A woman has to play a game of life or death when she lets the Midnight Man into her home.
She followed every step. She went to the store, bought a few short white candles, two lighters, a box of matches with individual books, and a large carton of salt. She went home, read the handwritten directions again just to make sure she had it right, and then she waited.
All day she stayed in the house and paced next to the door leading to her basement. She figured it was the best spot. She couldn’t leave once the game began, and her house only had two floors and an attic. She thought that if she started at the bottom, the only place she could go was up. She laughed, but it didn’t make her feel any better.
Her stomach would plummet to the floor every time she checked her watch, seeing that each hour flew by as fast as her thoughts. By nine o’clock, she was already tired, her muscles too taut to relax. She felt like a dancer in a music box, her key being twisted every minute, her spring so far past tight that one more twist would snap it, breaking her.
At ten o’clock, she nearly blacked out from exhaustion, her eyes dry and tired. When she knew that she first had to play, her normal sleep pattern stopped. She had been up for three nights, with an hour nap on the bus in between. That wasn’t smart, but neither was what she would do in a few hours. At least on the bus the threat was something she could deal with. She looked at the wooden door, and her supplies on the small stand next to it. She knew she couldn’t deal with what had to be done. What she had done. She actually hadn’t been sleeping well for a lot longer than three days.
At eleven she started to shake. She couldn’t take the anticipation of what was to come. It was as if her body couldn’t comprehend the threat, but knew something was wrong, something was happening, and it couldn’t handle the pressure. Every time she paced in front of the door, her foot hitting one creaking floorboard, stars clouded her vision.
At eleven thirty, she began to sweat, beads rolling down her dark skin, covering her in a shroud of discomfort. She paced faster and faster as the grandfather clock in the living room ticked out each second; the only sound in the emptiness of her house. Every time she turned towards the kitchen she could see the night out of her back door window. It was too opaque to see much, the glass looked as if someone painted it black, but she felt as if someone was out there in that dark color, just waiting for the game to begin.
At a quarter to, she gave her repetitive movements a purpose, and went from room to room, making sure every door and window was locked, and that every single light was out, bathing the house in a deeper darkness to match the outside.
At ten minutes before midnight, she turned the kitchen light off and sat in front of the basement door with her supplies beside her. When she was little, and couldn’t sleep, she’d hide in her closest tucked behind a deflated kickball and her snow boots. She would close the door, making the silence and darkness complete. She was such a light sleeper, the cars rumbling down the alley were too loud, and the streetlamp on the corner streamed into her bedroom window, illuminating everything. She would try to force her eyes closed and forget about the outside sounds, but she couldn’t hold it for long. So she would sit in the vacuum of her closet, with her eyes wide and staring, not seeing a thing. They would grow heavy soon enough, the cancellation of the world calming her down, letting her rest.
She tried to calm down in front of that door when she knew she was dangling by a thread, time running short, and running out. Nothing could distract her long enough to calm down, but she stared anyway, knowing fully well that it could be the last time she would sit alone in the night.
The clock struck twelve, and she broke from her tenuous reverie. Her hands shook as her heart beat faster than she thought it could, but as she lit one of the candles, and readied a small knife that used to be her mother’s, she could feel her thoughts sharpening. “I will survive tonight,” she said over and over again, a meditative mantra on loop in the back of her head as she took a pencil, and wrote her name on piece of paper. Margret Alice Andrews, it read in a cursive print that would make any calligrapher jealous.
She was named for her grandmothers, both dead, but more like her than she would ever understand. As the clock chimes came to an end, and the house was left in silence once more, she found courage and pricked her pointer finger, letting a few drops fall on her name. She placed the candle on top of it, and making sure she had her knife, lighter, and matches in her jean pockets, she stood and began to knock on the wooden door.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,
Her knocks didn’t reverberate through the silence like she thought they would. They sounded close, immediate, so near she wanted to cry.
7, 8, 9, 10, 11,
Halfway there, and she didn’t think she could do it anymore, her insides started to shake and break down.
12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17,
She thought she could hear a noise at the bottom of the basement stairs. It was a soft, but noticeable creek on the bottom step,
And on the next step,
And on the next three,
The next five,
The next six,
He was on the top step, and she could hear his labored breathing behind the wood. She knew it was not from exhaustion. She steadied herself once more, anger and fear welling into determination. She opened the door, but nothing was there. She waited, and in a few seconds that seemed so slow because of the adrenaline pumping in her veins, the candle blew out in front of her, and the door slammed shut in her face. He was in. The game was on.
In a split second, she grabbed her candle from the floor, relit it faster than she thought possible, and scooped up her carton of salt. She then bounded up the stairs beside her basement door, and onto the second floor, making a bee line to her room, and slamming the door behind her.
Next to her living room, the master bedroom was the biggest in the house, and connected to the master bathroom, which made up the entirety of the second floor besides one little storage room at the end of the hall. Earlier that day, she threw a case of water bottles and a few bags of snacks in the bedroom making it her unofficial base of operations.
She had until 3:33am for him to leave, so long term preparation was key. She knew he would come up at any time, be it an hour or a few seconds, time meaning so much and so little to a being like him, but she planned to always come back to her room wherever he tried to get her. It was her safe zone. Or so she hoped.
She backed into her cat’s bed that was next her's, feeling a sense of relief that her Little One, an orange tabby, was safe at her mother’s house far away from the thing stalking her in the dark. She sat slowly on her bed, placing the carton of salt on her end table, eyes glued to door. Her heart didn’t calm, but beat faster, her thoughts centered on the present moment. All she could do was stare, barely blinking, barely breathing. She could feel her throat going dry, but didn’t have the courage to move towards the case left of her, next to the closet door. Her fear stuck her to the bed, and she had to repress the feeling of hiding under the blankets.
She couldn’t believe that she made it so far already. While she loved the occult, it always found a way to send a shiver up her spine when she thought about anything out of her plane of existence. It was so tenuous, so easy to screw up, especially with magic. One missed step in a spell to attract love could turn into a spell to hurt someone you love. And those things that could hurt you were much worse compared to humans. Humans could lack consciences, but the thing she let into her home lacked a soul.
Like magic, there were certain rules to the game she was forced to play, and when the window behind her started to crack, ice creeping up its surface, and every other item in the room, she knew he was near. Her candle flickered once, twice, and gutted out on the third, the sound of someone blowing it out echoing in her head. She had ten seconds to relight it. She panicked.
The long wait left her dazed, not in control of the body that unwound itself without her knowledge as she focused on the door. It felt like she wasn’t attached to it; her head moving faster than her hands. Her thumb was useless rubber as she tried to turn the sparkwheel on the lighter. She couldn’t do it. Her covers started to frost over, and she could see her own breath, but her hand couldn’t start a flame. Her floorboards creaked either from the cold, or the man who walked on them, invisible to her eye, but she couldn’t light it.
She got up, and with her legs turned to stilts, she fell to the icy floor. The candle and lighter fell out of her hands. She managed to grab the candle before it rolled out of her reach, but the lighter was forever lost, and her backup was on the stand next to the basement door. She took the book of matches from her pocket, seconds turning to hours. The creaks got louder, sounding more and more like fevered steps. She ripped out a match, folded the book and struck it, the light coming to life. She lit the candle once more, and the floor around it immediately melted, the temperature returning to normal. The door to the bedroom flew open and slammed, releasing itself from its hinges, and fell to the floor. She could hear a growl reverberate as he ran down the hall.
She was playing by the rules, and he was getting mad. The next time wouldn’t be so easy. She got to her feet, and picked the candle up with still cold fingers. Her body finally caught up with her thoughts, so she grabbed the salt and ran downstairs, giving up on the first lighter. the stand next to the basement door was knocked over. When she looked down to find her backup lighter, she saw that the paper with her name and blood on it was burned to nothing but ashes that didn’t even smolder. She found the other lighter underneath the mess, and taking her two other candles off the floor as well, she crossed back to the living room, an open space in full view of the stairs that lead up to the second floor.
She made her way to a chair in the corner that gave her the best view of the landing, and the clock. It was a little after one. After a while of sitting on the comfy chair, the clock’s rhythmic tick tock steadied her own beating heart, and she found herself relaxing, each muscle loosening as if on command.
The tension she built within herself was just too much, and she couldn’t keep it going all night. Her head felt it too, heaviness seeping up into her neck, bending her head, and relaxing her eyes. It was an intoxicating feeling of utter release, pure euphoria. She moved her eyes to the candle on her lap that tipped more and more as she felt better and better. The hot wax dripped onto her thighs, but it didn’t bother her. When it fell to the floor with an audible thunk, she closed her eyes at last, giving herself over to the sound of the clock.
The next thing she remembered was her body falling, and she woke up suddenly, jerking herself upright. The candle next to her feet was out, and not smoking. she looked at the clock. It felt like hours since she closed her eyes. It felt like seconds. It was a minute. A full minute. She broke the rules, and her heart dipped to the floor with the life of the candle.
All was quiet, but that was the most deceiving thing of all. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” she thought. There was no way. She picked the candle up, and relit it with the extra lighter. She lit the other two as well, and placed them on the coffee table a few inches in front of her. She got up and pushed the table towards the front window, creating a large enough space in between the TV and the sofa. She took her salt next, and methodically made a thick circle of the stuff around her. Then she placed the two back up candles next to the circle, grabbed her original candle, threw the carton of salt on the couch, and sat down in the center of her protective circle.
She was sweating and shaking again, her mind pulling apart from the stress. She rocked in the middle of the salt thinking to herself: “If he gets me, he’ll take me, bit by bit. If he gets me, he’ll take me, bit by bit.” Her mother warned her that he had tricks to do this, that when he was mad, when he saw that she could handle herself, he’d find a way. “If he gets me, he’ll take me, bit by bit.” The clock chimed the half hour, and went through her like lightening. She could only rock some more, her body becoming a tight ball of nerves, waiting for him.
At two in the morning, the clock struck again, and she shook like she would never be warm again. If she played by the rules, she would be free of him at 3:33am, but because she fell asleep…She didn’t want to think what was brewing because of her mistake, and she wasn’t stupid enough to think he left.
Even if she made it through the night, The Midnight Man, as her mother called him, would never leave her. “He’ll be in your dreams, Baby. Always there.” She couldn’t even think that far ahead, rocking away her fear. She didn’t know how long it would take, but he would be there. He’d play his final card, finishing the game any way he could. When she heard her cat scream from the kitchen, she knew he found his ace.
The wails were her Little One alright. Loud, screeching howls that made her stomach hollow, and her throat fill with bile. They weren’t the sounds her safe, happy cat made when it purred next to her bed all night. They were long and torturous. Whatever was happening to the tiny creature was killing it, and she thought she could feel her cat’s pain in every inch of her failing body, but if she moved from that circle he would take her, bit by bit. When she heard a tearing sound like wet paper, and the smell of blood started to waft through the living room, she threw up.
Nothing but the sickness sticking to her throat came out. In the candle light it looked too dark, not bile at all, but thick and viscous. She gasped and coughed up the mess for a few minutes, and with one final push it all came out, a river of sick that dissolved the salt in front of her. When she could breathe again, wiping the tears from her eyes, she almost threw up whatever was left because her purge was covered in mats of orange tabby fur.
She screamed and ran with her first candle, making her way to the stairs only to stop again. Her lungs froze, her breath coming out in quick puffs as she stared at the tall dark form standing on the landing. He growled, low and guttural, a sound so deep and vicious it felt its way through the soles of her feet, sticking her there with nowhere to run.
When she saw him for what he was, she remembered that her Little One was with her mother. She looked to her circle, and it was still intact. The two other candles flickering around it, her sick nonexistent. Without turning back to the snarling trickster, she ran to the basement, grabbing the salt that lay half-spilled on the couch. There was only a little bit left, not enough for a true circle, but she liked the comfort of it under her arm.
He pursued her, running down the stairs, his anger so great that there was no subtlety left to give her the creeps. He was all rage, all fire. He bounded down wooden stairs that splintered with each step. He tore her picture frames down in a tumble of glass, ripping the photographs she took herself. And he kicked through the closet door at the bottom, before rounding onto the living room.
She started going down as he ripped through the room like a tornado, destroying her circle once and for all. The sound of his snarls and destruction nearly sent her head long down the stairs. She did end up missing the last step, and fell to the concrete basement with a bang. She landed on her knees, dropping the salt, but made sure to hold out the candle in front of her. “You can only go down from here.” She looked at her watch by the flame, and knew it was over for her. She had a half an hour to go with nowhere to run. She started to cry in chest bursting sobs, the thought of her death overwhelming her. She always knew that there was a chance she wouldn’t make it, but she pushed that thought far away from her consciousness, leaving her nightmares to make up for her fears in spades. But nothing compared to the moment she finally understood that she lost the game.
She dared to look up at the top of the stairs once more. She could see his heaving form, a dark shadow waiting to overtake her completely. "He will take me bit by bit." He came down the stairs much slower than when he came up, taking his time, relishing the moment she would unequivocally be his, but as he made his way down his form shifted and changed, getting shorter and thinner. His breathing slowed too, and sounded higher than before, not like a man, but a woman. On the last six steps she smelled rosewater, and she stared in awe as her Grandma Alice came down to meet her.
She smiled at her granddaughter the way she always used to, and bending like she was going to kiss her on the head, Grandma Alice blew out her candle, leaving her in the darkness.
When Margret Andrews came to, it was still dark, and the only thing she heard was her heart beating in her ears. She trembled all over, and was still covered in a sheen of sweat. It took her a while to get the courage to hit the little glow button on her watch to check the time. If he was still in her house, she would be breaking another rule by using an unnatural light source. She hoped and prayed as the watch lit up. 3:34 am. She laughed out in relief, sputtering and coughing, pushing herself up to a sitting position, the candle falling from her hands. She started to cry again.
“I shouldn’t be alive.” Her relief over that fact turned to guilt, and as she sobbed, she thought of Grandma Alice. Her grandmother was always full of magic. It ran in the generations. They all practiced it in her home, but Margret was especially gifted. Her magic was strong and precise, learning from youth that one small mistake could cost a huge price.
Margret messed up once on a spell for love. A spell built out of an obsession for a man who didn’t belong to her, if she was being honest. She was lonely and blinded, and all it took was one overlooked fact, one missed step, and the price was her grandmother’s life for the mistake. It had been two months to the day when her family coven told her that she had to play the game. Her punishment for carelessness, and for wanting something she shouldn’t have. “It’s only fair, baby. A life for a life.” Margret cried again, but the relief of getting that man out of her house was too much to take sitting down.
She stood up and her legs were stiff. Even in the dark, she figured she was still at the bottom of the basement, and in the excitement and pain of winning the Midnight Game, she took a step to start walking up the stairs, but instead she heard a familiar creak as she stepped on her large white candle, and slipped, falling backwards. She miscalculated again, and instead of being at the bottom of the stairs, she was moved to the top, on the landing, the steps behind her. She fell fast, hitting the first step,
The next step,
The next three,
The next five,
The next six,
And landed on the concrete bottom, blacking out entirely.
Diane Andrews used her key to let herself into her daughter’s home with a cat carrier in hand. The long haired tabby let out a soft mew, sniffing the familiar scent of her home when they entered the living room. Diane only sucked in her breath when she saw the circle of salt on the floor, and the two burnt out candles surrounding it. She put the cat down immediately, and ran up the stairs where her daughter’s photographs hung on the wall.
She went straight to the bedroom and opened the door, finding everything in order, but no Margret. She checked the adjacent bathroom, and storage room before running back downstairs, her heart running faster than her feet. The tabby cat was growing as frantic as Diane, clawing at the carrier to be let out, but Diane was too nervous to release the Little One, and could only run to the kitchen, and down to the basement without any luck.
She started sobbing as she searched the downstairs once more, groaning out her daughter’s name with no luck. She let the cat out as it grew hysterical, and Little One bolted up the stairs, meowing all the while. She followed the cat as fast as she could. It ran right to the bedroom closet and scratched wildly at the door.
She ran over to the cat, and putting her ear to the wooden door, she heard a soft moan come from inside. She pushed aside the case of water that was against it, and opened up the closet door to find Margret, tucked behind her snow boots, her eyes wide open, and her legs twisted at odd angles.
Margret was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. Her legs were beyond repair, and needed to be amputated (one at the knee and one at the hip) in order for her to survive. From then on, Margret never turned her lights off, and remembered how important it was to follow every step perfectly.
Photo by George Becker