Something Strange, In The Neighbourhood

rating: +11+x

Josef stood nervously in front of the mirror in the equipment room of Base Alpha in Level 1. He looked at himself, carefully analyzing every single aspect of himself to make sure that he made a great impression on his new team. He combed his long, curly hair, styled his chestnut moustache, straightened his bomber jacket, and made sure that he'd packed adequate supplies in his duffle bag. He looked one last look at the mirror, and flashed a brilliant smile at it, winking one of his azure blue eyes at it and pulling out a pair of finger guns.

"Alright Josef, this is your first day, and you're going to rock it! Sure, you're going to see some weird shit, but that's ok, you're gonna have to get used to this now, and possibly way worse. It's just going to be a quick trip to get some supplies, and it'll be over and done with, you'll be an official mem-"

The door to the room was flung open, hitting the wall with a powerful thud and scaring the living daylights out of Josef. In walked one of the other friends he'd made during his time in The Backrooms: Conor. The distinctive red curly hair and the cheeky grin he always wore on his face made him stand out from the crowd, as well as his face, which was entirely covered in freckles. Conor was always the loudest person in the room, and often times the centre of attention due to his cracking of jokes. Because of this, people always told him he was trying to compensate for his height, as he stood at a meager 4'11, which had earnt him the nickname of 'Gimli', after the character in 'Lord of The Rings'. Conor was part of the squad Josef was going to be with today, the leader actually. As soon as Megumi had filed a report saying she wanted to get Josef into a scavenging and documentation squadron, he'd come running to her practically begging for her to let Josef join them.

"Oi Josef" He loudly proclaimed as he entered the room "You've been in here for yonks, what the hell have you been doing in here!?"

"Jesus Christ Conor, do you know what knocking before entering is? You scared the living shit outta me!"

"Well excuse me mister, but I've been out there waiting for you, and I have been for the past, I don't know, 10 minutes hearing you babble to yourself in the mirror." He paused for a while, taking out the lollipop he had in his mouth, flashing one of his signature grins at Josef. "You'd make a good comic villain, anyone who can monologue for that amount of time fits that role in my books!" Josef blushed at this. He'd heard him talk to himself in the mirror. The day was not off to a good start.

"W-well, I was just about to leave, I was j-just packing my stuff and making sure I hadn't forgotten anything, y-you know, to make a good imp-" Conor raised an eyebrow at this. "Dude, relax, I've told them all about you, it's not gonna be that bad. Haven't told them a cat about you, so don't sweat it. You're gonna slam this, you hear me?"

Conor paused for a moment, and looked at his friend intently. "Is something wrong Jo? You don't seem up to it at all. Do you, uh, wanna talk about it?"

The reality wasn't that Josef was worried about the whole ordeal that was to come. He didn't really fear talking to the crew, nor was he scared of the level (Despite the danger involved in the day's mission). He was actually scared of that thing he'd seen a few days ago. He could not get it out of his mind, like the void in itself had implanted itself into his head and made a hole in his brain which prevented him from thinking about anything other than it. He didn't want to tell Conor about it just yet. He'd tell him after the mission was done, when he didn't have to be in an entire different level in a few minutes time. But for now he had to divert Conor's attention.

"I just, feel kinda anxious about this all, it's a big jump from what I used to do in a way, you know? I don't wanna screw up, and I don't wanna interrupt your group dynamic or get one of you hurt." He paused for a moment again, thinking of what else to say to seal the deal. "I also don't wanna get any one of you hurt, you know how I'm nervous and clumsy and shit, I don't wanna be the cause of someone's demise as well."

At these words, Conor immediately put on a sympathetic expression. "Naw, come on, it won't be that bad, don't let your thoughts run your head like that, you're gonna do it, and you're gonna do it well. Stop being such a pessimist about yourself dude!" He smiled at Joseph, a sentiment which he returned emptily "Now come on, let's not keep the team waiting any longer, and let's do this!"

Josef got up, satisfied his plan was working. "Yeah, you're right. I'll just try my best, and I'll see how it goes."

"That's the spirit!" shouted Conor ecstatically. "Now come on, get out there and I'll introduce you to your new mates." With that, they both headed out into the corridor, and began the walk to the rest of the team's room.


The team was waiting a few corridors down from the equipment room. 5 other people sat poised across the benches of the room, 3 speaking together in a huddle, one playing with a pocket knife, and the other dozing off in a corner.

None of them seemed to notice Conor at first, but that was quickly changed as soon as he shouted a loud "ATTENTION!" at them all. Each and every one of them scrambled up from their seats, surprised by the sudden loud noise. They all immediately formed a straight line, their hands held stiffly in a salute. Josef already felt nervous again.

"Alright team, this is the new recruit I've told you all about. Everyone, meet Josef Gardiner! Do please introduce yourself to them Jo, break the ice a bit."

Josef looked at the array of people. "Hiya, I'm Josef, as uh, Conor told you. I'm 31, and I go by he/him pronouns. I used to work as a solider in the German military before coming here, so I'm pretty good with walking, which is, well, what I've done for the past four years that I've been stuck here haha, I'm a, uh, a professional walker, yeah"

This was not going well so far.

For a while, only uncomfortable shifting and occasional coughs were heard, until one of the crewmates stepped forward, extending their hand out to Josef with a wry smile. "Pleased to meet you, I'm Cassie. I go by they/them pronouns. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance!" Cassie was much smaller compared to Josef, and also much leaner than him. They had light, brown skin, and mahogany brown hair which curled down to their waist. Amber eyes looked back at Josef, exerting warmness and comfort to him, unlike the rest of their features which were pointy and pixie-like. Josef blurted out a quiet "Pleased to meet you", and put his hands down to his side once again, glad that some of the awkwardness was eased.

A wide-statured, gaunt faced man lumbered clumsily towards Josef next, extending a fat hand in similar fashion to his friend. He flashed Josef a crooked smile, and exchanged pleasantries with Josef. "Name's Jimmy, call me Jim though. He/Him pronouns, I'm also the officially appointed bald guy of the group." He chuckled as he pointed towards his head, and a bit of laughter erupted from the rest of the group. He seemed to be the comedian of the group, and despite his rough, giant-like appearance, also seemed to have a gentle, charming side. "I'm the brawn here by the way; if ya couldn't tell just by looking at me, I'm not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, heh". He reminded Josef of his grandfather.

Next came to him the frail-looking crewmate who was sleeping just a few moments earlier. He looked drowsy, with heavy eyebags under his sad, grey eyes, and he wore a bewildered expression on his shockingly grey face, as if he was not entirely within the confines of the room. A simple "Hey, I'm Jacques" was slurred sleepily by him, before he practically fell back to his previous position, and immediately dosed off once again. Cassie, Jim, and the rest of the crew giggled a bit, but the girl whom he had seen playing with the knife earlier did not seem at all amused by the situation.

Just like Josef, Conor had watched this unfold, and now he was looking at the sleeping man sympathetically. "He's the one who does all the archiving from our missions, he's up long nights doing all our work. It's a good thing you're here now, Meg told us you were good at documenting stuff, so perhaps you'd ease a bit of poor Jacques' load."

At this last sentence, the girl he'd seen earlier perked up, and made haste to him and Conor. "Is this the archivist guy you were saying you'd get to work with us? Is he any good? How fast does he work? How much will he work?" She spat out the questions at rapid-fire speeds, speaking with a high-pitched, squeaky voice. She wore a worried expression on her face which seemed all the more fragile on her pale, white face. She had platinum blonde hair, with heavy bangs over her forehead, and she donned a pair of goggles over her eyes. She also seemed to have a slight case of acne on her cheeks, which she had seemingly tried to hide with a small amount of concealer. She was even shorter than Conor, and looked like a porcelain doll next to both of them. She also had a heavy Icelandic accent.

"Calm down Freya, don't get too excited, he's still not completely in the team yet, but he'll be if he does a good job today." said Conor, looking towards Josef's direction.

Freya looked at Josef with doe eyes. "Oh, um, I forgot to introduce myself! I'm Freya, nice to, err, meet you, I guess." She took his hand into hers and shook it with a violent vigour. She stood awkwardly next to him, as if expecting him to do something, until Conor left to bring the last crewmate, who was talking to Cassie and Jimmy, to Josef from the other end of the room. As he turned his back, she stood on her toes, and softly whispered into Josef's ears. "Please, do good today. I don't want to see my brother the way he is now any longer. I can't stand to see him suffer like that." She looked at Jacques, who was now snoring loudly, with a deep look of adoration and worry. The siblings looked nothing like each other, which Josef found oddly peculiar.

"I'll try my best, I promise." he told her, looking at her with a determined expression. At this, she seemed to change completely, her expression changing to one of great joy in an instant. "Oh thank you! Thank you thank you thank you so much!" She ran off to her brother as soon as she saw Conor coming back with the last crewmate Josef was to meet, and she watched over him as he slept. "Why was she so keen on the secrecy?" Josef wondered this to himself as the last crewmate approached him.

"Hiya, my name's Zaren" he said. "I'm Conor's right hand man, nice to meet you." Zaren was tall,
and very muscular, giving off the impression that he took his fitness very seriously. He was surprisingly tanned as well, something which Josef had no idea as to how he'd done, considering they were in a whole dimension that was mostly indoors. He wore a stoic expression on his face, his mouth pursed and surrounded by a mass of hair which formed a bushy, brown beard. After a while, his expression changed to a quizzical one, as if waiting for Josef to say something. Then Josef realised he did want him to do something; Zaren had extended his hand out to him, and he hadn't taken it. "Oh, terribly sorry, where are my manners!" he said as he took his hand. Zaren shrugged. "It's cool. So, tell me a bit about yourself; how'd you end up here in the first place?"

Josef wasn't expecting any conversations, so he was taken a bit aback by Zaren's interest. "Ah, well, like most people I guess. I tripped whilst climbing a set of stairs, and boom, I woke up surrounded by all that yellow wallpaper in Level 0. The rest is, well, history. How about you?"

"Same thing here pal, fell down a stairwell, and I blacked out. Awoke in Level 1 thankfully, so it wasn't all that bad." He replied.

Josef nodded in response. "How's it been so far?" Zaren shrugged once more. "How'd you expect it to be? I'm here now, so I just… Work, I guess? I've been here for the past 6 years, I've accepted my fate now. It's not entirely bad though, I get to meet some interesting people from all walks in life. So what about you? How's it been for you?"

Josef was about to continue speaking to Zaren, but he was cut off by Conor, who faked a cough to get their attention. "I'd just like to remind you lot that we have a mission on our hands, you know, the thing we're gathered here to do?" He looked annoyed at the two. "Come on Jo, you've exchanged enough pleasantries, you can discuss things later in more detail after we're done with the mission, but we've got work to do now."

The sudden change in Conor's tone to one that was annoyed seemed to alert Freya from the other side of the room. She stared in dismay at the scene that was unfolding before her, looking at them, as if thinking that her brother's chance at being saved from his job was being taken away from him. "Err, right, my bad, Conor." Josef said to him. Conor looked at him with a wry smile. "That's Captain Conor to you, maggot. Now come on, let's get to work." he said jokingly. This seemed to calm down Freya, who seemed less tense after hearing Conor joke around.

The team was interrupted once again from their activities, as they were called by Conor to come in front of him again. He studied them all as they stood next to each other in a straight line, and then he began to notify them of the details of their mission.

"Alright you guys, this is how we're gonna work. As most of you probably know, today's expedition is a scavenging and documentation process. Jacques is taking a leave for today, as he spent an entire night just writing yesterday, so Jo's gonna take his place for the time being." He paused for a moment to look at Josef, who nodded and replied with an affirmative grunt. "I assume you all have some form of weaponry in case we need to fight, right?" He continued.

All of them nodded at him, and each took out a weapon they'd picked out earlier. Josef took out a nail covered bat, Cassie a machete, Jimmy showed off his dagger, Freya the knife she was playing with earlier, and Zaren a pair of brass knuckles. "Alright then lads, we're heading out soon, I'll meet you all outside." He promptly turned around and marched towards the exit.

Soon enough, the rest of the team had started to get out of the room, each slapping Josef on the back before leaving and wishing him good luck, which filled him with the courage he had lacked earlier. Soon enough, only he, Freya and a sleeping Jacques were left. It seemed as if Freya had purposefully waited for him to leave, as she had stayed there since the beginning even though she'd been the first to fully prep up.

After he was done, they looked at each other for a while, and an awkward silence lingered in the air. Freya broke it soon enough. "Hey, do please try your best today. I don't want to ask too much of you, and I don't want to repeat myself, but…" She looked at her brother, as he slept at his place in the room. "I just hate to see what he's doing to himself…"

"Hey, I already told you, it's fine. I'll try my best for him and for you." He replied tenderly.

She looked at him for a while longer, and nodded. "Thanks" she said. She stood there for a few more seconds, and then suddenly ran off to follow the rest of her crewmates, leaving him in the room alone with Jacques.


Crack

The whole crew turned around to locate the source of a twig snapping that had come from behind them, each one's face a deathly white at the prospect of having been followed by an entity. Thankfully for them, it was just a white hare that had happened to be nearby. It too seemed cautious of its surroundings, and it had probably gotten used to the onslaught of entities which inhabited this level.

Josef had been tasked with documenting his surroundings to make sure that the level was still stable. He'd read the file for Level 9, and do for, it did not seem like anything had changed.

Conor and Jimmy flanked the group from the front and back respectively, whilst Zaren and Cassie stood at the back and front. The group formed a wide triangle formation around Josef and Freya, who were standing close to each other and taking note of anything strange they came across. So far, the strangest thing they'd come across was a pair of Hounds facing off in a street (Which Josef had become mesmerised by), so by all means, it was a slow day for him. The same could be said for the rest of the group: Almost no supplies had been found throughout the entirety of the trip.

"Hey, you guys, let's go up to that house at the top of the hill." Suggested Jim after a while. "Looks pretty big, perhaps we could find some supplies over there, and we could have a little rest afterwards."

"Yeah, we have been walking for ages now, can't we get a break?" said Cassie.

"Alright then guys" replied Conor. "Let's begin moving towards the house then, keep your guards up until we get there."

And so the crew began walking up the hill to get to the house that lay on top. No obstructions were encountered on the way, so very little time was taken getting up there. When they arrived, they opened the door, and were greeted with a pleasant living-room kitchen combo. The furniture was all undamaged and pristine, which was a welcome sight. They all explored the house in search of any entities that may have been hiding in the house's various rooms, but as it seemed, none were there.

The next few minutes after the exploration were spent barricading the entrances to the house to ensure that no entities actually got in. After that, they scavenged the house for supplies (Which they found very little of), and gathered around in one of the sitting rooms on the second floor to discuss what had been collected and documented so far. They eventually came up with four bottles of Almond Water, a bag of firesalt crystals, and a packet of Greasy Marshmallows.

"That's… pretty disappointing" proclaimed Zaren after a period of silent dismay. "Do we continue trying or?"

"Eh, I say we continue, there's still much to be gained from this trip, let's not waste it." replied Jim. "Besides, it's not the first time we had a not-so-special trip turn 'round after a while, let's just keep exploring and give it some time."

"Yeah, but this whole thing could've been done in a safer level, ya know? Level 9 ain't the best place to be in, it's full of entities and shit. Why did we even come here in the first place? We're risking our lives over trivial things which we can get easily from other places, what gives?" said Cassie angrily.

"I understand your anger, but we aren't here simply for supplies, remember that this is a documentation mission as well. It's stupid, I know, but we can't just send one person here and have them document stuff without protection or anything, so we just do scavenging on the side as well, you get me?" said Conor.

The crew continued discussing their situation, occasionally exchanging some colourful sentiments with each other. During this time, Freya once again turned towards Josef, and began asking questions.

"So it's your first time here, how's the experience?" she said.

"Pretty boring if I had to be completely honest, I expected much more from this. Is every expedition like… Well, this?" He gestured towards the rest of the crew, who were still arguing over the decision of coming to Level 9.

"Yeah, it gets wild quickly here. Team's good most of the time, unless one of them brings a point that can be argued about. That's when shit hits the fan."

"Seems like it. Say, how long have you been part of the team?" He asked.

"Well, me and my brother entered around seven years ago, I was still thirteen at the time. We spent some time in Level 11 doing… Well, nothing really. That's when Jacques decided he'd actually do something beneficial, so he enlisted to join a squadron, which led him to the SaD squadron."

"SaD? Are we seriously called the sad squadron?"

Freya snorted quietly. "Nah, it stands for Scavenging and Documentation. It earnt him some more respect around The Backrooms, and some more recognition, but if I were to be honest, it's probably the worst decision he's ever made. He barely gets any sleep anymore, since he's always slaving away at his desk or writing during missions. He kinda lost a crucial part of himself to his work. After all, my motivation to begin this work as well was hopes that I could alleviate some of his work, but as it became apparent, my writing is… pretty sub-par for an archivist to be. So I still got a position, just as another member of this group." She looked at him wistfully. "I failed him in a way…"

Josef nodded. "Is that why you wanted to know what I'm here for so desperately?"

"Yeah, a bit obvious eh?" She giggled slightly at this, but when she stopped, she turned her head quickly to look at Josef, and spoke in an urgent tone. "Oh, I forgot to tell you. Whatever you do, please don't mention this to Conor. He doesn't want me mentioning it to any junior members because he thinks it wards them off the job. Do you understand me?"

"Yeah, you can count on me." Josef said with a small smile.

As Freya smiled back at him, he took some notice of the conversation as his name was called. "Huh?" He said confused.

"Oi, you're going deaf there? We asked you what you think of the plan?" Said Jim, slightly annoyed.

"Ah, my apologies, I wasn't listening. Could you, uh, explain it to me?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "Plan is as follows: We leave this house, go back to the streets, and we start going into houses much quicker than we did before. The less time we spend here, the better. You get me?"

"Makes sense. I'm in favour of it."

"As am I!" said Freya sharply.

"Alright then you lot, let's begin moving!" Said Conor, getting up from his position on a sofa and making his way to the barricaded door. He began heaving the barricade, and after that was done, the group began to leave slowly. His size would've made one underestimate his physical strength, but in reality, he was probably the strongest person in the room.

Soon enough, they were back in the streets, making their way across all the different houses. They were luckier this time, finding more supplies than before. Josef himself had found three bottles of Almond Water, and that was without mentioning what the others had found.

Their luck ended at that, however. As they ventured into a large, open plot, white mist began collecting at their feet, eventually forming a cold, cloudy fog. "Holy shit, everyone get inside a house!" Zaren yelled frantically from afar. The team split up, each one running away from the scene at the sight of the fog, which signalled the arrival of 'The Mangled'.

As Josef sprinted, he realised that Freya was running after him, lagging behind slightly. He made his way to a small house that was not far from an exit to the plot, and stood out in the doorway looking for Freya. In the perpetual darkness of the Level, however, Freya was nowhere to be seen. He called out for her, and he saw her running for her life in the distance. Far behind her, he saw one of the creatures emerging from afar, casting a shadow on the field. It's head turned around in all directions, eyes glowing, searching for its prey.

"Come on Freya!" He shouted in a panicked tone, as the girl got closer to the house. When she finally arrived, he slammed the door, and closed the curtains of the windows, opening them again to check up on the entity. The creature hadn't noticed them yet, which was a relief.

He turned to Freya once again, who just like him, was shivering intensely. "That… Was jarring. I never want to come here again, EVER" He said in a hushed tone. As he peeked outside again, he saw that the fog had collected way up high, fully encompassing the house now. He dared not go outside to see what was inside it.

He breathed in deeply. "That was close, right, Freya?" He said, turning around, only to realize Freya wasn't there. "Freya?" He called out once again.

"Over here!" She exclaimed from another part of the house. "There's something I think you'll find interesting here, come check it out!"

Josef made his way to where she was, in the living room. "Don't go too far from me, we have to stick together here." He said. "Sorry Jo, didn't mean to stray away. But look, check out what I found!" She said excitedly, pointing to a corner of the room that was shrouded in darkness.

Josef frowned, slowly moving across the room, turning on his flashlight and shining it on the corner in question. He turned a pale, sickly shade of white upon realizing what was in the corner, and immediately felt like puking.

"No, n-no, you shouldn't b-be here! What in the se-seven blazes are you doing he-here as well!?" He said, shaking more than before.

"What's the matter Jo? Do you know what that thing is?" She said calmly, getting closer to it and placing her hand near it. "It's pretty cool, right?" she said again. Oh how naive she was, he thought to himself.

"No, n-not in the slightest, Freya. That t-thing shouldn't be here, it should've s-stayed where I found it!" He said, pointing at the thing with a fearful look on his face, and slowly backing away.

There, in that oh-so accursed corner, stood the same patch of cold, hazy, darkness he had seen a few weeks prior. No sound, no movements, no nothing; and that was the problem. This thing, now served him as a realization, that his previous judgements and fears were correct.

Something terribly, terribly, evil had just begun to take place.


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