Empty Night

Paul crept up to the window. Strands of oily hair fell across his face, and try as he might he couldn't keep them away.

I should've got a haircut," he thought out loud. "I'd be able to deal with this crap better if I didn't have problems with my hair."

Louis looked over from his vantage point by a neighboring window. "Yeah, right. If your freaking hair was shorter everything would be okay."

"Shut up," Mandy interjected. She was huddled in a swath of threadbare blankets. They were the only thing she could find in the house. "Those things out there will hear you."

Louis looked over, pale moonlight reflecting on his weary face. "Seriously? Of course they can hear us. Ghosts can hear everything. They're ghosts for crying out loud."

A chilled breeze swept past the house, bringing with it an unmistakable sense of hopelessness, an aura of lost faith and forgotten dreams. It seeped in through the cracks in the brittle weatherstripping framing the windows, seeking any opening it could.

Paul brushed aside the hair that was in his face and carefully parted the tattered curtains over the window. A sheet of night filled the opening, a black rectangle that seemed to swallow all who looked at it like a hungry maw intent on a feeding.

"Do you see anything?" Louis asked as he scanned the similar view from his window. He could only hope that Paul saw something he didn't, something that might help them.

"No, nothing, nothing at all," Paul replied in a deadpan tone. "Nothing but an empty night out there."

Mandy felt pain in her stomach. She didn't have any painkillers left and knew she wouldn't be able to find any more. All she could do was try to block the discomfort with her mind as she huddled into the blankets.

Twice before she had seen the ghosts. The first time was when she was on her morning run and an elderly man stepped out in front of her. She couldn't stop in time and braced for a collision, but none came. Instead she just kept moving as if nothing had happened, although she did feel an uncomfortable chill sweep through her, and the man's face was like a void with eyes: empty and heartless.

Just when she began to think the encounter was her imagination she was attacked the following morning as she was walking to her car in her driveway. Her assailant was a young man who came up behind her and got her in a headlock before she knew what was happening.

"We outnumber you," he whispered in her ear with breath that had no odor whatsoever. And then he threw her to the ground and landed a swift kick to her side. She gasped in pain and rolled over to get a better look at him for the police.

But he had vanished.

She looked in every direction and finally caught a glimpse of a vague, shadowy figure slinking off into the brush, and as she watched in disbelief, it dissipated into nothingness.

It was then that she realized what she had seen and knew that she would never look at the world the same way again.

Mandy pulled the mangy blankets up to her chin, trying desperately to wrap herself up as much a she could.

The house had seemed like salvation at first, but now felt like nothing more than a trap.

She wondered if the ghosts wanted them here. Had they planned this all along?

She supposed it didn't matter though. She was trapped here with two guys she didn't

know and whatever was outside the crumbling walls of the house would surely find a way in eventually. So she sat there, cocooned in her false sanctuary, clinging to the belief that somehow she would survive.

A sharp pain interrupted her thoughts. It sliced into her abdomen like a surgeon's knife, peeling away protective tissue as it went. She doubled over, clutching her stomach and gritting her teeth.

Paul and Louis looked over. Neither felt compassion for Mandy but couldn't let her suffer. They both scooted across the floor to where she was.

Ignoring their thin concern she brushed aside the two strangers. "I'm fine," she said quietly. "It's just a stomach ache." She hated to lie but didn't want to make the situation any worse than it already was.

Paul sat back against a wall. "So what do we do now?" he asked. "Do we just sit here and wait to die?"

Louis crawled back to his window. "I'm not going to die," he said with an air of contempt in his voice. "Not here, anyway."

The three of them grew silent then. A coating of stillness was draped over the room, magnifying the delicate rustling outside the house.

"He said that they outnumber us," Mandy suddenly whispered through a blanket. "The one who attacked me at my house. He said they outnumber us."

"Of course they do," Louis added. "Do you know how many people have died over the centuries? If you go back through history and add up every single person who ever lived, whether it was for a minute or hundred years, do you realize how many there would be?"

"I know, I know," Mandy replied quietly. "Billions. Too many to count."

Louis snickered, reveling in the fact, despite their situation, that his point was well taken.

"Bingo, and compare that with how many are walking around right now..." His voice trailed off as he thought about the implications.

Paul spun around when something tapped against a window. The noise sounded like a jackhammer in church. He crawled over to the window and parted the drapes. Slowly, he lifted his head up until he could see through the glass... and into the glaring visage of a young girl.

He fell back on his haunches.

The girl pressed her face to the glass, but there was no condensation, nor did she blink her eyes.

"She's one of them!" Paul cried out as he backed away from the window." It's one of those ghosts!"

The girl did not move. Her eyes, clouded-over orbs set deep within their sockets, stared ahead but saw nothing. It was as if she was no more than a statue, motionless, lifeless, void of emotion or purpose other than to be viewed by the frightened occupants of the house.

Mandy crawled over next to Paul. The pain in her gut was crippling so she moved delicately, being careful not to aggravate it more.

She nudged up to Paul. She had managed to avoid looking out the window but was finding it increasingly difficult to do so. Sheer curiosity, bolstered by fear for her own safety, was hard to ignore.

"You sure you saw something?"

Paul groaned. "Of course I'm sure. It was a girl and she was already dead. I saw her."

Mandy clamped a hand over his mouth. "Be quiet," she whispered. She could feel something wet on her stomach and used her other hand to staunch it. She'd have time later to look at it, hopefully. "She might hear us. Our only hope is to stay quiet."

Paul nodded and pushed her hand away. "Fine, but I think you should know something."

"What?"

"The girl, the ghost, she looked just like you."

Mandy was unaware of her mouth dropping open. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. And yet, in some distant and offhand way, it didn't surprise her.

She took a deep breath and peered out the window.

The girl stared back at her.

Mandy ducked back beneath the window, her face frozen in disbelief and fear. "It...it can't be."

The window shattered then, spraying jagged shards of glass into the room. An arm, thin with the pallor of death, sliced through the opening.

Louie pressed himself against the wall in a mad effort to put as much distance between the apparition and where he was crouched. It was all he could think to do.

Paul scuttled away from the window as Mandy sat perfectly still. She watched as the arm bent toward her, skeletal fingers clenching and unclenching in an effort to find purchase.

"Get away from there!" Paul shouted from across the room. He had holed up in a small shoe closet and was peering out from behind the door.

Mandy ignored the warning, partly because she was well aware of the danger she was in, and partly because of something else, something intangible, something that she couldn't understand for the life of her.

She was curious. She wanted to connect, so to speak, with the apparition and see what it was, what it wanted, where it came from.

"Mandy! No!" Paul and Louis shouted in unison.

The moment their fingers touched Mandy and the ghost both jerked their hands apart. Thin plumes of acrid smoke drifted up from the point of contact, further staining the already

dank air of the room.

The ghost vanished.

The pain in Mandy's gut increased tenfold, causing her to double over. Her vision blurred into a misty and vague collage, her head throbbed, her stomach felt as if it was going to explode.

You have been dead for days, the voice inside her head whispered. But now you are complete, now you can truly join the ranks of our growing army.

At that instant a heavy pounding on the front door shook the room.

"Why are they knocking?" Louis mumbled through his fingers. He had his hand clamped over his mouth, an involuntary response to keep quiet. "Their ghosts! Ghosts don't need to knock!"

Paul inched out from the closet, just enough to get a view of the door, just enough to see that he, or one of them, had neglected to lock it.

At that instant the door swung open, revealing two shadowy figures standing in the opening. They became sinuous, flowing into the room like a wisp of smoke.

Paul slammed the closet door shut.

Louis cowered in a fetal position, too afraid to move.

Mandy stood, an indifferent expression on her face.

The figures separated, one veering toward Paul, the other toward Louis. Both men were frozen where they sat. Fear rooted them to the floor, even with the threat of a supernatural death staring them in the face.

Louis watched the figure glide across the room like a dream. It stood before him, its form shimmering in the dull light of the room, and raised an arm, reaching for him with graceful but frightening speed. He felt a cold hand, ethereal and yet corporal, vaporous and yet firm, delicate and yet strong.

He hardly felt the life being choked out of him.

Paul cowered inside the closet. The darkness felt soothing to him somehow. It was like when he was a child and hid beneath his covers at night, shielded from the terrors that lurked under his bed or in his closet. But those monsters were in his head, and these were real, and the difference between the two was not lost on him.

He had his eyes open despite not being able to see anything other than darkness, and his hands were over his ears in a vain attempt to block the sounds of Louis gasping for breath.

"Mandy?" he whispered.

The knob turned and the door creaked open.

He looked up, too afraid to not look, and saw Mandy silhouetted in the doorway.

"I'm already dead," she whispered. "I died days ago from an infection in my stomach. It gave me tremendous pain." She gestured to her gut with a thin, trembling hand. "It took a while for my death to catch up to me, that's all, as it has to Louis." She stepped to the side to reveal another figure behind her.

It was Louis.

"I died just last night," he said without a hint of emotion. "It was a defect in my heart, from my father's side. I passed away in my sleep."

Paul struggled to breathe. Fear clamped its icy grip around his very soul, tightening with each passing second.

"And now, Paul," Mandy continued as she moved aside a little farther, just enough to show yet another figure, one that looked familiar to him somehow, "there's someone here who wants to meet you, someone who has been searching for you."

Paul saw the figure, the spitting image of himself, flow toward him in one seamless motion. He watched the shadowy hand reach out for him. A finger uncurled from the rest of the digits as

it did so and stretched toward his head, eventually tapping on his forehead with its tip.

Instantly, a fiery pop ignited in his brain.

He hardly felt the aneurysm.