By Lee Weetman
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Some years ago, my life, my mundane existence, tumbled into a deep, black pit dug by the Devil.
My name is Jack Wells. I’m a British ex-patriot living in Nebraska, USA. I emigrated stateside after meeting Amy, a woman who enraptured, seduced and finally married me. Nearly twenty years have elapsed since our first meeting, but I still love her like it was twenty minutes.
Our marriage brought forth real treasure: a golden little girl we called Jessie. When she was born Amy and I both understood the conspiracies of Fate. We’d often talked about our union, and how the Atlantic Ocean had failed to prevent it happening. Many ‘what ifs?’ existed, and in another life maybe we would never have met. But the birth of Jessie enlightened us: the world with her onboard is a richer place, so Fate had delivered a blessing.
Jessie was in her eighth year when my life changed forever.
I remember vividly the night when it all started. It was a cold November evening; an icy, lung-frosting wind was scouring the air. The sky was cloudless; the stars speckled the night with unfettered brilliance.
I was reading a novel by Tolkien, when heavy eyes and weary mind informed me of the urgency to sleep. I joined Amy in bed, first stopping to check up on Jessie.
The light from the hallway slanted across her room and revealed her sleeping form. I paused for a moment to savour the sight: whatever my mood, her innocence always warmed me. As every night, I tiptoed over and kissed her softly on top of the head, taking in the familiar scent of her favourite apricot shampoo. I left her sleeping and moved to my own room.
Amy was also asleep. As stealthily as possible, I climbed into bed.
As I let sleep take me to its restful place, I naturally assumed another day was complete and looked forward to the next.
I awoke at seven minutes past two in the morning. The bedroom was as dark as a mine. The wind whistled outside and rattled the windowpanes. I felt the body heat of Amy lying beside me. As my head swept away the cloudy residue of sleep, I became aware of something that stilled my heart: there was someone else in the room.
I couldn’t see anything, but I could sense something. My body rippled with goose bumps. My eyes strained for sight as my brain decreed somebody was most definitely there.
Amy slept on, oblivious to any danger. The intruder was standing at the foot of our bed. As my eyes accustomed themselves to the dark I discerned the outline of a large man; detail was impossible to perceive, it was merely a silhouette in a world of black.
For a moment I am too terrified to move. I feel like a child facing an imaginary monster; if I hide beneath the blanket, maybe the monster will disappear.
My heart hammered the innards of my chest. I could hear blood surging through my inner ears; adrenalin swamped my veins.
But what should I do? Was the intruder armed? I didn’t know. He was motionless: still as a statue but dark as its shadow.
I’ve never felt so vulnerable and impotent. I was recumbent, naked as a
newborn and virtually blinded by the darkness.
And then his breathing. Soft and steady, it seemed loud in the otherwise silent room. The sound of this terrified me. It confirmed the intruder’s existence; and it suggested the man was completely fearless. It wasn’t a hurried breath, it was calm: the respiration of a composed man. A man familiar with the situation.
For an awful moment I did nothing except lie and tremble like a coward. But a thought struck me: what if he goes into Jessie’s room? Then another thought occurred: what if that’s where he just came from?
I hurled myself forward into the gloom, reaching for the shadowy shape. I soared through the air, hands grasping for an arm or head. I fell forward, over the end of the bed, and crashed painfully to the floor, my face absorbing the impact. A flash of light exploded in my head as it hit the ground. Then I suddenly realised I’d missed him, and was now lying at his feet. I roared out some kind of primal war cry and sprang upwards, swinging my fists at the dark.
Then the light came on.
Amy had switched on her bed light. I looked for the intruder, but he was gone. I ran out of the room, flicking on all the lights and charged towards Jessie’s bedroom.
Amy screamed: ‘Jack! Jack! What is it?’
I ignored her, ran into Jessie’s room and switched on the light, expecting it to reveal walls painted in blood.
Jessie was sitting up, looking frightened.
‘Daddy what’s wrong?’ she said, holding her sheets close to her chest.
We were the only two in the room. I quickly left to search the rest of the house, but was met by Amy on the landing.
‘Jack, what is it?’ she demanded, clearly disturbed by my actions.
‘There’s someone in the house!’ I said, ‘he was in our bedroom – phone the Police!’
‘Wait, wait. Calm down!’ Amy grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards her. ‘Jack, calm down, please. There’s no one here: you were having a nightmare.’
‘No, I’m telling you, he was in our room!’
‘I would have seen him Jack. I switched the light on straight away. You were the only one with me in the room. He can’t move faster than light.’
‘But I swear…’ my sentence tailed off. Perhaps she was right. He did seem to disappear in a flash.
‘But I could hear him breathing,’ I said.
‘That was me. I need to breathe, you know.’
I was hesitant to accept her explanation, convincing as it was. It had seemed so real. It was difficult to believe I’d been dreaming. I felt able to distinguish between reality and reverie.
‘Ok, I’m calm; but let me check the rest of the house - just for peace of mind.’
‘Alright, but don’t worry – it was a nightmare.’ She kissed me on the cheek and went into Jessie’s room to reassure her that daddy was babbling nonsense.
I searched the rest of the house: every room, cupboard, closet and nook. I found nothing untoward. No sign of forced entry, no broken glass. Eventually I trudged back up the stairs, satisfied the house was intruder free, but nonetheless astounded at the realism of my apparent nightmare.
After kissing Jessie goodnight for the second time, I returned to bed. It took a while for me to settle: I found myself peering into the darkness again, searching for the shadow, trying to figure out what I could have misconstrued for a man’s outline. I saw nothing, other than varying degrees of blackness.
Slowly I relaxed. Amy was already asleep; her soft breath tranquillised me and gently lulled me toward slumber. As I drifted down, as my mind floated away, I remember thinking: it was only a dream.
Then in my ear, hot breath whispered: ‘Hello Jack.’
My eyes snapped open and I bolted upright. Once more my heart raced. Peppered in goose bumps my skin came alive and crawled all over me. To my immediate right I sensed a presence, no more than a yard distant. The intruder was back, and he knew my name.
Slowly I turned my head to the right. Again I saw the black shape: it was unmistakeably a man. Fear gripped me like the jaws of a lion. I couldn’t react, it seemed all my strength and courage had deserted me.
‘Did I scare you Jack?’ hissed the shadow. ‘I think I did. Good. Because this is just the beginning.’
I could take no more. Some ancient instinct commandeered my body and attacked the direction of the voice. I fell out of bed, arms flailing, seeking firm contact.
Amy switched her light on.
Once more I stood alone, no assailant to be seen. I looked at Amy, who wore a bewildered expression. I must have resembled a madman.
‘Jack, what’s going on?’ she asked.
My eyes wandered round the room. ‘I don’t know…I…I’m going downstairs.’
I didn’t sleep that night - I was too petrified to close my eyes. Amy came down and tried to persuade me back to bed, but I was resolute. She thought it was another nightmare, but I knew it was real; someone else - something else - was in the house.
I remained in the living room for the rest of the night, only venturing out to visit the toilet or grab a drink from the kitchen. Wherever I walked, I ensured all lights were switched on.
Gradually the night passed away; the sky lightened and I greeted the sunlight like the cavalry. I felt secure out of the darkness; I was positive that whatever had whispered to me the previous night could not exist by the day.
I spent the following day pondering on the elapsed events and worrying over the coming night. I tried to convince Amy that I didn’t have a nightmare, and that something very strange had occurred.
Unfortunately, she dismissed my convictions. I did have a nightmare and I should act more responsibly because I’d frightened Jessie. We argued, and I said that I’d sleep on the couch that night if we couldn’t sleep with the light on.
So the couch it was.
At around eleven o’clock, my eyes were bloodshot and the lids weighted with gold. The previous night’s sleepless escapades brought severe fatigue and I felt I could doze standing up.
Nevertheless, I checked on Jessie; kissed her head, took in the scent of apricot and descended the stairs to the couch.
With the bulb shining bright, I fearlessly settled down to sleep. Usually it’s difficult to do so: although your eyes are closed, the lids don’t completely block the light - you see a mixture of pinks and whites swirling in your head. I was so tired it didn’t bother me.
Until I heard a click, and pinks and whites were replaced by black.
With my eyes shut tight, I froze and listened. It was quiet. The only sound was the tick-tuck of the wall clock. The light was off. Somebody had flicked the switch. Whoever it was had to be in the room with me.
Gently I opened my eyes. Opposite me but barely discernible was the fireplace. Looking towards the end of the couch I saw him standing near the wall, his outline blacker than that of the background. For a while I simply watched, too scared to do anything else. Eventually he spoke in that hissing whisper: ‘You can’t escape me, Jack. Keep the lights on and I’ll just switch them off.’
‘Who are you?’ I asked in a hushed and quavering voice.
‘I could be your worst nightmare. I could be and will be your undoing. I’m here to put things right. You are going to make amends.’
I was clueless. I had no idea what he was talking about.
The silhouette moved. For a moment he blended into the dark and I lost sight of him, but then he reappeared in front of the fireplace.
‘You don’t remember do you, Jack? Come on - think. Think about what you may have to make amends for.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve wronged nobody.’
‘Oh but you have. You’ve wronged me. You killed me, don’t you remember?’
And suddenly it became clear. I knew who it was. But that man was dead.
‘John Widdowson?’ I asked, the name surfacing in my mind like a monster from the deep.
‘Good. Glad you remember - I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.’
‘But… they sent you to the chair nearly ten years ago.’
‘They didn’t send me, Jack. You sent me. You convinced the jury. You were the chief witness.’ Bitterness was prevalent in his voice. I unashamedly admit I was terrified. John Widdowson was convicted of five counts of murder. The case was known as ‘The Woodsman Killings’; all the victims were slaughtered and found in the same wood.
‘I just told the truth. I never lied. I saw you that day.’
‘You saw someone who looked like me, you fool. You were mistaken, but you refused to listen to your doubts. For that, I was fried. Do you know what that feels like, Jack? Let me tell you, it’s the most painful way to die. You burn and you boil. You can’t scream and you can’t see; you’re in a black world of the deepest pain where all you want is death.’
‘I had no doubts!’ I protested, restraining the volume. ‘It was you, I was positive.’
‘Think about it. You know the truth. You were an amateur bird-watcher in a camouflaged tent. You were looking through thick undergrowth.’
‘And I saw you shoot that woman in the head.’
‘Are you truly sure about that? You never viewed the killer’s face from the front did you?’
‘Yes I did…’
‘Think back, Jack. What did you see?’
‘I saw…’ In my mind the events replayed. Sitting in my hide I hear voices. I turn my binoculars toward the sounds and see some thirty yards distant a man and a woman. The man, his back to me, points something - a gun - and fires. The woman falls, dead. The killer turns his head and looks left, looks right, then moves away. He never looks towards me.
‘But I saw his profile - it was you,’ I said, unconvinced. At the time of the trial my mind was in turmoil. Uncertainty existed and heckled me like some disgruntled backbencher, but it was always dismissed; the case was so high profile the pressure to convict impaired my reasoning.
‘I know you’re doubting, Jack. As you have always doubted. There has been an awful miscarriage of justice, one which not only condemned an innocent to death, but left his soul wandering in a world of shadow.’
‘But there was evidence – the gunpowder residue in your pocket.’
‘I owned a gun. That’s where the powder came from. They never found the murder weapon. If they had, they would never have got a conviction. The Police failed to disclose that the bullets had a distinctive score down them. Ballistics knew my gun couldn’t possibly have fired them, so they assumed I’d just disposed of the murder weapon.’
‘So how do you explain the murders stopping after you were caught? And what about your previous convictions?’
The shadow moved closer to me. A black head shape lowered toward my face.
‘The murders stopped because the killer realised his luck. If he ended the killings, he would never be caught. As for my previous convictions, so what? I’m not a nice guy, I never said I was.’
The ticking and tocking of the clock intervened in the conversation. The dark shape moved away and melted into the room. I lost sight of it completely.
I waited awhile. Listening and watching for any shift in shade or fleeting shadow. My heart was pumping hard. My stomach churned and threatened to eject its cargo.
From the darkness, the whispering voice said: ‘You’re going to put right what you did wrong. Starting tonight.’
‘How can I? You’re already dead.’ I said, unsure where he was.
‘I’m dead, but I’m not free. Only when you make amends will I be released from this miserable world of nightfall.’
‘What do I have to do?’
‘Follow instructions. Do as I say, and you will be free of me forever.’
‘And if I don’t?’
From somewhere a hand gripped me by the throat and squeezed hard. It felt like he was trying to crush my windpipe. I gagged for breath and reached out into the darkness, but was unable to gain purchase on anything. As the shadow squeezed the life from me, he said: ‘I can kill you with ease, you should remember that. You should also know I can kill anyone with ease. I can move anywhere unhindered and unchallenged. Here’s the proof.’
He released his grip and I sucked in lungful of sweet air and the scent of apricot. Sprinkled over my face was a cutting of Jessie’s hair. I realised then I was at the mercy of this shadowy creature. He could kill her - and I believed he would kill her – without any compunction or fear of retribution.
‘Alright.’ I said. ‘What do I do?’
I drove out into the night. I headed for the woods, the same place where I witnessed the murder all those years before.
In the rear view mirror I saw Widdowson sitting in the centre of the seat; when road lights illuminated the interior of the car he would disappear. But driving on the dark winding roads of the country, I could see his outline: black on black, like a shadow in the shade.
As we passed the southern edge of the wood, he whispered for me to stop and get out. I obliged.
Out there the night sky is glorious: unpolluted by city lights, stars, galaxies and planets gather to form a grand celestial spectacle.
‘Follow me,’ said the shadow. I looked toward the direction of the voice, and caught a shift in shade as he entered the wood. I hurried after my guide.
A wood at night is a spooky place, full of many strange sounds; sounds that normally fire imagination into concocting terrifying reason. I needed no imagination that night. I followed the ghost, soul – whatever – of convicted mass murderer John Widdowson into the heart of the wood. Sometimes I would lose his form as it merged with black masses of trunks and thicket. All around nocturnal mammals and birds would rustle, snuffle, squeak and hoot but remain invisible. I would often call out, and my guide would answer – whisper, always whisper – to reveal his position.
After what seemed like an hour of tripping and falling, from somewhere behind he called on me to stop. I was surprised: ploughing forward, I hadn’t realised I’d forged ahead alone.
For a moment I thought he would kill me. It was an ideal spot. Isolated, dark, uninhabited. I could die here and probably never be found. I put this thought to the shadow, who had dissolved into the background.
‘So is this it? Are you going to kill me now?’
‘No, I’m not,’ the voice hissed, from somewhere on my left. ‘I want you to dig exactly where you stand.’
I looked down; my feet were barely visible, as if I was shrouded in a black mist. I dropped to my knees and said: ‘I didn’t bring a spade, did you?’
‘Use your hands,’ was the reply.
I clutched at the earth. It was cold, almost frozen. The soil felt brittle and abrasive. I cupped my hands together and scooped away the dirt. It wasn’t long before they were numb from the cold and my cuticles shed blood.
‘What am I looking for?’ I asked, ‘and how deep is it?’
As my hands transmogrified into five fingered ice sculptures, they came upon a plastic wrapping. Urgently, I uncovered the whole package and pulled it free.
‘I’ve got it. What do you want with it?’
‘Hold on to it. Follow me back to the car.’
‘But…’ I wanted to know more, but I spotted the black form move back in the direction of the car. I hurried after him; it would be easy to lose oneself and die of hypothermia amidst those dark trees.
As I stumbled after the shadow, I felt the package in my hands. It was undoubtedly a handgun. Weighty and cold, it felt sinister; I didn’t like carrying it: guns were made for one purpose, contemplation of which was a gut-churning thought.
Soon enough we arrived back at the car. I heard the door open and the interior light immediately extinguished him. The door closed and he reappeared on the back seat. I got behind the steering wheel and placed the package on the passenger seat.
‘Well done, Jack. You’ve been a good boy, so far. But the hardest part is yet to come.’
‘What do you mean? What are you planning?’ I said, twisting to face him.
‘Unwrap the package.’
I did as he said. Some feeling had returned to my fingers, but they still worked lethargically. In my hands I held a silver revolver.
‘That is the murder weapon, Jack. That is what you wrongly testified to seeing me use.’
I dropped it on my lap, appalled. The gun had been responsible for the deaths of five innocents; it belonged in the black museum, not my hands or my car.
‘If you’re innocent, how did you know where it was buried?’ I asked, feeling queasy.
‘Because I know who the murderer is. I watched him bury it there the night after my execution. Be careful - its loaded.’
I started the car’s engine, and Widdowson said: ‘Now drive. It’s time to make amends.’
I followed his directions. He guided me down alien tracks and roads. ‘Left, right, left,’ he would say, dissolved in the murk of my rear view mirror.
I drove for what seemed an hour but was only half that.
‘Pull over and get out,’ he said, ‘and bring the gun.’
We stopped on a single-track road suffocated by trees. Branches loomed overhead and finger like shoots linked up to form an arboreal tunnel.
I followed the shadow as he cut through the line of trees and headed up a short grassy slope. At the top it levelled out, but a wooden panelled fence blocked the way. The shadow silently slithered over the barrier. I followed, but somewhat more ungainly, rattling the panel and landing awkwardly on the opposite side.
I stood behind a bush and regarded a house across a lawn twenty yards distant. I couldn’t see the black form of John Widdowson.
Revolver hanging limply by the seam of my jeans, I walked out onto the lawn. It seemed so quiet. I guessed it was about four in the morning. A porch lantern scattered dim light into the far reaches of the garden. I moved toward the light, unsure of purpose and apprehensive of discovery.
Standing in the porch, I looked around, searching for my shadowy tormentor. Only moths accompanied me; ensnared by the glow of the lantern they tapped lightly against the glass. I questioned why I was skulking in the shadows with a loaded revolver, when the light bulb popped.
I was momentarily blinded, the sudden darkness ambushed my eyes, and for a while I saw only ghostly white lights.
But I was aware of the shadow’s presence: right beside me.
‘Now the time has come, Jack,’ hissed the creature. ‘In this house sleeps the man known as ‘The Woodsman’. He is guilty of five terrible murders. Murders that I was wrongly executed for. I am a victim of murder. Until he lies dead I will be forever cursed - trapped in this world of dark souls.’
I looked at the gun in my hands. It weighed heavy and seemed edgeless in the dark.
‘You want me to kill him?’ I asked, incredulous.
‘It’s not a question of want - it’s a question of must. You are as guilty as he. The needle on the voltmeter rose with every lie you told. I endured the most painful, violent death because of your perjury.’
‘I wasn’t lying,’ I protested, genuinely penitent. ‘I told them what I saw.’
‘Whatever you told them wasn’t the truth. That makes it a lie.’
‘But I can’t, please. I can’t kill a man, I don’t have it in me.’
‘Yes you do. You killed me.’
I began to panic. I wanted to run, to flee into the starry night, to run until it all faded away. Tears welled in my eyes, my entire body started to tremble, my hands quivered like a naked Eskimo’s. In a stuttering, beseeching voice I said: ‘Please don’t make me do this. I’m not a killer. I’m a family man, that’s all.’
‘That’s correct, Jack. You are a family man. But I guarantee, if you don’t carry this through, your family will be no more.’
Then he rang the doorbell. An electronic buzz rang out and seemed impossibly loud amid the tranquillity of night. The bell rang for about three seconds and was replaced by silence.
In front of me was the door. It was half-timber and half frosted glass. A moment passed then a light flicked on. I could hear voices, a murmuring between a man and a woman. Their outline appeared behind the glass; the woman was to the rear, cajoling the male forward; I heard her say: ‘Who the hell is that at this time?’
My heart roared in my chest; adrenalin suffused every vein of my being. My stomach turned over; nausea threatened to overpower me, but I knew I had to stay in control. For Jessie’s sake.
In those few seconds before the door was opened, I tried to justify what I was about to do. I was killing a killer. I was meting out justice. I was doing no wrong.
The door opened: a man in a dressing robe stood before me. I looked him in the face; he was older than I’d imagined, his hair was greying and thin. But yes, he had the eyes of a murderer. As he stared into mine I could feel their coldness and their wickedness. These were the eyes that had looked upon five innocents before putting them to death. This man deserved to die.
I pulled the trigger, and in slow motion the man wheeled backwards, collapsing onto the woman; his forehead had a black penny pressed into it, the top of his head had erupted; skull shrapnel, brain meat and blood splattered the hallway. The man fell and knocked the woman to the ground.
Then I was running. Back the way I came, across the garden and over the fence. The screams of the woman reverberated through the night air. They pierced deep, skewering my soul. The sounds of her anguish and horror would haunt me for the rest of my days.
I reached the car and frantically scrambled inside. It started first time. Ignoring the headlights, I sped away with my foot pressed to the floor.
I was a murderer.
The realisation disturbed me. I was something I thought I never could be.
I sneaked into home that night but couldn’t see the shadow of John Widdowson anywhere. In fact, I never saw it again.
The local television news was dominated by the killing the following day. I saw the first bulletin whilst perfunctorily nibbling toast at breakfast. The reporter imparted little information, other than it was an apparently motiveless murder and the gunman was still at large.
I constantly had to remind myself of why I did it. Having Jessie in front of me, chattering inanely like all eight-years old, gave much vindication. Life without her was unthinkable. Better she lived than some mass murderer. At least that’s how I acquitted myself.
But over the coming days and weeks my guilty conscience would torment me every minute of the day.
It emerged the murdered man was in his first year of retirement. He used to work at the penitentiary - the guy who threw the switch. The executioner.
I’d been duped. Widdowson’s words reported back to me: I am a victim of murder.
The police re-opened the case of ‘The Woodsman’ based on the report from ballistics that the same weapon as the previous five murders had been used.
But worst of all, John Widdowson received a posthumous pardon. He was the real killer, but now I was the hunted man.
I would be forever chained to a huge rock of guilt for what I did. I would always be edgy, looking over my shoulder, wondering if I would end my days on Death Row. Widdowson was a cunning creature: he’d ruined my life and taken that of his killer.
And now I always sleep with the lights on.