I peered into the eyes that bore blind rage, glistening with a furious power of thousand suns. No longer did the figure in front of me stand as a person, but that of a beast. He lunged at me with his masculine hand, adorned by a quintet of crooked fingers. My reaction was no match for his deft speed and I was slammed against the wall with a sickening crunch of my bones, as they connected with a hard surface.

The wind was knocked out of me and the hand upon my shrinking throat completely cut off the air supply. I tried to gasp, but it was almost impossible to do. As I was watching my attacker through rapidly closing eyes, I remembered the moment when it all began.

* * *

My arrival to Crying Willows was marked by a dense fog. Probably a common occurrence due to town's close proximity to a lake. I had to leave my car and walk for about a mile for fear of crashing into a tree, before arriving to my destination. The reason behind my travelling to this little known town was a single letter I have received. It was from my childhood friend whom I haven't seen since our graduation party. Matt and I were inseparable, appearing to lectures together, even sharing same room in college. Were we close? Yes. Are we close now? No.

Therefore the letter took me completely by surprise. Haven't heard from him in many years I didn't even know where he was, let alone that he was married. Matthew was always a bit of a dark horse. Ever since I first met him I knew that he was different than anyone else. He was smarter, more mature and could talk for hours on end. Growing up with him had really been a thrill ride, so it was utterly devastating, when one day he simply vanished, right after our graduation. His parents told me that he had settled down with a girl he was seeing, and moved out. Weird thing was that he had never mentioned anything about dating anyone and after persistent speculations and arguments with his parents I let it drop.

The letter itself was both peculiar and strange. It simply read. "Darren, it is imperative that you come and see me. I know we haven't spoken in years, but something happened to my wife. Please come and see me as soon as you can. Matt."

"That is it?" I thought to myself. After all these years all I get is a couple of sentences, urging me to drop everything and come? He didn't even include the address and it took me couple of days to track the letter to a small post office in some god-forsaken town called "Crying Willows". I didn't even know the place existed. Why would Matt disappear to spend the rest of his years there? So many questions swirled in my mind like a school of fish. Nevertheless I packed my bags and set out on a journey.

Oh, and my name is Darren by the way. Darren Sykes. I am twenty seven years old and stand at six feet tall. God had generously granted me a crown of messy raven hair and ocean blue eyes. I don't consider myself very masculine, but do have some lean meat on my bones. Working as a teacher have completely taken away my free time, which could have been spent at the gym, but I did manage to successfully keep my morning run.

So here I was, standing alone in the middle of a thick fog, barely able to read the rusted sign of "Welcome to Crying Willows". Crying Willows, - who comes up with names like that, really! Well, I guess willows are crying, just like hills are silent. Whatever was the case I wasn't about to stand there all day, contemplating about the history behind the name. Balancing my hands in front of me as a precaution I started my cautious descent into the unknown.

* * *

The serene quietness of the town has caught my attention as soon as I set foot on its ground. Maybe it's the fog that made everyone hide inside their homes? How am I to find Matt in this sea of uncertainty? Cursing what Gods I could think of, I walked through the misty veil for a good half hour, before noticing pale lights in the distance. As I drew closer I was able to audibly make out what appeared to be some sort of music, coming from a dimly lit house. The red neon sign above the door simply said "Bar" with a poorly constructed picture of a martini glass. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally some civilisation.

As I pushed the door open a sudden whiff of cigarette smoke overwhelmed my senses and to my surprise if it weren't for 2 people the bar would be completely deserted. Well, I guess small town, small crowd.

The place was tidy, probably kept clean by a barmaid, who was nonchalantly cleaning a beer glass with a rough cloth. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, with long hazelnut hair cascading down her slender shoulders. Wearing a white apron atop of her red tee shirt, she looked quiet endearing and yet as a someone who shouldn't be spending her time in a god-forsaken place like this.

I turned away for a second, trying to get a closer look at the second person. Whoever he was, was hiding his face under a hooded top, drinking some unknown beverage and watching me intently. Can't blame him, really. People in small towns always look at new faces with suspicion and then end up burning them at the stake or turning into wax statues. Feeling shiver running down my spine, I shook my head to relief myself of morbid thoughts. Too much watching bad movies on Friday nights.

I finally approached the bar and propped myself on a stool. The barmaid looked at me with a curiosity in her eyes, before giving me a smile.

"You look new." She said, continuing to clean the aforementioned glass.

"Yeah and I think I'm lost." I replied, noticing the nametag on her chest, which simply said "Kate".

"Lost?" She replied, cocking her head slightly. "Strange, people usually don't go missing around here."

"Really? Even in the fog like that?" I said sceptically.

"Yep." She replied somewhat cheerfully." So what brings you here Mr..." Kate trailed off.

"Darren, call me Darren." I replied.

"So what brings you here, Darren?" She smiled, finally putting the glass down and placing both hands on the top of the counter.

"I am here to see my friend. Matthew Simkoe. Heard of him?"

"Maybe." Kate replied cheekily. "Tell you what, if you order a drink I will tell you everything I know."

I smiled in return. Girl knew how to sell. "Fine, get me a double whisky on the rocks."

"A man's drink?" She half laughed." Coming right up!"

Kate poured a double shot of Jack Daniels over ice and slid the glass across the counter, as though in one of those cowboy movies. I caught it deftly and took a sip of a throat warming liquid, enjoying the burning sensation in my mouth.

"So." I said placing the glass down.

"Matthew Simkoe, huh?" She pondered." Can't say I know the guy. Then again I've only been here just over a month."

I felt my heart skip a bit for a second. It would be unfortunate if I made a mistake coming here. Damn it, Matt, why couldn't you make things easier for me? No address, nothing. I did not even sleep since I got that accursed letter, probably suffering a bout of insomnia due to stress. Of course I was trying to take sleeping pills, but they were a waste of money.

I took another sip of whisky and looked at Kate. "Over month, huh? Why would you come to a place like this?"

"It's complicated." She replied. I noticed a hint of sadness cross her beautiful face.

"Ah." I stated. "One of those."

Kate gave me a weak smile. "You know what." She suddenly said. "You should go and see Doctor Hayden. His clinic is just two blocks away. He knows everyone in town."

This actually seemed like a good idea. I swallowed the last of my drink and put the empty glass on the table. "Well, I guess I'll do just that."

"I'll see you around then." She smiled courteously.

I paid Kate and walked towards the exit, taking one last curious glance at a hooded person. To my surprise he wasn't there. Probably leaving before I finished my drink. Nevertheless, I breathed in the last bit of smoke filled air and went outside.

* * *

As the door closed behind me I realised that it was no longer a day. With an audible "huh" I looked up only to see a black sky staring back at me. This made no sense. I wasn't sitting in the bar for that long. Dazed and confused I tried returning to the previously visited establishment only to find it closed. Okay, now it really has gotten weird. Am I hallucinating from the drink? Can't be, didn't have much, although I haven't been sleeping at all past couple of days.

I couldn't help, but feel uneasiness wash over me. The air felt stale and everything around seemed surreal. Trying to keep my primal fear from emerging, I promptly walked towards the local clinic. Suddenly, a shape of a shadowy figure, watching me from afar, caught my eye. Abruptly I stopped and stared at the fuzzy silhouette, noticing its hooded appearance. Wasn't it the guy I saw in the bar? What does he want?

"Hey!" I called, which appeared to frighten him, as he turned around and disappeared into the darkness. I wasn't having any of this and sprinted after.

My route of choice took me through children's playground. The whole place appeared to be unused for years. The slide, the swings and everything in between were rusted and broken down. Isn't there a council or something who takes care of things like that? Strangely enough, the swings seemed to move as I passed them by. I just shrugged it off. It was windy after all.

As I rushed through the eerie place, I finally managed to reach the spot from where I was being observed not so long ago. Obviously, the guy was gone, but there was only one way where he could go. A dark and narrow alleyway. Brushing clichés aside, I hurried after the mysterious person into the darkness.

* * *

As the dark void engulfed me into a suede blanket, I cursed my luck for stopping smoking two years ago. I had no torch, no matches, not even a lighter. Who would have guessed that universally bad habit could provide to be useful one day?

"Hey!" I called again, feeling the cold air resonating in my very bones. "Why are you following me?"

Alas, there was no reply. Tugging slightly at my jacket to keep the warmth in, I proceeded to walk forward. Suddenly, the wind has stopped. It became quiet. The only sounds in the air were of my own breath and footsteps with a hint of heart beating in my chest. Unfortunately, this orchestral cacophony of audible representations did not alleviate my uneasiness, but in fact incited the anxiety. Were the walls getting narrower? It certainly felt like that. Actually the whole place appeared to be altered in some way. I still couldn't see too well in the dark, but my other instincts were telling me to run. Away.

No! I am not a coward. And this is a normal town. And this is a normal alleyway. And this is... blood? I stopped in my tracks. The distinct copper - iron smell ravaged my senses like a rabid dog. I no longer felt the puddles beneath my feet to be consistent of water. They were thicker, more slippery, more... coagulated. Feeling a sudden rush of emotions I hurriedly moved forth only to be tripped over. My body slammed hard against the surface of the ground, as my contorted face briefly sunk into a gooey puddle beneath. I spluttered hard and turned away in disgust. I propped myself up only to notice a human silhouette sitting beside me. As I moved closer I was able to recognise the features. It scared me.

Fear run through my body with every single breath. Even though it was dark I was able to see the body clearly. Yes, a body, whose wrists were slashed open with a rusted knife, which lay nearby. I tried not to gag at the putrid sight of decomposition. Unable to control my actions as the terror took over I pushed myself firmly from the ground and run. I didn't make it far though as my way was suddenly hindered by yet another humanoid shape. This time, it was alive.

Its hooded like appearance told me that it was in fact a person I was pursuing earlier. He grabbed the lapels of my jacket and threw me against the wall. I hit it pretty hard, feeling light moisture at the back of my head.

"See...what you...have done..." The person growled. His voice was low and coarse. "It is...all...your fault..."

"W...what are you talking about?" I managed to stammer out. My hands were shaking as I tried to release myself from another's grip.

"You close your eyes... yet you can't sleep... you twist and turn... in summer's heat..."The person recited some unknown verse, enunciating every word as he spoke"... and when the Sandman comes to light... he will grant you an eternal night..."

I stared into assailant's dark eyes, still not able to see his hidden face. I watched with horror as his free hand ascended, as if a cobra was preparing to strike its prey, clutching a rusted dagger. I begin to panic, but his hold was strong, impenetrable.

"What are you...!" I wailed at the top of my voice, straining the vocal cords to their limit, mentally preparing for an attack.

Then it happened. The dagger swooshed through the air and with a sickening sound glided across my neck. My body convulsed in pain as I gagged, feeling the blood pouring out of the wound, entering my mouth. I gasped for air, but all I could taste was copper and iron. It sickened me, but I didn't throw up. I felt weak. My body slid across the wall until I was on the ground. I looked up, futilely trying to stop the flow of blood from my neck. The assailant stared back at me from underneath his hood and at that moment his face was illuminated by an invisible source. Just for a second and a second was all it took. My eyes widened with fear and confusion, and my pupils dilated. The image that stared back at me with a malicious grin upon its face was my own.

A let out a deafening scream.

* * *

I sat up straight. My body was in pain and throat parched. Darkness surrounded me, yet dim light of the moon scarcely illuminated the tiny room I was in. Brick walls and metal bars. Where the hell was I?

I slid from a metal bench I was lying upon and stood up on my weak, shaking legs. Was it all a dream? I put my hands on my throat. It was clean. No cut, no scarring, nothing. Was I alive or was I dead? Questions, questions, questions. Everything hurt.

Wobbling, I approached the door, which had a tiny window adjourned by metal bars. I peeked through, but it was too dark to see anything.

"Is anyone out there?" I tried to yell, but it hurt even to talk. "Hello?" This time the sound was clearer.

Not receiving any response I banged at the door with my fists, hoping that it would bring some attention. It worked. Couple of minutes after my insubordination I heard footsteps and soon after the sound of dangling keys reached my ears. The door finally opened, revealing a man wearing police uniform. He was in his forties with a reseeding hairline. His body was fit, a complete opposite of a donut munching stereotype.

"I see you finally woke up." He said rather cheerfully. "First day in town and you already causing troubles?"

"What happened?" I asked. My voice hoarse and crackling.

"Samuel found you completely drunk sleeping on a playground." He responded.

"What?" I was startled. Everything that happened was now making sense as a drunken dream. Was I finally able to sleep after all this time? I tried drinking and I tried pills, but nothing helped me with the insomnia I was suffering from. How could I fall asleep now? "But I just had one drink."

"Tell me what you had, I should get myself one of those." The policeman chuckled. "Come now, Mr Sykes. Time to get out."

"How do you know my name?" I asked.

"Driving license." The man replied. "My name is Sheriff Thompson and I am, well, local sheriff." The man smiled, he was too friendly to be in his profession.

Thompson led me through the dark corridor, until we reached a better lit room. His office.

"Do you have where to go?" He asked me, whilst rummaging through his desk drawer. "It's the middle of the night."

"I could stay with my friend, Matthew Simkoe." I said. "Do you know where I can find him?"

"Simkoe, huh?" Sheriff said as he finally pulled out my driving license out of the drawer and handed it over to me. "Yeah I can give you his address. It's a shame about his wife though." Finally some sadness crept upon his cheerful face.

"What happened?" I asked intrigued. If Matt was unable to provide me with any information, least I could do is to get it myself.

"She disappeared." The sheriff said. "One of many." He let out a sigh.

"What do you mean?" I was completely taken aback. No wonder the town appeared to be deserted. So it wasn't my imagination after all.

"Something strange is going in this town." The sheriff began." People have started to disappear and I don't mean kidnapped or running away from home. They are just... gone. No message, belongings are left behind. Sometimes the whole family would go missing overnight. Doors still locked and all."

"That's horrible!" I exclaimed. "Do you have any leads?"

"None whatsoever." Thompson said dejectedly. "In fact, it went out of hand so much I had to request help from the city. Although I don't think they will reach us any time soon. The damn fog is getting thicker by the minute."

The fog. I've noticed it as well. Ever since my coming to town it appeared to be getting heavier and darker. As if my very presence was responsible for it. Feeling the chill running down my spine I decided to find Matt as soon as possible and get the hell out of this town.

"I see" I responded trying to change the topic. "Could you tell me where Matt Simkoe lives then, I don't want to stay in this town more than I have to."

Sheriff Thompson stared at me blankly for a second, as if he was insulted by my sudden outburst, until his face contorted into his usual smile and he replied as cheerful as ever: " Sure, just keep going for three blocks then turn left. He lives on 23 Poggio Street."

"Here." He added taking torchlight out of his desk drawer. "Take this just in case. It's dark outside and I don't want you to become yet another case."

"How thoughtful." I said accepting his offer.

Not wanting to wear out my welcome, I found myself leaving the police station in a hurry and walking towards Matt's house. Sheriff Thompson was right. You couldn't see a thing outside. The moon and the stars were hidden in the misty veil. As for streetlights, well, the town could probably use some. Thank God for the torchlight. I would be probably lost by now, if it weren't for sheriff's proffer.

* * *

The dread and despair washed over me, as my paranoia intensified. I could feel someone's presence in the darkness, as if a pair of eyes was burning a hole in my back. My heartbeat became more rapid and perspiration appeared at the side of my head. I spun around. The light of my torch piercing the darkness behind me, but the road was empty.

I was still not able to shake the uneasy feeling off, so I sprinted towards Matt's house. It was close, really close, but something was much closer. I broke my run hard and spun around as fast as I could. My breathing - heavy and short. My efforts - successful. Not far away, ten meters or so, stood a tall figure of a man in a hooded top.

My hands began to tremble, as the figure began its approach towards me. Slowly, taking its time, as if it was toying with me. Then it warped. I could have sworn it just skipped couple of meters without even moving. Unable to remain stationary due to fear, I sprinted away to safety.

I reached Matt's house faster than I had anticipated and knocked vigorously on the door. No answer. I slammed my fists against its wooden surface creating enough racket to awaken a hibernating bear. Still no response. I pushed myself off and run around the building reaching the backdoor in seconds. I frantically pulled at the doorknob and tapped on the glass, but there still was no answer.

Suddenly I felt a pressure on my right shoulder. Right there, in the darkened window, a silhouette of a man stood behind me. Without a second thought I turned around, my clenched fist connecting with the apparition's face. I felt surprised when it connected and the figure stumbled backwards.

"What the fuck!" It swore in a familiar voice.

"Matt?" I looked at my friend. After all this years I could still recognise his face. Although now he did not appear as vibrant as he used to. His face was weary with dark circles under his red, sullen eyes. He had been crying. A lot.

"Jesus, man, what gives?" Matthew said rubbing the side of his face that already began to swell.

"Let's get inside and put some ice on your face." I said rather hastily, looking around.

"Jesus!" Matt mumbled again, walking towards the door and opening it with a key. "If this sort of greeting I get then I don't want you to tell me goodbye."

I chuckled nervously and let out a sigh of relief when the door behind us was locked. Whatever the hooded person was I hoped it would stay outside.

"Matty!" I finally run over to my childhood friend, embracing him into a tight hug. He almost dropped the ice pack, which he swiftly constructed, as I wrapped my hands around him. I used to greet him this way, just to embarrass the guy, for which I would get sucker punched in the stomach, but this time he just sank into me.

"She's gone." He whimpered. "She's gone." The ice pack dropped onto the floor in a slow, floating motion.

Memories of times old past flooded my mind. I stood alongside Matt, just like this, in what appeared to be same room. We were arguing, yet I couldn't place what about.

"... please stop...!"
"... this?...barely spoke to each other..."
" ... my fault?"
"...come here to..."
"After all... your wife ... feel... about... Samuel ... you alone ..."

Flashbacks of broken conversation left me rather discombobulated, yet what confused me the most, was the location. Whatever little information I could decipher, it all pointed out at this particular room. Have I really been here before? No, I couldn't have. It was absolutely impossible.

My incoherent trail of thoughts was broken by Matt, shaking me by the shoulders.

"You alright, man?" He asked with evident concern in his eyes. "You just spaced out?"

"Sorry, Matthew." I replied coming back to my senses. "It's been a long day."

"I can tell. Here, let me show you to a spare bedroom. We can talk properly in the morning." He started to lead me up the stairs. "We both need some rest." He added opening the door.

I didn't argue and fall on the bed almost immediately. It really has been a very long day and my body still ache after the lurid encounter with the "hooded man". I closed my eyes and lay awake until the morning, still unable to get that long awaited sleep.

* * *

When the first rays of morning sun tried desperately to penetrate the thickness of the fog, I groggily stood up and rubbed my eyes with bottom of my palms. Wondering what time it was Ii looked at my watch, but they appeared to stop somewhere around midnight. Glancing around the room, I was unable to see any clocks, which was unusual. Most of the room's decor consisted of pictures of Matt and his wife. Why on earth would you keep them in the guest bedroom? Upon closer inspection of the surroundings, I came to realise that this was a master bedroom.

"Matt!" I called my friend, still gazing at the picture frames. You could see how happy they were, with Matthew's hand around his spouse, both smiling amiably as they posed in their front yard.

"Matt?" I called again, noticing my friend's failure to acknowledge me.

Receiving no answer I moved into the corridor. I went from room to room, but there was no sight of my friend anywhere. Where the hell is he? Did he leave for a morning run? Impossible, I would have heard him.

The last place I had yet to see was the kitchen. I found it to be as expected - empty. My eyes jolted around the room for any trace of Matt, until stopping at the fridge's door. There, attached by a magnet, was a piece of paper. As I looked closer I realised that it was nothing more than a "to-do" list. Most of it was crossed out, except the last line. It read: " Dr Hayden." Now, where have I heard that name before? Didn't Kate mention him as a person I should see regarding Matt's whereabouts? Could Matt have gone to see this Dr Hayden?

I hurriedly left the house to try and find the clinic and hopefully Matt. I had a vague idea of its location, yet it still took me at least an hour to find the place.

As soon as I entered the building, I realised that it was as empty as everything else in this town. The waiting room was deserted, apart from the reception desk, where a woman in her mid twenties was typing fast in her computer. She had shoulder length brown hair and greyish blue eyes. Her fingernails were coloured dark red, which clashed with the contrast of her pale skin.

I walked towards the receptionist and cleared my throat.

"Excuse me, Miss..." I started.

"One second, please." She interrupted, without raising her eyes.

I nodded, even without her noticing it, and waited patiently. My eyes scanned the desk, jumping from object to object, until I saw her name etched on a piece of varnished wood - Ellen.

"Yes?" She finally said sounding a bit irritated.

"I would like to speak with Dr Hayden." I replied blankly.

"Doctor Hayden is with a patient at the moment." She finally looked at me. "Would you mind taking a seat and wait a bit?" With this she returned to her "work".

I nodded again and slowly walked towards an empty chair.

After, what appeared to be a good half hour, the door to the doctor's office opened and a man in his late twenties walked out. He and Ellen had a small, but friendly conversation, to which she seemed to pay more attention.

"See you later, Samuel." Ellen said with a rather big smile on her face.

Samuel? Now where did I hear that name before? Wasn't he the guy who...

"Hey, how are you doing?" Samuel's voice broke my chain of thoughts. "Does your head still hurt?" He chuckled.

"Yeah, it's fine." I replied, finally remembering where I heard the name. "So it was you who found me drunk?"

"Indeed I was." Samuel said with a warm smile. "You shouldn't be consuming if you cannot hold your drink." He added before patting me on the shoulder and walking out of the building.

"Yeah.." I said quietly, still having doubts about the whole situation.

"Next, please." Ellen said giving me "the look".

"Erm, sure," I said standing up.

I knocked on the door and entered. Inside was a typical physician's room, fully equipped with every necessity to sufficiently run a practice. Not being able to see the doctor I called out to him.

"Yes?" The voice appeared to be emanating from behind the curtain, before middle-aged man appeared in my view.

"Hello, Dr Hayden. My name is Darren and I was wondering if Matthew Simkoe was here to see you today?" I replied.

"Why?" Dr Hayden narrowed his eyes watching me sternly.

"Oh, I am his friend and just arrived into town to see him. Unfortunately he disappeared this morning and this was the only clue I have to his whereabouts."

"Disappeared?" Dr Hayden's voice adapted a concerned tone. "No, as a matter of fact, he missed his appointment this morning. I, of course, assumed he decided to stay in, but now that you've mention him missing... One moment please I will have to try and ring him." With that Dr Hayden hurriedly left the room. It all seemed a bit strange, but with all the happenings in this town I was getting more and more accustomed to it.

I sat on the couch and looked around the room. Nothing has caught my attention until a soft moan appeared from behind the curtain. Same curtain from where Dr Hayden had come to greet me. Cautiously I moved with curiosity, wrapping my fingers around the curtain and pulling at the sleek material. Behind I found an empty gurney with belts still locked in and linen covered in reddish stains of questionable origin. Baffled by what the sound was I searched around, yet saw nothing that could have produced it. Sighing with either relief or disappointment I decided to go back to my seat, but was interrupted by a sudden banging on the door. Startled by the noise I wondered if Dr Hayden had managed to absent-mindedly lock me inside, which incited worry. As I approached the door and pulled at the handle, it surprised me to see it open freely with a soft squeak. Behind I have found nothing.

Not only the reception was empty, but also the whole décor had changed completely. It looked as if no one had been in the building in years. The metal chairs had rusted away, half rotten wallpaper hung loosely off chipped walls and even the floor had a huge hole in the middle right where reception once stood. This has brought the whole new level of weirdness, which this town possessed in abundance.

Slowly I approached the opening in the floor and cautiously peered over the edge. It looked deep, with obsidian darkness hindering the view of the bottom.

"Better... not fall..." I heard a deep voice, which made me turn around with horror. In view, a tall menacing figure of my antagonist, still draped in hooded attire.

"What the fuck are you? I screamed out from the top of my lungs.

"Me?" He growled, reaching for his cowl and pulling it down. "I... am...you..."

I don't know what I was thinking at that moment. My brain was frantically trying to find reasoning behind what had just transpired. How could this be? Am I going completely insane due to absence of sleep? I stared at my own reflection as it stared back at me, yet before I could mutter another sound, my evil doppelganger lunged forward. I felt a pressure on my chest as my body keeled over the edge. I desperately tried to grab at the thin air, but to no avail. The free fall was frightening. Even more terrifying than my assailant's grinning face, which soon disappeared from my view. I closed my eyes and mentally prepared for the inevitable.

* * *

"Matt, please you have to stop this!"

"Stop this? We barely spoke to each other in years!"

"Oh, so it's all obviously my fault?"

"Maybe it is. Why did you come? Why now? After all these years?"

* * *

I opened my eyes finding myself lying on an empty street, surrounded by omnipresent condensation. My whole body hurt like hell. Was I alive? Was I dead? I couldn't tell. What was that memory just now? It was the same as the one in Matt's house, only this time more clear. How could I have possibly been here before? Had it really happen?

I heard my name being carried by a stiffening wind. A moment later Sheriff Thompson appeared from within the mist. His face expressing concern and worry.

"Darren!" He shouted again. "Am I glad to see you."

"What is going on, Sheriff?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" He eyed me inquisitive. "Where have you been all week?"

"All week?" I felt shock contorting my face. " I just saw you yesterday."

"I don't know what you have been smoking, but the last time we've met was a week ago."

I let his act of unprofessionalism slide. Sheriff's whole demeanour was completely changed since the last time I saw him. Not only his gun was unholstered, but he also was visibly shaken and disturbed.

"Listen." He continued. "Something bad is happening in this town. The case of people disappearing has gotten worse. There still no help from the city. The phone lines had been cut. In fact I have been trying for hours to get out of town, but it seems I cannot find my way. This goddamn fog makes everything look the same."

"It is as if he doesn't want to let you out." I said in half whisper.

"He?" Sheriff asked in confusion. "What do you mean by…."

He didn't finish. Sheriff Thompson went pale in his face, before collapsing in front of my feet. Behind, stood a disturbingly familiar figure of a man in a hooded top. His right hand was clutching a dagger with Thompson's blood dripping off its tip. Crimson red upon an asphalt black.

I took one cautious step back.

"You cannot… escape your fate…." He growled, letting the dagger drop on the ground." You must return… to what you once was…."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" I yelled with aggression, which seemed only to fuel his own. I looked at the lifeless body beneath my feet. "Leave me alone you freak!"

The hooded man growled again. "I will make you… see the light… I will make you… sleep again…. I am… Sandman,… a part of you…. I… am… your… salvation…."

He was making no sense whatsoever. I needed to escape and find Matt. It was as if he could feel my intentions and stepped closer to hinder my way out, glaring angrily from beneath his hood, before pulling it down. Revealing for the first time his true self.

"Y… you!" I shrieked. I did not expect the manifestation of my deranged mind to be human, much less a person I knew.

He smirked in return. A sickening and deviant smile to show how insignificant I was. To put a stabbing emphasis on what he was about to reveal. A misconstruction of truth as a ramble of a madman. He parted his parched lips and narrowed his sight filed with ire. Then he told me.

My world was shattered at that instant.

Then I called him a liar. He didn't like it.

I peered into the eyes that bore blind rage, glistening with a furious power of thousand suns. No longer did the figure in front of me stand as a person, but that of a beast. He lunged at me with his masculine hand, adorned by a quintet of crooked fingers. My reaction was no match for his deft speed and I was slammed against the wall with a sickening crunch of my bones, as they connected with a hard surface.

The wind was knocked out of me and the hand upon my shrinking throat completely cut off the air supply. I tried to gasp, but it was almost impossible to do. As I was watching my attacker through rapidly closing eyes, the events of the past week flashed before me. It all ended with a bang.

I felt a grip on my throat loosen, as I fell on a ground with a thud. I coughed, trying to get more oxygen into my shrunk lungs, before looking at what had just transpired.

There, on cold cobblestone surface of the street, a body of Samuel Dann lay motionless in expanding pool of his own blood. Next to him, not that far away, a mortally wounded figure of Sheriff Thomspon. His weak hand let go of the smoking gun, as he closed his eyes for the second time. Petrified with sheer terror I managed to scramble on to my shaking feet. I needed to get out of here, out of this town, but first I needed to find Matt. With Sam Dann's ludicrous words still fresh on my mind, I sprinted towards my best friend's house.

* * *

The fog has become thicker again, but this time it carried something distinctive with it – a smell of conflagration. Something was burning and it only took me 3 minutes to find out what it was.

Matt's house.

I stood still on my friend's front lawn, chained to the ground by fear and confusion. The building was set ablaze, throwing the licks of fire akin to a solar flare. The inferno had progressed so much, that if Matt was truly inside, there was no way he could still be alive. I turned away, trying to hold back the tears when I noticed a lonely silhouette sitting on a little bench, far out into the garden. As I hurriedly walked towards it, I realised to my relief that it was indeed my friend.

"Matt!" I yelled, something that I've been doing much lately. "What the fuck is going on?" Something that I've been saying much lately.

At first he was silent. I sat next to him, ignoring the malicious pyre. When he started to speak, I knew that Samuel's words were true.

"She is dead." He said sombrely. "My wife is dead because of you. Why did you have to walk into my life? I was happy once, full of dreams and ambitions. Yet you've ruined it for me. Made me miserable, took away my sanity. Why were you born, Darren?"

"I…am truly sorry, Matthew." It was all I could offer him.

He looked at me with his eyes full of tears. I scooted closer and wrapped my arm around his shoulders. Even at times like this I was always welcome to comfort him. Matt didn't pull away, no matter how much he hated me at that moment. Instead he looked at me with a little smile of content, before standing up and slowly walking towards the burning building. I didn't stop him. I guess deep down I knew what had to be done. Then, without hesitation, I followed my friend into the inferno. As the burning flames engulfed me, I clearly recalled the last argument we had together. We were in his living room, standing at the opposite ends of each other. It was hard for me to imagine usually timid Matthew being angry, but at that point he was completely consumed by rage.

"Matt, please you have to stop this!" I pleaded my friend.

"Stop this? We have barely spoke to each other in years and my life was finally getting together." He raged on. "So why now, Darren?"

"Oh, so it's all obviously my fault?" I was adamant and defensive.

"Maybe it is! Why did you come? Why now? After all these years?" I saw his fist clench, as if he was about to punch me.

"After all these years." I replied mockingly. "How do you think your wife will feel when she finds out about Samuel and his little cravings? People are disappearing, Matthew, and we both know that he is responsible. I am not letting you alone with him by yourself!"

"Shut up!" Matt had finally lost it. I saw the fist aimed at my face, yet didn't dodge it. The flesh connected with sickening crash, sending the shards of glass all over the room. I looked at my friend through the cracked surface of the mirror, or rather he looked at me - his own reflection.

Amidst the broken shards and scattered droplets of crimson blood, Matthew Simkoe stood all by himself, in front of a shattered mirror.

* * *

I opened my eyes, followed by an audible gasp. The sound of the horn blaring did not stop until I raised my head. My vision was blurry, but I could recognise a vague silhouette of a steering wheel. Groaning in pain and tasting copper in my mouth, I unfasten the seat belt and staggered out of the car. The front of the vehicle was hugging a huge oak tree, damaged beyond repair from the impact.

Looking around and trying to establish my location, I've noticed a familiar worn out sign. I had finally returned to Crying Willows, this time for real. Was I ready to be back to the place with such painful history? No, I guess I wasn't, but having no other choice I carried on walking.

When the first shapes of houses began to appear, I realised that the place was deserted. Just like in my crash induced hallucinogenic dream, which revealed so many suppressed memories, an eerie mist covered the town in a white blanket. As I passed by abandoned homes, I slowly started to remember the names of the people who used to live here. They were Matt's memories, not mine, but it felt as if they were.

It didn't take me long to find the ill-fated Poggio Street. Matt's house stood no more, instead replaced by a char grilled ground and burned out wood. Yet the little bench in the back garden remained untouched, as if protected by a higher power. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. So much history, so many memories. I just had to take it all in for the last time.

I was already getting darker when i finally left the memorial. I decided to try and get to the city by foot. About half an hour into my journey I was overtaken by a speeding car, which stopped abruptly couple of meters ahead. I smiled and waved to the driver, before climbing in.

"I don't usually see people around here." He said not trying to hide his surprise. "How on earth did you end up out here?"

I looked at the driver. He was younger than me, with a mob of black shaggy hair, which covered the ocean blue of his eyes.

"My car broke down." I replied simply. "Thank god you were passing through, as I don't even know how long it is 'till the next town."

"Quiet a walk" He smiled warmly. " So, did you manage to catch a glimpse of the ghost town?"

"Ghost town?" I asked, even though I knew what he was referring to. "You mean Crying Willows?"

"That's the one. Our most infamous of sites." He answered almost proudly.

"What happened back there?" The words came out innocently.

"Well, it happened about three years ago." He started, turning ignition key. "Apparently people started to disappear without trace. The Sheriff at that time had taken a personal approach to the case. His daughter was the first one to go missing. Days later more and more people were reported gone. Different age groups, race, sex. It was about a week later when a mysterious person started to appear around the city at night. Wherever he was seen, people would go missing the next day. One word left scribbled on their front door - Sandman. No one could see who he was, as his face was well hidden under a hood."

The driver took a breather as he waited to see my reaction.

"Wow," I muttered. "Did they ever find out who he was?"

"No." He replied. "Month after the first incident, people started to leave town, fearing for their safety. No bodies had ever been recovered, no trace of the Sandman had ever been found. " He smiled again. Talk about being over friendly. "If he ever existed in the first place."

"What do you mean?" I asked curiously." You don't believe in that Sandman guy?"

"Well." He pondered for a moment. "In the moment of panic, people tend to see things, which are not there. In this case the town was plagued by a mass hysteria, so a small thing was blown out of proportion. I mean one woman even killed herself and her husband burned the house down. People do weird things when they scared."

"I see." I muttered, feeling an overwhelming sense of achievement wash over me.

The driver glanced over, as his eyes lit up.

"Oh, how silly of me, I didn't even introduce myself." He extended his hand to me while keeping the other on the steering wheel. "Name's Bradley, by the way, Bradley Carr."

I extended my own. If somebody had asked me that before, I wouldn't know what to answer. Three very different personalities had occupied this body. Not anymore. It was only me left now, even though I still missed Matt, I was glad I managed to get rid of that other one. Feeling a huge grin spread upon my face, I held Brad's hand in mine.

"Nice to meet you Bradley. Call me Samuel."

Copyrighted Outlander 2010