Five Matches, Steven Cousler
Jude sat at the table, a storm brewing outside. He had been invited to this dinner, but by whom he did not remember. He wasn’t even sure he knew any of these people.
While the others laughed and joked amongst themselves, Jude felt something in his back pocket. A small matchbook, its front having been rubbed bare. It was the kind given out at expensive restaurants, like the one he had gone to earlier that week. He had met someone there. Someone pleasant. Unfortunately, he could not recall her name.
Another blast of thunder shook the room, the silverware rattling. No one seemed to notice. Too many of them were wrapped up in another one of their stories. Something about someone’s brother always going fishing. Another blast of lightning. The lights flickered, dimmed, then went out. The room was dark.
Jude sat there, unmoving. He could light some of the candles on the table with his match book. Then, perhaps, they might notice him. No one seemed to be making a move for the power box. He pulled out his small flip-book of matches. He had trouble seeing, but from the feel of it it there were only five left.
He pulled one of them out and raised his hand to strike the match. He paused, however. It was quiet. Completely quiet. He could not even hear the wind outside. Not even the rain. The stillness was unnerving. Then something pressed against him from the dark. A presence. It was just his imagination, Jude thought. He struck the match, however, and the vaporous feeling dissipated. The sound of the match scratching the strip of sand paper sounded like a scream. Jude flinched. It was nothing. He was merely jumpy. What was there to be afraid of?
He held the match aloft, casting the room into dim, amber shadow. His meager light glistened off slick walls and dew strewn plates. Moisture coated every surface. The chairs, the table, the candles, the people. Jude braved his match forward, pocketed shadows drawing back to reveal the likeness of his fellow dinner guests. Their hair was sopping, streaming water, green and running down their brows into their eyes and over their mouths.
Jude probed closer. They sat, unmoving, drenched every inch. Where had the water come from? Jude looked up, but the ceiling could not be seen in the timid sphere of his match. What was he to do? He… Something moved. Jude stood stock still in the gloom, eyes darting around. What had that been? He swiveled his match wide. There was nothing but the guests. He was alone with… the guests. Slowly, like the lid of a coffin creaking open, they turned toward him as one, eyes glazed. Jude scrambled away, but as he retreated, he fell backwards and his match went out.
Unable to think, Jude could only run. Where was the front door? Down the hall? A right or was it a left? He felt along the wall, hoping it would guide him. A corner here, a turn here. This wasn’t right, he didn’t remember any of this.
A creak behind him. Jude’s neck prickled as it felt as if someone, something were reaching for his back. He could almost feel fingers on his spine.
Jude dug the matches out of his pocket and furiously struck one.
The match gave a whispering fit as it sputtered before him. The hallway was empty, nothing but bare wood panels and forgotten paintings of people. Jude sank to the floor. What was happening? He ran a hand over his face. Think, he had to think. No, he had to leave. He cast a glance down the hall, to his left then his right. Which way? He didn’t remember which direction he’d come from. He couldn’t wait here forever, sooner or later those… did that painting just move?
Jude got up and stepped closer to one of the pieces hanging on the wall. A man who was underwater. He was in an old diving suit, bell helmet caked with coral. The picture wavered between painting and photograph. The man’s arm was missing, replaced by a hydra’s head of tentacles that writhed and flowed in the deep current. Behind him, out of the gloom of the depths loomed something. Tall spires carved from impossible angles and unfathomed dimensions.
Jude leaned closer, the faint scent of salt drifting to him. An incommunicable pressure reached out toward him, thoughts pushing through that derelict barrier of the mind. The man in the suit. Jude put his ear to the frame and heard a single word in a mellifluous voice.
A splash, cold water pouring out of the frame, filling the hall. And the match went out.
Jude struck another. He was no longer in a hallway. It was a large room of stone. Titanic blocks ringed with vines and ooze. Before him gapped an archway of netherfold proportions, towering up and abroad.
An intense pounding came from behind him. Jude turned to see a wooden door being shaken in its frame. Moans, wails of terrible kind yearned from beyond its threshold. There was no other way but through the massive gate. It descended into a spiral staircase, plummeting down and down. Jude’s way was hurried but cautious for each step was slick with a thickened grim that gave way at the slightest test.
Down and down he went, his match burning ever lower until at last he descended upon a landing just as his light expired.
Not waiting for that incorrigible phantasm to appear again in the dark folds of that place, Jude lit another match. The room was large, the crawling stairs which he had braved loomed above and even from below, the rattlings of the door atop them echoed down to him.
With weary tread, Jude ventured forward. In the center of the room lay a circle of waist high stone. But as their dimensions resolved in his simple light, twisting symbols and strange diagrams of whose portents man can only imagine and shudder pulled themselves from the shadows to play in the flickering rays of fearful flame.
And the sound. A roaring from below. Craning over the edge, Jude could hear it more clearly now. A pounding, a thundering, a churning as if of seas of fear, waves of terror clashing together far, far beneath the stones. It rose up through the center of the stone circle. A well of madness.
The thundering grew more intense, shaking the very cobbles Jude stood on. He was suddenly seized by a force, an inexplicable numbness in mind and limb. His hand trembled, threatening his humble match. The ground writhed, stones jostling in their places. The hammering of the door above began to creak and splinter, the breaking of wood heard even from so far below. Yet Jude did not relinquish his match, his quivering hand affixing the tender flame with grit.
As if angered, the well gave a great hiss, wind born on the tips of malignant fingers exploded from it. Swirling, pulsing, a vortex of dire urges straining against feeble mortal bonds. Great arms, bursting from the earth, visions of green waters, bubbling, oozing, swirling into a maelstrom, a whirlpool of simmering conquests that dripped from the black stars afar so many eons ago. At their center, an eye, gruesome to behold and open for all eternity, pulling Jude in.
The match winked out. Frozen by such horrors as the well had shown, Jude could only grasp at his own fleeting shreds of sanity. Emerging from the oily darkness, a figure stalked towards him. Robed in violet, his body was not but folds of cloth that wove in and out, no pattern discernible in their contorting knots and geometries. He extended a hand to Jude, fingers of stone that ever dripped slime.
It reached Jude and began pushing him toward the well, the yearning depths below. A glow emanated from the cursed stone circle, a hue born from beyond the reaches of stars and memory. Above, the door burst from its mountings and the sound of cacophonous feet came thundering down the stairs.
Then, it was gone.
For a precious moment, all became still and a voice reached through the bounds to his mind. “The light.”
Broken but for an instant, Jude jerked the final match from his pocket. It flared to life, a brilliant baton of clarity. The phantom apparition behind him shrieked in anguish at the bright glare and withered away.
The march of the horde grew as they descended the final stairs of the pit. “The well,” the voice said, “the well.” Desperate and out of wits, Jude hurled the match into the den of churning water and watched in plummet down. A milk white eye crowded with three irises burned back from the bottom of the hole as the match struck it in the center.
A scream yanked from the bowels of reality itself echoed through the chamber as walls crumbled, stones broke, and all went dark.
Jude awoke in the rain. He blinked. He searched about himself to discover he was whole. A blast of lightning cracked the sky, by it Jude could see the front of the house, unassuming in its facade. The large window where he had sat not some time before was dark, no sign of the horrifying guests that had chased him to the depths of that pit moments before.
Another stroke of lightning ruptured the night and for a brief moment, the hooded figure of infinite robes stood before Jude. It glared at him with an air of confusion and frustration before fading into the gloom once again.
Steven Cousler is an MFA Candidate in Fiction @NMSU. He frequently writes cerebral, Lovecraftian, and urban fantasy along with stripped-down nonfiction personal essays. As an on-the-spectrum writer, he enjoys exploring alternative perspectives on life and ideas often through horror and the uncanny. He can be found @SCousler on Twitter