The clouds hung the sky in muted grey, settling low to meld with the horizon. The gloom of dusk stole the last burnished rays of sunset and crept up to meet the clouds. The air spread a leaden cast, a hint of dampness clinging to a vigorous wind.
From the old burial ground, with its sunken earth and broken gravestones, came a scratching, rasping, slithering sound. A noise of crawlers and claws, of burrowing and hiss. Dirt bulged and ground erupted, in a spray of grime and worms.
And momentary silence.
To be broken by skittering whispers.
Death is coming…
Scarlett R. Algee
On the street where Death lives, there are no trick-or-treaters.
Not that Death minds. It’s a quiet cul-de-sac these days, populated by single middle-aged professionals and elderly couples whose grandchildren only visit infrequently, where the only indiscretions are the ones left on the lawn by a neighbor’s dog. Around here, he can practically walk to work every day.
No kids, no teenagers, no police calls for meth labs or midnight shouting matches, and no little candy-grubbing costumed visitors on Halloween.
Oh, Halloween. Death sits back in his recliner, watching SportsCenter with the sound off, and smiles his long-toothed skeleton’s grin. Visitors or not, it’s the one day he doesn’t have to wear a mortal-seeming glamour, the one day he can go around in the cowled ‘Grim Reaper’ attire he’s molded from the thoughts and fears of his neighbors, and nobody asks questions. Mr. Reaper is a good neighbor who keeps his leaves raked and his grass trimmed; the other residents on the street will turn a blind eye to the ghoulish appearance, and to the cobwebs and jack o’ lanterns that appear on the front porch. He’s allowed to be eccentric for one day.
(Mr. Reaper. He’s tried telling them all that his first name is McCormick, but no one ever gets the joke.)
At nine PM, Death turns the TV off. He has an appointment with Mrs. Collins next door at eleven, and needs to sharpen his scythe. He admits he’ll miss the tea and cake, and her admiration for his perfectly-cut lawn, but the work has to go on.
At nine-fifteen, there’s a knock on the door.
It gives Death pause. Has someone taken the jack o’ lanterns as an invitation? Did he leave the porch light on? Is there even candy in the house?
(There is, of course. Living among mortals has given him a weakness for chocolate. He goes into the kitchen just in time to hear a second knock, fetches a Snickers bar from the fridge, and slips it into a pocket of his robe. Wonderful mortal invention, pockets.)
Then Death opens the front door and stares down at himself.
The costume’s not an exact likeness. The robe has the slick look of thin polyester, and the blade of the scythe is almost certainly shiny plastic. But the face is arresting: a perfect age-yellowed grinning skull, surrounded by wispy brittle blonde curls that spill out around the black cowl.
A little female Death. He’s slightly taken aback. “Hello,” he says, but she doesn’t answer. Instead she shoves her plastic pumpkin-shaped bucket under his nonexistent nose and shakes it. The contents rattle. Death looks down in the glow of the porch light. The little round pail is full of small, flattish white objects.
Bones. He looks closer. Teeth. Teeth and bones, canines and carpals, premolars and phalanges, some bits with flesh still attached, some twinkling with pockets of silver amalgam. Then she taps the blade of her toy scythe against her wrist; she’s wearing a wristwatch, and the sound of blade touching crystal is the clink of steel on glass. The little scythe has begun to glow.
Abruptly, Death understands. “It’s time.”
She pulls the bucket away and nods vehemently, two hard up-and-down bobs of her head.
Death considers. He’s always known this day would come eventually; even avatars of mortality have their limits. Still, he’s become selfishly attached enough to the trappings of the living that he hedges, fumbling in his pocket. “Would you like a candy bar? I promise it’s not fun-sized.”
Skulls are inflexible, as a rule, but the girl cocks her head and squints, then nods again, the same two firm motions. Death reaches out to ease the Snickers into her bucket. He touches the teeth and bones inside, and two of his distal phalanges fall off into the pile. The dissolution’s already started.
Death pulls away before he loses any more. She sets the bucket down primly, and shifts her grip on the glowing scythe. It’s longer now, taller. So is she.
“Wait,” he says.
She watches, silent, expectant.
He gestures around them, at the other houses. “They’re kind sorts, for mortals. Give them kindness back. And keep the grass neat.”
Another headtilt as she considers. Then she nods again.
“Very well.” Death looks down at his small replacement. She’ll grow into it quickly; he had. “Go ahead.”
The scythe lifts, lazily, and swings, and in its wake there’s only a faint shimmer in empty air.
Death pushes her cowl back, shakes her curls loose, and picks up her bucket. She steps across the threshold into the house. Tomorrow she’ll have a word with the neighbors about their pitiful lack of Halloween decorations. They’ll have to do better next year. But first, there’s that appointment with Mrs. Collins. If she hurries, there’s time to bake a cake.
Miss Reaper’s a good neighbor. It’s the least she can do.
The clouds break and expose a perfect moon. I will myself to hear howls in the distance that don’t exist. It would be far too cliché to meet my maker under a full moon ripped apart by a creature of fantasy. No, my time ends at the hands of the noxious, silent death that has overrun Earth.
Leaning against a tree, my ankle throbs, purple and swollen. Why did I even run? I’m too average to be one of the survivors. Making it this far was more luck than skill, right place right time kind of thing.
The stench of death assaults me before I hear their shuffle through the leaves. My finger slides over the trigger of the pistol I learned to use not long ago.
I see one, then another, and more beyond them. They know I’m here through glazed over eyes. I point my gun at the first one and hear others close in around me. There are far too many, I put my gun down, why fight the thing I will become.
My death will be like my life, another one amongst the masses.
You Can Be Always
Lee Andrew Forman
Hollow pumpkins grinned along the street with flickering eyes. Knocking, knocking, all eve long—the little ghost filled her bag with sugar-treats. Monsters and things long-dead, faces that normally brought fright, didn’t raise her pulse at all. She knew Halloween was the time for horrors that darkness brings.
The street light went out, she found herself alone. At the end of the road, where front stoops had gone cold.
An ebon-skinned fairy came to her side. Smooth, shining, blacker than night, its wings fluttered as it lit on her palm. Fear nearly struck her, but instead, wonder she found. Never had she seen such a beautiful thing.
“Are you a fairy?” Sarah asked.
It nodded its head and blinked its eyes. Then it took flight, waved its hand in the air. It beckoned her to follow in step, led her deep in the woods, toward a house long abandoned.
Sarah pulled at her costume, tried to remove it—the forest so dark, the cloth made it darker. But the fairy tugged back, insisted she keep it.
It is Halloween after all, she thought, everyone should be in costume.
The hovering creature took her hand, urged her to follow. Pumpkins lit the porch of the old wooden cabin, their soft light warm and inviting. She hopped to the door and on its own it opened; beyond it waited things she never imagined—things strange, never seen, not even in dreams.
Masked creatures came to greet her, some stumbling forth. Their scent was of old, long-forgotten. She inhaled the pleasant air, let its flavor remind her of what was.
“You can be always,” they said in unison.
She smiled at the thought of endless autumn nights—cool air and colored leaves.
She allowed them to take her into their place, with willing soul and a walk with grace.
“You shall become as you are,” the voices spoke.
The white linen costume tightened around her. She didn’t fight the transformation, rather welcomed it instead. She wanted to be there, better than dead.
As her feet disappeared and she floated as if normal, she peered through the holes of her ghostly exterior, and looked forward to time with her new family—forever.
Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author
and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2018
White painted cages. One animal for each. Shaved, stripped, washed, re-clothed. They brought us clean into a den of filth. Irony could be willfully cruel. I wondered the reason; why not let us die? But I remembered people had a knack for keeping alive what should be dead.
We would have perished by choice but they made us live. Willful starvation wasn’t an option—refusal would be penetrated by a clear plastic tube.
We dreamed of death, and it of us. It suffered along, wishing to enter, but the walls of this place, too thick for even it to intrude. On occasion a finger slipped in, on long nights when no one was looking. Most hoped to be chosen, at least those of mind.
Those in the shallow, unmarked soil were the luckiest. The field barely visible, we knew it was there. The quiet place, land without screams; absent of cruelty and electric pain. The lack of names on stone was irrelevant, for all here had already been forgotten.
Others lost their souls, bodies still lingered. Where spirit went, I could only imagine. Maybe they occupied dreams, out of focus objects wailing in distortion behind flittering eyes. Most would call that a haunting; for us—absolute communion.
∼ Lee Andrew Forman
© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.
Am I mad? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe. I should write that down. In crayon? Felt tip marker? A quill pen? No, not a quill pen. I’ll use the pen in my hand. There’s a clean spot on the wall over there.
I scribble my thoughts on the white painted wall, next to yesterday’s thoughts. I step back and smile. I like the pretty squiggles, all blue and curly. I wonder what they mean? I think what I write is language. I know it comes from inside my head. From the voices. It pours out, sometimes English, sometimes other languages, sometimes a strange script I’ve never seen before. No one has seen that writing in a long, long time. I’m not sure how I know that, but I do. My scribbles are all over the house now. On the walls, the floor, the furniture. I even managed to get some on the ceiling in the upstairs bathroom. I don’t remember that, but it is there. Everything has been redecorated in ink: black, blue, green… red.
No, don’t think about the red. Don’t ever think about the red. You might go mad if you think about the red. Must remember. Keep the door closed. Always keep the door closed.
I shut my eyes. When I open them I’m in the hall outside the door. The smell is worse today, but I’m getting used to it. It doesn’t make me gag anymore. My hand trembles. I know what’s going to happen. I start writing on the door. Again.
But it’s not red. The red is on the inside. Always on the inside. I scribble, though, in blue. Blue, blue. Blue like the sky. I haven’t seen the sky in a long time. Is it still blue? Or did it die, like… No, stay away from bad thoughts. Scribble, must scribble. What is it today? Runes I think. Warnings. That’s good. Must never open the door.
I lower the pen. I can hear the scraping now. And the angry whispers. The voices want out. I don’t think they like what I wrote. Too bad. They’re grounded. Locked in the room. While I write. Write everywhere. Wards. Runes. Spells. To keep them here. To keep them with me. Forever. They tried to get in my head. But it didn’t work. I got into theirs instead. I saw. Yes, I did. Now they’re mine.
To replace the red. Or make them pay. I don’t know. Maybe both. I want them back… No, don’t go there. Don’t go into the red. Shells, they’re just shells of what they were. The voices are inside them now.
I stare at the door. At the tattered teddy bear decal on the wood. I remember who used to live there, for a moment. Their little faces, their smiles, their laughs. Before the voices… before the red.
No, no, don’t go into the red. The voices will get out. Mustn’t let them out. Can’t give in. Always keep the door closed. Keep writing, keep warding. Remember, the voices want out. They must, never, ever get out.
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2018 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.
Over the wind’s howl, you hear yourself breathing.
Your shoulders ache dimly from the strain of your arms pulled behind your back and bound to your stake, but you lost feeling in your hands an hour ago. Your legs are numb up to your knees. The pain in your face has become a mask you wear, dull and stiff; your head is fixed in place, held by your hair, the braid nailed into wood.
You cried when you were lashed here in the twilight, when everyone hurried away, when your mother stroked your hair but wouldn’t look you in the eyes. You stopped crying when you realized the sting down your cheeks was the wind-torn tracks of your tears, freezing to your skin.
There was no fanfare. There never is. Now all you do is blink, and breathe, and wait.
When the first breath of winter skirts across the land, someone has to be sacrificed. It’s the way. Flesh and blood must be traded for a few more weeks of strong sun and clear skies, for a safe end to the late harvest, for a peaceable season bereft of storms. When the gift isn’t given, the crops shatter on the vine, the cattle freeze beneath mounds of snow. It’s always been the way.
You cried at the thought that anyone else could have been chosen. You stopped when you realized there was no reason it shouldn’t be you.
Nothing moves when you try to flex your rope-bound limbs. You drag in a deep breath and something breaks within your nostrils, spilling down your face. You feel nothing, taste nothing; only the slowness of the ooze tells you it’s blood. You open your mouth to breathe out, and there’s merely a muted tingle when your wetted lips rip apart from one another.
Whatever plume your exhalation makes, it’s swallowed by darkness. The gale shifts, tearing at the tatters it’s made of your clothes, curling around and into you like a living thing with breath of its own. The knifing pain frigid air made in your chest at sunset is now only a distant twinge.
You blink. You breathe. It’s becoming difficult. You have the slow cold-glazed thought that you’ll be buried at sunrise, and you’re surprised to find you still have a few tears left.
It had to be you. It always had to be you.
You breathe in.
You breathe out.
~ Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
The chittering awakens me and I open my eyes. My body is prone on the comfortable bed, one of few luxuries I am afforded. I wince when the first set of tiny hands touch me, sharp claws testing the flesh of my legs. Laying here, waiting for it to begin.
Each of us live this, session after session. It’s not the physical anguish that will break us, it’s the emotional torment. Feeling the tingling in our bodies as the connection builds. The unseen part of us that stretches through the chasm to them as our gift begins to merge with theirs—knowing we will soon be back for another round. There is nothing we can do to stop it. It is our life. Our life to complete theirs.
We are the Muse.
A sharp burst of pain shoots through me, my body arching as synapses explode inside. I slam back on the bed, the room disappears and a glowing white screen surrounds me. A cursor blinks, then it begins. Letters becoming words becoming sentences. Tiny nails dig into my flesh. More words flow as blood trickles down my legs. My face twitches with each pin prick from the small claws. The letters in black, forming on the screen in front of me. Every muscle fights the slow grinding ache as viscous red seeps from me. I give myself to him, so he may become great.
The creatures move up my legs, nipping my torso and arms. I don’t need to see the sightless ones, the Deliverers, as dark as the night itself with pointed teeth that click and tick as they speak to each other in a language only they and Oizys know. She controls them and they feed her from our sessions. We are pawns, Muse and Deliverers, in the games the gods play.
A flash of golden light blinds me, pulling me from my thoughts. I wince but never close my eyes. If I look away, or even blink, the connection will break. I can’t read the words but I know they are perfect. Only perfection can be this intense and with it brings … I bite my bottom lip as a talon slashes my calf, reopening my barely healed wound from last night. A moan escapes me, tears stream down my face. I want it to be over. With each word he types my eyes are assaulted. That, mixed with the physical attacks, overwhelms me. I begin to blink but I can’t let myself, I won’t. He is on fire and I am his victim.
The words flow from him. I don’t know how long it lasts, my time and his never mix. I am becoming weaker as blood continues to seep from the cuts all over me. My body is begging me to end the session, to close my eyes and rest before there is no coming back. I groan through clenched teeth, spasms wrack my body. I feel a Deliverer on my chest. Suddenly all the others stop but the words continue. My body involuntarily tenses, unknowing, the pause in their attack confusing me. Agonizing seconds tick by until another sentence crosses my vision.
Vivid colors erupt in front of my eyes, unlike anything I have ever seen before. A sharp claw pierces my flesh and bores into me. Its talon extends deep inside me and punctures my heart, filling itself straight from me. I scream in anguish and close my eyes. The colors vanish and my world is an abyss.
My breath is shallow and ragged. The claw in my heart retracts and the Deliverers start to slip away. My body struggles to repair itself, starting with the most serious injuries. After those, the hundreds of little nicks mark my flesh, scars of another round of torment. The room is quiet and I am at peace. I made it through once more. I begin to drift off to sleep, my last thoughts always the same.
I am a Muse. I must suffer for my artist.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.