The Night Before

They were parked on Main Street.  Williams seemed nervous, unusual for such a seasoned officer.

“What’s up?” asked Thompson.

The older man glanced at him.

“I hate this night.”

“Christmas Eve?”

“Yup.  I do my best to avoid this shift.  Every cop in town does.”

“I guess you want to be home with the kids.”

“No, it’s not that.  Tell me, have you noticed how quiet the town is?”

“Yes, it’s weird.  I expected it to be buzzing.”

“It’s been like this every year for twenty years.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you.  You have a right to know.”

Williams took a sip of coffee.

“It happened on Christmas Eve, 1996.  I’d been here for about six months.  The bars in town were full and the streets were busy.  I was on patrol with John Williams.  We got the call.  Crash on the main road heading into town.  It was a mess.  A car had t-boned a pick-up, forcing the truck into the ditch.  The driver of the car was a young man; he was sitting on the verge when we arrived.  The driver of the pick-up was trapped in his vehicle.  We saw straight away that it was Peter Ellis.  Every cop in town knew Ellis; he wasn’t a bad man, just a bit rough.  Eccentric.  Angry.  He lived by himself in a shack up in the hills, came down into town once in a while for supplies.  Drove a ratty old pick-up, rusty as hell.  The muffler was shot and you could hear him coming a mile away.  I could smell smoke.  Before we could do anything, the pick-up erupted in flames.  The heat was too intense, we couldn’t get close.  Our extinguishers made no impact and the fire department was still five minutes out.  By the time they arrived, the fire was raging.  Ellis was dead.  I can still see him, sitting in the driver’s seat as the flames consumed him.”

“Horrible.”

“We charged the kid with DUI.  His name was James Peterson.  Local guy, son of a teacher.  He went to jail for six months.  Lost his license.”

“Is that why you hate this shift?  Because of that crash?”

Williams ignored the question.

“I was assigned the same shift the year after.  I was sitting in this very spot.  There was a knock on my window.  It was Peterson, the kid that’d caused the crash.  He was sober and wanted to apologize.  We shook hands and he walked down main street.  It was then I heard it.  The noise was so unique.  It was Ellis’s truck.”

“But…”

“I know, but I heard it.  Everyone else on Main Street did too.  I stepped out the car and stood in the snow, waiting.  Ellis’s truck turned the corner of Fifth and Main and headed slowly down the street.  As it passed me I made eye contact with the driver.  Is was Peter Ellis himself.  He looked the same as the night he died; burnt up, with his skin mostly gone.  For a second I thought I’d lost my mind.”

“Very funny.”

“No joke.  Peterson glanced back and saw it.  I think he knew what was about to happen, he started to run.  Ellis must have spotted him because he gunned the engine and sped up.  The truck mounted the sidewalk.  James didn’t have a chance, he was hit and went under.   Ellis’s truck turned the corner on Seventh Street and disappeared.  No trace was ever found.”

“But Ellis was dead.”

“Yup.  I told you, he was an angry man.  Maybe he couldn’t rest, knowing the kid who’d killed him was free to live the rest of his life, so he came back to set things straight.  But Peterson’s death wasn’t enough for him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every year on this night, Ellis comes back, seeking vengeance.  His truck drives up and down Main Street, looking for his next victim.  The first year after Peterson was killed, Ellis killed four.  Since then the town has been deserted every Christmas Eve.  No-one dare leave their houses, no-one except us.”

“Great tale, you should be a writer.  I need a cigarette.”

“I wouldn’t leave the car.  Can’t you hear it?”

Thompson heard a faint noise in the distance.

“Just a car back-firing.”

Thompson shook his head.

“It’s Ellis.”

“Crap!”

Thompson opened the door, feeling the rush of cold air.  He stepped out, reaching for his cigarettes.  He was the newest addition to the town’s police force and expected a certain amount of leg-pulling, but he didn’t see why he should listen to such bullshit.  The vehicle noise got louder, the engine farting and blowing.  A vehicle turned the corner onto Main Street, heading towards him.  Thompson couldn’t see what it was, the headlights were on full beam.  It wasn’t until it drew next to him that he saw it was an ancient pick-up.  He glanced at the driver and saw a vision of hell.  The driver was hideously burnt, the skin and hair almost totally gone.  It grinned insanely at him.  Dropping his cigarettes, all reason gone, Thompson started to run, ignoring the shout of alarm from within the patrol car.  The last sound he heard was an engine roaring behind him.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Dare

It was simple, if they wanted to join the sorority they had to complete a dare. The most popular girls got the easy ones; kiss a nerd, steal a chalk duster from a lecture theater. The girls on the bottom of the pledge list got the hard ones. Sarah, dead last in popularity with her potential sorority sisters, got the hardest. But she was determined to start her college life as a member of the most popular sorority, so she willingly accepted the challenge.

She had to take a selfie in the Murder House.

The Adams House was its official name, but to the students and faculty, it’d always been the Murder House. After all, it was where Professor Adams killed his family before turning the gun on himself. It happened in 1972. Afterwards, anyone who moved in didn’t stay long and every one of them told the same story. It was haunted by the ghosts of the dead family. In 1989 the university sealed up the house and left it to rot.

Sarah decided to go in the daytime. Logic supposed the ghosts would only be active after dark. The house was surrounded by a metal fence, topped with vicious looking spikes. Sarah opened the gate and walked up the path to the house. The windows and doors were covered with wood panels, but the wood used to block the front door was rotted and loose. She pushed through and was surprised to find the front door ajar.

She stood in the hall, looking around. Through open doorways she could see empty rooms to her left and right. In front was a curved, open staircase. She’d been told she had to take the photograph in the upstairs bedroom, where the murders had taken place.

She stepped forward and placed her foot on the first stair. With an explosion of noise, the front door slammed shut. She screamed. The two open doorways on the first floor banged shut as well. She ran up the stairs, with the sound of slamming doors echoing through the house. As she reached the top, all doors were closed except one. She had no choice, she had to escape.

The room she entered was as empty as the others. French doors led out onto a balcony. The door slammed behind her. There was only one way out. She opened the french doors and stepped onto the balcony. The doors closed behind her. She glanced over the low railing of the balcony to the garden. The railing that surrounded the house was directly below. She could see spikes pointing upwards. She’d have to be careful, but it was just possible she could drop from the balcony without hitting the railing. It was the only option, she wasn’t going to go back into that house; the legends were true, the place was haunted.

She stepped over the railing, grabbed hold of the metal and started to lower herself. She maneuvered into position, her feet dangling in midair, her grip on the metal railing holding her entire weight. She quickly realized her plan wouldn’t work; if she dropped, she’d hit the spikes. She’d have to climb back onto the balcony, but she found she couldn’t do it. Her feet could find no purchase and she wasn’t strong enough to pull herself back up using her arms alone. She was stuck.

She screamed, her throat raw and burning. She could see figures running along the road. A huge sense of relief swept over her; she was saved. She no longer minded the pain in her shoulder and arm muscles. She could grip the balcony railing for as long as it took for someone to prop a ladder under her. It was then she felt it, a soft fluttering sensation on her hands, as if a butterfly had landed on her skin. Slowly, one-by-one, she felt her fingers being lifted from the rail. Below her the spikes glinted in the sunlight. Just before she fell, she heard the sweet laughter of a child.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright 2019 R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Waiver

Matt parked the car near the front entrance.

“Well, we’re here.”

Chelsea nodded.

“The famous haunted hotel.”

“Yup, the fake haunted hotel. A fraud about to be exposed.”

“Are you sure about this? You could be destroying peoples’ livelihoods.”

“Won’t be the first time.”

He spoke with a sense of pride.

They headed into the reception and were greeted by a young woman. She confirmed their booking. After she’d taken Matt’s credit card details, she reached below the desk and placed a piece of paper in front of them. This was the famous waiver. It wasn’t terribly impressive. Aside from the gothic header, which added a certain flair, Matt saw it was nothing more than just standard liability boiler-plate. Guests could not hold the hotel responsible for any harm that befell them. Guests had to verify they weren’t suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure or a shopping list of other ailments. Blah, blah, blah.

The receptionist was making a show of getting them to read and sign it. This was the first part of the ‘experience’ promised by the hotel’s owners.

“So, is it true then?” asked Chelsea.

“Oh yes. The Charlotte Springs Hotel is the most haunted hotel in the U.S. That’s been verified. We introduced the waiver five years ago when an elderly gentleman suffered a heart attack after seeing a supernatural vision. He tried to sue us.”

“That’s why we’ve come to stay.”

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Australia.”

“Do you think we’ll see some ghosts?”

“I hope you won’t be disappointed. The dearly departed don’t come every night, but you might be lucky.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a guarantee, but it would be nice if they appeared.”

Matt signed the waiver, then passed it to Chelsea who signed. They weren’t a couple, but they pretended to be. It made things easier.

“Your room is number five. The Blue Room. It’s one of the hotspots; lots of guests have had sleepless nights in that room. Lots of sightings.”

Matt picked up the key. It was an old-fashioned iron key; there were no swipe cards in this century-old house, it wouldn’t have suited the ambience. They climbed the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor. The décor was faded, with some of the wallpaper peeling away. The whole place felt worn and unloved. Perhaps this was deliberate, the public didn’t expect to see ghosts in well-maintained, modern establishments.

The Blue Room was actually blue. Pale blue wallpaper, royal blue bedding and a baby blue carpet. It was hideous.

“A bit overdone on the theme,” said Chelsea.

“I think everything is overdone here.”

“I guess they have to make money somehow.”

“Not for much longer.”

The room overlooked the front of the hotel. Matt glanced out the window. It wasn’t as if the town was horrible or rundown. It was just an ordinary small town in an area not renowned for tourist attractions. The hotel was the only place worth visiting. Although Matt considered it a scam, it was clear that a lot of people didn’t. They came to speak to the dead, to find proof of the afterlife or simply for the thrill. They came, spent their money and left.

He fired up his laptop.

“At least they have free Wi-Fi.”

He loaded some bookmarked pages. He read some of the reviews out loud.

“The Charlotte Springs Hotel. So haunted they make you sign a waiver before you can stay. So terrifying you must be crazy to sleep over. A night of creepy noises and supernatural visions. A must-see attraction for anyone interested in the afterlife. Nonsense, all of it.”

“Well, we are here to debunk it.”

“And we will.”

He loaded the hotel’s website.

“Okay, so according to this, there are six rooms. Each room has its own ghost. Very neat, who would have thought the dead were so organized. For example, the White Room has the woman in white. The Red Room has the headless soldier. The Green Room doesn’t have a ghost as such, but apparently guests can look forward to a night of supernatural sobbing and wailing. I won’t recite the whole dreary list, you get the idea.”

“And the Blue Room?”

“The ghost of a child. Reports speak of a small figure, toys moving across the floor. All super-easy to fake.”

“What do you want to do first?”

“Nothing yet. The phenomena only ever appear after dark.”

He checked his watch.

“Three hours to kill. Might as well get some food.”

The hotel restaurant was busy. It was late August, the height of the tourist season. Labor Day would see the number of guests decline. Matt and Chelsea had timed their visit carefully. Matt’s theory was the ‘ghosts’ were more likely to appear when the hotel was full.

Matt glanced around the dining room. Some were normal tourists, but the majority clearly had a spiritual leaning. After ten years of debunking the paranormal he could easily recognize them. These were the people who believed without question in the afterlife, spending their lives crouched over Ouija boards, attending séances and attempting automatic writing.

“I feel sorry for them.”

“Who?”

“The ones who believe. The ones who claim to have found the truth about the afterlife.”

“They seem happy enough.”

“They’re deluded. In all my years of investigating supernatural occurrences, I’m yet to find a single genuine example.”

“What about this hotel? You’re convinced it’s fake. What if it’s not?”

“There’s no life after death.”

“You seem so sure.”

“After ten years investigating, I am.”

“How you do think they do it?”

“Smoke and mirrors. Hidden microphones. Nothing unique.”

“Why do you think they’ve got such a reputation, with such cheap tricks?”

“A proprietor who is a good showman. Look at the waiver, that builds expectations before the guests even get to the room.”

“We’re being manipulated?”

“I’d say so. Guests arrive expecting to see a ghost. They’re told there are ghosts in every room and are made to sign a waiver, implying the visions are so terrifying they might die. That sets up a high probability the guests will see what they want to see. A dummy dressed in a white dress and wig suddenly becomes the ghost of woman abandoned on her wedding night. It’s clever what they’ve done here; I’m guessing it’s twenty percent props and eighty percent the power of suggestion.”

He checked his watch.

“Time to retire. It’ll be dark soon.”

They lay in bed listening to the sounds of the hotel as the guests settled for the night. No doubt some would be having all-night vigils with incense and sage burning. Others, no doubt, had gone to bed, full of trepidation and excitement. Matt, tired after a long drive, fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke when Chelsea grabbed his arm under the blankets. He checked his watch. Two a.m. She was staring at the corner of the room. He looked into the darkness, unable to see anything but shadows. He switched on the bedside light. The figure standing in the corner was so obviously fake Matt had to stifle a laugh. It was the classic kid’s version of a ghost; a figure covered by a sheet with cut-out eyeholes. Matt rolled out of bed.

“I was right, look at that. If we were believers, we would see a terrifying vision of a dead child and not just someone with a sheet over their head.”

A toy car trundled across the wooden floor.

“Radio-controlled.”

He walked over to the figure. It didn’t move. There was a sudden tension in the room.

“Don’t, Matt. It feels wrong.”

Matt ignored her and instead spoke to the figure.

“You’re joking, aren’t you? Is this what I signed the waiver for? Is this what we drove six hours for? Wait until I publish my article. The first sentence will include your name.”

The figure didn’t move. Matt bent forward and stared into the eye holes.

“Well, who do we have here?”

He whipped the sheet away. Underneath there was nothing except a deep, fluid inky blackness. A darkness that almost had the shape of a person. Matt felt coldness emanating from the figure. He stared into the face of the ghost. It giggled, the high sweet laugh of a child. Reality hit Matt, it was real; it had always been real. He felt a crushing pain in his chest and fell to the carpet. The dark shape moved towards Chelsea. Matt’s last coherent thought was that he wished he hadn’t signed the waiver.

 

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Damned Words 40

DW_40

Sunrise
A.F. Stewart

Some said we would never see the sunrise, but there it shines in the morning sky. As we huddle within the church, I can hear people weeping, from a relief at being alive or in mourning for those dead, I cannot tell. I will shed no more tears. Mine already fell for those I lost in the carnage.

Voices murmur and I turn to glimpse the vicar passing food to those with appetites, and cups of water. At least we can be grateful for that. We will not have to worry about provisions for a while yet. The church has its own well, and donations from a food drive in storage.

It is silent outside, with the daylight hours, but we know it will not last. With night they will return. They will surround the church with their footsteps, with their growls. They will scratch at the ground and howl, fraying nerves, making it impossible to sleep. Memories will flood back, of blood, of teeth, of running while others died. And we will sit here among the pews knowing this holy place is the only thing that keeps them out. It will be the same tonight, as it was last night, and the night before that. Once again we will wonder if we will see the sunrise.

We are trapped here. Praying, surviving. Waiting for our inevitable end.


Ash Wednesday
Charles Gramlich

At midnight the police began to disperse the dense French Quarter crowd. The partiers didn’t want to stop the festivities but reluctantly gave way, breaking into twos and threes that gradually streamed off toward homes or other celebrations. Fat Tuesday was over. Lent had begun.

As the crowd split, a cold, hard gust of wind swept over the Quarter. It gathered other gusts to itself, swirled across the Faubourg Marigny and up Bourbon and Royal streets like a dust devil. It carried a mélange of beads and other Mardi Gras trash. It picked up the stench of sweat-soaked people, the stale odors of alcohol, urine, vomit. It gathered the thoughts and feelings of the revelers—their joys and rages, laughters and sobs, lusts and sins.

And when the wind had all that in its grasp, it struck the roof of the cathedral. The steeple shook; a dirty shadow enveloped it, then shrank, took darkling form. For a moment, a long-armed man squatted like a clot of evil on the roof. Then the figure leaped down and faded into the dispersing crowds as if it had never been.

The first deaths came within an hour.


The Order of Sanctification
Marge Simon

The church bells tolled for many hours after they caught the latest resistor and slit her throat. Pytr had been chosen to carry the infant cut from the womb. They marched through the streets, chanting in clipped unison. The newborn squalled, its limbs still slippery with blood. Pytr tucked it closer inside his furs to shield it against the cold. When they reached the Temple of Free Souls, he gave the infant to a waiting orderly. Shivering, they kept formation until the Grand Priest appeared.

“Who brings this babe?”

“We of the Righteous, Sector Five.”

“Who carries the babe?”

“I, Holy One.” Pytr stepped forward.

“And your name?”

“Pytr, zero five zero two. Sworn by birth to the genetic cycle evermore.” He was careful to keep his voice in a cadence. It would have been blasphemous to do otherwise.

“Ah, Pytr, I recognize you. You were,” the old man smiled, “one of my favorites. And not long out on your own, either. Very well, excellent.” He rubbed his hands together, his fingers stained with a garish orange dye. “And what say the rest of you?”

“We are the children of Sanctification. We copulate no more. We bow to the sperm bank and Ovum of White. Pure is the Ovum. Pure are the Righteous born.”

The presentation ended, Ptyr joined the others as they formed lines to march homeward. He smiled to himself. He’d done his part to ensure the purity of one small soul. Babies must be protected from sin. Future generations of the Righteous would be produced and raised in the Sanctified Laboratories, as the currently popular Supreme Holiness decreed.


The Good Book
R.J. Meldrum

The book was found in the hundredth year after the war. It was buried beneath the ruins of a pre-war building. The scouts were looking for tinned food, but because they’d never seen such a thing before they picked it up. The wise men, the ones who had been taught to read, recognised it for what it was, although none of them had seen a complete book before. They analysed and discussed the words. After due deliberation, they proclaimed the book a miracle and claimed it was the word of God, written by his prophet. By following the doctrine outlined in the book, they too would achieve immortality.

Sermons were held every week.  The priest intoned the holy words.

“The prophet requires a gift of blood for his Lord, to assure eternal life.”

“We shall obey,” intoned the faithful.

A girl was brought forward to the sacrificial altar.

“What are you called, my child?”

“Mina.”

The congregation murmured its approval of her name.

Compliant, she exposed her neck.  The priest, his canine teeth filed to sharp points, bent forward to collect the blood sacrifice that would satisfy their Lord.


Scarlet Milk
Lee Andrew Forman

Hooded faces lined up in the abbey to drink divine milk; they waited with reserve to wrap anxious lips around the papilla of the six-breasted obelisk. Its scarlet liquid dripped for ages, kept the cabal well-fed. Its sweet blessing held their souls within preserved bodies, entombed behind reverent, ever-young eyes. Sustenance from the fleshless bust of the ancient lord was their only indulgence. They observed all outside their congregation reach for the heavens; ages, generations—all seen, all judged. When the bosom of life dried up, they knew the lord’s decree was to be fulfilled.


Abandoned
Lydia Prime

As the sun slowly began to dip beneath the horizon, the colors danced across the pews and paint chipped walls, releasing something more insidious to the building. Footsteps echoed in the distance, slow at first but their pace quickened as a single set became several.

The stranger raced through the nave hoping to make it to the massive oak doors without incident. Voices swirled around the empty cavity though he couldn’t make out what they were saying. As he reached for the rusted latch he noticed the glass was no longer full of colorful images. He yanked on the latch as hard as he could, but couldn’t get it to budge. The other sets of footsteps caught up to the exploring man. They stood in the shadows and whispered unintelligible nothings to one another. His heart beating through his chest, he pounded on the wooden barrier before him and pleaded to see another day.

As the creatures drew closer an unearthly chill rattled through his bones. One of them moved into the light, it had no features of anything he’d ever seen, but its mouth bore rotten needle-sharp teeth; Its tentacle-like appendages edging near him. They made no noise as they leaned in and he screamed for his savior.


Perfection
Nina D’Arcangela

I’ve watched him fall before, The Morning Star. He’s been falling for millennia it seems, but then it always does. This world, these creatures, they lose fear, tell tales; forget fate is coming for them. I remember, I always remember for I am their reminder. I’ve watched it unfold myriad times. The clock resets, he is granted entrance, my reward—to be forsaken.

The rabble are born anew. Creation they hark as they build; or rebuild as it were. They know nothing of the former that perished among the rubble, their blood feeding a new world, their crushed bones the foundation this ground is laid upon. They eat the bread, drink the wine; expect absolution for debauchery’s lure. They seek a second coming while I walk quietly amongst them watching as the star falls yet again on perfection.


Light and Dark
Mark Steinwachs

My skin is the battle ground for the sun in the cloudless sky and the crisp fall air. Two steps and I will be out of its rays. Sun to shade. Light to dark. “I gave them light. I gave them everything,” I say, not looking back at the seven others. “And this is how they repay me; ornate structures with false prophets inside. They twisted my words and teachings, picking out whatever scriptures they needed at that moment. I love them and they cast me aside.”

A man in a tailored suit walks out the door, “It’s time to move along, gentlemen. We can’t have you loitering while service is going on.”

“Not even an invitation into my own home,” I say as I cross into the shade. “I can pick and choose scriptures too.”

The man’s eyes go wide as wings unfurl from the seven. Fear radiates in his soul where there should have been love. I snap my fingers and his neck twists at a grotesque angle before he crumples to the ground.

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the lord.”


Sleeper
Scarlett R. Algee

She wakes to the darkness she expects, and the silence, and the gnaw of hunger deep in her belly, toothy and raw.

She strokes the rough inner surface of the sarcophagus’ lid, splintering her overgrown fingernails, before putting palms to stone. The lid moves a fraction—in the face of the hunger, her strength is always slow to stir when she wakes from the long sleep—but it moves; that’s enough to let in a peep of blue-tinged sunlight, not direct enough to harm but sufficient to keep her uncomfortably awake. No matter; in this place of sienna brick and cobalt-stained windows, she’s been deemed a saint. Of course someone will come.

The pain of the light dulls until she can almost doze again, but a noise catches her attention: low shuffling footsteps, brisk scrape of a broom on a stone floor, quivery low-pitched hum.

That human music makes her gut knot and her teeth ache, but she swallows her slaver and forces her hands to relax. The sweeping musician sounds old and slow, but the footsteps are dragging closer. The intruding sliver of sunlight is ebbing away.

She can be patient a little longer.


 

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