By Jonathan Crimmins

With a big deadline looming, Howard knew what he had to do: Load up on food and all the other basic necessities and hole up in a nice, isolated place where he would have nothing to do except write. No phone, no internet connection, no nothing. The lack of distractions would also make it easier for him to let his mind wander, which was always good for his creative process. It had been difficult finding the right place this time around, as his favorite spot was unexpectedly rented out this year. Although his friends often had leads on places that sounded great on paper, the reality of the situation was that they always recommended property in areas where they had some acquaintances. More specifically, acquaintances that would always get informed about his visit ahead of time and often drop by to greet him. Although they were always pleasant company, he simply could not afford to be interrupted this time. It had taken quite some time doing research online, but he finally found a suitable location in a neighboring state. Although the owner had initially been quite reluctant to let him stay there, the offer of extra money soon put an end to that.

Upon arriving, he was surprised to see that the cabin was more decrepit than its pictures made it out to be. No wonder the elderly owner had been so nervous about renting the place out! Inserting the key given to him by the nervous old man, Howard fumbled with the lock and pulled open the door with a creaking groan. The smell of mothballs was overpowering. Judging from the dust and the sheets that were barely covering the old furniture, it had been ages since anyone had inhabited the place for any period of time. There were some modern comforts: a refrigerator, microwave and stove, along with the old man’s assurances of heat, running water and electricity, but otherwise the place was downright ancient. After he had lugged in his suitcases and the rest of his supplies into the cabin’s sole bedroom, Howard plugged in his laptop and got to work. 

After several hours of uninterrupted work, the (normally) struggling writer was feeling quite pleased with himself. If he kept up this pace, he would be finished with his novella well ahead of schedule. Yes sir, this cabin had definitely been the perfect choice. Deciding to reward himself with some dinner, Howard got up and went down the hall. He was about halfway to the kitchen when he was startled by the sight of someone in the room to his right watching him. After the shock had passed and his heart slid out of his throat, he realized that what he had thought was a person was actually just a mask hanging on the wall. Intrigued, Howard flicked the light switch in the darkened room. Maybe it was faulty wiring or maybe it was a dead bulb, but nothing happened. Using only the moonlight to guide him, Howard walked up to the mask and gently removed its cord from the nail holding it in place.

From what he could make out in the dim lighting, it was an ugly, dark-colored thing with few features to speak of. The eyes were simple holes and there was no practically chin or nose to speak of. The mouth was filled with irregularly spaced teeth, some of the block-like ones facing outward and the sharpened fangs jutting inward. The front of the mask had a slightly lumpy look to it, almost like unpainted paper-mache, while the back seemed to have a flocked or felt fuzzy coating. Impulsively putting it on, his nostrils were assaulted by a musty, sour smell. It was oddly familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. All he knew for sure was that it made the cabin’s lingering smell of mothballs much more tolerable in comparison. Howard decided that, unpleasant as it was, he could stomach it long enough to wear it to the bathroom to see himself in the mirror. 

Turning on the light in the bathroom revealed the mask’s coloration as being due to layers of grime and filth. On top of that was the sudden realization as to why the smell of the mask was so familiar. The fuzzy coating touching his face wasn’t fabric; it was a thin layer of mold! As he disgustedly tore the mask from his face, one of the teeth cut a small gash on his chin. Fearing infection, he frantically raided the medicine cabinet for antibotics or hydrogen peroxide. He couldn’t find any, so he made due with a quick splash of scotch from his hip flask and washed his face with a surprisingly dingy old bar of soap. Having managed to scrounge up a bandage for his face, Howard tried to reassure himself that his hardy constitution would be enough to handle this. After he finished his dinner, he decided to call it an early night and get a good night’s sleep. 

Howard woke up gasping for air the next morning, his airways clogged with mucus. On top of that, both his nose and throat were in intense pain. Cursing himself for not packing any sort of medicine with him, he raided all the cabinets. Nothing. In desperation, he reached for his old standby: soda. Maybe it was the carbonation or maybe it was due to the fact that many soft drinks were originally created as medicinal tonics, but all he knew for sure was that drinking soda when he was sick would dull (if not completely eliminate) the pain of a sore throat or inflamed nose for about an hour or so. As he gulped down the cold liquid, he could feel the pain wash away…for a second. Then it came back with a vengeance. Downing the rest of the can had no effect. He was dumbfounded, but not defeated. It soon became apparent that he would have to turn to the traditional cold remedy of writers: Scotch (and lots of it). Although this did a much better job of dulling his pain, it also all but destroyed his productivity and what was originally intended to be a brief pause to rest his eyes soon gave way to uneasy sleep.

He found himself in nondescript room where a dark-haired man and an attractive brunette were engrossed in conversation. Suddenly, the woman began wretching and threw up into her outstretched hands. As the vomit dripped off the mass in her hands, an infant was revealed. Closer analysis revealed that the writhing being was actually a small elephant-like humanoid, its lumpy skin slick with slimy neon green mucus. The creature’s piercing yellow eyes glared menacingly at Howard as it flailed its trunk and snapped its jaws full of sharp teeth. 

Jolting awake, Howard’s joy of escaping from the horrible situation soured when he looked at the clock. He had slept through an entire day! He frantically got back to work, hoping to work through the pain and make up for yesterday’s lost time. His constantly runny nose forced him to take numerous breaks, until he simply gave up and surrounded his work space with up all the tissue boxes he could find. Brunch offered little comfort, as each bite had a strange aftertaste. He puzzled over this for a while, until he made the sickening realization he had both blood and mucus dripping down the back of his throat. By the evening, he had ran out of tissues and had to resort to using paper towels. His nose was red and raw, with its flakes of skin resembling crocodile-like scales. If he could only make up for his loss of productivity, he would have enough time to spare to make a supply run tomorrow. While mentally preparing a list of what he would need, he felt an odd sensation in his nose. Tilting his head downward, streams of blood came gushing out of each nostril, like someone had turned on a faucet to full blast. He leapt away from his laptop in a panic and plugged up his nose with wads of torn paper towel. Exhausted and woozy, Howard fell into a deep sleep.

He found himself in another nondescript room, this time full of people of all ethnicities. Their mouths all opened in unison, opening wider and wider until they looked more like gaping black holes than human mouths. That’s when the demons came pouring out. Clawed hands would grip the edges of the hole, soon followed by spindly limbs and the occasional tendrils. And the faces…dear God, the faces!

He woke up gagging, knowing that he was about to throw up. Scrambling to the bathroom and making a beeline to the toilet, Howard fell to his knees and vomited with such force and for so long that he began crying involuntarily. With nothing but the bitter taste of bile left in his mouth, Howard stumbled to his feet. That’s when he glanced into the mirror and screamed…