's 2014 Horror Write-off:

" Reunion "

Submitted by Baxter Barclay

The café is a small, warm place, in the middle of a busy street in a bright town. I’ve been sitting in the corner for about 10 minutes, staring into a warm mug of coffee on a polished wooden stand and thinking. Normally I would relish this scene; comfortable leather seating, cheerful smiling clusters of friends with the midday sun shining on the street outside. But at any moment I expect my old friend and I’d rather not have an audience for the conversation that will take place. Were it up to me, we would meet somewhere quieter, but he was quite insistent in his letters that it be this café at this time. Letters...the thought of someone putting pen to paper to write a full genuine later in this day and age is strange enough, nevermind the fact that Barry wrote it.

When I first read the seemingly frantic and badly scrawled letter, I found it near impossible to picture Barry sitting down and writing such a thing. Then I realised that I was imagining the 18-year-old I used to spend so much time with, and not the 24-year-old he must be today.

I was never a popular child.

When I was still in primary school, I felt detached from my peers. I worked hard even then, memorising mountains of words and sums.

I never socialised with others; I found it awkward and off-putting. The isolation never bothered me though. Back then I looked down on my classmates for their laziness and stupidity even at such a young age.

People avoided me, and for good reason.

I would have carried through secondary school the same way had I not met Barry. I saw him when I stepped outside during a lunch break to get away from the new crowd of students that bothered me with their noise.

He too had left the hall, albeit to smoke. He was the same height as me, with short black hair and a pockmarked face. He wore a baggy school jacket with a Judas Priest shirt beneath it; he would keep the jacket closed until break to avoid the teachers scolding.

His sagging dull grey eyes gave off a sort of Zen balance vibe, as if he knew something about life that the rest of us didn’t.

The awkward silence after I went outside and found him there could only continue for so long and eventually he said something.

I honestly don’t even remember what it was; some banal thing that quickly led to conversation. There was something about the way he talked that put people at ease, even me. He spoke slowly and calmy as if considering each word carefully. We ended up talking for the rest of the break.

That brief conversation lead to a sort of informal deal we had that would later grow into genuine friendship. Barry would help me to break my shell, humble me to some extent and end my life as a recluse. In return I would help him with his schoolwork; an aspect of his life that definitely needed some work.

In the end, Barry held up his side of the bargain.

It wasn’t long before I realised how arrogant I was and became the person I am today. Unfortunately, however, I could not uphold my side. Barry simply didn’t have the mind for academic pursuits and he struggled constantly. The final nail in the coffin is when he took to drugs. It crushed what little academic skill he had left, and didn’t work wonders for his social life. We were best friends but I couldn’t break his habit, and refused to follow him into it. After school, I went on to University to study law.

I have no idea what Barry did.

He never returned my calls and after a month I gave up.

That is, until I got these letters and- “Sam!”

The sound of my name breaks me from my reminiscences and I sit up, looking around. I see a group of chatting friends at the counter couldn’t be him. And yet, he sits down opposite me and stares at me.

“How are you doing buddy?” croaks the figure before me that is supposedly Barry. Thin strands of straw-like hair creep across his scalp.

The bright red shirt he wears looks like a joke draped across his brittle, bony form. His eyes are the same dull grey, but they lack any kind of calm they may have once had. He blinks constantly as if a few grains of sand were caught in his eyelids.

The dark sagging skin beneath them is a contrast to the pale, tight skin stretched over the rest of him.

“You look well. That medicine course work out okay for you, huh?” He says, his already low voice somewhat muffled by his cracked, colourless lips.

“Law.” I say, openly staring in disbelief. “I studied law.” “I knew it was one of the two. You always were a smart guy Sam.” He says. His words are so quiet and seem so muffled I find myself tuning out the din of the people loitering around. I would lean in, but the thought made me nervous. Why? Did I not trust this man? Or did I suspect he would dissipate where I to lean too close, having only been a figment of my imagination?

“So Sam”, he began. “What have-”

“Enough Barry” I interject, perhaps more harshly than I should have. I force myself to look him in the eye.

“We both know we’re not here to discuss me. You asked to meet so I could help you with something. What happened to you?”

A pause during which, for the first time something seems to flash behind Barry’s dull eyes. Shame and anger seem to pull at his dry, taught face.

“Direct. I remember that about you. Suppose it came with the high and mighty attitude. I remember it because you were the first...but you weren’t the last.

Wasn’t long before my other supposed friends looked down on me. But that’s okay...I found new friends.” By the end of this monologue Barry is staring at the table, fidgeting and wringing his bony hands.

I had felt a clash of various emotions since I saw Barry; disgust, regret, confusion. But they subsided now into pity.

What had happened to this thing, this broken man that was once my friend? My nervousness gave way to some extent and I leaned in. “Barry...what new friends? What did you do after school?”

Barry seemed to come back to his senses, lifting his heavy head to look at me. “Just spent time with friends. Friends who didn’t look down on me or my hobbies. There were into some weird stuff...wiccans or something.

Attended meetings they called ‘Rituals’. Mostly bad poetry readings. I didn’t mind though, since they brought plenty of...well, they had what I needed.

Weed killed the time, but there was more. It was free so long as I pretended to be in to the weird stuff. Even wrote some poetry myself. Harmless until...”

Barry’s voice trails off here into quiet mutterings.

I didn’t think it could get any more shocking after seeing him but the thought of Barry involved in pagan meetings is simply insane. Granted, it sounded mostly like harmless stuff but even then the thought of Barry writing poetry was laughable. He described it as if it was nothing, but it’s all he has to show after for the last 6 years.

I snap out of my thoughts to find Barry still deep in his. He desperately wished to meet me, but now that I’m here I have to drag words out of him. His mind seems so disorganised, perhaps even shattered. I knew drugs could mess with people but the person opposite me is no longer who he once was; his personality has been utterly obliterated. I had to bring this conversation back to these meetings and learn more, maybe find out what had happened to my former friend and what he wanted from me. It had to be something to do with these “friends” of his.

“Something must have gone wrong”, I press, trying not to push him too hard. “What was it?”

Barry looks at me and his face contorts and twists into an image of hatred. “John.” He hisses. “Thought he was so great. The others didn’t help; always fawning over him. Made me sick but I played along.

He was the boss, I guess. He always brought the most poetry, always the most ‘tomes of dark magic’. He was full of it. They were all fake. All of them so obviously fake. Until the last one he brought.” Barry stares at me and the anger in his face melts away, replaced by fear. “It was had to be”.

For a moment I think he’s going to break down but he keeps talking, digging his cracked, yellowed fingernails into the wood. “He came in the door while we were relaxing, and he put this big, thin paper book on what he called his ‘pulpit’; a hunk of rotting wood.

He looked at us with the smug smirk he was so fond of and said ‘Today, I have something different’. He opened it and asked us all to come up to him and close their eyes. I thought I’d play along, just get the weird shit over with so we could move on to the good stuff. I stand at the edge of the huddled group; there were only 6 of us.

Everyone closes their eyes, except me. I’m in no mood for this.

Then John...he opened the book and there was a short scream right beside my ear, so loud and clear and abrupt. No inhale or exhale just...there one second and gone the next.

Then there was a flash and they were gone. All gone. I ran and didn’t look back.”

Barry began to sob uncontrollably, slumped forward on the table.

For the first time since he arrived I become aware of my surroundings.

Everything is the same, save for the mug of coffee in my hands having cooled.

The sun is still shining, and nobody seems to have noticed Barry’s choked sobs, muffled by his long hands.

The street outside seems so distant now, so far and separate from this encounter; a world away.

I slip my phone from my pocket and check the time.

It hasn’t been more than 15 minutes since Barry sat down.

I spend the next minute sitting in dumb silence. Finally, Barry looks up at me, and all emotion is gone from his eyes save a simple, primal fear.

“But it’s not over.” He croaks, throat even more hoarse now from crying. “I still hear them speaking to me. Telling me to come back. They want me to me to return and close my eyes. I tell myself they’re dead, but I know they’re not. They’re just...somewhere else. I see it when I’m asleep. They describe it when I’m awake. They want me to stay with them. I don’t want to go back, but I can’t take it anymore. Even now I hear them, scratching at the back of my skull. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. You’re all I have left Sam. Help me.” He slumps down and begins sobbing again.

My mind is racing now. What can I possibly say?

In a few seconds of frantic thinking, I decide to call an ambulance. If nothing else, Barry is clearly not far from death and is either currently or soon will be insane.

In the back of my mind, I know that I just want to put the responsibility on someone else. To leave this café and forget this ever happened.

“I’ll help you Barry.” I assure him.

“I’ll be right back, just have to go to the bathroom. Then we can talk about what to do.”

I get up, wobbling for a moment on my weak legs before regaining my balance and moving to the bathroom. Once inside, I take a moment to breathe deeply, and splash some water from the sink on my face. I look up at the mirror, locking eyes with my pallid reflection. I breathe deeply.

The room is so quiet, so normal, it feels almost serene. Like the conversation had never happened, that I had pulled my head from a pool of water to gasp fresh air.

Leaving or calling an ambulance would only confirm the existence of the man outside, and plunge me back under.

I force myself to break out of the mire of self-pity.

Barry needed help desperately, and the longer I waited in here the more he suffered out there.I reach into my pocket for my phone and- It’s gone. I had it just a moment ago at the table when I checked the time; I must have left it out there. Cursing, I return outside.

When I see my seat, it takes me a moment to realise that it’s mine. This is because Barry is gone.

All that remains is a napkin on the table, with black pen scrawled on it.

It only takes a second to realise it’s Barry’s handwriting, even harder to read than on the letter he had sent me. It reads “You think I’m stupid. You want to call someone. Took your phone.

Got pretty good at taking things from pockets that aren’t mine. Had to earn money somehow. You were the only friend I had left. There’s nothing left for me now.

I’m going back. It’s all I can do.”

I crumple the note in my hands and look up. For a moment I consider going after him, but it‘s no good. He’s long gone, on his way to wherever those meetings took place. I don’t know what to believe about his story. It’s likely he’s delusional, in which case he’ll be dead within a few years at most. If he's right, he’ll soon be with his “friends”, wherever they are. I’m not sure which is preferable.