9:11 by Unapologetic

You probably won't believe me if I told you this. In fact, I'd bet my second-hand laptop and $1.99 cologne that you won't believe me, not merely because I am a twenty-two year old guy (and thus, for some reason, have a lower credence level compared to older and allegedly more mature men), but because nothing in reality can be as crazy as what I'm about to tell you. So in order to recount my story and not be strapped and shipped to an asylum, I have to call my autobiography a fiction.

Now, I'm not saying my entire life is strange – just this one particular day. When I turn eighty – old, gray, and senile (and probably with Alzheimer to boot) – I'll still remember this day even when all else fades into fragmented blurs of memory. The event occurred about two weeks ago, when I was driving from San Francisco Airport to visit my dad, Jack Kreshnac.

Well, Jack's actually my surrogate father; my real dad died when I was too young to remember him. So my mom decided to remarry like any sensible woman would do (though I liked to believe she still loved my real dad), and that's when she met Jack. Jack's a nice fellow, if a little hefty on the side, and a real fine bank accountant at Bank of America who can do inconceivably long division problems in his head while devouring a Big Mac. Anyway, I initially thought he wore that consistent friendly smile to win my mom's hand, but as it turned out, he really did love the two of us – my mom and I, I mean. Of course, I discovered this only after my mom died in a car accident, and it was just Jack and me. I expected him to send me to an orphanage or something – who the hell would want a kid screwing up the rest of their life? – but he kept me. When he went as far as refusing another marriage, sending me to high school, and paying for my college tuition, I realized what a great guy he truly was.

Which kind of nipped my guilt when I left for a college that was on the other side of the country (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in case you were wondering), and didn't see him for four years. Sure, we kept in contact: phone calls, emails, letters, and the whole nine yards. But visual, tangible input always produces a slightly different affect than bland words. So after I got my bachelor's degree in computer science this summer, I snagged the next plane ride from Massachusetts to California. I didn't tell Jack I'd be coming until I arrived at San Francisco airport at about eight in the evening, figuring that, hell, he'd say yes anyway and I mind as well make this a surprise.

I would've had to call anyway to confirm his new address. Turns out that when I left college bound, Jack sold our two-story stucco house for a smaller one-story. 'No need to waste space,' he'd shrugged over the phone. 'Besides, I'm old, I'm retiring, I wanna write my life story.'

If Jack knew about what was to transpire later that night, he'd have a story shooting way up on the New York Times bestseller's list for months. But then again, I hadn't known either, or else I wouldn't be telling this story, would I?

So I called Jack, told him I was coming. He agreed amiably like I'd predicated, expect that he sounded slightly short of breath. This observation perturbed me more than it should have under normal circumstances: Jack's been packing on a steady trail of pounds since mom died. The last time I'd seen him, he was a six feet eight inches tall man weighing 387 pounds. Last year, he told me he was diagnosed with hypertension, and weighed a grand total of 420 pounds. You see why I'm worried?

Naturally, Jack assured me that he was fine, just a little haggard from running for the phone (which I seriously doubted), and told me to get over there in one piece because it might rain that night and he didn't want to see me on the news with a missing arm or head.

An hour later, I possessed a rental Honda Civic, my duffel bag of meager possessions (namely clothes) in the trunk, and Jack's address atop the console. As I drove on Highway 101, a blanket of flat grayness disappeared into the distance, swallowed by roiling clouds that reminded me of cotton dipped in tar. Those celestial swabs were apparently heavy enough to occlude even a sliver of light, casting the road in a pall of darkness. If it weren't for the reflectors nailed along the double yellow lines, I would probably be in several pieces and on the news right now.

I switched my headlights to 'high', so that the terminus of the beam struggled several more feet into the night. The darkness was worse than a fog attack. Risking piloting one-handed while simultaneously reading the map, I turned onto an exit ramp. The Civic's digital clock glowed 8:33. I hoped Jack didn't decid to sleep early, because I preferred not to greet him by pounding loudly on the door.

Despite a concrete gloom pressing against my car, the subtle difference in black hinted at my surrounding. A leveled field, a shade lighter than the sky, flanked both sides of the road, extending to the serrated silhouette of distant mountains. Occasionally, a lone tree stood in the pasture, but it flew past too quickly for me to see anything other than gnarled limbs reaching for the unseen stars. I suspected I must be driving along the countryside. What unnerved me the most was that, other than mine, the road was absent of vehicles or any sign of life. No incoming headlights, no trailing taillights, not even a cow out for a midnight snack.

Some countryside.

I was driving in the middle of freakin' nowhere.

But when I pulled off the road to check the map again, verifying Jack's address twice, I was slightly disappointed to discover that I haven't made a wrong turn. Why Jack would live in the middle of freakin' nowhere eluded me, though I imagined he preferred a quiet setting to write his book.

Geez, the guy could've at least chosen a place inhabited by living, breathing entities.

I considered calling Jack again, in case I copied down the wrong address. Unfortunately, I left my cell phone with three of my dorm buddies, who were probably depleting the rest of my minutes. Go me.

During the eternal navigation in the dark, the car suddenly coughed and sputtered like a sick dog. For a moment, I was more worried that the Civic would break down and leave me alone in an alien land than about receiving reparations from the rental company. My fear escalated when a bolt of white lightning fissured the sky, followed by the stentorian rumble of thunder. Oddly, the rain I had expected never came.

In the end, the Civic didn't die on me. It managed to wheeze and cough through the next five miles or so until the shadowed form of a house solidified against the dark. From what I could discern, the structure was one-storied, with square shingles that must have been red or maybe dark pink in daylight. The white-washed walls, glazed silver by shadows, contained large mullioned windows. A row of brushes lined the driveway.

Relief melted over me like a minty balm. I realized how anxious I'd been after I pulled into the driveway and my hands unclenched the stirring wheel, leaving sweat marks on the faux leather wheel covering. I glanced at the clock: 9:50. I'd been driving for more than an hour.

Popping open the trunk, I grabbed my duffel bag. The driveway lights, triggered when I drove my car up the ramp, illuminated the cement ground in a sickle glow. As I followed the path to the front door, I noticed that the bushes bloomed with rhododendrons, their white petals bleached yellow by the light.

For some reason, my heart skipped a beat, even though I didn't believe in superstitions. You see, rhododendrons symbolized danger, and if I'd been smart to listen to the blatant message, I wouldn't be in the mess I was about to entangle myself in.

Ignoring the flowers, I strolled up to the front door and rang the bell. A hollow series of chiming echoed throughout the house, like the knell at a funeral service. The wind chimes – five metal bars of various lengths – suddenly clattered from above the porch bench, only…

There was no wind.

Now, I was wearing a t-shirt, khakis, and beach sandals, and I would have felt a breeze – had there been one. But there was nothing; only the smothering summer heat suppressed between the land and the mantle of clouds.

I wouldn't deny that I was freaked out, but hey, I was a twenty-two year old guy with some nice washboard abs (not to be conceited) and bicep muscles, and I refused to yield to wind chimes that defied the laws of nature.

I waited for about half a minute to give Jack some time to get to the door, but rang the bell again when no one answer. The empty chimes echoed, and there were none of Jack's 'Hold your horses, the old man's coming!' Confused at the seemingly empty residency, I walked back to the driveway to check the house number. It was the right house, only without Jack in it.

When I pressed the bell a third time and no one answered, I started panicking. With panic came horrible possibilities that chilled me all the way to the marrows: what if Jack had stumbled and was now sprawled on the ground unconscious, with a large gash in the back of his head from hitting the edge of a table? What if he was attacked by a murderer posing to be the telephone repairman? But the most frightening, and most vivid, image was Jack suffering from a heart attack, his 420 pounds body rotting in the heat of the house?

I willed the image away with considerable effort. Sometimes I wondered if I should have majored in creative writing instead of computer science, since my rampant imagination never failed in its vibrant realism.

The chance that Jack might not be home didn't assure me, because I knew he wasn't the type of person to abandon an arriving visitor, especially if that visitor happened to be his (surrogate) son.

"Jack?" I called from the door. My voice seemed to penetrate through the wood, into the house, and scattering like wind-blown sand.

I didn't expect a response. Anxious for Jack's welfare, I tried the doorknob, both relieved and apprehensive when the door swung open – easily, silently. The driveway light sprayed sallow shadows beyond the threshold; in the foyer, shadows swathed the walls and ground.

"Jack?" I called again. This time, I really did hear my voice echo, and cringed at the palpable fearful concern in it.

Finding the contour of the shadowed light switch, I pressed it just as the driveway light dimmed. A soft orange burn washed the foyer, chasing the shadows to the back of the hall. I couldn't see much of the house from my position at the front door; walls loomed on both sides of me, the nearest opening to my left.

As I approached the entry, my hearing seemed to have sharpened. I could hear the soft scratching of my shoes against the carpet, the faint ticking of a clock from beyond the opening, and the hum of a refrigerator near the back of the house. Other than that, the eeriness silence disturbed me. I would've been glad to hear even the hoarse cry of a crow just for some sort of living sound.

The entry led to a living room. I switched on the lamp by the sofa. Weak yellow light brushed over the fine grains of Italian black leather. In the dim illumination, I saw a Yamaha piano in one corner by the bay window, the heavy curtains opening to sepulchral darkness. In the center of the room was a glass coffee table, and directly opposite it was a forty inch plasma T.V. Another lamp sat on the other side of the sofa. I turned it on, though the degree of brightness in the room didn't increase much.

"Jack?" I tried again, louder this time. "Hey, Jack, are you here?"

An unsettling silence answered me.

I started towards the room adjacent this one, and that was when I saw it. At the far end of the room, shrouded in shadows, hang a portrait. On closer inspection, I realized it was a blown-up photo slid into a chrome frame, showing a brown-haired boy, a woman with braided blond hair, and a man with black hair. It was me, my mom, and Jack, respectively. I tried to recall when we took the picture, as it must have been some time ago considering the twig of a boy in the photo. Then I remembered: it was about a year after my mom and Jack married. In the picture, my mom had her hand on Jack's shoulder, he reaching with one hand to hold hers. I stood on the other side with a victory pose. We all appeared pretty happy, as it was indeed a happy time.

The photo relaxed my doubts about my whereabouts.

As I moved away from the picture, I had a sudden impulse to check my watch. Perhaps I was overly concerned about Jack – a more-than-capable man – when night fell this late. When I pressed the 'glow' button, I was sure my watch was broken.

The neon green digits read 9:40.

Which was impossible. Unless the clock in the Civic was wrong, it should be past ten by now. The batteries had probably died, except then the 'glow' effect shouldn't be working.

Deeming my watch as broken (and deciding to get another one at Wal-mart), I entered the next room. The bright banks of fluorescent light reveal it to be a kitchen, with all the usual kitchen appliances. But no Jack up for a late snack.

Amidst the low hum of the fridge, a peal of thunder suddenly rolled overhead, sounding closer than when I'd been in the car. For a moment, I thought I felt the ground shake and the foundation of the house shudder, but no, it must have been my overwrought mind.

At the end of the kitchen, sliding glass doors led to the backyard. I tried what I assumed was the porch light, and a pale yellow glow lit the yard. Flowers, bushes, a tree, and a cement patio. No Jack.

Switching off the light, I went into the hallway again, which connected the rest of the house. A passage intercepting the hall contained one doorway, before turning perpendicularly onto another path with two more rooms. The door before the turn was ajar, darkness seeping over the casing like viscous oil.

"Jack? You there?"

I pushed the door open further, reaching in and feeling for the light switch. I didn't want to risk bodily injury from bumping into an object in the dark – not because I was afraid of the sentient blackness that wanted to devour me.

Ok, I'm a twenty-two year old guy and a very bad liar. Virile pride prevents me from admitting my childish fears.

After the light flickered on, I saw that the room was a study: an immense mahogany desk with a laptop and piles of paper, a bookshelf filled with an array of tomes and miscellaneous items on the bottom (flashlight, paintbrush, envelopes), a calendar in one corner. Overall, the room cried Spartan. I guess Jack didn't like to have things that might offer a distraction to his novel-writing.

I switched the light off, but left the door wide open. For some obvious reasons, I felt safer when my setting was exposed.

As I turned around, something darted in front of my face so fast I almost swatted at it. Instead, my foremost reflex was to squeeze my eyes shut. When I peeked out hesitantly, I saw that the thing was a butterfly. Not just any butterfly, mind you. It was black – black as night, with a crimson jewel on both of its wings that uncannily resembled eyes. The size of it was larger than that of a normal butterfly: perhaps the size of my hand.

It hovered above my head for a moment, red eyes watching me, then fluttered down the hall. How the thing got in here perplexed me, but I was still recovering from the shock to dwell on the matter.

Besides, I had more important things to do than ponder over a butterfly, such as searching for good old Jack.

I rounded the hall to where the other two doors were located, figuring Jack had to be in one of the rooms. That was when I heard it.

A dull pounding, rhythmic and steady, drifted from beyond the hall. It drummed along the walls, vibrating over the plaster and sending faint tremors into the ground. The slow tabor eerily reminded me of heartbeats – the succession of bu-dum, bu-dum, bu-dum.

My initial thought was that it was Jack, though that didn't explain the reason for the noise. I convinced myself he was working on something, and simply didn't hear the doorbell or my calls.

Yeah, right. And bananas are purple.

The pounding grew louder as I neared the first closed door. My heart pulsed ten times faster than the drumming, fear streaming through my veins with cold adrenaline. My hands suddenly became clammy, almost greasy, and I was half afraid I wouldn't be able to turn the knob.

Inhaling a shaky breath, the sound throbbing behind the wooden panel, I clenched the brass handle. For a moment, I couldn't discern the alien heartbeat from my own. Counting silently to three, I flung the door open, expecting to see Jack's heart on the ground, straining to deliver blood through the nice, thick padding of fat in his arteries.

Yes, I have a morbid mind. But I think it's better to expect the worst than to be taken by surprise.

Instead, what I saw was nothing I'd expected. The hallway light suggested a typical bathroom cast in shades of presumably blue: a blue flurry toilet seat covering, blue washing utensils, blue wallpaper speckled with white flowers, and a blue shower curtain.

The curtain was drawn.

Hesitantly – and I swear, I could taste fear in my mouth – I flipped on the switch by the wall. White light illumined the room, revealing that the color scheme was indeed blue. However, the light also revealed the lack of telltale shadows behind the curtains.

The pounding continued, stronger and louder, its steady beat throbbing through the air and crawling over my skin. My survival senses screamed at me to get the hell out of there, but dread and morbid curiosity transfixed me to the white tiles.

I opened my mouth. My voice choked in my throat, and I had to swallow before attempting again. "Jack? Is that you?"

My voice sounded pitifully weak, like a frightening child in the dark. No wait. Even a child could do better than what I just did.

Gritting my teeth, trying to convince myself that there were no such things as ghosts, and picturing my friends laughing at my paranoia, I flung the shower curtain open.

Nothing. A standard, acrylic bathtub.

Almost immediately, the pounding stopped, replaced with a fathomless silence that seemed to swallow the room whole. I could hear the blood rushing through my ears, into my head, and plummeting down to my feet; could hear my own labored breathing that sounded unnaturally loud. A cold sheen of sweat swaddled my forehead as I stood there, gripping the curtain.

The notion that I was hallucinating didn't escape me. But I was so sure, even more sure that there were fifty states in the US, that the noise had been real. It had almost been…tangible.

"You've been watching too many horror movies, my friend," I muttered to myself. Nevertheless, this did not mollify my obstinate insistence of what I'd heard, nor did it stop me from pulling the curtain all the way open.

I left the bathroom, mindful of Jack's electricity bill by switching off the light, but left the door wide open. When I stepped into the hall again, my wavering doubts of hallucination vanished when the noise started again.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

So unnervingly akin to a beating heart.

This time, it resonated from the second door a few feet away. Feeling bolder, perhaps because I was already too numb from fear to be effected any further, I edged towards the door. Like the bathroom door, this one was also closed. A mirror was suspended across the door, reflecting the sweat on my face and my wide-eyed look of terror. The orange hall light only served to enhance my ill appearance.

Now that I reflect on this, I think I should take a bit of pride in not having stalled as long as I had outside the bathroom. I grasped the knob, twisted it harshly, and flung the door open with my other hand fisted, preparing the knock the living daylights out of…whoever or whatever was in there.

The first thing I saw was the lump on the bed. A tan and black stripped comforter in an oblong heap, as if pulled over a reposed body. The pounding originated from the lump.

I found my voice, thankful that it was steadier than before. "Jack, this isn't funny. Come out from there."

Now, I was under the impression that Jack was hiding beneath the blanket, holding a microphone to his chest to amplify the pounding noise. At least, that's what the rational part of my brain asserted. The other part sloughed in chilling doubt.

No response. Just the amplified beating.

Turning my fear into exasperation, I toggled on a desk lamp, strolled briskly to the bed, and threw the covers back. I lost count how many times I'd been surprised that night, but the thing under the covers was certainly one of them. Rather, the lack of things.

The pounding ceased. For a second, I stared at the empty space, wondering how the hell the comforter could be pulled into a bulging shape without anything supporting it. Then I noticed the red stains on the bed sheets – droplets of crimson, leaking through the cotton fabric, some elongated, some spreading like a fungus, some streaking all over the place.

Like any normal person, my first reaction was to have 'Blood!' blinking on red alert in my head. At perhaps the worst time, I was suddenly bombarded by a memory from fourteen years ago.

I was only eight, with skinny limbs and the nickname 'Twig'. While on a camping trip with mom and Jack (my mom still had two year left), I – being young and stupid at the time – decided to run around barefoot. I'd gone some distance from the camp, at least to a point where I couldn't hear the commotions anymore, and suddenly felt a lancing pain spike through the sole of my left foot. When I looked down, I was lucky I didn't vomit from the sight: A jagged rock had embedded itself into my foot, rupturing the skin and muscles and penetrating I-don't-know how deep. All I knew was the stark white pain coursing through my foot, hot and scorching and springing tears to my eyes. I must have screamed, because Jack (with my mom not far behind) had sprinted toward me with this terrified expression on his face. He took one look at my messy wound, took off his blazer, and wrapped it tightly over my foot like a tourniquet, then lifted me up. I was sure I'd die from the loss of blood, because our camp was up in the mountains; we had left our car below, hiking up to our current location. I hadn't expected Jack to carry me the entire four miles down. In the end, I arrived safely at the hospital.

Staring at the red stains on the bed, I was overwhelmed with renewed gratitude and love. Even though I wasn't Jack's real son, he still tried his utmost to save me, and what he did that day left a deep imprint in my heart.

Along with rekindled love, though, came concern. Once again, my imagination turned its gears, churning out the most horrible possibility ever. What if Jack…? The blood could be…?

No. It couldn't be. In the moment of panic, I had only depended on my visual senses. There was none of the metallic odor of dried blood; a strange bitter tinge permeated the sheets, and I dared to bend down and scrutinize.

The stains weren't blood. The coloring was too bright, the texture too runny, and the smell like gasoline.

More perceptive now, I also noticed the red streaks trailing over the desk beside the bed, and the notepad that was almost completely saturated by red. The stains, it seemed, resulted from an exploded ink pen. The pen itself was nowhere present, though I figured it must have rolled under the bed or behind the desk.

Though my initial assumption had been proven false, the bristling apprehension remained unappeased in my heart. Logically, I knew the red stains were nothing more than chemically created liquid; however, that did not stop the goose bumps from breaking out over my arms. I suppose what disturbed me the most was the location of the stains. The desk, I could understand, but the bed? Only one instance fit: Jack had been writing in bed, the pen exploded, he rushed the pen and paper to the desk.

Yes, and the chances of that happening is about as good as Bugs Bunny munching on a squash for breakfast. I knew Jack for, hell, almost my entire life, and he has a staunch affinity for writing on desks. 'A desk is for writing, a bed for sleeping. You don't mix the two,' he used to say. Unless he picked up the habit when I was away at college, I seriously doubt the situation holds substance.

And even if it did happen, that doesn't answer why the blanket would be heaped together. Again, I doubted Jack would be trying to conceal the stains in such a way; he was impeccably neat as he was hefty. The washing machine would've been the solution.

I stared at the blemished bed sheets some more. In the stillness, the faint ticking of the living clock echoed down the hall. No creepy pounding. No mysterious face-eating butterflies.

I shook my head and prepared to straighten the blanket. Screw this. Leave the damn mystery for someone else to solve. Besides, why waste brain power when I can find Jack and just ask him for an explanation?

My anxiety dropped a few degrees once the comforter was neatly leveled over the bed. A small part of me admitted that the human-shaped lump was disconcerting. Me, superstitious? I hadn't been, but when freaky things start happening, you have to be willing to accept any sort of portent.

I flicked off the lights, immersing the room in darkness again. Just as I crossed the threshold, I caught my reflection in the mirror opposite the door, and my blood ran colder than a night on Pluto. No, it wasn't my appearance that was terrifying (haggard, yes, but not bad enough to freeze my blood). It was the shadowy background.

Although painted in the monochromatic shade of night, edges and outlines of distinct objects blurring together into one entity, I trusted my vision. The bed I'd straightened was rumpled again. A bulge lay in the middle, like a sleeping person rolled in the blanket.

I whirled around, breath hitching from fear. Deep in the caverns of the room, the bed was undisturbed, blanket smooth like a calm day at sea.

Now, I believe in my eyesight, and I believe in my instincts. Currently, both were telling me that something really, really weird was happening, and the lump in the mirror wasn't a consequence of my anxiety for Jack. Maybe that was why I closed the door; perhaps on an intrinsic level, I expected whatever was beneath the covers to come after me.

Also, I didn't look at the mirror again when I walked down the hall. Perhaps I feared what I might see.

Halfway down the hall, I checked my watch again, remembering too late as I raised my wrist that it had stopped working. One could contend that it was a good thing I did check the time, because I discovered my watch was working perfectly – in the wrong direction, that is.

If my memory was correct, the time had stopped at 9:40. If so, then why the hell does it read 9: 23?

The plastic cover over the screen reflected a mild glare from the hall's yellowish light. I half expected to see the digits changing randomly as if they were possessed. Like in horror movies, you know?

Thankfully, nothing happened. It was still 9: 23.

I returned to the kitchen, where the hall ended at. Everything appeared undisturbed, and there were no hovering knives or flying pans aimed at me. I equated this with the lack of ghosts. On any other occasion, I might have laughed myself silly for even harboring the notion of a mischievous poltergeist impinging the house. In fact, I croaked a half-hysterical chuckle, when the noise recommenced.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

A cadenced pounding, harsh and chilling. As if I was listening to the heartbeats of the house. Or maybe a monster that devoured the house, with me in it. The thought of being in anyone or anything's digestive system more than disturbed me.

This time, the sound originated from outside. I edged toward the glass doors warily, peering out at the veil of blackness. An uneasy feeling stirred in my chest, and I switched on the porch light. The pounding increased in strength, seemingly from the bushes lining the back perimeter of the yard, along the fence. Unfortunately, the light's radius didn't quite encompass the entire yard, sparing the lingering shadows from its muted yellow bath.

I flipped the lock off, then hesitated. From the knife holder beside the sink, I selected a six-inch long blade. The tip flickered silver in the dull light, a lethalness highlighting along the edge. Against an intruder, the weapon should suffice if I didn't get shot at first. Against the supernatural? Probably not.

Nevertheless, I felt safer possessing some form of self-protection. At least I wouldn't be completely helpless.

I'd barely trekked halfway across the yard when the pounding stopped. A low rumble of thunder followed its cessation, resonating through the sky like soul-wrenching battle drums. Silence incinerated the lingering sound waves, a smothering silence that was exacerbated by the summer heat. Not even the chatter of nocturnal critters could pierce through the thickness.

I scrutinized the bushes. In the dark, they were a shade darker than the fence, the tops jagged like torn paper. More importantly, they lacked the slight rustling of movement.

I held my breath for as long as I could, never leaving my eyes from the shrubbery. When I was sure nothing aberrant resided among them, I started to take a step back.

Bad idea.

I didn't even get a chance to scream as I tumbled backward, arms flung out in a futile attempt to grab something for support. My feet slid down an acute depression, shattering my tenuous balance and causing me to fall head first. I hit the ground with a sharp thud, the impact sending tingles of pain down my back. The knife was still clenched in one hand, having gorged a zigzagging line into the wall of firm soil during my plummet. That was when I realized I was in a hole. Usually, I wouldn't be freaked out by a cavity in the ground, but when the walls fit snugly around you like someone had measured your height and shoulder width, then dug a trench exclusively for you, it's hard not to be unnerved. The fact that I had missed a hole this big while coming out here was also a little suspicious.