“The Intruder” is from The Vermilion Book of the Macabre, copyright © 2020 by Joe Pawlowski.
There are men who do not rest easily in tranquil homes. Who shoulder no load at any worksite nor bow to any god. They live in a world of their own making by their own rules. Brooding men with stony aspects who walk in slow, sinister strides, often to places most would avoid at any cost.
The pupils of these men are flat discs, dark and heavy. Behind their eyes lies a determination colder than the grave. Their breath is measured. Their hands never quake.
When you spot such a man, you wonder if he isn’t familiar with horrent shrieks and sobbing moans. If he hasn’t tasted another’s blood on his lips. If he hasn’t peered into reaches so stark that all traces of humanity have fled him.
Should this sort of man ever knock at your door, don’t let him in. Even if he’s persistent. Even if he pounds the wood till the jamb shakes and echoes with his blows. Do not open the door.
Don’t make the mistake that I did.
“Aye?” I said, standing in my work robe in the threshold of our rural abode, looking out on the hooded figure in the dripping, nocturnal rain.
Without pausing, he yanked the door open and shoved his way past me.
“See here,” I said, or something like it.
I remember a massive hand on my face, pushing me down. My neck snapped back, and I crashed shoulders-first to the packed soil. My wife screamed. My children cried out.
The assailant in his filthy cloak and tunic flew past me, as I struggled to my feet.
Now he had a chair by one leg and was bringing it down in a blur toward my youngest son. Toward the child’s soft skull. The chair seemed to pass through his tiny body before exploding into fragments. Before my eyes, my poor boy lay lifeless in a pool of blood.
My wife fell to her knees. My remaining son and daughter clung to her. The air became vibrant with their wailing.
I leapt at the attacker, trying to wrestle him back, but he was strong as an ox and flung me into a wall, jarring the teeth in my head. I fought to stay alert but consciousness flickered off and on.
His meaty hands grasped the table, lifted it high.
There were caterwauls and shouts, a thunderous roar of bursting wood, cries and whimpers. The haunting rustle of bubbling breaths. I took an awkward step toward him, but my leg curled under me, and my shin struck hard on the earthen floor.
I couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few moments, yet all the while he had been busy, pounding and tearing and crushing.
I felt around, and amidst the debris, I grasped the handle of a carving knife. It must have fallen there when he’d lifted the table.
With a head full of rage, I bolted toward the hulking silhouette and, with both hands, plunged the blade into the muscles of his back. He whirled angrily as I jerked out the knife. Now I slammed it with all my strength—to the very hilt—into the hollow of one of his eyes. He yowled and pulled at the handle, dropping the knife with a clatter. He pawed at his face with splayed fingers.
The ground shook as he smashed to his back and lay writhing. Now his hands, bloody with eye gore, clutched at the air.
“I’ll get ye!” he shouted. “I’ll kill ye yet.”
I picked up the knife from where he dropped it.
“If I have to claw my way up from the black pit of the afterworld, I’ll get ye.”
And with that final invective, I drove the blade again and again into his chest. Into his face and shoulders and stomach. I watched him gasp his last breath and pass to the Netherworld. Yet I could not stop stabbing him even then, even as my arm went numb and hand went sore. Even when I was covered in his vile blood.
Then everything went black.
I COULD NEVER figure out what made him do it. We were dirt-poor farmhands, so it couldn’t have been for money. We kept to ourselves mostly, wishing harm to no one. I knew of nobody who held a grudge against us. And I’d never before even met this fellow. All I could think is it was some sort of bloodlust. An evil impulse beyond the understanding of a rational person.
An evil impulse that took from me everything.
That night, I stumbled in the rain to a neighbor’s house and told him what had happened. All he could do was comfort me. What else could anyone do? He stayed awake with me until the break of dawn, then offered to go back to the house with me, but I could see no point in it. I walked back alone, the rain now a mist.
I dug four soggy graves.
The intruder’s body I dragged down the road and threw in the creek.
The sadness of that time lay heavily upon me. More than once, I thought about adding my wretched existence to death’s tally. I informed the farmer whose apples we’d been picking at the time what happened. He just looked at me with sorrowful eyes and said how sorry he was.
After a few days, I went back to work.
But the sadness never left me, and the memories of life with my family were little solace. I found myself thinking more and more about the monster’s last words. “If I have to claw my way up from the black pit of the afterworld, I’ll get ye.”
Maybe it was because of such thoughts that I began to hear ominous things in the night: snapping branches, approaching footsteps, movement on the rooftop and at the window. I slept with the carving knife under my pillow.
One day I walked down to the creek, to where I’d left his body, but it wasn’t there. Dragged off by wolves, perhaps. But it was strange to find not even a trace of him anywhere, even when I ventured deep into the woods.
Some nights, when I hear the noises outside of my house, I hope it is him come back so I can kill him again.
Most nights, though, I lie awake heartsick, in terror that the intruder has indeed clawed his way back in hatred from the dark pit of the afterworld. In my mind’s eye, I see him coming after me, the blood of my children still under his nails. The hooded figure, moving with purpose in the darkened room. Come to claim his final victim.
Joe Pawlowski has written three dark novels (most recently, The Cannibal Gardener), as well as the short-story collection from which this tale is drawn. He is a retired journalist, a U.S. Army veteran, a secular Buddhist, a Beatles fan, a vegan, and a lifelong student of classic horror and supernatural literature.