PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM
by Shawn P. Madison
He wasn’t sure if that loud crash was in his dream or if it came from the only other room in the apartment but, whatever it was, it woke him up—not fully, his brain was still fuzzy, but he was awake.
Darkness permeated the bedroom. He fumbled for the small clock with the dim blue numbers on his nightstand…2:15am…Ugh. A muffled groan came from the other side of the closed bedroom door and Sam’s fuzzy brain immediately cleared. Someone was in his apartment!
He stumbled out of bed and grabbed the Louisville Slugger that sat between his nightstand and the small twin size bed that took up most of the bedroom.
The tiny two-room furnished apartment had welcomed him with its grime and stale cigarette stink two days ago, and the remnants of his life had been piled haphazardly into the small space and he was currently living out of those countless boxes. Pausing at the closed door to his bedroom, another groan—long and anguished—caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end.
What the hell is out there? His frantic mind pondered as he willed his right hand to slowly turn the knob, the heft of wood lying on his left shoulder his only line of defense. Taking a deep breath, his eyes scrambling to soak in as much light as possible in the inky darkness, he thrust open the bedroom door and took three quick steps into the living room-slash-kitchenette, both hands now tight on the bat’s handle.
Nothing. There was nobody in the room. He eased the tension in his shoulders only briefly before another dreadful moan filled the room.
“Who’s here?” Sam demanded but there was no reply. Slowly swiveling his head to take in as much of the living room as he could, the fuzzy edges of the piled boxes was all he could make out through the strange dark shapes created by the room’s deep shadows.
Slowly his vision cleared a bit as his eyes got used to the darkness but, still, nothing looked out of place. No lamps lying broken on the carpet that could have caused the crashing sound that had woken him up. No movement at all in the small, lonely room.
The bat drooped off his shoulder and he let it slip toward the ground, the large end thudding into the thinly carpeted floor, the handle still held loosely in his right hand. As he stepped toward the only door leading into the place, just to make sure the deadbolt had been turned before he hit the bed last night, another moan froze him in mid-stride. It came from nowhere and everywhere all at once, raising goose bumps over every inch of his body. Suddenly, in nothing but boxers and a Yankees tee shirt, Sam started to shiver as the temperature dropped inside the room.
A white, milky smoke began to form on the floor in front of the couch, misty and undefined, and Sam’s shivering grew worse. Taking a hasty step backwards, Sam watched the smoky mass form into an unclear image of a man writhing on the floor of his living room…the pain more than evident in what passed for this thing’s face, the mouth opened wide in a garish O of desperation, the hands at its throat, clawing at something that Sam could not see…the eyes, those incredibly terrified eyes, searching everywhere around the room.
He knew it was a ghost; the knowledge strangely calmed him and he felt no panic. He couldn’t turn away from the spectacle; he was compelled to watch as the scene unfolded in front of him.
His breath caught in his throat as he watched the ghostly figure gasp for breath, strangled by what looked to be a dark strip of cloth tightened around its neck. The abject look of pure terror that filled the tortured face of the smoky figure forced a sob from Sam, tears filling his eyes at the finality of the event he was witnessing.
Emotions surged through him as he stood there, swaying, eyes riveted to the death being played out before him…the face, mouth wide, yearning for air that was not forthcoming, its eyes bulging now with desperation, the man’s body jerking with spasms as the brain realized the immediacy of the end it faced.
Sam’s heart raced, his grip tightening once again on the bat, eager to be of some help but knowing that this scene had already happened, was only being replayed in his living room. A sense of futility encompassed him and Sam slowly fell to his knees, the tears streaming down his cheeks.
With the thump of his knees hitting the thin carpet the ghostly figure’s head suddenly turned toward Sam, the eyes seeking the source of the sound, a moment of recognition flashed across the doomed figure’s eyes and the thing’s hand shot out toward Sam, reaching, the fingers probing, just inches from his face.
Sam lurched backwards, falling on his ass, and scrambled until his back hit the wall. As abruptly as the scene had begun, it was gone…with that last reach of wispy fingers and recognition in the figure’s eyes, the form had disappeared with an audible crack that Sam wasn’t sure he had heard with his ears.
Still breathing hard, still shivering and now alone in his living room with just a tiny patch of white mist floating low to the ground between the couch and the TV, Sam was working his brain hard to figure out what the hell had just happened. Slowly, he stood and paced around the dark living room, the cold mist clinging briefly to his shins and ankles before dissipating. There was nothing there to prove what he had just seen. No corpse with bulging eyes, no strip of dark material lying on the ground—simply nothing.
With the loss of adrenaline came a feeling of intense fatigue and Sam found himself once again slumped on the floor with his back against the wall. Any energy he had left after the adrenaline burn-off was seeping away and his eyes began to close, the apartment’s darkness and the relative silence of the early morning hour working to drive him toward sleep…the thump of the bat’s handle hitting the floor when he unknowingly released his grip brought him slightly awake just moments later and Sam took a second to realize where he was.
Neck sore and body stiff from his awkward position on the living room floor, he slowly rolled to his knees and felt, again, the coldness seep into the room. Sam looked up and saw the mist returning, coalescing just a few feet away.
The scene began to play again, the terror was back, the desperation, the knowledge in those already-dead eyes that nothing could stop what was happening, that the end was imminent—all of it back again and the tears began streaming down Sam’s face once more. The emotion of the moment overwhelmed him and he slumped down just inches from the anguished face of the doomed man…a man who must have been killed in this very room, a man whose soul was somehow still trapped in this small lifeless place, this sordid apartment that reeked of old cigarettes and the stale sweat of the countless other residents who had lived and breathed within these walls.
Sam had just moved in two days ago. His first night was relatively peaceful, despite the miscellaneous noises of the city and his neighbors. The second night, however, was quickly proving less than peaceful and thoughts of moving out as fast as he could get out of his lease were racing through his mind.
All of this was going through his head as he squatted on the floor, witnessing this poor soul’s death for the second time in the space of an hour, knowing that the end was just seconds away, knowing that he couldn’t take much more of this. As the misty-white face gasped for air one last time, the eyes bulging again as life was squeezed away, Sam pushed forward toward the figure, wanting to reach out to him, to offer some consolation to the tortured spirit just inches away.
Sam lifted his arm to reach his hand toward the agonized figure formed of white mist and lost his balance, catching himself as his elbow thumped into the carpet and those eyes once again shifted toward him with a sudden jerk—found his eyes and latched on tight with a gaze full of pain and lost hope, driving all thought from Sam’s tired and confused brain. One of the figure’s hands left the scrap of material digging into its throat and reached out toward Sam, the fleshless fingers passing through his own and, in that heartbeat, Sam was there—in the room with the victim and his killer, seeing the brutal act in living color, smelling the fear coming off the man on the floor in waves, and making eye contact with the man on the other end of this vicious act.
The killer startled with the shock of Sam’s sudden appearance, let go of the material cutting into his victim’s throat and grabbed for the gun underneath his jacket, bringing it up in one smooth movement to point right at Sam. The man who was almost killed sucked in air in great heaving gasps as the man with the gun fired twice—once at Sam and once directly into the back of the head of his originally intended victim.
Sam felt the bullet tear through his shoulder and the scene suddenly shifted, all color left and he was once again in the darkness of his living room with the white mist just inches away, fuzzy gray blood and brain matter spattering everywhere as the bullet wrought havoc on the man’s head. Sam was punched back against the wall again and shrieked as pain exploded in his shoulder, his hand probing for blood but not finding any.
The white mist swirled and began to dissipate once more as Sam lifted himself from the floor and ran into the bathroom, popping on the light and pulling up his Yankees shirt…there was a deep and ugly purple bruise on his left shoulder, the excruciating pain sending shock waves through his upper torso. Running back into the living room he hit the light switch on the wall just outside his bedroom and scanned the wall he had just been leaning against.
There…in the dark paneling at about waist height—a small dark hole, a bullet hole, right where the bullet would have punched through him and kept on going until it met wood.
With the mist still swirling slightly along the floor of his living room, Sam grabbed a few things to get him through the night and raced for the front door.
“Screw this!” he yelled at the mist and slammed the apartment door closed. Newly divorced and now newly homeless, Sam made his way through the dark parking lot in his boxers and Yankees Tee to his car, not realizing that he was tracing the very same steps the killer took to the exact same parking spot where the getaway car had been parked all those years ago.
What he did realize, and now laughed at himself for not realizing sooner, was why he’d gotten this ground floor apartment so damn cheap.
Shawn P. Madison, creator of the Guarder/U.E.N. Universe, currently lives in the beautiful Garden State of New Jersey with his wife and a veritable cornucopia of kids. Although he has written in many different genres, he tends to write mostly science fiction and horror. He has published more than eighty short stories in thirty different magazines and anthologies, both electronic and print. His first novel, Guarder Lore, was released by NovelBooks, Inc. in March of 2002, the follow-up novel, The Guarder Factor, was released by NovelBooks, Inc. in November of 2003 and his collection of short horror fiction, The Road to Darkness, was released by Double Dragon Publishing (www.double-dragon-ebooks.com) in April of 2003. You can reach Shawn via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org