by James J. Valliere
Format: Short story | Genre: Horror
Halloween night. Katherine Burke is desperate to find something to wear. She rummages through her closet. There’s got to be something she can fashion into a costume.
She has to find something.
Something that Suzanne Meyers, the reigning queen at school, will approve of.
But she can’t find anything. Nothing that will work. Nothing that will make a difference. She gives up and flops back on her bed. Stares at her ceiling. Her boring ceiling. The overwhelming whiteness, worse than a classroom or hospital waiting, room pulls her into a lull. Her regular routine.
She finds herself lost in thoughts of what her Halloween night could be like. Every year, the town of Hail’s Creek turns the entire downtown area by the river into a festival of frights. She smiles at the image in her head of the downtown lit up, lights spread through trees like a garland. All the carnival rides flashing brightly: red, purple, orange, and blue. She can already smell the cotton-candy and caramel-apple stands. Her mouth waters. She can taste an elephant-ear, its sugary decadence melting in her mouth.
And there’s Suzanne Meyers. Wearing silver. Tall and blonde and shining in the moonlight like an angel. She stands at the edge of the festival near a river of starlight.
“Come on, Katherine,” she says. Her voice rings like church bells. “We’re waiting.” She turns and disappears over a footbridge leading into the woods on the other side of the river.
Katherine races after. Suzanne is always one step ahead.
The end of the path opens up to a wide clearing.
Full moon. Illuminated stars.
There are others here. Wearing silver just like Suzanne. All of them waiting in a circle; and standing in the middle, perfectly still, adorned with a wreath of poppies, is their sun-king, Mark Olks, the king to Suzanne’s queen. He towers above the rest, his eyes sapphire-kissed and sparkling with his solar-essence.
Stepping out from the circle, Suzanne emerges with a crown of poppies. She stands directly behind Katherine, lifting the crown for all to see.
“Now, you’re one of us,” Mark whispers in her ear as Suzanne crowns her. “Forever,” he adds, his lips brushing against her skin.
“What are you doing?” her mother asks from the doorway.
Katherine nearly jumps out of her skin. She did not hear her mother approach. She shakes her head, feeling embarrassed, for what she isn’t sure, and finds she can’t look her mother in the eye.
“Nothing,” she manages to say and sits up from her bed.
Her mother frowns and walks over to the open closet. There is a pile of clothes in front that she forgot to put away.
“Looking for something?”
“Just a costume.”
“You’ve haven’t gone out for Halloween in ages,” her mother says and picks up the clothes from the floor. She raises a sharp-looking eyebrow. “Going with someone?”
“No,” Katherine answers too fast.
Katherine sighs. Her mom will never understand. It’s more than just some boy. Everyone who is anyone always goes to the Halloween Fair and she’s tired of being no one.
Her mom turns her back to Katherine and puts the clothes back in the closet. Katherine lingers in her mother’s presence in silent apprehension.
“You know,” her mom finally says. “You could just go as a witch.”
“I don’t have anything for it.”
“Don’t overthink it. Just wear all black.” Her mom snaps her fingers. “A witch.”
Katherine rolls off the bed. She smiles at her mom’s simple solution.
“I have a purple lipstick,” her mom adds.
She moves awkwardly, shifting her stance from foot to foot, and nods her head. “Yeah, that’ll work. Thanks.”
“Of course,” her mom says and presents Katherine with a long black skirt she hasn’t seen in ages.
It doesn’t take her long to get ready now. She dresses quickly and applies her mother’s lipstick. And when she’s done, she stands in front of the mirror trying to guess what Suzanne will think.
She snaps her fingers. “A witch.”
The sun is beginning to set as she leaves her house. She decides on walking. It’s not that far from where she lives.
Five steps in and she begins to doubt herself.
It’s just a black skirt.
You don’t even look like a witch.
That lipstick? Really?
You’re just going to get laughed at. Again.
Her chest feels tight. She pulls at her skirt. Grabs at her hair and gently tugs.
Just go back home. You’ll regret going out.
Her eyes tear up, and she forces herself to breathe as she turns onto Corning Street. She snaps her fingers.
“A witch,” she repeats.
A red Mustang convertible distracts her from her latest panic attack. She knows that car. Everyone knows that car. It belongs to Mark Olks. The roar of the engine discharges a spark of electric danger. It passes over her and she brings her arms in tight as the image of Suzanne’s hair drifts in the wind like a wild cluster of dandelions flashing by. The red car kicks up a gust of leaves, scattering the autumn colors behind.
Mark’s car swerves onto Meadowbrook, going east; the engine roars to life once more. That way won’t take them anywhere near downtown. It’s the road to the cemetery. It’s the road to Cline Forest Memorial.
Curiosity gets the best of her.
She follows after.
Meadowbrook Street comes to a dead end. And at the end, the cemetery begins. She can see the wall surrounding it. A sinister-green ivy has begun to creep over the edges of the stone wall, slowly consuming it inch by inch.
The red Mustang is here. There are other cars. Next to the cars are a few bikes as well. What in the world could so many people be doing in a cemetery at this time of day?
An open gate invites her in. She hesitates. She’s never been to a cemetery this close to dark before.
You can still go home.
You should go home.
You’ll regret this.
She shakes her head. Not this time. Mark and Suzanne are here.
As she passes through the gate, she feels a chill in the air. Or at least she imagines she does. In the distance she can see the rising tombstones, the setting sun, and the towering trees fading into winter, their arms bare and gnarled; it feels like entering a different world entirely. One that doesn’t belong to her, but to the dead.
Respect is required.
She observes the gravestones. Notices how they change depending on their location in the cemetery. The ones closest to the entrances are the newest arrivals. These stones are considerably different than the older stones found in deeper parts. They are flat, having no height to them at all. It’s due to a new ordinance requiring all future headstones be flat as to make it easier for maintenance to mow the grass.
Who wants a flat headstone? She finds the thought dreadful. A headstone is a person’s last mark on the world, it should stand tall and proud. The fact that the convenience of a lawnmower’s blade takes precedence over a person’s headstone is disgraceful. She needs to move somewhere that allows for vertical headstones.
Neatly, in long rows stretching nearly as far as she can see, the headstones run the length of the cemetery. Her favorites are the huge statues, especially the one with the weeping angel leaning over the stone. Its face buried in its hands. Its wings spread wide. She hopes to have one like that someday. An angel forever saddened by her death. She likes that.
She walks by several older stones. Time has launched an everlasting assault against their faces, and Time is winning. The names on the stones are gone, devoured by the years. She feels the finality of existence more in these gravestones than she does in the decaying bodies that slumber underneath. It’s the feeling of oblivion chipping away at all things.
At the center of the cemetery is a mausoleum. Katherine stops several feet away. Just the look of it intimidates her. While the rest of Cline Forest feels like a peaceful sanctuary for the departed, the crypt appears menacing. The white marble has begun to fade; large streaks of black stain its exterior. The door, made of bronze, gives the impression that some ancient terror is waiting within.
An angel stands watch atop the roof. She narrows her eyes. No, not an angel, it’s something else entirely. It has the wings of an angel, but the rest of its body is skeletal. Its hands of bone stretch out into the air.
This is Death.
She imagines the door to the mausoleum swinging open. Standing in the doorway is something vicious, something insidious that doesn’t belong. Its face rotten, falling away in perpetual decay. Bone shines through in the patches of missing skin. Its upper lip missing, revealing teeth used for chomping on bone. The beast of hell stumbles forward, a hunger for flesh and blood propelling it. Its evil gaze catches her.
She runs. Atop the mausoleum, the Reaper awakens. Its massive wings shudder.
Katherine hears shouting and her nightmare vision comes to an end. She runs for cover behind a headstone.
“In here,” a boy says.
She presses her body tighter against the stone. With a heavy grumble, she hears the door to the mausoleum open. She covers her mouth with one hand and with the other pulls her knees to her chest. Her vision has come true.
“Get inside, quick,” a girl says.
Katherine hears laughter.
“I know you’re behind there,” the girl says.
Her eyes go wide. Is the girl talking to her? No, it can’t be. Katherine remains.
You asked for it.
They’re going to find you.
And it’s going to be like all those times before.
You’re such an idiot.
“Come on,” the girl calls again. “You don’t want to miss all the fun, do you?”
Don’t you dare.
Stay where you are.
There is a sense of danger dancing in the girl’s voice. A sweet seduction.
“Well,” the girl steps into view, “are you coming or not?”
The Suzanne Meyers is standing there. This must just be one of her daydreams. An ephemeral figment of her imagination.
“What’s your name?” Suzanne asks.
“Kath …” She swallows as she stands from her hiding spot. “Katherine,” she says.
“Katherine, would you like to come in with me?”
Before she agrees to enter, she takes one last look out at the cemetery. The sun is nearly gone; the world is in its last minute of daylight. In the sky, deep shades of purple and pink collide. Behind them, an ominous cloud of darkness is brewing.
A funeral procession is underway. An odd time for a funeral. A group of fifteen people gather around an open grave. Their faces cast downward on a light-colored coffin as it’s lowered into the ground. One woman in the crowd is dressed in black. A dark veil covers her face. Even from where Katherine stands, she can hear the woman wailing.
Does no one else hear it?
As the coffin dips out of sight, the mourners begin to depart. Only the woman remains. Movement from the woman captures Katherine’s attention. Alone now, the grieving woman throws back her veil. A skeleton-face looks at her. Grinning from side to side, the skeleton in the black-veil waves.
Suzanne pulls on Katherine’s arm. “Are you coming?”
“Get a grip,” Katherine whispers. She snaps. “A witch.”
“What did you say?”
She shakes her head.
“Love the outfit by the way.” Suzanne winks.
Katherine bursts into a smile. She can’t help it. The voice of self-doubt is wrong. She looks at Suzanne who leads her through the dark, taking her to the moment she’s always wanted, to a world she’s only dreamed of.
Inside the mausoleum, there isn’t much room to stand. It’s only a single circular room. No light exists except for several flashlights left in upright positions. There are rectangular blocks on the wall, each with a name and a date.
Her focus drifts to the center of the room. A stone coffin rests soundly. At least twenty people, all students from her school, form a circle around it. She recognizes Emily Strouse and Megan Barker, two girls from her AP History class. She spots Brandi Gerstacker, Ashley Miller, and Brandon Cline, all miserable bullies who plague her life. The voice threatens to come back, but Suzanne squeezes her arm. “This will be fun.” And the voice doesn’t dare.
There is a certain level of excitement in the air, the intensity of which causes the hairs on Katherine’s arms to shoot straight up. It’s electric. She wonders if such energy will resurrect the dead hidden away behind the rock and mortar.
The crowd parts. And Mark Olks jumps onto the coffin. His presence silences them. He takes a drag from a cigarette and washes it down with a can of beer. The boys holler and whoop as if Mark has just performed a miracle.
But it’s the way he moves. The way his smile curves. The way his eyes seem to hold all the light in the room. It’s easy to be impressed with a boy like Mark Olks.
“Tonight,” Mark begins.
“Tonight,” the circle answers back. Katherine observes their faces. Their eagerness, their teenage flair transcends into something new. It no longer feels like an evening of mayhem and debauchery in the graveyard. This is a religious experience. A ceremonial rite.
“We play the game.” Mark holds out his hands triumphantly. “We play the game and whoever is left standing by dawn is anointed.” Katherine has never heard people her age talk like this. It feels odd. And if it were anyone else up there she would probably leave. But it isn’t just anyone up there.
“Amongst the dead we shall wander,” he says.
“Amongst the dead we shall wander,” the circle replies.
Katherine answers too.
“From the seeker we shall hide.”
“From the seeker we shall hide.”
“By dawn’s light, I pray I remain.”
“By dawn’s light, I pray I remain.”
“God save my soul should I be found.”
“God save my soul should I be found.” The worlds fumble from her mouth. Why would God need to save her soul? This just sounds like some game of Hide-and-Seek.
Or is it?
You are in way over your head.
Up above, there is scratching at the roof. Who is the seeker? Can it be the sleeping Reaper?
Katherine puts her arms around her waist. She doesn’t like this. Something doesn’t feel right. She almost wishes she were back in her room, staring at her boring ceiling.
“You know the rules.” Mark scans the crowd. “Go.”
Each person explodes like a bullet from a gun. Roaring, pushing, and plowing their way out, the crowd scatters from the mausoleum. Caught in the momentum of the crowd, Katherine gets knocked over twice. No one stops to help her. Fear is in the air.
Outside, a full moon rules the sky. Its light gives birth to devious shadows that play games, dancing wickedly in the graveyard. Katherine pries herself away from the flock. Chaos has broken out in Cline Forest Memorial. In every direction, they flee. Panic, fear’s mistress, gnaws at their insides. Katherine is no different. Terror curls itself around her and squeezes tight. She is suffocating, drowning in an ocean of dread.
Just go home.
She won’t. She can’t. She’s going to the win the game. She’s going to be someone.
If there’s one thing she’s good at, it’s not being noticed.
Miserable and out of breath, Katherine finds the weeping angel. She crouches to the ground and tries to stay out of sight while she catches her breath. From where she hides, she can see the mausoleum illuminated against the moon. She looks for the watchful Reaper. It’s gone. It has to be some trick. Perhaps she’s just at the wrong angle.
You know what’s happening.
“Ready or not,” Mark calls out. His voice rolls over the cemetery. “Time for the Reaper.”
The Reaper is coming. Winged death has taken flight. Several voices scream out over the darkened graveyard. They are pitiful pleas of sheer desperation.
Someone is running.
She tries to draw her body in more. She closes her eyes and thanks the universe that she wore all black.
A dark shape flies across the moon.
Whoever it is, they completely pass her without notice. A moment later, another scream rings out. One by one it seems the others are being found.
It doesn’t take long for the screams to stop altogether. Those who remain must be like Katherine. Hiding in wait. Hoping to go unnoticed. Hoping to make it until dawn.
“Hey,” someone calls over to her. Katherine opens her eyes and scans the area. She doesn’t see anyone.
“Over here,” and Katherine spots a girl she doesn’t recognize heading for an old oak tree. She stops. “Come on, or they’ll find you there.”
Just stay where you are.
It descends from the sky. A giant shadow. The arrival of the Reaper. The skeletal frame barely touches the ground before it scoops the girl up in its boney grasp and returns to the darkened gloom of the sky.
Katherine bolts from her spot.
“It can’t be real, it can’t be real,” she says out loud, no longer caring if she is detected.
A gangrenous smell invades her senses. She’s going to be sick. She hears the unmistakable sound of someone chewing. The snapping of bone. A noise that reminds her of the slurping of warm noodles from a bowl.
She knows what she’ll see before she even turns around. The ghoul of the mausoleum she imagined from before. But now she’s not quite so sure what bit is her imagination and what is real.
The beast of hell. In its mouth is a leg from one of the fallen. It chomps on it lazily. A thick layer of saliva stretches from upper to lower jaw.
Katherine screams and the beast spits out the leg. She tears off through the graveyard. She tries to remember where the exit is. The stones seem bigger now. They make it nearly impossible for her to get a sense of direction. She can hear the flapping of wings closing in.
She reaches the perimeter. Her hands scrape against the wall. There’s no gate. She must be at the opposite end. She kicks at the stone.
Should’ve stayed home.
Now you’re going to die.
It’s what you get, dumbass.
She boxes her ears and squeezes in an irrational attempt to get her damn thoughts to leave her be.
It’s Suzanne Meyers. Standing behind her. The moon gives her a silver glow. The beast is gone and she no longer hears the Reaper.
“Do you want to stay hidden? Do you want to win the game?”
“I don’t like this game,” Katherine admits to her.
“Come on,” Suzanne holds out her hand “It’ll be over before you know it.”
“But … I saw …”
Suzanne waves her off.
“Do you always play this game?” Katherine whispers.
Suzanne looks back at Katherine. “Always.”
Looming in the dark, the mausoleum towers above. A thick fog rolls over its top. The moon has fallen behind a nest of clouds.
“I don’t understand,” Katherine hesitates. “Isn’t this cheating?”
“You can’t cheat at this game,” Suzanne says.
The room is empty now.
“Where are all the others? The ones who’ve been found?”
Suzanne gives a shrug. “Probably went home.”
Katherine steps in and the door closes from behind.
Suzanne is no longer beside her.
The lid on the coffin is open.
“Found you,” Mark says. He slinks around her frame. Golden light radiates from him and casts his shadow on the wall. There is a strange deformity in his shadow which gives the appearance of wings.
“So … I didn’t win?” Katherine feels betrayed. Mark is the seeker after all. She should have known it was all a set-up.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Mark approaches. Pushing his hair to the side, his lean frame slinks back behind her. His lips graze the skin of her neck and find their way up to her ear. They feel chapped from the night air. Her skin retracts and tingles at the touch of his warm breath. He is dangerously close. Katherine grips the edge of the coffin.
Mark places a hand on the back of her neck. Spins her around. “Now you’re one of mine.” Tightening his grip, he pulls her closer to him.
“Forever,” Mark whispers.
He pushes her and she falls into the open coffin.
Mark’s golden light vanishes.
The lid closes over her. And though she bangs against the top and screams as loudly as possible, she cannot reverse her imprisonment beneath the stone.
Can you hear that? They’re laughing. Again.
And now they’ll always be laughing.
She snaps her fingers.
“A witch,” she says.
She gazes up at the old ceiling. Forever.