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Exercise Your Demons

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It starts with a candle and a knock on the door. A deadly game of cat and mouse in a dark house in the dead of night. Can you survive? Or will the demon take you?

Adam Smith
Age Rating:

Short Story

It starts with a candle and a knock at the door. I’ve always been a big fan of all things scary. I love the movies. I love reading the creepy stories people come up with. I’ve shouted ‘Bloody Mary’ into the bathroom mirror so many times my parents had to come tell me to knock it off. I’ve always been fascinated by the supposedly true urban legends. So when I found a ritual to summon one of those beasties, of course I was going to give it a try.

I’ve spent the past two weeks reading and rereading those instructions. I’ve made sure I’ve got all the supplies at the ready for when the time comes. Now, I’m just waiting on one last ingredient. An empty house. My parents are out of town for the week and soon I’ll have the house all to myself. And then the games begin.

“Jennifer, are you sure you’ll be alright?”

“I’ll be fine, mum. I’m old enough to take care of myself.”

I watch the car drive away and consider what I’m preparing to do. I’ll have the whole place to myself without anyone getting in the way. The ritual doesn’t start until midnight, so I still have some hours to kill before I need to make my move. I’m going to try and follow the rules to the letter. The website says that extreme torture and death are both highly like outcomes of breaking the rules. That warning just makes me want to do it more.

To play the game you need to turn off all the lights and be able to wander around without crashing into anything. Wouldn’t be any fun to get caught because you tripped over a footstool or desk drawer or whatever. Imagine that, you summon the ancient forces of evil and die by way of a stubbed toe. So for the first couple of hours, I move around the house making sure there is a clear path in and out of every room. The game is about avoidance. Getting trapped in a corner isn’t really an option. I be sure to switch off each light as I make my rounds.

Waiting in the kitchen, I make myself a quick meal and double check my supplies. A long candle, a fresh box of matches, salt, a pencil, some paper. Also a sharp knife that I plan to put somewhere out of the way once its job is done. I really don’t fancy accidentally stabbing myself with it when the lights go out. I still have over an hour or so until the ritual starts, so I take my meal into the living room and park myself in front of the TV.

This late at night, there’s probably nothing good on, but there might be a decent late-night movie hiding amidst all the channels petering off into the usual assortment of unwatched talk shows, sales pitches, and aerobics programs that seem to populate the hours after every sane person has gone to bed. Benefits of a rural area, I guess. Anything after ten o’clock is automatically considered late. The only people still up are the kind that would gladly sit down and watch infomercials and workout programs for hours on end. I luck out a catch the tail end of some 50s B-movie.

I glance up at the clock and almost have a fit. It’s already ten minutes to midnight. I must have gotten wrapped up in that cheesy movie. The rules are very specific about starting the game at exactly midnight. I was planning to sit down and have everything set well before now. I flick off the TV and toss the remote at the table. I hear it clatter off and bounce to the floor, but I don’t have time to go looking for it. If I don’t hurry, I’m going to have to wait a whole nother day.

Turning off the remaining lights, I rush back to the kitchen, grab my tools, and make a beeline for the front door. The rules of the game are simple enough, but they require precision timing or you will die. The first step is the easiest. You just have to light your candle and stand facing the main entrance to your house. After that you have to sign your name in full on a blank piece of paper. First, last, and middle. Sort of a contract between you and the entity you’re inviting in. Not the kind of thing you’d do by accident.

However, in order for the contract to be complete you need to add that little something more. You need to add a drop of your own blood. Jotting down my name, I draw the knife across the tip of my finger and let out a hiss when it jabs a bit deeper than I intended. I force myself to slow down before I wind up amputating a digit. Its task finished, I shove the knife in the flower pot beside the door and swipe my bleeding finger across the bottom of the page, letting the small dab of red soak in. I open the door and set the paper on the mat outside.

Now comes the tricky part. You have to knock an exact number of times with the last one falling directly on the stroke of midnight. You can’t slow down and space them out either. The knocking needs to be like the ticking of a clock, precise and unwavering. I rap my fingers on the door, listening to the tick of the clock behind me and count out the knocks. I’ve put a lot of practice into making sure I get the knock right, but I’m still nervous I’ll mess it up.

I hear the chime in sync with my final knock and pull the door open. Standing in the open doorway with the cold night air in my face, I blow out the candle and swing the door shut. The contract is made and the entity has been granted entry. And thus the game begins. I relight my candle and glance around the empty hallway. From now until three thirty-three in the morning, all I need to do is keep my candle lit and survive.

The rules are simple. I can’t turn on any of the lights. If my candle goes out, I have ten seconds to relight it before some really bad things start happening. If I can’t, I need to form a circle with the salt and stay there until the game ends. Above all I mustn’t let him catch me. That would be where the torture and violent death part of events comes in. All I need to do is outlast the time and I win. Simple as that.

I stuff the matches in my jacket pocket and hold up my candle. I won’t have enough hands to carry everything at once, so for now I’ll leave the salt here. If I start to run low on matches I’ll come back for it, but I shouldn’t need it just yet. My finger stings from where I sliced it, making my first priority finding a band-aid. There should be some in the upstairs bathroom.

The house seems so empty with nobody else here and none of the lights on. Just me and the demonic entity I invited over to play hide and go seek. I’m not expecting to run into him right away, so I take my time moving up the stairs, admiring the shimmery way the light from my candle plays off of the glass-framed photos lining the walls. In the dark, with only a small flickering light to guide my way, everything is new. It reminds me of the times when I was a kid and used to walk around with my eyes closed trying to find things just to see if I could.

I get to the top of the stairs and take a look around. Everything seems to be in order up here. No flickering shadows. No ghosty-goos. I glance into my parents’ bedroom on the way past and see nothing out of the ordinary. If they knew what I was planning they probably wouldn’t have been so quick to leave me alone like this. My mother frowns on my obsession with all things scary, calling them vile and obscene. Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

I reach the bathroom and set the candle on the sink while I rummage around trying to find a bandage. For some reason, every time I need one they’re always in a different place. We have shelves full of old medicine and cotton buds and a thousand other useless things, but finally I find the box I need. At some point in the past six months they miraculously migrated from over the sink to the bottom drawer of the chest cabinet without my knowing. I rinse my finger and towel it off before pulling the plastic tabs from the strip. Wrapping it around my wounded digit and I hold it up to the light to examine my handiwork. Not the neatest of bandaging, but at least I won’t end up bleeding all over the house.

My candle flickers and I catch a glimpse of something in the bathroom mirror. I spin around and try to spot it but the shadows out in the hallway are impenetrable black clouds. The game is still fresh so I’m not overly concerned about a confrontation at this point, but I think staying in a room with only one exit isn’t the best of strategies. I walk out into the hall and look around for what is different. At first I don’t see it, but halfway down the hall it dawns on me. The door to my parents’ room is shut. I don’t remember closing it.

The smart thing at this point would be to steer clear of any and all mysterious occurrences, but I don’t want to end the game without catching at least a glimpse of the thing I invited in. Holding the candle up high, I ease open the door and poke my head inside. I glance around the room and find nothing. The room looks no different than it was when I passed it a few minutes ago. Maybe I did pull it closed when I looked in before. I shut the door again and continue down the hall.

They say that when he’s close, the air will grow cold and you’ll be able to hear him whispering. None of that. At least not yet. I wandered around upstairs for a while before coming back down to check the time. I’ve only been going for around twenty minutes or so, and aside from the door, I haven’t encountered anything strange. Yet. I’m sure that once things start happening, they’ll happen fast. Either that or I’ll be writing a very angry comment on that website’s forum. Either or.

I start making my way back to the kitchen when my candle goes out. The little flame gutters and smokes and suddenly I’m standing in pitch black darkness struggling to pull the box from my pocket. Under my breath, I start counting out the ten seconds I have. I manage to get the box free by the count of five and realise my problem. I can’t hold the candle and light a match at the same time. Six. I drop down and set the candle on the floor. Seven. I reef a match from the box and strike it against the ignition strip. Eight. I see sparks. Nine. I luck out and the flame catches. Ten. I relight my candle.

I hurriedly glance around my area, almost expecting him to be standing over me. Nothing. That was cutting it way too close. Next time I’m going to have the matches ready beforehand. I stand up and shiver at a sudden cold patch at my back. I spin round on the spot, nearly putting my candle back out again, and look down the empty hallway. Is that door open just a little bit wider or am I imagining things? I decide not to investigate.

I continue on to the kitchen, listening for any sound other than my own. Everything is just as I left it. The bench is still a mess and the sink still choked with dishes. My rough shopping list of everything I’d need for the ritual sits in the exact same spot as before. I’d copied down everything the website had to say about the game. I wouldn’t think anything was different at all if it wasn’t for the large red circle drawn around the last three words on the page. The final part of the final line in the warning to follow the rules exactly. You will die.

I definitely don’t remember doing that. The lazy scrawling circle surrounding those words looks nothing like the one I’d have drawn. I hurriedly close the book and glance around the kitchen for anything else out of place. The wavering light of my flickering candle casts dancing shadows across the walls. Distantly I can hear a soft banging, like someone is knocking on the front door. Holding my candle up in front of me, I move out of the kitchen and back towards the door.

I half-expect the knocking to peter out as I approach the door, but it remains quiet and steady the whole time. The rules said nothing about the entity being able to leave the house while the game’s in play, but I can’t think of anyone who would be calmly rapping on the door this late at night. Maybe one of the neighbours saw me wandering around with a candle in the dead of night, and stopped by to see if I was alright. Improbable, but not entirely unlikely.

I reach for the doorknob and the knocking changes places. Instead of coming from outside, it starts banging along the walls behind me. Each bang growing louder in time with my pounding heart. I spin in place and my candle almost goes out. At the far end of the hallway, I see a man that isn’t a man. He stands there staring back at me unmoving, but just out of reach of my circle of light. He holds something up. It glints like silver in the flicker of my flame. And just like that he’s gone.

I press myself back against the door and bite down a scream. It is true. The ritual actually worked. Before I thought I was just jumping at shadows, but I really did summon some demonic entity to play a game of cat and mouse with me. This is so cool. He scared the pee out of me, but this is so cool. I glance around for any sign of my unearthly visitor, but everything’s back to normal.

My little jar of salt is still sitting by the door like an obedient puppy waiting for its master. I bend down to pick it up, and that’s when I notice what’s changed about this picture. Everything looks the same, but it’s like one of those spot-the-difference puzzles. The jar is where I left it, my pencil is where I left it, there’s even a dot of blood from when I cut myself. Hell, the flower pot is even in the same place. What’s missing is the thing I shoved into the flower pot back when I started this ritual. The knife is gone.

From somewhere deep in the house, I hear a door creak open and, creepy as it is, a baby laughing. I leave my jar of salt on the living room coffee table and proceed to investigate the noise. I’m going to be careful not to let myself get cornered, but all the advice I’ve found for this game essentially boils down to ‘keep moving’. Hiding in one place or going out of your way to avoid the monster is likely to result in your getting caught. As they say the best defence is a good offence.

I climb the stairs and again I hear the creepy sound of some kid laughing. There is nothing creepier than hearing a baby laugh at one in the morning when you’re home alone and don’t have a baby. I pass my parents’ room again and this time the door is open. A quick glance tells me there’s nothing unusual in there. The sound is coming from one of the rooms further down the hall.

The child’s giggling turns to crying and I feel a sharp chill as I near the door. In the dark I have trouble remember what this room was. I know this house inside and out, but still I have trouble squaring this room against the map I keep in my head. I ease the door open, listening to the baby’s squeals. I grow colder with every step I take into the room.

It’s some kind of nursery. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have a nursery before, and unless I’ve got the facts of life seriously mistaken, we didn’t have no baby either. But there it is, lying in an aged and much loved crib in the centre of the room. It keeps crying right up until I get close enough to peer into the crib. My candle goes out.

Immediately I drop to my knees fighting to relight the candle. Ten. The baby isn’t crying anymore. Nine. I can feel a wave of icy coldness pressing down against me. Eight. I pull a match from the box. Seven. Sparks fly from the strip as I grind the match against it. Six. In the brief flashes of light I see a red room with a dark shadow standing over me. Five. The flame catches. Four. I relight my candle.

I almost knock the candle over when its light refills the room. I stand up and gaze around the room with dumbfound confusion. I’m not in a nursery. There is no nursery in our house. I’m standing in the middle of my own room. It is all the same, but at the same time it feels like the walls are too thin. Like the nursery could return at any time. I leave and pull the door shut behind me as I go, afraid I’ll hear that baby again. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping in there again anytime soon.

Every creak in the hallway makes me want to jump and turn my head. This game is starting to freak me out. The sooner it turns three thirty the better. Halfway down the hall, I hear it. An extra footstep following mine. It takes all my effort not to run screaming down the stairs, but if I’m not careful the candle will go back out and I really don’t like the idea of trying to light it again midway down the stairs. Carefully, I turn in place and look for whatever is making that sound.

The hallway is dark as ever. I try to locate the source of the footsteps, but everything is clear. All the doors are open except for the one at the end of the hall. Holding my candle up a little higher, I wait for whatever is about to happen. The flickering light barely brightens the dark doorways surrounding me. I cast my gaze along the hallway, looking for anything out of the normal. Nothing. Whatever boogery-boo is lurking about waiting to jump out at me is keeping to themselves.

I make it back downstairs without incident and go looking for the clock. It’s barely even one. I still have another two hours or so to go before the game ends. I count my matches. Plenty left. I just need to make sure I don’t get stuck anywhere that will make relighting the candle difficult. I think I’ll stick to the ground floor for now.

The flickering of my candle providing my only source of light, I make my way back through the dining room looking for any sign of my mystery guest. The whole place seems to have grown in size since the lights went out. I’ve never really taken the time to count how many steps it takes to cross any one room, but for some reason right now it feels like I have to walk twice the distance to reach each door.

Occasionally I’ll come across a faint glint of red or green coming from one of the many electronic devices I neglected to unplug. I don’t imagine it would affect the game, nothing in the rules mentioned having to disconnect every single device scattered throughout the house. As long as the lights stay off it shouldn’t matter. Still, I take the time to cover as many of the offending LEDs as possible, using strips of paper or whatever’s close at hand. Just in case.

I continue my rounds with this goal in mind. Each one I hide only serves to make the house that little bit darker. My candle starts fluttering in one of the rooms and I have a moment of panic that I wouldn’t be able to find my matches in time, but in the end it stays lit. I feel a chill following me every now and then, but mostly I’ve been allowed to continue my project unhindered. Whatever it is, it seems happy enough to let me be. For now.

I’ve just about covered all the rooms on the ground floor when I see him. Standing on the other side of the room at the very edge of my light. Not moving, only watching. My eyes keep trying to slide off him and I feel my legs lock up in fright. The icy chill that’s been following me from room to room is amplified here. Concentrated. Careful not to let my candle go out, I ease my way back out of the room. I think it’s time to go somewhere else for a while.

I stumble back out into the hall, afraid to turn my back on that room. Pulling the door shut behind me, I clutch my candle in front of me. Inside, I can hear the sound of footsteps creeping across the floor. I can sense him standing on the other side of this door, regarding me. My tiny flame flutters and I start taking awkward backwards steps away from that door. The doorknob rattles and I run.

My candle whisks the air in front of me, threatening to go out, even as I hear the sound of a door creaking open behind me. I can feel him following me. The game is on and it’s his turn. I swing through the turns and bends of this dark house, narrowly avoiding slamming face first into a wall each time. My weak flame is close to being snuffed out, but I don’t want to stop while he’s nearby. I duck through one of the doors and wait.

The air is thick with anticipation, but there’s no sign of him. That was too close. Gasping to catch my breath, I watch as the thin little flame dances in the harsh gusts of my panting. As if it’s weighing its options. It struggles between staying lit and going out for a few more seconds before finally deciding to stay lit. I breathe a sigh of relief and glance around the room. I’m not even sure where I am anymore.

I hold up the candle and try to get my bearings again. None of it looks familiar. It’s like I’ve gone and wandered into someone else’s house instead of my own. It might be dad’s office, but I don’t remember it looking like this. The walls are bare save for a few shelves of books and an antique work desk. The high-backed wheelie chair rolled up against the desk, sits in silent judgement of me. Like it’s waiting for me to explain why I came here. I shiver and ease open the door to the hallway. There’s no sound indicating that my pursuer has found me and no shift in temperature.

I creep down the hallway, listening for anything out of the ordinary and make my way back towards the living room. I’ve only come across my visitor a couple of times, but each time he has freaked me out something major. My candle keeps acting like it’s going to go out and running around blindly isn’t helping. I think it’s time I go back to where I left the salt. I’m not sure how much time is still left, but better safe than sorry. I’m not about give up just yet, but I don’t want to get caught without it if he does corner me again.

The rattle of my footsteps echo across the walls as I move. Each one making me want to jump and start running again. The light from my candle seems to be growing less bright with every minute that passes. I can feel the darkness pressing in around me, trying to smother what little illumination I do have. I keep turning around expecting to find him standing there, but it’s like he’s disappeared altogether. This just makes me more nervous.

I hear the chiming of the clock as I approach. It rings out and I feel myself grow excited. One. Two. Three. Four. Is it over? Did I make it to four o’clock already? Five. Six. Seven. Eight. I stop dead in my tracks. The clock keeps chiming. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. It doesn’t stop. I force myself forwards and see the hand are spinning. Backwards. Sweeping back around to twelve faster and faster every time. A horrid wispy laughter reaches my ears and I nearly drop my candle.

The face of the clock cracks and the hands lock in place over the twelve. The chiming chokes off with a wheeze as my candle snuffs out. In the silence that follows, I drop to my knees and reef out my matches, spilling half the box in the process. Ten. Nine. I hear the floorboards creak behind me. Eight. Seven. My shaking hands scrape the match against the box. Six. Five. A chill runs down my spine. Four. Three. I drop the box and hold the fire to the wick. Two. One. The candle lights and I see the shadowy figure standing over me.

In panic, I throw out my arms and knock over the candle. It rolls down the empty hallway away from me. I reach out and grab it before it can go back out. I glance around the hallway but whatever it was is gone. I tremble in the cold and force myself to my feet. The clock isn’t ticking anymore. It’s frozen at midnight, and I don’t know how much time is left in the game. Afraid to stop, I turn and move towards the living room.

I get to the door and am suddenly certain that my jar of salt will be long gone. I peek inside and almost cry when I see it sitting in the exact same spot I left it. The salt is my final lifeline in this game. If things go wrong you need to form a circle and stay there. I was an idiot to wander around without it. I’ll feel much safer when I have that jar in my hands.

The air in the living room is colder than ever. I can see my breath floating away in front of me like smoke. The chill seems to be coming from everywhere at once. As I cross towards the table, it feels like the walls are moving away from me. Stretching out to eternity. The shadows fill the room and my candle seems to grow smaller and smaller. Each step I take towards the jar only seems to make it grow further away.

My tiny flame twinkles in my hands and I start reaching for my box of matches, just in case, but my hand comes out empty. Panicked, I stop and search for them, but they’re not there. No matter where I look I can’t find them. I’ll have ten seconds to relight my candle if it goes out, but without the matches I won’t be able to do it. The shadows grow more lively as if sensing my plight. I must have dropped them somewhere. I need that salt, but they remain tauntingly out of reach.

The candle flickers out. An icy hand brushes my shoulder and I scream, diving for the salt. In the darkness, I can’t see anything. I fumble around blindly, ticking off the seconds in my head. If I don’t find it soon, I’m finished. Like an answer to my prayers, I bang my shin against the table. I feel around for the salt and snatch up the jar. Not wasting any time, I push away from the table and start pouring the salt in a circle. I keep pouring until the salt runs out.

The room grows still and I sense that he is watching me. As long as I don’t leave my circle he can’t harm me. I’ll be safe as long as I stay perfectly still. I can hear the sound of footsteps making their way across the room. Low dragging footsteps. The room is freezing now. In the gloom, I can just make out the man-like figure moving towards me. He walks slow and undaunted, like he has all the time in the world and doesn’t mind waiting.

He stops right outside my circle and I force myself to close my eyes. I am safe as long as I do not move. He cannot hurt me as long as the circle remains unbroken. He is close enough to touch. I can feel his icy breath drift across my face and I tremble. He moves around my circle, testing its edges, looking for a weak spot. Without a sound, I sense him turn away.

The minutes creep by. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing here. Without a clock, I won’t know when three thirty comes, so I’ll just have to stay here until the sun comes up. Only then will I be sure it’s truly over. Slowly, I crack my eyes open and let them adjust to the gloom. There’s a faint red glow coming from the TV. I didn’t get the chance to cover the standby light. No shadows move and I allow myself to relax a little.

My legs are starting to get sore from standing still for so long, but I have no intention of moving. It’s so quiet in here. I look around but aside from the persistent chill in the air, there is no sign of my opponent. For all I know, he left as soon as I drew the circle. The game might already be over. I have no way of knowing without stepping out of this circle. But I have no intention of ever doing that.

My eyes have adjusted just enough for me to see rough outlines of the room around me. It looks the same as always. Instead of looking menacing the red glow only serves to make the room feel ordinary. Like it does when you turn off the TV and pack it in for the night. The only sound is my own breathing. I feel like I’m going to fall sleep where I stand. In the morning, I’ll probably forget that anything even happened tonight. Just Chicken Little jumping at her own shadow.

The knife slashes through the air. He's standing right there.

Screaming, I jump back. The blade hisses past my throat. Slipping in the salt, I tumble over the coffee table. Pain shoots up my spine. All I hear is the sound of blood pounding in my ears. He stands there with my knife out between me and the circle. Falling off the table, I scurry away from him.

He moves like a hole in the world, the glow of the TV bending around his form. My heart hammers in my chest. He raises the knife and I feel the strength drain from my legs. I fall on something hard and hear a click. A flood of light fills the room.

“Ready? Okay! Push one, two, two. Push one, two, two. You can do it! Feel the burn!”

The creature freezes in place, knife drawn to end me as throbbing dance music erupts from the TV. On the screen a gaggle of women in skimpy fluoro outfits jump about stretching in time to the music. The knife clatters to the floor beside me as the demon starts screaming like its head’s on fire. The shadow thing squeals and fluctuates like the images on screen are causing it physical pain.

Not pausing to think, I grab the remote and pump up the volume. The techno beats and motivational cheers flood the room and I see the creature stagger back. Its screams tear into my brain like a power drill, but I keep hammering the volume button until I’m sure I’ll go mad.

The demon begins to lose its form under the assault of early morning aerobics. I can see pieces falling off of it as it drags itself away from me. It keeps screaming until the last thin slither of its shadowy hide sluices away under the door.

I remain frozen in front of the pounding exercise program not trusting myself to move. I don’t know what caused the demon to react like that. Whether it was the dancing, the music, the bright outfits, or the inspirational chants. Whatever it was, it was something the demon didn’t like. I don’t know if it will be back or not, but I don’t think I’ll be moving from this spot until the first rays of sunlight pierce that window. I’ve decided I don’t like horror anymore.

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