The list of prompts can be found here. Please join me in taking on this self-imposed, challenge if you want. I’m excited to see what anyone else comes up with.
Also I decided to keep the same characters from my first prompt. Mainly because I don’t want to keep coming up with new characters but also it’ll be a fun way to tie them all together.
Prompt: “What’s behind you in these pictures…?”
Dana wiped the sweat from her brow as she carefully loaded a heavy boxed marked dishes onto the back of Eriq’s truck. Her friend Michelle just signed on a bigger home and she, Eriq, and Greg agreed to help her move. She had been packing and lugging boxes from the house and garage all morning. The constant bending and lifting was starting to get to her. Dana paused to crack her back. “Ew,” Eriq said as he placed the box in his hands down. “That sounded awful.”
“Yeah but it feels amazing.”
“It won’t later on. Don’t worry about carrying any more boxes out, okay? Greg and I will get the rest. You just go help Michelle finish packing.”
She smiled at his concern. “Thanks, man.” She rubbed the small of her back again then rubbed it once more. “I and my back thank you.”
Dana climbed out of the truck and headed back inside. She ran into Greg who was wrapping more dishes. “Double wrap the ones in the cabinet,” she pointed to the large China cabinet standing in the corner of the dining room. “They’re a family heirloom. Irreplaceable. ‘Chelle will be crushed if anything happened to them.”
“Got it,” he replied before rising with a grunt and walking towards the cabinet.
Dana left him; trusting that he’ll take care of the valuables. She then made her way towards the back of the single story home. The muffled sound of music wafted down the hall. Upon recognizing the tune, Dana hummed along to it. She rapped twice on the door then opened it. She stifled a laugh at the sight she walked in on. Michelle was dancing—more like thrashing—about the room. Dana watched her friend for a moment more before greeting, “Hey, hey, hey.”
Michelle stopped short and let out an embarrassing laugh. “Oh… Hey, D! H-how long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to know you still ain’t got no moves.”
“Excuse me?” she asked in mock offense. “Girl, I’m the next Beyoncé.”
“Maybe Beyonce Jenkins down the block but definitely not Queen Bey.”
Michelle laughed at the remark then tossed a pair of balled up socks in response. “No more mouth! Help me pack the rest of this shit up.”
“Okay, okay.” She pulled down a crate from the top shelf of Michelle’s closet. “Hey, look!” she exclaimed while digging through it. “Your old photo album.”
“God, when was the last time we owned literal albums? God these must be so old.” Michelle took the large book from her then cleared a spot for them on the bed. They sat and began flipping through it.
Every so often they would pause and giggle at a picture. Long faded memories began to refocus: birthday parties, sleepovers, school dances, family trips, prom. Yet as they continued on Dana noticed something strange in a number of them. She was currently studying a photo of Michelle posing and smiling in front of an old house. Michelle was about the flip the page but, Dana stopped her. “Hold on. What’s…. what’s that?”
“That,” Dana pointed to the white blur. “What’s behind you in these pictures…?”
Michelle squinted but still couldn’t make out the image. “I don’t know. Maybe a lens flare?”
“Yeah,” Dana agreed weakly. “Maybe.” They flipped the page and continued their reminiscence until Dana saw that spot again. She said nothing, however, sure that it was just another flare. Yet then it appeared again and again. Sometimes it was directly behind Michelle; others it was hanging out in the background. It changed shape as well. One was round; another looked like ribbon; one was misty like a fog hanging in the back ground; and yet another appeared to look almost human. Finally, it was too much for Dana to ignore. “‘Chelle, this is really… odd. It’s not just flares. It’s more that something on the picture. Have they always been like this?”
“Yeah. I mean… I guess so. Honestly, I’ve never seen this album before. My brother found this hidden in our grandmother’s attic when he was cleaning it out one day. I always meant to look through it but I got so busy that—”
“The attic?” Michelle nodded in reply. “Since when did your grandmother hide pictures away? As long as I’ve known you she kept all her albums out front for easy showing.”
“Yeah. I thought that was weird too.” She dismissed the thought with a shrug. “I just figured she had forgotten about it. I mean that house was a mess when she died.”
Dana continued to think it over while flipping through the book. “It just… It doesn’t make any sense. Do you remember taking any of these pics?”
“Vaguely. My parents were photographers. There were always countless pictures in the house. You know this. It was hard to keep track of them sometime. Which is why my grandmother probably stored these away. Who would miss one of a thousand albums anyway, ya know?” Michelle rose and grabbed an empty box from a stack in the corner. “Enough of that. We need to pack my cl—”
“Aren’t you concerned?”
Michelle exhaled a long dramatic sigh. “Not really.” She was over the conversation entirely. There was nothing else to say about an explainable processing error.
“Let it go, D.”
“I can’t. There’s too many unanswered questions. Like—” Michelle cut her off with another groan. Yet Dana would not be deterred. “Like if they are simple errors then why did your parents keep them?”
“Maybe they liked the pictures? Ever think of that?”
“No. I knew your folks, remember? They usually took multiple shots before they found the perfect one. Any pic with them was a test of patience.” Michelle shot her a look of warning. Dana quickly clarified: “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry. I loved your parents. I just meant that every shot had to be perfect. There’s no way they would have kept these pictures.”
“Okay, well, maybe Gramps kept them. She was a hoarder after all.”
“True but she was also sentimental, remember. Only things she locked away were broken and useless. Old sewing kits, defunct typewriters, broken mannequins. She wouldn’t care about a few spots in a photograph. She’d’ve had it on display with the others.”
“Oh god, Dana, just let this go.” Michelle tried to remain calm but her tone was showed her growing annoying.
“Please, D. For me?”
“Not even for you, ‘Chelle. I can’t. I just can’t.”
Michelle’s patience had run out now. “Goddammit, Dana! Why the hell not? Why can’t you just let this go?”
“Because it’s too weird to just ignore, Michelle! You should be worried about what the hell ever this thing is too but you’re not. You’re too calm and, honestly, that’s even creepier. You would think you would want to find out about this more than I do!”
“I do! Alright? There! Happy now?” Michelle confessed; her eyes were red and threatened to tear. “I would love to know what this thing is because it’s been following me for as long as I can remember.”
“Wait… I thought you said you’ve never seen these pictures before.”
“I haven’t.” She looked at her feet and sniffled. Her eyes stung with unshed tears. Michelle hated to show her vulnerable side even to her best friend. “Those… those aren’t the only pictures,” her voice was barely above a whisper.
She looked back at her friend now. “I said, ‘Those aren’t the only pictures,’” she repeated.
“H-how many more are there?”
Michelle shrugged. “I don’t know. Thousands, I guess. It’s been there so long. I remember my grandmother first mentioning it, though, when I was, like, seven or eight. She was talking to them, whispering, telling them something. She said something about ‘getting rid of it’ and my mother just… lost it.” Her eyes began to water now as the memory replayed in her mind. “She started yelling and shit; calling my grandmother crazy. I didn’t understand. I thought they were talking about me. You remember that summer I said we should run away?”
“That was it. I thought if I ran away they couldn’t get rid of me. I dunno. I was young…” She sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She returned to her spot next to Dana on the bed. “For the next two years, whenever we would go visit, my grandmother would mention something about a ritual. She was always vague on the details but she said that it would free me. I was a kid, I didn’t know what that meant but I trusted her, you know? That was Gramps. She’d never hurt me. Or so I thought…”
Michelle’s vision drifted off. She stared into the distance as if she could see the following scene played out before her: “One day, she took my hand and told me that we were going to play a game. I was so excited! She always came up with the best games. She dressed me in this white gown. It looked and smelled old. Like it had been locked away in some cedar trunk somewhere—but I didn’t mind. Then she took me to her bathroom and told me to sit in the tub. It was filled with water. Lukewarm. I did. Then she told me, ‘Close your eyes and think of all the things you love. No matter what happens next or what you feel, focus on that love.’ I started feeling a little uneasy then but I didn’t dare question Gramps. I started thinking of everything I had ever loved up ‘til that point. Then she put her hand on the back of my neck… and pinched my nose… and dunk me into the water.”
“Th-then…” Michelle choked on her word. Not only had the images returned but the emotions as well. “Then it got weird. She… she started saying something in some foreign language and when she did the water started to boil. I mean boil! It was so hot I swore I could feel my skin start to burn off. I tried to sit up but… she…” She inhaled deep then exhaled in hopes that it would calm her; it didn’t. Michelle could almost feel the hot water splashing against her skin as she continued, “She held me down.” Her voice cracked now. “I kicked and move but she wouldn’t let me go. I tried to scream but I only choked on the water. I… She…” Long overdue tears finally fell down the curve of her cheek.
The image played before Michelle now as if she was back there. Her grandmother shouting gibberish as Michelle’s skinny limbs fought and kicked to be free. “Things went dark. I-I-I blacked out I guess. When I came to, my father was holding me in his arms. He was screaming at Gramps. To say he was mad was an understatement. He started swearing at her, telling her that my mama was right. He said she’ll never see us again as long as she lived. And we didn’t. Not until her funeral when I was fifteen.”
The images faded away and Michelle returned to the present. She turned to see Dana sitting in stunned silence; her face stained from crying. Before Michelle could speak again, Dana wrapped her in a tight embrace. “I’m so sorry, ‘Chelle,” she cried into her friend’s shoulder. “I had no idea.”
Michelle wanted to pull away, to calm her emotions, but she enjoyed the warmth of the hug. Truthfully, she was glad to be able to finally share the traumatizing secret with someone. Who better than the person she trusted more in the world.
They held each other and cried for ten minutes straight before parting in exhaustion. They shared a small laugh while they whipped the dried tears from under their puffy eyes. “You know,” Dana opined, “in the twenty years I’ve known you, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you cry.”
“Real shit. Not even when you broke your arm in eighth grade. You were a tough lil’ broad.” Michelle chuckled at the comment. She rose again and resumed folding and packing away her clothes. They’ve wasted nearly twenty minutes travelling down memory lane. She didn’t have spare time to spend now. She wanted to have everything packed and moved before the week ended. By then, work would have called her attention away.
Dana followed suit and continued helping her pack. Minutes passed and the previous tension in the room seemed to ease a bit. Yet a thought continued to niggle in the back of her mind. She dropped the shirt in her hand into the box at her feet. “Did it work, though?” Dana cautiously asked. She didn’t want to re-dig into a twenty year, still-open wound but her curiosity got the better of her.
“Did what work?” Michelle replied while pulling out the drawers from her dresser.
Michelle stopped and looked at her friend. “What?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to dig up old hurts for you. I know that was very traumatic but… I mean… did it at least work?”
Michelle’s eyes dropped back to the floor. She shook her head. “No. Actually I think it made it worse.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel it now. Before… I…” She sighed. “I didn’t know it was there except in pictures. But now… it’s… You know that feeling when someone’s watching you? That nervous tingle that travels all the way up your back?” Dana nodded. “That’s it.”
“Do you feel it now?”
“No. I haven’t felt it in a couple of days. It does that sometimes. It’ll suddenly leave. Sometimes when it comes back it does things?”
“Like… The Entity kind of things?” Dana questioned in all seriousness.
“Oh, God, no! Just… at first it was little things. Moving shit. A pen here, an earring there. Small things that could easily be lost. I didn’t even know it was this thing at first. Not until larger things started going missing. I remember sitting at my computer at work, sipping on a cup of coffee. I put it down, looked away for a second, the when I reached for it, it was gone. I thought it was my coworkers playing tricks on me. I even asked around about it. No one knew anything. Even after it reappeared in the same spot ten minutes later, still piping hot. I just assumed no one was mature enough to admit they took it. Then about a week or so later, I was working from home and it happened again. My laptop would go missing constantly. I’d leave it in the living room and find it in the hall closet later on. Once I came home and my entire living room was rearranged.”
“Oh my god, ‘Chelle! Why didn’t you say or do something?”
“What and have people look at me like I was crazy? I didn’t even believe me. I doubt anyone else would.”
Dana placed a reassuring hand on Michelle’s shoulder. “I believe you. Furthermore, I think I can help you. God knows it’s only a matter of time before this thing escalates.”
Michelle looked down at her feet in shame. “It-it already has.” She lifted her shirt and showed Dana a large, discolored mark on her stomach.
“Oh my fucking god!” Dana gently touched it causing Michelle to suck in a pained breath. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I had a nightmare one night—a really bad one. I can’t even remember it. I just know that I was running from something I couldn’t see. But I could hear and feel it. Then this strong wind knocked me down. It was so real that I shot awake. I felt this burning on my stomach and when I looked down it was there.”
“No. No, no, no. This isn’t good. ‘Chelle, you can’t live with this another day. It might kill you… or worse.”
“What can I do? I’m not attempting another ritual ever again.”
“No, nothing like that. I know someone. She’s not cheap but she’s good.”
An hour passed before Madame Zuri arrived. Michelle had scoffed at the ridiculous name and with good reason. Madame Zuri had chosen it because she thought it sounded “authentic.” In actuality, she had been born Marie Ann Hopkins in a little town in Alabama. Despite the showbiz name, she was anything but fake. She had been blessed—though some would say cursed—with the gift of second sight since she was a small child. Madame Zuri could see both the dead and those close to dying. She could call forth spirits and angels and send forth malicious entities and demons back to the deepest pit of hell. She was the one you called in cases such as these. Results always guaranteed.
Michelle, Dana, Eriq, and Greg sat in a circle as Madame Zuri blessed the house with incense. Every so often she would ask questions and Michelle would answer them as honestly as possible. Madame Zuri told her from the beginning that she had to have Michelle’s utmost trust or else the entire ceremony would be in vain. She couldn’t help if there was no belief. “This thing… it’s very nasty,” she said while fanning down the corners of the room. “It has left a trail behind. One that is very heavy. It’s a miracle that you are even still alive. Someone must’ve cast a great protection spell on you, my dear, for you to have come this far.” Michelle briefly thought about her grandmother’s ritual. Could that be what she was trying to do?
“Ooh. I feel that,” Madame Zuri said with a shiver. “Who was the bruja in your family?”
“Bruja? We… Nobody. There wasn’t one.”
Madame Zuri studied her face intently. Michelle, understandably, was put off by having the young woman’s face so close to hers. Yes, she wanted her help but—my god!—personal circles were still important! “No, my child. There was one.” Michelle stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Since this woman entered her home nearly thirty minutes ago, she had been calling Michelle her “child” nonstop. It was doubly annoying since Michelle easily had a decade on the woman. But she trusted Dana. If she said the woman was on the up and up, she had no choice but to believe her.
“Your grandmother knew of many things. Things she didn’t tell you. You were too young to understand but I suspect you knew too. This thing that has attached itself to you, she could tell it was evil. She tried to cleanse you once, yes?”
“I-I-I guess. I don’t know.”
“Oh you know. The tub? The burning?”
Michelle’s eyes widened. She shot a look to Dana. An unspoken glance that read: “Did you tell her?”
Madame Zuri laughed at the exchange. “She said nothing to me, child. Your grandmother speaks to me. She says she tried but your father stopped her. Because she could not finish and because you were taken from her constant protection, this demon grew in power. Though she weakened it some. Which is why it’s taken this long to show take hold of you.”
“I’m sorry, back up there for a minute. Did you say ‘demon’?” Eriq questioned.
“Yes. Demon,” she repeated slowly. “Did you catch it that time.”
“Yeah…” Greg said now. “Not to sound all… rational but there’s no such things as demons.”
Madame Zuri turned to him and laughed. “A skeptic. How fun.” Her tone was sarcastic. In her profession, skeptics came a dime a dozen. They would traipse into her shop to mock and belittle her but she paid them no concern. The ignorant always mock what they do not understand. She was sure, though, that she would make a believer out of him before the night’s end. Just like she had countless others.
She sat in the empty chair across from Michelle. “Let’s get started. We don’t have much time. Everyone clasp hands.” The group did as they were instructed, although with some reluctance. “Now it is very important that you listen to me. When this thing comes in, do not, under any circumstance, break this circle. Think about good things, things you love. Not just enjoy but truly, truly love: family, friends, etc. Before this night’s ended, Michelle will be free, as will you all.”
That last remark made the group collectively question her but she gave them no replies. Instead she closed her eyes and began to murmur a chant. Michelle immediate recognized it. “That’s… Those words! I think… Gramps said them to me when she…”
“They’re words of protection and cleansing, my child. Your grandmother was very strong indeed. She’s with us here now. She’ll protect you. Think on her. All of you now. Think on those good things.”
The group closed their eyes and lost themselves in deep reflection as Madame Zuri continued to chant. Everyone, that is, except Greg. He still scoffed at the entire ordeal. Ghosts, demons, physics? None of them were real. And this hack of a woman would prove that. He didn’t know what was upsetting Michelle but he did know that this woman could not help her. After the show was done and their money settled deep in Madame Zuri’s pocket, Michelle would be left to wrestle with her metaphorical demons.
The group sat quiet for a couple of minutes as Madame Zuri muttered prayers and supplications to the spirits. “The one who demands this child’s soul, let him come forth and answer for it.”
Greg rolled his eyes. More nonsense.
“Come forth and answer for it!”
He was tempted now to break the circle to end this foolishness. He briefly wondered what would happened if he did.
“Come forth, you profane thing, and answer for it!”
Greg felt a strange feeling shoot across his entire back. It felt like every inch of his skin prickled. No, it felt like when tries to stand only to realize their foot had fallen asleep. No, it wasn’t that either. It was hard to explain. All he knew was that a great fear fell over him.
“He’s here,” Madame Zuri spoke. “Do not open your eyes, children. Do not look upon it.”
For the first time that evening, Greg wanted to obey the young woman’s advice. He tried to close his eyes but couldn’t. His body felt like it wasn’t his own.
“Speak, you profane thing, tell me your name.”
“A woman asks so much of me.” Greg heard it. Loud and clear. He felt the tongue rise and fall, the mouth move. It was his voice and not. Something was speaking through him.
“Ah. I see you have found a new host. You cannot have him either.”
“I do not want him.” Greg looked at Michelle. He could see her through eyes that were not his own. She looked different. The whole room did. He could see a bright ring of light surrounding the group. A faint shadow stood behind Michelle and a group of them stood behind Madame Zuri. What were these creatures? How could he see them?
“You cannot have her.”
“She is mine!” The voice roared. Greg could feel it’s anger in the pit of his stomach. It was so strong. It felt as if it would rip right thorough him.
“She is protected.”
“A dead thing does not scare This One.”
“You know better than most that power does not die. Don’t look, my children,” she reminded the group. “Don’t stop thinking on good things. If you can, call upon the memories of the passed love ones.”
Greg tried to think about his deceased uncle and grandfather but his mind only produced vicious thoughts. He saw viscera of people. Were they his friends? We’re they those already long dead? He could almost feel the blood on his hands. The thought pleased him. Rather it pleased the thing within him.
“I call upon the ancestors brought here now.” Greg looked about the room and saw more shadows appearing as she spoke. “Come forth and protect your own. He cannot harm you.”
“You lie!” the demon roared.
“There is more power here than within you. Tell me your name, you filth, and I shall cast you down gently.”
The demon laughed loudly. It was ugly. It sounded like a thousand voices screeching at once. Greg’s body started to grow cold then colder. It was as if someone had sat on his lap and claimed his body as his own. The demon had fully taken over now. It made him stand to his feet. Madame Zuri’s grasp on his right hand tightened. Her nails sunk deep into the palm of his hand. He could both feel it and not. He jerked his left hand but Dana held on to it equally as tight. Madame Zuri began to chant.
The demon growled as she called on the ancestors and gods. Greg could see the shadows walking towards him. He wanted to run but the demon held still. He had no fear of them. Not even when they reached out to him and made him howl in pain. Greg had no idea what was going on but he was grateful for it. The more the shadows pulled at the thing inside him the weaker he could feel it become.
“Continue calling on your ancestors, children. They need your strength to fight on. Have faith in them.
The demon jerked and bent Greg’s body in a way that he never thought physically possible. The demon screamed as the shadows continued pulling him. They whispered something but Greg couldn’t quite make it out. It was one word stuck on repeat. Every time they said it the demon would bend or shout anew.
“Free us from this arcane beast!” Madame Zuri shouted to the spirits in encouragement. “Let us send him back to hell. What is your name foul demon?”
That was it! The word Greg heard. The demon would not speak it but he was weakening. Greg was more in power now. The shadows continued to whisper it urging him to say it aloud. “My… name… is…” The demon shrieked again. Having a demon’s name would give one power over it. The shadows continued to whisper. “A-A-A…” The demon continued to howl. It was stubborn. It didn’t want to leave. It’s been lying in wait for over twenty years. Why would it give up now?
But the spirits were stronger now. They would not allow him to remain. The name started to shout in Greg’s head now. “My name is…” The voice sounded more like Greg now. The demon must’ve been so weak now that he couldn’t fight both the physic and spirits. “Atarak!”
The sound the demon made at his own name was indescribable. The group, having never heard something so horribly inhuman, covered their ears. “No!” Madame Zuri shouted. “You must not break the circle! It’s not over yet!”
But it was too late. The loud demonic howl faded into nothing. The group looked around the room. Nothing had moved or changed but they all knew something supernatural had transpired. Greg, however, looked a lot worse for wear. He looked exhausted; as if he hadn’t slept in years. “What… what happened to him?” he croaked out.
“Atarak is gone.”
“You… you mean I’m free?” Michelle asked in relief.
“For now,” Madame Zuri answered honestly. “You broke the circle before I was able to cast him down. He’s in hiding. Weak and angry. I’ll make you all protection bags to keep you safe and, Michelle, I’ll have to bless your new home as well.”
“Can’t you just call him back and finish the ceremony?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy.” She tried to rise but fell back into the seat. “Every time I perform an exorcism, it takes a lot out of me. I must regain my strength: physical and spiritual. When it has returned, so will I. I never leave my job undone, my child.” Michelle smiled gratefully. “Now someone help me up. I must make your protection bag immediately. I doubt Atarak would have gotten far. He’ll be back and he’ll be much wiser now.”
Greg sat on the edge of his bed rubbing the tension in his neck away. His protection bag sat next to him. He still wasn’t entirely sure what happened tonight. Did the events really occur or was he so caught up in the moment that he imagined them? Either way he could really use a hot bath and a good night’s rest.
He opted for a shower instead. He feared he would fall asleep in the tub and drown. When it was done he grabbed a towel and headed back toward his bedroom. He barely got two feet down the hall when he felt it.
That odd sensation that crept up him back at Michelle’s place. It was then he knew that the previous events of the evening were, in fact, real. He ran towards his bedroom in search of the little brown bag Madame Zuri gave him. But it was gone. He was certain he left it on the bed. Then he remembered that it fell when he rose to shower. “I’ll pick it up later,” he had said in his exhaustion. Stupid! Madame Zuri had said to wear it around his neck at all times!
Greg fell to his knees and lifted the covers under his bed. There it was! The bag sitting within reach! He grabbed for it; his fingers flicked against the drawstring. Almost… almost…
That odd numbness fell over him again. That heaviness of having another being within him returned. He tried to move; to continue grabbing for the bag but the demon stood him to his feet. He felt it drag him to his hall closet, pull out a broom, and sweep the tiny bag from under the bed. It picked it up with the towel then tossed it into a nearby trash bin. Greg was a smoker so he always had extra lighters lying about. The demon found one sitting unused in the nightstand.
The demon curled Greg’s lips upward as he lit the bag on fire. No more protection. Not for him anyway.
Next the demon turned to the mirror. Greg could see it blending over is features like an ill-fitted mask. The demon smiled at him but didn’t speak. It didn’t have to. Greg knew his thoughts better than his own.
The demon quickly dressed itself it a pair of Greg’s sweats and a tee. It went to the kitchen and grabbed a large butcher’s knife.
Greg wanted to yell; to plead; to beg it not to do what is was about to. It wouldn’t listen, of course. It would not be commanded. Never again. It fished Greg’s keys out of the bowl on the living room table and chuckled that dark, shrieking laugh of its before leaving for Madame Zuri’s.