From 1987 to 1991, I volunteered at a crisis call center in Alachua County, Florida. In five hour shifts, the ACCC team would answer calls from anyone who needed a non-judgmental person to talk to, and if they needed immediate help, we’d provide it if we could. As someone who struggled with depression, the death of my Dad a few years prior, and various other family problems, working the phones at the ACCC was just as cathartic for me as it was for the callers. It didn’t look too bad on my grad school applications, either.
Most of the callers suffered from real clinical disorders, but some of them were just sad and lonely castaways with nobody to talk to. Each caller was treated with dignity, because there are obvious suicide risks that come along with this type of work – unfortunately, this meant that perverts and pranksters that frequented the hotline during the graveyard shift were also handled with kid gloves. I can honestly say that I’ve heard every type of obscene call, including breathers, moaners, wheezers, smooth-talkers, and even the occasional knock-knock joke. I remember listening to this one guy spend five minutes on the line munching on what sounded like potato chips. No talking. Just crunch, crunch, crunch.
The Crisis Center wasn’t well funded; it was the only full-time inhabitant of an otherwise vacant strip mall on the edge of town, and at night, it was the only lit storefront for miles. Across the street was a notoriously seedy trailer park, and behind it was an expanse of swamps and cheap ranchland populated by misguided gator farmers and the “intensely rural.” The graveyard shift wasn’t too bad when there were two or three volunteers, but working solo was unnerving, even for us guys. It was during one of these solo nights that I first met Etaoin Shrdlu.
Now this was in August of 1990. I’d been putting in extra hours at night because we’d always lose volunteers at the start of the University semester. At around 3:00 AM, I got my first call, which went something like this:
Me: “Alachua County Crisis Center, how can I help?”
Voice [Sounds like a mechanical larynx, so I originally thought I was speaking to a throat cancer survivor]: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”
Me: “Excuse me?”
Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U” [I can hear what sounds like a Radio or Television playing in the background, and the whirring of some sort of machinery]
[I’m thinking that this is another prank call. I go through my script: “We’re here to listen, this is a safe place, everything’s going to be fine.” I’m greeted with a full minute of silence. We’re allowed to hang up after two. I can still hear the whine of what sounds like an old Ham radio squawking and warbling somewhere in the background. Then:]
Voice: “ARE YOU AFRAID TO DIE”
Me: “No. Are you?”
Voice: “IT DOESN’T HURT” [Cuts to some sort of garbled, electronic shriek, and then disconnects.]
Etaoin would call during every graveyard shift, but only when I was working, and only when I was alone. The letters sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard them before. He would always ask these morbid interview questions, like what my biggest fears were, or if I thought hell was a real place, and would always disconnect shortly thereafter. I didn’t think much of it at first, as Etaoin was just as harmless as the other prank callers, and definitely more interesting. As the weeks went by, there was an epidemic of “weirdness” at the Crisis Center: Office supplies went missing from the storage room, the power would routinely go out at night, and people kept finding the door to the mini-fridge wide open. The worst thing, though, was finding what looked like crowbar scuffs around the back door leading to the parking lot. On top of all this, Etaoin kept calling, and his calls were getting more disturbing and personal.
Me: “Alachua County Crisis Center, how can I help?”
Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”
Me: “Hi, Etaoin.”
Voice: “DO YOU MISS YOUR DAD”
Me: “Where are you calling from?”
[At this point, I’m getting a little tired of Etaoin, so I decide to have a little fun by playing 20 questions]
Me: “Are you animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?”
Voice: [Hissing] “ANIMAL.”
Me: “Do you walk on two legs or four legs?”
Voice, now sounding aggravated and full of what sounds like static hiss: “I WALK ON NO LEGSSS.” [Disconnect]
I remember the power cutting out right after the disconnect, and nearly pissing my pants as a result.
After that, everything about the Crisis Center, and maybe even the whole city, fell under a black cloud for me. It might have been depression, but there was this palpable sense that something bad was going to happen. If I had to describe the feeling in a word, I’d use “unclean.” One early Fall evening, I got a call from the ACCC coordinator to run the graveyard shift after the scheduled volunteer landed herself in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I started the solo shift at midnight. It didn’t go well. Amidst a spate of unusually aggressive perverts, one caller threatened to kill himself, followed by another guy who threatened to kill his wife. I kept hearing knocking sounds coming from the storage room, and the power flickered on and off every fifteen minutes. Three hours later, faithful as ever, Etaoin called:
Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”
Voice: “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OU-[Disconnect]”
The lights cut out. A thump came from the rear hallway near the storage room. Flashlight in hand, I made my to the back of the office. The storage room was empty. I heard another loud thump from the back room. I lit up the brass doorknob, and my heart froze when I saw it turn slowly back and forth. I spun around and bolted for the front door as the pounding grew louder behind me. I heard the whoosh of the back door swinging open as I sprinted out into the parking lot. As I fumbled for the keys to my Pontiac, I saw a dark figure prowling the office, pausing to look at me through the front window. I nearly hit a lamppost as I jumped the curb and raced back to my apartment.
I called the police, but they didn’t find anything but a busted back door. Nothing was stolen, and Etaoin never called back after that.
In the weeks that followed:
September 12, 1990 – THE GAINESVILLE SUN
University of Florida students and Gainesville residents continue to fear for their lives after the discovery of two college students slain in their apartments, the fourth and fifth victims of a single serial murderer over the course of three weeks. Authorities declined to release detailed information about the murders, but have commented on the brutal nature of of the slayings. The police have not made any arrests, but have collected a list of persons of interest. “We’re confident that we’ll find him. He’s a deranged man, probably a drifter, so we’ve screened shelters and hospitals in the region and collected good leads,” said Police Chief Wayland Clifton.
Over the next week or so, I’m going to post a new short horror story a day, without introduction or setup. Here’s the first:
The Roberts Mortuary Playground
It happened way back in the fall of 1971 when I was 10 and my brother Andy was 6. We were renting an old house east of Ocala Florida between Mud Lake and the Ocklawaha prairie. Me and Andy went to the same grade school, so since we didn’t have buses and Mom didn’t have a car yet, I had to walk him home at two o’clock every afternoon. Mom was afraid Andy would run away or get grabbed up by some pervert, so she made me hold his hand. That was okay, ’cause most kids lived in town and nobody ever saw us walking together.
We were supposed to stick to the roads, but most times we cut through the trails around edge of town. We’d always pass right behind Roberts mortuary, which was the best part ’cause I’d get to scare the boots off of Andy, who believed in ghosts and monsters and everything he ever saw on the channel 6 late movie show. Way out at the butt-edge of town, Roberts mortuary had a plywood fence that ran around the far back side of the property, enclosing a big pond that sat back some forty yards away from the building. That’s a lot of fence, but I figure they didn’t want any schoolkids drowning, so they just closed in the pond to be safe. Me and Andy would use a piece of re-bar to peel back part of the fence and sneak inside.
The thing about Roberts funeral home was that the storefront looked all proper and white glove, with tall marble pillars and stain glass windows, but the backyard was all rusted out machinery and puddles of oil and big, blue drums. That was true about most folks in Ocala, too, ‘specially the rich folks. The outsides always looked pretty, but once you pried up the skin and had a good look inside, it was nothing but rotten ugly. Around the corner was a metal ramp leading up to a pair of scuffed-up wooden doors that were all smeared with brown, like someone real dirty had been pawing at it.
Some times we would creep up on the building and look in the basement windows, but we couldn’t see nothing but a few long tables and a bunch of boxes. We did hear a funny humming noise, though, like a bee swarm. I used to tell Andy that before every funeral, the morticians would swap out the dead people for mannequins and grind up the bodies for pig slop, and that the ghosts of all those people lived down there in that basement. I told him that the humming sound was the ghosts crying, and if he was ever bad, he’d have to go live in that basement with all of ’em. Then he’d start crying and hollering and I’d have to figure out somewhere else to play.
Anyhow, Me and Andy got to playing around behind the funeral home because of all the junk – they had a broken fridge full of crusted-up paint brushes and spray cans, and a big barrel of yellow rubber hoses that we’d use to wrap around sticks to make slingshots. We’d carry ’em to the pond out back to shoot cans and empty glass jars. The yard was big enough to play hide and seek, too – Andy loved to hide in this big brass jug with two marble-sized holes that let him peek out on me. The jug had these phony-looking Egyptian symbols on it, which I thought was funny.
In the year or so we walked that way, we never saw anybody come out that back door. Nowadays, there would be cameras and security robots and god knows what else to keep kids from messin’ around back there. They shoulda never let us play near that pond.
Now this was just before Nixon put in all those rules for the environment, so some folks would just dump their septic tanks right into the canal behind their house, or even right into Lake Weir. But even for back then, that pond was foul. There was a shiny oil sick all over the water, and a pink, foamy ring all around the banks. That pond was dead nasty, for sure, but the worst part was the smell. One summer, a raccoon ate up a bunch of rat poison underneath our house, and it sat there dead for two weeks before we got around to fishing it out. When I scooted down there with a Piggly Wiggly bag and got one whiff of that critter, thick with ants amongst all that rat poison, I had to crawl right back out and wrap a dirty shirt around my face.
That’s what the pond smelled like, except it also had a smell like Biology class on top of it.
Funny thing is, as nasty as that pond was, we couldn’t stay away from it. Every day for a month we visited that place. We were always throwing sticks and rocks and all kind of junk in that pond just to see what we could rustle up, always daring each other to get closer and closer. One time I told Andy that if he stuck his hand in the pond, he might get super strong like Spider Man. Being a dumb kid, Andy mustered up some guts and walked to the edge, squat down, and started looking deep into the pond, his hands all folded together like he was some kind of guru. Then he stretched out his hand, pulled out a finger, and plunked it right into that water. He held it there for a minute, like he was waiting for the magic to sink in or something, and then he started squinting and wobbling and crying out for me to come over. He pulled out his finger and pointed at something in the pond. I thought he might have seen a turtle, but he was pointing to a dark shape lying there at the bottom. There was something big, shaped like a football but fifteen foot wide, lying in a pit. It was caked with pink scum, but parts of it had a shine like some sort of metal. Maybe it was a car, I said. We both knew it wasn’t a car. Something came over me and I came to know that we shouldn’t play here any more, not ever. I told Andy that we had to leave, but he started hemming and hawing, saying that he wanted to see what was at the bottom of the lake. I told him to nevermind that, and so we left.
The bad stuff happened that night. Andy seemed ok – he quit moping by the time we got home, but he went to bed early, which was something peculiar since this kid fought to stay up and watch movies with Mom every night. I woke up around three A.M., just like always, but this time I couldn’t see Andy crumpled up underneath his blanket on the other side of our room. I sprang out of bed, ran to the window, and saw Andy’s tiny Ranger Rick lantern bobbing far out on the edge of the forest. He looked like he was carrying Dad’s old tackle box. I put on my jeans and sneakers and headed out after him, knowing right where that little shit was headed.
When I got closer to Roberts, that pond smell got worse and worse, way worse than ever, and I could already hear that basement humming sound. When I finally rounded the bend from the park at the edge of town, I could see a red glow coming from the yard, and I got this sense that something really sick and dirty was happening just beyond that fence. I saw that the rebar was already propped up on the back corner of the yard, so I knew Andy was inside. I pried the corner apart with my hands and saw what I’ll never forget.
There were these two spotlights set up on either side of the pond, shining down into the water, but instead of white lights, they were beet red, which made it harder to see. There were two figures standing close together at the edge of the pond, dressed up like frog men, except they had gas masks on and heavy rubber boots instead of flippers. One of them wore a white belt filled with some kind of shiny tools. Lying in between them on a tarp was an old man with pearl white hair, all dressed up in a fine suit like he was going out to dinner. That man was stiff and still, with his arms folded across his chest like he was waiting for communion. He was a corpse ready for burial. One of those big blue drums sat off to the side, but this one looked new. I peeped around the yard looking for Andy, but didn’t see him – I thought that maybe he caught one look at this scene and ran back home somehow, but then I remembered the big Egyptian jug he liked to hide in, and sure enough, I could see two little eyes sparkling from inside the holes. He was watching everything. That buzzing sound got louder and louder, and started wavering and pulsing like a dump truck in neutral. These tiny ripples started up on the surface of the pond, and those ripples turned into waves.
Writing about this next part feels like poking open a spider egg with a stick. It’s unclean, and I don’t know if any good can come of it.
What came out of this pond wasn’t like any beast or man I’ve ever seen since. I saw the back of a white-pink head, if you could call it a head, all gummed-up with stringy afterbirth, rise up from the water a few feet out from the lip of the pond. It was as big as a man’s head, but longer, like a swollen eggplant. The two men moved up on either side of the open blue drum and began pouring out black liquid chum onto the shore and into the pond. Chunks of yellow and black floated out to the middle of the water, and bigger pieces of some kind of meat rolled into the mud. This thing starts moving toward the drum like it hears dinner bells, and it rises up, foisted by these two pink, fleshy arms connected to bony shoulder plates that look ready to burst out of its skin. It heaved out toward the mess on the shore, pulling itself up and collapsing down on the meat stew below. It had a long spine, like two men patched together, but it had gills and a thick, clear fin running down the neck like some kind of mudfish. I couldn’t see its face, but I could hear it slurping and gorging on whatever foul buffet these men had laid out for it.
After that thing got its fill, it craned its neck up at the men, like it was noticing them for the first time, and crawled sideways in the filth toward the corpse on the tarp. Sensitive folks might want to skip this part. It pulled a slick, pale, three-fingered hand out of the mud and dragged the body down toward it, like it was arranging him for something. Then it lay down on top of the body, cracked open the old man’s mouth, and started heaving like a cat with a hairball. Sick, black porridge started pouring out from its maw down into the gullet of the dead man. I can see big tadpoles flopping around the mud all around the corpse. The thing pulls itself up and looks at the dead man below, focusing hard, face to face. It’s frozen like that for a minute. Then the corpse starts kicking and flopping like a fish, and it starts moaning and grabbing at the tie around his neck, and I can see his eyes, and they’re open and scared. It doesn’t want to be alive.
Then I look over at Andy – he’s fidgeting around, trying to get out of that jug to run away. I wanted to yell at him to stay put and shut up. That jug starts wobbling and tips over, and Andy tumbles out, tears streaming down his face. The two men spin around and see him. Even worse, this thing in the pond notices him. The corpse keeps wailing away and thrashing in the mud. Andy backs up toward the funeral home, and one of the men pulls out what looks like some kind of syringe from his belt, with the other one closing in around the other side. I cracked open the fence and pushed my way inside, screaming at the top of my lungs to try and save my little brother, and when I did, the thing in the pond spun around and looked at me. I saw rows of eyes that looked like scabbed-over wounds. Its mouth was a thin, white flap of skin covering a hole the size of a grapefruit. I yelled that the police were coming, and that they’d better let us go, or else. The two men came running at me full speed, and the pond thing lurches out of the water and tumbles toward me in a blur of limbs and slop. I saw Andy pulling an old drum up against the fence so he could craw over and escape, so I turned quick for the exit, but I had a tough time squeezing through the crack in the fence. As I’m pulling myself through, I feel a hot wetness against my leg, and a firm grip on my shoe. I kicked back, leaving that thing my shoe as a prize, and squeezed through the hole. I sprinted off toward town, hearing grunts and footsteps behind me, hoping that Andy would make home before me.
By the time the sun rose, I’d sprinted out of town and nearly four miles north on the interstate. I flagged down the first truck I saw and told them to take me to the Ocala police station. Mom was already there, crying. We were supposed to leave for school an hour earlier, so when she couldn’t find us, she called the cops. I told everyone the story, and we took a squad car over to Roberts mortuary, but we didn’t find any lights or living-dead men or sick things lurking in the water. We found Andy floating face down in the middle of the pond just a few feet away from Dad’s old tackle box and a Ranger Rick lantern.
Nobody ever believed me about what I swear I saw. They thought Andy just got curious about the pond and fell in. The police saw it for that, and didn’t even bother investigating Roberts, even for how nasty that property was. On their account, we were in the wrong for trespassing. Mom died of cancer two years later, but she never forgave me for losing Andy.
The Roberts Funeral Home people swore up and down that they’d never seen us that night or ever before. They put up a bigger fence with barbed wire, and eventually moved to a location closer to town. They are still in business.