Old books, illustration for short horror story Silverfish

A Short Horror Story

“Be careful! It bites! Watch out! Watch… out…” Emma covered Mrs. Rosewood in an afghan and waited for the sedatives to take effect. Mrs. Rosewood had early onset dementia and was prone to wandering the halls, especially at night. Due to recent cutbacks at Capelin Manor, the nursing home’s night shift was just Emma and a couple of orderlies. Mrs. Rosewood sometimes made it all the way to another wing before someone could respond to her bed alarm.

Mrs. Rosewood kept a wedding photo on her bedside table. Her late husband had been handsome, despite large ears and a forehead creased from too much work and worry. The young Mrs. Rosewood had looked a lot like Emma, with the same brown eyes and the same mousey brown hair, but feathered in the typical 1970s style. Emma kept her hair in a more practical bun, ever since she had graduated from nursing school two years earlier.

Once Mrs. Rosewood was asleep, Emma took a quick walk around her quarters, turning off the lights. A shelf under the window held a small collection of dusty paperback novels. Lying on top of the novels was a book bound in black leather. Gold letters along the spine read “Summonings and Invocations.” Where the author’s name should have been, there was just a symbol like a bent lightning bolt flashing across an eye. Curious, she picked it up and flipped through the pages.

It was filled with woodcut illustrations of rituals, people in robes slaughtering lambs and draining the blood into goblets, bonfires with smoke taking on human-like shapes, and otherworldly creatures her mind struggled to comprehend, bizarre forms that made her head ache and her vision blur. Most books on magic were silly things like “Fifty Love Spells for the Lonely” or “Get Rich with Witchcraft”, about as believable as a fortune cookie. But this one felt different. It was serious, strange… warm?

She placed her palm on the page. Yes, it was definitely warm and seemed to be pulsating slightly, almost as if it had its own faint heartbeat. “I must be imagining it,” she thought. “I’m just feeling my pulse running through my hand. Silly girl.” She flipped to the table of contents.

To Summon Your Guardian Angel
To Invoke a Weather Spirit and Bring an End to Drought
To Summon a Demon to Destroy an Enemy
To Summon the Spirit of one Recently Deceased
To Invoke the Muses

The last line caught her attention. The section began, “The Muses are goddesses of the arts. They bless creative people who invoke them with knowledge and inspiration. Some believe Muses are water nymphs, so they should be invoked next to rivers, lakes, or other natural water sources…”

“I could certainly use some inspiration,” she thought. She spent her free time writing stories, but most of her attempts brought her nothing but frustration. Her biggest struggle was finding the right idea, something that would hold her attention long enough to finish what she started.

“She probably wouldn’t miss this book. And it’s not like her family would want it.” No one had come to visit Mrs. Rosewood in years. If she had family, they must have forgotten she was still alive. “It’s probably nonsense, but it couldn’t hurt to try it. I just have to get published! I never get any recognition around here.”

Emma slipped the book into a large front patch pocket on her scrubs and left to continue her rounds. As she stepped into the hall, Mike the orderly came by pushing a laundry cart. “I see you had to take Mrs. Rosewood back to bed again. What was it this time?”

“She was looking for a pen,” Emma said. “She said she had to write down something important before she forgot it. Something about biting.”

“Maybe she needs new dentures,” Mike chuckled.

“She claimed Mr. Moore down the hall has been stealing from her, taking her pens, chocolate, paper towels…” Emma shook her head. “I’m sure she’s just imagining things. Last week, she thought I was one of her daughters.”

“Still, maybe we should get security cameras around here,” Mike said. “Well, I’d better get on with the laundry.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “How do they keep getting yellow stains on their pillows? I swear…”

Emma checked in on the other dementia patients without any issues. Everything was quiet – no alarms going off, no pages, just florescent lighting buzz and the soft whoosh of the heating system. “Sometimes this job feels more like babysitting than nursing,” she thought, “just making sure everyone is asleep and still breathing.”

Emma returned to the nursing station, put fresh batteries in her hearing aids, and made herself a cup of the terrible instant coffee. She placed the book on the counter to use it as a coaster. She stepped over to the filling cabinet and cursed it under her breath. Even pulling with both hands, it was a struggle to open the broken drawer. The manager, Mr. Hartley, insisted they couldn’t afford a new one, even though they always seemed to have enough money for his annual raise.

At last, she dragged it open and got out the blank forms for that night’s paperwork. When she returned, the cup was on the floor. “Oh! I must have put it too close to the edge… Could have sworn I put it down in the middle of the book, though. These long nights must be getting to my head…” She cleaned up the spill and made herself a cup of tea with honey and milk. This time, she used a napkin as a coaster.

She tried to focus on paperwork, but the strange book kept intruding into her thoughts. She shoved the papers aside. Picking up the book, she opened to the invocation of the Muses. The invocation was a simple chant that could be repeated while standing by any natural water source. She rolled her desk chair over to the sink and turned on the water. “It comes from a river, right? That’s kind of natural.” Feeling silly, she repeated the chant a few times, speaking softly enough that any passing orderlies wouldn’t overhear.

For several minutes, nothing happened. But then, suddenly… more nothing.

“Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. What was I expecting? A goddess to appear in a puff of smoke, like a genie? That’s not going to—“A voice called out her name. Emma let out a gasp.

“You got any trash? I’m taking this bag out.” It was Flint, the other night shift orderly.

“Oh, you startled me!” she laughed. “No, no trash, thank you.” Apparently it was just a silly book after all. Real life was about patients and paperwork, not goddesses and magic spells.

“Mr. Hartley told me to get some rat baits, so I did, but I’m not puttin’ them out. I keep telling him, I’m not a janitor! If you want to put them around your workspace, though, I left some under your sink back there.”

“Okay, thanks.”

As soon as Flint left, she pulled out a notepad and put pen to paper. She wrote without thinking, the words flowing effortlessly. Her words turned into a strange tale about a college professor stumbling upon the journal of a witch, and using the journal to track down the source of her supernatural powers. She kept writing until the day shift nurses arrived.

The next night, Emma was back at work, going through her usual round of bed checks. She gently opened Mrs. Rosewood’s door to confirm that she was still asleep. At first, Emma thought she was sitting up in bed, but the shape was too big to be her.

Emma flipped on the light and screamed. There was a man standing at the foot of Mrs. Rosewood’s bed. Her eyes were open, but she did not seem to be aware of what was happening. This was not one of her lucid moments.

The man was dressed as a knight in silver armor, his face hidden beneath a visored helmet. Although the light was now on, he was shrouded in a layer of shadow. “Who are you?” Emma shouted. “What are you doing here?”

The knight laughed. “Don’t you know? You summoned me here! I am a Muse.”

Emma shook her head. “I don’t know much about mythology, but the book said Muses are goddesses, which I’m pretty sure means they have to be female. I’m calling the police.”

“We appear in whatever form is the most appealing to those who need us, although we must shield our divinity from mortal eyes.” He waved his hands and, just for an instant, the shadow was replaced with a blinding light. “You have written several stories about medieval knights, so I thought this form was appropriate.”

“I… I never showed those to anyone,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “They were embarrassing… I came up with a great idea yesterday, which I suppose was your doing. But that story is done, and I need more ideas. Lots more.”

“Why?” the knight said simply. “Why do you need to keep writing?”

Emma looked down at Mrs. Rosewood. The older woman was staring at the ceiling and did not appear to know they were in the room. She seemed so pale and small. “I want to leave something behind, so people remember me. I want a part of me to go on forever.”

“Do you think she worries about being remembered? You desire to live forever, and this desire causes you nothing but torment. Her desires are all gone, so she is at peace. Don’t you want that?” He walked over to the book shelf, the shadow moving with him like a cloak. His armor made no sound. He ran his fingers along the row of books until he found the title he was looking for. He handed Emma a worn paperback, historical fiction set during the Salem Witch Trials. The author’s name was Doctor Minerva Rosewood, EdD.

“She was a writer, too? I had no idea.”

“No one does. Not anymore. She wrote that book and a dozen others besides. What do you think gives her more comfort now: her books full of words or her empty mind?” He picked up the glass of water from the bedside table, turning it in his hands like he was examining a diamond.

Emma sighed. “I thought you were supposed to be inspiring? This doesn’t help me. Why don’t you – what are you doing?!” The knight poured the water on the floor, creating a large puddle by the bed.

“Think about what I said. We can discuss it some other time. See you soon.” He stepped on the puddle and sank down into it, as if he were walking into a miniature lake. Instinctively, Emma rushed forward to rescue him, afraid he was somehow falling through the floor, but the mysterious knight had vanished. Whatever magic he had done to the water was gone.

The next day, Emma felt inspired to write about this strange experience with the knight. However, after a few hours of work, she realized she couldn’t finish. The story didn’t have an ending. “I have to try that spell again…”

She filled her bathtub and, gazing down into the water, repeated the invocation of the Muses. Grabbing a notepad, she dragged a chair into the bathroom. She was suddenly inspired to write a story about a pool hustler in Philadelphia. Although she knew nothing of the sport or the town, the words came just as freely as before.

That night at work, she started her rounds at Mrs. Rosewood’s room. Mrs. Rosewood was having a lucid day. Hoping the knight would return, Emma asked Mrs. Rosewood for a game of rummy. They played for over an hour, but the knight never came.

Emma continued her rounds. She saw patient after patient, but no knight. She knocked on the door to Mr. Moore’s room and waited for his usual friendly “C’mon in, honey!” Nothing. She knocked again. A man’s voice screamed for help. Fumbling for her keys, she unlocked the door.

The lights were still on. Mr. Moore was crumpled across an armchair, blood trickling from his ear. The side of his face was stained yellow. Standing next to him was the knight, shrouded in shadow. “What happened?” Emma gasped. “Did you do something to him?”

The knight laughed. “Of course I did. Where did you think ideas come from?” He pointed to a photo on the wall: a young Mr. Moore in a pool hall, being presented with a huge, gold trophy.

Emma leaned over the chair. Mr. Moore’s eyes were wide open, but his expression was completely blank. “He wasn’t a dementia patient. His mind was fine! How could you do this? How could you destroy him?”

“Destroy him? I made him immortal! I unbound his mind and scattered his memories across the ages. Instead of slowly rotting into dust, his life will inspire creativity forever. Isn’t that what you want? I can do the same for you.” The knight stepped forward, shedding his cloak of shadow. Emma saw him clearly for the first time.

He wasn’t a knight. He didn’t even look human. The armor was actually a part of his body, a thick, grey shell like some vast insect. What had appeared as a helmet visor was now a pair of mandibles lined with yellow teeth, dripping with the old man’s blood. The creature lifted its head and let out a rattling hiss.

Emma reached for a lamp and hurled it at the creature’s head. She ran for the hall and locked the door behind her. Moving quickly, she grabbed a couple of doorstops from a nearby janitor’s closet and jammed them under the door.

She fled down the hall, nearly colliding with Flint. “Go!” she gasped, speaking rapid fire. “Something back there, thing in Moore’s room! I thought it was a person but it’s not. We need to get out of here!”

Flint put up his hands defensively. “I don’t know what you’re on about,” he began, “but I can’t get leave. Mr. Hartley said if I leave early one more time, I’m fired. So I need to keep workin’. Maybe take a sedative and calm down, okay?”

Screaming in frustration, Emma pushed him aside and ran for an emergency cabinet. “He thinks I’m crazy,” she thought. “He’s not going to help… I don’t know if I can do this myself.” She unlocked the cabinet and grabbed a couple of jet injectors, syringes without needles powered by compressed air, and slipped them into her pockets. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing hear heart rate to slow.

A tremendous bang shook the walls, followed by the crack of splintering wood. When she returned to Mr. Moore’s room, the door was smashed to bits. The creature was gone. Mike and Flint came running from the other direction. “What the hell was that?” Mike called.

“A break-in. Man in a monster costume. He’s attacking people!” A scream came from a patient’s room down the hall. “Hurry!” She rushed for the sound, the orderlies close behind.

Mike kicked open the door. The creature was on top of an elderly woman, using her walker to pin her to the floor. The side of her head was streaked with yellow.
It had her head in its jaws, digging its way into her brain.

Mike hurled himself at the creature, tackling it and grabbing it in a headlock. Flint rushed after him, pinning the creature’s arms behind its back. Emma pulled out a jet injector and pressed it against the creature’s eye, squeezing the trigger. The creature howled as its eye was filled with sedatives. It flailed wildly, tossing Flint aside and wrenching its head from Mike’s grasp. It ran from the room, disappearing down the hall.

“How’s he still movin’?” Flint said. “Emergency sedatives did nothin’! That costumed freak must be high on PCP!”

“I don’t know what that was,” Mike said, “but that’s no costume.”

“Who cares what he is!” Emma yelled. “Go after him!” The trio chased after the monster, terrified they would find it ripping apart another innocent patient. They checked room after room, but came up empty. Finally, Emma had a stroke of inspiration. “I know where he would go… the library!”

The library was a large room at the far end of the building, with a few bookshelves, a water cooler, and some scattered furniture. The trio crept around the room, checking under couches, behind chairs, even the cabinet under the water cooler. There was no sign of the creature, just a puddle where a patient had spilled water on the floor. They were the only ones in the room.

“Great,” Flint said, “any other ideas?”

“No, he’s here,” Emma insisted. “I can feel it.” She pulled out the other jet injector. Maybe a second dose of sedatives would make the difference. Turning to Mike, she said, “Let’s check over by the – Watch out!”

A pair of grey hands darted out of the puddle, wrapping around Mike’s leg and pulling him into the water. “He’s eating me!” Mike screamed. “Oh god, he’s eating my leg!”

Emma and Flint grabbed his arms. They tried to drag him out, but the creature’s grip was too strong. Mike moaned in agony, losing consciousness. Suddenly, the struggle ended. For a moment, they thought the creature had given up. But when they pulled Mike from the hole, there was just a bloody stump where his leg had been.

“Tip a bookshelf on top of the water,” Emma said. “That might keep it down there.” She pulled her stethoscope from her pocket and wrapped it around the stump like a tourniquet.

Flint was too stunned to move. “But how is it doin’ this? What is that thing? How can it hide in a puddle, Emma? What the hell is goin’ on?”

Before she could respond, a geyser spouted from the puddle, nearly reaching the ceiling. The water solidified into a humanoid shape. The creature stood over the puddle and let out a rattling hiss.

“I just wanted to create something that would last,” Emma cried. “Oh Mike, I’m so sorry!”

The creature laughed. “I’m giving you something better. Why create stories when you can become one? Your tale will be told and retold, endlessly reenacted, another eternal cycle of death and rebirth. You just have to die first.” The creature hurtled across the room, its mandibles snapping. It grabbed at her ear. Sputtering, its head reared back in disgust. It spat out her hearing aid and wiped its mouth.

“Get away from her!” Flint launched himself at the creature, taking it down with a flying tackle. The monster’s mandibles latched on to his head. Emma moved forward, raising her jet injector. “No!” Flint yelled. “That won’t work! Forget me! Forget Mike! Just get out of here and call… call… blue…”

She dropped the injector and ran to the nursing station. “That thing is going to kill them, and then it’s going to kill me, too. I haven’t even done anything with my life yet…” Her hands clenched the edge of the counter as she fought the urge to run for the door. “But I have to help. I may eventually be forgotten, but at least I can do some good while I’m here.”

She grabbed the phone and dialed 911. “There’s an intruder attacking the residents at Capelin Manor! He’s wearing body armor, so bring the biggest guns you’ve got!” She dropped the phone and pulled the fire alarm.

The spell book! The book had started this trouble, so it had to have a way to end it. She scanned the table of contents. “Summon ghosts, summon demons, summon rats… But how do you make them go away again?” She turned to the section on Muses and searched for a banishing spell. “Nothing! It just says you can get favors from the Muses by presenting an offering of milk and honey. Not as magical as I hoped, but it might be worth a try…”

She ran to the mini fridge and squirted a bottle of honey into a milk carton. She set it on the counter and turned to grab another ingredient. The recipe done, she headed to help the dementia patients evacuate the building.

Emma led a group of dementia patients down the hall and out the front door, where some of the more mobile patients were already waiting. She went back inside to check for any patients that might have been left behind. As she passed by the nursing station, there was a familiar rattling hiss. A dark shape dropped from the ceiling, knocking her to the floor.

Once more, the creature’s mandibles dug into the side of her face. She howled in pain. It lifted its head and sniffed the air. “An offering!” It sprang to its feet and stepped to the counter. Ripping open the cardboard carton, it slurped greedily, the thick milk dripping down its chest. “Going to just ask me to leave, are you? Silly girl. I’m not done with you yet.”

Although she was bleeding on the floor, Emma started laughing. The creature choked, dropping the carton. Gasping, it fell to its knees. “I thought you might refuse,” she said, “so I put a special ingredient in there for you. You just ate rat poison.”

She could feel her mind coming unbound, her thoughts scattering to the wind like autumn leaves. She fought to hold on to her identity, repeating to herself, “Emma Green, nurse, writer, hard of hearing, works at Capelin Manor…”

The creature collapsed, falling on its face. Slowly, its body began to melt into a puddle. The puddle steamed, sizzled, and boiled away, leaving nothing but a huge, yellow stain.

A dozen police officers rushed into the room, weapons drawn. Emma looked up at these men in blue uniforms and the long, black tubes they were carrying. “Do any of you have a pen?” she asked. “I have to write something down before I forget. It’s important…”

Mr. Hartley spent the next three days in meetings. Patients and their families were furious about the poor security that had allowed the mysterious attacker to break in. The only thing that kept them from leaving was learning about the courageous Capelin Manor nurse who had a stroke while she was taking the survivors to safety.

To make sure their rescuer’s sacrifice was never forgotten, Mr. Hartley had a statue of Emma erected in front of the building. The plaque on the pedestal read, “Emma Green, nurse, friend, hero. May her story be told forever.”

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