's 2019 Horror Write-off:

The Stars are Watching

Submitted by Harold Neil Riggs


I knew a woman, once, who lived in an apartment building in the loudest, noisiest neighborhood, in the heart of the city.  She was a witch, or something like one.  By her own admission, of course.  To me, she always seemed eccentric. 

I forget how we met. Come to think of it, I’ve forgotten many things about her; the cadence of her speech, the circumstances of our acquaintance, the color of her eyes, her name… but I don’t think I should ever forget her entirely.  She was too vivid for that, almost as though she tried to stain the lives of those she touched, so she could never be cleaned away entirely. 

Her apartment was a cramped, dingy thing, cluttered and piled high with books and diagrams and stones and idols and incense.  She had the walls draped in veils of cloth and gauzy curtains hung heavy, in sheet after sheet, over her windows.  There were so many candles I half expected her to burn down the whole building. Once, I asked her how she could get away with so many flames, surprised that the smell and the smoke hadn’t set off the fire alarms, if not in her rooms then in those surrounding it. “Magic,” she had said, chuckling. 

I remember that laugh. She didn’t laugh often. 

She entertained guests, or perhaps customers, at odd hours.  They came to her for advice and she would make readings.  She had crystals, hewn in oblong spheres, her ‘unhatching eggs’ as she called them.  She said they had potential futures in them, futures that would never hatch, but by peering into their contours and bendy refractions, she could see thing that would never be, and from what would never-be, she would make guesses about what could be. 

She would read cards, but only cards of her own making.  I never knew how many were in her decks; she was always adding, subtracting, or even merging her cards.  The Witch in Flames was divided, and became
the Burning Rose and the Web-Weaver.  The Ocean Soul was torn to pieces, replaced by the Rising Deep, under which were the Siren of Storms, the Chelicerae, the Drowning Dark, and the Fulgent Abyss.  Growths of Thorns, Flowers, and Rot flitted through her hand time and time again, and she hacked apart the cards of the Suicide King, the Dust of Graves, the Gnawing Worms, and the Unmoving Egg, again and again, to create a mosaic of dead things.  Once she painted a card of dull and dark stars, bleeding away into an endless night, and she fed the entire deck to her incense candles.  She painted all her cards, all the figures, and none were pleasant to look upon.

She was afraid of stars. Once, after too much wine, she told me something of her past.  That she had spent her life running, first from what was real, and then from what she found
in the unreal.  She used to have a different life, with a different name, in a different part of the country.  She left that all behind, burned her old life and left the ashes to cover her path. But something had seen her, something far above, and she swore its eyes yet lingered over her.  So she came to the city, where the light and the noise and the motion drowned out the skies and bleached the night, because that way the stars couldn’t see her.

And it worked.  For a while. 

We were friends.  I’m almost certain of that.  Thinking about her is like trying to peer into a hole; you can’t see what isn’t there, but you can judge what it was by the impression it left behind.  And chasing those memories, those sleepless nights and hazy days, I can find my way to little fragments.  I remember her cluttered apartment, the scent of spices and incense and sweat, colours and lights and fervent whispered conversation in the middle of the night. 

I can recall sitting with her, in the late hours of an empty night.  I can’t recall her words, but I do remember her message.  I remember smelling the wine on her breath, but there was not nearly enough to explain the way she was thinking.

She had seen something, or maybe she saw the sort of nothing that bespoke something hidden?  But she was certain that whatever she had seen, had seen her as well.  She said cats were staring at her, that they could see the mark laid upon her in her dreams.   She said bats were scared of her, that they avoided her apartment block.  She told me that moths were drawn to the light of her doom and would beat themselves senseless against her windows in the summer months. The lights of her apartment flickered as she spoke, and she shivered while wrapped up in brightly colored blankets and sheets.  

It was spring.  I remember thinking it strange that such dark notions would come as the nights were shrinking.   

I remember being nervous when I left her apartment.  I remember looking up, seeing the moon, small and distant, partially obscured by the clouds.  How similar it seemed to her unhatching eggs and their stillborn
futures.  I remember shivering in the night. 

A mist rolled into the city the next night.  It was unseasonably chilly.  The mists wreathed the city, dulling light and strangling buildings, slowing traffic to a crawl and muting all the sounds of life.  But the morning sun didn’t burn it away.  Instead, it seemed to roil, swirling in eddies and currents.  From a high apartment it seemed almost like a river or lake, one with undulating, scaled things swimming just beneath the surface.

My friend was distraught.  She stuffed sheets and blankets around her windowsill and under her door.  When I visited she was poring over her crystals, her painted cards, her plates of scattered leaves interspersed
with feeder grubs, and her collection of erratically graven bone dice.  The mists were obscuring the futures, she told me.  The stars would be making their move soon. 

The mists lingered through the night, until they began to shine and shimmer.  A cold snap struck the area, and where the mists had smothered the trees, streets, and buildings in a damp embrace the previous night, the cold then entombed it all in ice.  Most of the trees had been budding.  Many wouldn’t survive the frost. 

The moisture in the air vanished, petrified into crystal shards that collapsed onto the ground and pavement.  They clung heavy to branch and bough, sapping the life from living things.  They wrapped around power lines and gnawed through insulated roofs and enveloped the city in shimmering crystal.  The city was shocked by the chill, and numbed by the glinting ice.

And on the third night the stars began to fall. 

There was something in the air that night.  Something chilling in a way simple cold couldn’t encompass.  There was a sense of dread in the air, of something final looming overhead.  The winds began to blow past midnight, ice-crusted branches snapping under the stress.  Power lines faltered, and then failed.  One by one the lights of the city flickered out.

The late freeze is a point of fact.  The unseasonable weather and the power outage have been recorded in the city’s climate logs. The homeless caught unawares were recovered and buried.  All of this happened, and is remembered, but what happened next unfolded as if in a dream. 

I watched, staring from my apartment window.  Only then did I realize I could truly see the stars, perhaps for the first time in my life. Every spark of light in the city below had been snuffed out by fog and
ice.  Every flickering flame smothered by the cold and damp, and every electric light strangled at the source.  Not a car moved or started in the desolate streets below, and not a single match-flame could find purchase against the oppressive, cold dark.  And in that utter darkness the stars loomed low and heavy.

I had never seen them so bare.  They were faint at first, distant and unreal, but in that darkness they seemed to swarm. With every spark of light on the ground, from horizon to horizon, quelled and smothered, the lights of the firmament appeared.  They filled the sky, every spark of light I could recognize, Orion and Ursa Major, overwhelmed by the sprawl of millions upon millions of lights, their glow merging together into spiraling arms and
nebulae.  The sky was on fire, and every spark of distant light was moving. 

The stars started to bleed. 

Filaments of light began to trail downward from the brightest nexus, and soon it seemed every spark was emitting a faint, liquid line of illumination that seemed to fall down upon us. 

I remember shivering. The light was cold.  Freezing, or something worse, a cold born of the distant void, deeper and more cutting than anything of this world, or any world that has ever known the heat of a
sun.  A million filaments of that shivering light drifted downward onto the city, like budding trails of blooming fungi, or the stinging arms of a cosmic jellyfish.  Even as they passed by my window they seemed
far away.  I couldn’t focus or follow the streams upward to their source, and felt myself grow faint when I tried.

I remember feeling my breath freeze against my skin.  I remember the sky burning bright as day as a hundred seeking limbs of light drifted through the city.  And I remember them converging on the
building of the one woman who might have understood what was happening. 

When I came to my senses the night was nearly spent.  Power had been restored, and the little, safe, electric lights of my home were blinking for attention. 

I ran to her apartment as quickly as I could, my mind reeling.  I scribbled notes of things that seemed to be slipping from my thoughts even then.  I nearly stopped three times, my purpose
nearly forgotten, the call of my distant, warm bed all but deafening.  But I thought of those whispered conversations, the paintings and buntings and hanging veils and vibrant colours, and the fear in those eyes, whose own colour I could no longer recall. 

Her apartment was ransacked.  Not a single piece of furniture was where it should have been; couches were upended, dressers shattered, the bed flung against the wall, the barricaded and veiled windows obliterated, yawning into the cold night beyond. 

Every scrap of colour was gone, bleached out of the fabrics, parchments, and even the scattered vials of pigments she painted with.  It was all grey and weathered.  Not the grey of mist or dawn, but an empty,
distant hue, more the absence of colour than any shade of its own.  Every painting, every tarot card, every wall, every artistic expression was gone, replaced by empty grey, and torn and weathered into junk beyond that.

But what struck me most were the crystal balls, those eggs of untouched and impossible futures, forever stillborn.  She read my future in one, once, or at least told me a future that could never be. Those crystals orbs were scattered on the floor, along with all the other detritus, but they were broken. The solid hunks of crystal were shattered, fractured and sheared roughly in half.  The cuts were oddly messy, and I couldn’t tell what tool or force could have made them.  I remember the unnerving thought that, perhaps, they had been broken from the inside. Every crystal orb was shattered… except one, which had somehow rolled into a corner and been buried under several pounds of canvas and cloth.  It was the only thing I took with me when I left. 

She wasn’t there.  I’m not sure she was ever there.  I knew she would never be there again. 

This all happened years ago. I had the worst dreams when I lived in the same building as that one surviving orb.  Eventually, I drove away from the city, miles and miles away, until the buildings were short and flat
and trees grew in wild abundance.  I walked into a forest and buried the orb in the nook of an elm’s roots.  I could never find that location again, if I spent the rest of my life searching. But, somehow, even if I could find that tree, find those roots, and dig in that place again, I doubt that crystal orb would still be there.  Night fell as I returned to my home in the city, and for just a moment, I felt as though I were being watched.

I can go for years without thinking about that night, but sooner or later I take to wondering.  My friend once spoke of escape; she mentioned she had fled before, and may flee again.  I wonder what became of her, I
wonder what I witnessed that fateful night, and I wondered how she drew the attention of the thing in the stars.

I still live in a city, albeit not the same one.  I still live sheltered by the lights of land, crowding out the firmament above.  But I know it’s there.  It’s always there, even when I cannot see it.  And sometimes I wonder if the stars are watching me now.