28 Jul Accomplice
“Accomplice”Written by M.C. Tucker Edited by N.M. Brown Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 37 minutes
John began working in my office in late October.
He started on a Thursday. He sat at the desk opposite mine, which had been empty since Julia had gone on maternity leave. He turned on the computer and slid his satchel, which had the name ‘John Evans’ embossed on the side, under the table and got to work.
He was older than me by maybe fifteen or twenty years, enough of a difference that I saw him in that way that I once saw adults when I was a teenager. He had that self-assuredness and confidence that came with having established himself more firmly in the world than I had.
I watched him for a while, glad to have a distraction from my work. He looked like he would be tall when he stood. His hair was neat and dark with small sprays of white at the temples, and he had deep brows that kept his eyes in perpetual shadow. He was professorial, stern.
What I found most interesting about this stranger was that he sat with a completely perfect posture. He never hunched. He never leaned against the backrest. I tried to imitate him and failed miserably. The first time I found myself slouched back in my chair without even realizing that I was doing it. The second time, I tried to pay attention but eventually submitted to the growing ache in my back and stomach. I swung to and fro for a moment, letting the discomfort settle, but when I looked up again, he was looking directly at me.
I remember that under his gaze, my stomach dropped as though I was in serious trouble. My bowels felt loose, and my skin felt hot, and any smart comment that I might have tried on was out of reach.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked in a deep voice. I tried to pull myself together and smiled warmly.
‘Are you new here?’ I asked, feeling stupid. Of course he was new. ‘I’m Ethan. John, right?’ His slight smile confirmed my assumption, and when he got back to work, I did too.
We next spoke in the tearoom during lunch. I sat beside him, wanting to leave a better impression than the immaturity I was worried he’d seen earlier. I wanted to impress upon him how clever I was, how I too was someone worthy of respect. Something about him left me wanting his approval.
But he stood as I sat. He towered over me for a moment, a stern goliath, before turning to the mundane task of washing his plate and cutlery. He had finished his lunch, and I found myself disappointed.
‘Would you like a coffee?’ I asked, getting back up to prepare one for myself.
‘I would,’ he replied as he dried his knife and set it back in the drawer. I poured a second mug, and he sat back down to drink it as I ate. After a quiet few moments, he asked me to repeat my name. He asked where I’d attended graduate university and how long I’d been at the company. I answered his questions eagerly, and before I knew it, my hands were jittering around my third cup of coffee, and we’d long overstayed lunch hour, and John knew far more about me than I knew about him.
That Thursday began two months’ of lunch hour conversations. We spoke about the world and the sky and everything in between. I no longer paid attention to the movements of my colleagues. They may as well have been on another planet. Instead, I focused on the swirl of sediment at the bottom of my cup, on John’s large hands as they rested on the table. In his words, as he described more lives than one man could surely have lived.
My first impression had been right. He had taught, not just here in Vancouver but also overseas. He’d taught English to nurses in Peru, construction to young men in the Cook Islands and mathematics to engineering students in Iran. Countries whose names seemed tinged with magic, as far away from the deepening cold and dark of winter as was possible.
When I asked him why, why on Earth had he come here, sought a job in this small engineering firm whose only claim to fame was their design of a type of bolt used to attach propellers to icebreakers and spend his days amongst some of the most sallow and pallid people alive when he could have been exploring the deserts of Chile, John sat back in his chair for the first time since I’d known him.
‘I’m looking for something,’ he had said.
I think that the last time I was truly happy was in that small tearoom, sitting on the rigid chair at a round melamine table, having lunch with John. My eagerness to impress him hadn’t faded. I was eager to please him too, and he always accepted the freshly brewed cup of black coffee before allowing me to pick his brains.
I began to look forwards to work. I got up earlier in the mornings than I ever had before to allow myself enough time to ensure that my hair was neat and my shirt was evenly pressed.
I began to daydream about leaving the office with John. About him asking in his deep, even tone for me to join him on one of his adventures. This world was going white and grey with the deepening snow, but my imagination was full of the rich red of deserts, the intense purple of jacaranda flowers and skies that were only ever a stark, neverending blue.
Things began to change during Friday night drinks in mid-December, which he rarely attended, and I always did.
I don’t remember what the disagreement had been about. That detail was meaningless, insignificant even, in comparison to the event that followed. What I do remember was drinking a few more beers than I ought to have while out with work colleagues. John made some comment, and we’d had a back-and-forwards for a minute that ended in my making a weak joke at his expense. But the others had laughed, and I had laughed too loudly because, for the first time since meeting John, I fleetingly felt as though I had the upper hand in the relationship.
The night came to a close, as did all Friday drinks, with everyone remembering that they had families that waited on them and weekend chores to achieve that would be even more intolerable with the dry horrors. John offered me a lift home, as he had not drunk more than the one beer he’d been nursing. I followed him out into the bitter cold and around the side of the bar to the parking lot, where the snow was made yellow by the dim lighting.
John had turned to me then, so suddenly that I had no chance to pull away. With one hand, he’d gripped my jaw, and even then, I’d thought that it was an odd place to grab. My neck, my shoulder, yes. His large hand on my chest, maybe. They all seemed to make more sense than my jaw.
He pushed me against his car, bending me back over the bonnet. I’d fought for a moment, and at that moment, I genuinely feared for my life. Who was this man really but a stranger, someone in whose proximity I spent my working day? My heart raced, and my rapid breathing was made visible by the cold. His body pressed firmly against mine as he bent over me, and I remember thinking that he wasn’t just strong. He was too strong. I worked out yes, but with little effort, he had subdued me like a rag doll.
‘Do not ever mock me again,’ he had said. His breath was hot in my face, and his words were sharp enough to cut through the wind. If I hadn’t gone to the bathroom before leaving, I would have shamed myself. I agreed quickly, I apologized with the intent to apologize a hundred times over, but his hand left my face. He stepped away and into the car, and I straightened and took a moment to still my shaking hands before sitting in the passenger seat. John had driven me home without another word.
It didn’t occur to me to wonder how he knew where I lived.
Later that night, wound in my blanket, I thought over the encounter. Again and again I dissected it in my head. My small win, so sad and so pathetic that I’d been ashamed of my joke before I’d even finished it. The inane laughter of my colleagues had only buoyed me because of the three pints I’d drunk, quickly and on an empty stomach.
I thought of John’s hand on my jaw. It hadn’t hurt at the time, but now it ached, so firm his grip had been. I thought of his body pressed against mine, and there, in the darkness of a long winter’s night, my fear turned to arousal. I wasn’t gay; I was sure of that. As I took myself in hand, it wasn’t John’s looks or form that I thought of. It was his domination of me, his facile demonstration of strength that fed the desperation of my masturbation.
So it was then, in my moment of personal satisfaction, that I first submitted to John.
I watched Monday approach with apprehension and eagerness. My parents noticed my distraction when I visited them in Drawlings, two hours inland to where I lived.
They commented on it, and I explained it away with excuses of projects with looming deadlines. They told me that I was pushing myself too much, that I was working too hard, and I let them believe that. Believe the illusion of their clever son, the engineer. No, he’s not married yet. He has given us no grandchildren, but my isn’t he ambitious.
When Monday arrived, I was at the office early. John wasn’t there. I looked up every time the door opened, but John never appeared.
John never came back to work.
I spent far more time than I should have looking at his empty seat. The first few days I attributed to illness. Other people in the office had gone down with colds, and clearly, even he wasn’t immune to the virus that someone had contracted from their grubby children.
But the few days turned into a week, two weeks. He must have taken leave over Christmas, I reasoned, gone to see family. He surely had parents that must be elderly and frail. Children shared with an ex-wife, though he had never mentioned having any. He was gone far south, to a white-sand beach where winter was just a bad memory.
I found myself walking past his desk to get to mine. It meant going the long way around the office, unnecessary, and a few of the others did notice my change in routine. I ran my fingers over the smooth laminate as I passed it. I looked for personal items, but there were none. He had seemingly left nothing of himself there save the computer, which the company-owned. And a clean mug, which was a generic one of which there were dozens in the tearoom.
I began to worry that he wouldn’t be coming back. I began to agonize about my stupid joke, my stupid comment that had turned things so sour. His absence was surely my fault. Some cruel punishment that he was exacting on me. I only started to think that something might be seriously wrong when I asked the others about him at the Christmas party on the Friday before we broke for the Christmas week. The few I asked didn’t seem to know who I was talking about, and even when I pointed to the chair he’d occupied, they mostly shook their heads.
‘Was it an older man?’ Suzie from accounts had asked to my growing frustration. ‘Grey-haired, right? Used a – a – erm, a walking cane.’ She’d mimicked using a cane for a few moments before finding the word. I’d been aghast at her, and she seemed to become uncomfortable, making an excuse to leave me and engage our boss, Thomas, in conversation.
I no longer felt like drinking. I sat in John’s vacant chair, going through the drawers for any evidence that I’d missed on my previous searches. Again I found nothing.
Christmas Day I spent with my family, with my older brother, who had a successful career in marketing that was far more lucrative than my own. He had found a lovely wife and had two lovely children and used the time between opening presents and lunch to announce that they were expecting a third. And my sister, the lesbian. She managed a successful gallery and brought in tow her girlfriend, who was simultaneously extremely attractive and stand-offish, and I couldn’t help but both desire and despise her.
On Boxing Day, I made my excuses and, despite my parents’ guilt-inducing protests, made my way back to the city. I didn’t go straight back home. I drove around for a while, watching the snowfall onto quiet streets until I found myself back at the bar. It was open, but I didn’t go in. I was plenty warm in my coat and gloves.
Instead, I walked out to the parking lot. I studied the area as though searching for some clue as to the whereabouts of my colleague. There was nothing to find, so I started to walk.
I’m not sure how long I roamed the streets. There were enough odd people about that I stayed alert, on edge. I studied all of their faces, hoping to find one I recognized.
But I didn’t find him.
He found me.
The silver car pulled up before me as I waited for a pedestrian signal to flash in my favor. The window was up, and I only saw myself in the reflection, but I knew who it was. I opened the door and slid into the passenger’s seat.
‘Hello, Ethan,’ John said.
On the drive, I asked him where he’d been. He didn’t answer my questions, just fixed his attention on the icy road. I studied his stern profile as he drove. His silence unnerved me, our last encounter playing over and over again in my mind. I was both glad to see him and apprehensive. I kept thinking about the last time I’d seen him, of his moment of brutality. Never before had I had my personal space and my freedom of movement so bluntly torn from me. Never before had I feared for my own physical safety, and being so close to him reminded me of the panic that had flooded me. He intimidated me.
He took me to his house, a sizeable two-storied thing far out of the city, just past a small town called Hemming. No other properties approached it, only a large garden with a low fence and paddocks that had been left to overgrow. He quietly invited me in, offered me a glass of wine, and we sat to talk.
Our conversations began again as though there had never been a pause, except that now we weren’t constrained by the need to return to work, to submit progress reports and leave the building at closing time. We spoke deep into the night. Everything he said was interesting. His every tiny observation carried a profundity that unsettled me. Over and over again, he would change the way I looked at the world in some small way. His stories elated and crushed me by turns. I hung onto his every word as though I was in a religious fervor, which in a way, I guess I was.
When the sun began to rise, he told me that it was time to sleep, and my disappointment at this inconvenience of biology must have been evident. He offered me a sleeping tablet and a guest bed, and I accepted both. I slept the most soundly I had in months. I was aware of no part of the day – of the light, of the comings and goings of John. When I woke, it was night again, and he had prepared dinner and opened another bottle of red wine. I ate and drank, surprised that I was beginning to enjoy the taste of the wine, having spent my youth only drinking beer.
We spent the hours in the same way as we had the night before. John became extremely animated, almost agitated as he told me about the months he’d spent living with a small tribe in Eastern Africa. He told me the story of the tribe’s efforts in speaking to their dead, of the sacrifices that the savages made to lure ancestors back from their peaceful sleep. How the rites had been interrupted when local missionaries, having learned of the practices, became horrified and had brought outside law into the village to interrupt them.
‘Just what they might have learned if not for the meddling of lesser men!’ he’d cried, taking my hand and clutching it between his own. I’d become frightened then, not because of his story as I thought he must be joking about his belief in it, but because he held my hand so tightly that I could feel the small bones deforming. His grip was far too firm, far too strong. My hand was being crushed in a vice, and when I gave a small gasp of pain, he let go.
That incident ended my second night with John.
Again, the offer of a sleeping tablet. I accepted, both seeking the wonderfully dreamless sleep and knowing that I would struggle to wind down from the excitement that John stirred in me without it.
The third night, the same again.
I asked again where he’d been for those few weeks but again got no actual answer. Attending to some business, he’d told me. Other questions occurred in the back of my mind, but they never came to my lips – how could you have experienced so much in one life? How did you know when and where to find me, or had that just been a happy coincidence? How was it that when you paced, you seem to grow so that your head almost scraped the ceiling, that you filled the room, and all I could know was your presence?
I didn’t ask these questions because I didn’t want to interrupt him. I didn’t want to divert the natural flow of the conversation, which was beginning to feel as necessary as breathing. I was in complete and utter awe of John. In my secret heart, there was a blend of respect, fear and yes, love. I’d never looked up to another as I looked up to him.
He again offered the sleeping tablet, and I swallowed it with a sip of wine. This time it had come earlier than dawn, and I wasn’t sure I needed it, feeling that I may be getting used to a nocturnal schedule. But it was already pushed free of its foil blister and extended to me on John’s hand, so I took it.
I assumed that he’d become tired, that he wanted to retire to sleep. I started to get up to go to bed, but John sat down in the armchair opposite mine and continued to speak.
I leaned back and let his words wash over me. He started to talk about the concept of followership. He spoke at length about how without followers, a leader could not lead and how any important messages he might have would go nowhere. Words spoken into a void have no power, regardless of how powerful they might have been, how a followership begins with a first follower, who is as important as the leader. A first follower validates a leader, drops the barriers to others who might look to that leader. With a following, there is no void, and the important messages can spread and have their impact.
An interesting thing happens when you take a sleeping pill but don’t go to sleep. Initially, there is incredible fatigue. Keeping your eyes open becomes a battle. If that battle is won, then staying awake becomes much more manageable. Normal eyes become sleep eyes, and sleep eyes see the world through a distortion not meant for the conscious. Movement becomes exaggerated. It sounds deeper, smells more intense. Memory becomes impaired. The would-be sleeper becomes prone to suggestion.
I absorbed everything John said. Under the pharmaceutical influence, his words became bigger, his ideas all-encompassing. I nodded to everything. I felt his monologue in my heart. Yes, yes, John. I will follow you.
He asked me to follow him. I did, walking on unsteady legs through the house and down into the basement.
When I saw the balding man chained to a peg on the ground, it wasn’t as big a surprise as it should have been, thanks to the tablet. His face had been broken and was smeared with clots. His small eyes were bloodshot. He looked like a monster. His piggish gaze was on me as squeals came around the fabric shoved in his mouth.
John turned me from the sight and enclosed me in his arms, held me against his body. Surrounded by warmth, I could imagine that the gagged man wasn’t there. Instead, I melted, trusting in John’s strength to keep me solid.
In his deep voice, John told me that the man was a threat. A threat to him and a threat to me. That as his first follower, it was my duty to remove threats. And in return, he would lead me. He would love me.
There was nothing I wanted more. Those words took hold in my altered mind stronger than any I’d heard before.
When he pressed the knife into my hand, I took it. When he turned me by my shoulders and instructed me to put it into the man, I did it. Before the blood had finished flowing, he was directing me back up the stairs, helping me wash my hands and tucking me into bed.
My clothes were cleaned and folded on the end of the bed when I woke.
I still felt tired, and the wine had left my mouth feeling dry and hairy, and I drank greedily from the bathroom tap.
When I went downstairs to the kitchen, there was no more dinner and wine. John had a small flask full of strong black coffee and the keys to my car.
‘You should go back,’ he told me. ‘Else you will be missed by your colleagues.’
‘Work doesn’t go back until the third,’ I protested, dismayed at the idea of leaving. His home had become another world, a place where I could join on the adventures John had lived. I didn’t want to go. He raised a dark eyebrow at me.
‘It’s the second today,’ he said.
I frowned. It couldn’t possibly be.
I’d left my parents’ and been picked up by John on the twenty-sixth. It couldn’t be the second. I’d been here for three nights, not seven.
‘I took the liberty of collecting your car from the bar.’ He handed me my keys. ‘You will go home. Go back to work for the week. Try it on. If you enjoy it, then stay. If you find that it no longer fits, then find me. I will be here.’ He said these last four words so firmly that it felt like a sacred promise.
I wasn’t able to disobey him. I closed my hand over the keys, patted my pocket for my wallet. John walked me to the door, and then I was out in the bright light of day. The sun reflected harshly off the hardened snow, and I was blinded, stopping to cover my eyes with my hand and let them adjust. When I lowered my fingers and looked around, I found my car parked beside the gate to the garden.
When I passed a service station, I stopped to buy a paper, which confirmed that it was indeed the second of January, 1989.
It wasn’t until I was almost home that I remembered that I’d killed a man.
When I got to my apartment, I ran in through the dark and vomited in the kitchen basin. I stood there heaving for a while, but nothing else came up. I pressed my face to the cool metal and let my memories rise. They were scattered and like still images, as though a light had flashed throughout, and I’d only caught the moments that the light had hit. Try as I might, I couldn’t form a cohesive picture of what I’d done.
I’m not sure what alarmed me more, the time I’d lost or the idea that I might have killed someone.
Eventually, I got up and turned the lights on. I drank a few beers in quick succession and reasoned that I must have imagined it. We must have watched a horror movie. Maybe I’d fallen asleep and dreamt it. I pushed away the knowledge that there was no television in John’s house.
But even still, I couldn’t have done it. Stab a man? It was laughable. I couldn’t even eat a rare steak.
But as I lay in my bed through the sleepless night, I could feel the knife in my hand. I knew its weight, the creases in the handle. I hadn’t imagined that.
Maybe I had done it.
I was up early in the morning. I ironed my shirt and pants, packed a mustard and cheese sandwich, and got to the office. There was the usual wasted morning of catch-ups and holiday debriefs, and these seemed to surround me but not involve me. Not one of my co-workers asked how I’d spent Christmas. Not one of them.
But when had I last asked them something? John and I had formed our own circle. It had been months since I’d genuinely taken an interest in any of them. I just didn’t care about any of them. The only person whose company I’d enjoyed wasn’t here any longer. He was out in the country, in an old house outside of Hemming. And now, none of them took an interest in me.
I stopped doing my work. I just came and sat and looked at my notes and the computer. I submitted nothing. I didn’t go to any meetings. I drank hot black coffee like I needed it to live. My co-workers went from casual indifference to outright avoiding me. So I was just left to my thoughts.
I dwelled on the piggish man in the basement for hours. His small eyes haunted me. I read the newspapers obsessively, expecting to read about the discovery of a body. But it didn’t happen. These people who waked around me like they owned the place didn’t seem to suspect a thing. They didn’t know what I was capable of.
But I kept going to work because that’s what John had told me to do. I lasted out the week. Most of which was spent picturing going back. Back to the house. Back to John. It wasn’t just my fascination that drew me to him. Yes, I wanted to be there to hear everything he had to say, but there was more. John had a strength that I’d never encountered before. A strength that made me happy to forget the goings-on of the outside world. A strength that made me feel safe. A strength to which I was eager to submit. I didn’t want to spend my life worrying and making choices and deciding where I wanted to be and who with.
What I wanted was a complete lack of autonomy. John could take the wheel. I no longer wanted to drive.
So at closing on Friday, I went home and packed a small bag of clothes and drove out to the house past Hemming.
The house was empty when I returned. I’d parked in the same spot, beside the garden gate. For the first time, I wandered through it, trying to suppress my disappointment at not finding John waiting for my return. The prodigal son.
Most of the bushes were wrapped in tarps and laden down with snow, but I think most of them were roses. I hoped to be able to smell them from the guest room come summer.
Around the back of the house, where a stretch of fencing was beginning to collapse and created a liminal space between the abandoned field and the neat garden, there was a disturbance in the snow. I bent to run my fingers through the dirt, but it was frozen.
Only when I was up in the guest room and looking down at the patch did I realize that it was a rectangle. Six feet long, two feet wide.
That suppressed panic rose in me—the man. I began to remember that night with a lot more clarity – how dried blood had surrounded his nose and how his left cheek had looked collapsed, which had made that eye oddly bulged.
But again, my denial was stronger than my ability to accept the truth. The ground was frozen hard. There was no way someone could have dug through it to create such a large hole. It must have been disturbed by yard work, by an animal, the adjustment of the tarps.
And then John arrived home, and he was glad to see me, and I forgot about the man again.
A week later, after a long night in conversation, he asked me if I would like to move here permanently, to give up life in the city. I was eager to, yes. John was finally inviting me on that adventure.
So the next day, I went to Vancouver to wrap up my life there.
As I passed through Hemming, I realized that I was being followed.
The car had been behind me since I’d left. I hadn’t noticed it until I was taking off from a red light, and I abruptly changed my path from straight to turning as I realized that I was about to take the wrong road. The car behind me, an old navy Plymouth, took the same sharp corner.
For the next forty minutes, I kept my eyes on the rear vision mirror. I didn’t try to shake my tail, and I wasn’t confident enough to try any tricky driving on the icy roads. I wouldn’t drive home, show this person where I lived. It occurred to me to turn back around, to seek shelter with John. He would keep me safe. But he had bid me leave; I didn’t want to disobey him. I didn’t want to anger him. I also didn’t want him to think less of me, to believe that I was weak.
I formulated a plan. I would drive to the bar and park not in the parking lot around the back but in one of the loading bays out the front. There would be only a few seconds where I might be alone in the street with this person. I would go inside and order a drink, sitting right at the bar where any interaction would be visible to all. If I was wrong about being followed, then I could just have my drink then go home. If I was right, then I could ask the bar staff to call the police.
So with my coat pulled tight and my heart fluttering in my throat, I pulled up. I ducked out of my car, pausing only to ensure that it was locked and walked quickly into the warmth. I kept my head down. I didn’t look to see if they had pulled up. I wasted no time in getting to safety.
And I had been right. I watched the door as a man in his sixties, maybe his early seventies, came in and brought with him a gust of icy air. He wore a heavy coat made for a larger man, and a brown scarf sat bundled around his neck. Our gazes met across the bar. By the way his eyes had widened, I knew this was the person who had followed me. He made a beeline for me, and I sized him up, wondering if he was planning on assaulting me. I felt much more confident having seen his age, his small stature. I felt a little silly for having spent the last hour in such a state of worry. If I needed to, I could take this man in a fight.
He stood beside me at the bar, shaking his gloves off and folding them into his jacket.
‘Ethan Jones? My name is Heath Duncans. I’ve wanted to speak to you for a while now. I’m glad that you pulled in here.’ We were interrupted by the bartender, and the man ordered a whisky on the rocks. He offered to buy me another drink, which I declined. Once she took his payment, he turned back to me.
‘You followed me,’ I said accusingly. ‘I saw you. You followed me from Hemming. What could you possibly want to talk about that much?’
‘Yes, and I do apologize. I didn’t mean to alarm you. I actually followed you from your friend’s house, as I couldn’t talk to you there.’
He shook his head as he spoke, and in doing so, his scarf moved. It shifted down, revealing a white band across his neck. It took me a moment to place, and only so long because it seemed so out of place.
‘You’re a priest,’ I said, and he nodded.
‘Yes, Father Heath.’ He had half of his drink and sat in one of the bar stools. It angered me that he was acting so calmly. Didn’t he know how much stress he’d caused me over the last hour? I sat up straighter, making myself taller than him. I looked down at him.
‘How do you know who I am?’
‘I know you by virtue of your association with the man you’ve been living with.’ The things John had asked me to do came to the front of my mind, and my mouth went dry. I gripped my beer and centered myself on the coldness of the glass. ‘Do you know what type of person you’ve become involved with, Mister Jones?’
I took a sip of my beer. It was sour in my mouth. I didn’t know who this man was, but I was confident that John would not be happy about being discussed with him.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I replied firmly, and the priest’s mouth tightened.
‘Hm. Tell me what you think you know about him.’ I was incredulous. I stood up and picked up my jacket.
‘Father, you’ve followed and frightened me. Now you’re interrupting my quiet drink. I’m not interested in what you’ve got to say, and I’m not going to talk to you about John.’
‘Is that what he’s calling himself now?’ The priest asked quietly. ‘John?’ I hesitated. His question threw me, and my plan to storm off had faltered.
‘What else would he call himself?’ I asked.
The priest gestured to my seat.
‘I understand if you don’t want to answer my questions. But if you’ll sit for a while, then I’ll tell you a few things you need to know.’
The priest talked for a long time. He drank another whisky, and the smell of it on his breath was overwhelming.
He told me about how he’d been looking for John for years.
He’d known he was in Canada since the start of the decade, but to trace him to this city, this suburb and a quiet engineering firm had taken such an incredible amount of work, so many relentless months of asking the right people the right questions. He was listening to subtle rumors and following the signs.
He knew that John would need to settle for some time and that he would need to find an accomplice. That accomplice would be asked to do terrible things that John needed done but could not do himself. That accomplice would be in such mortal danger just by being close to John. Not just physically, but his very immortal soul would be in trouble.
But that accomplice had a chance now, right now. He had an opportunity to run. Not just from the house, but from the city. From the country, yes, even better. This was his opportunity to change his name and forget his first life and begin another.
Because now was the time that John would need to feed.
I interrupted him then, annoyed that I was still listening to this nonsense.
‘What are you saying?’ I asked. ‘That John is some kind of monster? That he’s a vampire?’
‘No,’ the priest said carefully. ‘He is something else. Saying his true name will draw his attention, and then he will see that I am talking with you. You can’t say his name. He can’t know that we have met, not if you value your life.’
‘John would never hurt me,’ I snapped.
‘Has he not already?’
‘No,’ I said hotly. ‘No, he hasn’t. You, on the other hand, are full of shit, and you’re wasting my time. John isn’t what you say he is. He’s a friend. He’s a – an engineer. I’ve worked with him for months.’ The other man looked at me with such disdain that I may as well have been little more than a smear of a dog’s excrement stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
‘Did John tell you that he was an engineer? Did he tell you that he worked for your company?’ he asked me. ‘Did he tell you that he was in his fifties, that he was a man? That his name was even John? Did you think to question him on anything, did you ask him once – John, are you who you say you are?’
‘No,’ I repeated, feeling the need to defend myself. ‘No, why would I? What else would he be? This thing that you can’t even say?’
‘Young man, I have something to teach you, and I hope that you knowing this will prevent further unnecessary death.’ His words filled me with a cold trickle. There was no way he could know what I’d done. ‘Hear me, listen to me. When you look directly at evil, at true evil, you will find that he is incapable of lies. He may subvert the truth with distraction and tricks and terror, but if you have the will and the strength to continue to look, to continue to ask it of its true nature, then he must tell you. He must show you.’
I left then, struck by the complete absurdity of everything the man said. As I strode out, he called to me and told me that I would find him at the Roundhouse Rectory. I gave him the finger.
That week I tidied up the threads of my life.
I formally resigned from work. My boss’s concern for my wellbeing was so much greater than any annoyance at the inconvenience I’d caused him that it had made me teary. Thomas had tried to pull me into his office, to talk to me about whatever was going on with me, but I’d declined. He’d looked at me levelly and said that suicide was never an answer and that help could be found for any problem.
I’d laughed then, amazed at where his assumptions had led him. I’m not going to kill myself, I reassured him. I’m just making some changes. I’m fine, Thomas.
I cleaned my apartment and packed most of my belongings into my car. I engaged a realtor to put it up for lease.
My mail was to be redirected to a postal box in Hemming, not to the house. It could be tricky to find.
I sold a few things on Craigslist and spent a day driving around the city, dropping them off.
The whole time I kept an eye out for the priest, for Father Heath. The more I’d thought about it, the angrier I’d become. How dare he follow and accost me and cast aspersions over both John and myself. I resolved to put him to the back of my mind.
Then it was Friday. There would be work drinks at the bar, but I’d long lost interest in that and instead spent the evening driving back to my new home.
Life settled into a quiet pattern. Most nights, we spoke sitting in the deep chairs beside the fire. During the day, I would spend hours hiking through the forest that backed onto the overgrown field behind the house. Being surrounded by nature and having nothing but my thoughts made me happy. I was eating better and moving more, and I felt healthier and more robust than I had in a long time. People are not meant to live the way they do in cities, boxed in and stacked on one another. My apartment held no appeal to me anymore, absolutely none.
John was often gone during the day. He never told me where he went, and I mostly never asked him. Most days, he returned in good humor but occasionally, his mood was dark and stormy. On those days, I would be wary of getting in his way.
There was one incident four weeks after I’d moved in that deeply unsettled me. He’d been gone for three nights – the longest stretch yet, and when he returned, I was annoyed. I’d been worried for him, and I had thought that the least I’d deserved was to know where he had gone. I’d confronted him about it on the landing.
‘I’m not in the mood to talk, Ethan,’ he’d said in his low voice. Up close, I could see that there were scratches across his face and neck. One of his eyes was puffy. When he’d gone to step past me, I blocked his way and asked again.
He had seemed to grow in anger, and the air around him became hot as though fire moved beneath his skin. He slapped me across the face and then bent to pick me up from where I’d fallen from the force of the blow. My face stung, and my ears rang. I gasped as he lifted me bodily and leaned me over the railing. I cried out when I saw the few meters I would fall if he let me go, not enough to kill me but indeed injure me.
‘Who are you to demand answers of me?’ He’d yelled at me. I’d felt so tiny in the face of his rage. ‘Who are you to question anything I do? You are nothing!’ I was suspended there for a moment, I felt myself tip, and I was sure he would let me drop.
And then the anger was gone, as abruptly as it had risen. He stood me back up, steadied me on my feet and went down the stairs.
There was always a box of sleeping tablets in the top drawer of the vanity in my bathroom. I’d not opened it. I was still confused about the events of the night a month ago and had remained deeply suspicious of the small pills. But that night, I took one. My hands shook so badly, and I’d been unable to calm my racing heart. I wanted to put some time between myself and my distress, so I took the tablet and went to bed.
I slipped out before dawn to go for my hike. I stayed out all day, sweating despite the cold as I descended the small mountain on the far side of Hemming.
I got lost on the way back home and spent a few hours scouring the forest in the dark and snow until I stumbled across the overgrown field. For those few hours, I’d genuinely begun to worry that I would die out there.
When I arrived home, I was starving, my boots had gotten wet, and my socks were frozen solid around my feet. Every part of my body ached with effort and chill. I was tired and disheartened.
John was concerned at my state, he directed me to stand by the fire, and he helped peel my wet layers off and brought me a glass of red wine. I felt warmth trickle into me as I drank.
I kept expecting him to apologize for striking me the night before, but he didn’t. Instead, he made sure that I was dry and warm and gave me wine and food, and I followed every one of his instructions – sit here, take this, eat that.
When he sat opposite me, I could finally see that he looked shaken. His energy was nervous. He ran his large hands through his dark hair, which – I had to peer to be sure – no longer had sprays of white at the temple.
‘You’re not nothing,’ he said eventually. ‘I said that in anger, and I should not have done so. You’re something. You’re something to me, Ethan.’ He reached for my hand and held it between his. ‘Last night, I was upset because I was scared. I’ve been dealing with a problem, another person who’s a threat to us. I had to get her unawares. But I did. I did get her, Ethan. This woman who would ruin us. Come.’ I skulled the last of my glass to try to numb the apprehension building in my gut. I didn’t want to follow him, but I did.
The basement again.
Another person had their hands chained to the heavy U bolt on the ground, a blond woman who looked close to my age. She only had one shoe on, and the singlet tucked into professional slacks was stained with the old blood that she lay in. Her eyes were wide and terrified, and her lipstick was smeared around the cloth gag.
Standing there, I knew that the events of that night had been true. It had really happened. It wasn’t a grim hallucination brought on by alcohol and the drug. I had stabbed that man.
I backed away from the woman. I bumped into John, turned to face him and saw the hunting knife he pressed into my hand.
‘I… I don’t know if I can,’ I whispered. My legs started to tremble. I was so, so tired. John’s hands caught me, supported me.
‘You have to make a choice,’ he said gently. ‘I can’t go on if this woman lives. It’s me, or it’s her, Ethan.’
I cried then. In front of John and this woman, I cried because there was no choice. It was John. It would always be John. He walked me to her and knelt beside me as I fell to my knees. The expression on his face was grim but expectant, and the first time I stabbed her, I hit a rib and the knife twisted in my hands. I retched as her screams filled the basement. I did it again and a third time. Her writhing stopped, her screams quietened, and as I knelt above her, I saw something leave her wide, staring eyes.
We slept together only once.
It happened in the days after the woman’s death – at the time the words ‘my killing of’ wouldn’t hold in my mind – I fell into a deep depression. For a few nights, I stayed up. I didn’t get up to eat or shower, only to fill my water glass and use the bathroom. The sheen of sweat and dust and grime that coated my body only perpetuated my misery. I kept seeing her face. No matter how I framed it, I couldn’t begin to picture how she was possibly a threat to John or myself. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t justify this killing.
When John entered my room, I was in a deep, dark hole and couldn’t see any way out of it. He sat beside me and asked me what was wrong. I hesitated in answering as I didn’t want him to know that I had begun to question the choice I’d made in coming here. Thinking quietly of Father Heath, I sat up and looked at John. The closeness of his stern face and strong frame was comforting. He made me feel protected. The temptation to lean into his security and authority and forget everything that upset me was overwhelming.
But I asked my question.
‘Is your name John?’ I asked, and he frowned at me.
‘Do you doubt it?’ he asked. His tone had changed. He sounded quietly hurt. ‘Do you think I would lie to you, Ethan?’
My heart broke at his words. I sat straighter, wanted to reach for his hand and reassure him of my belief in him. He stood before I could do any of that.
‘Why do you think that I would lie to you?’ I stood too, reaching for him beseechingly. My depression had become nothing in comparison to my need to undo my insult. At the time I thought that I must have moved towards him because suddenly we were kissing. When I thought through the moment later, years later, I knew that he had instigated it. It was precisely what Father Heath had warned me of – tricks, distraction. His lips were forceful on mine, and I was filled with the same arousal as the night after Friday drinks. The need to submit, the desire to lose my autonomy. To be dominated.
There was a moment of intense pleasure when he entered me. I ejaculated quickly, and then my arousal faded. Only pain was left. I started to cry because every powerful stroke felt like I was being torn in half. When he finished, he realized that I was upset, and he comforted me in his arms, and I think I loved him more for this rare tenderness than I was upset at his force.
I was sore and bled for days.
When it occurred to me that he hadn’t answered my question, I contemplated asking it again. But I worried that my asking would lead to the same place. It felt like a punishment that he had exacted on me. I was so terrified of it happening again that I didn’t do what the priest had asked of me.
The subsequent two killings happened a month apart. The next was another man, silver-haired and muscle-bound. He grunted and struggled so much that I’d sustained a concussion and black eye when his elbow had struck my face, and the fourth was an elderly woman.
I could see now what the sacrifices – for that’s what they were, I was now sure of this – were doing to John. Over the long weeks, I watched as his skin smoothed and his hair darkened, and muscles firmed him.
He was becoming younger.
Those long nights in conversation became rare. I still lived for them, lived for the hours beside the fire where John’s stories of dead cultures and strange religions transported me away from this house. I craved them. I craved his attention.
I didn’t go on another hike after that last one. I thought about it but was reminded of the terror I’d felt lost in the darkness, and soon, the outside world began to look like a threat. I became scared to go outside. The few times I went into Hemming I could feel judging eyes on me. The man behind the counter at the supermarket knew what I had done. So did the teenager at the coffee shop, the woman at the library. I could see their thoughts. I heard them whispering, conspiring to exact revenge on me for the people I’d hurt. They wouldn’t go to the police, oh no, no. They would do hang me and beat me themselves.
I stayed inside instead. I slept a lot. I became addicted to the sleeping tablets, of which the supply was neverending.
John changed in more ways than physically. He became reserved, brooding. There was less of the engaging, charismatic man who had become the focus of my obsession. Instead, there was this dangerous and violent person.
The infatuation I’d had for him was changing. I lived my days in terror. A sickening terror twisted in my guts and left a bitter taste in my mouth. I became a thing of shadows. I skittered around, doing everything he asked of me but never meeting his gaze.
I began to realize that I was as Father Heath had described.
I was his accomplice. I was being used. He had never loved me. He was using me to do his dirty work. This realization filled me with more grief than I thought I was capable of. I cried for days, my heart not just broken but shattered.
When he led me into the basement for the fifth and last time, I did his bidding without question. I was too far gone to question him. I was too scared to disobey him. Committing this murder was better than provoking his anger.
It must have been close to June when I realized that I needed help to get out. There was no more snow on the ground. The days were long and warm. The fields around the house were bright with wildflowers, and on occasion, I saw deer wandering through the long grass.
I was still awake from a night of conversation. John had been warm and funny, but this rare brightness wasn’t enough to do away with the shadows. I had gone to bed, and I had heard him leave, heard the silver car come to life, and I’d watched it drive in the direction away from Hemming. I wondered if tonight he would return with another victim.
I quickly changed my clothes. I retrieved my car keys from the kitchen. He had never restricted my movement. I had done that all by myself. I was horribly anxious leaving the front door. The light was so bright that it hurt and the sun’s warmth on my skin felt like acid. When my car failed to start, I broke down, crying against the steering wheel until I remembered that I’d disconnected the battery weeks ago.
I reconnected it and sped off. I didn’t slow through Hemming. I made the trip back to the city in record time. I drove as if the devil himself was after me.
I would find the priest. He had said he’d be at the Roundhouse Rectory, and I drove around and around, too scared to ask for directions until I found it.
It had been months since he’d said he would be there, but when I asked for him at the reception, he appeared a few minutes later. He took one look at me and steered me from the building, casting odd looks back over his shoulder. He got into my car and instructed me to drive us to the bar where we’d last spoken.
I could feel him studying me on the way. I knew I looked terrible. I’d lost a significant amount of weight, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d shaved or had a haircut. My clothes were rumpled and too big. I was no longer certain that in a fight with this older man that I would win.
Being barely midday, the bar was almost empty. We would be able to talk without any risk of being overheard.
‘What has he done to you,’ Father Heath asked softly.
I broke down. I told him everything. He offered me his hand, and I clutched it like a lifesaver. I told him about the murders – my murders – and the love I’d had and the fear I had now, and when I was finished, completely spent and exhausted. There was a knowing glint in the priest’s eye. If I wasn’t mistaken, he looked almost pleased.
‘Did you do what I told you to do?’ he pressed, and I nodded. ‘And did he answer?’ I shook my head. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what had happened. ‘Do you believe in God, Ethan?’ I hesitated. When I replied, my voice was hoarse.
‘I didn’t. But now I do. I’ve never before seen any evidence that a God does or could exist. Until now. Father, I think that I’ve seen his opposite. I think that John is the Devil.’
He lunged at me as I spoke. His hands went for my mouth, and he collided with me and tried to cover my face to stop me from saying those last few words. But he was too late.
As the barkeep yelled at us to get out, the priest was already pulling me to my feet, dragging me to the door.
‘What did I say!’ he moaned in despair. ‘If you say his name, then he will hear, and he will come! We must go. We need to get out of here!’ He broke into a run, and I followed him around the bar, out back to the parking lot.
But we were too late.
John was already there.
‘Hello, Father,’ he said in his low voice. That voice struck such fear into me that my hands began to shake. I took a step back so that I was behind the priest. I’d never before claimed to be brave, but now I knew that I was a true coward. ‘I thought that I’d smelt you lurking around. I didn’t realize that you’d met my good friend. Ethan,’ my knees were weak. ‘Ethan, come here. It’s time to go home.’
He held his hand out to me, and dear God, I reached for it. The priest gripped my arm, and I saw what I was doing and withdrew. John’s eyes flashed darkly.
‘Come to me, Ethan,’ he said, and I wanted nothing more than to obey him. The grip on my arm tightened. ‘Let the boy make his own choice, priest.’
‘He makes no true choice of his own when you speak,’ Father Heath snarled. His free hand went for his throat. He pulled the crucifix free of its chain, held it tightly. John smiled so terribly that for a moment, the world darkened.
‘We have work to finish, Ethan.’ I pulled my arm from the priest’s hand.
‘I’m not going with you!’ I took another step back, towards my car. My fingers found the key in my pocket. ‘I’m not going back to that house. I’m never going to be able to undo the things that you made me do!’
He stepped closer, his palms out towards me. I cringed at him, and he stopped.
‘I made you do nothing. You’ve made all of your own choices, don’t deny ownership of them because you’ve become ashamed. Do you know why I chose you, Ethan? Because to be the type of man who would kill for the approval of another is a special thing. It takes a rare depth of desperation and sadness. Qualities that define you.’ He started moving again. Father Heath got in his way and was cast aside with the ease of pushing over a child. I tried to run for the car, but he was in front of me, in between me and my vehicle.
I sobbed as he came closer. I cried out as he reached for my right hand. He was taller than he had any right to be. He was growing. He blocked the sun. Even in shadow, I could see far more of his eyes than I should have been able to. His grip on my hand tightened, and I heard the small bones break before I felt the pain.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked him as the grip tightened. I screamed and sagged.
Father Heath held his crucifix aloft and started to pray in Latin, and with my hand in the tightening vice, I could have screamed at him because couldn’t he do something useful? Didn’t he have a gun?
‘What’s your name?’ I shouted again.
John continued to change. He became swollen, huge. His arms were like trees, and his face terrible. His eyes glowed as his clothes split. His breath was putrid, and I couldn’t hear the priest’s desperate prayers over the rumble of John’s growl.
I screamed my question for the last time before he answered.
He told me his name.
It wasn’t John.
It wasn’t anything that any man should hear. He became something that no man should see. At that moment, I heard the priest screaming, heard him screaming for help—my mind dove off a cliff. I welcomed the rush of darkness because it was better than insanity.
When I woke, I was tucked in amongst crisp hospital sheets. A middle-aged doctor who spoke with grim gravity told me that they’d been unable to save my hand. He reassured me that with time I would be able to return to my premorbid function without it. Premorbid function, he’d said. That phrase became something I would dwell on in the years to come.
When he asked me what had happened, what it was that had closed on my fingers with such force that they’d not just been crushed but almost liquefied, the memories began to rise and with them, the incredible terror that had sucked me into darkness.
I’m not ashamed to say that I started to cry then. My fear overwhelmed me. I became hysterical in its grip. My sobs began to upset other patients on the ward, and the doctor administered a drug called ketamine to quiet me down.
But it wasn’t for my hand that I’d sobbed. It wasn’t for the pain or the future struggle to return to my premorbid function. It was fear for my soul.
When I surfaced from the induced coma, I knew that I had to come clean about my crimes. I asked the doctor on duty, now a young woman with auburn hair, to call a priest and a police officer. The policeman was there already, wanting to ask me why I’d been found unconscious and bleeding beside the dead body of Father Heath. We waited on the priest, and I confessed to everything.
That was thirty years ago.
Thirty years ago, I’d walked through the garden for the last time, pointing with the bandaged stump of my right hand to where I knew the bodies were buried. The house was demolished, the gardens dug up. They found more people than I’d known about. Most had lain there since before I’d met John. John, because his proper name was one that I couldn’t hold in my mind without my sanity being threatened.
I was given a life sentence for every single soul they unearthed—nineteen consecutive life sentences. I would spend the rest of my natural life in prison. I was okay with this. This life was temporary, and I had a lot of ground to cover before I died. I feared my death. I had to make amends before I met it.
One of those uncovered was a man who could only be identified by his teeth, a forty-seven-year-old tax accountant called John Evans.
I was never charged with the death of the Father. The coroner ruled his death a myocardial infarction. His heart, being older and weaker than my own, had just given up.
My family never contacted me again, didn’t attend my media circus of a trial. I’m not certain if they took legal steps to disown me, but I wouldn’t have blamed them if they did. I’m sure that my name is the filthiest thing that could be uttered around my elderly parents.
I’ve spent the last thirty years trying to redeem myself. I go to church not just on Sundays but every day. I’ve become a pillar of support for the new inmates, someone they can turn to for help when being harassed by harder men. I’ve learned new skills and passed them on to others. I’ve had my sentence reduced by nine years for being an outstanding member of the prison community. Nine years. They could take an entire century, and I would still never walk out of here.
And I didn’t think I would want to.
Today a new inmate arrived. A young and lovely man whose youth made me feel exceptionally old and weathered. His hair was long and dark, and his skin yet to be marked by the hardness of life.
But something about him made my heart race, made my breathing speed up and my skin feel hot and my tongue heavy. When he smiled at me, I wanted to scream.
For the first time in twenty years, I wanted to escape. I wanted to run. I wanted to hide.
I knew his name even before the corrections officer told me.
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