A Collector of Sorrows
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I call myself a collector of sorrows. As a teen, I felt alone and ignored. My classmates bullied me, and my parents spent most of their time at work. They didn’t have the time or care to hear how Brett pushed me on the playground or how Tommy joked about my big nose. After a while, I decided no one could help me, but I didn’t want anyone else to feel neglected. So I started to collect obituaries, missing child ads, and tragic stories in the paper. While I pored over grisly murders and tragic accidents, I copied the victims’ names and faces to my memory. Others would forget about them, but I would remember. If just one person remembered, then they could find the peace I could not.
Needless to say, my hobby didn’t gain me many friends. On a couple of occasions, the other students found my stash of tragedies. When they did, they tore it apart or burned it. Then they’d beat me up for the fun of it.
But eventually the bullies forgot about me. By the time I graduated, there was no one left to judge me. Even afterwards, I avoided people and people avoided me. I took a boring desk job at an accounting firm, where each of us enjoyed the privacy of a small cubicle. The only time I ever talked to someone was when I refilled my bottle at the water cooler. From time to time, I consulted with my boss Julie. She was tolerable.
When I took the accounting job, I moved to an isolated home in a rural town called Harriston. Like many country homes, mine sat on acres and acres of land. My closest neighbor, if you could call him that, lived five miles down the road. Most of my property sat wrapped in a vast pine forest. Old trails snaked throughout the woodlands. Many of them lead to small lakes and ponds while others circled back around on themselves. Even recluses need fresh air, so I walked them whenever I could.
Having grown up in an urban neighborhood outside of Chicago, I was accustomed to reading about car crashes, drug overdoses, and gang violence from time to time. When I moved to the country, I expected a new set of tragedies. But I found something different altogether.
Over the years, I recorded many instances of missing children. Most had wandered into the woods, lost their way, and never made it out. When they were found, if they were found, their corpses were days old. The forest critters had picked apart their bodies almost beyond recognition. In one graphic photo released by the police, a girl’s throat was ripped out and her head was turned completely around. Probably the work of a local grizzly bear.
Foul play was almost never expected. If any of the children had been murdered, the police had no suspects. After all, family was everything in Harriston. Since neighbors were few and far, the townsfolk spent their time almost exclusively with family. To murder a family member was unnatural and unthinkable.
In my first four years in Harriston, there were just two confirmed murders. On September 22, 2012, a man shot his brother after several beers and a heated discussion about who contributed more work on the farm. On January 7, 2016, a man broke his sister’s neck to take her share of their father’s inheritance. The man denied everything. Evidence was scant, but the jury convicted him anyways. He spent the rest of his life in a state prison.
My most interesting report came in the summer of 2016. This time a grown woman, Angela Witten went missing. Her husband said she went for a morning run in the forest and never came out. As with the missing children, everyone assumed Witten had simply lost her way. But the husband claimed she ran the forest trails every morning. She could not have gotten lost. She knew those trails by heart.
Three days later Angela Witten appeared at the start of the trail. An unflattering black and white photo showed her with deep rings under her eyes and a cut across her cheek. According to Witten, when she entered the woods that morning, the trails changed. After a few minutes, she turned back. But even after ten more minutes of running, she was no closer to home. In time, the trail led her to a clearing. She described the air as thick and unnaturally quiet. The clearing, Witten said, was a perfect circle of dead, brown grass. At the center of the circle, stood a stone pedestal. She approached the pedestal and found a glass orb. Out of curiosity, she touched the orb. She found nothing strange about the orb itself, but wondered who had placed it there and why.
Angela Witten then tried to exit the clearing, but she fainted before she could reach the tree line. At that point, the woman’s recount became harder to follow. She spoke of laughing shadows and eyes on her back. The only thing she could clearly communicate was that something was following her. Even after leaving the forest, she said she still heard it and felt it. And it was getting closer.
Witten’s story took up only a short column on the fourth page of the newspaper. Just a day after her story was published, Witten died. Her five-year-old son found her collapsed on the kitchen floor with her neck snapped. Authorities concluded she must have slipped and fallen against the counter. Witten made primetime on the local news station.
With my interest piqued, I searched through the library’s archives. Death by snapped neck was fairly common in Harriston. It affected children on the playground, elders in their homes, and loners and lovers alike. There were upwards of a hundred cases in the past decade. With that said, I found nothing noteworthy about these deaths. Most deaths could be attributed to everyday clumsiness and run-of-the-mill accidents. And in the few suspicious cases, there was never any mention of forests, stalkers, or paranoias. My gut said there was a common thread running through the sorrows of Harriston, but I found nothing. I gave up the search.
Not two days after I gave up, I flipped through my own collection of Harriston sorrows. To my surprise, I noticed Angela Witten’s paranoia wasn’t the first. Eric Garland, age seven, was one of the many missing children. Before his disappearance on August 12, 2015, Eric suffered a week of night terrors during which a disfigured man followed him through the woods. At first, the man lurked in the shadows, but as the nights progressed, he came closer. Once within earshot, the man introduced himself as the Death Stalker. One day before his disappearance, Eric said the Death Stalker stopped following him in his dreams. Now he followed him in waking reality. The Garlands thought nothing of it until their son ran into the forest never to be found again.
Although I didn’t wish harm on anyone, I watched and waited eagerly for the next tragedy to strike my small country town. A voracious, black cloud hung over Harriston, swallowing him and her without warning. I yearned to figure out why. For that, someone else needed to die.
But the days were quiet and the obituaries short. I checked the news at all hours of the day, even during work at the firm. My boss noticed a decline in my work. After calling me into her office, Julie told me I was on probation. Reluctantly, I put my research aside.
Another few months passed. I read the papers in the morning, but nothing of interest ever came up. I forgot about snapped necks and Death Stalkers. Just run-of-the-mill deaths by disease and car crash. That is until one summer evening when I headed to the forest for a leisurely stroll.
The sun’s toes dangled over the horizon, and the trees were abuzz with the chatter of birds and cicadas. As I stepped into the forest, a warm gust of air sighed through the branches. Hands in my pockets, I headed left down the fork in the dirt trail. After another left turn, the path would curve around to the other side of my property. All in all, it was a fifteen minute walk, just long enough to clear my head.
I watched the pine needles tumble down from the tree tops as I continued onward. All around me, crows cawed from the canopy. Though I searched for them, I could not see a single feather.
Having given up the search, I took my final left turn. At once, the crows quieted. I heard neither their shrill squawks nor the flutter of their black wings. The gentle wind had died. The entire forest sank into a heavy silence like that of a storm cloud waiting to burst open.
Ahead of me, the familiar pinewood grew increasingly unfamiliar. Twisted, knotted branches blotted out the sun. Twilight lay across my path. I turned back. Perhaps I had taken the wrong fork in the road. But there was no fork in the road. I jogged several paces, but I found no sign of it. I had no choice but to follow the path where it lead me. I laughed a short, uneasy laugh. “It’s a joke,” I told myself. “It’s all a joke.” But who, or what, was playing it on me?
Without sun, time became impossible to tell. For all I knew, time hadn’t moved at all. Regardless of how many steps I took, the trees all looked alike. And yet, at some point cobwebs descended over the pine trees. They sucked the trees dry until their needles browned and dropped to the floor.
Not knowing why, I hurried down the path, faster and faster. Soon a cool sweat spread over my body. Just as I began to pant, I ran face-first into a spider web. I stopped to rub the sticky thread out of my eyes and spit out a strand that slipped into my mouth.
When I opened my eyes, the forest had fallen away. The tree line broke and the grass died. Before me lay a perfect circle devoid of all life. At the center stood a stone pedestal, and on it, a black ball carved from glass. I could not believe my eyes. I snapped a picture with my phone just to be sure. But the photo showed me the exact same clearing. “Maybe Angela Witten wasn’t crazy,” I thought.
My legs pulled me forward as if of their own accord. The closer I approached the pedestal, the greater my curiosity grew. I ached to touch the orb, though I could not say why. Before I could stop myself, the orb filled my hands. I brought it to my face until I could see my pale face on its polished surface. Yet, as I stared deeper into the glass, I became aware of something else: a dark figure with great saucer eyes. Just as I noticed it, the figure smiled a sharp, crooked smile.
At once, I dropped the orb. It made no sound as it hit the ground, and when I blinked, the sphere reappeared atop the pedestal. My heart leapt into my chest. Once again I ran. All around me the trees snickered and the sky darkened. I looked up in search of the sun. To my surprise, it sat on the horizon just as when I entered the forest. The sky had not darkened at all. But my vision had. I sprinted towards the trees while the sinister cackle echoed around me. A dark veil smothered my sight. I fell.
Cold, hungry, and scared, I woke up at the start of the trail. Dusk was slowly sinking into night. I brushed the dirt from my shoulders and inspected a long gash along my right shin. I can’t recall how I got it. I glanced down the forest path. The wind roared through the trees. Far back, on the edge of my vision, a silhouette swayed behind a thin cedar. I blinked and then it was gone.
“A figment of my imagination,” I said. But I didn’t stick around to find out. I scurried home and locked the door. Without hesitation, I ran into the shower to drown my thoughts. I thought the shower would calm my nerves. Instead I felt weak and vulnerable. As the water cascaded over my head, I didn’t dare open my eyes. And no matter how hot I turned up the water, a cold shiver still ached in my bones.
When I finished showering, I dried myself off and retreated to bed. I pulled the covers tight over my body as the wind picked up outside. Tree branches scraped against the window, and the floors creaked. On top of that, my heart pounded in my ear. Sleep did not come easy, but it did come.
Before long, the dark night passed on to a dark, cloudy day. The memory of the forest clearing echoed in my drowsy, morning thoughts. But I dismissed it as a dream and carried on. Then I made my breakfast, got dressed for work, and headed for the door. But just as I grabbed the door knob, I had a thought. I took out my phone and opened up my photos.
It was there. I hadn’t imagined it: the desolate clearing with the stone column and glass orb. I zoomed in on the column. Although I hadn’t noticed it earlier, there were runes carved into its surface. I couldn’t guess their origin. They looked ancient and inhuman.
As I inspected the runes, I spotted a shape crouched behind the withered trees. Shriveled and slate grey, the shape stretched a long claw from out of the brush. A thin slit of a mouth stretched all the way across its scarred face. And its eyes were hollow and hungry.
A door slammed deep within the house. “Hello?” I called. A low grumble resonated down the hall. Before the noise could draw any closer, I sprinted out the door, got in my car, and drove away as fast as I could. Although a braver man would’ve investigated the noise, I didn’t even want to think about it. As it was I could barely keep the creature’s marred complexion out of my thoughts. And it’s ravenous eyes. No matter where I went, I could feel their gaze wash over my skin.
I sped down the twisted country roads until the dense forest gave way to rolling pastures gated in by short, wooden fences. On most days, farmers tilled the land. But the sky was swollen with billowing, black clouds, and the wind raged through the tall grass. Rain threatened to fall at any moment. The fields were empty. The roads were as well.
Thunder crackled in the clouds. I glanced up as lightning sparked across the sky. I followed its path over the field. It disappeared, but as soon as it did, another rushed to take its place. All the world lit in a flash of white. All but a single black shape that stood far off in my periphery. At first, the shape didn’t register. I drove another few seconds before I realized what I’d seen. When I glanced over, the Death Stalker stood at the fence grinning wildly. It’s head cocked to an impossible angle and its mouth spread wide to reveal a razor-sharp smile.
The tires squealed and spit dirt as I floored it. The figure followed me just beyond the border of my sight. I could feel him like a scar seared into my every waking moment. Somehow I sensed him closer to me as if he were running beside the car.
For the remainder of my drive, I looked ahead and nowhere else. Whatever lurked in the periphery, I would not look. People, cars, or creatures. It didn’t matter. I barreled forward. Horns blared. Men swore. I didn’t care. I pulled into the office parking lot. Eyes down, I scrambled out of my car and high-tailed it to the door.
My hand was already on the handle when I heard someone call for me. “Wait!” they said. “Hold the door please.” Naturally, I turned. A rotund man stumbled forward with a stack of boxes in his arms. His face was red from exertion, and a shadow loomed over his head and shoulders. But the shadow was not a shadow. It was the dark body of the Death Stalker. No less than ten feet tall, the beast towered over the man. Its head snapped between severe angles and a hot screech emanated from its throat. The creature cackled as I disappeared past the door.
No doubt, I caught several suspicious eyes as I ran into my cubicle. I heard the clack of heels behind me. “Are you alright?” someone asked. I did not turn to look, but I recognized her voice. It was Julie.
“I’m fine,” I said in short, sour words.
“You scared some of the others by running in here like that.”
“I’m fine,” I repeated.
“Really? Because if I’m being honest, you don’t look fine.” She circled around me. But I still would not look up. “Your eyes look hollow.”
“Julie, I’m fine,” I said. “I just want to work. I’m having…I’m fine.” Without another word, Julie and her heels clacked back down the hall.
True to my word, I wanted to work and nothing else. In fact, that’s all I did. I didn’t take a break for food or water or even to walk around. Absorbed in my work, I completely forgot about the events of the morning. When the day was done, I stood up on shaky legs and walked to the door without a worry. Rain had finally begun to fall. It poured down in a constant onslaught of cool, heavy rain.
Since I didn’t think to bring an umbrella, I stopped just before the door. Although the sun would not set for a few hours, the sky was cloaked in dusk. I stared into the stormy sky and sighed. Only a few paces behind me, a deep sigh echoed my own. “Hello?” I said.
But I knew what followed me. The creature’s patient watch burrowed deep into the nape of my neck. I scratched the path of skin, but it only worsened the discomfort. I itched to turn around. When I did not, there came a sharp click click click. The noise drew closer and closer until curiosity finally overcame me.
Hanging from the ceiling tiles, the Death Stalker crawled towards me ever so slowly. The creature stopped and reached out with one spidery arm. Its disfigured head spun around until it sat upright. The Death Stalker bared its crooked teeth. A demonic laugh rumbled in its throat.
I bolted out the door. The rain beat down. In the five seconds it took me to get in my car, water had seeped through my shirt and my shoes. With shaky hands, I guided the key into the ignition and started the car. But the engine sputtered. The car was only a year old. Not once had it ever failed to start. “Come on. Come on. Come on,” I said, trying the engine again. This time it worked.
Lightning split the sky in two as thunder rolled over the earth. And the wind shrieked as I drove my car down the slick streets. Inky clouds stretched from horizon to horizon. There was no way to tell where I was in the tempest. But the farther I drove, the more the darkness gathered. I was driving straight into the storm’s heart.
Again I sensed an icy tingle across my neck. The wind quieted to a hush. My headlights flickered. “Look at me,” I heard in a raspy voice. “Look at me…”
“No! Leave me alone!” I screamed. The Death Stalker laughed. My headlights flickered once more and then gave out. But I charged forward blindly. One way or another, I would make it home. The car shook as another clap of thunder spread over Harriston.
I squinted into the dogged blackness. At once, the headlights flashed back to life. The light shone on the hulking figure of the Death Stalker. Arms spread, legs steady, he stared down my car. I clenched my eyes shut and prepared for the collision, but there was nothing. When I opened my eyes, there was only open air.
By the time I reached home, the storm had subsided. Silence lay over the house. It comforted me and frightened me all at the same time. A twitch ran up my spine. “You just need sleep,” I said as I entered my bedroom and closed the door behind me. “Sleep. Just sleep. That’s all you need. Just need some sleep.” I kicked off my shoes and pulled back the covers.
Just then the door creaked open and slammed shut. I froze in place. The floorboards groaned from the thud of heavy feet. When the footsteps stopped, a wash of hot breath spread over my shoulders. It reeked of curdled milk and meat left to rot in the summer sun. Two grey limbs surrounded me on both sides of my periphery.
“Look at me,” the Death Stalker said. “Look at me.” It repeated that same phrase for over a minute. At any second, I expected its claws to wrap around my neck. But it only told me to look at it. When I did not obey, the creature gave up. Once again, an eerie quiet lingered through the house. For another minute, I stood still as stone. Nothing happened. I was safe at last.
Out of habit, I turned to close the door for the night. The Death Stalker grabbed my head in its claws and pulled me towards its ashen face. Its eyes bored into mine. It loosed a blood-curdling scream that knocked me unconscious.
Much to my surprise, I woke up. My back ached from a night on the floor, but my neck was in perfect condition. That was more than most could say after meeting the Death Stalker. But I did not consider myself lucky. If the Death Stalker left me live, there was a reason. The only explanation I could think of was that the creature was toying with me.
Even though I had woken up, I would not open my eyes. If I did, I knew what I would see. Springs groaned as the bed rocked. But I was not on the bed. Something had jumped on top. The sheets rustled as it crawled towards me. When the rustling stopped, there came a hoarse sigh. My hair danced as a puff of rancid air flowed down upon my head.
“Look at me,” a gravelly voice said. It was so close. I could almost taste the creature’s words on my lips. “Look at me.”
“No,” I said. The more I looked, the closer the Death Stalker came. If I looked this time, I would not survive. But my eyelids fluttered with anxious desire, my spine shuddered, and my blood itched. The Death Stalker must’ve sensed my pain. It snickered to itself and scraped its claws against each other. The screeched with the sound of steel on steel.
“Look at me,” it said again. I clenched my eyes shut and curled into a fetal position.
“No,” I said, squeezing myself tighter and tighter. “No,” I said, again and again until tears dripped down my cheeks. Now the Death Stalker’s laughter echoed all around me. It rang in my ears and trembled in my bones. Somehow I knew the only way to end it was to open my eyes.
However, in the end, my judgment suppressed my curiosity. I locked my head between my knees and never once opened my eyes. The Death Stalker called to me for hours. Its massive feet thud around me as it paced to and fro. When I did not answer, it grumbled and snorted. After two hours, the room fell dead quiet, and the stench of the creature’s rotten breath dissipated. No longer did I feel a rattle in my bones or a fever in my veins.
Even so, I would not relax. Just because a little tension had evaporated from the room didn’t mean I was safe. It was another ploy for the Death Stalker to get its hands around my neck. So the entire day I spent wrapped around my knees. I did not move, not for food or even the bathroom. The phone rang, presumably from work. After a neurotic day at work, I had disappeared. Julie would want answers, but she could wait.
The day dragged on. Minutes passed аs hours, and hours as decades. At some point, I passed out from exhaustion. Once again I woke up on the floor. My back throbbed and my neck was stiff, but thankfully still intact.
Dawn streamed through the windows, and the morning doves cooed. I rose to stretch my limbs, wash my face, and change my clothes. I made it halfway to the bathroom before I realized my eyes were open. My heart throbbed for a moment, and then slid back into a peaceful rhythm. Despite the horrible days prior, I did not fear my sight. I heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. I was free. I knew it.
Sun shone upon the winding country roads. I enjoyed the leisurely drive to work. I smiled at the the swaying forest trees and at the workers in the fields. When I got to work, I greeted my coworkers happily. Even on a normal day, this was strange behavior for me. Oddly I could not find Julie to explain why I never showed up to work the day before.
I sat down at my desk and got to work. Yesterday’s work still sat on my desk, but I completed it without delay. Before I moved on to the current day’s work, I went to the water cooler to refill my water bottle. That’s when I saw Julie scamper in. “Julie,” I said. She jumped as I said her name, but came over regardless. “I apologize for yesterday. I was bed-ridden. It was terrible. I…Julie?”
Her hair stuck in clumps, dark rings circled her eyes, and her blouse was a wrinkled mess. “It’s fine,” she said. She forced a weary smile. “I understand.”
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“I…I had a rough night.” She looked past me and nowhere else.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Her brow furrowed in an expression of deep distress. “I had a dream of this…glade in the woods. It wasn’t a memory. I have never been there, but I could feel the withered grass on my feet. It was as real as anything. As real as you standing in front of me.” She still would not look at me. “At the center of the glade, there was a stone column with a black ball on top. I touched it, and then I started running for some reason. I kept running and running as if something was chasing me. Now I’m awake, but I still feel like I’m running.”
If Julie looked at me then, she would’ve seen the color drain from my face and the light vanish from my eyes. “That must be terrible,” I said. She laughed a nervous laugh.
“I think I’m seeing things,” she said. Before I could say anything, she shook her head. “No. I’m fine. I’m fine,” she said. I knew otherwise.
Two days later, Julie was found dead in the stairwell of her apartment. Neck snapped. She fell down the stairs, or so they said. Family members called it a freak accident and a terrible tragedy. Her brother wrote the obituary himself. He spoke of childhood memories on the farm, summers on the lake, and Christmas in the Florida Keys. His words were tender, wistful, and utterly heart-wrenching. They made a lovely addition to my collection of sorrows.
CREDIT : Andrew Layden