Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
Submitted by Antonio Strumolo
Nick switched off the third low-quality recording of Teletubbies he’d seen that afternoon and rubbed tiredly at the bridge of his nose. You could find real gems in the boxes of unmarked VHS tapes that were always present and always ignored at secondhand sales—but you had to be willing to sit through an awful lot of garbage. None of what he’d found so far in today’s batch had even been interesting, let alone valuable.
He took a swig of water from the bottle at his side, stretched, and grabbed another battered tape from his haul. This one lacked any sort of label, and looked older than the rest; occasionally signs of good things to come, in his experience. It couldn’t be worse than Washed-Out Teletubbies 3, anyway. He shoved it into his restored VCR and hit play.
The image faded in on the screen above, and his face fell. Nothing but vague shapes and static. Whatever this video had been, it was an unidentifiable mess now. Lucky he’d had the speakers on low—the sound from the ruined tape was a soft hiss instead of a thundering roar. He’d learned that lesson going through the first batch of tapes he’d ever brought home. Nothing like a sudden blast of unfiltered noise to wake you up from a Brady Bunch induced stupor.
As Nick leaned forward to take the tape back out, the lights in his tiny living room flickered and went out. He glanced up at the fixture in irritation—he’d just bought those bulbs. Maybe he’d blown a fuse? He wasn’t running any more devices than usual… wait a minute, no, it couldn’t be a fuse, the television was still—
“Nick-kolasss…” The voice was soft, androgynous, with a stutter that sounded more like certain sounds were being replayed than a speech impediment. It faded away into the hiss of the static so gradually that he was left with the unsettling impression it had merely become inaudible, and not actually stopped.
Nick looked nervously around the room, searching for the source of the voice, but as far as he could tell he was still alone. “Uh, Mrs. York? Is that you?” His landlady was supposed to be on vacation in the Bahamas, but maybe she’d had to come home unexpectedly? She was the only person he knew that called him by his full name.
The only sound was the continuing hiss of the static. It somehow sounded louder in the dark.
Nick got to his feet, clutching his water bottle as if it could somehow shield him from creepy noises. He edged past the television and peeked through the blinds of the window behind it. No one outside, thank god. He didn’t know what he’d have done if someone had been looking back at him from out there. Shame it got dark so early this time of year, he could really have used the light.
As he turned away from the window, Nick became aware of a new sound, barely audible over the static, which only seemed to be getting louder with time—the soft tup, tup of dripping water.
“Oh, now what?” He checked the bottle in his hands, but it was intact. Jesus, all these phantom noises! He shook his head. At least he knew how to stop one of them. He walked back over to the television and switched the speakers off. In the sudden silence that followed, he was able to figure out where the dripping was coming from as well.
His television was leaking.
Water was collecting on the tiny plastic lip surrounding the screen and dripping onto the edge of the entertainment system into a small puddle on the floor. Frowning, he reached out to run a finger along the lip and held it up to his nose. Saltwater, by the smell of it, seemingly coming from inside the television.
“Don’t like that,” Nick muttered. He glanced nervously at the static-filled screen, which hadn’t changed. Nothing but slow, nebulous movements almost entirely masked by crackling electric snow. Even still, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The barely visible image seemed a lot more unsettling in the context of all this other horror-movie crap.
He straightened up and took another quick look around before making up his mind. Screw it. The tape could have the living room. He was getting out of here.
…calmly. One thing you were never supposed to do in a threatening situation was panic and run. The door was only a few yards away, if that. All he had to do was keep his eyes on that weirdly upsetting static to make sure it didn’t—well, he wasn’t sure what static could possibly do to hurt him, but damn if he was going to turn his back on it.
He was halfway to the door when he felt dampness spreading down his leg. After a moment of confused alarm, he realized that the feeling was coming from his pocket, not his groin. He let out a sigh of relief and a rueful chuckle. Then
panic set back in as it hit him that the moisture was coming from his phone—and that it smelled distinctly of the ocean.
He dug the phone out of his pocket, cursing. Sure enough, water was seeping out of the cracks in the casing, pouring in rivulets from the charging slot and earphone jack. The screen was a mess of static.
“Shit—!” Nick flung the phone across the room, where it splashed into what was now a huge, dark pool of water surrounding the television. The light from the screen vanished as it sank impossibly out of sight. He stared, uncomprehending, and then realized that the movements behind the static were gone. “Ohhh no. Oh God.”
“Nick-kolassss.” The voice, though still oddly distorted, was no longer being filtered through a device. It was coming from inside the room—and worse, it was coming from behind him.
Nick spun around and, despite fully expecting to see something horrible, still nearly passed out in shock.
The source of the voice was clinging to the wall above the doorway like some kind of hellish cross between a gecko and a sleep paralysis demon, presiding over his only exit. It grinned widely as he clutched at his chest, baring a mouthful of tiny, translucent needle teeth. The mouth was all that was visible of the face—a vast mane of tangled black hair obscured the rest, though two points of stark white light shining through the chaos above it hinted at the existence of eyes.
Beyond the at least vaguely human torso, the body trailed off into a thin, tattered membrane that looked like a dress with a long train but moved like a tail, winding across the walls and ceiling in stark defiance of gravity.
Every part of the creature but the hair was a sickly off-white, and every part of it was soaking wet. It smelled like salt and ice.
“Nick-kolas Lee.” The creature spoke again, gargling out his entire name this time.
He’d already blown his chance to not show fear, but maybe it wasn’t too late to turn this situation around. If this thing could talk, maybe it could be reasoned with… or at least stared down, so to speak. Nick took a deep breath. “G-get out of my house.”
“Hmmm?” The creature cocked its head to the side like a puzzled dog.
“Y-you heard me, creep. Get out. You’re… you’re trespassing on my property.” When the creature didn’t react, he tried again, with less technical terms. “Uh, you’re not welcome here. Begone!”
The thing let out a breathy chuckle. Then it scuttled headfirst down the wall and onto the floor, bent its long arms, and leaped; Nick let out an embarrassingly high-pitched squeal and recoiled, but as it turned out the creature wasn’t
attacking, merely closing the distance. It landed on the back of his chair, and birdlike talons on the tips of its fingers sank deep into the upholstery.
“T-that’s vandalism,” Nick said, pointing to the damage. He was babbling, saying whatever came to mind in a desperate attempt to distract himself from what was happening. “You’re damaging my property—”
“In one week,” the creature said, cutting him off, “your life will end.”
“My life will… a-are you threatening me?”
The creature shook its head. “Not a threat. A message.”
“What message?” Nick squeaked. “Who’s sending me a message?”
The creature paused, seemingly taken aback.
“I mean… saying it’s a message sort of implies someone else is involved,” Nick continued. He hadn’t really expected his babbling to be acknowledged.
“No.” The creature shook its head, and for a moment Nick got a look at what was beneath its hair. There were, in fact, no eyes—just circles of light shining just beneath the smooth, featureless skin on either side of a flat, froggy nose. “No, there is no one else.”
“But then how was that not a threat?” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
“If you want me to call it a threat so badly, then so be it! It is a threat!” the creature snapped, its ‘eyes’ flaring on the last word.
“Okay, okay! I’m sorry!” Nick cringed, but he found that he was less afraid of the creature now than he had been even a moment earlier. It took a lot of the mystique, if not the actual danger, out of the situation to hear this mermaid from hell get agitated over word choice.
The creature took a moment to compose itself, kneading at the back of the chair like an agitated cat. Nick opened his mouth to comment, then thought better of it. Finally, the creature let out an irritable hiss, flicked its membranous dress/tail, and leaped again, this time onto the entertainment center.
“Spend your last days well, Nickolas Lee.” The creature gave him a contemptuous look. Then it slithered down into the puddle surrounding the television and vanished. The lights flickered and came back on, and Nick found himself standing in front of his undamaged chair, staring at his phone, which sat in a patch of perfectly dry carpet. The television was not only off, but cool to the touch—and when he worked up the nerve to check, the VHS player was empty.
He walked stiffly out of the room, sat down in the middle of his kitchen floor, and dropped his head into his hands. Had all that been a dream? Was he losing his mind? He thought he’d been drinking enough, but… could dehydration cause psychotic breaks? Or maybe there was something in the water?
He gingerly uncapped and sniffed his water bottle, then held it up to the light. No whiff of salt, and it didn’t look any different… but still. Better safe than sorry. He tossed the bottle into the garbage can, where it landed with a muffled thud.
Nick went through his routine in a daze the next morning. He’d managed about an hour’s fitful sleep curled in the fetal position in the corner of his apartment furthest from the television, and woken in a cold sweat. There was way too much water involved in taking a shower and making coffee for him to risk either, so in addition to being exhausted, he was unkempt and irritable. It took him four tries to get his tie on straight.
He stumbled his way to the train station and collapsed onto one of the cold metal benches, glad to be out of the apartment despite the clammy weather. The thought that he would have to return after work was enough to induce
stomach-churning dread. Maybe he could stay at a hotel in the city tonight, try to get some proper rest someplace far away from anything that would remind him of what he’d witnessed.
Whatever the hell what he’d witnessed had been. The more he thought about it, the less the encounter with Fishface—as he’d taken to calling the creature—made sense. Why had a VHS tape, of all things, prompted its appearance? Why had it offered him a six-day reprieve if it was intent on killing him?
In the distance, the train’s horn blared. Nick stood, still deep in thought, and wandered toward the loading area.
His foot caught on an irregularity in the platform’s surface. He felt himself tilt forward, but it took nearly a full second for it to register that he was falling. The train roared. Nick opened his mouth, but his scream caught in his throat; he tumbled out into the air above the tracks in strangled silence.
At the last second, a hand seized him by the collar and yanked him back just far enough that he collapsed at the edge of the platform instead of falling onto the tracks. A second later a rush of air washed over him as the train arrived,
its wheels clattering and screeching as it gradually slowed to a stop. He pushed himself up onto his knees, staring blankly down into the gap, watching the wheels roll over and over the spot that he had so nearly occupied a moment
ago. Finally, his morbid awe fading, he turned to look at his savior.
It was Fishface.
“You clumsy moron,” the creature panted, glaring at him with its false eyes.
“You… saved me?” Nick said stupidly. “But—”
“You are fated to die in one week. Not in one day. Understand?” Fishface snarled, jabbing a clawed finger in his face.
“Oh, excuse me,” Nick was too confused, too tired, and too high on adrenaline to muster up any fear this time. Besides, the creature looked so much less impressive in the bright morning light, removed from the theatrical context he’d encountered it in yesterday. Small and sort of sickly, out of its element, like one of those deep-sea fish that sometimes got pulled to the surface in fishermen’s nets.
“Do not forget what you are dealing with, Nickolas Lee.” The creature’s tone was dangerous.
“I don’t know what I’m dealing with!” Nick exploded, slapping its accusing claw away. It seemed too startled to retaliate. “I’m talking to a fish-person that came out of my TV and threatened to kill me and then saved my life and is probably a figment of my imagination!”
“I am not a figment of anything,” the creature snarled, regaining its composure.
“Then what are you?! A demon? A ghost? An alien? A freaking demon ghost alien?!”
“I am a curse.” It didn’t elaborate.
“Oh, that clears everything up.” Nick let out a giggle tinged with hysteria. “Fishface the curse, here to save the day. Can I call you Fishface, by the way? Would you prefer John Roe?”
The creature’s angry retort was interrupted by the sound of the train doors hissing closed. Nick threw up his hands in frustration as it began to pull away from the station.
“And now you’ve made me miss my train. Unbelievable! The next one doesn’t come for nearly an hour. Marsha’s going to kill me.”
“I am going to kill you.” The cold certainty in the creature’s voice broke through Nick’s manic mood and reminded him why he’d been terrified of it when it had first appeared. “If you believe nothing else, believe that. And watch your step.”
It retreated to the edge of the platform, bared its teeth at him one last time, and disappeared over the edge. There was a faint splash. Nick waited until he was sure it was gone before flipping the bird. “Watch your step,” he mumbled.
“A peanut sat on a railroad track,” Nick sang under his breath, feeling the railroad ties begin to vibrate beneath him, “its heart was all a-flutter. Along came the choo-choo train…”
He glanced around at the loading platform and the overgrown ditch that bordered the tracks. Both empty. His own heart started to beat a little faster as the train, still out of sight, blared its first warning. “Toot toot… pea-ea-eanut butter.”
The vibrations strengthened into a bone-jolting rattle. The train would be slowing down both to manage the turn that kept it out of his sight and to approach the platform, but it would still be going plenty fast enough to turn him to paste
if he didn’t get out of the way soon. Just a little longer and he’d give up and leave. A liiittle longer…
“What the hell are you doing?”
Nick released his held breath and turned to face his fishy nemesis, who was watching him from a wet patch of gravel beneath the platform.
“Well, you showed up the other day when I almost got run over… I figured if I replicated the circumstances it would get your attention.” He chuckled. “Took me this long to work up the guts to go through with it.”
“This is not funny, Nickolas Lee.”
“We can agree on that, at least.” Nick crossed his arms, as much to mask the trembling in his hands as anything else.
“What do you hope to accomplish here?” Fishface stalked back and forth in the shadow of the platform, making no move to approach him. The train’s horn sounded again, from much closer.
Nick swallowed a lump in his throat and raised his voice so that he could still be heard over the approaching rumble of the engine. “Well, best case scenario I get you to leave me alone.”
Fishface shook its head. “I cannot ‘leave you alone’. Our fates are linked.”
“Yeah, that’s about what I expected. So. Plan B: I keep dragging you back here until you explain what’s happening properly—”
“Get off the tracks,” Fishface interrupted.
“So you can slither off to wet hell or whatever, and make me risking my life pointless?” Nick was practically shouting to be heard now. His heart was pounding painfully in his chest. “I don’t think so. You wanted me to believe in you? This is what you have to deal with.”
“I do not make deals,” Fishface shouted, a tinge of distress creeping into its voice.
Despite his mounting terror, Nick felt a smile spread across his face. Got ‘em. “Neither do I.”
The train rounded the bend, so much bigger and faster than he was prepared for despite the number of times he’d gone through this scenario in his head. He had just enough time to clench his eyes shut and curl into a ball—but the sudden impact that followed came from the front, rather than the side. He found himself tumbling into the mud at the bottom of the ditch, followed a moment later by Fishface.
Nick started to laugh uncontrollably. “Heh heh ha HA! Oh, Jesus, my goddamn heart. Cut it a little close there, didn’t you? Ha! Ahaha! Ohhh… Christ. Trains are so much scarier than you. I never want to see one again.”
“You are insane,” Fishface croaked. Nick cracked up again, hiccuping for air.
“So people tell me. Feeling more open to answering my questions now?” Nick sat up, felt his head spin, and splatted abruptly back down into the muck. “Ugh.”
“No, I am NOT.”
Nick flopped onto his stomach as Fishface started to crawl away into the long grass. “Hey, wait!” As the end of the slimy, membranous tail slid by his face, he reached out and grabbed it. Fishface yelped as its forward momentum was halted.
“Let me go!” The creature thrashed and writhed, but for all its speed and agility, it wasn’t especially strong. Nick pinned the end of the tail under his elbow and leaned his entire weight on it.
“One question,” he said firmly.
Fishface made a few more attempts to escape before letting out a long, world-weary groan and folding its arms under itself like the legs of a bird. “…fine. One question.”
“You said you’re ‘a curse’. What does that mean, exactly?”
“I don’t know.”
“I came into being knowing my nature and my purpose, Nickolas Lee,” Fishface said tiredly. “I am a curse. I kill those who view the tape you discovered after one week. And apparently, I ensure that they do not die of stupidity in the meantime.”
“I answered your question, Nickolas. Let me go, or I will…” Fishface groped for an appropriate threat.
“Kill me?” Nick suggested innocently.
Fishface stared at him for a long moment in silence, working its claws in the mud. “No. But it occurs to me that you do not need to be intact to remain alive.”
Nick took the hint and let up the pressure on its tail. The curse swept away in a huff, muttering something unintelligible but clearly vulgar under its breath.
“Would you please—” Fishface snarled, swatting the fork out of Nick’s hand as he jabbed it towards the electrical outlet for the fifth time, “stop doing that?!”
“How about this?” Nick raised his voice a little to drown out the curse’s continued complaints. “You always appear out of a puddle, right? What if I went somewhere with no water, like Death Valley? Could that work, you think?”
“Is that a real no, or an ‘I don’t know’ no?”
“Does it matter?” Fishface flopped onto the floor like a huffy toddler and covered its face with its tail. Nick had been keeping it around with various potentially life-threatening stunts, grilling it on the finer points of its ‘ruleset’ and floating potential curse-dodging methods. They were both getting frustrated.
“Yeah, it matters,” Nick snapped. “It could be the difference between me living and dying!”
“You are wasting both of our time, Nickolas.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you have somewhere to be? Where do you even go when you’re not incessantly spouting doom and gloom at me, anyway?” There was a long, chilly silence, and Nick realized that he’d struck some kind of nerve. He
hoped the creature wouldn’t knock out the power again; he’d spent the first two of the six hours it had been here in the dark, shouting over a literal hissy fit.
He was relieved when Fishface began to speak. “Have I given you the impression that I enjoy manifesting, Nickolas Lee?” it asked, flipping its tail off of its head and turning to look at him with those luminous non-eyes. “That I want
to be summoned repeatedly into this world of yours?”
“Uh.” Nick blinked. What the heck was that supposed to mean? “I mean, you go on and on about fate, I kind of figured…”
“Fate is cruel, Nickolas. It has decreed that you will die in two days, and it has decreed that I will spend my existence being dragged out of oblivion to terrify and kill people whose only crime was playing the wrong tape. And thanks
to you, I no longer have the solace of knowing that those are the only circumstances in which I have to deal with this indignity.”
Nick hesitated, but he couldn’t afford to not follow up on that. “Dragged out of oblivion…?” he prompted. Fishface sighed.
“I do not go anywhere, or if I do, I am not aware of it. Once I enter the water, I cease to be aware, for the most part, until I am summoned again. I imagine it is like sleep.”
“That’s… really depressing, actually,” Nick said. “No wonder you’re so pessimistic! You’ve literally only ever interacted with people who were scared out of their minds and about to die.”
“And yet,” Fishface crossed its arms and rested its chin on them, “it was preferable to this.”
“Ouch.” Nick rubbed ruefully at the bridge of his nose. “…well, VHS is pretty much obsolete at this point, you know. You might never get called again after my week is up, regardless of how it goes down.”
Fishface tensed. “…what?”
“Um. Well, you know, technology’s changing fast.” Nick jerked a thumb at the DVD player that sat on top of his old VHS player. “See that? That’s all most people have these days, and it can't play VHS tapes. What ever happened to your tape, anyway? It disappeared after you showed up the first time.”
Fishface stared at the DVD player in silence for a moment before answering. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, for crying out loud. How can you know so little about yourself? You’ve never questioned any of this magic booga-booga bullshit before?”
Nick sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. “Okay. Oh-kay. You know what, let me try this protective circle I found online yesterday, and I’ll let you go. Deal?”
“Deal,” Fishface said absently. Nick got the impression that he could have gotten it to agree to just about anything in that moment, but he didn’t want to push his luck. The fact that it hadn’t yet acted on its implied threat to mangle him
didn’t mean it wouldn’t if he tried to get cute.
“You are supposed to cut away from yourself.”
Nick started violently and nearly took off a finger with the knife he’d been using to peel an apple. He scanned the kitchen and found the tell-tale glow of Fishface’s false eyes shining up at him from the sink, which was now full to the brim with dark, briny water.
“Jesus. You scared the crap out of me, Fish. What are you even doing here? I wasn’t going to die even if I did cut myself with this.”
“You might have,” Fishface said sulkily. Nick raised his eyebrows.
“Huh. Well, whatever. Turnabout’s fair play, I guess.”
Fishface pulled itself up onto the edge of the sink. “You seem… downcast.”
“What are you, my therapist?” The question came out far sharper than Nick had intended; he took a deep breath, let it out through his nose, and went back to peeling his apple. “Sorry. I’m a little on edge. Only one day—”
Nick made a face. “Like that’s any better. Thirty-two hours left to live, and I’ve got nothing. I’m out of time and out of ideas, Fish.”
Fishface vaulted across the kitchen onto the wall, crawled up to where it met the ceiling, and began to creep around the perimeter of the room—its bizarre take on restless pacing. Nick watched with detached interest. He sometimes forgot that the creature could just… ignore the laws of physics when it chose to. The claw-marks in the wallpaper might have been a bit upsetting, if he hadn’t known that they would vanish with the curse when it left. And if he hadn’t known that he was going to die tomorrow.
“You have given up?” Fishface asked as it turned the corner and started back in his direction.
“You almost sound disappointed.”
“I am, a little,” Fishface responded, taking him by surprise. “I found your determination to break the cycle admirable, if somewhat irritating at times.”
“Awww. You aren’t half bad yourself, for a horrible murderous freak of nature.”
“Extremely irritating, at times.” Fishface corrected itself under its breath. It settled down above the door to the living room, taking on nearly the same pose he’d first seen it in. Nick had to smile a little, despite the unpleasantness of the memory. Who would have guessed that less than a week from its first appearance, he’d be having a casual, almost friendly, conversation with a supernatural serial killer?
The dissonance there was huge, when he really thought about it, but Fishface was hard to hate in spite of its best efforts. The more he learned about it—or rather, the more he learned how little it knew about itself—the more Nick found himself thinking of it as a victim in the same boat as him.
Granted, it was a victim with blood on its hands, and no ticking clock looming over it.
“So… I’ve filled out a will as best I could, considering the short notice,” Nick said, setting the peeled apple down and starting to cut it into wedges. “Made a few personal calls… my parents, my sister. Told them I loved them. Wrote down everything I’ve figured out about you and posted it online so the next person that finds that tape will have a starting point to work from.”
“Ever the pragmatist.”
“For all the good it’s done me. You want some of this?” Nick held up an apple wedge.
“I… do not think that I need to eat.”
“Man, technically I don’t need to eat either. Thirty hours isn’t long enough to starve. Do you want some?”
Fishface hesitated, then bobbed its head. “All right.”
“Okay. Catch!” Nick tossed the wedge he’d been holding; Fishface lunged out from the wall and snapped it up, tossing it around in its mouth for a moment before swallowing it whole. It was a more brutal display than Nick had been expecting, and it put his mind back on a track he’d been trying to avoid.
“Hey, uh, Fish?”
“How, exactly… do you kill people? When their time is up?”
“Hmmm? Oh. I eviscerate them, usually,” Fishface answered bluntly. Its expression was unreadable, hidden by a curtain of dripping hair. After a moment of silence, it spoke again. “…may I have another apple slice?”
“You know what?” Nick looked more than a little green around the gills, as ironic as that phrasing was considering the circumstances. “I’m not hungry anymore. You can have the rest.”
He stared resolutely out the window, doing his best to clear his mind, as Fishface descended on the plate of apple wedges and tore into it like a starving wolverine.
Nick spent most of his last morning in bed, slipping in and out of restless sleep plagued with nightmares about trains and the ocean. He’d already put his affairs in as much order as was possible; it was difficult for him to muster the energy to start anything new, knowing he would probably never finish it.
And if he was being completely honest, he didn’t want to give Fishface an excuse to show up early. The curse had been stretching the definition of ‘life-threatening circumstances’ to the breaking point the last few times it had manifested, and stayed far longer than was necessary to ‘save’ him. If he so much as thought about doing anything, it would probably appear to quote statistics about the frequency of deadly accidents in the home at him.
He had enjoyed being the vehicle for Fishface to—increasingly transparently—test the limits of its ‘fate’ and interact with the real world. But right now, he really needed to be alone.
The strangest thing about knowing he would die soon was how little he found himself caring about the death part. He’d never been particularly religious, or even thought much about death from a philosophical standpoint. Either he’d be moving on to something new or he would just cease to exist; either way, it wasn’t like the actual event would be much concern to him anymore once it happened. No, he was fixated on what his death would mean for the people
he’d be leaving behind. He’d be hurting his family and friends… those quick calls hadn’t been enough to provide any real closure, and wouldn’t provide any explanation in the aftermath. His coworkers would be left in the lurch, at
least until the higher ups managed to replace him.
He’d considered leaving a note, but what the hell was he supposed to say? He’d already decided that it wasn’t worth dragging anyone into this whole curse situation if he could possibly avoid it, and there was no way to explain without bring that up that wouldn’t read like some bizarre suicide.
After several more hours of agonizing over everything he had and hadn’t done, a full bladder finally forced Nick out of bed. He slouched groggily into the bathroom, did his business, and was headed back to his room when he noticed that his phone, forgotten on the kitchen table the night before, was surrounded by a large puddle. He had ninety-seven unread messages and counting; the device buzzed again as he watched, spraying brine from every gap in the casing as it jittered across the tabletop.
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Nick rolled his eyes. He considered ignoring the call, but the number and frequency of the curse’s attempts to contact him gave off an implication of panic that pushed him to open the message app. Of all the
emotions he’d seen Fishface express during his interactions with it, fear of any kind had never been one. He could at least see what it wanted.
Fishface all but exploded out of the phone the second his finger touched the screen, riding a wave of icy water that knocked Nick flat on his back and left him stunned and sputtering. “Finally!” it panted, flopping off the table onto the
floor next to him. Its hair was even wilder than usual, and the lights of its ‘eyes’ were flaring feverishly.
“Fish…” Nick wiped saltwater out of his eyes and shook his head, showering the room with droplets. “I was really trying to—”
“Nickolas!” Fishface clambered up onto Nick’s chest to shout directly into his face, sinking its claws painfully into his flesh and cutting off his attempted rebuke. “When I vanish, all traces of my presence vanish with me, yes? The water
“Wha—? Uh, yeah, I mean—”
Fishface hissed with excitement. “Yes, excellent. I never realized it before because I had never been back to the same place so many times! Ha ha!”
“Fish,” Nick said, wincing as the creature adjusted its grip on him, “what in God’s name has gotten into you?”
“I have thought of a way,” Fishface said, puffing out its narrow chest, “for you to escape your fate.”
There was a long silence as Nick’s brain sluggishly processed what it had said. “What?”
“A way for you to live, Nickolas! Hurry, follow me.” Fishface sprang back down onto the sodden carpet and scampered off toward the kitchen.
Nick lurched up onto his knees, clutching at the bloody claw-marks on his chest. “Fish, wait—”
“We don’t have much time. It will require some preparation to accomplish, and the deadline is less than two hours away,” Fishface said over its shoulder. It turned back to face Nick when it became apparent that he wasn’t following, and deflated a little as it took in the storm of emotions flickering across his face. Fear, confusion, anger, hope. He didn’t know what to think. He’d spent the entire day trying to come to terms with his death, and now the being responsible for it was cheerfully offering him a way out. It made for a bad case of emotional whiplash.
“Fish…” Nick pressed a hand to his throbbing temple. “Why are you doing this? Even after we started getting along better you never… never made suggestions. Never helped me without being asked to. You said you admired my will to fight, but you were never part of it, not really. So why now?”
Fishface hesitated, swishing its tail back in forth in agitation. It scuttled halfway up the wall and then back down, mumbling under its breath. Nick crossed his arms and waited. Finally, it heaved a massive sigh. “I am afraid, Nickolas.”
Nick’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. “What?”
“I am afraid that if I return to my slumber today as I have in the past, I will never re-awaken.”
“…Oh. The VHS?”
Fishface nodded. “I have been thinking… thinking more than I ever have, this week, about many things, but thinking about that more than anything. About… not waking up.”
Nick’s mouth quirked up at the corner, a tiny, tired smile. “Sounds like we’re in the same boat.”
“So, you’re going to help me…” Nick trailed off.
“In the hope that you will repay that mercy.” The words came out in a rush, even more distorted than usual. Fishface ducked its head, letting its hair block its face from view.
“And here I thought you were just being nice for once,” Nick snorted.
Fishface looked back up, its expression pained. Desperate. “Please, Nick.”
Nick smiled again, more genuinely this time. “Take a joke, Fish. I’m not going to let myself get killed just to frickin’ spite you. Tell me your plan.”
For a second Nick thought the ghostly horror was going to burst into tears, despite its lack of eyes. Then it was all manic energy again, jumping from wall to counter to wall to ceiling in a dizzying display of gravity-defying acrobatics. “Oh, thank you!”
Nick made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Yeah, yeah, I’m amazing. Can we get back to the part where I live through the day now?”
“Yes, of course!” Fishface settled down enough for him to stop needing to turn his head every few seconds, its wide mouth still set in a—frankly, horrifying—grin. “Now, you will have to trust me. Fate demands that you be killed precisely a week after you originally played my tape. But it also demands that I prevent you from dying too early.”
“So, if you were to die just before the deadline,” Fishface said excitedly, “your fate to die could be fulfilled before I finish fulfilling my fate to save you! Do you see?”
Nick blinked. “Let me get this straight. Your plan to keep me from dying… still involves killing me?”
“If you have a better idea, Nickolas Lee, I would like to hear it.” Fishface pouted.
“All right, all right.” Nick threw up his hands in surrender. “Sorry. But how the heck are you going to kill me in a way that you can just undo?”
Fishface’s smile widened even further, nearly stretching beyond the confines of its face. Nick decided that he liked the creature better when it was sullen and morose.
“I’m going to drown you!”
Nick woke up spread-eagle in the middle of his floor, with an ache in his chest and a bone-deep chill in his extremities. Even with all the water supernaturally removed from his respiratory system all he could smell and taste was salt.
“Ugh.” He flexed his fingers and toes a few times, trying to work the feeling back into them. There was a chorus of cracks and pops as the stiff joints ground into motion. He’d never felt so sluggish, not even after that time he’d stayed awake for three days straight in college.
But hey, he was alive. Fishface’s plan had worked.
Nick heaved a sigh that devolved into a coughing fit as his lungs were tested for the first time since he’d awakened. The ache in his sternum became a painful throb.
Who would have thought that being resuscitated would be so painful? Actually drowning, sure, he’d expected that to be horrible—and God knew it had been, though at least he’d known exactly what was coming and had had the promise of salvation there to settle his nerves a little. Still terrifying, of course, but more in the way a risky surgery was terrifying than the way falling in front of that train had been.
He sat up, wincing and grimacing as various parts of his body made their discomfort known. Spending several hours lying unconscious on a hard floor, with only a worn indoor-outdoor carpet for padding, probably hadn’t done anything to improve his situation, but it wasn’t like Fishface had been around to make sure he was comfortable. The entire plan had hinged on it leaving the second his heart restarted, so that the water would vanish and allow him to breathe again.
It was something of a blessing that it hadn’t been necessary for it to give him mouth-to-mouth.
Nick glanced around the room, but everything was exactly as he’d left it. He’d suspected that the VHS Fishface had spawned from might reappear nearby once his time was up; having it be found at the site of an unusual death
seemed like a good way to get people to watch it, or at least keep it around, but it didn’t look like that was the case. Which meant that he’d have to hunt it down from who knew where if he was going to fulfill his end of their bargain.
If he was going to fulfill it. It had occurred to Nick mere moments after he’d agreed to Fishface’s terms that nothing was stopping him from simply going back to his normal life once he was free of the curse. Even if someone did play the tape again at some point, Fishface was severely limited by its ‘fate’. It would be stuck with its next victim, with very few options to come after him—and if by some astronomical coincidence it found him again, it would still only be around for a week at most.
It was a nasty thought. Weaselly. But he couldn’t help considering it. He didn’t think Fishface had quite understood how unbalanced their deal was when it was made: I, a literal mass-murderer, will save you from a threat that I’m entirely responsible for, in a way that’s extremely risky, painful, and traumatic for you. In return, I want you to go through a lot of inconvenience to put yourself in this position again, with no guarantee that anything will go differently.
…On the other hand, it had trusted him enough to take him entirely at his word when he’d agreed. No contract, no insurance. Nothing to tie his hands or twist his arm. Here was a creature that fully believed in the cruelty of fate, and yet it had put its future in his hands with no hesitation.
Nick shook his head. Danger or no, mass-murderer or no, he couldn’t just turn his back on Fishface.
“Screw fate,” he said decisively. And furthermore, screw whoever had created a sentient being with the sole apparent purpose of terrifying and killing people at random; Nick refused to believe that a creature with such a convoluted, specialized lifestyle had arisen naturally, regardless of the involvement of magic booga-booga bullshit.
He climbed painfully to his feet, stumped over to his desk, and booted up his laptop. He opened his usual tabs for finding tag sales in his area, then pulled up eBay and Craigslist as well. Cursed… VHS… tape… unmarked. He probably wouldn’t find anything useful, but it was a start.
Nick scanned the results, gradually getting back into the rhythm of the hunt. A smile spread across his face. He was in his element again, after a hellish week of chaos and uncertainty. And for once, he knew exactly what he was looking for.
Not only was he going to find that tape again—he was going to find a way to free Fishface from it and the stupid, cliché rules it imposed. And then the two of them were going to hunt down whoever had made it and push them in front of a god-damn train.