THOSE WHO WATCH
By Jeff Robinson (6,520 words)
(unpublished)

Ian McDonald hurried from the public library clutching a thick folder of research papers close to his chest. He scurried down the wide granite steps and glanced furtively in both directions to see if anyone was watching him. Anxiety washed over him, as if his blood had suddenly become ice cold. Pulling up the collar of his frayed suit coat, he shivered involuntarily, despite the bright afternoon sun.

It’s still too much to believe, thought Ian, even though my analysis of Dr. Henderson’s data showed he was correct. Shaking his head in silent argument with his own results, he hurried along the sidewalk silently talking to himself. More than anything, he wanted to believe the correlations he had found were a fluke. The theory his old friend and mentor had proposed was patently absurd.

A cold lump formed in Ian’s chest. It has to be some kind of statistical coincidence, he thought. His claims just can’t be true. Nevertheless, Doctor Henderson was dead, just as his final letters had predicted. Moreover, the bundle Ian carried, a photocopy of a rare seventeenth century manuscript, still warm from the library copier, provided independent substantiation of all Henderson’s claims.

Not that such foreknowledge benefited Henderson, he thought. The hairs on the back of Ian’s neck rose and a nagging suspicion haunted him. With no reason to justify it, he had an unshakable certainty that someone was watching him, not just looking in his direction, but staring at him, studying him. Ian halted abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk and spun about to look behind him. Passersby, however, walked around him and ignored him with traditional New York aloofness. No one even glanced in his direction. No eyes paused on him as pedestrians strolled by. No one noticed him. No one followed.

Holding his papers tighter against his chest, Ian turned back around and hurried down the sidewalk, fighting the urge to break into a run that would certainly attract attention.

*****

Across the street in the park opposite the library, a small boy no more than five or six years of age laughed and played with his friends. Abruptly he stopped his game of catch and turned his head in Ian’s direction. Standing uncharacteristically still, the boy paused, his eyes tracking the progress of the nervous little scholar. The child did not blink, as his eyes followed the man along the street. Nor did the boy note the calls of his playmates to throw the ball he held calmly in his hands. For long seconds, the child remained immobile, moving nothing but his eyes.

As Ian rounded a street corner and disappeared down an adjacent street, the boy blinked and turned once more to his friends who taunted him, demanding that he throw the ball back to them. With perfect innocence, he returned to his game, unaware that any time had passed at all.

*****

Ian continued down the next street, the tall grey granite buildings now blocking the sun and transforming Ian’s imagined chill into a real one. Glancing to either side, he risked another quick look behind him. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he sighed and felt a little more secure. The urgency of his pace lessened, but that was only because he did not notice the little girl in an upstairs window, who turned her attention from the nearby television and directed her gaze down at him.

Oblivious to the slapstick antics of her favorite cartoon characters, the six-year old stared unblinking as the uneasy man in the worn brown suit coat made his way down the long narrow sidewalk. As the man hurried between the row of parked cars and the tall apartment buildings, the girl tracked Ian’s progress along the block, with an attentiveness and intensity atypical of children so young.

Hurrying along the street, Ian’s anxiety gradually faded. I’m being foolish. Dr Henderson’s theories were delusions of paranoia, despite anything my statistical analysis might have shown. His death was just an accident. That’s all, just an accident. Just because he was paranoid is no reason that I should be. Ian turned right at the end of the block and hurriedly crossed the street, scanning left and right for cars.

As Ian continued to reassure himself that nothing was amiss and disappeared from view down the side street, the little girl in the upstairs apartment behind him returned to her cartoon show and another little boy, sitting high on the steps of his own apartment building further down the street, stopped playing with his dog and directed his gaze toward Ian, as he approached along the sidewalk. The puppy nudged the child’s hand demanding attention, but the boy ignored the pet and stared unerringly at Ian, as he passed.

My only obligation, thought Ian, is to take Dr. Henderson’s papers and notes to his publisher, Stan Bergman. When that’s done, my involvement with this whole affair will be over and I can forget all of Henderson’s outlandish claims. Yes, it would be best to forget the whole thing. He gulped, but found his mouth too dry to swallow. If I can.

After navigating his way the six city blocks from the public library to Stan Bergman’s offices, Ian trotted up the steps of the publisher’s building and dashed into a nearly empty elevator.

Dr. Henderson had contacted Stan before his death and made tentative arrangements to have his papers published. He had even made Ian promise to deliver them, if anything suspicious happened, such as his unexpected death. Laughing, Ian had agreed. Now, he regretted making the promise and fought once more to stifle the doubts and worries Dr. Henderson’s claims nurtured.

Ian turned around to face the elevator doors and, as they closed, noticed a small boy sitting on a bench across the wide lobby. Waiting next to his mother, who was digging through her purse, the child’s eyes seemed locked on Ian with a steady unwavering stare. Ian felt a pang of uneasiness, as the doors quickly closed. Shaking his head, Ian dismissed the coincidence. He reached over and punched the elevator button, wondered if he was imaging children watching him or whether it was just Dr. Henderson’s bizarre theory which made him suspicious.

Ian’s heart pounded in his chest as the doors of the elevator opened and he stepped out into the hallway and hurried to Suite 414. As he approached the door, he heard the high-pitched laughter of children and abruptly slowed his pace. Walking slowly past the open door of a doctor’s office in Suite 410, he saw a waiting room full of young boys and girls. He paused just long enough to note that the physician was a pediatrician and admonished himself that it was normal for all these children to be there.

Quickening his pace, he passed the remaining offices and paused at the door, which bore a sign declaring “Suite 414 - Bergman Publishing”. He inhaled and exhaled a few times to calm himself and glanced back over his shoulder. No one was in sight, but he still heard the giggling of children as they played back down the hall. Composing himself, he opened the door and walked into a small reception room.

The anteroom was long and narrow with a row of mismatched chairs along one wall which ended at a desk, where a solitary secretary worked on a disorganized pile of papers. Raising her eyes to Ian, she cast an annoying glare and said, “Yes? Do you have an appointment?”

“Uh yes,” he replied, checking his watch. “I have a ten o’clock meeting scheduled with Stan Bergman. I’m Ian McDonald”

The gray haired secretary scowled, saying, “You’re late. He’s expecting you. Go on in.” Then she return to her work and began thumbing through the stack of papers that lay before her.

Approaching the office door beyond the secretary’s desk, Ian pushed it open and peeked in. Inside he found a balding, heavy-set man who was sitting at a desk and reading something so intently that he was oblivious to Ian’s entrance. Stepping through the doorway, Ian entered the publisher’s private office and waited patiently. The room smelled of stale smoke and dusty books. The office walls were lined with shelves and overloaded with books that lay in every orientation, stuffed and wedged into every crack and crevice. Except for the windows, everywhere Ian looked ended in rows and stacks of books. Piles of hard bounds rose from the floor in precariously balanced stacks and formed makeshift barriers in front of the more orderly bookshelves beyond. Boxes of paperbacks and thick paper manuscripts filled what little space remained in the large cluttered room. Small ineffective lights glowed dimly from the vaulted ceiling high above and the room was illuminated almost entirely by the light from the three tall glass windows behind the publisher’s desk.

Realizing that his presence remained unnoticed, Ian coughed softly to announce himself. The man behind the desk looked up and immediately brandished a large, gregarious smile. “You must be Ian,” he said rising and offering his hand. “Ben Henderson told me you’d be coming. Please, have a seat.”

Stan Bergman gestured at a chair in front of the desk. The dark green cushion on the wooden chair was thick but worn. The other two chairs nearby were piled with stacks of manuscripts that threatened to spill onto the floor. Ian carefully huddled his own papers in one arm and extended his other hand to shake Stan’s. The publisher’s grip was strong and firm.

Returning to his seat, Stan said, “So where is Ben? Couldn’t he make it?”

Ian sat and paused for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said lowering his eyes in embarrassment. “I guess I should have called ahead to explain. Dr. Henderson died the day before yesterday in an accident. He’d already set up this meeting and asked me to attend if he could not. One of the Dean’s secretaries has been making calls to notify Dr. Henderson’s colleagues. I had assumed you’d been informed.”

Stan’s face grew grim. His eyebrows furrowed and he stared down at his desk for a moment. Grinding his teeth in thought, he looked up and asked, “I’m sorry to hear this. It’s terrible. How did he die?”

Ian shrugged helplessly and said, “He fell down some stairs outside his apartment late Tuesday night. No one heard him fall. A neighbor found his body at the bottom of the stairwell the next morning.”

Stan shook his head solemnly. “How tragic,” he said. “Ben was a brilliant man. I’d known him for decades and published many of his books.”

Wincing slightly, Ian nodded. “Dr. Henderson’s last wish was for me to deliver this to you. He said you’d know whether or not to publish it.” Placing his precious cargo of notes and documents on Stan’s desk, Ian pushed the stack toward him.

“What’s all this about?” asked Stan, tapping the pile.

“Didn’t he tell you?” asked Ian. “He spoke as if you would know all about it.”

Ben shrugged slightly. “I only know it was based on some of his previous work on abnormal psychology. Ben didn’t go into any details. He said he had to verify his findings first.”

Ian’s lips tightened. “That was my job. I was one of Dr. Henderson’s doctoral candidates at the University. As my advisor, he got me a job a few months ago to do some statistical analysis of his research. It only paid part time, but it was quite an honor to work with someone of his prestige.”

Pausing, Ian hesitated before continuing struggling momentarily to figure out how much to explain. “Dr. Henderson’s most recent research focused on anomalous psychological disorders. In his twenty years as head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at New York University, Dr. Henderson noticed a pattern in some of his clinical subjects. At first he thought it a fluke, but later decided he’d found a previously unsuspected form of paranoia. That’s when he called me in to analyze his data. He was very excited about it.”

“Really,” said Stan. “What would be so special?”

“Well,” said Ian. “Dr. Henderson thought he’d found an odd form of paranoid schizophrenia in which patients’ fears came true. In this rare form of paranoia all the subjects thought others were trying to kill them and, surprisingly, they all died.”

“What do you mean?” said Stan, his eyebrows furrowing with curiosity.

“Dr. Henderson thought some patients classified as paranoids were incorrectly diagnosed. He had me analyze thousands of case studies from all over the world to validate his hypothesis and his hunch appeared to be right. I found a subset of documented cases with an unusual pattern. All of these patients were afraid of children and were convinced they were being watched. Remarkably, every patient diagnosed with this condition mysteriously died within four weeks of being diagnosed.”

Stan looked doubtful for the first time. “That is odd. But couldn’t that just be a coincidence?” he asked.

“That’s what Dr. Henderson worried about,” said Ian. “That’s why he had me do additional research to find out if this pattern was a fluke or whether it could be found in historical cases as well.”

“And what did you find?”

“Well,” muttered Ian. “I did find some similar patterns in clinical records dating back to the early 1920’s. Looking back further I even found similar references in nineteenth century Europe. Eventually, I even found this.” Ian reached down to the papers he had placed on Stan’s desk and pulled out a folder containing photocopies he had made earlier that day. Opening it, he showed Stan an image of an illuminated manuscript written in medieval Italian.

“This is the work of an excommunicated monk named Guisepi Diorvani entitled “Uno Trattato su Coloro Che Guarda”, A Treatise on Those Who Watch, written in 1425. The author was a doctor of the Church who went quite mad. The cleric had abandoned his Catholic beliefs and declared that the Earth was actually Hell. It seemed he believed in demons, but not in angels. The demons in charge of this realm, he said, existed solely for the purpose of tormenting and terrorizing mankind. Moreover, he claimed that they watch us through the eyes of children.”

Stan’s eyebrows rose in curiosity.

“Diovanni’s is the first documented case of this rare form of paranoia that I could find. Also, in keeping with the pattern Dr. Henderson found, the mad cleric locked himself in a tower to keep children away, but fell to his death a mere week after publishing his treatise. The official report on his death concluded that he threw himself out of one of the windows in his tower, but a few others believed he was thrown out by the demons.”

When Ian paused, Stan asked, “So did Ben Henderson actually believe in these demons?”

“Oh no,” said Ian. “He thought this strange form of paranoia was a precursor for bouts of depression that eventually led to suicide. Dr. Henderson hoped that proper diagnosis might save lives of patients who might otherwise kill themselves. He didn’t seriously consider that part about demons and children… at least until near the end.”

“What do you mean?” asked Stan.

Ian shuffled in his seat uncomfortably. “Well, about a week ago, Dr. Henderson started acting strangely. He claimed that children were indeed watching him and that they weren’t acting like children should. As his own paranoia increased, he eventually locked himself in his own apartment and refused to leave. It was as if he’d become infected with the same psychosis that he’d been studying.”

“I didn’t think delusions like that were contagious. You can’t spread mental disorders that way, can you?”

Ian waved his hand dismissively, “No, that’s absurd. I… I just figured it was the stress of all his research that was getting to him. You have to understand that he spent an incredible amount of work of time on this research. I figure, he must have spent thousands of hours digging through case histories of hundreds of hospitals and clinics to discover this pattern. I really only did the mathematical analysis that showed the trends were statistically significant. At the end, I simply assumed all the work was getting to him. I didn’t take his claims seriously… at least I didn’t until he died.”

Stan’s head tilted in a gesture of mild amazement. “You mean you think his claims about demons watching him through the eyes of children are valid?”

Ian squirmed in his seat. “I… I don’t know. Of course, it’s ridiculous. But Dr. Henderson wasn’t the type to commit suicide and his death is just too much of a coincidence. My studies showed that there was indeed a pattern of people who fear children which usually result in death. To be honest, I’ve recently found myself watching children to see if they are watching me.” He smiled meekly as if making light of the idea, but his grin showed more stress and fear than mirth.

Stan’s curiosity turned to dark concern. “You’re taking Dr. Henderson’s death pretty hard aren’t you?”

Lowering his eyes, Ian nodded silently. His worried fingers wove themselves into knotted fists and he said, “Yes. I guess so. I just don’t know what to think. At first I thought Dr. Henderson’s ideas were crazy. Later, I worried that he might be delusional himself. Now I’m wondering if I’m not imagining things. It doesn’t make sense does it, Mr. Bergman? It couldn’t really be true, could it?”

Stan rose and walked over to Ian, placing a firm hand on the scholar’s shoulder. “No,” he said, “It’s like Ben originally suggested. I’m sure there is a logical explanation. This form of delusion results in suicide and probably has some real merit, especially if Ben thought it was so important. Tell you what. Why don’t I look over his findings and have others examine the results, as well? You just go home and stop worrying. You’re wound up so tight you’re ready to snap. Why… you’re shaking like a leaf.”

Ian clenched his hands tightly to stop their trembling, but realized his whole body was shaking with terror. “I’m just tired,” he said lying. “I haven’t gotten much sleep since Dr. Henderson died.”

Rising unsteadily, he held out his hand to Stan and said, “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, sir. I’m sorry it was under such unpleasant circumstances.”

Nodding and smiling politely, Stan shook Ian’s hand and followed him to the office door. “I’ll read over Ben’s material and contact you in a few days,” he said with fatherly reassurance.

Ian thanked Stan, nodded at the secretary in the outer beyond as he hurried out into the hallway. All Ian wanted was for all of this to be behind him. He didn’t want to think about it anymore.

As he strode down the hall toward the elevator, his pace quickened as he passed the pediatrician’s office. However, as he passed the door, a small boy no more than six or seven suddenly stepped out and blocked his path. Ian lurched to a halt almost running into the child, but the boy seemed unconcerned.

Looking up at him, the child said, “You shouldn’t have noticed us.”

Ian stood in stunned silence.

The boy stood arrogantly before him with a poise quite unlike anything Ian had seen before in a child so young. “You see, now we’ve noticed you, as well.” The child’s eyes flicked over to the office door Ian had just left. “And, of course, we’ve noticed him too.”

Ian glancde back behind him and realized the boy was referring to Stan. The boy was actually threatening both of them. Anger welled up in Ian, washing away the chill of fear that had crept into him over the past few days. Losing control momentarily, Ian turned back to the boy and grabbed him by both shoulders. Shaking the boy, he shouted, “Who are you? What do you mean? How do you know these things?”

At first the child didn’t respond to Ian’s attack, but grinned menacingly at Ian as if mildly amused. But, then the child’s eyes seemed to become vacant for a moment and the boy blinked rapidly and stared up at Ian with genuine horror. Terror flashed in the boy’s eyes and his mouth opened in a high-pitched scream.

Ian instinctively let go of the child and stepped back. The boy immediately turned and raced back into the doctor’s waiting room screaming for his mother at the top of his lungs. Ian looked down at his hands realizing that he had just assaulted a seven year old child.

Within seconds, doors along the hallway opened and heads popped out to see what the commotion was all about. Ian rushed toward the elevators, shoving his way past the people, who had hurried out of the doctor’s office. Voices rose behind him, as he urgently punched at the elevator call button. Waiting impatiently for the elevator to arrive, he glanced back toward the crowd that assembled behind him and tried to act nonchalant. But the elevator doors didn’t open, and short seconds seemed endlessly long. Unable to ignore the crying and shouting behind him, Ian risked a peek back toward the pediatrician’s office.

Outside in the hall, a half-dozen adults had gathered. The child Ian had grabbed stood foremost in the group, sobbing and talking to the adults in broken gasps. A few other children cowered behind, several clinging to one another or to the legs of nearby parents. Then sniffling loudly, the child pointed at Ian and a woman bending over the boy straightened her back and glared at him. Copying the boy’s gesture, she pointed at him as well and announced, “It’s that man. He’s the one.” Silence settled on the crowd and all heads turned toward Ian.

Amazed at how many people had appeared so quickly in the hallway, Ian prayed for the elevator to hurry and tried to act innocent and nonchalant.

Looking toward the crowd one last time, Ian noticed a small girl near the rear of the angry crowd, who had set herself apart from the others. While the other children had taken up the loud wailing of the scared young boy Ian had encountered, this solitary girl stood silently with her arms crossed sternly before her, her eyes fixed coldly on Ian. As the mob turned and began advancing toward Ian, the little girl donned an amused smirk.

For the briefest of moments, Ian felt something touch him. An immaterial caress brushed him and he roiled instinctively as a wave over terror washed over him, making every hair on his neck and arms stand on end.

The little girl grinned openly. Unwilling to control himself, Ian spun and dashed through the nearby emergency exit. Taking the steps two at a time, he raced down the three flights of stairs and emerged out into the building lobby. Not wanting to face an angry crowd, he hurried out the front doors across the busy street. Pausing to catching his bearings and his breath, he looked back to see if anyone followed. Glancing up, he noticed Stan Bergman leaning out one of the tall glass windows behind his desk.

Stan waved at Ian and shouted, “Ian? Ian? What the hell is going on? Everyone up here is running around shouting. What happened?”

Ian opened his mouth to answer, but wasn’t sure himself what had just occurred. Ian had barely started to frame an answer, when Stan lurched forward in the window, barely catching himself on the sill. Turning around behind him, he seemed to confront someone, but almost immediately fell backwards out through the window. Flailing wildly with his arms, Stan seemed suspended in the air for a second and then fell to the sidewalk three stories below. His mouth opened in a wordless bellow, but his shout terminated abruptly as he hit the concrete pavement.

Ian immediately forgot whatever words he was going to shout in reply, but his mouth remained open in shock. Passersby on the sidewalk screamed and pointed at the horrific scene. Ian glanced back up at the open window from which Stan Bergman had fallen up and saw papers flying out the window. As the pages fluttered on the breeze and scattered out over the street, more and more handfuls followed. When the flow from the window finally stopped, a small figure appeared framed in the opening. The small girl he had noticed in the hallway glanced out momentarily and stared unerringly in his direction.

Ian had no doubt that the papers that had been tossed out onto the street were those he delivered to Stan. Now, with all the evidence destroyed and Stan dead, Ian was the only one who knew about Dr. Henderson’s work… and the children.

Another wave of terror swept over Ian and his skin tightened with gooseflesh, as if death reached out to touch him. Glancing back at the window, Ian noted the girl was gone, but across the street a crowd had emerged from the building and several people pointed at him once more.

Without further thought, Ian turned and ran. He gave no heed to propriety. It didn’t matter that he had done nothing wrong. Ian wasn’t worried about providing an explanation or an alibi. It wasn’t the police or the authorities he feared, but rather the children, who might be following him, the children who might be watching.

Without any concern about where he might go or what he might do, Ian simply ran. Before he got to the end of the block, however, a young boy in a baseball cap and blue jeans stepped out from around the corner and blocked his path. The boy crossed his arms before him and focused his gaze on him, unintimidated by Ian’s mad dash.

Ian broke off his sprint, came to a halt and backed away. Reversing his direction, he cut back down a nearby alley and ran as fast as he could to get away.

Within less than a block, Ian’s lungs burned and his legs grew heavy. Panting heavily, he emerged from the alley and stepped out onto a sidewalk. Glancing up and down the street, he saw a child in each direction, standing silently and watching him. It was as if they had been waiting for him.

Gritting his teeth, Ian dashed across the street narrowly missing a passing truck, which slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting him. Hoping the truck might block the view of his watchers, Ian disappeared down the next alley. The narrow roadway between the buildings split and turned. Soon Ian lost himself in a maze of narrow alleyways in the poorer part of the city. Twice he found exits to other side streets, but each time, when he peeked out, he saw diminutive sentries waiting for him.

Running out of breath, Ian decided to cut through one of the nearby abandoned buildings instead of keeping to more visible alleys. As he searched for another way out of the alley, his breath sounded with ragged gasps and his heart pounded far harder than was demanded by mere physical exertion. After trying several doors, he found one unlocked and carefully crept into a deserted row house. The building must have been deserted for years. Trash and papers were piled in the corners and many of the plasterboard walls had holes punched in it. Large panels of sheetrock lay scattered about, left over from long abandoned attempts to fix the place. Dark green mold grew on the floors and walls where rain had leaked in through the broken windows. The thick musty smell of the rotting wood, decaying garbage, and human waste made it difficult to breathe.

Creeping quietly, he made his way from room to room. As he crossed one large room, he heard hushed whispers ahead of him. The sibilant tone of the voices distinctively identified the speakers as children. Stopping, Ian turned and selected an alternate route. As he maneuvered along a dark corridor, he peeked through an open doorway and saw a long hallway that led across several smaller rooms and eventually opened out onto an empty lot beyond. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he took off in a sprint toward the exit. As he crossed one of the tiny rooms along the way, however, the floor beneath him cracked and gave way. Throwing himself forward, Ian grasped at the edge of the door, but the flooring beneath him collapsed and he was pulled down before he could gain a handhold.

Landing hard on some debris, Ian had the wind knocked out of him and he slid down a pile of debris with a loud splash, as he landed in a puddle of water about six inches deep. Pieces of ceiling or flooring continued to rain down on him and Ian raised his hands over his head until the downpour stopped.

When the hail of broken plasterboard abated, Ian lowered his arms and examined his surroundings only to find himself in a small room without windows or doors. Standing carefully, he gagged at the stench around him and looked up.

He was in what appeared to be the bottom of an elevator shaft. There was no ceiling and the opening above him continued up several floors before vanishing into darkness. Light came from openings along the shaft where the doors at each floor were open.

Reaching down, Ian studied the material that had landed on him. The debris was mere sheetrock, plasterboard left over from forsaken repairs upstairs. Someone had placed a panel of the stuff across the elevator shaft and it had given way beneath him when he ran across it.

Ian’s mouth went dry and his blood grew cold when he realized, it had been a trap. He had been lured here, herded by the children who were watching him.

His chest tightened as he reached his final conclusion and he began to panic. In desperation, he thought to yell for help but, as he opened his mouth to shout, he heard soft footsteps above him and a single child appeared at the open doorway above him.

The youth, no more than six, stared down at him with a calm, expressionless demeanor.

Ian quickly searched the space around him, but there was no escape. The walls were slick with mold and the elevator shaft rose a good twenty feet before it reached the opening where the child stood. Looking around for something he might use to climb with, he kicked at debris half buried in the black fetid water at his feet. Feeling something like a stick with his foot, he reached down and pulled out what he hoped might be something useful as a tool. Holding up the soggy item to examine it more closely, he realized he was holding a human thigh-bone.

Gasping with shock, Ian dropped it with a noisy splash. Pressed himself against the slimy wall, Ian glanced around, only then recognizing the dark shapes of other bodies lying in various states of decomposition around him. In the center of the shaft was a ribcage and near the wall a rotting torso with an eyeless skull.

Ian gagged and raised his hand to his mouth, only to find it covered in black and reeking of unimaginable filth. Holding his hands away and stepping to the center of the tiny oubliette, Ian involuntarily emptied his stomach into the black water as his feet. His whole body spasming, as terror robbed him of all control.

Spitting the acidic bitterness from his mouth and trembling helplessly, Ian looked back up only to find several children now starting silently and dispassionately at him.

One boy leaned out over the pit as if studying Ian more closely. The child displayed a calm and poise of someone far older than his years. The youth, a slim child with dark black hair, stood with his hands clasped before him and his head tilted to one side.

Ian raised his clench fists and shook them, shouting, “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”

The boy did not answer, but there was a shuffle of feet and more faces approached the elevator doors, as other children leaned out to peer down at him. Lowering his hands Ian called out once more, “How many of you are there?”

The dark haired boy glanced at his companions and then turned his attention back to Ian. “By your reckoning, we are very few in number, but that hardly matters, since we do not die.”

“What do you mean, you don’t die?” asked Ian.

“I mean we are immaterial beings and are therefore immortal. By our nature, we are entities of spirit not substance, quite unlike your own species. However, I have to give your kind credit. You and your kind manage to persevere and survive. Indeed you have become quite numerous.” The young boy spoke calmly and kept his hands folded in front of him, as he addressed Ian. “Nevertheless, although your kind has grown greatly in numbers, you still remain the same. You cower here in fear from that which you do not understand.”

The child now grinned openly. “Your terror is palpable, just like that of your ancestors. Back, before your forefathers discovered fire, they too huddled in their caves wailing in terror at the darkness outside afraid of the unseen and the distant howling of wolves baying at the moon.”

Ian shuddered and trembled. Panic threatened to overwhelm him and his knees barely seemed strong enough to support him. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Uncertain what to do or say, he examined his prison once more and a whisper of hope faded as he noted the corpses of other victims who had preceded him here. Raising his eyes once more to the children or creatures, that tormented him, he wondered. Could he reason with them? Should he plead for his life or try to bargain with them? What could you say to a demon that taunts you through the body of a possessed child? .

“Why are you doing this?” he shouted. “We haven’t done anything to you? Why did you kill Dr. Henderson and Stan Bergman? Why do you watch us and hunt us? Are you just playing with us? Is this just a part of some grand scheme to control us or take us over?”

The demon-child showed emotion for the first time and chuckled. “No, not at all. You give yourself and your species far too much credit. As I told you, we are spiritual beings and have no interest in your material world. We do not care what you do or how you spend your tragically short and insignificant lives. Our only interest is in your minds.”

With that Ian gasped as he felt something brush his mind once more. It was as though an invisible hand reached out and stroked the edge of his awareness. The touch, however, was cold and alien and he spasmed involuntarily, as if something unclean had violated him.

“Yes,” said the child. “We can ride the minds of your species and move from one host to another, sharing your senses, hearing through your ears, and seeing through your eyes. While we can do this with adults, it is uncomfortable and often troublesome. Mature members of your kind resist such invasions. There is far more space in the minds of children and the youngest ones usually don’t even notice or remember extra passengers.” The boy laughed aloud, delighting in Ian’s growing distress.

Ian tried to rally rage to quiet his fear. “You’re parasites then? Do you have no lives of your own so that you must steal your existence from others?”

The child tilted its head with curiosity and said, “Again, you overestimate your own importance. How could we possibly be interested in your shallow experiences? For the most part, you are beneath our notice and would be unable to fathom matters we consider important.”

“But then why do you terrorize and kill us? We haven’t done anything to harm you? Why are you trying to kill me? Why did you kill the others?”

“Oh, those others don’t matter,” said the boy waving a hand dismissively. “We have done all of this specifically for you.” Opening his arms, the boy gestured at the other children around him and said, “We have done this because you noticed us. The others died because of you.”

“For me? Why? What do I have to do with their deaths?”

“They were killed, of course, because of how their deaths affected you. With each death, you became more and more terrified. Terror you see has to be very carefully nurtured. It has to be crafted and sculpted to reach its peak and yours has been exquisite.”

“You did all this just to scare me? You’ve killed all those other people just to terrorize me? But why? Is this something you do out of some sick sense of amusement? Is this just some kind of game?”

“On no,” said the boy folding his hand seriously once more. “This is no game… nor is it done for amusement. This is a very serious matter for us. You see, horror is very special emotion. It does to the human psyche what meat tenderizer does to beef. It softens it up. It breaks down the barriers in the adult human mind that allows your kind to resist us.”

Ian felt once more the brush of an unseen hand across his mind. Backing against the wall, he shouted, “You mean you torment people because it makes them easier to control? “

The child tilted his head back and laughed, as a murmur of amused chucking arose from the other children nearby. Peering down at Ian once again, the child said, “Again, you delude yourself by thinking yourself worthy of such attention. Mankind, you see, imagines itself as the apex of life on this world. It is a grand conceit, which we allow, because it makes you feel better and you thus breed and multiply in greater numbers.”

Shaking its head, the creature said, “No, the horror we nurture serves a far more fundamental purpose. Terror, you see, softens the mind and… it adds flavor.”

Ian gasped, as he felt the invasive touch of invisible fingers once more upon his mind. Suddenly wracked with pain, his knees buckled and he raised his hands to his head as a thousand hungry hands seemed to tear at his brain, shredding his very being.

Ian’s fingers clawed at his own skull and his fingernails gouged bloody gashes in his scalp, as he writhed in the filthy, black water at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

Even as the laughter of children rose, Ian’s eyes rolled back and his mouth locked open in the rigid rigor of a soundless, silent scream.

You see? said the silent voice in Ian’s mind. Horror is delicious. You humans only THINK you’re the top of the food chain.

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