“I slipped out of the house quietly, knowing that if my parents knew what I was doing, they’d lock me in my room for sure. No parent wants their kid knocking on the door of a house that sounds like something out of a bad horror/sci-fi movie.”
I could hear the neighbors next door but I have never seen them. Each night, noises emanate from their house and pierce the silence. Rumbling, low chanting, sometimes shrieks. Makes it hard to get to sleep. Mom and Dad insisted that they didn’t hear anything, but I knew they did. How could they not have? Anyway, the past few days, it had been getting worse. The noises were longer, and louder, with more screaming and chanting. Not to mention how debilitating it was. Night after night, I couldn’t get to sleep until three o’clock in the morning, which gave me exactly three hours of sleep on which to function.
Frankly, I’d had enough.
I slipped out of the house quietly, knowing that if my parents knew what I was doing, they’d lock me in my room for sure. No parent wants their kid knocking on the door of a house that sounds like something out of a bad horror/sci-fi movie.
The plan was simple. I wouldn’t ask questions, wouldn’t judge or act suspicious, I’d just politely ask them to keep their noises to a minimum at night. Then I would walk away and pretend nothing had ever happened.
As I walked up the long dark driveway my heart started pounding. The blood rushed up to my face, and my footsteps echoed breaking the silence. I approached the huge oak door that had once been painted a dark green, but all signs of that were gone now. I reached, finger poised ready to push the button that would announce my arrival. Was I really going to do this?
A very skinny mostly black cat slunk out from behind the hedge. I froze, not sure if it would make some kind of horrible sound to alert its owners.
“Hi kitty,” I breathed. “Please don’t make a sound, please don’t make a sound.”
Suddenly the cat meowed louder than I have ever shouted in my life.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” I begged.
No sooner had the cat stopped when the noise started again. The chanting in the house stopped. I ran back down the driveway, heart pounding so incredibly hard I thought it would burst. I can do this, I told myself. If I were anybody else this would have been over fifteen minutes ago. I just have to walk back up the driveway, ring the doorbell and ask, simple as that.
I inhaled deeply, and balled my hands into fists to stop the shaking. Why the hell was I so afraid? I just needed to make a polite request.
I started back towards the house. The chanting began again, quieter now, and this time I didn’t even think — I just rang the doorbell.
Ding-dong, I heard it echo down the hall. The chanting died down immediately. After a moment, I heard footsteps, slowly making their way to the door.
It creaked open.
A woman, pale as a sheet with shadows under her eyes, stood before me. She had a plastered-on smile that was far more disturbing than comforting.
“What do you want?” she asked.
I steadied myself. “Ma’am, excuse me, but I was wondering if you could keep the noise to a minimum at night? It’s sometimes hard to sleep.”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then she slammed the door right in my face.
“Can you beat that?” I said, as I recounted the story to my friend Camilla the next day. “She slammed it right in my face!”
I could tell Camilla was elsewhere. She’ll start looking at you, but not really looking at you, and that’s when you know she’s off in Camilla-land.
“I dunno, Si,” she said real slow. “You said you hear shrieks?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, what if they’re hurting someone? We have to help them, don’t we?”
I sighed. “You know we don’t have to help every person we come across, right?” I said.
She shook her head.
“How can I be happy if I know someone else is in pain? We have to investigate this.”
I sighed. “And I suppose I have no choice in this?”
“Of course not,” she said in her matter-of fact way. “I’ll sneak over to your house tonight. Make sure you’re awake and dressed.”
Of course I didn’t want to, but I stayed up anyway. Camilla is my best friend, after all. I discovered a lot of new ways to keep yourself awake late. I sent an email to my future self, counted all the flowers on my curtains (72), and got an awful lot of homework done. I was figuring out how to be most comfortable when lying on the floor when I heard a sharp rap at my window. I opened it, and standing there, holding a small pebble, was Camilla.
“Hurry!” she whisper-shouted. “Climb out your window!”
“What? No!” I whisper-shouted back.
“Because I can’t!”
Camilla looked at me with a combination of bewilderment and pity. “Well, get down here somehow.”
I tiptoed slowly out of my room, careful not to wake my Mom and Dad. Then I slowly padded down the stairs and out the door.
“Great,” said Camilla once I was standing next to her. “Now we just need to get in somehow.”
“Maybe they left the front door unlocked,” I suggested.
Camilla gave me a look. “Si, of course it’s locked. Who the hell leaves their doors unlocked?”
“I don’t know, these people are weird, remember?”
“They’re weird, not stupid.”
Even so, she tried the front door.
“Do you know how to pick locks?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said.
“You do?” I was impressed. Picking locks was a cool skill.
“Well, I read a WikiHow article before sneaking out, so I should be good.” She took a hairpin out of her pocket and began to jiggle it around in the lock. After a few, very boring minutes, the door finally unlocked with a click. Camilla’s fist shot up into the air.
“Yes! I didn’t think it would actually work!” She grabbed a flashlight, and handed me her phone. “Be sure to film everything.”
“In case something happens.”
That was worrisome. “What? What could happen?”
“Shhh, be quiet. I don’t know.”
We crept through the darkened house. The chanting seemed so much louder now that we were closer to the source of it. It gave me chills down my spine, but I could almost make out words, not in any language I recognized, but much more ancient and sacred. An old memory came to me, from a book I had read long ago, and barely remembered. All the creatures on a distant planet were singing in a beautiful, ancient, sacred language that only one child could understand. For a second I wondered if they were creatures from a distant planet, but then I shook my head at the notion. That’s ridiculous.
“Down the stairs,” whispered Camilla.
We crept down slowly. Every step I took, the stairs creaked. I knew it was just my nerves, but it was still terrifying, and the chanting grew louder. When Camilla reached the bottom step, she opened her mouth in shock.
What? I mouthed.
She said nothing in return, just made a follow me sort of gesture. I climbed down after her.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next.
An awful lot of women and some men too, were all standing in a circle, chanting the weird chant I’d been hearing. In the middle was some kind of object, glowing so brightly I couldn’t make it out.
“They’re chanting so loud they can’t hear us,” Camilla said.
“Well, it doesn’t look like they’re hurting anyone, can we go now?” I asked. “That glowy thing is giving me weird vibes.”
“No!” said Camilla. “We’ve come across a cult, with a mysterious glowy thing, and you just want to walk away?”
“I mean, these people are in a cult, we don’t know what that glowy thing is, and it’s our responsibility to document it!”
“No, it isn’t!”
“Yes, it is!” Now be quiet!” Camilla edged closer to them. With an eye roll, I followed her.
Suddenly, I tripped on an electrical cord and fell to the floor with a thud. Camilla made a noise, incomprehensible and profound, deep within her throat. The chanting stopped and all the people turned around.
The largest one, a tall, thin man with graying hair, approached us. “Why do you disturb our ceremony, boy?” He jabbed a finger at me. His voice felt like someone had slipped ice down my back.
“Well, actually,” I started to explain that I was not really a boy, nor a girl either, but Camilla shot me a look, as if to say, Now’s not the time.
“Well, The Master wouldn’t like this silly intrusion at all, would he?” He addressed the rest of the congregation. they shook their heads and muttered with disapproval. “But,” he said, “The Master is always willing to forgive those who offer.”
“Offer what?” I asked, but they ignored me.
The man said, “You must offer up yourself to The Master, that is the only way to be forgiven for your interruption of the most divine.” He made a motion, and two members of the congregation grabbed our arms.
“No!” I heard Camilla scream. “Fight me like a warrior, you god-forsaken coward!”
I kicked and screamed with her. However, our efforts were for naught. We were thrown into a dark closet. We heard the door lock with a click, and then the two brutes walked away. I swore loudly.
“We have to get out of here,” Camilla said.
“You can’t.” A new voice this time.
“Who are you?” I asked the new voice.
“I’m Anders,” he said. Then, a short, humorless laugh. “Though not for long. Soon I won’t be anything.”
“What do you mean?” Camilla pressed.
“They suck the life out of you, turn you into nothing but a husk. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen them.”
This guy’s delusional, I thought. Camilla crouched down beside him.
“Can you describe this phenomenon to me?”
“No, no, no, they suck it out of you, nothing but a husk, nothing but a husk.” The words that came out of his mouth were just pure chaos. “I don’t want it, get me out get me out no, no, no, no, no, no.”
“Listen, Anders, hi. I’m Camilla. That’s Si, and we’re going to get you out of here. But we need you to tell us what they do so we can get you out of here.”
“No, no, no,” he whimpered quietly.
“You have to.”
Something about the way he spoke reminded me of when Camilla and I were kids and she looked up the medieval ceremony to become a knight, and actually tried to perform it. We had a sleepover and we snuck out to a church, even though neither of us had ever been to church before, except for the Night Vigil. She made me bring a bucket of soapy water and she gave herself a sponge bath, to cleanse herself in preparation. (We were really little then, and neither of us cared very much about nudity.) The next day, she put on a white shirt and black pants and boots and my superhero cape from a few Halloweens before. We took her toy sword and shield and placed it on the altar, and, I kid you not, this girl knelt down and prayed for ten hours straight. Just like a real knight.
It was intense and I remember being really impressed with her self-control. Then, because we had no other knights and we didn’t know any priests, I had to give the sermon on the duties of a knight. I didn’t really know what the duties of a knight were. I tried to say something about the code of chivalry, but a lot of that didn’t really work, since she was a girl, so I made up my own code.
The code was to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves, and to help those in need, and to be honorable in your actions. I didn’t know what the last bit meant, but it felt right.
We also had to write our own vows, because those were gender-specific as well. And finally, I took her toy sword and I dubbed her Sir Camilla. After the ceremony there was supposed to be a huge festival and feast, but instead, we just sang the theme song to our favorite TV show and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“We need to know what they’re doing in order to stop them,” Camilla told Anders. Her arm was slung loosely over his shoulder, as if to steady him.
“They — they strap your head to this machine,” he choked out, “And then they turn it on and it makes a humming noise and then you go stiff and then the humming stops and they take your head out and you fall forward, and your eyes, they’re completely vacant, no one’s there, no one’s at home, and it’s just…” He broke down into sobs.
I felt something stirring inside of me. I wanted to hold this kid, cradle him until his tears stopped, and protect him from everything. Shut up, I told myself. You barely know him. Your comforting probably wouldn’t do him any good.
“And,” he continued, “They take the glowy thing and they somehow connect it to the machine and then the glowy thing gets brighter and they chant and chant and chant about the damn Master and how he’s going to cleanse the world or some shit, and all that chanting, it hurts my head.”
“So, they’re using whatever they suck out of people.” Camilla stood and looked at me. “You stay here and protect him.”
“Camilla,” I protested. “You can’t possibly think that you can take them on your own. There’s more of them, and they’re bigger than you. You need me to fight with you.”
Her eyes narrowed. I knew she hated to admit that someone could beat her, but she dropped her arms to her side in submission.
“You’re right,” she said. She pulled a pocket knife out of her bag and gave it to him. “Are you in any condition to fight?”
He stood. “Probably not, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll do what I can.”
“Okay,” she said. Then, for the second time that night, she started to pick a lock.
Now, I’m generally not very good at fighting. While I have no problem hurting other people, I’m small and pretty easy to overpower with simple brute force. However, I have one redeeming quality: I can use anything as a weapon. Camilla knew this, so when the door clicked open, she let me go first, with Anders following me and her taking up the rear. I scouted out the area. Immediately my vision focused on an old workbench. Jackpot. There were hammers, screwdrivers, and lots of other easily weaponized things. I handed Camilla a hammer and grabbed a wrench for myself. Then, we silently crept into the main room.
The one good thing about the chanting was that it obscured our footsteps completely. We could get right behind them and they didn’t even know we were there. We had to act fast. This was our one shot. We had to make the best of it. I studied the glowy thing more closely, looking for a way to shut it down. It was connected by five electrical cords to what looked like five giant batteries.
“We need to unplug the cords from the batteries,” I whispered to Camilla and Anders.
“Got it,” Camilla whispered back.
They stood with their backs to mine and Camilla poised her hammer, ready to swing, as we slowly made our way over to the first battery. I counted down on my fingers, my hand prepared to pull the plug. Three. Two. One. I pulled the plug. A thousand screams came from inside the glowy thing, as it began to pulsate wildly. The whole congregation turned to us. There was one unanimous flash of panic on their faces, and then they dove at us like wild hounds. I swung blindly with my wrench, hitting someone in what I think was his back. We dashed to the next battery, and somehow unplugged it against the mass of writhing bodies trying to stop us. The screaming became louder.
“Si, slip out and unplug the batteries. Anders and I will hold them off.”
“Are you sure you can?” I asked.
“Yeah, now go!” shouted Anders.
I dove underneath someone’s leg and ran to the third battery, unplugging it with a single swipe of my hand.
“Si, hurry!” I heard Anders shout.
I scrambled to the fourth battery and was about to unplug it, when someone grabbed me from behind and hoisted me in the air. I kicked and yelled and flailed my arms. Suddenly, the arms grabbing me went stiff and I tumbled to the floor. I saw Camilla had hit him in the back with her hammer, and Anders was keeping his little crowd of attackers at bay with his knife. I unplugged the battery and staggered over to the last of the five and unplugged it for good. The last of the screams died out and together we dashed up the stairs and the whole world blurred into a dream as we ran away and outside.
We hit the cool night air like a wall and suddenly all my senses became clear again. Anders was looking around in amazement. He looked so happy. Camilla looked proud.
I was the only one who seemed at all concerned. “Guys, we need to get out of here. They’ll come after us.” Camilla snapped to attention.
“Right,” she said. “We really need to go.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter, as long as we’re safe.”
We took off running. Already we could hear the congregation coming after us. My legs felt like they were moving through jello, like in those dreams where you’re being chased.
We all ducked down a long street, that was usually full of people, but was eerily empty and strange in the moonlight.
Our library was a tall and imposing stone building, with lots and lots of windows. Camilla jimmied the lock open with her hairpin and all three of us tumbled inside. Anders slammed the door behind us. The lights flickered on and all of us collectively sighed with relief.
“Si, come help me push this bookshelf,” said Camilla. I obliged. Together, we heaved the bookshelf in front of the door. Then we collapsed next to Anders, who was already curled up on the floor. He looked a lot younger, and a lot more innocent. I felt my eyelids get heavier and heavier as I slid toward a dark and dreamless sleep.