"The Disappearance of Karl Ernst"
“I need to confess to you.”
“Oh, uh, I’m not a priest. I’m just a –”
The old man’s grip tightened. He stared at me with those hollow, blue eyes. “I need to confess,” he repeated. “I’ve done something horrible.”
What was I supposed to do? Walk away? Tell him I wouldn’t listen? That would be unkind, wouldn’t it?
I sat down next to him. “Okay.”
“Tell me, Sam. What’s my name?” he asked.
I looked at him, blankly. “Uh. The other guys called you Abe.”
He leaned in close. The strong smell of cigarette smoke wafted over me, and I tried not to gag. “My name isn’t Abe,” he rasped.
Okay. He’s senile, I thought. I broke eye contact and scanned the room. None of the nurses seemed to be present. The red exit sign glowed far off to the right, tempting me to leave.
No. I have to stay. My eyes snapped back to his. I spoke slowly and quietly. “What’s your name, then?”
“That’s a nice name.”
“I took Abe Baker’s life.”
My heart began to pound. He’s just senile, I told myself. Everyone gets a little crazy when they get older. Everyone.
The old man suddenly whipped around and looked over his shoulder. Almost as if he expected to see someone standing behind him. Then he turned back to me. “You don’t believe me. I see it right in your face.”
“Uh – no – that’s not true! Of course I believe you.” I didn’t want to argue with him. At his age, that could mean a heart attack.
“You don’t. No one does. But I tell you, it’s true. This man – Abe Baker – was only a child when I stole his life have a century ago. A seventeen-year-old, with a penchant for beer, gambling, and wild women.”
A few of the elderly women sitting on the sofa glared at us.
“I feel terrible about it. I do. I stole a young man’s entire life. But the thing is… I don’t really get a choice in the matter. Whose life I take. I’m usually transferred to someone within a mile or two, but other than that, it’s quite random.” He grabbed his hands and cracked his knuckles. Frantically. Nervously.
I looked at him, eyebrow raised. “You murdered someone… but you had no choice in the matter?”
“Not murder. No.” He shook his head. Then, in a hushed whisper, he said: “I just took over his body.”
I didn’t know what to do. When I signed up to distribute the Eucharist to the elderly in a nursing home, I never expected this kind of situation. They didn’t train us for this. At all. “You know, uh, the church doesn’t really believe in possession. I mean, we believe in demonic possession, but you’re not a demon. So –”
“I’m not Catholic,” he said flatly.
I closed my mouth and took a sip of coffee. It was cold. “Even so, I really think you should confess all this to Father Henry. He can help you better than I can.”
He ignored me and continued. “Fifty years ago, my soul jumped into Abe Baker. And my previous body – belonging to a man named Arjun – blinked out of existence. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Go ahead. Take out your phone and Google ‘Arjun Khatri.’”
Slowly, I took out my phone and Googled the name. Several news articles popped up. MISSING: Arjun Khatri, 26. … Arjun Khatri, a young electrical engineer, disappeared Friday …
Okay. He probably just remembered the name of some guy who went missing. But I couldn’t shake the sudden wave of fear – and curiosity – that coursed through me.
“So Arjun… and Abe… died?”
“No. Pay attention. Their bodies disappeared, and their souls… were devoured.”
“Okay, sure,” I said with obvious derision. This guy was absolutely nuts. Bona fide insane. Still, I decided to entertain the idea a bit longer. “So, how long have you been at this for, Karl?”
“Oh, about 300 years. Give or take a decade.”
“Okay.” I watched with jealousy as Katie, the other Eucharistic minister, grabbed five cookies from the snack station. I glanced at my watch. 3:06 PM. “You know, Abe – I mean, Karl – it’s been great talking to you. But I really need to get going.”
“I have more to confess.”
“Father Henry comes by here on Tuesdays. He’d love to talk to you about… everything. But I need to –”
Karl grabbed my arm. Hard. “I may not be around by Tuesday.”
“Around? What, are you being transferred to –”
“I’m dying,” he whispered. “And this time, I’m not going to jump to another person. I’ve stolen too many lives. Ruined so much. Taken so much.” He cracked his knuckles again. The soft pops filled the air. “I’m going to let it take me.”
“The Shadow. That’s what I call it, anyway. The thing that’s been chasing me my entire life. Every time it gets close… I jump into someone else’s life. And then I’m safe – at least for a little while.”
I stared at him.
Then I decided to persuade him with logic. “So why would ‘the shadow’ choose you, though? What’s special about you? Why isn’t this happening to anyone else?”
“Because I have a dark past, Sam.”
Oh, boy. Here we go. “You know, this is really a discussion you should be having with Father Henry. He can absolve you of your sins, and you can move on –”
“I made a pact a long time ago. For a woman, of course. It didn’t work out anyway, and now I’m cursed by this Shadow. There’s only one way out – to die naturally. But I don’t know when that will happen. I’ve tried to accelerate it by smoking, eating terrible foods…”
“Oh no, Karl, don’t do that. Take care of yourself.”
“You’re saying that because you don’t believe me.”
“Please. Help me, Sam. I’m begging you. I need to escape from this thing.”
“Because you’re the only one who cared enough to listen to me. All these other people…” He swept his hand across the room. “They call me crazy and give up. No one has ever allowed me to finish telling the story.”
“But you must have family, or something, right?”
“They don’t care, either. They’re the ones that put me in this home, after all.” His cold, blue eyes turned sad. “Please, Sam. I’m begging you. Help me escape this thing once and for all.”
He didn’t have a chance to reply.
Suddenly, his expression turned dire. His eyes widened, flitting around the room. His mouth quivered. “It’s here. No, no, no – it’s here, to take me –”
He stood up and ran.
“Wait!” I yelled. I ran out after him. A few of the nurses followed behind me. He ran out onto the busy sidewalk, screaming and moaning, shoving people aside. “Karl!” I called. “Wait up!”
He turned around.
But he didn’t look at me. Instead, he looked up towards the sky. “Get away from me!” he screamed. His legs trembled. His eyes widened.
He took a step back.
Thump. He fell onto the sidewalk. I ran over to him, tried to help him up. But he was too heavy. The people on the street were watching now, watching and whispering. I ignored them.
“Get it away from me!” Karl screamed. “It’s coming for me. It’s coming –”
The words died in his throat.
The weight disappeared from my arms.
Where Karl had been lying just a moment ago, there was now just a blank expanse of sidewalk.
Then the screams began. Not the shrieks of terror you hear in movies, or the howls of pain that ring out through hospital halls. No. They were cries of absolute bewilderment. Panic. Horror.
I backed away, my heart pounding in my chest.
He was telling the truth.
* * * * * *
The next day, it was on every news channel. Every radio station.
“A man by the name of Abe Baker disappeared into thin air. Watch the shocking clip, and see for yourself.” The newscaster cut to incredibly blurry, pixelated video of Karl running down the sidewalk.
“In this footage, we see he is running from an as-of-yet unidentified Hispanic man wearing a dark jacket. As soon as this man grabs him, he disappears.”
I clicked the TV off. Ugh, the media. Figures.
Most people thought the whole thing was an elaborate hoax or an illusion. And maybe it was. My wife and Father Henry certainly thought so. “He was pranking you,” my spouse said with a laugh. “Lighten up a little, huh?”
Father Henry dismissed Karl entirely. “Yeah, I’ve talked to Abe,” he said. “He’s a bit off his rocker. I tried to keep my distance. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hired some people to pull a prank like that.”
I knew better. I knew the truth.
The Shadow had gotten him. Some sort of demon, or a version of Satan. We believe in the existence of possessions, right? Then, why not disembodied demons, following and preying on souls?
It was on Tuesday, almost a week after the event, that I got the phone call.
Just a few minutes after 6 AM, the phone rang through the darkness. I groaned, poked my head out of the blankets, and grabbed my cell phone. “Hello?” I said, sleepily.
“Sam! Sam, is that you?” A gruff voice came over the other line, broken by static.
“Karl. I’m sorry, I couldn’t do it. It was coming for me, and I panicked. I jumped to the next body. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to –”
“Where are you right now?”
“At the church. I think I jumped into a homeless man. I feel awful. Absolutely awful. Please, help me.”
I glanced at the bed. My wife was sleeping peacefully, her chest rising and falling with each breath.
I crept out the door.
* * * * * *
Karl leaned against the side of the church, hands thrust in his pocket. His breath came out in thin curls of smoke. As soon as he saw me, his eyes lit up.
“Thanks for coming, Sam. I knew I could count on you.”
“This isn’t the best part of town,” I said, glancing at the dark shadows lining the building. “Let’s go inside.”
I inserted the key into the lock and turned.
The church was dark. Only a bit of golden light came from the back room, casting scattered rays across the organ and the polished wooden pews. Our footsteps echoed through the church, sounding as if an entire army were marching through.
We sat at one of the first pews. The crucifix hung several feet above us, stiff and still.
“I’m don’t know what to do. I can’t escape it. I’ve been running for so long.” He sat down in one of the pews with a sigh. Then he cracked his knuckles – pop, pop, pop.
“I know. We’re going to figure this out together. Father Henry comes in at 7, and he’ll know what to do.”
“That’s too late.” He sucked in a deep breath. “The Shadow knows where I am. I can feel it, right now, lingering outside the church.” Karl turned to me. “You can see it, too.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“You won’t see it the way I do – as a shadow – because you didn’t make the pact. But you see it in a different way.” He turned to me. “Tell me – do you see anything off in here? Anything that just feels… different?”
I glanced around. The confessionals stood against the wall, shrouded in heavy shadows. The pews gleamed in the light, set together in perfect rows. The stained glass windows stretched high above us, mosaics of blue, purple, and red. They depicted the seven sacraments – baptism, communion, marriage…
My eyes caught on the one depicting the last rites.
The brightly-colored glass glowed in the gray light of dawn. In the scene in the window, a man lay on a bed, his hands clasped in prayer, staring out into the church with eyes of deep crimson.
“His eyes used to be closed,” I said.
I pointed to the stained glass. “The man pictured in the stained glass, his eyes were closed before. Now they’re open.”
“That’s it.” Karl smiled sadly at me. “The Shadow is not of this dimension… but its presence still leaves ripples in our reality. They come out as oddities, abnormalities, changes. Like flipped coins landing on their sides.”
“What do you see when you look at it?” I asked.
“A shadow. An immense, rippling shadow, hovering right outside the window –”
The sound reverberated through the empty church. I whipped around. The front doors shook as if a strong wind blew against them. “Probably just Father Henry,” I said, more trying to convince myself than Karl. I checked my phone. 6:45 PM.
Thump, thump, thump.
A heavy thudding sound interrupted the stillness of the sanctuary, emanating from right outside the door.
Then, with a crash, the doors burst open.
A powerful gale rushed through the church. Outside, the letters on the parish bulletin board were all scrambled into gibberish. Some weren’t even letters at all – just strange symbols. Oddities.
“Is that it?” I whispered.
Karl turned around, ignoring my question. “No, no, no,” he cried in panic. He jumped out of the pew, pulling at his hands. “It’s here.”
I had no idea what to do. So I grabbed a Bible out of the pew and began to read. “Uh, God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son –”
“It’s no use!” Karl cried. “Don’t bother. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
The walls of the church rippled and quaked. The wind gusted through the church; pamphlets fluttered to the floor.
Karl took a step towards the door. “I’m going to let it take me,” he said. “I’ve ruined too many lives. I won’t take any more.”
For a split-second, I saw a shadowy figure swooping towards him, its eyes burning like wildfire. Its smoky wings spanned the width of the church.
And then, with a pop, both of them disappeared.
I collapsed into the nearest pew, my forehead beaded with sweat. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry, Karl. I tried to help.” The whispers became a fervent prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy –”
I looked up to see Father Henry walking into the church.
“Father Henry! I’m so glad you’re here !”
He walked right past me, not even looking in my direction.
Pop, pop, pop.
I looked down.
He was cracking his knuckles.
“Wait. Are you–?”
He turned around. Blue eyes met mine, cold as ice. “You’re a good man, Sam. I’m sorry I had to lie to you.”
“Who I jump into isn’t totally random. I can only jump to the body of someone unrepentant and corrupted by sin. I guess you could say I’m a reaper of sorts, delivering the damned to the devil on a silver platter, whether their time was up or not.” He gave me a wry smile. “Fortunately for me, Father Henry was not a God-fearing man. Far from it. In fact, if you knew the things he’s done, you would lose your faith in an instant.”
Karl turned around and walked out into the breaking dawn. Before he turned a nearby corner and disappeared amidst the midday crowd, he cast one final glance over his shoulder and addressed me.
“You’re a good man, Sam,” he said. “Be sure to keep it that way. Trust me when I say, you don’t want to end up where Abe, Arjun, and all the others are. Father Henry may not be dead – not technically – but he’s going to wish he was. Someday, my day will come as well… but not today. See you around, Sam.”
And with that, Karl disappeared around the corner, and I haven’t seen him since… or have I? It’s impossible to tell.
All I know is that there’s a steep price to pay for a life of sin, and that our debts can be called in at any time, without warning. When your time is up may not depend on destiny or the will of God, after all. It might just depend on the desperation of a man running for his life.