Old Friends

By Ian Egan

 

     “Have a good one, guys!”

     The three men smoking on the dock raised their hands in farewell, and went back to their conversation. I walked off into the night heading for home. Swing shift can be a bitch at times, but getting off work at 2 o’clock in the morning can have its charms. I’ve always been a bit of a nocturnal animal to begin with, and I’ve always enjoyed the peace and quiet at this time of night. I glance up at the night sky, noting the dark clouds that are scudding past, racing towards the horizon and hiding the full moon above them. Yeah, autumn is my favorite time of the year, and nights like this are just perfect as far as I’m concerned. Just the same, I was looking forward to starting the first shift next week. Back to a normal schedule, at last!

 

     It’s been a tough day, but a good one. I’ve finally found a job I liked, one where I feel useful and needed. Not to mention appreciated. The company is small, with about a hundred employees; in fact, it’s brand new. It had only started its operations about a year ago, and when I walked in the door shortly after they opened looking for a job, they had desperately needed an experienced dock man who could straighten the operations out in the warehouse and on the shipping dock. I applied for a warehouse position, but the owner took one look at my resume and hired me as the warehouse manager! I’m making three times more then I’ve ever made in my life, and I get to run the operation the way I want to. It was a totally sweet deal! The only problem was that I had to work these damned swing shifts for just a little while longer, until everything ran smoothly at night. Sometimes it made me long for the routine predictability of my old job! I already had a job at the time I applied here, but I was bored; I had accomplished everything I could, and was basically cruising along on autopilot. I needed a challenge, and this job promised that in spades. And to top it all off, the boss who owns the joint is just a damned nice guy. He is around and available, but not to the point where he is a nuisance and under foot all the time. He is smart enough to realize that I know what I’m doing, and is willing to stay out of the way and let me do my job properly. If he does have any questions, they are intelligent and thoughtful; in other words, I’m not wasting my time on an idiot. God knows I’ve dealt with enough of them in the past, but this guy isn’t one of them. That fact alone is refreshing, and makes working here worth it even more!

 

     Yeah, for the first time in my life, I have a job I really, really like. And with the extra money I can afford to treat Pam right, the way she deserves to be treated.

 

     I smile at the thought of Pam, and pull the collar of my jacket up a little against the chilly wind blowing through the trees. We started dating a couple of months ago, and I still can’t believe my luck. Sure, I’m not exactly hideous, but to have such a beautiful, charming, funny and kind-hearted girl fall for me...  I’ve just totally lucked out. In fact, she has been hinting around about me moving in with her, and to tell the truth, the idea really appeals to me. Here I thought I was a committed life long bachelor, and suddenly this! I almost have to pinch myself when I think about it.

 

     Yeah, all in all, life is turning out pretty good. I chuckle when I realize that I’ve got a huge grin on my face, and my teeth are hurting from the cold. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy. The future looks great, and everything is finally falling into place. And it’s about time, too.

 

     Damn, but it was getting cold! I hunched my shoulders, and walk a bit faster. I have a good car, but since it’s only a couple of blocks from my house to work, there’s not much point in driving. Besides, walking is good exercise. But, if I move in with Pam, she lives on the other side of town... and the walk would be too much. Time to start driving again.   I realized I’m grinning again at the thought of Pam, and shake my head. I decided to take the short cut through the park. If I was going to walk around grinning like a schoolboy in love, I might as well do it in the warmth and comfort of my own place. I turn into one of the stone arches that serve as entrances to the park, and quicken my pace.

 

      I felt safe using the park for a short cut home, but I wouldn't advise anyone of normal size doing it this late at night. You see, I'm what my friends call "imposing"; I stand six-foot five, weigh around two fifty, and I toss large crates around a dock for a living. Needless to say, no one messes with me if they're sober.

 

     As I walk down the sidewalk that cuts through the center of the park, I see the figure of a man perched on one of the park benches, cloaked in black. He has chosen a bench in the middle of the park that was almost, but not quite out of reach of the shadows cast by the last street lamp at the entrance.

 

     He sits hunched, almost daring any passerby to ask if they might share his bench; this didn't seem likely, simply because it was very late, and the park is deserted as usual. Seeing him peaks my curiosity.

 

     As I approach him, I sense him watching me. Even without a sound or a gesture from him, I feel challenged and intimidated.

 

     To mask my discomfort, I decide to take the direct approach as I pass him.

 

     "Good evening," I say as I walk by him.

 

     "Hello, Paul," he replies.

 

     As the front of my brain registers the fact that he knows my name, the smile fades from my face and my stride falters until I come to a stop directly in front of him. In the dim light, I peer at the shadows that hide his face to try and identify him, but I can’t see any details. Patches of darkness seem to flow around him, obstructing my sight.

 

     At the same time, the back of my brain analyzes his voice, looking for a clue to his identity. I'm usually pretty good with names and faces; in fact, my friends and co-workers have called my memory phenomenal. This voice has a vague familiarity about it, but I just can’t place it.

 

     His voice is deep and rich, but curiously dry and soft. A vision of fallen leaves tumbling and skittering before a chilled October wind pops into my mind. I shake my head slightly to knock this image away.

 

     His voice is old... and unearthly. A shiver starts at the base of my spine.

 

     "Do I know you?" I ask, and I’m dismayed to hear my voice squeak slightly.

 

     "Oh, I know you, Paul! Yes, we’ve met before; in fact, I’ve been waiting for you for a very, very long time," he replies with a chuckle.

 

     Peering through the late night gloom, I try again to pierce the shadows under his wide brimmed hat for details of his face, but fail a second time.

 

     "I don't think I've ever met you," I say with a doubtful conviction.

 

     He chuckled again. "Of course you have, Paul! Think about it! Think hard!"

 

     The shiver slowly works its way up my spine, and I decide to end this game here and now.

 

     "Look," I challenge. "Enough of this shit. I’m tired from a long day at work, and I’m not going to play some punk-assed game with you. If you want to talk to me, you tell me who you are. I’ve had enough of this stupid guessing game. Who the Hell are you?"

 

     I take a step towards him in an attempt to be intimidating, but I feel a wave of contempt that is almost a physical force; it seems to flow out from his shadowy form and washes over me. The feeling is so shocking and unexpected that I take a faltering step backwards, and he gives a small dry laugh that freezes me in my tracks.

 

     I know that laugh.

 

     But from where? I frantically search my memory, but the only image that pops into my head is a long forgotten memory of me as a very young child hiding under the covers in my bed late at night, terrified and whimpering. What the Hell does THAT mean? I decide to just turn and walk away and forget this whole thing, but I can’t; I feel rooted to the spot, unable to move. A knot of fear starts to form in the pit of my stomach.

 

     His voice seems to come from the trees all around me. Even though I’m standing directly in front of him, I can't locate its source. His words paralyze me.

 

     "You've seen me when you throw open a closet door, Paul, an instant before the light reaches the farthest corner...

 

     "When you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I reach for your ankles from under the bed, and then I follow you in the darkness down the hallway...

 

     "I am the face you glimpse in the flash of lightning outside your window, the face that is gone by the time your eyes readjust to the night...

 

     "I stalk your dreams and feast upon your nightmares as you sleep...

 

     "I am the Night...

 

     "I am the Shadows...

 

     "I am the friend of Fear, and the brother of Terror...”

 

     He tilted his head up to meet my gaze, and a stray beam from one of the distant streetlights on the edge of the park slips under the wide brim of his black hat. The feeble light gleams from his cold, dead eyes; what I see there makes the growing knot of fear in my stomach detonate into outright terror. I desperately try to run, but I’m hopelessly locked onto those eyes that are straight from the blackest pit of my worst nightmares. 

 

     Reflected back to me I see the dark, uncounted ages... the timelessness of his horror that stretches back through the millennium, back to the very dawn of human consciousness.

 

     In an instant, I know he has won. Years after I have learned not to fear him, I have dropped my guard and I have lost. The scream starts deep in my soul, a scream that I know will never make it past my throat...

 

     He licks his blood-red lips and serrated teeth with his black sinuous tongue, and stands up with a triumphant smile that promises a slow, agonizing death full of infinite terror and unimaginable pain...

 

    "What's the matter, Paul? Don't you remember your old friend, the Boogie Man?"

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