They say write what you know, but it’s hard to understand horror unless you’ve lived it.

While you’re reading this story, I can’t make you hear screams or faint piano music. I can’t turn out your lights or make your floorboards creak. You won’t be scared because this story is separate from you. Horror stories live in a fantasy world. They don’t affect your world.

So today, I’m going to try something more light-hearted. I’m going to tell you about a man named Harold.

Harold was a short, graying man in his mid-40s. He had a  dutiful wife and two little daughters with blonde hair and dirty faces.

One day, Harold went on a trip. He rented a flashy red sports car and drove hundreds of miles away from his family because he “needed a break” for a couple of weeks. He rented a tiny cabin deep in the woods so that he could feel “wild” again. Maybe I’ll listen to some rap music too! he fantasized as he sped down the highway.

The morning after he arrived, Harold woke up feeling relaxed and refreshed. He made a cup of coffee and sat in a rocking chair on the wraparound porch, basking in the shade of the green forest, a contented smile plastered on his doughy face. Looking at his watch, Harold laughed, realizing he’d risen at the hour his daughters would usually wake him. So, he went back to bed and slept late into the morning.

His dutiful wife lay awake all night while their needy toddlers pried her eyelids open.

As he strolled down the long, wooded footpath to where his car was parked, Harold picked bunches of little purple wildflowers and put them in his pocket, intending to press them for his daughters when he returned. Then, he got in his flashy red sports car and drove to town.

Harold found a quaint coffee shop along the main road with stained glass windows and oversized leather couches. After he had spread his whole body out over one of the sofas and scattered his stuff all over the table, leaving no room for the man sitting on the couch across from him, Harold finally remembered to call his dutiful wife. Of course, I picked up, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries.

“How’s your vacation going?” I asked.

“Great! It’s wonderful here. Quiet and peaceful. The cabin is a fair hike, though. I wasn’t anticipating that, but it’s a nice walk. Lots of fresh air!” he said. “Oh, are the kids behaving?”

“As much as usual. Are you getting your work done?”

“I’ve been very productive. The silence has really boosted my productivity. How’s your writing going?”

I told Harold repeatedly that I was giving up writing because I had no inspiration and no time. Harold never asks questions because he cares to hear the answer, but because he wants to seem like the kind of person who does. He never actually listens. Instead, he merely waits for his turn to speak and dominate the conversation again.

“Fine. My writing’s fine.” I said, “What day will you be getting home again? The kids are actually being quite a hassle.”

“I’ll be home by the end of the month. Will you have dinner ready for me when I get back?” Harold chuckled.

I gritted my teeth. “Sure,” I responded.

“I gotta go. Love you, honey. See you in a few weeks.”

My cell service grew spotty as I navigated our battered station wagon into the green forest, and Harold never heard my “love you.”

I didn’t mean it anyway.

Harold stared at his computer screen, doing anything but working. Perhaps he was looking up “ways to ignore my wife” or “cruel pranks to traumatize my children.” Whatever it was, after a while, he grew bored of it and went to buy a blueberry scone from the young barista at the counter. He berated her with questions and comments on her weight. He told her she must be “as heavy as a horse,” and she should really go on a diet. She fumed but said nothing.

When he finally left the coffee shop later that afternoon, the leather couch Harold had sat on was covered in crumbs and sweat.

As Harold got back into his flashy sports car to drive back to his remote cabin retreat, the wilted bouquet of purple wildflowers fell from his pocket and onto the ground. They were crushed under Harold’s tires and left a dark stain on the road.

Truthfully, I don’t know how Harold’s day went. I made it all up. That’s what authors do, of course. They say write what you know, and I knew Harold for years. As his dutiful wife, I cleaned his messes, cooked his meals, bore his children, tolerated his laziness and selfishness, and endured his petty criticisms. I knew his every secret and listened to his every word.

I knew so much about Harold, but he never took the time to know much about me. If he had, he might’ve known that you can’t know horror until you’ve lived it. And for what little he knew about me, he knew that I was a horror writer.

So although I don’t know how Harold’s day really played out, I do know what happened after he returned to the isolated cabin, deep in the green forest where the cell signal drops off, far from his flashy red sports car and the quaint coffee shop with the stained glass windows—and even farther from the sleepy town’s little brick police station.

I was there, watching him, waiting for nightfall.

They say write what you know. Like I said, you can’t know horror until you’ve lived it.

I can’t make you hear his screams or faint piano music. I can’t turn out your lights or make your floorboards creak.

But then again, maybe I can.

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