Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
October 31st 1691
‘’Hurry,’’ Deliverance whispered, her voice softer than the light breeze which tousled her lank grey hair. ‘’Bury it, child, bury it deep.’’
Tucking a wayward strand of raven hair behind her ear, Abigail continued scooping up handfuls of soil and tossing them into the hole. Tears streaked her dirty cheeks, and her thighs were still damp with warm blood and tar-like ichor from the birthing. She glanced at her mother, and felt a tinge of fear at the worried expression upon the older woman’s face, a usually unreadable mask, completely devoid of emotion.
The thing in the hole squalled and shrieked with its newborn lungs, sending another chill of fear down Abigail’s spine. A spindly arm protruded from the dirt, grasping weakly at thin air before falling limply away. Sobbing, she dropped huge clods of soil atop it, until only its twisted spine and snake-like nose could be seen.
Soon even they were gone, and the hole was filled once more.
‘’Come, girl, we must be away.’’ Deliverance chided, putting an arm around her stricken daughter and leading her out from beneath the overhanging branches of the willow tree and back towards the house. ‘’It is done now. It’s over.’’
Abigail Hobbs, having buried her firstborn mere hours after its birth, could do little more than weep at the horror of it all.
October 31st 2005
Scores of children fill the streets: Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and gremlins galore. Sheeted ghosts gambol beneath the hazy glow of streetlights and luminous skeletons cavort amidst the shadows. And look, over there next to the birch on Ms Reeves’ lawn, why, is that the Frankenstein Monster? There he goes, staggering onto the sidewalk with a stiff-legged gait, his torn suit jacket flapping in the wind and his candy bucket swinging side-to-side. A clown in a pair of voluminous yellow pants dashes past him in a blur of colour, a painted, pallid mask with a bouncing red nose, the curls of a garish purple wig bobbing with each step. Jack o’ lanterns stand sentry on every porch and doorstep, taking in the colourful procession of costumes with gouged triangular eyes that flicker with a faint orange light. A gust of wind billows along the gutter, kicking up sun-bleached crisp packets, golden autumn leaves and a tattered yellow flyer. Witchcraft Heights Summer Fete, the bold type headline reads, below which the date August 12th is printed in flamboyant primary coloured lettering.
But of course, those dog days of summer are long gone. The days have grown short now, and long-legged shadows chase laughing children home from school, kicking up golden-brown storms of autumnal foliage as they play. And as the span of daylight withers and dies, so does the dark majesty of the bleakness ahead begin to bloom. The summer is dead and buried; the city is slipping into winter’s cruel grasp, where it will remain, a frozen snowflake of concrete and glass, until the thaws of spring. Now is the time when the darkness beneath the bed and the gloom beneath the stairs take on an altogether more sinister undertone; the time when the creaking you hear while tucked beneath the covers could easily be something with far too many limbs scuttling stealthily towards you; the time for ghost stories to be recounted in dimly lit bedrooms as the wind howls outside and rain sprays the window.
Tonight is Halloween and Brandon Knight is running late. Out of work by seven and home by quarter to eight, with just enough time to shower and freshen up before meeting his girlfriend, Kathy. That’s the plan, and everything is running on schedule until a pair of young mothers arrive in search of outfits for their toddlers. Of course they spend twenty-five minutes debating whether to dress the excitable children as pirates or astronauts, before predictably settling on a pair of witches instead, and of course it is twenty-past-seven by the time Brandon has ushered the squealing children from the store and locked up.
So now a quandary presents itself; does he rush home to shower and run the risk of showing up late, or does he head over to Kathy’s place early but smelling like something stagnant that has crawled from the depths of the town dump? It’s the clothes that finally do it for Brandon; he can’t take Kathy on a date in his Craft Castle uniform. After all, isn’t it bad enough that he spends eight hours a day five days a week wearing a cap so orange it’s practically luminous and a lime green polo shirt trimmed with sunburst yellow?
He has almost resigned himself to the fact that he will be arriving late at Kathy’s when inspiration strikes; he will take the Pumpkin Trail, the Grinning Pathway. He will walk the Witches’ Draw. To hell with the stories – something flitted across the edge of his vision, a scuttling mass of pale sticklike limbs – and to hell with the fact that they kept him awake for hours when he was younger. Right now, the path through the pumpkin patch that grows almost the entire length of the vacant lot between East Willamette and Mill Street has one distinct advantage which illuminates Brandon’s mind like a spotlight: it cuts his journey down from forty-five minutes to a mere twenty-five. Perfect. He’ll definitely make it on time now.
So instead of crossing, Brandon hangs left on East Willamette. A gaggle of zombie cheerleaders giggle as he passes them by, their prom queen faces and coltish legs stained crimson with streaks of gore, but he pays them no heed, and throws only a perfunctory glance over his shoulder upon arriving at the high-boarded wooden fence – I could hear them whispering to me, they had mouths that nobody had carved – before stopping at the loose plank that every kid in Salem knows, the one that every kid in Salem avoids. When he was younger, on the days he’d been late out of school and the shadows had grown long, he would run past that tilted piece of wood as fast as his feet would carry him, convinced that something sinister lurked beyond.
But of course, that was years ago. Tonight, he simply holds the plank aside and squeezes his slim body through the gap into vacant lot.
The black asphalt trail at Brandon’s feet snakes ahead of him like a discarded liquorice whip, curving around an old, blackened tree stump before disappearing into the impossibly tall stalks of corn. Most of them are little more than shrivelled brown husks now, wilting and falling apart, but they are still packed tightly enough to obscure whatever lies beyond them. Brandon pulls his hood up, adjusts his rucksack and bulls on ahead.
Back on East Willamette, the teenage zombies are heading to a house party a couple blocks over. Jennifer Fisher, an ample-chested med school student dressed as an undead nurse, lingers to peer into the gap in the fence the guy in the flannel jacket just ducked through. She thinks he’s sort of cute and likes the way his wavy hair hangs down past his shoulders, despite the dorky looking cap he’s wearing. If he’s slipped behind there to smoke a joint or something and is still there, then she’ll invite him to come along with them. She leans forward and sure enough there he is, squatting with his cap off and his back to her in the shadow of something that looks a lot like stalks of corn.
Jennifer grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She’s never heard the stories about Abigail’s Run; she doesn’t know any better. She calls out to the boy and his head whips around to face her.
A long scabrous tongue rasps across a lipless mouth. Maggots writhe amidst decaying flesh and a fly with shattered wings crawls laboriously across an unblinking eye. Something terribly thin, crouched on stick-like limbs with faint wisps of hair hanging from its mottled scalp, turns its gaze upon her.
The bottle of Smirnoff Ice she has been carrying slips from her grasp and shatters on the pavement, drenching her new sneakers and slicing her ankles. The thing that Jennifer mistook for a boy darts away into the gently swaying stalks, and only then does Jennifer realise the source of the shrill sound she can hear. It’s her; she’s screaming.
Husks of corn cling to Brandon’s jacket and jeans like withered brown spiders, and he has somehow lost his luminous cap, the absurdity of which he finds quite amusing. Pushing the last of the cornstalks aside, he emerges once more into the – relatively – open air and gasps at a sight long imagined but never witnessed.
A knobbed alley of pumpkins stretches as far as the eye can see, flanked on either side by high-boarded fences that tower over him. Some of the pumpkins are the size of his skull; some are larger than his Great Dane, Alaska. But all of them share a single defining characteristic: they have all been carved. Jagged mouths zigzag across bulging orange skin, sly knowing smiles lurk beneath slanted triangular eyes and distended ovals scream in perpetual terror. Some are more elaborate than others, and Brandon’s gaze lingers for several seconds on a bloated pumpkin with downturned eyes and a drooping mouth growing near his feet. Without fully knowing why, he stomps on it, smashing through ribbed skin and soft innards with ease. The entire thing caves inwards and orange tinted liquid begins to seep from the wreckage, yet those downturned eyes continue to stare up at him.
He can’t quite discern whether those eyes belong to a face that is weeping or laughing. He decides that it doesn’t matter, and that he really doesn’t care. Does a pumpkin even have a face, or is it a head? Can you have a head without a face?
As he tentatively picks his way through the sprawling pumpkin patch – for some reason, stomping that first pumpkin has made him uncharacteristically nervous – Brandon begins to wonder why the fences on either side of him are so damn high. North Willamette is lined with those looming townhouses, the ones with stone gargoyles crouched on the eaves that look about five-hundred-years old, yet the fence that runs as far as he can see does little to mirror their gothic architecture. No wrought iron gates, no elaborate iron railings, just those huge, imposing panels. They must be thirteen, no, fourteen feet high, and he can barely make out anything beyond their impassive brown finish. Their height, combined with the narrowness of the grinning pathway, leaves him feeling trapped and claustrophobic.
Strangely enough, it doesn’t leave him feeling alone.
It can smell the meat on the wind, and when it presses the object in its hand to the slits on its face, the pungent stench increases tenfold. It moves silently on all fours through the cornstalks like a scurrying rat, contorting its rake-like body so that its chin faces the sky and arching its spine in anticipation. Stick-thin limbs protrude at odd angles as it hurries towards the children. Towards its precious children. Exploding from the corn in a silent flurry of motion, it snaps its torso around and twists itself backwards.
Now it walks like the meat.
The light is fading, but its eyes are milky white and attuned to lightlessness after years of crawling through tunnels of Stygian blackness; they pick out every detail of its surroundings with the precision of a hunting Kit Fox. It hobbles forwards, forked tongue lashing the air. Husks of corn are caught in the folds of its decaying skin, and pieces of flesh have been ripped away by errant stalks to expose the yellowing bone beneath. A beetle crawls through a hole in its cheek, and is immediately torn apart by rows of shattered teeth, filed to points during long hours spent in places beneath the city upon which light has never shone. Pus oozes from open sores and angry red wounds writhe with clusters of fat yellow larvae.
At the edge of the orange carpet, it stops. It falls to its knees and shrieks, tattered, disused vocal cords rasping and screeching in a choir of shrill insanity.
It holds the broken body of one of its many children. Fat chunks slip through slim fingers and frail palms sticky with mush and liquid pound the ground in agony. It looks into the funereal eyes of its dead child and howls in atavistic fury. With bones cracking and joints grating, it drops down to all fours and shoots away into the darkness.
The wind is picking up now, and it carries to Brandon the shrill screams of gleeful children, high-pitched shrieks of excitement mixed with giggles of glee. He smiles ruefully as he walks, keeping one hand on the fence so as not to lose his footing, remembering how long it’s been since he was that small, running from door-to-door dressed in a long red trench coat and his dad’s fedora. Spawn was always his favourite comic book character.
He is startled from his reverie by the thing almost directly in front of him; he would have walked straight into it had he not looked up just at that precise moment.
Before him is a pumpkin the size of a small dumpster, its gargantuan bulk spilling across the Pumpkin Trail and threatening to bar his way. It has been carved with the visage of a mirthful clown, and the young man can almost see the mummer’s flabby jowls quivering with silent laughter.
But he’s been walking for a good fifteen minutes now, so he must be nearing the end of the Witches’ Draw. He’ll be damned if he’s going to let an overgrown vegetable – or fruit, whatever the hell a pumpkin is – stand in his way. He scrambles up the side of the thing, using its laughing mouth as a foothold, and is about to slide over it when a thought strikes him.
Maybe he can stand on the giant clown to peer over that soaring fence. A quick peek won’t hurt, just enough to satisfy his gnawing curiosity. He boosts himself up, his fingers scrabbling for purchase against the fleshy orange surface, and manages to pull himself up.
Before he can lean forward to peer over the fence, something flickers across the edge of his vision, and he feels a sudden awareness of scrutiny. Turning to his left and squinting into the darkness he finds nothing, and is about to turn away when a dark shape flits from the shadows.
Whatever it is, it’s moving low to the ground, like a dog or a cat, except a lot larger. It picks its way through the pumpkins with ease and fluidity, limbs turning at all angles and feet reaching high above its shoulders as it sweeps down the trail. A brief spell of moonlight gives him a true glimpse of its emaciated form and drawn, pallid skin, and warm urine seeps through his jeans. Whatever that thing is, it could have crawled straight out of the potholing-gone-wrong horror flick he’d watched with Kirsty over the summer.
Brandon loses sight of it, and for a second he allows himself to believe it an imagined terror, one born of far too many Hellraiser comics and late-night readings of Clive Barker novels. Then the creature leans forward, squatting atop a lumpy pumpkin…and looks straight at him. Unable to process the horror of its face, Brandon snaps his gaze downwards, towards those terribly-thin arms, and balks at the familiar orange cap clenched in one of its hands.
Before it has even begun to scuttle towards him, Brandon is leaping from the giant pumpkin and sprinting in the opposite direction.
From the window of 168 North Willamette’s drawing room, Augustus Dowell, seated in a plush leather recliner, watches his red Doberman pinscher, Maxwell, lope about the garden. He takes a sip from the glass of bourbon cupped in his hand, his watery eyes never leaving the hound. In the process of ferreting through the carefully-maintained bushes lining the rear of the garden, the Doberman freezes, its wiry body going rigid and its ears standing erect, and whips its head to the side. Seconds later, it launches itself at the fence, standing on its hind legs with its forepaws scrabbling against the wooden panels and barking ferociously. Augustus’s attention immediately shifts to the top of the fence, scanning the wicker dolls that hang lifelessly there. He lets out a deep breath he hasn’t realised he is holding after counting the seventh doll. Yes, they are all there; everything is in place, meaning that his property, and by extension his family, are protected.
Whatever is going on beyond his boundaries is none of his business, nor is it any of his concern.
‘’Augustus, bring Maxwell inside will you?’’ His wife, Constance, asks from the landing. ‘’He’s making an ever-so frightful racket.’’
‘’Of course dear.’’ Augustus replies, glancing a final time at the wood-and-wire constructs dangling from the fence before turning away. ‘’I’ll fetch him in right away.’’
Brandon, his uneven breathing becoming ragged, finds time between bouts of mind-numbing terror to curse himself for dropping out of Phys. Ed. If he’d never met Kathy in the art block that night, and subsequently decided to switch subjects, perhaps he wouldn’t be so damn unfit. The thought of her spurs him on, though, allowing him to draw upon reserves of energy he had thought long since expended.
He dares not turn around, lest that skulking thing be inches away from him, reaching for him with skeletal arms and-
Brandon barrels straight into the corn and for several seconds doesn’t understand what’s happening, batting at the stalks all around him in fear before he realises. This patch of cornstalks must mirror the one at the entrance he used, forming a barrier of sorts between the pumpkins and the real world. Meaning that he’s almost at the exit.
His joy is short lived as something hurtles past him and bare skin brushes the leg of his jeans.
He staggers to the side until his shoulder connects with the fence. Biting down a curse, he whips his head around, expecting the creature to be beside him. He can’t hear a thing, which is much more disconcerting than if he were to able hear it moving about. At least then he’d know where it was.
With his back to the fence and one splayed hand feeling the way forward, he inches slowly to the left, fearful of making even the slightest sound. His heart is thudding somewhere in his throat, and adrenaline is coursing through his veins like electricity. Everywhere he looks he expects to see it, leering out of the corn towards him. A subtle shift directly ahead causes him to freeze; a stealthy scratching that sounds as though it is directly beside him. His sodden boxer shorts become damper still. Suddenly, the thing has him, he can feel its spindly fingers scrabbling against his leg-
His phone. His phone is vibrating. Frantically trying to wrestle it from the pocket of his jeans, all the while aware of every subtle movement around him, he succeeds in doing so just as the incoming call notification shifts from vibration to an audible tone. Brandon does the first thing that comes to mind.
He turns and throws the phone as hard and as far as he can, back in the direction from which he came. It begins to wail and jingle as it spins through the air, and something shifts in the corn to his right – to his immediate right, inches away – and shoots off after it.
All pretence of stealth abandoned, Brandon smashes his way through the corn, bursting free of the clinging stalks seconds later and almost running head first into the chain-link gate that bars the exit onto Centre Street. There are signs covering the gate, so he can’t see them, but he can hear the blessed sounds of children shouting, parents chatting, and sirens wailing. Even the incessant hooting of impatient taxi drivers sounds like music to his ears.
Brandon scrambles up the chain-link and thuds down onto the pavement, narrowly missing a passing group of children and their parental escorts, who throw him scornful you-should-know-better-at-your-age looks, seconds before something crashes against the gate from the other side. He whips around, horrified, and begins to back away as various sections of the chain-link begin to subtly sag inwards, as though something were testing for a point of weakness.
He can’t see anything through the gate; signs and notices cover it entirely, having been crammed together side-by-side. WARNING CONSTRUCTION IN PROGRESS, one reads; UNSAFE SURFACES screams another in bright red lettering. A vivid red and yellow PRIVATE PROPERTY – DO NOT ENTER board runs the length of the gate, and as Brandon’s eyes shift to the right of it his pupils dilate and his heart drums a frantic tattoo against his ribcage.
Staring through the small slit between the PRIVATE PROPERTY board and its neighbour, a green heptagon with oriental lettering, is a listless, pupil-less white eye; below it, the vaguest impression of a row of pointed teeth clasping the chain-link and something serpentine and dark snaking along the side of the sign. Slim, hairless fingers scrabble at the links like pale overgrown spiders.
Brandon staggers away in horror and instead of finding the sidewalk his foot finds only empty space. Pinwheeling his arms but unable to keep his balance, he tumbles backwards.
Sahj Patel is on his way back to the depot when the man – a kid, just a kid really – falls backwards in front of his bus. He’s only four miles-per-hour over the speed limit, but at this distance he doesn’t have a hope in hell of stopping in time.
Something crunches sickeningly beneath the wheels, an elderly lady at the rear of the bus screams and a mother hugs her son to her chest. Sahj is out of the vehicle in seconds, but the way one of the wheels nestles in the kid’s chest tells him that he is already too late.
Only while he waits for an ambulance, tears streaming down his face and breath coming in huge wracking sobs, does he realise exactly where on Centre Street he is: the entrance to that accursed alley. Witches’ Draw, they had called it when Sahj was a child. Of all the places, he thinks, and slams his fist against the gate in frustration, tearing down a cluster of small wicker figures hung there by children in his anger.
Behind the gate, in the softly swaying stalks of long-dead corn, something stirs. A sickly crescent grin splits a pair of scabrous lips.
Free at last.
Credit: Tom Farr
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