My Dog Speaks in my Sleep 4

By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt

//Source. This is part four and the finale of a series.

I’m so tired.

Two days ago I bought some sleeping pills. Something – anything – to help me get through the night. Things can’t go on as they have been doing, these constant nightmares about Gus. I’m struggling to function properly. I’ve started calling in sick at work. I don’t trust myself to drive anymore, in case I fall asleep at the wheel. I’m just fortunate the pharmacy is in walking distance.

After my last post here I decided to make Gus an outdoor dog. I don’t know how he got in my room. I don’t know what he was doing while I was asleep. But I knew I wasn’t comfortable with him being around me while I slept anymore.

Or while I tried to sleep at least… Continue reading “My Dog Speaks in my Sleep 4”

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My Dog Speaks in My Sleep 3

By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt

//Source. This is part three of a series. Final part coming tomorrow.

Last night was a bad one. The most disturbing dream yet.

Not even a dream – it was a nightmare. The worst I’ve had since I was a child.

I suppose I should start with what happened during the day.

After the dream from my previous post, I went downstairs for breakfast, and one of the first things I noticed was that Gus still hadn’t touched his food. It was his third day with me, and I hadn’t seen him eat even a bite. I was worried about him. And if I’m honest, I was also a little hopeful; I started to wonder if my dreams about Gus were just a subconscious expression of my concern about him not eating. Kind of like getting nightmares before sitting an exam. It was an odd hope, sure, but it would mean there was nothing more bizarre at play. And it would mean that once he started eating again, the dreams should stop.

So I called up the shelter I’d rescued Gus from, and they put me in touch with a local vet. I took Gus in (he was still completely obedient, following me whenever I left the house without needing to be told) and let them know that he wasn’t eating. Initially they were concerned as well, but after a series of tests, they determined that he was perfectly healthy. It simply wasn’t possible that he hadn’t eaten or drank anything in days, they told me. He must have been getting food from elsewhere. Continue reading “My Dog Speaks in My Sleep 3”

My Dog Speaks in my Sleep 2

By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt

//Source. This is part two of a series. Part three coming tomorrow.

I dreamt of Gus again last night.

The day had been mostly uneventful. I’d managed to shake the unsettling feeling of my first dream, and spent a while trying to get Gus to eat something. He just didn’t seem interested. I thought a walk might help, get him hungry through exercise. It also gave me a chance to go through the dream in my head, or at least what I remembered of it, and try to work out what aspect of it had got me worked up. My dreams weren’t usually so vivid. Continue reading “My Dog Speaks in my Sleep 2”

My Dog Speaks in my Sleep

By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt

//Source. This is part one of a series. Part two coming tomorrow.

Yesterday I got a new dog.

Well, an old dog, really. I rescued him from a shelter. I’d like to pretend I’m one of those Jane Goodall ‘do anything for the animals’ types, but if I’m honest, I was looking to adopt more for my own benefit than for the dog’s.

The thing is, I’ve been ill. For quite a long time, actually. Physically I’m fine (maybe a tad on the weighty side), but in my head… well, my doctor called it ‘suffering acute psychological trauma’. Or in the words of the gentleman at the bus station last week, ‘being a full on nut-case’. I’ve always had a few issues, I think most people have, but it reached new depths when my dad died a few months ago.

It was suicide. I’d really rather not go into it. Continue reading “My Dog Speaks in my Sleep”

Smile Dog

By Chef Anon //This story was added from a source with no author listed, but since I have seen the story claimed by J. Michael Lutz.

I first met in person with Mary E. in the summer of 2007. I had arranged with her husband of fifteen years, Terence, to see her for an interview. Mary had initially agreed, since I was not a newsman but rather an amateur writer gathering information for a few early college assignments and, if all went according to plan, some pieces of fiction. We scheduled the interview for a particular weekend when I was in Chicago on unrelated business, but at the last moment Mary changed her mind and locked herself in the couple’s bedroom, refusing to meet with me. For half an hour I sat with Terence as we camped outside the bedroom door, I listening and taking notes while he attempted fruitlessly to calm his wife.

The things Mary said made little sense but fit with the pattern I was expecting: though I could not see her, I could tell from her voice that she was crying, and more often than not her objections to speaking with me centered around an incoherent diatribe on her dreams — her nightmares. Terence apologized profusely when we ceased the exercise, and I did my best to take it in stride; recall that I wasn’t a reporter in search of a story, but merely a curious young man in search of information. Besides, I thought at the time, I could perhaps find another, similar case if I put my mind and resources to it.

Mary E. was the sysop for a small Chicago-based Bulletin Board System in 1992 when she first encountered smile.jpg and her life changed forever. She and Terence had been married for only five months. Mary was one of an estimated 400 people who saw the image when it was posted as a hyperlink on the BBS, though she is the only one who has spoken openly about the experience. The rest have remained anonymous, or are perhaps dead.

In 2005, when I was only in tenth grade, smile.jpg was first brought to my attention by my burgeoning interest in web-based phenomena; Mary was the most often cited victim of what is sometimes referred to as “Smile.dog”, the being smile.jpg is reputed to display. What caught my interest (other than the obvious macabre elements of the cyber-legend and my proclivity toward such things) was the sheer lack of information, usually to the point that people don’t believe it even exists other than as a rumor or hoax.

It is unique because, though the entire phenomenon centers on a picture file, that file is nowhere to be found on the internet; certainly many photomanipulated simulacra litter the web, showing up with the most frequency on sites such as the imageboard 4chan, particularly the /x/-focused paranormal subboard. It is suspected these are fakes because they do not have the effect the true smile.jpg is believed to have, namely sudden onset temporal lobe epilepsy and acute anxiety.

This purported reaction in the viewer is one of the reasons the phantom-like smile.jpg is regarded with such disdain, since it is patently absurd, though depending on whom you ask the reluctance to acknowledge smile.jpg’s existence might be just as much out of fear as it is out of disbelief.

Neither smile.jpg nor Smile.dog is mentioned anywhere on Wikipedia, though the website features articles on such other, perhaps more scandalous shocksites as ****** (hello.jpg) or 2girls1cup; any attempt to create a page pertaining to smile.jpg is summarily deleted by any of the encyclopedia’s many admins.

Encounters with smile.jpg are the stuff of internet legend. Mary E.’s story is not unique; there are unverified rumors of smile.jpg showing up in the early days of Usenet and even one persistent tale that in 2002 a hacker flooded the forums of humor and satire website Something Awful with a deluge of Smile.dog pictures, rendering almost half the forum’s users at the time epileptic.

It is also said that in the mid-to-late 90s that smile.jpg circulated on usenet and as an attachment of a chain email with the subject line “SMILE!! GOD LOVES YOU!” Yet despite the huge exposure these stunts would generate, there are very few people who admit to having experienced any of them and no trace of the file or any link has ever been discovered.

Those who claim to have seen smile.jpg often weakly joke that they were far too busy to save a copy of the picture to their hard drive. However, all alleged victims offer the same description of the photo: A dog-like creature (usually described as appearing similar to a Siberian husky), illuminated by the flash of the camera, sits in a dim room, the only background detail that is visible being a human hand extending from the darkness near the left side of the frame. The hand is empty, but is usually described as “beckoning”. Of course, most attention is given to the dog (or dog-creature, as some victims are more certain than others about what they claim to have seen). The muzzle of the beast is reputedly split in a wide grin, revealing two rows of very white, very straight, very sharp, very human-looking teeth.

This is, of course, not a description given immediately after viewing the picture, but rather a recollection of the victims, who claim to have seen the picture endlessly repeated in their mind’s eye during the time they are, in reality, having epileptic fits. These fits are reported to continue indeterminably, often while the victims sleep, resulting in very vivid and disturbing nightmares. These may be treated with medication, though in someses it is more effective than others.

Mary E., I assumed, was not on effective medication. That was why after my visit to her apartment in 2007 I sent out feelers to several folklore- and urban legend-oriented newsgroups, websites, and mailing lists, hoping to find the name of a supposed victim of smile.jpg who felt more interested in talking about his experiences. For a time nothing happened and at length I forgot completely about my pursuits, since I had begun my freshman year of college and was quite busy. Mary contacted me via email, however, near the beginning of March 2008.

To: jml@****.com

From: marye@****.net

Subj: Last summer’s interview

Dear Mr. L.,

I am incredibly sorry about my behavior last summer when you came to interview me. I hope you understand that it was no fault of yours, but rather my own problems that led me to act out as I did. I realized that I could have handled the situation more decorously; however, I hope you will forgive me. At the time, I was afraid.

You see, for fifteen years I have been haunted by smile.jpg. Smile.dog comes to me in my sleep every night. I know that sounds silly, but it is true. There is an ineffable quality about my dreams, my nightmares, that makes them completely unlike any real dreams I have ever had. I do not move and do not speak. I simply look ahead, and the only thing ahead of me is the scene from that horrible picture. I see the beckoning hand, and I see Smile.dog. It talks to me.

It is not a dog, of course, though I am not quite sure what it really is. It tells me it will leave me alone if only I do as it asks. All I must do, it says, is “spread the word”. That is how it phrases its demands. And I know exactly what it means: it wants me to show it to someone else.

And I could. The week after my incident I received in the mail a manila envelope with no return address. Inside was only a 3 ½ -inch floppy diskette. Without having to check, I knew precisely what was on it.

I thought for a long time about my options. I could show it to a stranger, a coworker… I could even show it to Terence, as much as the idea disgusted me. And what would happen then? Well, if Smile.dog kept its word I could sleep. Yet if it lied, what would I do? And who was to say something worse would not come for me if I did as the creature asked?

So I did nothing for fifteen years, though I kept the diskette hidden amongst my things. Every night for fifteen years Smile.dog has come to me in my sleep and demanded that I spread the word. For fifteen years I have stood strong, though there have been hard times. Many of my fellow victims on the BBS board where I first encountered smile.jpg stopped posting; I heard some of them committed suicide. Others remained completely silent, simply disappearing off the face of the web. They are the ones I worry about the most.

I sincerely hope you will forgive me, Mr. L., but last summer when you contacted me and my husband about an interview I was near the breaking point. I decided I was going to give you the floppy diskette. I did not care if Smile.dog was lying or not, I wanted it to end. You were a stranger, someone I had no connection with, and I thought I would not feel sorrow when you took the diskette as part of your research and sealed your fate.

Before you arrived I realized what I was doing: was plotting to ruin your life. I could not stand the thought, and in fact I still cannot. I am ashamed, Mr. L., and I hope that this warning will dissuade you from further investigation of smile.jpg. You may in time encounter someone who is, if not weaker than I, then wholly more depraved, someone who will not hesitate to follow Smile.dog’s orders.

Stop while you are still whole.

Sincerely,

Mary E.

Terence contacted me later that month with the news that his wife had killed herself. While cleaning up the various things she’d left behind, closing email accounts and the like, he happened upon the above message. He was a man in shambles; he wept as he told me to listen to his wife’s advice. He’d found the diskette, he revealed, and burned it until it was nothing but a stinking pile of blackened plastic. The part that most disturbed him, however, was how the diskette had hissed as it melted. Like some sort of animal, he said.

I will admit that I was a little uncertain about how to respond to this. At first I thought perhaps it was a joke, with the couple belatedly playing with the situation in order to get a rise out of me. A quick check of several Chicago newspapers’ online obituaries, however, proved that Mary E. was indeed dead. There was, of course, no mention of suicide in the article. I decided that, for a time at least, I would not further pursue the subject of smile.jpg, especially since I had finals coming up at the end of May.

But the world has odd ways of testing us. Almost a full year after I’d returned from my disastrous interview with Mary E., I received another email:

To: jml@****.com

From: elzahir82@****.com

Subj: smile

Hello

I found your e-mail adress thru a mailing list your profile said you are interested in smiledog. I have saw it it is not as bad as every one says I have sent it to you here. Just spreading the word.

🙂

The final line chilled me to the bone.

According to my email client there was one file attachment called, naturally, smile.jpg. I considered downloading it for some time. It was mostly likely a fake, I imagined, and even if it weren’t I was never wholly convinced of smile.jpg’s peculiar powers. Mary E.’s account had shaken me, yes, but she was probably mentally unbalanced anyway. After all, how could a simple image do what smile.jpg was said to accomplish? What sort of creature was it that could break one’s mind with only the power of the eye?

And if such things were patently absurd, then why did the legend exist at all?

If I downloaded the image, if I looked at it, and if Mary turned out to be correct, if Smile.dog came to me in my dreams demanding I spread the word, what would I do? Would I live my life as Mary had, fighting against the urge to give in until I died? Or would I simply spread the word, eager to be put to rest? And if I chose the latter route, how could I do it? Whom would I burden in turn?

If I went through with my earlier intention to write a short article about smile.jpg, I decided, I could attach it as evidence. And anyone who read the article, anyone who took interest, would be affected. And even assuming the smile.jpg attached to the email was genuine, would I be capricious enough to save myself in that manner?

Could I spread the word?

Yes. Yes I could.

The Last Train Home

By Chef StrayDog1980

Do you ever watch other people in the subway? It’s so strange to have to ignore someone who’s right up there in your face. A can of sardines springs to mind, except passengers aren’t joined by a bond of thick oil or brine. Instead, they’re stewing in a miasma of sweat, cologne and annoyance. Everybody absorbed in their own little worlds, warm little cocoons. There, whizzing through the bowels of the city at a brisk clip, you’ll find people reading books, newspapers. Maybe on a Playstation Portable. Maybe on a smartphone.

Except me. I’ll always be looking through the thick glass windows at the flickering blackness just beyond. Sometimes, late at night, I hope I’ll get on the same train once more, so I can see it all again.

It had been one of those weeks. Actually, it had been one of those months, where the targets piled up like so much dirty laundry. The boss was on my case. Miserable, balding fart with his mortgage and his European sports car, riding us all for another bullshit project for some client across the country. The days and nights lost their meaning. In at work early to beat the crowd. Heading home without ever seeing the light of the sun. Caffeine was my only friend. The last thing on the agenda for the work day was the mad sprint for the last train home because the miserable bastard wouldn’t even sign off on the late night taxi claims. It showed up on the work life balance indicators, he’d said.

It had been another mindless day of numbers, presentation slides and text. To be frank, I didn’t even know if the version of the meaningless report I was working on was the fifth or the fiftieth, nor could I have told you the difference between the two. The office had already emptied out an hour before, my last coworkers giving me a commiserating pat on the back as they headed off. I cursed as I stuffed my laptop and swept some papers into my bag. I was going to miss the train. The stale warmth of the building gave way to the bitter cold as I hit the streets running.

The station was deserted. Not unthinkable at this time of the night, but eerie all the same. There’s something about a hollow space meant for crowds. I’m not talking about muggers or anything like that. There is an air of the forbidden about these empty spaces. That’s how that night started out. Expectant. Waiting for something to happen.

Not that I cared at the time. The escalators were out for the night. I was wheezing hard by the time I got to the bottom, that old college fitness long drowned under an ocean of booze, buried under a mountain of fast food. I thought the last train had already left, resigning myself to a long wait for an expensive taxi ride back. I was about to leave when a train pulled up with the familiar scream of metal on metal. Graffiti adorned the grey skin of the train, tribal tattoos for the modern locomotive. The doors hissed, warm air belched from the cabin. I got in.

The train, strangely, was full. Not packed, but it was crowded. I found myself a seat in between a old man in a large brown overcoat and young lady that wearing a dark formal dress, a large flower pinned to her breast, her face a mask of mascara and eyeshadow, inexpertly applied. Across from me sat a pair of army guys in fatigues, their scalps shining pink under their tight buzz cuts. And many more besides. It was a puzzling thing, to have a cabin so full late at night, and with such a motley crew of inhabitants.

With a shudder, the train pulled out from the station.

I settled back contentedly into my seat. The network connection in the tunnels was never dependable. I had to find another way to entertain myself on the ride home.

The noise from the screech of the rails and the rush of air outside seemed muted. Instead, the cabin was filled with a soft susurrus, the hushed tones of a crowd in a theatre, expectant but subdued. The cabin felt colder than it should have been. Was the heating out again? It couldn’t be. I was certain that the cabin was warmer than the platform a second ago, yet now, it felt like I was back outside in the howling cold. I tugged my jacket a little tighter. I looked at the hodge podge of strange individuals in the cabin. Everybody seemed out of place. Why would there be a gaggle of high school kids, obviously inebriated, this late at night? Or the waifish girl that was wearing what seemed to be a school uniform. I shifted uncomfortably on the sculpted plastic seat. Not a single mobile phone or any other electronic device in sight, a strange sight in this day and age. I looked up at the row of LED lights that indicated the train’s progress along my route. 4 more stops.

I was still staring at the display when the train whizzed by the next station. It didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow down. Just kept going right. The lights and pillars of the station streamed by in a blur. I jerked upright in my seat, my eyes widening. What kind of train had I gotten on? The rest of the crowd was unfazed by this development. If anything, the low buzz of whispers got even louder as the train progressed.

We were still hurtling through the dark tunnel, the overhead lights flickering on and off, when the little girl in the school uniform affixed me stared at me, wide-eyed. She crept over to the group of high schoolers and tugged at the sleeve of one of the young men. He must have been a basketball player, towering over his companions. He nearly had to bend double to bring his ear down to the little girls face. Her jaw worked up and down as she whispered something to him urgently. I heard nothing over the sound of the train. He blinked and took a step back when he looked back in my direction, as though seeing me for the first time. His handsome face twisted strangely. What was it? Anger? No, he looked like he wanted something. He looked hungry. His compatriots noticed the break in the conversation and directed their gazes to the focus of his attention. To me. The same gamut of emotions cycled through their faces. Shock. And then a sharpening, a hardening of their features. They were hungry too. The giant took a step forward, perhaps meaning some harm for some slight on his person that I must have committed. One of the high school girls held him back.

The feeling spread through the cabin, like a spark arcing from person to person. The two uniformed men, looking up and tightening their jaws. The old man next to me, perking up and scooting down another seat so that he could look at me without straining his neck. Outside, a blur of lights told me that another station had shot by. 3 more stops.

I shrank back in my seat.The tendons straining at the surface of my hands as I clutched at my bag protectively, as though that stupid gesture, grabbing on to my work, the focus of my life, would ground me and take me from this nightmare. It didn’t. I felt the weight of their eyes on me, like insects crawling over my skin. Something was wrong. So clearly wrong. This strange crowd, so different, yet each of them was wearing that naked need on their faces.

“Don’t mind them, they’re just jealous of you.” The young lady by my side. Her voice was soft, mellifluous. “Don’t stare back and don’t talk to them.”

I turned to look at my erstwhile companion. “What are they jealous of? I just wanted to catch the last train home.”

“It’s the last train home for all of us, too.” She smiled. She was very pale. Very beautiful. “But not all of them want to be here. And looking at you, going home tonight, makes them so very unhappy.”

“Where’d they all come from? Was there a convention? A meeting?” I cast my eyes around the cabin again, but was stopped halfway by her strong fingers on my chin. Her fingers were icy cold. She turned my head around to face her.

“Everywhere. All around. Most of them didn’t want to be here. Except me, maybe. I’d had enough of where I was. I miss my parents. I haven’t seen them in such a long time. It took awhile, for me to gather enough courage to go look for them.” She paused, suddenly pensive at what she’d said. “You’re not meant to be here, you know. You’re on the wrong train. This isn’t your ride.” Outside the window, another station went by. My eyes flicked back to the board with all the little lights. 2 stops to home.

The whispering in the cabin had started up again. Louder than before, but still muffled by the sounds of the rails and the rushing air outside. They were talking about me. The atmosphere grew oppressive. The attention of the crowd felt like a rock on my chest. A vice. My breathing grew laboured. Each inhalation a struggle. I wheezed.

My companion sensed my discomfort. “I wish I could help,” she said, sadly. “It’ll stop when we get to the end of the line, I suppose.” Her eyes lit up at the thought. She turned around and scooted up onto the seat, her knees on the hard plastic, palms on the cold glass. Even with her face pressed up against the glass, there wasn’t a trace of fog on the window left by her breath. If she was even breathing at all. “Here, why don’t you take this, I won’t need it where I’m going.” She fumbled at her dress, detached the white flower and pressed it into my hands. The sweet smell of the lily took my attention away from the pain in my chest.

“We’re here!” She was quivering with excitement as the train began to slow. I looked up at the board overhead. All the lights on the map had gone out. Where were we?

She cupped my chin in her hands. It was only then, with her arms so close to my face, that I saw the network of fine white lines that criss crossed her forearms. She caught the flick of my eyes towards her arms. She shrugged, sheepish. “Practice makes perfect,” she said. She frowned, suddenly serious again. “This stop is for the rest of us. You can’t join us. You have to stay here.” She leaned forward quickly and gave me a kiss on my cheek. Her cold lips burned like an ice cube.

The people in the cabin quickly turned their attention to the approaching platform. I felt the weight on my chest ease. The whispering grew to a crescendo as they pointed and chattered excitedly. The platform drew close. And what a sight it was. I didn’t recognize the tiles or the posters. I must have taken this train a thousand times. I could have closed my eyes and named every station in order and the time between stations if I wanted to, and yet I was lost. There was nothing on the platform that helped in any way. No signs. No directions. What the platform had was people, a milling sea of heads and faces, all expectant, all eagerly waiting.

When the door opened, it let in the roar of the crowd outside. Shouts, shrieks and yells. And tears, so many tears. The passengers burst out of the train, throwing themselves into the waiting sea of people. I saw one of the army boys embracing an older gentleman, also dressed in military fatigues. None of that new aged stuff that pixelated camouflage. This was old school, with big green and brown blotches. The resemblance between the two was clear. They parted, the younger man introducing his father to his compatriot. The older man hugged him as tightly as he had hugged his own son earlier.

The group of teenagers whoop and leapt as they pushed through the crowd, seeking some new adventure for the night. I caught a last glimpse of the blond locks of the basketball player as they vanished around a corner.

The old man that was sitting by me had found an elegant looking lady in her thirties, her light sun dress looked out of place for the biting cold of winter. Or had I mistaken the man for someone else? I looked again and it wasn’t the old man any more, but a young couple laughing in the prime of their lives. No, it was the same coat and his features, lined with a jealous greed scant moments ago, were now lit with a fierce joy.

Just as the train doors hissed shut, I saw the girl that sat next to me on the train. She was in tears with her arms around a well dressed couple. She waved at me as the train pulled out of the station. I waved back.

My legs shook as I got off the train at my stop. The platform was reassuringly deserted. I watched as the train screeched into the distant darkness of the tunnel. I gingerly touched the numb spot on my cheek where the girl had kissed me. My fingers came away wet. I didn’t even remember the tears falling.

My nose was suddenly assaulted by a rich, thick greenhouse scent. Decaying plant matter. I fished out the lily from my coat pocket, where the strange girl had left it. The pristine white petals were dry to the point of crumbling and speckled black with rot. I let it fall from my fingers and watched it bounce on the station floor. It sat there, like an unmelting snow flake on the pocked grey concrete. I stared at it for a long time before I began the long trek home.

My Friend’s Warning About Strange Places

By Chef StrayDog1980

Owen was my pal. Maybe the best one, if I had to rank them. One of the good guys. He didn’t have many friends. We met in high school, drawn together by a mutual love in turn based strategy games. Master of Orion, Heroes of Might and Magic. Owen was an absolute beast at those games. He had a queer talent for memorizing patterns, statistics and maps. He’d devour games like a man possessed, teasing out exploits and secrets while the rest of us were cursing and swearing at the cheating, conniving tactics of our computerized opponent.

Even five years out of college, Owen remained thin as a rake, his eyes looking perpetually surprised through thick spectacles. Life happened to the rest of our little circle of friends. We went corporate. Chased the dream, ran the rat race. We never kept in touch like we should have, other than meeting up every few months for a meal. I gathered that he worked in a bank somewhere, cruising along and meeting his targets without excelling.

The last time I saw Owen was a little over 4 months ago. He had arranged to meet me at one of our favourite bars in a quiet part of town. At least, it used to be until jobs and the pressures of grown up life just expanded and expanded, filling up my life like so much bubble wrap. I got to the bar first. Or so I thought. I searched the crowd fruitlessly until my eyes focused on a lone figure in a scruffy coat sitting at the bar. I had to swallow a gasp as the man turned around. I hadn’t seen Owen in the better part of a year but he looked like he’d aged a dozen. He was thin before but he was nothing more than skin and bones. His cheeks were sunken in, unshaven, with a wispy beard framing his mouth. He smelled of sweat and grime and worse. One thing hadn’t changed, his eyes still blazed with a fierce intelligence. He gestured at the seat next to him.

When he spoke, the words came out in a rush. He’d found something, he said. He’d found a warning scribbled in an old map he’d seen in a library. It pointed to a street somewhere in the city that he hadn’t been able to find on modern maps or on Google maps. He’d hunted the street down, he said, and found a back alley, a nameless lane between two buildings that shouldn’t have been there. Intrigued, he’d gone back and found another two maps in the library with other warnings, in different handwriting from the first. The maps were published years apart, yet seemed to be warning readers away from similar nameless streets.

Owen grew more animated as he spoke, gesturing wildly, a small crust of white spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. He’d found more of the lanes the maps warned about. Cracks between buildings that shouldn’t have been there. Hidden alleys. I saw the familiar glint of obsession in his eyes, he’d found something special, a hidden system, and he wouldn’t rest until he had laid bare its secrets. He stopped short, his eyes widening at something through the window, across the busy street. I turned around to see what had spooked him but the throng of people at the bar and on the street blocked me. Hands shaking, he teased out a tattered map from his pocket. It was covered in his crabby writing, too small to make out by the light of the bar counter. He marked a spot and hurriedly folded up the map, which quickly disappeared into his pocket.

“It’s big. Something big. Something hidden. I’ve almost got all the places. I’m almost there. I can’t move fast enough. I’ll need something faster…”

So that’s what he wanted. Just to borrow my car for the weekend. I gave him a look that was half pity and half derision. Pity for the friend I knew, and derision for the madman twitching before me. It wasn’t the first time I’d let him drive my car. Much less now, since we’d drifted apart. I had no idea what had gotten into Owen and I wasn’t even sure that I I’d get it back in one piece. In the end, his plaintive wheedling got the better of me, and I agreed to let him have my car for the weekend. I wish to God I hadn’t.

I didn’t hear anything from Owen that Saturday. Or the day after. He didn’t pick up his mobile the entire night. I had to get a cab to work on Monday morning and planned to take my mounting frustration out on Owen after work, friendship be damned. His antics seemed more like college hijinks than something an adult should be playing at. I checked my phone as I left my apartment. A text from Owen.

“Car at my place. I was wrong. Burn map. Leave nothing behind. Don’t come after me.”

I was sufficiently unnerved by the message to leave work early. I hadn’t been to Owen’s apartment in years, but I still remembered the way. I saw my car parked out front, a cup of coffee in the cupholder, a huge map of the city, densely annotated, unfolded in the passenger seat. I made my way up the stairs. The door to the apartment was open. Owen wasn’t inside. His mother was. Her face crumpled with a grief that no parent should know.

Owen’s house was a wreck, his mental decline clearly reflected in his apartment. Maps, photographs and sheets of paper covered with a mixture of scrawled handwriting covered every possible surface. Between gulping sobs, she explained how she’d just come back from the morgue to identify his body. He’d been in a pretty nasty hit and run accident the morning before. The cops said he must have been dragged for a distance. Facial identification was impossible. She only managed to identify him through his personal effects and a tattoo on his upper arm. Or at least, a tattoo that used to be on his upper arm. The accident had sheared a chunk of flesh right off him, and she had to identify pieces of her son’s body laid out on the cold metal of a gurney.

Owen’s father and brother came by with the funeral director then. I excused myself, leaving the family to their grief. As his friend, I should have offered my help but I needed to leave the house. Owen had been found on Sunday morning. I whipped out my phone to verify what I already knew. He’d texted me at 3am on Monday morning.

My head was still spinning when I got into my car. The shock of Owen’s sudden passing and the chill left by the text message this morning danced nauseatingly in my head. Was the fight in the bar all I had to remember him by? I unfolded the map. Owen’s spidery writing covered almost every available space on the map. He’d been writing with a force and speed which turned his usually neat script into an illegible scrawl, so forceful in places that the cheap ballpoint pen had punched through the paper. He’d marked out dozens of locations on the map, with crude stars, accompanied by annotated times and dates. The rest of the text made no sense, there were scribbled symbols that didn’t even match any language that I knew of. The snatches of English that I could decipher made no more sense than the symbols, products of Owen’s obviously addled mind.

They watch from the cracks. Nameless streets.

Secret kings and queens of the city.

They sing to the dead. They eat the lost.

The meaningless text still sent a chill down my spine. The depths of my friend’s madness shocked me. I couldn’t fathom why he would ask me to destroy the map.

Lost in my troubled thoughts, I started my car. A polite chime snapped me from my reverie. It came from a shiny black slab on my dashboard. A GPS unit. Not mine. Owen’s. A strange thing for him to own, since he didn’t have a car to start with.

I looked at the tiny LCD screen. I was at a location that Owen had marked out on his little GPS unit. His home? No, it was slightly off, across the street. It looked to be in the middle of a building, a shop maybe? The streets were empty of both pedestrians as well as cars. It was a quiet street, but something felt out of place. No, the street wasn’t totally empty. There was a small lane, practically just a crack between two buildings right next to my car. A waifishly thin teenage girl was standing there, dressed in tatty jeans and a plain threadbare t-shirt. Far too thin for the icy winter weather. No shoes either.

She was wearing a look of intense focus on her face, her dark piercing eyes staring upwards towards Owen’s apartment. Her face was perfectly formed, pale, but covered in streaks of dirt. Her blonde hair, matted into crude dreadlocks. She seemed perfectly at ease in the cold. As though she could feel my eyes on her, her head snapped downwards and she affixed me with her mesmerizing gaze. I felt transfixed, like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard. Her bright pink tongue snaked out from between her dirty lips, the pointy tip ran across her lips in anticipation.

I looked back at the GPS unit. There shouldn’t have been an alley where she was standing. It should have been a continuous block of buildings. When I looked up, she was gone again. Unnerved by the nameless lane and the vanishing girl, I drove off a little faster than I should have. I must have driven at least 5 blocks when I heard the little chime from my dashboard again. Another star on the map. Same thing, a star where there shouldn’t have been a break between buildings. I nearly slammed on the brakes in shock when I saw the girl again. There was no way she could have made the distance between my last stop and this one on foot. I wracked my brains for a logical explanation as my car cruised by. A sister? Or did she have a car in a parallel street. I found her giving me that same intense look. It had to be the same girl. It was the look, that hungry look. She craned her neck to follow my car as I drove by, like a snake staring a mouse down.

I watched her shrinking into the rear view mirror for as long as I could. Then I floored the accelerator, trying to get as far from her as possible. Rubber squealed on the black asphalt. I’d put about 7 blocks between the girl and I when the polite chime from my dashboard sounded again. Adrenaline pumped through my system. My gaze swept across the empty streets. There she was again. It had to be the same girl. It HAD to be. She caught my gaze with her own piercing look. And she smiled at me. No, it wasn’t a smile. She pulled her lips up and back and bared her straight white teeth but there was neither humour nor warmth in the expression. It put me in mind of a baboon or a wolf, facing down something small and helpless. Baring her fangs, I thought. She abruptly turned and scuttled down that almost hidden alley. I stopped the car. Owen had found something. I hadn’t done right by him in his last days but I had to know how he died. I owed him that much. I rounded the corner mere seconds after the girl. The alley was empty. Rough cement walls stretched to the sky, blocking out the tired light of the evening sun. She had vanished in the scant seconds it took me to get to the mouth of the tiny, nameless alley.

My pulse quickened as I made my way down the tight corridor. My walk turned into a trot, and the trot into a sprint. By the time I had reached the end of the end of the street, my chest was heaving, constricted by bands of hot iron. My breath steamed in the cold evening air. She wasn’t there. There weren’t any alcoves or windows or turn offs anywhere down the alley. I hit the end of the alley and peered down the adjacent street. No trace of the girl. No alleyways she could have turned down. No doors or windows she could have climbed through. Nothing except the empty street with… a familiar car parked by the side of the road. My car.

I had walked a hundred yards, through a straight alley, and wound up back where I started.

I felt the world spin around me. I put my hand on the wall to steady myself. What had Owen found? What was he searching for before he died? How was it possible for a straight alley to start and end at the same place? Large gouts of mist shot from my mouth as my chest heaved. There was something unnatural about this place. Something wrong in the air. I felt strange grooves under my hand as I pushed on the wall to straighten up. Someone or something had carved a series of strange symbols on the wall. Now I know where Owen had gotten those scribbled hieroglyphics from. He’d seen them too. He must have been trying to decypher it like some code. Typical, for him.

I cast a final look down straight down the strange, empty alley. The girl was still nowhere to be seen. I left the strangeness of the alley behind me as I made my way back to my car. My breath misted on the cold window as I cast one final look towards that crack between buildings, that nameles space. The nameless space with the same girl staring out at me. The temperature was close to freezing outside, but I finally realised what had unnerved me about that silent tableau. All that time, all that time I was staring at her. I hadn’t seen her breath mist up on the crisp evening air.

What I saw that day filled up my waking moments like a creeping itch. I would find my eyes magnetically drawn to the hard plastic shell of my glove compartment on the slow commute to work. Owen’s mysterious map and GPS navigator skittered around within their prison like caged rats when I took turns just a little too hard, reminding me of their presence. Owen had stumbled onto something. Something strange. He’d found something and it had consumed him.

I’d gone to the funeral with the expressed intention of handing over the map and the navigator to Owen’s family. The empty rows in the church showed just how far he’d taken his search. No colleagues, barely any friends. The odd family member. He’d lost his job months ago. Cut off almost all contact with the outside world. Owen’s mom had aged a decade since I saw her last. The raw shock of hearing about her son’s death replaced with a bone-deep sorrow, painfully obvious in the crinkles in the corners of her eyes, in her sunken cheeks, in her haunted, leaking eyes. I’d whispered my commiserations, saying how sorry I was, all while the truth of the map and Owen’s last warning poised at the back of my throat like a wave of bile. I choked the secrets back, where they sat in my gut, swollen and sour.

I had to find out more.

I spent hours trying to decipher Owen’s writing, looking for a pattern in the crazed scribblings. I lacked Owen’s skill with codes and systems. There was no pattern I could discern from the constellation of marked locations. No hidden message leapt out from his ravings. There was only one other thing to try.

The day was cold, I remember. Even for mid-winter. Not a skin cold. The cold that cut through your clothes, seeped in with every breath into your lungs. A deep, bone cold. I returned to the first three alleys where I’d seen the girl. I found nothing. The alleys were totally empty, in stark contrast to the busy streets just a few yards away. The fourth one was empty too. It was getting dark by the time I got to the fifth point marked on the map. The crowd on the sidewalks had thinned out as the chill got deeper. Owen’s handwriting was impossible to read in the weakening light. I rounded the corner and I saw another one. He could have been a brother or a twin to the girl I’d seen. Same blonde hair. A simple fitted t-shirt. Jeans. Barefoot on the biting cold concrete.

He gave me a sardonic stare. He looked to be gnawing at something, a chicken wing or something similar, with great gusto. I saw as he stretched his mouth open to suck the last ounce of flavour off the little morsel before drawing out the bleached bone from his mouth and flinging it into the distance. He made a little moue, as though he’d bitten into something sour. His eyes still locked with mine, he opened his mouth and rooted around with a questing finger. Finding what he’d been looking for, he hooked out a huge looking greyish chunk out of his mouth and delicately set it on the floor. Abruptly, he turned, took 3 deliberate steps to his right and vanished around a turn.

I rushed forward to see what he had out on the floor. I wished I hadn’t. It was a ring. Class of 06, still slicked wet with saliva on the outside, but sticky red with blood and shreds tissue on the inside. I instinctively clutched at the identical ring I wore on my index finger. The boy hadn’t been chewing on any buffalo wing. He’d been chewing on Owen’s finger.

The smell of blood hit my nose, sharp and rich through the evening chill. My last meal rushed out of me in a flood, and sat hot and steaming on the cold floor. I turned to face the small nook the boy had walked into. Nothing. Like the girl, he’d vanished. All that lay before me was a featureless dead end. Not featureless. Something that nobody else could have seen. Nobody but Owen and me. There, in the delicate spiderweb of cracks on the concrete, drawn out in a thin black filigree on the wall, was another of the symbols from Owen’s map.

When does a search become an obsession? Or when does obsession burst into mania? Owen’s degeneration was clear as day to me, but my own descent was far more subtle.

The terrible damage of the accident had visited one final indignity on Owen and his kin: they had to say goodbye to the polished wooden veneer of a closed coffin. Had it really been my dear friend in that box? There must have been a few hundred of those rings pressed out. It could have belonged to anyone in my graduating year. Yet… I knew deep inside of me that it had to be Owen’s ring I had picked up off the cold cement, wet with spit and blood.

My search began in earnest then. To seek out what he had found, hoping beyond reason that I would find my old friend somewhere along that path.

It started innocently enough. I’d spend a free evening after work wandering the streets, following Owen’s map, each location like another morsel on a trail of breadcrumbs. The trail of clues was maddening. Again I got the sense of a deeper pattern behind the randomness, and cursed myself for being unable to see it. Each site I visited seemed to hold a piece of the puzzle. I grew adept in finding the hidden symbols that Owen had found in the cracks in the city. I’d already found the first symbols scrawled into the wall in chalk when I’d seen the girl. Another hidden in a network of cracks in wall, after I found Owen’s ring on the floor. Those weren’t the last.

I found another set of 3 symbols, hidden within spray painted tags on a wall. One more in the carefully arranged guts of a dead rat, its bowels burst and scattered over the floor. Another woven into the silken threads of a spiderweb, stretched between grey concrete and a rusty dumpster.

Those hidden lanes and alleys were always deserted. It could have been lunch hour or rush hour, with the streets thronging with people and they would still be empty. I’d walk those down plain blank concrete canyons, for hour after hour, always feeling watched, never feeling alone. I never saw another living soul in those lanes and alleys during my search, but the hairs on the back of my neck would rise once I stepped into one. There was a sense of something deeply wrong, wholly unnaturally about those empty spaces. The sudden silence would envelope me like a cocoon, the rush of voices and vehicles coming from a world away, faint like the tinny broadcast of a distant radio station. The isolation was palpable. With the isolation came a crawling fear, a watery feeling in my guts and my legs, that something or somebody was observing me, leading me on in my search.

I never saw another living soul in those lonesome places. Until I started seeing them again. The glances were always fleeting. Titillating. A glimpse of a person turning into one of those cracks in the city, seconds before I rounded the corner, only to find myself alone in an empty alley. Or a set of footprints leading from a puddle, imprints of bare feet, like those of the boy and the girl, vanishing into the distance as the cold dry air drank the moisture off the trail. A recently toppled trashcan still rolling on the floor, without any breeze to push it. I’m sure I saw the girl again once. The blonde one. Anonther girl with her dirty brown hair cut short. The boy I saw several times, always in a distance, always fleeing from me. I’m sure there were more.

My search intensified. I took time off work to visit the cracks repeatedly. The symbols practically leapt out at me from the walls and floors, screaming to be read, deciphered. My experience with the first crack never repeated itself, but it was hardly the last oddity I experienced in the cracks. Once, near midnight, I found a crack that stretched for a full city block on the map, yet I could only count 76 paces from entrance to exit. Against all rationality, it measured 76 yards within the crack, but 100 yards on all parallel routes. On yet another day, I went into one of the cracks, scanning the walls for more of those symbols when I emerged, blinking at the sudden brightness, 3 blocks down from where I’d entered. How could a straight path have deposited me anywhere but directly opposite where I’d gone in?

By this point, my search started taking its toll. I’d gone beyond the point of worrying my friends. My phone, once a source of tweets, Facebook updates and text messages, slowly went silent. My boss had called me in and told me that he was letting me go. My job would still be waiting for me if I applied again. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “I like you,” he said. “You’ve been a great worker, smart and fast. I don’t know what kind of shit you’ve been going through for the past couple of weeks but you’re not contributing any more and I can’t afford to keep you on at the state you’re in now.” I mumbled something vague about things being bad at home. I was too wrapped up in my obsession to care by that point. I’d gone beyond visiting and revisiting the same sites marked on Owen’s map. The week before, I’d found a crack that wasn’t on the map. Something new. Owen hadn’t found them all. I could almost sense the shape of things, some pattern in the layout of the cracks, some waiting breakthrough in the symbols.

That’s when I found him.

I had a lot more time without a job. My search expanded. I found two more cracks, greedily documenting their locations and taking pictures of all the symbols I could find. And then I found my fourth one. The sun was high overhead, but the light provided no warmth. Like a morgue, I remember thinking, all bright and cold.

I rounded a corner on a busy street, downtown. My breath caught in my throat. I felt the familiar tingle. I’d found another one. My heart leapt. But there was something else here. A few yards in, hunched over, was a man. A denizen of the streets, from the looks of it. His tattered jacket wrapped tightly around his slight frame to keep out the biting cold. A dirty hand poked out from his jacket, holding the zipperless front together. I just saw two fingers clutching the dirty material. Some terrible damage had been wrought on his hand, a bandage, gummy with dried blood and pus, covered the rest of it.

I rushed forward to speak to him, the first other real person I’d seen in my search. He perked up at the sound of my footsteps. His rheumy eyes widened when he saw me.

The man raised a sheet of cardboard, crudely torn from some carton or box. I’d expected to see something routine. A plea for spare change. Something about being willing to work. Maybe even something witty. Instead, scrawled in large blocky letters, 4 words. Run. They hunt you. The rough strokes of the letters were too broad to have come from a sharpie or a marker pen. The ink was a rusty smear of brown, too spread out to have come from a normal writing instrument. Blood. The man had written the warning in blood.

“Who…?” I formed the question with my lips even as the answer rang in my mind, clear as a bell. Owen’s voice. The kings and queens of the city.

In that moment, my eyes locked with the clear blue eyes of the wreck of a man in front of me and the dawning realisation hit me like a freight train. Owen. Sweet god in heaven, I was looking at Owen. He’d known it was me all along of course. But he hadn’t expected the look of recognition on my face. He opened his mouth and moaned, a wordless sound of pure anguish, his mouth wide enough for me to see the black stump flapping around inside like a dying fish.

The shock of recognition was too much for me. My knees buckled as I back pedal led away from the ruinous vision in front of me. I went over backwards. The impact drove the air from my lungs. The world flashed white as my head met the floor with a crack. I got to my knees, wincing in pain. Owen wasn’t there in front of me. I raised my head, the pain felt like a tent spike between my ears.Owen was standing a few feet from me. But he wasn’t alone. The blonde girl was standing next to him, dwarfed by Owen’s gangly frame. She held his hand delicately, like a nurse leading someone old and infirm. Owen’s entire demeanour had changed. Moments before he had worn an expression of shock and anguish. All that had melted away, and there was nothing but naked fear in his eyes. He shook gently as the girl raised his ruined hand to her lips, planting a kiss on the rotten bandage over his missing fingers. Not a kiss, I saw her lips work up and down as she sucked hungrily.

When she looked up, there was a smear of brown over the perfect pink bow of her lips.

“We’re coming for you next. There is so very little of this one left, and there are so many of us.”

Her voice was clear and sharp, with just a trace of girlishness. She reached up and stroked Owen’s cheek softly, smiling at me. Owen shuddered. The crotch of his jeans darkened as he lost control of his bladder. I tried to get to my feet, but the pain was blinding. The rush of blood to my head whited out my vision again. I blinked furiously, trying to clear my sight. When the world swam back into focus, Owen and the girl were gone.

I rushed forward to the spot where I’d seen him last. Nothing lingered but the faint smell of piss and fear. Like the first time I stepped into one of these cracks, a long straight concrete canyon stretched out before me. No traces of Owen or the girl. Then the screaming started. The same sound that Owen had made earlier, a sound of pure pain and anguish, torn straight from his soul. It seemed like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere. I spun around like a madman, hoping to catch one last glimpse of my friend. He wasn’t there. I put my hand against the wall to steady myself. I snapped my hand back. The wall was… vibrating. Humming. The screams were coming from the walls.

I ran.

The streets had emptied out for the evening. I’d lost track of where I was, how far I’d run.

I felt like a man coming up for air, surfacing from the depths of a waking dream. A stranger looked back at me from the glass facades of the shops I walked past. An eternity ago I was young, full of life and successful. Owen was the vagabond, the kook, the madman. Now we were the same, he and I. Dishevelled, unshaven. With one difference. I was afraid now. Afraid of what I’d become, of how far I’d fallen. Afraid of what I’d been chasing, not knowing that I was being hunted with a greater hunger than I was capable of imagining.

I swallowed a little scream as I saw a pale face watching me in the reflection. I peeked over my shoulder. A young man stared out at me from an alley. One of them. The alley was dark, the scant street lighting made it seem like he was floating in shadow. He beamed widely at me. His teeth, white and perfect, and stepped backwards. The darkness swallowed him.

My pace quickened. Another alley, another crack. Two of them this time, staring out from across the street, their eyes bright with mirth and longing. Is that what Owen saw that night in the bar? Was he being hunted too? I broke into a slow jog and then into a flat out sprint as the fear took root and grew.

Owen was dead now, I was sure of it. I had squandered his first warning and I feared that his second warning had come too late. I had to get home. Destroy the maps like Owen said. Stay away from the cracks. Maybe leave town. There was nothing left here for me anyway.

Only one more thing to do. And I’ve just done it. Like the map Owen found. Or the last text he sent me. Or his last message to me written in his own blood. I’ve burnt the map, deleted all my photos, thrown out the GPS unit, anything that hints at where the cracks are.

All that I need to do is leave my story, my warning. And my hope that nobody else follows me, or sees what I’ve seen. I am done. There are cracks in our cities. There are dark things that live in the cracks. Hidden things, lurking in the web of cracks like spiders, waiting for the unwitting, the unprepared and the lost. And they are hungry.