Familiar Dread

Jack Culbertson

Jack Culbertson (He/They) has written for Ramming Speed Pictures and Vinegar Hill Pictures. The films produced from these scripts have won acceptance to film festivals nationally. New to speculative fiction, he is influenced by the works of Grant Morrison, Stephen King and Jack Ketchum. You can find him on Instagram @dullboy_jack. He lives with his partner and their cat in Pittsburgh.

It’s two in the morning, so silent it screams, and every room in the Stygian household boils with the budding witching hour. The only sign of light, of life, comes from the man hunched over his desk, a tangible block of white glow electrifying his face, bleaching his skin a pale blue. No, it’s not a portal to another world upon which he gazes, but his digital drawing tablet. No Eldritch truth lies within, yet his mind teeters on the edge of madness. Worst of all, he is me. I am him, that man who hunches over his/my desk, pushing through exhaustion, desperate to make my self-imposed deadline.

Count Darius Misanthrope, heir to the Von Slaughter fortune and renowned scoundrel, points accusingly at the sanguine moon on the last panel of the last page of my painstakingly produced comic book. I draw. Then erase. Then draw. Then erase. Then draw, it seems, only so that I may erase. I bite my cheek and remove his limb with a single pen swipe. It’s his hand that’s the problem. His damned hand, with its damned fingers, refuses to look like anything more than a pack of hot dogs with scoliosis.

I really should get to bed. The witching hour does grow ever closer. I should go to bed and try again in the morning. And typically, I would. It’s just that I have the apartment all to myself, my focus unhindered, my creative juices able to flow freely, unthreatened by my partner’s affection.

Moi's back home getting her car repaired. You could say her dad's a bit of a mechanic, but Dr. Frankenstein may be more apt. A real sadist of the body shop. "Let the car die," I tell her. "Let me fucking die," begs the car. But Moi does as Moi has always done. She looks down her nose at the maroon car, rust spots pocking its hood, and whispers, "決して." I expect she'll be back in the morning. This is why tonight, tonight I will finish this drawing even if it kills me.

I thumb the volume on my phone. I’m on my second four-hour compilation of r/nosleep videos. I’ve forgone coffee, trusting the stories to live up to their name. Caffeine is great but has its limits. What my brain needs is to be threatened awake with tales of serial killers, woodland beasts, and haunted houses.

Most are fake, probably all are fake, but some seem possible, plausible even. A malformed deviant takes a child and does unspeakable things. A shapeshifting coyote scurries off the side of the road. Or the classic knock at the door with no one on the other side. Sure. Yeah. Probably fake. But plausible.

The pinky, meant to be but un petit phalange, has grown like a rampaging weed, exceeding the length and girth of the ring, middle, and pointer finger. Severed and redrawn palm up, each finger has mutated, growing multiple extra joints, more crustacean now than man. Again I try, this time drawing something that looks like a spider sneezed, its legs splayed out at its sides. My rage hampered only by my fatigue, I whimper a defeated, “Screw it.” I’ll just draw a fist and call it a night. The vibe doesn’t match the scene depicted, but the bags beneath my eyes are filling with the tablet’s glow, and soon all I’ll see is an oncoming migraine.

As I sketch, the video starts into a tale about a bladed madman. This madman, hatred in his heart and meth in his lungs, lived in the crawl space above the new tenant’s bedroom. This fresh-faced young woman told her best friend and boyfriend and neighbor and landlord, and postal worker about the sounds coming from her attic at night. They all agreed that, seeing as it was her first time in the big city and that she was a fresh-faced young woman, she was just easily spooked. Such a silly girl. “And maybe I am,” she considered. “Maybe I am a silly girl.” That was until she noticed a shortage of underwear. Then a few fewer bras. When her favorite dress went missing, she knew she wasn’t imagining things. She knew she’d have to go to the attic.

With his coy and even tone, the narrator delivers a tale that is stronger than any espresso and richer than any latte. Creepers living in an apartment, unbeknownst to the tenant, never cease to unnerve me. Something about your sense of security being ruptured. Something about the… the plausibility of it happening to anyone. How well do you really know your house? Especially for those of us who rent. How safe are you really in a house that isn’t and can never truly be your home?

The fresh-faced young woman, living on her own for the first time and with a profoundly mediocre boyfriend, musters the courage to venture to the attic. I give Count Darius Misanthrope a couple of squiggles to represent veins in his clenched fist. Fresh-faced young woman (FFYW) raises the loft door, actually a warped piece of plywood over a square in the ceiling, and pushes it aside. She hoists herself through its opening. I shade between the quartet of knuckles, hoping it’ll give the illusion that I’ve spent more than thirty seconds drawing them. Her breath heavy in her chest, FFYW aims the flashlight at the far end of the crawlspace, where she sees a tattered sheet pinned to the attic’s arch. A couple of wavy lines indicate that the Count rattles a righteous fist. As her fully realized, absolutely perfect fingers slide around the sheet, this curtain, she swallows, her mind racing far too fast to imagine what nightmare awaits her on the other side. Then, with the flashlight’s beam leading the way, she rips the sheet aside, unveiling the madman’s makeshift bedroom in all its calamitous filth. I click the floppy disk icon and a percentage pops on screen, telling me just how saved it is. But before it can be completed, before FFYW can truly take in the implication of that horrific tableau, she- I- We feel a quick succession of taps upon our back! Tap. Tap. Tap.

My butthole puckers like tightened drawstrings on a hoodie. The hair on my forearms reaches for the sky. A golf ball forms in my throat, and the image of an eight-foot-tall, craggy-faced pervert looming over my hunched body shudders madness to every corner of my mind. With the rest of my body busy pissing itself, my lizard brain, that instinctual survival mechanism, reacts with vigor. I bellow a bronchial battle cough and throw my arm over the back of my chair like tossing a log in a creek. Maybe I’ll get lucky and smack the twelve-foot brute in the nards. But I’ve never been lucky; my arm connects with no nards.

For those unaware, Bushyasta, also known as Bushyasta the long-handed, is the Zoroastrian demon of sloth. She embodies laziness, idleness, and procrastination. She takes particular joy in keeping productive men from completing their tasks. So when Moi and I rescued a chubby black cat who is lazy, adorably distracting, and slightly demonic, “Bushyasta” seemed the perfect fit. So while Bushyasta, or Bushy for short, is not terribly long-handed, when she does herself a big stretch, she is quite long-pawed.

With my arm gliding through the air, making contact with little more than confusion, I see a streak of pale blue on sleek black fur. The clatter of claws fills the room as a fat cat tries to gain traction on a wooden floor. They do, and moments later, I hear a meatball hoofing it down the hallway at top speed. Leaving me, once again, alone in the dark.

Immediately, I amend this. Every lamp, fixture, and nightlight is turned on. Even those loathsome overhead lights are made to wash the room. Next is r/nosleep, nullified with a swipe and replaced with silence. But what happened to FFYW?! Fuck FFYW! That shit’s fake, anyway. My heart slows. Sweat dries. Adrenaline simmers. I glance at the tablet. Mercy of mercies, all my hard work has been saved, one hundred percent saved. I take one final look at Count Darius Misanthrope’s lumpy outstretched fist and turn my tablet off. I’m done. Finished. But before I can finally r/gothefucktosleep, I must find Bushyasta, the feline goddess of jump scares, and throw myself before her mercy. This calls for a sacrifice, and I’m hoping a handful of kitty crunchies will suffice. I rattle the container, and just as thunder follows lightning, I feel the rumble of rolling chunk head my way. A moment later, Bushy, the Long Pawed extends an arm, no torment intended, just an insatiable hunger for snackies. And I know all is forgiven.