"It's too late"
The Emeldahm Inn [5/5]
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I couldn’t remember my name.
Terrence. My name was something Terrence. I was an artist and I had a dog named Minerva.
I looked down. Sprawled out on the nonexistent floor before me was the broken body of a little boy. I couldn’t remember his name either.
I should not have spared Jacob Warren, the voice in my head murmured. He has caused more trouble than our toys are worth.
My brother. The boy on the floor was my brother. My big brother, though I couldn’t understand how that was possible. He was my big brother in the photograph. The photograph in my pocket. I reached into my pocket. I pulled out the photograph. I stared down at it for a couple of seconds, and then I pressed it into the hands of the little boy. His blood was sticky so it stuck to his hand.
I didn’t know who Jacob Warren was.
All I could picture was a nameless person. A gangly twenty-something-year-old wearing a slightly ill-fitted dress shirt and slightly crumpled pants. He had green eyes. Green was my favorite color, a color that faded quickly from my memories.
I could feel ghostly fingers shifting through my brain. Every time they moved, the visions of my dog and my brother and the nameless hotel front desk clerk receded a little bit further out of reach.
You have been lonely, the voice whispered. Just like us. Just like Jacob and your pathetic little dog. Listen, they are crying for you right now. Can you hear it?
I strained my ears. Through the static, I could hear barking. It grew louder, and louder, and louder.
I heard a sharp snap.
My vision splintered into white-hot shards. Something screamed inside my brain, and I felt a falling sensation, falling through the gray static void.
My knees hit solid ground. I crumpled to the floor.
Hands grabbed my shoulders and yanked me upright. I waited for the face before me to come into focus. Green eyes.
“Jacob?” I murmured. “What’s wrong?”
He looked like he was going to burst into tears. I tilted my head and looked past him, to where the pale boy was staggering to stay on his feet, the jaws of a giant black German Shepherd clamped tightly around his throat.
Pathetic, he hissed. Desperate creatures.
The pale boy grabbed Minerva by her collar and threw her aside. Black blood poured from the gaping wound on his neck. Bits of static flickered at the edges of my vision. Minerva whimpered and limped away from him.
It’s too late, he said, grinning wide. He’s awake, Abigail.
I looked down at Aron. His eyes were open.
I yelped and scrambled back. Aron’s back split open and his shadows unfurled, twisting into spindly legs that slowly lifted his body off the floor.
“No,” Jacob muttered. His eye had healed completely, just like Aron.
“No, no, no.”
Aron’s shadows towered over his head. I couldn’t move.
He stared down at me.
“Abbey,” he said quietly.
“You said that was your name, right?”
I realized he was holding the old photograph in his hand. When I didn’t speak, he held it up.
“This photo. What is it?”
I swallowed hard.
“It’s the two of us,” I said.
Aron stared down at the photo. He raised his hand and placed his index finger on the clear plastic case.
“The dog,” he said. “Is this your dog?”
“That’s Gracie. She was our old dog. You died on the train tracks after you saved her life.”
Aron cocked his head.
Jacob glanced at the pale boy. The wound in his neck was closing fast.
I took in a short breath.
“You got hit by the train,” I said. “The train was supposed to slow down enough to stop before it hit you, but it didn’t. Percy was puppeteering the conductor, and he wanted you to die and become a monster, just like him.”
“A monster,” Aron repeated.
His expression was unreadable. In the silence, we began to hear the sound of the next train on the way to pass through the station.
“But you’re not a monster, are you?” I said. “You’re my big brother. The one who sacrificed himself to save Gracie.”
Jacob grabbed my arm.
Behind Aron, the pale boy stepped forward. The sounds of the station all around us began to distort.
“Help us, Aron,” I said, with as much conviction as I could muster. “Prove to the real monsters that you’re not one of them.”
That is enough.
The pale boy raised his hand. Gray static swallowed up the station. Jacob disappeared, then Minerva, and then even Aron. My ears popped and my stomach turned so quickly that I fell down to my knees and began to dry-heave.
I felt a white-hot spike drive itself into my brain. There was no subtlety to it, no mercy. I screamed.
And then my vision shattered into a million pieces, again.
I collapsed into Jacob’s arms. His right eye was destroyed. Again. Behind him, the pale boy staggered, black blood dripping from his mess of dark hair.
“What is going on here?” a new voice said from behind us, half-disbelieving and half-terrified.
I turned. A train had stopped halfway through the platform. The cars were empty, save for the conductor’s booth in the first car. The gray-haired conductor leaned out of it, staring at us. At the limping dog, the little boy with the bullet hole through his head, the young white-collar worker with one eye missing, the shadowy spider-like creature looming over us.
Jacob turned to me.
“Get on the train,” he said. “Quickly, before Dominique recovers.”
Just as I opened my mouth to protest, something cold clamped around my waist. I screamed. Jacob stumbled back and drew his pistol.
Aron lifted me into the air with his shadowy tendrils. His other spider-legs began to skitter toward the train. The conductor cried out, but Aron paid him no mind as he pried open the doors of the closest train car.
“Aron,” I cried. “What are you doing?”
He didn’t say anything. The old photograph was still clutched tightly in his hand.
He threw me into the train car just as the pale boy - Dominique, Jacob had called him - raised his hand toward us. Gray static ripped through my vision. Aron’s shadows instantly vaporized into smoke, and he fell to the floor.
You’re not going anywhere.
Jacob scooped up Minerva, ran up to the train, and tossed her into the car. He picked up Aron and shoved him in too. Then he staggered back and turned to the conductor.
“Go. Get out of here!”
The conductor stood frozen. Jacob swayed as Dominique stepped forward, hand raised toward him. With the last of his strength, Jacob clutched his gun and pointed it at the conductor.
“Move,” he snarled. “Or I’ll kill you.”
The threat of a gunshot through his head was much more real to the gray-haired man than the threat of having his mind ripped apart by a demonic little boy living in a subway station. He cried out and retreated into the conductor’s booth.
The train lurched and began to move.
“Jacob,” I cried. “Get in!”
He began to run for the open door, but his legs gave out halfway. He gasped and collapsed to the floor. Dominique stood over him, glaring down at him with his eyes like black holes.
He turned, shivering. I pushed myself to my feet and lunged for the door. Jacob raised his head and, for a moment, we locked eyes.
A cold, heavy dread washed over me. He raised his pistol and closed his broken eye.
The train was speeding up, putting more and more distance between us by the second, but I couldn’t look away. Somehow I could hear the exact words he whispered as he smiled weakly and pointed his pistol down at his foot.
“I’m trying to save your life, genius.”
A searing pain exploded in my right foot. I collapsed in the train car, just before I could reach the open doorway.
I screamed in an agonizing mix of pain and sorrow as we drew further and further away, from where Jacob made his last stand before the monsters of Emeldahm Station. The subway station platform began to blur. I choked back the burning pain in my foot and looked around the car, looking for an emergency brake, maybe. Anything.
Aron stared down at me numbly. He held the photograph between his hands. Minerva padded up to me and nuzzled my cheek.
Then she turned and dashed out through the open doorway, stumbling onto the platform a second before the train cleared the station and slipped into the dark tunnel.
I choked on her name. My voice wouldn’t work. I laid my head down on the floor of the train car and cried.
Know anybody that loves horror short stories?
I lifted my head. Through the curtain of tears, standing in the train car as we sped through the tunnel, Aron stared down at me. For the first time, he looked scared.
He had looked just like that, thirteen years ago on the train tracks. When the jingle announcing the arrival of the train began to play and he couldn’t find a way back up to the platform.
“What’s going to happen to me?” he asked.
His voice was shaking. My muddled brain couldn’t think of an answer in time. The train tunnel opened up onto a bridge. We burst out into the cold afternoon, and sunlight flooded the train car.
Aron choked. He fell to his knees, clutching his throat. I watched numbly as his eyes rolled up in his head and he began to convulse.
He let out a pained cough. Black shadows flooded out of his mouth and quickly turned to smoke in the fresh outside air streaming through the open door. He coughed again, and again, and again. The shadows poured out in slick sticky waves, far too many to have possibly fit inside his small body.
Then finally, the coughing died down, and Aron collapsed limply to the floor.
I crawled over to him and placed a finger underneath his nose. His shallow breaths matched the rapid pulse in his wrist.
His skin felt warm.
I sat in the train car, cradling Aron and holding my foot, as the train began to slow down. I looked outside the window to see which station we were at.
My heart skipped a beat.
We weren’t at a station. We had stopped in the middle of the bridge. A fenced footpath lined the side of the train where Aron had pried open the doors, and cars sped past on the other side.
The sliding doors to the train car ahead opened. The conductor stepped through.
“Abigail, Abigail,” the gray-haired man said, his voice a twisted singsong. He smiled sweetly and I felt my blood turn to ice.
“Shouldn’t you know better than anyone else that the conductors who pass through Emeldahm Station have been my puppets for a long, long time?”
I grabbed Aron and limped toward the open exit. The conductor started giggling. He knew I wasn’t getting anywhere lugging my unconscious brother with a broken foot.
My shoes slipped in the blood on the floor. I stumbled forward and fell out of the subway car, shielding Aron’s head a moment before we hit the concrete in a hard roll.
Everything ached. The blood loss was beginning to make me dizzy. I grabbed the low wire fence to the footpath, but I simply didn’t have the strength to climb over it.
The conductor jumped down after us. He drew a pocket knife from his belt pouch.
“Percy,” I coughed. “You were someone before this, too. Just like Aron.”
He smirked, and then burst out into maniacal laughter. Cold madness flashed in his eyes.
“You think I care?” he screamed. “I was a kid. Nobody listens to kids. Nobody cares. You think anyone missed poor Percy Davis after he was murdered in cold blood?”
He raised the knife and swung. I scrambled back just in time. The cold blade grazed my cheek.
“But look at me now. Everyone listens to me. I’m glad I died at the station. I’m going to puppeteer the world.”
I drew a can of paint and sprayed it in the conductor’s face. He screamed and recoiled as a cherry red splatter covered his eyes.
“You’re not like Jacob, are you,” Percy snarled. “This is a puppet, Abigail. You can’t hurt me.”
He swung his knife wildly. It caught my arm and the blade sank in deep. The world tilted out of focus.
Somewhere far, far away, a dog was barking.
“Minerva,” someone cried. “Go.”
The barking drew closer. Closer, and closer, and closer.
Someone was running down the footpath on the bridge. Someone with a giant black German Shepherd yanking at a leash. He stumbled like he couldn’t quite keep up with the dog’s pace, and as he came closer I realized that he must have been running blind, because both of his eyes were bleeding.
He let go of the leash and immediately tripped on something and fell. The dog ran toward us, leaped over the fence, and tackled the conductor to the ground.
The conductor cried out and dropped the knife, as if for a split second he was instinctively afraid of dogs. He scrambled back as Minerva barked and snapped at his face. I reached over and picked up the knife.
Jacob pulled himself to his feet and felt around until he found the fence lining the footpath. He followed it toward us.
“Abbey! Abbey, are you there?”
“Oh, thank goodness,” he muttered. “Can you move?”
I touched his hand on the fence with mine. He jumped at the slick coat of blood.
“What happened to you?”
He pulled me over the fence, a slow and agonizing process with one party blind and the other badly wounded.
“You shot me, idiot,” I coughed. “Fucking drama king.”
The tips of his ears turned pink.
Minerva padded back as the conductor, now blind and weaponless, swung his fists at the empty air. I guided Jacob’s hand until he found Aron and pulled him over the fence too.
She swiveled and leaped over the fence. Jacob hefted Aron onto his back and shoved his shoulder underneath my arm.
“Jacob,” the conductor cried hoarsely. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Save yourself some work and don’t waste your puppet, Percy.”
“I’m going to kill Eileen,” Percy screamed. “Sydney. Justin. All your friends who have become my puppets, I’m going to kill them all.”
Jacob paused. The tear in his right eye slid closed. He wiped away the blood, looked at the conductor, and smiled.
“Then I’ll destroy Emeldahm Station.”
Percy fell silent.
“The Mural Project turned out to be a disaster, didn’t it? You’re going to have to do some very hard work to keep the station alive.”
The conductor gripped the edge of the fence.
“If I die,” he growled. “If I die, you die too.”
“If you killed all my friends, what would I be living for?”
Percy didn’t say anything.
I leaned on Jacob’s shoulder and we walked along the footpath, step by step. Minerva padded along by our side, wagging her tail. Aron slept soundly on Jacob’s back.
“You know,” I said, once we were out of earshot of the conductor. “I’d rather you stay alive than destroy the station and die heroically.”
“That was a bluff. I’d never have the guts to do that.”
I laughed. Halfway through the laugh the world spun and I almost lost my balance. Jacob caught me and held me upright.
The sunlight felt warm in the chilly afternoon. We walked along the bridge like we had nowhere else we wanted to be.
“Leaving so soon?”
I leaned against the wooden countertop of the front desk and produced my two card keys.
“Yeah, well, I do need to have this foot looked at.”
Jacob averted his eyes. The tips of his ears turned pink.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I really didn’t-”
“You saved my life, idiot. Stop being sorry. Besides, the mural project is toast.”
He smiled sheepishly and took the card keys. I tapped my fingertips on the countertop as he typed something on his console. Then he looked up and glanced at my brother, “sleeping” on piggyback with his arms wrapped around my shoulders.
“How is he?”
“I discovered something yesterday,” I said. “After we brought the car back from the station, when I went back to my room. Once I closed all the windows and doors, his breathing got… I don’t know. Steadier.”
“You think enclosed places are better for him?”
“Maybe. I still don’t know if he’s ever going to wake up.”
Jacob bit his lip. I could tell the idea of me taking Aron home still made him uncomfortable.
“He’s my brother,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
He nodded uneasily.
Finally, he handed me a printed receipt and came around the front desk. Minerva jumped into his arms, almost knocking him to the floor.
“I’ll miss you,” Jacob laughed, rubbing her head.
She licked his face and he let her back down onto the marble floor. When he turned back to me, the front of his dress shirt was covered in black hairs.
He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but in the end he just smiled.
“Come again, okay?”
“Of course. Stay alive till then.”
“I’ll try,” he said, glancing back at the staff room behind the front desk. “Eileen’s been in a bit of a… sour mood lately. So no guarantees.”
I laughed uneasily. Jacob grinned.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be waiting for you.”
We said our last farewells, and I walked down to the underground garage and loaded my suitcase into my car. Minerva hopped into the back. I carefully put Aron down in the passenger seat and put the seat belt around him.
As I went around to the driver’s seat, I heard Minerva begin to bark.
“What’s wrong, girl?”
She kept barking, again and again, until I looked at the passenger seat and saw what she was barking at. Aron’s eyes were open.
When he saw me, he closed his eyes again and curled up in his seat.
“It’s so loud,” he muttered, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper. “I can’t understand why you like that thing.”
For a moment, I stood there frozen. Minerva growled.
Aron didn’t move.
I took a short breath, climbed into the driver’s seat, and pulled the door closed.
“You used to like dogs too,” I said. “Don’t you remember?”
Aron shook his head.
“I’m not your brother, Abbey. He died long ago to Percy and Dominique.”
My heart sank, though only just a little. It surprised me how easily I accepted his words.
“This place is nice,” Aron whispered. “Underground. It feels like home.”
“Do you want to go back?”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. I waited. Minerva slowly settled back into her seat, keeping one eye on Aron.
“No,” he finally said. “I’ll stay with you.”
“That’s the spirit.”