Rules of Horror
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Quest"
Originally featured on 11-16-2009
As part of our series "The Words That Seem to Justify Anything"

Rules of horror: tell the story in the first person.

My grief counselor told me to find a spot conducive to sitting and thinking. She didn’t use the word conducive; that’s how I put it. So I went to the pond. My first time at the pond I did not do any sitting or thinking. I stood and looked at the water, walked around, shivered and decided that I would need a sweatshirt on my next visit to the pond.

My grief counselor said to choose a place where I was safe to sit and cry. I never cry when I’m sitting; I only cry when I’m moving fast and with forcefulness, therefore I don’t think my grief counselor knows anything about anybody. So I decide to continue my visits to the pond with the goal of doing the opposite of what she said; to not think. Like eastern meditation, just being present without thinking any thoughts.

Rules of horror: set an atmosphere of implicit dread

There’s a gravel path that winds down to the pond through a brush of poplar trees, from the entrance of the fenced in park. Along the path that also circles the pond are gothic lanterns, triangular relics on stout black posts, emitting yellow light that makes triangular shadows on the gravel path and fingerlike strips of illumination on the water when it gets to be dusk.

After 5pm, all family picnics have disbanded and nobody is there walking dogs or tossing Frisbees. After 6pm I go down to the pond to sit alone and avoid thoughts.

Rules of horror: begin with a tragic event either as prologue or as back story

Is it really grieving if I don’t cry? And can it be grieving if I don’t think about my dead brother, about the night he did not come home and mom’s face widened into the kitchen wall like a pancake with the telephone dividing her chin into hard edges?

Mom did not move from the kitchen or put down the telephone for two days. Mom did not scream or wail or collapse to her knees in fits of hysterics. I waited two days without sleep for Mom to do all those things, and now I go to the pond to sit by myself and look at the water. I did not ask my grief counselor if I should expect to hear any sounds or see any shapes or flickers of the lantern light.

David, my brother, always talked about horror movies, always stayed up late at night watching them with his friends, shrieking and laughing and spilling candy on the floor. His favorite kinds of horror movies were the ones about ghosts haunting an isolated place or object, and ones about cloaked murderers avenging a childhood trauma. David was always explaining to me the rules of horror. It was an intricate set of rules — I could not possibly remember what they were as he described them.

Doing nothing is hard. I crossed my legs and sat close to the edge of the dirt colored water. I tried to look at the water, and only look at the water, because that would be focusing on one thing, and doing just one thing would be closer to doing nothing. The act of trying to do nothing is in itself doing something, and therein lay the problem.

I tried very hard to limit my senses to one thing seen, one thing heard or one thing felt. I looked at a spot in the middle region of the pond and blurred my eyes so I could only see the pond. In spots where the pond was deepest, the dirt color shifted to a greenish milky sheen interrupted by rolling shapes.

One of the gothic lanterns flickered and blacked out. It startled me because it was off in the distance where I was not looking, and had already begun to forget what was there because I was succeeding in only looking at the water, not at myself and not beyond.

Rules of horror: the first manifestation of [the menace] must be peculiar but not alarming

Sometimes I would choose one spot of water and just look at the movement of water itself. On other visits I would select one duck and follow that duck wherever it went, but sometimes I would lose track of it and start following other ducks. When the ducks went under water and came back up, I sometimes could not remember which one I was following. This time I looked for my duck after it darted under water, but could not find it. I wondered if my duck, my therapeutic visual object, ever did surface back up.

When I think about David — and I think about him lots of times, at school, in the car, in bed, but not at the pond — I scribble down on paper things he said or things I remember for a moment and don’t want to forget. I wrote down a list of his rules of horror, and then I crossed them all out after I wrote them down. David never kept written lists.

A second lantern burnt out in the distance. My time spent at the pond was of such a nature that I could not be certain whether the first lantern I saw flutter into sparks and go gunshot dark had happened an hour ago, ten minutes ago or had happened on a different day, on a different visit. This was also when I saw the ripples in the water get faster and more pointed toward a center. I felt a similar fluid motion in the blood in my arms.

Rules of horror: introduce doubt in relationship between narrator and audience

There is nobody else who goes to the pond after 5pm. Since I am so dedicated to only looking at one spot and seeing and hearing nothing else, I would not know it if another person was there. If I had seen a figure of another person across the pond, lurking in the poplar trees away from the triangular lanterns, I would not register that I saw them because I would only be seeing the one thing I was looking at, in an effort to do nothing.

But I would still see them, and a part of me would know that I saw them, and would keep track of where I saw them so that in case I were to see them again in a different location, I would be able to track their ambulatory progress around the pond.

My grief counselor said that once I got used to being at my private place, the place where I could sit and think, I should then start using it to not just think but talk out loud, to talk to people who weren’t there, to say the things I wanted to say to the people in my life to whom I could not say the things I wanted to say to them. I was instructed to talk to the pond as if I was acting out talking to my parents, my friends. To David, even.

Rules of horror: the second manifestation of [the menace] must involve a sudden death

I stopped coming to the pond alone because I did not like it after 6pm. It was too cold and there were too many changing shadows in the lanterns’ yellow light and too many ripples in the water that made my stomach tighten with gravity as I imagined something under the water gliding hungrily toward me. I wanted Amber with me at the pond.

Amber never asked me about David. Amber and I walked slowly around the gravel path, in and out of the triangular pools of light, wearing sweatshirts, and she talked about Todd, her ex boyfriend.

Amber asked me if I’d ever had a close call where I thought for a second that I was about to die, and she said, “Happened to me a couple times on fishing trips, nothing major. I only mention it because I used to think that was the worst feeling there was, or the scariest; a breath of nothing, no emotions, just the plain knowledge that you’re about to die. But there’s something even more terrifying than that. Happened to me last Tuesday. I was walking with Todd-”

I interrupted to say, “Why were you walking with Todd?” Todd had cheated on her.

“No reason. Lots of reasons. That’s not the point. We were up on the ridge, you know that trail that goes up over Quegman Falls? Well we were up there, talking.”

“What were you talking about?”

“Todd…I’ve tried to forgive him, I’ve tried to hate him, but it just, I don’t know. We were talking. The usual stuff; teachers, summer jobs, football, college. We were actually civil to each other. So I thought about what would happen if I pushed him. Not that I wanted to or anything. I just thought about it because sometimes you have to think about things like that. I pictured the utter surprise on his face. It’s kind of funny, because, I mean, you never really think you can do things like that. But you can, at anytime. And it would be easy. It would be stupid and horrible and senseless, and that’s why it seemed important to think about; if you don’t think about the irrational things, then how do you distinguish what’s rational from what’s not? I mean, like, think of in the jungle, think of the very first civilized creatures, Neanderthals, whatever. You know what I’m talking about? One little push.” She made a flippant gesture with her palm. “You know? People would see, they’d yell and other people would swarm around me and do all sorts of things to me. I can’t really imagine it, because we just walked on, kept talking and being civil to each other. Now Todd’s still Todd and I’m still me, everything is normal. Ten years down the road, everything will probably still be normal. That’s the terrifying thing I was talking about, the thought that’s scarier than a near death experience. I mean, what if you get tired of never doing the unthinkable? How many years can you keep doing the same thing, the right thing, the normal thing, so that strangers will never have to swarm around you, they’ll just pass you by day after day until you can’t tell if you’re even there, even anywhere, and then someday you’ll probably get so bored you’ll do the nonsensical thing. And if you’re probably going to do it someday, why wait? Why pass up an opportunity on a ridge above Quegman Falls to see what it means to be a civilized animal? There are lots of reasons, I guess. But what about parallel universes? Somewhere in neverland particle time space whatever, there’s a me that did push Todd over the edge. Maybe I could cheat somehow and meet me, see the spec in my eye that remembers the act of killing Todd.” Amber turned to me. I could not see her eyes beyond the yellow triangle of dancing shadows of leaves on the pavement. “What about you? What would you do if you were just a ghost and nothing you did mattered?”

I was walking slightly faster than Amber, and I started looking at the water and only the water again. Then I was walking alone. I called for Amber, stopped and listened.

Four ducks disappeared under the water at once and did not come back up.

The lanterns around the pond all choked in orange flickers and went dark.

The ripples in the water moved so fast I could feel my bladder spinning into a sink drain. The poplar trees shook and I heard the shriek of laughter and saw the spec in her eye and her lips widen like gashes as Amber lunged out of the trees and stabbed me with a blade that sunk into my stomach faster than the ripples in the water.

Rules of horror: shock is nothing more than the absence of clarity

I thought about nothing and saw my mother frozen in the kitchen with a telephone.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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