but I remember long, shaggy hair and dirty hands. I was wary of him at first – mom had always been firm about teaching me not to talk to strangers. But he told me he was there to pick up his daughter and I relaxed a little. We started chatting and he told me all about his dog who had just had puppies. He’d gladly sell me one if I only went home with him to pick it up, he said.
He had taken me by the hand when my mom pulled up in our big minivan and started screaming and shouting at him. After that, all I remember is being scared, clinging to my mom as she and the man snarled at each other. He was still snarling as she threw me into the car and swerved off.
I was positive I was going to get in trouble, but when we pulled into our driveway she just pulled me into her arms and held me for a while. She made me promise not to talk to any strange men again. Then she brought me in the house and that was the end of that.
That was my first encounter with Those People.
My second encounter came just as I was entering high school. I was a gangly freshman with braces and woefully stringy hair that seemed to stay greasy no matter now often I washed it. My family had moved for about the millionth time – my father’s job takes him all around the US – so I had no friends or even acquaintances in this new town. As a result, I joined as many teams and clubs as I could, determined not to be the one high schooler who didn’t have any friends.
Most of the clubs I ended up dropping out of – turns out I didn’t have any aptitude for public speaking, acting, cheerleading, or painting. Much to my surprise, however, I had a real knack for running. I stayed on our school track team and, over the course of the next few weeks, broke several school records.
I really enjoyed the track meets, hanging out with my new friends and sailing around the track at light speed. But then around the fourth or fifth meet, I started to notice a regular spectator who only seemed to watch me.
He was just vaguely familiar at first. It took me a while to correctly place that shaggy hair and coarse skin. He didn’t have the long, black coat anymore, but he had a wide-brimmed hat hiding his face. He would stand at the edge of the football field fence, always watching me.
At first, I didn’t mention anything to my parents. After all, he wasn’t bothering me. Furthermore, it couldn’t be the same man: We’d moved at least 10 times since that near-forgotten childhood nightmare.
I kept it quiet until one day when it wasn’t just him. Accompanying him at the fence was a petite, but chesty woman with long dark hair, along with another man who had glaringly white skin. They were all dressed in black.
And they were all watching me.
I told my mom that night and she seemed to brush the incident off.
“Don’t worry about it,” she told me. “It’s just your imagination.”
But the pallor that came into her cheeks betrayed her worry. I didn’t go to school that next week, and we moved to another state the next weekend.
End of story.
The story picked back up a few weeks ago.
I’m a freshman at college now, a nice little private school that just about cost me my soul to get into. Things were going well and I was having a pretty normal college experience, the perfect cocktail of studying, stress, boys, and parties.
One night my roommates dragged me to an off-campus house party. It promised lots of booze and lots of creepy guys, but the booze was free and my roommates could always be counted on for good company.
It was around one in the morning when I saw him sitting across the room. I had drunk myself pretty well into a stupor by this point and I was floating high, walking among the black clouds of the night sky. When I spotted him this time, my mind was lucid enough to make the connection almost immediately. My roommates, similarly drunk off their asses, didn’t notice me swaying to my feet and sauntering across the room to where he was seated in an overstuffed old armchair.
“You… why d’you follow me?” I slurred, just your typical, drunk, white college girl. “Don’t pretend y’don’ know what I’m talking ‘bout!” I admonished. “I r’member you…” At that point, my memory cuts off, which is a pretty good indication that I’d passed out.
I must have been out for a few hours, because when I came to I felt entirely sober. I was in a dark, smoky room, lying on what felt like concrete. I blinked a few times and as I adjusted to darkness, I saw an array of rusty machines looming over me. I tried to sit up but found I couldn’t move. Shock hit me first when I tried to move my hands and found them bound behind my back. A similar feeling of restraint was found accompanying my ankles and knees. I wiggled around a little bit but was pretty well trussed up. The panic didn’t hit until I tried to scream and found I’d been gagged.
A flame sparked off in the darkness. I strained my eyes, feeling like a rabbit caught in a trap. The little flame settled on what appeared to be a candle. Instead of relief, that small light cultivated a thread of dread inside of me.
One by one, a circle of candles were lit around me. I shuddered as the room lit up and I could see something red painted on the floor around me. I didn’t know what that meant, but I imagined it couldn’t be anything good. The ropes were starting to cut off my circulation and I could feel bruises forming around my wrists where I had been pulling wildly. My first coherent thought since waking up formed in my brain: This was bad. Really, really bad.
My heart beat wildly as a loud, booming voice started to bounce off the machinery and fill the cavernous space I’d found myself in. I couldn’t figure out what it was saying, or what language it was in. It sounded strangely nonsensical, yet rhythmic and almost alive. All I knew for sure was that it emanated from the man in black, the one who had pursued me after all this time.
I cycled between terror and unease as I tried to make sense of what was happening. An arrangement of black-cloaked statue-like attendants stood in a careful circle, with one cloak behind each candle. I wished desperately that someone would just for one second speak English. For the love of God say SOMETHING I understand, then I’ll have found my footing, then I can…
My brain stopped babbling the moment I saw my stalker lift a knife out of his own cloak. It was long and I imagined it was incredibly sharp. The handle was blood red and encrusted with beautiful stones. I squirmed even harder as he stepped towards me, but there was nowhere to go, not even if I could move. He knelt down next to me and placed a rough hand on my cheek. He looked into my eyes and I looked right back.
I wish I could say I saw something human in those eyes, or something inhuman, or something strange, or something… at all. But looking into those eyes was like looking at a blank slate. It was like looking at someone that didn’t exist at all, not in the way that mattered.
He brought the thing blade up to my neck and continued chanting. My heart was beating so fast that it felt like one continuous scream in my chest. Tears bathed my cheeks and I wondered which feeling was going to be my last: my heart, the knife, or my tears.
Suddenly, shots rang out and I blacked out.
I woke up in the hospital, a tiny slice on my throat but otherwise unharmed. I felt blurry and muddled at first. I was hooked up to an IV so I could safely assume they’d given me a sedative of some sort. My mom was crying. I wondered vaguely if Those People had made her cry.
It wasn’t until my consciousness fully returned that my mother, her cheeks burning with shame, her hand clenched firmly in my father’s, managed to tell me an old story that she’d buried away in her chest.
When my mother was about my age, she’d gotten mixed up with Those People. See, she’d fallen in love with a man, Darius Hick, and he had coaxed her into a world of alcohol, drugs, sex, and the occult. It had started off innocent enough: Ouija boards, tarot cards, séances, the like.
But then Darius used his honey lips and sweet words to introduce my mother to a Satanic cult. At least, they called themselves Satanic: Whatever they were was far darker than anything she’d encountered then or since. At first, she was so drugged out of her mind that she wasn’t alarmed. Besides, for a while, it was mostly talk. They’d talk about blood and sacrifices and demons and spells. And she’d sit in Darius’s lap and look into those deep brown eyes.
But things changed when she found out she was pregnant. She’d been excited at first, and Darius was, too. But she soon found herself ill at ease when he made her promise to give her first-born to him as an offering of love.
Now, it happened that one of the other women in the cult had recently given birth as well. And one night in the early stages of her pregnancy, Darius and the cult held a special ceremony.
My mother choked up at this point – she wouldn’t tell me exactly what happened. But from what I gathered, the child was given up as a sacrifice. A sacrifice to something dark and unspeakable, to something (imagined?) that the cult worshipped.
She ran away that night.
She tried to report the cult to the police, too terrified to hide her own involvement in their activities up until the sacrifice. As soon as the police arrived at their hideout, however, they found the place ransacked and abandoned. My mother was placed immediately in witness protection. The investigation continued indefinitely, but the cult had never been apprehended.
A few years later, my mother met Stephen Winchester. They fell in love and married. He shouldered her troubled path and offered her a place in him to purify her heart.
They were happy until Darius came looking for that first-born to complete his sacrifice.
My mother couldn’t continue after that, but it didn’t matter: the rest of the story was already written in my memory.
In the end, I was incredibly lucky. A sober boy at the party saw me being carried out by Darius and called the police. The police had been watching some of Darius’s accomplices for months, noting certain specific violent incidents that they no doubt had a hand in. As soon as they got the call, they stormed the hideout – and old abandoned factory just off the main highway – and found me playing the part of the unwilling sacrificial lamb.
They tell me that Darius was shot in the raid. They tell me all the other cult members were either shot along with him or are in custody. They tell me that I don’t have to be afraid anymore.
But I still lock my door whenever I get back to my dorm. I still look carefully around every corner, wondering who might be hiding in the shadows.
And I still have nightmares every night.
The nightmare is always the same: In it, I am surrounded by an unspeakable, impenetrable darkness. I feel my screaming heart, my own hot tears, but nothing else.
And then I hear Darius say the first sentence he ever directed at me: “I’m here to pick up my daughter from school.”