MONDAY: Dear Madeleine

HALLOWEEN WEEK 2023: Second Place Winner


Copyright is held by the author.

Dear Madeleine,

I’m taking a break. This looks like a teenager’s room, and there’s a diary here, so I’m taking a break to eat something and write everything down. Maybe you’ll read it someday, who knows.

I would start at the top, but my sense of time is so corrupted that I’m not sure I could get everything in order. I don’t know if it’s day or night. I don’t know if day or night exists anymore. So I’ll start with this: Malley is dead. I wasn’t there when it happened. Graves was. I’m not convinced Graves didn’t kill him.

We’d just walked through a kitchen and restocked food, and then we’d found a pretty grandiose front hallway with some hunting rifles in excellent shape, so we were feeling a little cocky. You never let me have a gun, even though I really wanted one. Having one didn’t make me feel happy or safe, though, just like you said. I don’t think any of us ever smile when we find supplies, but our anxieties ease for a minute, at least.

We hadn’t needed protection, yet, but I was thinking guns might come in handy for locks. And, if I’m being honest, Madeleine, I think we all distrusted each other just a little, and everyone having a gun was just enough mutually-assured destruction to keep anyone from cracking and going on a spree. Anyway, I figure Malley and Graves just got a little too confident, forgot our rule about sticking together, and wandered away from me while I was figuring out all the mechanisms on the rifles. The front hallway was spacious, with two floors and lots of doors, and I can see how they might get hopeful about what was behind one of them. Graves told me later that they tried to go out the front door, only to be met with more hallway, of course. I didn’t see them for hours, and thank god I hunkered down and stayed put or I might never have seen Graves again. When she finally stumbled back through the front door, covered in what I can only assume was Malley’s blood, she tried to scream and sob at me about what had happened. She tried to lead me to Malley’s body, but she couldn’t make it back to it. Between the darkness and a lack of any kind of logic to the layout of the rooms, we must have took a few wrong turns going back. God knows how far they went. Maybe the rooms change behind us as we walk through them. I don’t know, it’s what it feels like sometimes.

I finally got Graves calmed down in a master bedroom. It looked like ours, Madeleine. I mean, it wasn’t ours, but it had a sexless bed and secondhand furniture that looked like it was picked up on the side of the road after someone else threw it out.

I lit some candles and had Graves lie down and tell me what happened. “Something killed him. Something alive,” she says.

“Like, an animal? Or another person?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says.

“Well, what did it look like?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says again. I sighed in frustration. I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t helping.

“OK, did it move around on four legs like a dog, or two legs like a person?”

Graves sat up and got defensive. “I. Don’t. Know. Carson. Sometimes I remember it like it was crawling, sometimes like it was walking. It was so dark. It was dark like the room was. It moved like fog.”

“Didn’t you have flashlights?”

Graves face wrinkled as she struggled to answer the question. “Yeah, but it was like the light just wouldn’t stick to it.”

Graves got real quiet. I could hear the candle wax sizzle.

“It had eyes, though. Orange ones. The thing was only on us for a second and I ran away pretty quick, but I feel like I have whole…minutes of memories of the eyes. Sometimes I remember them as orange points of light, and sometimes I remember them like they’re solid and I can see veins and pupils and wetness, like our eyes. But they’re still orange. Always orange.”

“How did it kill Malley?”

“I don’t know if it really had a head or hands or arms or whatever,” Graves said. “But, Carson, it had claws. It had teeth.”

Graves swallowed hard. I don’t think she was crying, but she was scared. Graves isn’t like you, Madeleine, she doesn’t panic easy. She’s good in a crisis. It would take a hell of a thing to shake her, much less break her.

“It shredded him, Carson. I can barely remember how the thing looked or moved toward him because one second it was there and the next—I don’t know if it came out of a hallway or if it was just already in the room we entered. But, it had claws, I’m sure of that. Maybe teeth, too. They went into him like he was made of nothing. I saw everything inside him. He didn’t even have a chance to scream. I think all the things he needed to scream were already gone.

“And I just ran, Carson. I left him. Like a coward.”

“There was nothing you could have done,” I said, trying to sound comforting, but probably failing since I was already doubting her story and suspicious that she had done in Malley herself. There were plenty of things in the rooms that could be used for weapons aside from the firearms— tools, fireplace pokers, and endless kitchens with endless supplies of shiny kitchen knives. She could have done the deed quietly enough. I had feared for Malley’s mental state long before his death, as well as my own, so it was only fair to question Graves’s.

“I don’t want to see that thing again,” Graves said. “You take that gun and you shoot me before I have to see it again.”

I tried to say “I’m not going to do that, that’s crazy,” but she cut me off.

“Promise me. Promise me you won’t make me look at it again.”


“I don’t even know if I believe in heaven, but I know that if that thing kills me, I won’t go there.”

I tried to think of something to say. She had looked down for most of this conversation like a kid lost in a grocery store talking to a police officer, but now she insisted on eye contact.

Finally, I just said, “We should move on. Standing still will do nothing.”

That’s all for now. I’ll try to write again, soon.

— Carson


Dear Madeleine,

We found some candles and decided to take a break. I’ve been thinking, too, and I wanted to write it down so maybe you can help me make sense of it.

Even if Graves’s story was true and there’s something dangerous in the house with us, there’s no guarantee that moving would be best. They could be sentries, and if we stayed put forever they’d never find us. But, we’d also starve to death. I’ve been weighing which option was more preferable. I guess I landed on “keep moving” because starvation was inevitable, but evisceration was hopefully just a coin toss.

We walked for a long time without saying anything. About the time my feet started to hurt, Graves piped up again.

“Why do you think we all ended up at that house at the same time?”

“You mean this house.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah, OK, I get what you mean.”

“Well, why do you think?”

“We’ve had this conversation a thousand times, Graves. There’s no profit in having it again.”

“Just answer the question. We don’t have nothing else better to talk about.”

“Then let’s not talk at all.”

“Talking keeps me calm.”

“This line of conversation keeps you calm?”

“C’mon, Carson,” her voice was pleading, but she kept its dignity, anyway. “Please.”

“I don’t know, Graves. I was there doing the same thing you were, just trying to get by.”

“Us, too.”

“Yeah. That’s what you said. After I said it first.”

“You got something to say now, Carson? You think we were lying?”

“No,” I said, pointedly and quickly. “I didn’t mean to take that tone. I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind, but can you blame me? That’s what this place has done to all of us.”

“You can’t think that way, Carson. That worries me.”

“I know. I don’t really think that way. I know that’s a good way for us to Donner Party each other.”

I don’t remember when we first figured it out. Three burglars, all in the same place at the same time. It still doesn’t make sense. I should have let it go a long time ago, but I can’t. I wasn’t tipped off by anyone, I just saw the old house on the edge of town and decided to break in and give it a walkthrough one night. It looked abandoned, so I figured nobody would get hurt. I do remember running into Malley in the foyer, which made us both scream and run in opposite directions.

 I also remember the knot in my stomach that told me something was off. The house was too deep. Windows stopped making sense—I only saw other rooms or hallways through them. We’d come to a fancy drawing room with huge bay windows only to see a garage beyond it, and an attic beyond the garage door. After an hour of yelling as loud as I could, I heard someone called back. I followed the sound until I found Malley again, joined by Graves. We formed our thief’s pact and set out to find a way out. Back to our homes and our families. Where I could keep lying to you about how I made the money I was bringing home in inconsistent wads of cash. Time in the dark with my thoughts taught me that you always knew, though, didn’t you?

I don’t know how long we’ve been exploring. Without a daylight cycle, it’s hard to gauge it. The clocks in the rooms don’t work for the most part, and the occasional purely mechanical antiques all show different times. I took an antique pocket watch once to use for marking off days, but I kept forgetting to wind it, so I tossed it. But, it’s been a long time. It’s gone beyond measuring in days and probably weeks. It’s been months, probably. Maybe a year.

The rooms are all different, from kids’ bedrooms in suburban homes to giant kitchens in mansions. They’re filled with things as if somebody lived there, then were plucked away suddenly. There are bookshelves and DVD players. There are pictures of families and names on doors. There is no air coming through the vents, but it’s always a comfortable temperature.

Survival is actually not too difficult, considering how many supplies are in a home. There is no electricity in any room, but there’s batteries galore. Food in refrigerators is always spoiled, but canned and dry foods are always well within their expiration dates. There’s matches and I can use tools to tear apart wooden furniture to make fires to warm food on or boil water. There’s no running water, but you’d be surprised where you can find it. Toilet tanks are usually full and we can crack open the occasional water heater we find. We usually bathe with that, even though the heaters don’t actually work.

We’ve found little ways to make little luxuries for ourselves: Resting in comfy, expensive beds or having a board game “night” lit by electric camp lanterns. One time I poked holes in a bucket and poured water heated over a fire into it and took a shower. The pantries sometimes have oil and cake mix in them, enough to bake a cake by building a fire in an oven. After weeks of canned soup and boxed rice, it was welcome. Tasted better than anything you ever baked. I always was the better cook between us.

Most of survival is luck. The rest of it is preparing for the possibility that a particular kind of room we need might not show up for a while. One time we didn’t see a kitchen or pantry for days, and I thought Malley was going to lose it. I think that’s when I first got worried about his sanity.

Time to move again. I’ve got more to tell you and this is keeping my brain straight, so I’ll write again when we’ve got another break.

— Carson


Dear Madeleine,

The obvious explanation for all this is that this is all a hallucination or a crazy dream or something. There’s not much more to ponder on that because any strange situation can be a hallucination or a dream. So, it’s on the top, but I’m moving on because there’s nothing more to say.

The other obvious idea that was offered up pretty quickly and frequently by everyone is that we’re dead and this is hell or whatever bad afterlife place you prefer. It would make sense—being trapped for eternity in an endless abandoned home would be a fitting punishment for a house burglar. Maybe that’s just this place talking to my head again. I’m not dismissing this theory either, but again, there’s not much more to discuss about it. It is what it is.

Could be some crazy experiment. Malley was the first to float that one. I could be walking through a real, constructed crazyhouse and maybe I’m being watched by cameras and notes are being scribbled down on clipboards about me. It makes sense, at least as much sense as anything makes now. Nothing about the house is impossible, just… unlikely. It would take a magnitude of effort and resources, but it could technically be done. Someone could make countless rooms, all in different styles and meticulously curated, filled with broken appliances and lights and running water. The rooms do actually all fit together right. There was spatial geometry problems at first, since the house looked normal-sized on the outside, but they could have used optical illusions or something to trick us into going underground. Graves said she swore she felt us descend like we were in an elevator when we first started our walkthrough, but I figure that could just have been her stress making up false memories.

My theory, and the one I most subscribe to aside from me having a coma dream or something, is that maybe it’s the ghost of rooms of houses torn down, then all stuck together in a house afterlife. All the rooms are clean and nothing feels dilapidated, just dead. Like the rooms are how they were in their prime, like a pretty corpse. A lot of the rooms have a nostalgic feel to them. Few of them seem very modern, most at least have an ‘80s or ‘90s feel or older.

I’ve had a lot of time to think, Madeleine, because I can take breaks as long as I want, now. I’ve decided that I did see Graves’s creature. Or, at least, another creature just like it. I saw two lights, like candle flickers, in the hallway behind her. I did what she asked me to do, Madeleine. The candle flickers were gone after I did.

I hear a lot more strange noises now that I’m alone. Sometimes it sounds like far off banging. Sometimes it sounds like cats’ feet mushing down carpet in the room I’m in. I’ve fired more than one round into the dark, only for the shot to embed itself in the furniture. Maybe they’re lost pets. What do you think of that? That would explain the claws and teeth Graves saw. Maybe it’s people who get lost in their own homes. I’m sure there can’t be many that do, but walking around in this maze for a lifetime has made me feel like there are some poor, lonely souls whose houses twist around them until they’re prisons. You know, old people. Sick people. They get lost in their own walls and find their way here, transforming into Minotaur for the labyrinth. Maybe we weren’t the first to come to this place. Maybe they died here like Graves and Malley. Maybe there is more than one shadow skulking around, and maybe two of them are my friends.

Maybe we look to them like they do to us – dark clouds silently filling a room, ready to kill. Or cat’s eyes glinting in a dark hallway.

One hundred more rooms. I’ll count them. One hundred more rooms, and then I’ll give up. I hope I’ll find a room that looks like one in our house. I’m going to shut my eyes and wish for that as hard as I can. If I find that, I won’t give up. My house wasn’t much, but it wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t dead. I had you in it. Our marriage wasn’t much, but you kept me from getting lost in the walls. I love you for that, Madeleine.

I want to go home.

— Carson


Image of Benjamin Gray

Benjamin Gray is an American writer with work in literature, journalism, roleplaying games, and comics. He is a creator and core cast of Roleplay Retcon, a podcast that remakes infamous flop movies with roleplaying and storytelling games.

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