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The Horrible Thing

4,426 words

arachnids_c44f5ddd [1]Author’s Note:

This story is based on a “creepypasta” entitled “Channel 67” published in a collection edited by Gregory West and Hayley Wicker. Like most such urban legends, the story sounded familiar to me when I read it, although I have not been able to find any other closely similar versions online. Despite or perhaps because of their manifold crudities, I often find such legends extremely effective at inducing a shudder of genuine horror. 

My parents bought me a little TV for my room for my fourteenth birthday. It was exciting because we’d just also got a pay TV subscription, and suddenly there was a lot more to watch than The Simpsons and Dawson’s Creek. There were all kinds of movies, including foreign ones that made me feel sophisticated to watch (especially Betty Blue), and Japanese cartoons. I didn’t really care for the sports. I remember discovering Twin Peaks, and a lot of other grown-up stuff. It felt like a real coming-of-age milestone.

I used to stay up every night, so I was probably massively sleep deprived. I’d also probably eaten something I shouldn’t have that might have given me nightmares when I fell asleep–maybe cheese toasties. Yes, I can remember making those often. I had an amazing metabolism back then, could eat anything, and didn’t have to worry about my weight or my complexion, either. I’m just going to call what I saw on the screen that night, and again more recently the horrible thing. And if the first time I saw it was a dream, then maybe it was stored away in my subconscious afterwards, ready to resurface when I saw something that reminded me of it at a time when I was vulnerable, emotionally and physically.

Anyway, it’s because I want to rationally explain the horrible thing that I’m writing this. So I’m going to put it in context before I actually describe it. Maybe that will help me remember some detail that explains it—whatever that might be—or maybe I’m just putting off the description because I can’t write it without wanting to scream.

There was a boy I was kind of “going out” with then, Pete Hickey. I suppose you could say “going out”–we did, to the movies a couple of times, and held hands and kissed in the back row. When I got my TV he asked me if I could get pay-per-view channels, “You know, porno stuff.” I didn’t know and I hadn’t thought about it, but I started to after that. And I felt guilty about it because girls aren’t supposed to be interested in porn.

There was another boy in our grade, a fat boy with rosy cheeks who always annoyed me because he was obviously a nerd but thought he was cool, and he was like the porn dealer of the school. The same way another kid sold dope he took from his parents’ stash, this one sold Penthouse and the rest of those magazines, because his parents ran a newsagency. The boys were mostly obsessed; it was an open secret. I guess that’s why the fat kid had tickets on himself. He was so unattractive, this boy, whose name was Warwick, that I had what you might describe as the opposite of a crush on him: had these intrusive thoughts of him kissing me that left me feeling like washing my mouth, or my mind, out with soap. Well, by a process of thought-association I began to feel that my interest in porn, which I’d only seen in a magazine Pete showed me, somehow put me in the same bracket with him. It didn’t make logical sense, but it contributed to the conflicted feelings I had about the subject.

Pete said you could unscramble the pay-per-view signal; he said you just needed a universal remote, which I’d never heard of, but which only cost a few dollars at the electronics store. Then you would program it to triple-zero and follow some other steps which I’ve forgotten. I was never technically-minded, and although he was, I wasn’t about to tell him I was interested in what he was saying. He would have thought I was a slut.

So I did it in secret. I bought the remote and followed his instructions as well as I could. The internet had just come along then, too, so I got some partly confirming, partly confusing advice there, too. So I was sitting there on the edge of my little mermaid doona cover, heart in my mouth, trying to catch a glimpse of people fucking. I imagined that if my parents found out they would disown me, even though, thinking back, they probably would hardly have minded.

Amongst all the white noise I would occasionally pick up on something and try to tune in, but it was all hopelessly fuzzy. I don’t know how long I kept trying; a while, I think. I remember thinking I’d already lost my innocence in principle, so I might as well enjoy what I’d sacrificed it for.

Then–snap!–the picture became really clear, though kind of washed out like security camera footage, almost black and white but with just enough colour not to be, but with a few details standing out, saturated in colour, like the main actress’s red lips for example. That’s how I remember it, anyway. There was an interior, a woman standing in a kitchen over the stove. She looked like she was about to head out for a night on the town; so why was she cooking dinner? No, she must be having someone around, someone she wanted to look good for, because she was wearing a top that showed a lot of cleavage. I remember glancing down at mine and pushing it together, to see if I could get it to look like hers. Almost. She was also wearing a skirt that could only be described as slutty. Yes, the way it glistened it was made of leather or vinyl. So I might just have found what I was looking for!

But she kept on making that sauce, sauteeing the onions, then removing them from the heat and disappearing off to one side to add the meat, or another vegetable, a shake of salt or seasoning. She wasn’t an expert cook; she was very inefficient in her movements and was getting through a lot of wine in the process. It was odd: there was no music that I could hear; the only sound was the sizzling of the frying pan, but she was moving about, almost dancing, and boogying more and more as time went on until it was kind of absurd, kind of grotesque, what she was doing. The way it was shot, it was like there were a few different cameras around the room recording her simultaneously. This was going on way too long to be anything other than badly edited reality television. I started to think I was watching footage from a slow night of Big Brother Uncut–which was a new thing back then.

Behind her was evidently the door to the rest of the house, because when the doorbell rang she spun around sharply, as if in a panic. I nearly screamed myself; it was like an awful, mechanical snarl.

She dropped the knife she was using to finely chop, chop and re-chop some garlic, and turned around but didn’t do anything right away. I guessed that whoever she was expecting must have had a key. Maybe it was her husband or her live-in boyfriend, and they never used the bell. Then there was a loud knocking, followed by another ring. The camera showed her frightened face in profile, then from the front. Her expression was so intense, larger than life, it seemed, and the camera picked up the tiny wrinkles that appeared on the smooth skin of her face. Slowly, as though she were afraid of stepping on a squeaky board, she crept through the next room, which was the living room, and towards the front door. I was afraid for her. Finally, and again a little bizarrely, she first looked though the peep-hole–then pressed her ear to the door, red lips open in fright.

“Please, there be a accident out here. I come in, use your phone, okay?” It was a high-pitched, nasal voice, a pre-pubescent boy’s, I guessed, and both his grammar and his accent told you he was, you know, ESL. It was like she was miming the fact that she was thinking about it, putting a finger-tip in her mouth and furrowing her brow even more into the camera. She even scratched her head and made a chin rest with her fingers like a children’s TV presenter might have done. I wanted to scream “No, don’t let him in!” because somehow, probably just because of the camerawork I really felt that I was watching something unfolding in real life somewhere, just as I was watching it, on CCTV.

“Please, there be blood all over. My mumma and my dada”-“I remember he said it like that, but so calmly and not actually sounding that young, as if he was a teenage boy pretending to be a little child, using those names instead of “mum” and “dad,” to mislead her and play on her emotions. I was on the edge of my seat. “My mamma and dada they be hurt, they bleed so much out here. You help, please you help . . .”

This was in the days before everyone had a mobile, so I guess there was some plausibility about needing to knock on someone’s door to use the phone. Still, it occurred to me that she could offer to call an ambulance for them without letting them in to her home. It was completely obvious that there was no way she should open that door; yet while this went on, the voice pleading and the woman procrastinating, it was like I started falling under the spell of the voice myself. I started to understand where the woman was coming from: what if there really were an accident? Could she live with herself if she didn’t help?

The woman didn’t say anything at first. Her mind was working slowly. “Okay, I’ll let you in, she said,” in an incredibly earnest tone of voice.

Sure enough, it was an older child. He stood in the doorway, arms by his sides, perfectly still and composed. He was wearing baggy street clothes including a hoodie that obscured his face. He stepped forward into the room, and she stepped back. Then the others followed, and they weren’t children. Two, three, four men came into her living room, the last one turning around and closing the door calmly behind him. She had stood back and thrown her hands up before her face in a dramatic gesture, as though the light outside was too bright to look into (and it was pretty bright; it looked like afternoon sunlight, silhouetting the figures so that they threw long shadows into the room). She stood still like that while one of them quickly went around and placed himself behind her, put a hand over her mouth and held her tight and still, with her head at an angle that suggested he wasn’t far from breaking her neck. Her arms flapped around like dying fish.

Well, if it was a porno I was watching, it should have been banned, because the sex that happened then was definitely not consensual, even though the woman was pretty well limp and didn’t put up a fight. It wasn’t stylised either. The camera angle was high, almost a bird’s eye view at this point, so at first you couldn’t make out their features; they were wearing hoodies and baggy tracksuits just like you’d expect, I guess—I mean, if they were going for anonymity.

They raped that poor woman again and again in turn held her down on the floor, over the sofa, dragged her here and there, until she was whimpering for them to stop. One of them spat in her mouth; another one pulled out a knife and cut her face. Even the little boy who had tricked her had a turn. It was so solemn and so busy, the way they did it. Mechanically pumping in and out while they dragged her around, completely limp. She was whimpering, begging them to leave her alone; then later on just whimpering, crying, not saying anything. They were joking around with each other at the same time, talking, laughing and joking in their language which sounded very strange to me at the time, full of tongue clicks other noises you don’t get in English. They helped themselves to food from the kitchen, then came back to watch and join in again.

Well, they just kept going and going, until the door behind them opened. “Knock, knock!” the husband or boyfriend called out playfully as he pushed open the door. “Oh my God!” he predictably gasped, dropping the bunch of flowers he had been carrying to the carpet and just standing there while the intruders all turned to face him. The moment was long, and the camera focused on his face. His cheeks were a little too pink, I noticed (one of those over-colourful details I mentioned, and his eyes were very blue). He was good looking I guess, tall, blonde and well-built, and he was wearing a suit–but with the rosy cheeks and the bright, darting eyes he looked more like a doll than a man. There was something so stereotypical about him, it seemed to me, something so stupidly old-fashioned, that I knew he was doomed; he couldn’t do anything. Apparently he knew it too, because after a long moment of standing there looking like he was going to fall over backwards, he turned around and ran the hell out of there, slamming the door behind him!

Now, maybe he was going for help. It made sense I guess. Even though his instinct might have told him to stay and fight, stay and defend his love, that way could only end badly. It made more rational sense to go and alert the neighbours. And I might have thought that that was what he was doing, except for the womanish scream that escaped him. That scream told you he was running to save his skin, purely and simply. I swear, there was canned laughter when it happened.

Then the signal cut out. At least that’s how I remember it–but sometimes I wonder if it was actually something in me that cut out the memory of what happened next.

Well, that’s the end of the first part of this story. I stopped watching late night TV for a while after that, or any TV at all that I could help. What I’d seen that night kept coming back to haunt me in dreams for a long time. I was really disturbed by it and the worst thing was I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I suppose I didn’t have to admit to seeking after porn, but even so I had watched it and not turned it off right away. And what was to be gained by telling anyone? How could they possibly reassure me?

Anyway, between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight, let’s see. I lived my life, finished high school, went to university, got a degree in information management, which led to a job as a librarian. Not much different to the customer service jobs I did while I was studying, but at least the money’s better. There aren’t many places in this city you can still afford to live, but fortunately those are the places where libraries count, where they are still kind of community hubs because not everyone has the internet at home, and the kids can come and play Xbox. You meet people, all kinds of people, and you hear their stories. It’s really eye-opening where some people have come from, and it makes you appreciate what you have and want to share it with others.

I never dated a customer before, but this guy I’m seeing, John, I did meet at the service desk. He told me his real name, his tribal name, and there was just no way I could pronounce it. I mean, I deal with people from diverse backgrounds all the time; it’s not like I wasn’t willing to have a go, but he was making sounds with his mouth, his throat, his nose, that there was no way I could reproduce. Then he laughed and said “call me John.”

The thing that attracted me at first was he’s got the most charming smile. Never stopped smiling, even when on our first date he told me about how his people had been kicked out of their homeland, massacred some kind of horrible witch hunt. It sounded like what happened in Rwanda in the ’90s. Anyway, the thing was it was happening in several countries all at once, because his people are spread out between a lot of different countries in Africa and they don’t have a country of their own. They’re called different names in different places, so the Western media never made a big deal about it. It was just one dispute here, another across the border, and so on.

I’ve dated a lot of guys–I shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true–and the ones I really liked all broke my heart. I wasn’t even thirty, and I felt like damaged goods, like I’d never meet anyone good for me, and then John shows up at the loans desk with his big smile and just says, “I like you.” Can you believe it? “I like you. Please, you come with me. Eat.” Well, I was on the rebound after Jason and feeling pretty fragile, so I thought “What the hell?”

He works stacking supermarket shelves and he lives with his family in a Housing Commission flat. When I ask him about his family all he says is “many, many, many!” smiling and rolling his eyes and making a funny whistling noise through his nose. That’s why I’ve never seen where he lives. We’ve been going out for a couple of months now and things have moved really fast, so that we actually spend most nights together now, like a married couple. It’s not what I would have expected with a non-Western guy; I would have assumed he’d be more traditional, but I think he’s just really down to earth after everything he’s been through. By my calculations I fell pregnant the first time we slept together, a couple of months back. Since then I’ve been feeling more and more like we’re soul-mates, and I knew I wanted to have his baby. I was going to tell him, but he just put a hand on my belly and said “You, me have many baby, many many!” like he could read my mind!

It was all going great until last Friday night. We were watching TV when I nodded off after a hell of a week (renovations that never end, half my colleagues away sick and a dead drug-user in the toilets). When I woke up John was asleep, head back, mouth and eyes open–yes, he sleeps with his eyes open!–and snoring in this really weird way he has, similar to the whistling noise he makes through his nose when he laughs.

And what do you think came on the screen?

Yes, it was a sexily dressed woman making dinner, swaying to silent music. It took a while for me to recognise it, all the details I’d half-forgotten but that were so familiar. The panic set in right away before I’d had time to mentally check what I was seeing; I was frozen, never thought to switch it off. It all unfolded just like the first time I’d seen it with the violation and the violence, but that wasn’t all. I knew I was about to see what I’d missed the first time, or what I’d repressed.

The rapists were black, really dark skinned Africans, and they had those ritual scars on their foreheads that some do, like the Sudanese, for example. But these were really big, like a chain of black pearls that went all the way in a circle around their bald heads. So, black on black . . . plus the hoods, plus the way the camera angle was mostly high and distant, taking everything in that was happening all at once, while the rape and everything was going on . . . anyway, somehow I’d missed this one detail right until the end. As the final rapist climaxed once again, he threw his head back, laughed and made a horrible whistling noise. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe his eyes! There was a crown of them all the way around his head, black like melanomas, blacker even than his skin, but shining like dewdrops, and they winked open just as his two human eyes closed.

They caught the guy who ran, dragged him back and made him watch. I was afraid that they were going to kill the two of them when they’d finished, but no. They just walked out when they were done, and closed the door behind them.

In some ways the rape scene was realistic–it was certainly graphic, even pornographic–but what came next was like a dream, totally surreal. The two of them stayed there in the positions they were in when the intruders left: the man on his knees nearest the door, the woman face-down on the floor. You could see that time was passing. The light from outside got darker, the shadows inside heavier. There was no light inside the house, only what came in through the blinds. It was night, and you could hardly see a thing; then it started getting lighter, and I saw that the figures had moved a little. It was like watching the hands of a clock move, it was so slow. Hypnotic. I thought of Japanese Noh theatre, which I studied at uni, and how the actors do that: move really, really slowly, making every tiny gesture take on infinite meaning and emotion.

After a while he had walked some way towards her on his knees, one hand over his heart, the other reaching out for her. She was also on her knees, covering her face, which was facing in the opposite direction and extending an arm towards him that said, “No, I don’t want to hear it,” or “Don’t even look at me, I’m so ashamed!” He was ashamed that he hadn’t been able to protect her, and she was ashamed of what had happened to her, and probably angry and disgusted with him–even though I don’t know what he could have done against so many of them.

Days kept passing, faster and faster now, measured by the pulsing of the light beams through the blinds and the waxing and waning of shadows. The camera angled changed from time to time and focused on the tableau as a whole, or some part of it. Now I saw his hair growing (hers was probably growing too, but it was already long so it was less obvious). Fingernails growing. And while they were posed there like that, of course, they weren’t eating so I guess that explained how they were wasting away. You saw the skull beneath the skin coming out while the eyes in those increasing hollows didn’t so much as blink. The despair in their faces was terrible, mouths handing open like they were crying out, but no sound. The whole thing was silent.

She was changing in a different way, too. Her skin was coming out in an awful rash that got worse and worse. I wondered if it had to do with the cut on her cheek, then if she’d got some STD. That was probably it. Eventually she was covered in these scabby looking boils. It was horrible.

Then her skin started twitching. You could see that there was something inside those boils that was trying to break out.

The figures had begun to slump. I realised it had been happening for a while before I noticed it was definitely happening. Finally they collapsed at the same moment quite suddenly. It was a massive shock after I’d been staring at them, hypnotised with emotion, for god knows how long. It felt like actual days. I was too busy watching the thing on her cheek, next to the scab from the knife cut, as it broke out like a chicken from an egg. It looked like a spider crossed with a man–with a baby, I mean, in that it had four legs, not eight. But it had those eyes that went all the way around its head. It was about the size of the first joint of your thumb, and it crawled down her face, and out of the camera frame before I was even sure of what I’d seen.

When the slumping figures finally hit the floor, she just exploded. All the rest of those little things under her skin burst at once, like the first one had given the signal, and in a swarm they ran for the man and enveloped him. And I watched as they ate him alive. The sound coming back suddenly so that you could hear the sound of thousands of little jaws tearing at his flesh, which would could see oozing blood under the assault. They were crawling across his eyeballs and into his open mouth–everywhere.

I would have screamed but it was like I was having an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t move or scream any more than the figures on the TV could.

When finally the screen went blank, I remembered where I was. I looked over at John, and by the light of the TV it was like we’d been transported into the world of that place on the screen, colours all washed out but so sharp at the same time. And then I absolutely did scream. His human eyes were closed, where before they’d been open, like I said–and his spider eyes for the first time ever were gleaming at me like a crown of black jewels.

I ran out of there and I’ve been staying at my mother’s the last couple of nights, feeling sick—physically sick, feverish, losing weight–and just lying low, trying to understand what the hell’s going on in my life. And I think I’m starting to break out in a rash.