Thursday, January 25, 2018

THE WITCHING HOUR

Genre: Horror 




THE WITCHING HOUR
By Daniel Skye




“Good evening ladies and germs, and welcome to another edition of ‘Last Call’ with yours truly, Ron Hall. And I’ll be keeping you company all through the witching hour. It’s exactly twelve midnight here on the east coast. And I’ll be here ‘til the break of dawn to take your calls and rant and bitch as much as I please in between. But first, I’ve got a little music for you. This one is a special request and it goes out to Sherri in Bay Shore.”

Hall loved to run his mouth, but he also liked to get paid to sit around and do nothing. Song requests were his favorite. All he had to do was pop in a CD, press a few buttons, sit back and relax. Or he’d chat with Nikki, who was always in the booth with him.

            Hall filled his mug with coffee and decided to Irish it up with a little shot of whiskey from the flask he stashed in the top drawer of his desk.

            “Easy on the booze,” Nikki told him. “I don’t want you slurring your words on the air.”

            “It’s past midnight on a Wednesday. Who else is listening at this hour besides alcoholics?”

            “Loners, insomniacs, horny truck drivers.”

            “Thanks for the lovely image.”

            Nikki Baldwin was Hall’s producer, technical assistant, and station manager all rolled into one. Hall busted her chops on a regular basis, but he had a lot of respect for Nikki. The girl was tough. As tough as nails, Hall thought. She was the only girl that Hall knew who drove a motorcycle. And boy, could she throw a punch. Hall found out the hard way when he accidentally dinged up her bike. He’d been drinking and the roads were icy and he just sort of slid into it. She was pissed, but she didn’t hold any grudges. She slugged him once and told him they were even, and Hall didn’t beg to differ. She didn’t even ask him to pay for the damage.

            The song came to an end, and Hall was back on the air. “I’ll never get tired of that track,” Hall commented, not even sure what song he’d played. Nikki had the lineup, and Hall just pushed the buttons and ranted on-air, mostly about politics or the most recent celebrity scandals.

            “I’ve got another one coming up for you. This song goes out to Otto in Springfield, New Jersey.”

            “I’ve got a caller on line one,” Nikki whispered. Ron looked down at the phone and saw line one was blinking. Nikki held up her notepad. She had written JAKE FROM BAYONNE, NEW JERSEY in all capital letters to let Hall know who was on hold. Hall had gotten used to the rather primitive setup over the years. They still used landlines and they played CDs when most stations were using MP3s or burning songs to their laptops and playing them off of that. And he had also adapted to Nikki’s unique methods of communication. She was constantly scribbling notes and holding them up for him to see.

            “But first, we have a caller. Jake from Bayonne, you’re on the air. What’s on your mind, Jake?”

            “Hey, Ron. How’s it going?”

            “It’ll be going a lot smoother once I get this coffee in me,” Ron said, taking a sip from his Justice League mug.

            “I hear that. But yeah, reason I’m calling is I was listening to your show last night about Pilgrim State. Really scary stuff.”

            “Thanks. It wasn’t meant to be scary, but when I heard the place was being demolished, it brought back a lot of memories from my rebellious teenage years. I’m not ashamed to admit that place always gave me the chills. Do you have a story about Pilgrim State you want to share?”

            “Well, Ron, I personally don’t believe in monsters or demons or vampires. But I’m a firm believer in the afterlife.”

            “So you believe in ghosts or spirits?”

            “Absolutely. So this story goes back to my days in high school. I was a jock and–”

            “We forgive you for that. But please continue.”

            Jake from Bayonne, New Jersey gave a forced chuckle and then went on. “Yeah, so I was a jock and every year, the football team would go up to Pilgrim State and explore the grounds. It was a mandatory thing for new team members, a way to weed out the tough guys from the chicken shits. The place has been closed since I was a kid. The buildings are dilapidated and crumbling. Bums use it for shelter. But anyway, before I ramble on, let me tell my story.”

            “Please do. It’s past midnight and I’m trying to stay awake here.”

            “We were in one of the basement tunnels, and we weren’t looking for it, but we ended up stumbling upon the morgue where they used temporarily store any deceased patients. The place was empty, obviously. But my friend was standing near one of the empty cabinets, and he swears to this day that something reached out and touched his arm.”

            “Was it one of you guys playing a prank on him? Messing around?”

            “It definitely wasn’t me. I was standing all the way across from him. I never knew whether to believe him or not. But it certainly freaked him out and he still talks about it to this day. He remembers that it had dry, coarse, almost scaly skin.”

            “Interesting story, Jake. I’m sure since this was back in high school, there were no drugs involved. No mind altering substances. But thanks for the call, man. Have a great night.”

            “Hey, Ron, before I go, one more story.”

            “Alright, what the hell. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

            “Remember how I said I don’t believe in monsters? Well, I didn’t believe in monsters. But we saw something in the basement of one of the buildings that made me think otherwise. It was this…shapeless mass. Colorless. Odorless. It seemed harmless. But the closer we got, I could swear it was moving. It was like pulsing, like it was breathing or something. I got really close and it started to slither away. And that’s when…hey, what the fuck is that?”

            “Whoa, whoa, Jake, you can’t use that word on the air, buddy. I know I said nobody is listening, but the FCC will have my butt on a platter if they get wind of this.”

            “Ron, I’m walking to my car and there’s something standing at the end of the street. It, it looks like a person, but I see, I see wings. It has freaking wings like jutting out of its shoulder blades. Ron, I-I-I got to call you back. What the…no, no, no! Get away from me! Get the hell away from me! Get off–”

            The call was disconnected and a brief silence filled the air as Nikki and Ron exchanged bewildered glances.

            “Thank you, Jake from Bayonne. And whatever you’re on, please share some. But I think Jake actually raised a good question to explore tonight. Do you believe in monsters? Not the political monsters. Not that monster in the white house. Not the crooks in the street or the cops on the beat. I’m talking about the figurative monsters, not the literal ones. The Frankenstein’s, the Dracula’s, the flesh-craving zombies, the ghosts in the attic, the demons in the cellar. Do you believe in monsters? Do you think monsters are real? Or can we make them real simply by choosing to believe in them? What’s your take on all this?”

            He checked the phone lines, expecting Jake to call back and have the last laugh on him. But he saw no blinking lights. “Otto in Springfield, I haven’t forgotten about you. Here’s a little Iron Maiden coming your way.”

            Ron dropped his headset and swiveled around in his chair to face Nikki. “The hell was that?”

            “Just another crank caller. We got at least ten of those a week. When you come back from this next song, you’ve got another caller on line three that wants to weigh in on your monster debate.”

            The song faded out and Ron rejoined the program. “Hope you all enjoyed that track, if you’re even awake. Rich in Ronkonkoma–boy that’s a mouthful–you’re on the air. What have you got for us?”

            “Evening, Ron. Long time listener, first time caller.”

            “Glad to have you on the air, Rich. What’s on your mind?”

            “A lot, Ron. But I’ll keep this short. Monsters are real. They do exist. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. I watched a neighbors stone gargoyle statue come to life, like something out of Ghostbusters. And before you try to discredit me, there was no drugs involved. I’ve seen many over the years. I’ve been tracking these things for a very long time. Most of them live underground. They live for nights like tonight when the moon is at its darkest and they can blend in with the night. And some of them live within us, dormant, inactive, just waiting for the opportune moment to reveal their true forms. They will come for you. And when they do, there’s no stopping them. They–”

            Ron disconnected the call. “And thank you, Rich from Ronkonkoma. Someone make sure he’s taking his medication. Check South Oaks, I think they’re missing a patient.”

            A blare in the distance gave Ron a jolt and made him drop his headset.

            “What is that?”

            “Sirens.”

            “But we’re in a sound booth. We shouldn’t be able to hear a thing.”

            “Must be serious.”

            “Must be. Well, you’re the technical advisor. See what you can find. Check Patch or something. Or use the police scanner.”

            “Police scanner is fucked. I can’t pick up any frequencies tonight. But I’ll surf the web, see what I can find.”

            Ron returned to the air with another track ready to play, but the phone lit up with three blinking lights. “Guess everyone has insomnia tonight. Tommy in Queens, you’re on the air. Please be sane, unlike the last caller.”

            “Ron, I’ve been trying to get through to the police all night but the lines are busy. So I thought I’d try you.”

            “Good idea. The phones are wide open here. What’s going on, Tommy?”

            “It’s my neighbor…he’s sick. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

            “So call 911, that’s what they’re there for.”

            “I was on hold with 911 for hours. Can’t get through to them, either.”

            “You can’t get through to 911?”

            “Call them if you don’t believe me.”

            “I’ll take your word, for now. What’s wrong with your neighbor, Tommy?”

“Hell if I know. His skin was all discolored. Pus and fluid leaking from every hole in his body. He was trying to get into my apartment, but I couldn’t let him in. He was…my God, he was growing something out of the sides of his body. It looked like…tentacles.”

            “Tentacles? Right.”

            “Oh my God…” Tommy gasped. “He’s at the door again. What should I do?”

            “I think you should give the crack pipe a rest. Is everyone calling in tonight on drugs?”

            “I can see them, slithering around under the door. The tentacles. I can see him through the peephole. God, he looks hideous! Ron, please, you’ve got to get in touch with the police! You’ve got to tell them–”

            Another dead call. Ron Hall took a big gulp of his Irish coffee and noticed the two waiting callers had dwindled to one. He threw a CD on without thinking twice and turned to Nikki for some much needed answers.

            “Well?”

            “Nothing. Nothing on Google, nothing on Patch, Twitter, or Reddit. Nothing on any local news sites. Nothing on Facebook. Radio silence.”

            “What the hell is going on out there?”

            More sirens in the distance, cutting through the sound proof booth. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

            Ron returned to the air and went to the last remaining caller. “Trent from Redfield, you’re on the air.”

            “Ron, my friends and I have been listening to your show since it started and you need to open your eyes, man. These aren’t crank calls. The shit has hit the fan out here. I don’t know what the hell is going on. There are cops everywhere telling people to stay inside their homes. They’re rounding people up and hauling them away. There’s a rumor going around that they’re calling in the National Guard. And my friend, Eric, was attacked.”

            “Attacked? Attacked by who?”

            “Not who, Ron. What. I don’t know what the damn thing was. It had this huge, pear-shaped body and three angular legs on each side, like a spider. But this thing, it had a stinger on its backside. Like a scorpion. It stung my friend. And now he’s writhing on the floor. The police won’t help him. They told us to stay away from him.”

            “How bad is it, Trent?” Ron asked with genuine concern. He was starting to become a believer.

            “It’s bad. His stomach is all black and purple and swollen. It’s, it’s, oh Christ! It’s growing! His stomach is swelling!”

            Ron could hear the agonizing screams. If Trent’s buddy was acting, he deserved an Oscar.

            “Don’t touch him, Trent. Get away from him.”

            “It won’t stop! It just keeps growing! It’s filling up like a balloon!”

            Ron wondered how long the skin could endure, how long his stomach would take the pressure. And he didn’t have to wonder long. He heard a loud pop that sounded like a car exhaust backfiring. Trent gasped, then shrieked. There were several other distinct screams and the patter of footsteps as Trent and his friends scattered.

            “It just burst right out of his stomach! It just ripped right through his fucking chest! Never seen anything like it! Blood everywhere!” Trent was hyperventilating, and sounded on the verge of hysteria.

            “What is it, Trent?”

            “It looks just like the fucking thing that attacked him!”

            Ron didn’t care about the FCC fines at this point. He cared about surviving the night.

            The line went dead and Ron removed his headset, pushed his mic away from his face.

            Silence. Dead air.

            “I think I owe Rich from Ronkonkoma an apology,” he told Nikki.

He reached into his coat pocket and produced a crushed pack of Camels. “I quit four months ago. I never threw the pack away because I wanted to prove to myself that I had the willpower. A lot of good that did me.” He lit one and offered one to Nikki.

            “Why not?” she shrugged and accepted one that wasn’t crushed or broken.

            “That’s the spirit. If the world is going to hell, we might as well go to hell with ourselves, too.”

            Nikki grabbed her laptop. “I found something when you were on the phone. Someone uploaded a video to YouTube, about an hour ago. Ron, you need to see this.”

            She double clicked the video to make it a full screen, then she pressed play and let Hall watch. She had already seen it, and didn’t desire to view it again. So instead, she watched Hall’s terrified reaction.

            The video–shaky and blurry–was clearly shot on someone’s cell phone. The camera was focused on a green door. The man holding the phone sounded quite distraught and a little scared as he pleaded with his friend on the other side of the door.

            “Daryl, please open the door. Come on out, man. We need to get you to a hospital. Whatever’s going on, it’s not your fault. The doctors will know what it is, man. You just have to let them look at you.”

He pounded on the door. No response.

He walked a few feet from the green door and turned the camera on himself. “I know it’s a dick move to film this, but I’ve never seen this shit before. His skin, it just started like, I don’t, know, peeling off. And I don’t know what the hell was underneath, but man, it didn’t look like flesh. It was all, like, bumpy and brown and crusty-looking. He really needs to see a doctor. But he won’t come out.”

The man walked back over, the camera focused on the green door again.

“Daryl, open up!” he shouted. “Let me help you!”

            “You can’t!” Daryl shrieked.

            Nikki turned up the volume so Hall could hear the sound coming from the bathroom. He heard the glass shattering and watched as the man set his phone down. The angle was terrible, but he could still make out what was going on. The man kicked at the knob and used his shoulder as a battering ram until the door swung open. He stepped back a few feet, grabbed his phone, and went in.

The window was smashed to pieces. Shards of glass were sprinkled all over the floor. Daryl was gone. But he left two parting gifts. The first he noticed was the claw marks on the windowsill. The skin was the cocoon of skin he’d left splayed out on the bathroom floor. Daryl, or the thing that used to be Daryl, had shed its skin the way a person would casually remove their coat. That’s where the video ended.

            “Ladies and germs…I have no words to describe the events that have transpired tonight. If you’re indoors, please remain indoors. Don’t go outside. Don’t answer your doors. Don’t trust any strangers. And don’t–”

            Hall looked down at the blinking light and then up at Nikki.

            Nikki held up her notepad. TRENT – LINE ONE

           “Trent, you’re back on the air. Are you there, Trent? What’s happening? Talk to us.”

            “The thing that came out of my friend…it’s growing.”

            “Growing?”

            “Yes, growing. Expanding. And it’s sprouting new appendages. There are…oh, Christ…there are tentacles coming out of its back.”

            “Where is it, Trent? Where is it?”

            “I don’t know. It’s crawling all around the house. I’m in the upstairs bedroom. I locked myself in. I don’t know what happened to the others. I think they bolted out the backdoor. Oh, God, please help me. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”

            “You’re not going to die, Trent. It’s going to be fine.”

            “Oh, no. Oh, please no.”

            “What’s going on, Trent?”

            “It’s right outside the door,” he whispered. “Wait, I think it’s going away now. I can’t hear it anymore. I think it’s–Oh shit! Help m–”

            That was the last they heard from Trent.

            More silence. More dead air. To fill the gap, Ron chose a CD and put on an appropriate tune. “It’s the End of the World” by R.E.M. came on the air and Ron abandoned his post.

            “I think I’ll clock out early,” Ron said. He took his flask out from his desk. “Join me for a drink?”

            “Might as well. It might be the last drink I ever have.”

            They passed the flask and stared at the door to the booth. “After you,” Ron said.

            “Yeah, right,” Nikki shrugged. It was the first time he’d ever seen her scared. And it was the first time she’d ever seen Ron afraid. Actually, it was the second, if you count the time she punched him.

            “I guess we’re stuck here.”

            “Yeah. Don’t get any bright ideas.”

            “I wouldn’t dream of it. At least we have plenty of music.”

            “You know, why don’t we do that? Be actual DJs for once and forget all this talk radio crap. If anyone is out there listening, the music might cheer people up and help them get through this. We’ll be contributing, doing our part. It’s the least we can do while we’re stuck in here.”

            “I like it,” Hall said. “Did I ever tell you I used to be a musician?”

            “About a million times but I never really listen to the story. I will now though.”

            “You don’t really have a choice,” Hall chuckled. “Well, it all started in my friend’s garage back in 1998. We were sophomores in high school and we–”

            “Did you hear that?”

            “Don’t try to get out of hearing my story.”

            “No, I’m serious. I heard something.”

            “More sirens?”

            “No. It sounded like it was coming from outside the booth.”

            “I can’t see anything through the glass. The door is locked and you can’t see through the glass from the other side, so we’re safe in here as long as we remain quiet.”

            There was a faint knock at the door and for a second, Ron and Nikki forgot how to breathe.

            The rapping persisted. Ron edged closer to the door, his feet barely lifting from the ground. It was knocking they were hearing, it was scratching. Something on the other side of the door was trying to claw its way in. Something big, judging by the shadowy figure Ron could just make out through the glass of the sound booth. Something beyond natural description. Something that wanted desperately to get inside that booth.

            Hall sighed and took a big swig from his flask. “It’s going to be a long night…” 

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