By the Fire's Light by Star Kindler
“I gotta tell you, Connor, this is oneamazing story,” Kurt said, plopping down on the couch next to him. “You’ve got me believing in the boogie man again. I actually checked under my bed last night.” Connor laughed, taking the manuscript back. “Well it did take first prize in that contest, so I would hope it’s good.”
Kurt put an arm around Connor’s shoulder and proclaimed to the imagined masses in front of them. “I can see it now, Connor. We’ll both head to college after the summer. You'll write an amazing horror film and I'll shoot it. It'll get wildly popular on YouTube, some Hollywood exec will see it, and we'll be rich beyond our wildest dreams.” Connor shoved Kurt’s arm off him with a grunt. “Right, just like what happened with these guys whose series you’re showing me. What’s it called again?”
“Marble Hornets,” Kurt said, pulling out some DVDs. “And, well, they’re not rich and famous yet, but they should be.” “And it’s about a tall man or something?” Connor said, settling into the couch.
“And you call yourself a horror buff,” Kurt said scornfully as he put the first DVD in. “It’s Slender Man. And he’s scary as hell.”
“We’ll see,” Connor said as the DVD started.
A few hours later Connor stood up and stretched. “That was surprisingly good,” he said. “I know, right?” Kurt said, popping the DVD back out. “Who would’ve thought a tall faceless dude could be so scary?”
“Not me,” Connor said, turning to look at the clock. “I’m gonna head home. I still haven't finished packing for our camping trip.”
“My dad's totally stoked for this,” Kurt said. “I think he’s more excited than I am.”
Connor laughed. “My dad’s tolerating it. You should have seen all the bug spray he bought.”
“You want me to drive you home?” Kurt asked as Connor headed for the door.
“I live three blocks away, I can walk,” Connor said, as he opened the door.
“I just don’t want to the Slender Man to get you,” Kurt said.
“Cute,” Connor said as he walked outside. He waved. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Kurt.” Putting his hands in his pockets, he strolled across the lawn and down the street.
As he walked, Connor’s brain turned over the concept of the Slender Man in his head. Why was he around? What exactly did he do besides stand around menacingly? And more importantly, how would he use him in a story? Connor stopped as something black and white flashed by him in his peripheral vision. Heart beating, he turned to look to his right. “Hello?” he said. A click on the pavement behind him made him jump. “Who’s there?” he said, whipping around. A wagging tail greeted his vision and friendly brown eyes. He sighed and laughed at himself. “Hello, Daisy,” he said to the black and white dog in front of him. “Did you jump your fence again?” Daisy just wagged her tail in response. “Come on then,” he said, patting his leg to get her to follow him. “I’ll take you home.”
The next day Kurt, Connor, and both their dads piled into a Suburban packed tight with camping gear. “Let’s get this trip started!” Kurt hooted from the back seat. “All right!” Kurt’s dad said as he turned on the ignition. Connor’s dad grunted in the passenger seat.
“So, you lose any sleep last night?” Kurt said, shoving Connor. Connor yawned. “Yeah, I had more packing to do than I thought.” Kurt gave an exasperated sigh. “Not that.” "What then?” Connor asked, puzzled. “Oh, Slender Man.” He shrugged. “It was good, Kurt. Scary even. But I’ve been writing stuff like this for a long time. I know it’s not real.”
“Killjoy,” Kurt muttered, settling back in his seat. They spent the rest of the ride chattering about the park they would be camping in and the college they would be going to. Kurt’s dad piped in enthusiastically about hiking trails and fishing streams, while Connor’s dad told them about his old fraternity days whenever Kurt’s dad stopped for breath.
They pulled into the state park early in the afternoon and found their campsite. After they set up camp, Kurt grabbed Connor’s arm. “My dad says there’s an awesome hiking trail close by that leads to a nearby lake. Let’s check it out.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” Connor said, sitting on the ground. “I could use a nap.” “Connor, come on,” Kurt said tugging on his arm. “Stay together,” Kurt’s dad called after them as Kurt bounced off and Connor trudged behind him. Kurt grabbed his pack as he passed his tent. “It’s not gonna be that long of a hike, is it?” Connor asked. “Be prepared,” Kurt said with a mischievous grin. Connor sighed and grabbed his own pack.
The trees quickly closed in on them as they walked away from the campsite. “Ooo, he could be here,” Kurt said, spinning around slowly in place.” “Uh-huh,” Connor said, slapping at his neck. He was beginning to wish he had grabbed some of his dad’s bug spray. “Hey, hold up a second, I gotta take a leak,” Kurt said, shifting his pack and running off into the woods. “Kurt, wait, stop!” Connor hollered after him, shifting his own pack. “We’re supposed to stick together!” “You wanna watch me pee you perve?” Kurt hollered back. “Not particularly,” Connor said to himself leaning against a tree. He sighed as he waited for Kurt. A few minutes later, Connor bolted upright when he heard a panicked yell. “Connor, Connor! Get over here, quick!” Connor dropped his pack and leaped off the path. “Kurt?” he yelled. “Connor!” Kurt yelled back.
Connor followed the sound of his voice deeper into the woods. “Connor!” Kurt yelled again, close by. Connor rounded a corner and came to a stop as a black and white suit flew at him from high in the air. “Geez,” Connor said, throwing himself backwards. He thrashed for a moment before he realized the suit was empty. He lay back down. “Funny, Kurt,” he said.
He heard laughter above him and looked up. Kurt was sliding down a nearby tree. “Oh, no, Slender Man doesn’t scare me,” Kurt said, grabbing the suit and stuffing it back in his pack. Connor cuffed the back of his head. “I’m going back to camp,” he said. “Come on.”
Kurt followed him, still giggling. Connor shook his head. “Could you please stop with the giggling? You got me, okay?” Kurt stopped giggling. “Thank you,” Connor said, continuing forward. Then he realized it wasn’t just the giggling that had stopped. Kurt had stopped walking completely.
Connor turned around. “What now?” he said. Kurt was standing open-mouthed, staring at something behind and above Connor. Connor turned around and looked. Trees, trees, and more trees stood in front of him but nothing else. “No,” Kurt whispered. “It can’t be.” Connor turned back around. “Look, the suit was funny but you need to knock it off, Kurt.”
Kurt wasn’t listening to him though. He was slowly backing away with his hands up. “I can see you,” he whispered. “Isn’t that enough?” Connor took a step towards Kurt. “Kurt, “ he said slowly, worry creeping into his voice. “What are you talking about?”Kurt screamed, high and shrill. It should have been funny.
Connor should have been joking about what a little girl Kurt sounded liked. But all Connor could see was they very real terror in Kurt’s eyes as he scrambled backwards, waving at something Connor could not see. “No, no,” Kurt was shrieking, holding up his hands. His eyes locked with Connor’s. “You have to see him,” he screamed. “He says he’ll kill me if you can’t see him!” And then a spurt of red slashed across Kurt’s chest and he screamed again. Connor ran forward then. He couldn’t see what was hurting his friend, but that wound had to come from somewhere.
But even as Connor ran forward, Kurt moved back, only Connor wasn’t sure it was under his own power anymore. It was more like he was skidding as someone pushed him. More red slashes appeared on Kurt’s arms and face and he tried to cover himself as his screams grew quieter. “I didn’t believe, not really,” he whimpered. And then a single deep red point appeared in the middle of Kurt’s chest. He gave one final wail, and then fell silent.
Connor finally caught up with Kurt. He knelt down and shook him by the shoulder. “Kurt, Kurt!” he yelled. Kurt’s body crunched the underbrush and Connor shook him more urgently. “Kurt!” he screamed, his own terror full-throated now. But Kurt didn’t answer. Connor let his hands drop from Kurt and slowly he stood up backing away. There was no doubt in his mind to who the “he” Kurt had been screaming about was, but that wasn’t possible. “You’re not real,” Connor said, voice shaking. But, a squiggling little doubt wormed into his mind. As he backed away, his eyes turned towards the shadows cast by the trees. And then one branch’s shadow seemed to move and snake. And then two. And three. Slowly Connor turned around. A glimpse of black and a head far far too high in the air.
He didn’t scream again. He was too far gone for that. He just ran, heedless of where he went. He didn’t dare look behind him. He knew, knew that if he did he would be lost. Trees flashed past. His stumbled and fell in a briar patch. Hands stinging he shoved himself up. His knees felt wet. He was bleeding. No time to stop though. Just one breath then the next. Eventually at the top of a steep incline, he lost his footing and fell. End over end he tumbled, neck turning awkwardly at points, but always stopping just short of a break. He came to a stop on his back and out of breath at the bottom of the hill. He looked up at the sky, dazed, seeing the sunlight patter through the branches above him. He was vaguely aware that he appeared to have landed in a patch of mushrooms, that were now encircling him on all sides. And then, something very thin and very tall moved above him. He was falling again and Connor wondered if he had imagined stopping at the bottom of the hill. But it was dark now. He couldn’t see anything. Just a sensation of weightlessness. He flailed his arms and legs and met nothing.
Something thin but strong encircled his right wrist. Automatically, he pulled away, but he found he couldn’t move his arm. Whatever was around his wrist was twining its way up his arm. Breathing hard, he pulled with all his might. His left hand felt through the pitch black, scratching and clawing at the thing that was moving up his arm. But it was implacable. Nothing he did stopped it. And then it was on his shoulder and wrapping around his neck. He stiffened, wondering if it meant to choke him. But ,though the tendril was firm, it didn’t crush his neck. It snuck around his head and then he felt, rather than saw, it hover just above his right eye. “No, no, no!” he said as he felt it suddenly plunge forward. Vitreous humor dripped down his cheek, but Connor had scant time to worry about that.
For as the tendril plunged into his eye, visions began to play in his mind. He saw small children on a playground, laughing and running. But as he watched, it was if the very air grew unstable and it wavered. He felt heat as he had never known, felt his arms breaking into blisters. He heard crackling all around him as if he was sitting in a fireplace, and he prayed that the fire would take him. The laughter of the children melded into screams. Screams of pain and, worse, screams of terror. Something malevolent moved towards them through the flames, something that had come to claim them. They should have died in the flames, should have moved on. But something was holding them back, tying them into this one moment of agony, and holding them there until they forgot they had ever known anything else. And Connor was with them in that moment, held suspended between life and death, and he cried, his tears mixing with the jelly pouring from his right eye.
Then more tendrils came and shook him, shook him by his shoulders, back and forth. The screaming became deeper and less panicked. And Connor thought this was odd, because he wasn’t screaming anymore, and the kids’ screams had been so high-pitched it was odd to hear such a mature tone coming from them. Had they been trapped here so long they had grown? The shaking came again and Connor heard his name. “Connor, can you hear me?” His eyes flew open and he saw far above him a crescent moon rising above the trees. He bolted up, hand flying to his right eye. It was whole, and as he removed his shaking hand, he found he could see fine. “Connor?” someone questioned next to him, but he ignored it. He pulled his right sleeve up, but his arm was whole and unblemished. Trembling, he tried to stand up, but felt hands pushing him back down, a voice urging him to take it easy. The voice was shouting to others now. Connor turned towards the voice and a small corner of his mind registered that it was his dad who was now hugging him and crying. “Dad,” Connor said voice cracking. His dad hugged him tighter as Connor heard other people stumbling down the hill. “Dad,” Connor began again. “Where’s Kurt?” His dad pulled away and looked him in the eye. And Connor knew without a word that Kurt was gone. And he wondered if Kurt was really gone or tied to that one moment where you hung between worlds. Burying his head in his hands, Connor sobbed.
“Patrick,” somebody said to Connor’s dad as he continued to sob. “They caught the sonuva bitch that killed Kurt.” Connor looked up, confused. “But how could you catch him?” he asked. His dad just patted his back and said something about shock. And then firm arms were helping him up and moving him, and Connor, confused, tired, and frightened, let them lead him up the hill and out of the woods.
- * *
Connor sighed as he looked out the window. “I can’t believe it’s been ten years.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe this is our last visit.” He turned his head to look at the woman behind the desk. She smiled. “Our last scheduled visit. You’ve come a long way from when I first met you. Screaming about the faceless man who killed your friend.” Connor sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “It all seemed so real Dr. Kennedy. Sometimes I still see him . . . it in my dreams.”
“It’s to be expected,” Dr. Kennedy said, folding her hands and placing them on her desk. “You will probably always associate this ‘slenderman’, as you called him, with your friend’s death in some manner. It was easier for your mind to associate the brutal killing of your friend with a monster than with a man. The medication should continue to help with the bad dreams. And if you ever need me, day or night, you can always call.” She opened a drawer on her desk and pulled something out. “By the way, before you go there’s something I would like you to do for me.”
Connor stood up and walked over to the desk. “What’s that?” Dr. Kennedy looked up at him and smiled. “Your book, By the Fire’s Light. Would you sign it for me?” Connor laughed as he reached over and slid the book to himself. Dr. Kennedy handed him a pen. “You know, you were right,” he said, as he scrawled his name and a small note of thanks on the inside cover. “Writing it out, the faceless man and the fire and the kids, really did help me to get it out of my head. I didn’t think I’d be turning it into a book when I started.”
“I think it’s good,” Dr, Kennedy said, taking the book back from Connor. “You’ve taken something destructive in your life and turned it into something constructive.” “Just one last thing to do, I guess,” Connor said, looking out the window. Dr. Kennedy cocked her head. “So you still plan to visit Kurt’s killer today?” Connor nodded, still looking out the window. “I just want to hear it from him. Why he did it.” “This could be closure you need,” Dr. Kennedy said, standing. Connor turned back to her. “I think it’s a good thing. Just like your book.” She smiled again. “The critics are eating it up from what I’ve seen. It’s starting to sell like wildfire.”
“Heh, right, wildfire,” Connor said, repressing a small shudder. He reached out a hand. “Well, thanks for everything, doc,” he said. Dr. Kennedy took his hand and shook it. “Good luck to you, Connor.” Fifteen minutes later found Connor on the way to the State Penitentiary. His blue Corolla rolled down the Interstate. A feeling of anxiety had been building in him all day. Normal, he supposed, he was going to confront his friend’s killer. He shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck again. A flash of black and white next to him on the road made him catch his breath. Checking the rear view mirror, he saw a man in a business suit on the shoulder of the road, looking at a car with smoke pouring from the hood. Connor sighed. “Get a hold of yourself, Connor,” he murmured as he pulled off at his exit. “You’ve just put your life back together.”
A guard tower, three buzz-ins, and keyless, cell phoneless, and anything that even looked like a weaponless later, Connor sat down in front of a plastic barrier. Next to him was a beige telephone. In front of him was a tall burly man. Jared Holloway, Kurt’s killer. Jared’s hair was practically shaved off with only a small bit of dark fuzz showing. His brown eyes were hard and his fingers gnarled. Jared picked up the phone. Connor did the same. “So,” Jared said, a sneer on his face. “I suppose you’ve come to find out why I did it.” Connor looked into Jared’s face, at the sneer, the hate. He looked into Jared’s eyes, and saw, just for a moment, a flame flicker in them. “No,” Connor said, surprising himself and Jared. “No,” he said again, wonderingly. He put the phone down for a moment and looked around them. The guards were alert for any wrong-doing but they weren’t really paying attention to what he was saying. He picked the phone up again and turned to Jared. “I want to know why you took the blame.”
Jared’s eyes widened for a split-second and then narrowed. “What are you still crazy? Crazy as when they found you after I lost you?” He leaned forward. “It’s simple. I took a knife and sliced your friend up. His blood still dripping from my hands, I turned on you and you ran like a little pansy. You got lucky and I lost you. End of story.” Connor leaned forward too. “Yes, that’s what you told the cops, the court, everyone.” His eyes locked with Jared’s again. “But it’s not true, is it?” he whispered.
Jared’s eyes flickered back and forth rapidly. Again, for a second, Connor saw a flame dance in them. Jared closed his eyes and shuddered. “Look,” he rasped, voice low and close to panic. “If I say that’s what happened, it’s what happened.” He shook his head. “I may be on death row, but there are things worse than death.” And then before Connor could say anything else, Jared hung up his phone. Connor sat and watched as the guard took him back and wondered.
That night Connor sat in his apartment in his small kitchen dining room area. The only light came from a small lamp on the counter. He looked down at the book in his hands and leafed through the pages. Dr. Kennedy was right, it was selling well and his publisher was already clamoring for a sequel. He should be happy. But he was more apprehensive than ever. Putting the book down on the counter, he grabbed a kettle off the stove and filled it with water. He needed to relax. A cup of tea and then bed. Turning back to the stove, he turned it on. It clicked for a moment as it tried to ignite, and then flames shot out it in a gigantic whoosh.
With a yell, Connor flung himself backwards over the counter. The flames were shooting straight up, impossibly high, licking the wooden cabinet above the stove. The cabinet began to burn, turning black as smoke curled away from it. It was burning as if gasoline had been dumped on the fire, racing across the cabinet door. Connor turned, reaching for his fire extinguisher, and then stopped. In the corner, by the front door, was tall thin space of black that was darker than the surrounding apartment. Connor froze staring at it, even as he felt the heat from the fire behind him lick his back. And then it moved towards him. “No, no,” Connor screamed, bolting towards his bedroom door. He shoved it closed and locked it, for all the good it would do. Even as he closed the door, he could hear the fire whooshing, growing. There was an orange glow coming from the crack beneath the door. Backing away, Connor looked around him. He was on the fourth floor. The only way down was a long jump. He backed against the window. “Why now,” he whispered. “Why have you come?”
There was no answer as the door crackled and the room began to fill with smoke. Vaguely Connor was aware that smoke alarms were going off and that people in the hall were running for the fire escape. But more importantly he was aware that flames were licking through the door now and in the smoke he could see dancing tendrils weaving in through the cracks. With sudden resolve he lifted the window. “You may have taken them,” he said, turning to the door one more time. He climbed up into the window as a business suit came into view, smoke and flame obscuring his view so he couldn’t tell if the tie was red, or just black reflecting the flame’s light. “But you won’t take me.” And then he pushed backwards, not daring to look below him.
Wind whistled in his ears as he fell. Connor didn’t feel fear. Instead he felt a certain giddiness. And when what looked like a head popped out of his window, he waved cheerily for just a second before his body hit the concrete sidewalk. There was jarring pain all through him and stars flooded his vision. “At least I get to leave,” he thought, hearing screams and running feet distantly. And then he thought no more.