It was a typical Friday night for the Ayers as David drove the family car down an empty highway.
Fridays meant date night, but with Halloween just around the corner, he and Monica were headed to a party. As per the usual weekly routine, they were stopping by his father’s to drop off their sons for the evening.
The boys, Timothy and Dylan (10 and 8 respectively), had never been fond of Fridays at their grandfather’s.
It wasn’t that they didn’t like their grandfather, per se. It was that his house was boring. He didn’t have any video games, his computer was archaic (it never had and never would know the thrill of connecting to that “series of tubes”), and his fridge contained only Ensure Plus and an opened jar of pickles they agreed had to be older than the both of them combined.
David exited the highway and took a right.
Timothy, previously glued to his PSP, looked up. Noting how close they were, he sighed deeply. Dylan was too busy playing with his toy dinosaur to notice.
David caught it and looked at his son in the rearview.
“Come on, Timmy, it’s not that bad. It’s only a few hours. Besides…your Grandpa has some pretty good stories.”
His stories were terrible and David knew it. Monica cut him a sideways glance, trying to suppress a chuckle.
Never one to disappoint, every visit with Grandpa Ayers always garnered a few yarns.
The stories were always the same.
So were the yawns.
Yes, we’ve heard about the time a raccoon broke inside and ate all the dog food…
Yes, we’ve heard about the huge thunderstorm that nearly took the roof off back in ’76…
Yes, we’ve heard about the time you were given your lucky silver dollar by Frank Sinatra…
We’ve heard them all and you tell them again every week!
Timothy groaned, “Ugh, can’t wait…”
“Can’t wait!” echoed Dylan, unsure of the topic yet still wanting to be included.
David and Monica exchanged a smile.
The car turned off the road and up a large driveway.
Timothy and Dylan stared out the window as they approached the large house. A single, weak bulb burned in the lower level.
They pulled to a stop out front.
David got out and opened the back door, releasing the boys. They stood side by side, staring up at the foreboding residence.
Lightning flashed across the darkness.
The house seemed to reach infinitely skyward, stabbing into the heavens.
Suddenly, the porch light illuminated and the front door was yanked open.
A wispy-haired silhouette stood backlit in the doorway.
Flames leapt up high behind the figure, and in it’s free hand was a pointed object.
The figure jumped out on the porch, a mentally disturbed clown wielding a long, shimmering knife high overhead.
The boys clutched at each other, terrified, screaming.
The clown faltered slightly, then doubled over, shaking.
They realized the shakes were laughter-induced.
The clown stood up and pulled off its mask, revealing himself to be their grandfather. His own hair even wispier than the disguise.
The kids slowly let go of each other, taking it all in.
The mask, the plastic knife, the roaring fireplace inside.
“Happy Halloween, kiddos!” cried the old man, with outstretched arms.
Dylan squealed, delighted, and ran to hug his grandfather.
Timothy scoffed, “I wasn’t scared.” He walked up the steps past his grandfather, who rustled his hair.
“Gettin’ too big for that stuff, huh?!” Grandpa Ayers asked with a laugh.
Farewells were exchanged, and the boys were ushered inside as the parents drove off into the night.
Timothy entered the living room and flopped down in an oversized chair, resuming his video game.
Grandpa Ayers followed him with Dylan in tow.
“You boys want anything to eat?” he asked, “I got pickles.”
Timothy and Dylan shared a quick glance, then responded in unison “No, thanks, Grandpa.”
Grandpa Ayers shrugged, moving to his recliner.
“Well, alright then. You boys let me know if you change your mind.”
He picked up a newspaper and donned reading glasses.
Dylan found a bowl of hard candy on the coffee table and began feeding them to his dinosaur.
The fire had burned down significantly.
Dylan had shoved upwards of twenty-five Werther’s into the triceratops and was working on the next.
Grandpa Ayers snored softly from his recliner, reading glasses slipped precariously to the tip of his nose.
Timothy’s PSP blacked out as the battery gave up the ghost, and he tossed it on the coffee table indifferently. He had grown bored of it anyway.
He sighed and looked around the room. His grandfather had decorated for Halloween, all right.
From the fake spiderwebs, to the drawings, to the freshly carved jack-o-lanterns flanking the fireplace…he’d gone all out this year.
A particular drawing caught Timothy’s eye.
He rose and walked across the room, passing Dylan, who was now utilizing a TV remote to assist in nourishing his toy, and peered up at the artwork.
It was a sketch of a man working a large, black machine. Dark smoke seemed to be either coming from or entering it. Something was also emanating from the center.
The title read “Architekt von Albträume,” written in a heavy, scrawling cursive.
A pair of hands reached over Timothy and grasped the frame, pulling it from the wall.
His grandfather stood over him, smiling, looking at the drawing with affection.
“This is one of my favorites. Your grandmother drew this. Back when your father was about your age, I think…”
The boys looked at each other. A story was coming on and they knew it.
But this was the first they’d ever heard him speak of their grandmother. They knew very little about her, and Timothy, eager to listen for once, put a finger to his lips to quiet his brother’s protests.
This was going to be a new one.
The boys sat on the couch, the drawing held between them, a root beer in each of their free hands.
Their grandfather was in his recliner, a small smile tugged the corners of his mouth as he remembered.
He took a swig of root beer.
The boys followed suit.
“Your grandmother was quite the artist,” he began. “She loved to draw and paint. She would often draw things from her dreams. This was one she swore was real, though. She said she met him when she was young. He was working the levers of that big machine.
He looked at them, the smile reappeared.
“Would you boys like to hear the story of that man?”
“It might be little on the scary side…” he warned.
“Promise not to tell your momma? Y’know she’d skin me.”
“Alright then. Well, the way I heard it..the way your grandmother told it…this man lived in the woods…”
Marta Schön knew little about the man from the Black Forest. He would only come into town on rare occasion to stock up on supplies. No one knew for sure exactly where he lived, or what it was he did out there in the woods… they just knew they didn’t like him.
Her mother had told her stories of people disappearing, and warned her about staying away, but she was stubborn if nothing else.
One day she followed him, deep into the forest.
The trees grew so thick and tangled she could hardly see the sky. The deeper she followed him, the darker it became. She noticed there were less birds singing as they went along, and when they reached his home, she hadn’t seen or heard a single creature for an hour or more.
The man had fashioned himself a house. Although “fashioned” didn’t quite describe it. “Grown” himself a house was more fitting.
Trees and brush and vines twisted and shaped themselves together into a large shelter, complete with what passed for doors and windows. It sat in the middle of a small clearing.
The man entered, lit a candle, and began to stoke a fire.
Marta waited at the edge of the clearing until the sun had set completely. Once she felt it was dark enough, she stole to a window, and peeked inside for a better look.
She watched the man prepare potions of differing sorts.
The fire had grown to a roar by now, and it threw off enough light for her to see it was built beneath a large, black machine.
It was covered with levers which the man began working in a specific order. He repeated the same pattern over and over as the machine warmed up.
When he had it up and running full steam, she noticed that the little stones, sticks, and leaves around his house had begun rising slowly into the air.
They held their level, about a foot off the ground, gently moving no more than an inch in any one direction.
He worked the levers a few more times, then began feeding the machine. Some of the items were bought in town, some came from jars previously prepared, and finally, some of tonight’s concoctions.
Once finished, he worked the levers again.
The machine hitched and thumped, spewing smoke out of the top and sides before a kind of white light began to spill from its center.
He screwed an empty jar into its side.
Pulling a single lever, it shuddered violently as it forced all of the previously spilled light into the jar.
Working a few more levers rapidly, the light transformed from white to black, and a final lever suddenly shut it off, along with the machine.
The floating stones and debris fell to the ground.
A lid screwed onto the jar before it released into his hand.
The man turned around and Marta dropped quickly, so not to be seen. She heard him approach the window, set something down, and move away.
She peeked over the sill and saw he was at the machine again. He seemed to be prepping it for another cycle.
Looking down she saw a row of jars next to the window. Each contained a different colored substance. In the closest there was a black fog resting at the bottom.
She reached for it and the fog swirled upward, becoming a snake, slithering around inside jar.
It had enormous fangs, but no eyes, and struck at the glass repeatedly, trying to get at her. It sounded like a tiny bell as it’s teeth made contact with the jar.
Marta looked up and saw the man standing in front of her. She tried to run but he caught her hand deftly.
He opened the jar with his free hand and the snake-like thing escaped. It struck, biting her, shooting it’s venom into her palm.
She immediately saw a string of images in her mind.
Terrible images. Frightening images. Her deepest secrets drawn into the light. Her worst nightmares all at once.
The venom had put them in her head…injected them like a drug.
Marta began to scream, trying to force the images out.
She immediately woke up, finding herself in her own bed.
Her mother and father rushed in, frightened by her screams. Marta tried to explain but they told her it was just a bad dream, that everything was okay.
She couldn’t accept that.
She knew it was real.
There were two small, dried dots of blood on her palm the next morning.
The boys sat enthralled, absorbing the story entirely.
“She was German, your grandmother. That’s where the name comes from, ‘Architekt von Albträume.’ It means ‘The Nightmare Architect.'”
A knock at the door startled the boys from their trance.
“Oh! Well, that’ll be your parents now.”
He rose from the recliner, heading towards the door. Pausing, he turned back to face the boys with a smile.
“Now remember…don’t go telling your mother I filled your head with all this nonsense.”
The Ayers family started home.
Timothy and Dylan sat silently in the back seat, wary of the eight miles of woods that lay ahead of them.
Grandpa Ayers waved as they pulled away, smiling.
Once they were around the bend, he descended the front steps.
Rounding the house, he opened a wooden privacy fence, passed through, and latched it shut again.
Approaching a small shed on a pathway of haphazard paving stones, he paused at the door.
Smiling up at the sky, he took in the stars for a few moments, pulling in a deep breath of the cool, night air.
He entered the shed, shutting the door after himself.
An electric starter whined for a moment before a small engine roared to life. A few mechanical noises emanated from within the wooden walls.
Light spilled out between the cracks in the boards as the paving stones began to levitate…