The Night Watchman
New Jersey, United States
The moon sat low in the sky now, steeping the forest in pale green light. The eerie radiance brimmed with treetops and skipping shadows, all alive with the hissing of early morning creatures. From a bird’s eye view, it looked almost shimmering, like the oily surface of a ghost soup. Somewhere, deep within the woods and far beneath the surface of the ghost soup, sat the Night Watchman.
Huddled against a tree, the Night Watchmen stared ahead, fully alert despite his exhaustion. Clenched in his right hand was a little plastic flare gun, and he fingered the trigger tensely. Ahead, some twenty yards across from him in the clearing was the mouth of a cave. Though the actual entrance was obscured, sealed off by a boulder, something seemed to escape from within. The Night Watchman could feel it, the invisible tendrils that seemed to reach and shoot electricity up his spine.
Weariness marked his eyes with dark rings. Despite his best efforts to stay awake, he had dozed off occasionally throughout the night. It was in these fitful periods of sleep that he experienced the most horrible dreams of his life. Dreams featuring pale and squirming things that crept out from the mouth of the cave, like gripping feelers or eldritch tentacles; faceless terrors that could scarcely be called to mind. Each felt more vivid than the last, while the brief intermissions of reality between them became more and more surreal. As he sat, weary-eyed on the forest floor, he had to bat away the suspicion that he might still be dreaming.
Testing his mind, he thought back to the day before, when the town council called him to their presence. Then, he had just been John Goodwin. They had greeted him with a job request, and he had gotten the impression that declining would not be an option. It was a tightly run ship, his town, all curfews and neighborhood watch. Not a town to be disobedient in. Not one people tended to leave, either, at least not of their own accord.
The woods were forbidden to most due to the unseen dangers that hid within them. And if the walls of the town had shut behind you, they rarely ever opened to let you back in. Most knew better than to stray too far, for what dark things lie on the edge of town…
The council had addressed this in the meeting, at least in a tip-toey sort of way. For, they required him to be this month’s Night Watchman: the man who would sit by the cave in the woods, and make sure whatever dwelled within its dark holds never came out. The job was performed once a month, on the night of the full moon, and that night being soon upon them meant a new candidate was required. This ritual was somewhat well known around town; it was also well known that very few of the past Night Watchmen had returned after their night on post.
It seemed now that John very well might. Soon the sun would be peeking over the horizon, throwing its rays over the forest and washing away this ghostly ambiance. Soon enough he would march back into town, chin up high, his stay in these grim woods finally over.
“Hello John,” came a voice.
John jolted up, eyes darting all about the clearing. “Who’s there? Who said that?”
Then he saw it, huddled by the rocky foot of the cave: a human figure, details obscured by shadows. It stepped out into the glistening moonlight, and the Night Watchmen saw the face of a young man, draped over by a curtain of slick black hair. He had pale, soft-looking skin and copper-red eyes. He appeared harmless, and yet John recoiled at the sight of him.
“Stay back!” John cried. He lifted his flare gun at the ready, and in the dark it may have seemed a more threatening weapon. The man froze, but his expression was unchanged. John could hardly bear to look at him; he couldn’t shake the impression that he was staring straight at evil incarnate.
Finally, the man spoke again. His voice was young too, like a child’s. “I mean you no harm, John.”
John’s back prickled with gooseflesh. “Who are you?” He demanded. “Where did you come from?”
“Call me Tom,” said the man. “I come from inside the cave.”
“Nonsense!” John cried, but after a moment of feverish deliberation, he pointed the flare gun skyward.
“Don’t fire that, John,” said Tom, still calm.
“How are you from the cave? How did you get out?”
“I didn’t. I still rest there. But my spirit walks free. That is what you are communing with now.”
John stared at him. “The hell are you talking about?”
Tom paced the clearing, his hands folded behind him. “Since there were caves, I sat in the deepest one. Since men could tell stories, they told stories of me. How, if they could not see or hear me …” He paused, looking back at John. “... they could feel me.
They knew something lay there in the dark. The oldest thing there was. It was I, John, for I am the Black Goat of the Woods; I am the beginning and the end.”
“No,” said John, thoroughly unnerved, “you are a loon. Please go now. I have things to take care of, and they do not concern you.”
In truth, John was growing desperate for the man to leave. The man who spoke in riddles and whose eyes were two glazed windows into Hades. He had brought a tangible chill into the quiet clearing, one that made the air too thick to breathe. If he didn’t leave soon, John felt certain it would smother him.
Tom laughed, a dry, unpleasant sound. “Doesn’t concern me? Sir, do you know why you are here?”
“It’s not any of your business,” John said vehemently. “But… I am here to guard the cave, whatever’s supposed to be inside of it...”
“That is I,” said Tom. “But has it occurred to you that you were sent not as a guard, but as an offering?”
“An offering,” John echoed. “For Christ’s sake, an offering for what?”
“Think. What has a town to gain, sending a man into the woods? The woods, which are full of heaving shadows and old, creeping, night-terrors? Do they not feed the shadows this way? Let them gorge themselves on screams and stories until every boy and girl is scared and crying and willing to do what any grown-up tall enough to protect them tells them to do?”
“Enough!” John cried. He got to his feet, wiping a cool bead of sweat from his temple. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense! There are no monsters in the woods, and you, sir, are full of it!”
“Then look inside the cave,” Tom said quietly.
The Night Watchman froze. “No! Of course not!”
“Why not?” Tom said, his eyes gleaming. “Frightened?”
“No! It’s just… of course not! I was sent here to guard the cave, not look inside it!”
“But if there is nothing to be afraid of…”
John pondered furiously. “The boulder…”
“I will help you. Come.” Tom made his way to the mouth of the cave, bracing himself against the large rock that stood in front of it.
As though without realizing it, John took his place beside him. “Fine…” he muttered shakily to himself. “We’ll look inside, and prove there’s nothing.”
They moved the boulder with ease. John felt he was barely helping. When they finished, the pitch-black depths were exposed, and shadows bled out into the light.
“It’s too dark,” whispered John.
Tom motioned to his side. “There.”
John looked, and saw the little plastic flare gun tucked into his pocket. He took it out, staring at it as though he had never seen it in his life.
“The cave,” said Tom. “Fire it into the cave.”
John shook his head slowly. “I don’t want to,” he croaked.
“Do it!” Tom shouted, his voice suddenly acid. He grabbed John’s hands, grip cold as death, and raised the gun slowly. John felt himself pull the trigger.
A scream ruptured John’s ears. He clamped his hands over them, dropping the gun as white fire filled the cave. When his vision cleared, he could see it, the small earthen chamber no bigger than a cellar.
“There’s… nothing?” John felt a wave of giddy relief wash over him. Suddenly, he was on his knees laughing, tears rolling down his cheeks. His laughter seemed to drown in the vast emptiness before him. “Oh, there’s nothing!”
He turned to face Tom, but Tom was not there.
The sun was coming up now. John was alone.
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