By T.J Snow
I always knew what happened to Billy was his brother’s fault.
Elis told Billy about the Hollow man. He was the reason his brother ended up being the misogynistic asshole we all knew and hated. He had no morals, no shame and no remorse for anyone but himself. Elis even walked down our main street naked once, flashing the little kiddies and their grandma’s. The cops came to arrest him but that didn’t stop him from giving one a black eye before he took a nightstick to his temple. He was charged with public indecency and attacking a police officer but he got off on bail. His family was the richest in town and many people owed favors.
It was because of their parents that the Ipsen boys could do what they liked. No one, except maybe one or two police officers, dared touch them. I think it was living in those kinds of conditions that lead to them growing up believing that they were invincible. So when Elis Ipsen was found shot to death after leaving for college, no one was surprised.
Elis’ death however, didn’t dull Billy’s sense of invincibility. Instead it made him bolder but he didn’t push his luck like Elis did. He stayed under the protection of Mommy and Daddy—and weighed on our collective minds like a giant metaphorical thumb. But things with Billy weren’t all bad. He was a lot smarter than Elis, a lot more well-read too. Sure, he would give you a wedgie or grope your girl but he never took things too far. He never pulled a knife and threatened you with it just for a laugh. He never walked down the street naked. So when he got the idea to prank a few junior high kids, he jumped at the chance.
Our town had two very important places. The first was the solid brass incarnation of the town’s founder; Roycifus Ipsen – Billy’s great-great-great grandfather, in the center of town. Their family still held the rights to much of the land and as such, most of the town paid their rent directly to the Ipsen family. Only a few people lived on land bought from Roycifus himself, one of them happened to be the local sheriff and his two sons—both policemen who arrested Elis.
The second and more important of the two was the nearby cave folks used as a makeshift camp when they went on trips to get back in touch with nature. Now that doesn’t necessarily make it special but what had been created there did. It was the place where the first Hollow Man story was told. In a way it was his birthplace. So to honor it, the local kids had named it The Hollow. But the weird thing about it was how the stalactites and stalagmites stuck out near the entrance like teeth. Like a giant gaping maw.
32 8th grade students fresh out of middle school, stepped onto the still warm stone of the local mountain trail. Us seniors tried not to let the guilt show on our faces. This is just a dumb initiation. They do it, get scared, run home and tell their parents. Later they’ll laugh about it and pull the same dumb shit on some other unsuspecting 8th graders. We told ourselves repeatedly, hoping to just blow through this whole situation and go home. Billy—the Picasso of this plan—was already preparing a campfire at the mouth of the Hollow, the orange rays illuminating just enough of the inside for it not to look like an endless black hole. You could see beyond the jagged teeth, down the Hollows throat until the tunnel curved to the left and disappeared.
The sun had sunk behind its mountainous bed and the last few violet rays were sinking steadily into the distance, lights last caress against the evening sky—like two lovers holding each other before saying goodbye. The kiddies were all hunkered around the fire on their sleeping bags in semi circles. No one wanted to sleep with their backs towards the Hollow. Opposite them were the seniors. Our backs were turned to the Hollow but that was part of Billy’s plan. He wanted the kiddies to focus on what he was saying and what was behind him. Earlier, we dragged a few huge logs to use as makeshift chairs. Billy had one of his own—a rotten stump used as a crude throne. Most of the kids sat on their sleeping bags or even on the cold stone floor of the cave. Some were already wide-eyed and terrified, others just fidgeted uncomfortably.
For a while, none of us said anything. Billy sat of his rotted throne, we sat on our logs and the kiddies stared into the fire, into Billy’s stone visage that betrayed no emotion nor thought of his devious idea.
No one could deny that Billy had a talent for storytelling. Combined with a lifetime of lying, had only concreted his skill—he was a master at controlling a crowd and his audience was easy pickings for his forked tongue. The middle-schoolers, a ubiquitous group of arrogant half-children, were murmuring among themselves. A blonde girl wearing a red sweater and a skirt despite the cooling breeze, was gesturing towards the fire, to our immortal king, and then towards her companion, a burly brunette boy with the schools red and white letter-man jacket draped over his shoulders. He was on the end of the first row of students looking wholly unimpressed by the whole situation. To anyone else, he would appear calm and cool but I could see the tension in his shoulders, the way his eyes darted back and forth between the seniors. He was scared, but he couldn’t show it. He had to maintain his image and looking at him, I felt sad. He already knew he couldn’t be true to himself if he wanted to be cool. He was already addicted to the facade; he would never be real again.
I let my gaze wonder from the sad parody of feeling. I skimmed over some generic tweens and settled on a dark haired child. Thin, almost gaunt with pale skin hidden under a thick jacket and jeans. I couldn’t tell whether it was a girl or a boy because the hood of his jacket was pulled up and tightened so I could only see his(or her) eyes peaking from tiny hole in his hood. He had these tiny black eyes that looked like burning coals, I tried not to be disturbed but the way he stared—it was like he could see past my indifferent visage, like he could see into my soul.
Then he turned away.
I barely contained my sigh of relief at his disinterest. His stare had raised a sort of primal fear within me, like he was a ravenous predator and I was his defenseless prey. He looked at me and saw my soft underbelly and with the smallest amount of indifference, judged me wanting.
His gaze shifted to the immortal king sitting on his rotting throne. And the way he looked at Billy was different. It wasn’t flicker of his lashes or raised brows or anything remotely physical that clued me in but rather the way he looked at Billy. It was the way a kitten looked at a ball of string or a baby mouse. But Billy didn’t notice the hooded child burning holes into his face as he stood from the rotting stump and spread his arms like a host welcoming guests to his home. In a booming voice he said: “Hello middle school losers! Welcome to our annual gathering for the celebration of our town’s one crowning achievement. The birth of the Hollow Man!” his voice echoed through the gaping maw of the Hollow and with it, a deep moaning wind blew past us, chilling our bones despite the roaring fire which now, like many of us, trembled in the night air. Blonde girl was now wrapped tightly around Jock boy who, to his credit, kept a straight face. It wasn’t until later that I realized, the wind had wallowed past us from inside The Hollow.
Billy, basking in the unrivaled attention, took a moment to appreciate his own cleverness. He kept his arms spread and grinned at the shivering 8th graders, unaffected by the sudden drop in temperature. The pale child didn’t seem to mind the cold either; he just kept staring at Billy with his creepy glare. With a flourished wave of his hands, Billy continued:
“Our story begins not in life, but in death. In the place between places, a desolate haven for souls who are condemned from heaven and denied hell. Purgatory. ” His words echoed off of the caves walls, the sounds disappearing down the tunnel as if The Hollow swallowed them whole.
“And in Purgatory there was a soul like any other, he didn’t believe in god or the devil and as punishment, was sentenced to the in-between for eternity. But some men, even dead ones, refuse to lie down and quit. They say that The Hollow Man, although he spent many a year trapped in that damned place, didn’t give up. He kept searching for a way out of his judgement. Even when he had lost all semblance of himself, his identity, he never gave up. And in time, he did escape.”
Billy left the story there for a second and let the kids stew over the new information. The rest of the seniors and I were struggling to keep straight faces. Some wanted to laugh at Billy’s suddenly improved vocabulary—he was obviously emulating Mrs Krowe; our English teacher. Others were laughing at the faces of the children. Sad to say, I was part of the latter. Blondie was now huddled together in the corner with Jock boy and both were doing their best impressions of plain white paper. Other kids were trying to look tough but didn’t fare much better than the previous two. Billy was a true master of theatricality.
Billy leaned in close, his voice now barely a whisper. “They say that this was where he came back, that he found his way through an infinite blackness and escaped as something less than a man. That the Hollow, in exchange for his life, took everything else away.” Billy was standing with his palms to the ceiling, the fire illuminating his visage; he looked as much like the messiah as the devil.
“I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t know if it was this cave or another cave or if he exists at all. But I do know that if you listen carefully, on quiet nights like this one, you can almost hear him—it—wailing into the dark, looking for something, anything, to fill him.”
Even us seniors were enthralled by Billy’s horrifying tale. We had heard it before. Billy’s version, however, was the first time we had heard the full story. No one had pulled the story together as artfully as Billy, intertwining all the rumors into a single twisted lullaby. We listened in the dark. We heard the small stream, its water trickling down through the small imperfections in the rock. In the distance an owl hooted. After what seemed like ages, we let go of our collectively held breathe and sighed into the Hollow. Someone giggled. Then it became two giggles, then three until the entire class was in stitches. All the middle school kids and even us seniors laughed at our silliness.It wasn’t until the laughter had died that I noticed that Billy wasn’t mad. Usually, if something didn’t go his way, Billy would throw a fit and most likely punch whoever had ruined his plan but he wasn’t even angry. He turned towards us and instead of a scowl or a look of unbridled fury, he was smiling; a thin, smug smile that belonged on only the slimiest politician.
A figure burst out of the darkness behind the children and shrieked out in a ghostly impression of woman’s dying scream. All the children screamed in unison, seniors included. They dashed in a fear-fueled blitz to escape the creatures grasp, tripping over each other to get behind us. The figure was cloaked in a black hood, his entire body hidden in the dark. Despite the way he had reached for us a moment before, he now stood still. The fire was the only thing in his way. Some of the middle school kids were openly crying, some turned away, unable to face the thing that attacked them.
Then a sound like air being pushed through closed fingers drew my attention. Billy, who had remained quiet the entire time, was on his knees, his hand clapped over his mouth to muffle his laughter. Upon seeing us turn to him with bottle-top eyes, he couldn’t hold it anymore. He roared with laughter, the last remnants of his will to endure was washed away as 37 faces, all shocked and some crying. Confusion turned to anguish as he rolled on the hard floor, his hand pointing to us like we were his own comedy. The laughter from the veiled assailant mirrored his own; the hood had been drawn back to reveal one Clark Reginald, Billy’s partner in crime. Clark, who was a good 6 feet tall, made an impressive figure in the black cloak but now he was having as much difficulty breathing as Billy.
“You assholes!” someone screamed. The sound, like the laughter, echoed through the mouth of the cave before it too was swallowed down the Hollows throat. Cassy Boile, a small girl with black pigtails exploded at the co-conspirators. She began to stomp over to the prostate Billy when another senior, a tall, lanky boy named Will Preacher grabbed her arm. She made to shake him off but his stern gaze sullied her. She looked at him, then at the two prostate jokers and huffed. This had been part of the plan but it had never included scaring us as well. She looked at the downtrodden children, some still wiping their eyes, and her look hardened. “C’mon kids. Let’s get you guys home.” She said as she took one of the girl’s hands and began to lead her away. The other children followed, going around the fire to start collecting their things. The rest of us went back to our sleeping bags and rolled them up. I had taken the liberty of bringing a flashlight and as I flicked it on something moved out of the corner of my eye. I whirled to face its general direction but saw nothing. I shrugged, angry with myself for letting myself be duped by Billy.
And as I turned back to face the kids I saw that they had all frozen with faces devoid of color and their eyes resembling over-blown balloons. Even Clark had stopped laughing. I followed their gaze to the now standing Billy, a hand over his stomach while the other wiped a fake tear from his eye. He had settled on a chuckle when he saw us. “What?” he said, his expression had changed from smugness to slight confusion. No one replied. “What?” Confusion gave way to anger. “What? Is there something behind me? You think I’m that stupid huh?” he pointed to himself. “Let me guess. You got some punk to dress up in a costume and try to scare the shit out of me. Well I’m too smart for you assholes. If there’s some idiot behind, I’m gonna—“ He turned and stopped mid-sentence, realizing that we weren’t trying to trick him.
I was standing at the right angle to see Billy’s face ashen. Now that I think about it, his face at that moment reminded me of the last picture of his brother. Both wide eyed, mouths open to the world—they realized that they weren’t immortal after all and it scared them. Both looked so devastated by this fact that I believe if they weren’t killed in the next moment, they wouldn’t have lived for much longer anyway.
Billy turned with his fists raised to give whoever was behind him a good thumping. I watched as his limbs withered to useless branches at his sides as the thing behind him made itself known. It was the child, his body hidden behind shadow but his neck and face were visible by the dwindling light of the already extinguishing fire. His face was pale skin stretched over a skull. Where there had been eyes were nothing but abyss and his mouth, which gaped like an open wound, was stretched out comically wide, but there was nothing funny about how it widened to swallow him whole. Like a snake with an unhinged jaw it stretched upwards, the void in its mouth the twin of the darkness surrounding it. Poor mortal Billy just watched as the face descended, swallowing him whole. There was a scream from inside its mouth that died as soon as it was born. It was the starting gun going off and we heeded its signal. We broke off into a run, all of us stumbling, falling over one another, shoving people out of the way to escape the real monster that had swallowed our immortal king. I tripped over one of the middle school kids legs and threw my hands up to break my fall. As I hit the ground my flashlight tumbled away from me. I groaned in pain before I remembered what was behind me. In my panic I turned over to face my attacker.
It was already upon me. I back-pedaled, trying to distance myself from it but it made no difference. Again the face stretched to encompass the cave. In my panic, I almost didn’t notice the flashlight until it was too late. As the dark engulfed me, I grasped the plastic edge and focused the beam of light in front of me. Something screeched and suddenly the dark was gone, the fire’s still burning coals emitting just enough light to let me know that whatever had attacked had left. My light had sent it running. For a second, I felt like a champion who had just defeated a mighty dragon, holding my sword high as I perched one foot on its snout and proclaimed Hazzah!! But the next killed that thought as another soul-wrenching howl jerked from the Hollow’s throat. I scrambled to my feet and backed away towards the entrance. When I felt the cold outside air kiss my body, I let the flashlight fall from my hand and ran. I didn’t turn back when I fell into the brush. I didn’t look back as the ground began to rumble and a thunderous detonation signaled the collapse of the cave that birthed a creature that would haunt me the rest of my life. I didn’t look back when I reached my parent’s house and hugged my mother, sobbing into her chest.
Ten years to the day and that thing still haunts me. I tried to leave, tried to get into a good college and escape this cursed town but every time I tried I couldn’t. I have seen the abyss inside the Hollow man’s mouth and it had changed me, disfigured my soul and left me damned.
All the other children who were there that night are either in asylums or far away. I don’t see anymore faces from the old days and sometimes I want to scream at them but I realize that it would be meaningless. They didn’t see what I saw. I was just unlucky.
I had a dream about Billy last night. He was standing in an infinite void and he had no eyes but he was looking at me. It wasn’t the first dream like that but it was one of the few where he didn’t talk. The worst one was a week ago, Billy was sitting against a wall, his hands bound with thick shackles. I looked at him but I had to turn away, his belly was split open and most of the organs removed. He turned his head up towards me and screamed with empty eyes: “Empty me!”, the voice carved its way into my bones and forced me awake. I can still hear the scream when I close my eyes. I keep all the lights on. I don’t dare go into the dark. I don’t dare sleep anymore. I know he’s waiting for me. I wonder if—the lights have just gone out. It’s a blackout. Wait. What’s that—
I wrote this a while ago and never published it because I never believed it was any good. But I have to acknowledge that not every one of my stories will be any good. This was my attempt at a horror story, and I will keep trying
Also, thanks to my friend, J.Spade, for her wonderful feedback