Weird Fiction Monday: Treatment

It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers!  As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.  

This piece was recently submitted — and rejected — for the original anthology Fearful Symmetries, funded by Kickstarter and edited by Ellen Datlow.  After the rejection, I thought about submitting it elsewhere, except (a) I don’t have the time or the experience to do it, and (b) I don’t know if it is in fact any good!  For now, I post it here and move on to other projects.

Treatment

“So you want to know why I began to investigate the paranormal?”

The question came without warning and, caught off guard, I stammered out a hasty denial. I had known Alfonso Cuellar for decades, and my visit, I said, was simply a chance to catch up after years of lost contact. My answer sounded false, however, and it was; I had come to visit Alfonso specifically to find out why he had abruptly thrown away a career and pursued a fantasy.

Alfonso and I first met some twenty years earlier as undergraduates in college.  In hindsight, our paths seemed unlikely to cross. Alfonso was the son of Spanish nobility, and I was a middle-class American descended from poor Eastern European immigrants.  Alfonso was studying psychology, and I was studying physics.  We were assigned as roommates, however, and became friends almost immediately.  Alfonso (“Al” to me) had an infectious confidence that bordered on hubris but never crossed into it, and an enthusiasm for unconventional approaches that made him unpredictable and fun to be around. Though we parted ways after college, we stayed in regular contact and visited each other over the years.

Alfonso became a very distinguished psychiatrist, settling in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He did clinical research on new antidepressants but also maintained a successful private practice, reputedly working with some of the most successful and wealthy people in the southeast.  He had an impressive reputation, both academically and professionally.  He also had a talent for bending the rules just enough to get the results he needed without the reprimands that a man of lesser skill would have accrued.

Then, five years ago, a patient under his care was killed.  I first heard about it through a friend of a friend, and the only detail provided was that the death had occurred during the course of an unusual treatment. However, I later learned that Alfonso had been cleared of any responsibility for the death.  I was busy with my own work at the time and it didn’t feel right to contact Alfonso to talk about what had happened; when, six months later, I heard he had closed his practice, I didn’t know what to say to him.  When, six months after that, I heard whispers about his new found interest in the supernatural, I didn’t want to talk to him.  But we had been friends a long time, and my curiosity got the better of me.  Alfonso was still in Charlotte; when I had an excuse to travel there for work, I contacted him, and he invited me to his house for dinner.

I nearly lost my composure when he greeted me at the door.  He still had the same smile, the same warmth of personality; his physical appearance, however, had changed dramatically.  When I had last seen him, Alfonso had been a tall but somewhat portly middle-aged gentleman, with a dark color that implied long days in the Spanish sun.  Now he was gaunt and thin, and his skin looked almost ashen.  He invited me into his living room – his excellent taste in décor had not changed – and I noticed that he had a pronounced limp in his left leg.  When I asked Alfonso about it, he hesitated, and he seemed to grow even paler.  He made a dismissive gesture and light-heartedly muttered that he had “given better than he got,” and said no more.

Dinner was wonderful: Alfonso was independently wealthy due to his inheritance and, in spite of his dramatic shift in career, he could still hire a good cook when he entertained.  During the meal he kept the conversation focused on my life and the good times we had in school.  Then, over drinks in his library, he unexpectedly asked his question.

“I can understand you’re curious,” he said, brushing off my denials.  “I assumed you were upset, or disappointed with me, when we lost contact.  We’ve been friends for a long time, however, and I expected that you would get in touch again when you were ready.  And, because we’re friends, I should tell you what happened.”

This is what he told me.

***

I have always viewed psychiatry as more of an art than a profession.  Every patient is different, and the treatment of them comes as much from intuition and imagination as from the rigid rules of diagnosis.  Poor doctors will simply treat the patient to get their symptoms to within some range of accepted levels; good doctors will fine tune until the patient is at their best.  Great doctors will do whatever is necessary, regardless of the rules. I considered each new patient as a mystery to solve and an adventure to be taken, and I believed that because of this I was able to make great, even remarkable, progress with nearly every one of them.

My exception was George Weatherley.

George was a very successful programmer and network designer.  He had made a fortune leading the effort to build the newest generation of secure online services for one of the big banks in Charlotte.  He used that money to launch his own successful consulting company, and he now traveled the country developing software for major corporations.

He had done all of this before reaching the age of 35, but George was unwell.  For nearly a year before coming to see me, he had been suffering from recurring nightmares of increasing potency.  At first, they had been infrequent and minor, but now they occurred multiple times nightly and launched him from sleep in screaming terror.

The dream was always, in essence, the same.  George found himself alone in a cabin in a mountain wilderness, at night.   The cabin was rustic and crude, fashioned of roughly-shaped logs, and only enclosed a single room.  There were no lights in the cabin: when the dream began, George intuitively knew that he had doused them so that he could not be seen from outside.  For something, something truly horrible, was out there, circling, and it was looking for him.  In the dream, George found himself shying from the windows and cowering by the fireplace, its jagged flat stones digging into his side. It was the only place where he did not back up against a window, as all the other walls were terribly exposed.  His heart was pounding painfully in his chest, both in and out of the dream, as we would determine later through physiological testing.  The “something” was moving outside of the cabin, and George could hear, or imagine that he heard, it rustling in the brush.  Inexorably, the sound drew closer to one window in particular – the only one directly facing George’s hiding place – and at last a face thrust itself into view.  Or, as he described it, something that roughly approximated a face: pitch black and featureless, save for a pair of bulging, vacant white eyes.  This was the point that he awakened, to put it mildly.

I asked him what he thought the thing was that was tormenting him in his dreams.  The best answer he ever gave me is that it was something that should be dead but wasn’t.

Nightmare disorder is rather common among people who are in high stress professions or who have suffered a severe life trauma.  At first, George’s symptoms seemed quite ordinary, and I set him on a regimen of stress reduction through exercise, yoga and meditation.  This had little to no effect, however, so I started therapy sessions to try and get at the source of George’s anxiety.  There seemed to be none. George’s job involved long hours and much pressure, but he was one of those rare people who actually reveled in it.  His family history was unexceptional: generations of Weatherleys had lived in the Southeast, and the family had always been rather well off. There were no family crises or other events in George’s immediate past that could be the trigger for such nightmares.  I nevertheless started him on prazozin, used for treatment of PTSD, but it was ineffective.  In fact, the dreams seemed to become worse, if anything, as if they were defying my efforts to treat them.  Neurological tests came back negative, and a sleep study noted nothing out of the ordinary – other than the nightmares, of course.  A series of hypnosis sessions failed as well.  The dreams, undeterred, had an increasingly devastating effect on George: over the five months that I treated him, he seemed to age by a decade.  Whatever the cause of his nightmares, they were killing him.

It so happened that at that time I had a psychiatric conference to go to in Las Vegas. You know that Vegas is not exactly the type of city I enjoy, but my desire to keep abreast of the latest developments in my field overruled my tastes.   The conference was productive, though George Weatherley haunted me throughout.

On the final day of the meeting, I joined a group of practicing psychiatrists for a farewell dinner.  I had met most of them for the first time over the past few days, but we had gotten along almost immediately and were now like old friends: you remember how well I can get along with almost anyone.  Dinner evolved into drinks at a casino bar, where we ended up talking about our current problem cases.  Don’t look so shocked – we maintained confidentiality and our discussions were for the benefit of the patients, or so we told ourselves.  In addition, we were rather drunk.

Near the end of the discussion, I shared my troubling case of George Weatherley with this crowd of professionals.  They rapidly fired back a series of suggestions, and I dismissed them each in turn as tried and failed.  They were exactly the standard answers one would expect to hear.

“Why not just take him to a cabin?”

The group had broken up for the evening; most of the participants had to catch early flights home in the morning.  I had lingered to finish off my drink; lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice that Arthur Daniels had remained behind to talk to me.

Have you ever attended a meeting and kept bumping into the same person, over and over again, against all odds? That was Arthur Daniels to me in Las Vegas.  After an early session on the first day, he introduced himself as a fellow North Carolinian with a long-standing practice in Asheville, and he became a constant presence throughout the rest of the week.  Sometimes we would pass in the hall, sometimes I would see him in the restroom or a coffee line; sometimes I would just catch his eye across the room at a busy reception.  Even I found it a little socially unnerving after a while.  He happened to show up just as we were making plans for the final dinner, and it seemed rude not to invite him along.

He was a tall, thin man who looked almost emaciated. From his wasted appearance, I suspected that he was currently being treated for cancer or had recently completed treatment.   He declined to actually have a drink at the bar after dinner, and that seemed to confirm my suspicions.  He had an uncomfortably piercing stare that reminded me of an old psychiatry adage, “Many psychiatrists would better serve as patients.”

“Why not just take him to a cabin?” was what he had said to me.

The idea was so ridiculously obvious that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself.  Perhaps I had, and had discounted and forgotten it.  “Flooding” a patient’s fears to dissipate them is a crude and risky technique that is not ordinarily done any more.  As I have noted, however, this was no ordinary situation, and my instincts tended towards the unconventional.

“I wouldn’t do it just like his dreams,” Arthur continued with a shrug.  “Take him for a weekend – under guidance, of course – to a vacation cabin in the mountains.  Get him used to the idea of being in the wild, in the night, like in his dreams.  It will take the sting out of them.”

Arthur struck me as an odd man, and his solution as I have said was even more odd, but odd was what was needed, and perhaps what I needed.  It was not an unreasonable plan: skydivers have said that lifelong nightmares of falling can disappear after taking up the sport.

“I can even point you to a place,” Arthur added, sweetening the deal.  “There’s a cabin I’ve used in the Blue Ridge Mountains that would be perfect for you two.  Remote, in the wild hills, but easy to get to and with modern stuff.”

He even had the number of the booking agent on hand, and I took it without another thought.  I was genuinely excited to have a possible solution to the puzzle that George had presented me with.  When I returned to Charlotte, I contacted him almost immediately and arranged an appointment.  He was skeptical, to say the least.

“You’re actually going to send me to a cabin in the woods, exactly like in my dream?” I recall him saying.  He looked genuinely ill at the suggestion.

“Not exactly like your dream, no,” I countered. “And I will be there with you, to help you work through any issues that arise. It will be a safe environment to explore your nightmares by obliquely facing them.  And during the day we’ll engage in some hiking, and some fishing.”

Well, he wasn’t entirely convinced at first, but I reassured him.  I called the rental agency and reserved a weekend at the cabin that Arthur had suggested.  The early spring is an off-season, with some areas still covered with snow, so it was not difficult to get the place reserved.  I didn’t believe in ghosts but, just to be thorough, I did an internet search on the property to see if it had ever been connected to a haunting or other bugaboo.  If it had, and George found out, it would jeopardize everything we were trying to do, and could put his recovery in danger.  I found nothing, however.

I picked up George on an early Thursday afternoon, and we headed to the wilds.  Have you ever been to the Blue Ridge Mountains?  They look truly beautiful and peaceful – from a good vantage point, you are witness to endless stretches of undeveloped land, trees as far as the eye can see submerged in a dreamlike blue haze.  That serenity, though, is draped over a history of unending strife.  A thousand years ago, native tribes murdered each other over land, resources, and simple hatred.  When Europeans arrived, they fought and drove those tribes from the region, slaughtering them in the process.   Then they turned on each other, warring over land and sovereignty. And for every war that made it into history, there are a thousand bloody personal clashes that went unrecorded: family feuds, business disputes, love affairs gone wrong.  All these have been swallowed up in the mountains. And some of these smaller fights burned with more personal hatred than entire wars.

None of this occurred to me as we drove to our destination.  The scenery was beautiful, as I said, and my thoughts were completely focused on my human project, George.  The roads were quite empty; many of the mountain passes had just been cleared of melting snow and reopened. After traveling through the bulk of the mountains, we passed through Gatlinburg, a rather gaudy tourist town oddly reminiscent of Vegas, and stopped for a late lunch.  We also picked up the keys to the cabin there, gathered some food and supplies for the stay, and then moved right on to our destination.

This particular cabin was about fifteen minutes off of the main thoroughfare, at the end of a twisting dirt and gravel road that alternately traveled through stretches of dense claustrophobic trees and along steep hillsides with panoramic views of the surrounding hills.  While George was looking out of the window at one of these views, I noticed a historical marker on the other side of the road.  I couldn’t read the details as we passed, but the heading said “Weatherley Point.” This was a curious coincidence, but I took it as just that – coincidence.

The cabin was nestled into a clearing at the edge of an extended forest.  On the other side of the clearing was an open stretch of gently-sloping grass that looked to have once been farmland.  Along  the treeline were regularly spaced and rotted posts, likely the remains of an old property line fence. And the cabin itself?  Quite ordinary and unspectacular.  It was made up to look like a vintage log cabin, but this was a façade covering a relatively modern interior.  At first glance, I guessed that it had been constructed in the late 1960s or early 1970s.  There was a front porch with a pair of rocking chairs, a front door leading into a comfortably large living room, a kitchen off of this on the left-hand rear, and a hallway leading to a pair of bedrooms on the right side, with a bathroom between them. True to Arthur’s word, the cabin had running water and electricity.  There was no phone, but my cellphone had a reasonable signal, so a landline was unnecessary.

George was fine with the accommodations.  He had no negative reactions to the locale, or to the cabin itself.  After putting our belongings in our respective rooms and getting situated, we sat down in the living room for a half-hour and talked through his feelings and our plan for the weekend.  We would have a short therapy session each morning, afternoon and evening, and would spend the days in relaxing activities.  I would be on hand at all times if he needed anything, and we would be ready in a moment’s notice to vacate the premises if the experiment went out of control.  George had no issues with any of this, and seemed genuinely optimistic for the first time since I had known him.  He said he felt a “deep sense of belonging” in the region, which I took as a positive sign.

As the sun set, we made a small dinner of tacos from a prepared mix we had purchased in town.  Strange how the little mundane things stick in one’s mind!  By the time the sun had completely vanished, we were both reading by the pale glow of the weak lamps in the living room.  George was completely calm.

At eleven o’clock, about the time I was thinking of going to bed, my cell phone rang.  I did not recognize the number, but I always answer every call.  With the coming of night, it seemed that cell reception had declined dramatically; the connection was filled with static and very faint, as if coming from a long distance away.

“Alfonso – is that you?” a voice called from the other side.  I didn’t recognize the speaker at first, but he sounded almost frantic.

“It’s Arthur – from the meeting,” the man continued.   “Are you all right?”

I involuntarily shrugged, even though he couldn’t see me at all.  I stepped out of the room onto the porch in the hope of getting better reception.

“Of course I am,” I answered, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Oh, thank God, thank God,” Arthur breathed.  A buzzing sound came in and out on the line, like an angry insect weaving its way around me.

“Listen,” he continued, “I need to talk to you immediately – it’s urgent.”

“I’m in the mountains, at the cabin,” I replied.  “I’m not anywhere near home—“

“I know that,” Arthur interrupted.  “I’m at a tavern, the Mountain Pass, about three miles down the road from where you are right now.  We need to talk right away; I’ve made a terrible mistake.  You’re in danger.”

“What do you mean?” I snapped.  The call seemed utterly ridiculous, and I had an image of Arthur sitting in a smoky bar, wearing a disheveled rumpled suit and looking sleep-deprived.  “How could we be in danger out here?”

“I didn’t say you both are in danger,” Arthur answered, “I said that you’re in danger.  You need to come see me right away.  Alone.”

The call went on like this for another couple of minutes.  Arthur was pointedly evasive about what danger I faced, and I finally agreed to come see him, provided it was okay with my patient.

It was.  George was perfectly at ease, and when I told him that I needed to run into town to talk with a colleague, he seemed amused by the situation.  In hindsight, I imagine that he thought this was a planned test on my part.  I assured him that I would have my phone on hand at all times if he needed to call, and would be back in an hour.

The drive away from the cabin took longer than the drive in, thanks to the darkness.  The sky was overcast, as well, and the lack of nearby city lights made the world darker than I had ever experienced.  It took 30 minutes to get back to the main road, and then another 10 to get to the Mountain Pass.  As I approached the establishment, I was alarmed to see flashing police lights; however, the squad car was parked at a liquor store across the street.

The Mountain Pass itself was a ramshackle wood tavern with buzzing neon signs in the windows and an almost palpable cloud of smoke emerging from the door. Arthur was nowhere to be seen when I entered, and I stood in the doorway, uncertain, for a few moments.  At last I crossed to the bar and sat down, figuring that he was likely in the restroom and would emerge shortly.  The bartender came right over to me.

“Are you Alfonso?” he asked.  I nodded.  “A fellow left this note for you.”

I took the folded piece of paper and opened it up.  A message was hastily scrawled on the inside.

“I was wrong,” it said, “the house is in fact haunted.”

Upon reading those words, I was seized by what I can only call a premonition.  My heart felt like it was encased in ice as I grabbed my phone and called George.  There was no response, and the phone went to voicemail.  I immediately rushed back to my car and drove as fast as was safe – even faster – back to the dark cabin on the hill.

By the time I returned, however, George Weatherley was dead.

***

Alfonso ended his monologue.  I waited for him to continue for some time, but at last I was forced to break the silence by asking, “What happened?”

Alfonso looked at me without emotion.  “I can show you,” he said.

He went to the television set, picked up a DVD that had been resting on top of it the entire time, and put it in the player.  In a moment, the screen flickered on.

“After I left,” Alfonso said, “George started recording events with his phone.”

There was no more time to explain; the recording began and George’s last moments played out in front of us.  The interior of the cabin came into view, dark and out of focus.  The camera shook violently, jerking from side to side like a trapped animal.

“Alfonso has been gone for fifteen minutes,” George said, “And all at once the fear came back, more powerful than ever.  This is it – this is what all my dreams have been leading up to.  Something is coming.”

The camera perspective stalked through the house as George tested the locks of windows and doors.

“I shut off all of the lights,” he said, “To avoid drawing attention.  I know it’s out there, coming closer; I can’t let it find me.  But I brought protection.”

George showed a gun to the camera, a revolver.

“I did not know he had that with him,” Alfonso commented, “Until, of course, it was too late.”

“I can’t reach Alfonso on the phone,” George whispered.  “There’s no telephone reception out here now.  All I can do is wait, and hope that he returns before it arrives.”

The camera whipped around suddenly, towards a dark window.   George backed up, bumping hard against the wall and sliding to the floor.

“It’s here,” he hissed.  “I can hear it.”

The camera view fixed itself upon the window; the revolver pointed in the same direction.  The scene was incredibly dark, but the bush outside the window shook faintly.

Then, in an instant, something like a face appeared at the window.  It was black and featureless, save for the two white eyes that stared in at George.  I involuntarily recoiled at the sight.  On the video, George screamed, the camera fell from his hand, and the gun fired. The shots were followed by the sound of broken glass, followed by the most appalling scream of terror and pain I have ever heard in my life.

Thankfully, Alfonso turned off the video before it was finished.  The scream cut off abruptly, leaving the room in silence.

My heart was beating painfully. I cleared my throat. “What… what was it?”

Alfonso shook his head.  “Not what you think.  That was a man in a black ski mask.  His name is Rory Witness, a small-time criminal and methamphetamine addict.  An hour earlier, desperate to get money for his next fix, he had robbed a liquor store at knifepoint.  The cashier resisted, and Rory stabbed him twice in the chest, seriously wounding him.  Fleeing the store, he encountered a police car pulling into the parking lot, so he was forced to retreat into the wooded hills behind the store.  Making his way through the forest in the darkness, he was getting cold and hungry – and was partly delusional thanks to withdrawal – when he came across an unlit cabin.  Thinking it might be an empty vacation home, Rory went and looked in the window.  George opened fire at the sight of the masked man, but panic made his shots go wild. Rory reacted like a rabid animal: he came in through the broken window and stabbed George twenty-seven times with his hunting knife.  He was arrested the next day in Gatlinburg and confessed immediately to the murder, thinking that he somehow had a justifiable homicide defense.”

Alfonso sat back down on the sofa, lost in thought.

“So it was simply a horrible act with a very natural cause?” I asked.

“Was it?” Alfonso replied.  “I thought so at first, as well, but certain things didn’t feel right.  The most obvious question to be answered: what did Arthur Daniels’ message mean?  If he hadn’t drawn me away from the cabin, things would have played out very differently than they did.

“I called his office in Asheville, only to find that the number had been forwarded to another psychiatrist’s office.  The real Arthur Daniels had died six months earlier of congestive heart failure.  Whoever I had talked to at the meeting, and had phone conversations with afterwards, was not him.  When I found a photograph of the real Daniels, I confirmed that he looked nothing like the man I had spoken to.  Daniels’ web page – which didn’t include a photo – had not been updated since his death, so my original hasty search of the man’s bona-fides had not turned up anything unusual.”

“Who were you talking to, then?” I asked.  Alfonso stood up again and went to a bookshelf.  He drew down a thin, aged, paperback volume and returned to his seat.  I could see that the cover read, “Forgotten Ghost Stories of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

“I did another internet search of the cabin property to see if there was any history that I had missed the first time around.  I still found nothing, but went further this time and browsed local libraries for out of print books on the ghosts and legends of the region.  I found this one, produced locally in 1972 in a very small print run.”

The book fell open on his lap to a well-creased page.  Alfonso read from a passage mechanically.

“The Sharecropper’s suicide.  In the early 1920s, a stretch of the Blue Ridge foothills were owned by the Weatherley family, and the land was parceled out for sharecropping to a half-dozen poor farmers in the region.  When the Great Depression hit, the Weatherley family decided to sell their farm holdings to maintain their family estate, with the result that all of the sharecroppers were to be evicted from the premises, homeless and nearly penniless.

“One of these farmers, with the name William Witness, was a single man in his early 40s who had developed a reputation as being extremely dangerous and vindictive.  He had served in World War I and was dishonorably discharged, supposedly for the torture of prisoners of war.  While he was away, his betrothed had married another man, and the couple disappeared soon after Witness’ return to the Blue Ridge.  It was rumored that Witness had subdued them, taken them into the mountains, bled them, and left them for the animals.

“At the meeting in which the Weatherleys announced their decision to the sharecropping families, Witness had to be restrained from attacking the patriarch of the family.  His statements were recorded by a local.  ‘You have used me as your workhorse for years,’ he said, ‘Riding me like a nag and now casting me away.  It is my turn.  I will drag the last member of the Weatherley family down to hell with me and use him as my personal mare for all eternity.’

“The day of eviction, armed guards were sent Witness’ place to enforce the order, but the precaution turned out to be unnecessary, as Witness had hanged himself in the home.  Because of its evil reputation, no other tenants took up residence in the shack that Witness had lived in, and it fell into disrepair.  Locals who worked the land afterwards claimed you could hear the sound of Witness’ feet kicking the wall at the place he hanged himself, and at dusk could see Witness himself looking out at you from within the house, a dark dirt-stained face with bulging white eyes.

“The Witness shack was torn down in the late 1960s to make way for new housing.  Since that time, no other supernatural phenomena have been reported.”

Alfonso looked up at me.

“Witness? Weatherley?” I said aloud, partly a question, and he nodded.

“I tracked down their lineages.  Rory Witness is the last surviving member of the entire Witness family bloodline, descended from a brother of William.  George Weatherley is the last member of his family’s line, as well.”

“Surely this is still just an incredible coincidence?” I protested.

Alfonso shrugged.  “I wanted to believe that, too.  But I then wondered: what made Rory travel to that cabin that evening?  I actually visited him in prison after he had been sentenced.  He told me that he was sure that he had been pursued by police through the forest; he could hear them on either side of him and behind, leaving him only one path of escape.  The police, however, never actually pursued him into the woods.  No human being pursued and herded Rory through the woods that night.  And then there’s this.”

Alfonso turned the book to me.  Along with the description, there was a single black-and-white photograph taken in the 1920s, showing William Witness standing grimly at attention in front of his small home.  The man was tall and thin, almost wasted away, the victim of years of unforgiving and unrelenting hard labor that had fashioned him into a creature as much rabid animal as man.  His eyes were dead but bulged outwards staring at the camera with defiance – or hatred.  The shack in the background I imagine looked very much like the shack of George Weatherley’s dreams, as beaten down by the elements as the man before it.  The front door lay open, and inside a rough stone fireplace could be seen, with room beside it for a man like Weatherley to crouch and hide.

Alfonso continued.  “There were only a handful of pictures taken at dinner at the Las Vegas conference, and only one of them included Arthur Daniels.  But it is enough.”

He dropped a photograph onto the open book, onto the page opposite Witness.  The image was taken by someone sitting at the bar counter in a dimly-lit establishment.  The photo captured a line of people sitting at the bar, including Alfonso, smiling at the camera with their eyes glowing from the flash.  All figures were in focus except for the one at the end of the line, half-obscured in the shadow of the person before him.  His face looked smeared due to the exposure and focus, though his mouth was clearly fixed in a sardonic rictus suggesting grim satisfaction.  Unlike the others, his eyes looked dark and hollow in the photo.

The similarity between Arthur Daniels and William Witness was undeniable, even with the blurred image.

“I keep asking myself,” Alfonso said, “Whether I had ever seen Arthur eat or drink during the entire time I was with him.  One’s mind plays tricks in these circumstances, and we remember what we want to remember.  Am I sure?  Can I ever be sure?

“I find myself wondering: were George’s dreams a warning, a premonition of sorts, or were they part of a trap?  Without the dreams, we would never have had a reason to go to the mountains at all.  He would never have needed to contact me in the first place.

“Coincidence?  It still could be.  All of causality can be ascribed to coincidence, if one steps back far enough.  When enough coincidences join together to accomplish a common goal, however, it looks more like purpose.

“So little makes sense of the story, no matter how hard I try to understand it myself.  I have spent many sleepless nights trying to put together the pieces.  They never quite fit.

“But this brings me back to the original question: why did I decide to throw away my career and study the paranormal?  Because, regardless of how exactly it was done, one thing is now perfectly clear to me.  In the end, after much thought, I realized that I had been playing a game, a game whose end goal was the murder of George Weatherley, and it was a game of which I was unaware of the rules.”

There was anger in Alfonso’s voice, and his eyes were fixed and intense.  “Because I didn’t know the rules, I was played – my ego was manipulated and my expertise abused, and I lost.  I have taken up the study of the paranormal because I will not, I cannot, allow that to happen again.”

The explanation ended there.  Alfonso and I sat in silence for a while, and then mundane conversation picked up again.  I stayed for another half-hour, made my excuses for the late hour, and departed.

Alfonso stood at the open door to see me off.  I turned only once along the walkway to glance back. Even at a distance I could see from the look in his eyes that, regardless of whether a haunting had ended in that cabin in the mountains, another one had certainly begun.

***

This story came about from the merging of three inspirations.  I’ve always been interested in writing a haunted house story, and the idea of a tiny haunted cabin in the wilderness, with something trying to get in, intrigued me.  The second inspiration was a dream involving a psychic investigator.  The plot of the dream was quite different than this one, but the character and the notion stayed with me.  I made the investigator Spanish out of a fondness for the country that I gained during my trip there last year.

The third inspiration came from mulling over the type of haunted house story I wanted to write.  I idly began to wonder one day whether it would be possible for a house to be haunted without a ghost being present.  That was the spark that finally ignited this tale.

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4 Responses to Weird Fiction Monday: Treatment

  1. Have you tried submitting it to the ‘Futures’ section of Nature? I’ve no idea how that works, or if your story qualifies for it (sorry, I haven’t read it yet, I’m about to I just wanted to tell you before I forgot).

    Cheers

  2. Enjoyed this, it’s sort of like a classic ‘weird tale’, the kind of thing you clearly love, but also makes good use of modern tech, like the phone video scene. Sometimes it’s tempting when writing a weird story to just act as if its 20 years ago and the characters don’t have phones as they sometimes spoil ‘classic’ horror set-ups! ie, being alone, unable to contact anyone, unable to research information quickly etc.

    • Thanks! You’re absolutely right, in that it is more challenging to write a weird story in our modern, ‘connected,’ era. I draw some inspiration from Richard Matheson, who was absolutely brilliant in taking mundane aspects of modern life (cars, airplanes, telephones) and turning them into objects of menace.

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