Sometimes, when the late seasonal wind blows, and rapidly drops to an unexpected chill, subtly kissing the summer season goodbye, certain isolated events occur that are inevitably disregarded.
Those missed or stolen moments, like that first fallen leaf. Not the one you saw sail gently to the ground in the cool fall or late summer breeze, but the one that you didn’t see, that fell into a cold, murky puddle, beginning its decay without attention. There are things that pass by in the long shadows of the earlier setting sun, that send a shiver up our spines when we least expect it; that cause us to look over our shoulders, and to squint for sight into that dark corner where we thought we heard something whimper.
I am aware of these things and of their validity, though not a vast understanding of them all. But I am aware, because I have experienced such an event that has left my eyes of awareness forever pried open.
I had been late, yet again, for an appointment I had aimed to keep for several weeks. To indulge you in my motive, the importance held itself in a ring, an expensive—expensive to my economically meager stature—ring, which sat in my pocket as I entered the wooded, inner city park named for St. Vladimir, across from her apartment.
It was a large wooded sanctuary from the city pollution and concrete, complete with paths, benches and quaint decorative light posts. The time was ten past nine on my watch, but it was dark, very dark that night. I recall the moment I stepped into the park, that exact moment when the temperature dropped like an anchor into the depths and sent a shiver down my spine. The change was so abrupt that it stopped me in my heated tracks, just as my foot hit the gravel path which snaked its course through the park. I stood there and looked behind myself instantly, as if I had been slapped on the back by an old mischievous shadow-friend, trying to offset my mood with a trick.
Of course there was no one near me. The only movement emanated from below the dim light post across the street; the skeletal shadows of branches swayed across the cracked asphalt road.I was by all means, alone.
I continued on my way, at a slightly elevated pace, through the cold and damp paths of St. Vladimir’s park. My sweating palm grasped and turned on end the small ring case, which burned intently in my pocket. My mind was in many places, drifting from idea to outcome of my intended destination, when a sudden realization came upon me that every single quaint light pole in the park… had furtively shut off.
One. By. One.
Bathed in the black, the park lost all quaint qualities. I stopped and fished for a cigarette in my other pocket—or more truthfully, in my modest recollection—for my lighter.
I lit my cigarette, and, unable to hold back another shiver, my body shook. Something inside me had begun to buzz, not audibly, but in that sense one inexplicably experiences seconds before a car crash, or witnesses an accident. Perhaps it was the blood running faster through my veins due to the fear-induced adrenaline, or maybe it was something bad I had devoured earlier in the evening at Sal’s Diner. Whatever it was, it was a tell I should have read… and then run.
Instead, I continued walking, at a slightly quickened pace, my cigarette ember burning brightly. I did my best to stay on the familiar path, but visibility was impossible beneath the canopy of pines which laced the park. I found myself walking over roots and uneven ground, until I was no longer on a path at all.
It was at this point that I heard the moan.
A long, weak, dusty voice from out of the black; that thick velvet black. I stopped and listened, for the sound didn’t frighten me, but for some unknown reason, intrigued me. The sound swept through the night again, and this time I was sure it was the voice of an old man, perhaps sick or lost in the thick blanket of such an uncharacteristically dark night. I pulled my lighter from my pocket and flicked it to catch flame. I walked slowly and carefully over the entwined roots writhing like serpents in the dancing light of my miniature torch.
As I continued, the moan sounded off once more. At the same moment, its source came into my view: a small bundle crouched at the base of a tree. I approached the wrapped body cautiously, speaking words of assurance and questioning of well-being. There were no answers as I drew near: no moans, no movement. I held my lighter tight and crouched beside the ragged bundle. I crouched there for a few extended seconds, and then reached forward to touch what appeared to be a shoulder.
An arm shot forth from the tattered rags and grabbed hold of my neck with such force that I knew this could be no old or sick man. A face so old and worn emerged; leather skin hung loosely on crevassed cheekbones; uneven stubble and pockmarks accentuating every deeply folded wrinkle and stain of time. His mouth was curled into what appeared to be a twisted grin of gnarled broken tooth and black gum, and his eyes—I am still unaware if I had exaggerated these details due to shock or some sort of trauma—but his eyes appeared to glow amber yellow and red, not unlike the ash of my cigarette, which now lay smoldering on the ground next to my abandoned lighter. His hands tightened at my throat and it was then I realized there was something incredibly sharp pressing against my jugular. I had not seen a knife, or any object other than the old hand which moved so stealthily into its fatal grip. Unseen razors threatened my flesh with desecration, and though I could not see the blades, I knew the threat was very real by the look in the crazed old man’s fiery eyes.
We crouched there, both locked in some perverse portrait of predator and prey, for I’m not certain of how long. Paralyzed with fear, I awaited the inevitable conclusion of my life, when it dawned on me that this was no old man, but in fact, a demon. What I had done to call forth torment from such a thing… as in this being my modest and truthful recollection, perhaps I in fact do know, but will never share.
The demon looked into my eyes with all knowledge of my being, with every insight beyond my own subconscious. The very feeling of utter invasion of one’s soul is something that still haunts me.
He then spoke to me, not in some demonic voice, but in the same old dusty voice I heard in his summoning moans. He pulled me in close to the stench of his breath, and he whispered, “Your debt has been paid in velvet black. You’ve given what was owed, and shall never have it back.”
He then released me and sent me stumbling backwards to the cold forest floor. I sat a moment looking at him as he gazed back at me, his curled grin no more, replaced by a somber look that entranced me in still silence until he pulled the rags back upon him to become the tattered bundle once again.
I leapt to my feet and ran, as if guided by some extra sensory vision, through the thick trees to emerge into a clearing. With sudden and eerie happenstance, the park lights returned to life. I stood aghast, catching my breath and looking about my surroundings. Recognizing the place that had seemed so foreign in the absence of light, I swallowed, gasped for one more deep breath to slow my rushing blood, and leaned forward placing my hands and weight on my thighs. And that’s when I noticed it.
The ring was gone. That ring I had worked so hard for and which had garnered such deep meaning in the short time that it was in my possession—it was gone. Was I to be robbed of this without even a struggle? This angered me thoroughly, beyond my dissipating fear and ushered forth my fading adrenaline reserves. I vaguely recall scanning the immediate area, finding and picking up the large rock, searching back through the half-lit wooded area for the place of my ambush. I soon found it and furiously approached the resting man. I stood with the rock raised above my head, ready to bring it down without prejudice, upon the wretched, thieving thing that had denied me the pleasure of my engagement.
I bellowed for him to look at me, to give back what was mine, but the ragged bundle showed me no discourse, which only infuriated me more. In rage, I kicked him. The bundle of tattered rags still held the old man, only now he was a corpse, ripe with the stench of death and rot. His amber eyes had given way to the concave dwellings of a thousand writhing maggots; his wrinkles had tightened against his skull, frozen into a skeletal scream, which pushed forth his few rotten teeth and a black, hardened tongue.
I fell backwards in pure shock. I couldn’t bear to spend another moment in that wicked place, and so I stood and ran. I ran from the park, down streets and nameless alleys. I ran in any direction there was light, in some sort of daze, until the sun crept up at dawn, and I found myself back on the stoop of my own apartment, wondering if I had ever left. Had I only just awoke from some strange lucid dream, hearing echoes of moans and sirens from some unearthly source conjured by my mind?
In the days, weeks, and months that followed the incident, I constantly questioned my sanity. I questioned every gust of autumn wind that brushed against my back, or rustled the old season’s leaves. I questioned the coincidences that had led me away from her apartment, and the fact that in that same evening, a fire had erupted in the early hours of night and burned the building to the ground while she slept. I know that there was something vast at work that eve, something that I may never comprehend. Those burning amber eyes I see every time I close my own and attempt to sleep.
They have watched me, like some sort of sentry keeping vigil on my propositions, my occupations, my indiscretions, though never for my protection. I still hear those words and the voice echo in my mind, etched into the days that have come to pass as my life, the changing seasons as my hair grows thin, as wrinkles set in and sunspots sneak across my flesh, as I draw closer to understand the night in the velvet black.
Ryan Barrett is an actor, writer, and producer. He’s appeared in films such as Monkey in the Middle, Kingdom Come, Ejecta, The Drownsman, and many others. You can find his full filmography at imdb, and learn more about his upcoming projects at his Facebook fan page.