What a friend the night is, the kindly, paradoxical darkness. It makes all the world a private room, but grants us all a key. Night colludes, covers you, lets you acknowledge and live your heart’s truth.
Such were Victor’s thoughts as he gripped his father’s boots and dragged his body across the backyard where Victor had killed him. When he reached the grove of holly trees, Victor dropped his father’s legs and stood over the corpse.
He looked at the property line fence his father had made him build thirty years earlier. Vandals had cut holes in the wire and the earth had slumped, pushing some of the posts sideways at odd angles, soon to fall. He’d been far too young back then for such work, every posthole an ordeal of impossibly heavy tools, sinewy roots, layered rock. He’d stopped to rest once, tears of exhaustion sliding down his cheeks. His father saw him. “Did I raise a goddamn sissy? Is that what you are?” He slapped Victor across the face. “Dig, goddamn it.”
How many postholes had he dug? He counted the posts in the open, silhouettes in the faint glow of distant streetlights. But beneath the trees the posts vanished in darkness, and he lost track, couldn’t tally the full measure of his suffering. Another of his father’s crimes concealed, the thief who’d stolen the morning of his life, the warden who’d shackled the bold, playful boy he might have been.
Today the final insult. No different, really, than the thousand that had come before, but this time maddening beyond endurance, the breaking point after a lifetime of humiliations. Victor had walked into his bedroom, found his father removing two twenties from Victor’s billfold.
“Put it back,” Victor said. “Get the fuck out.”
His father pocketed the money and shoved past him. “I own this house, pal. You don’t like it, you get the fuck out.”
Victor hawked up a clot of mucous and spat it down on his father’s death mask, a grimace, locked in the pain of his life’s final instant.
Time to bury the fat pig, at last.
He had to dig deep, and swiftly. He’d hoped to do the deed earlier, but his father stayed up late watching television, drunk, cursing every commercial that interrupted the old sitcoms that never made him laugh. Half the night passed before the old man took his customary bedtime piss in the backyard, giving Victor his opportunity. But his neighbor, Harlan Miller — perfect haircut, perfect lawn, perfect wife — would be along at sunup, walking his perfectly matched pair of yellow Labs. Night would keep his secret, but dawn would tell all.
Victor plunged the shovel into the ground. It hit stone. He moved, plunged again. Stone again. Moving, plunging, moving, plunging, stone, stone, stone, until the handle splintered where it slid into the steel.
A brand new shovel, useless.
Victor froze. Laughter. Scornful, deep-throated, off in the dark somewhere. Impossible. Who would be out at such an hour, laughing like that?
Victor flung the shovel away and grabbed his pickaxe, the lovely tool that had set him free, pointed end driven deep into his father’s brain, the blow flawlessly aimed and executed.
Free. Free to follow his heart, work his will. Time, so long in coming, to learn true, good things about himself. At parties, in bars, a few beers for the better, he’d speak up, speak loud, broadcast his achievements, no matter how small, proclaim his opinions, no matter how absurd, like all the other loudmouths, narcissists in their dry-cleaned Oxford shirts, stinking of aftershave.
The pick hit stone too, threw a salvo of sparks, the vibration needling into the bones of Victor’s hands. He grabbed the posthole digger. Tempting to plunge it into his father’s chest, wrench the heart out of the dead shell like a rotten clam.
No time, though. He had to bury everything: the father corpse, the cruelty of those hands turning blue, the crimes heaped on that bloody head. And his own crime now. The world would point its finger and shout: “Patricide! A man robbed of precious years!”
“Wretched years!” Victor would shout back.“Robbed of cheap piss beer? Sitcom re-runs? Days tinkering in a chilly garage, scowling over hopeless engines?”
First light brushed the ridge top forest on the western hills. Victor drove the posthole digger down with all his strength, into more stone, another launch of sparks. He knelt, tore at the ground with his hands. God almighty, was the earth nothing but stone? A rising wind rushed past him, and Victor looked around. Trees, streetlights, phone lines, houses — all leaning at odd angles, it seemed, and like the hated fence, destined to fall.
Was everything just wind, then? Wind passing over a stone?
A dog barked. Victor turned. Harlan Miller stood at the fence with a clear view of the body, the shattered head, the blood-soaked hair, Harlan Miller already poking at his phone. His yellow Labs wriggled through a hole in the fence, came springing, bounding toward Victor, tongues rolling, their joy soaring and stainless.
For a mad instant, Victor thought about romping with them. A playful boy at last! Such happy dogs — surely they could teach him to play. But now he had to run, escape, save himself. Maybe the dogs would follow. If they could reach those western hills they could all run free in the shelter of the forest, leaping logs and creeks, whooping and barking, tireless.
With his first stride Victor stumbled over his father’s boot and fell, sprawling on his chest. The Labs converged on him, sniffing him from shoes to hair. One of the dogs licked his cheek with a warm, gentle tongue, as if coaxing, Get up and play! But Victor couldn’t move, too exhausted to dig another hole. He lay beside his dead father, eyes closed against the stone cold earth, waiting for those who would soon come and carry them both away.
Douglas Campbell’s fiction has appeared in many publications, including Smokelong Quarterly, Able Muse Review, Vestal Review, and Fiction Southeast. His chapbook of short fiction, “Sunflowers, Rivers, And Other Stories,” was recently published by Monkey Puzzle Press, www.monkeypuzzlepress.com, and can be ordered in print from the press or in an Amazon Kindle edition. Douglas lives in a challenging old house in a little town in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he watches the birds and clouds, and every day is touched with wonder.
The full moon casts its pale light through the branches of the maple trees. It is Hallowe’en night and almost every house in the neighborhood participates. Glowing pumpkins rest on porches, cobwebs flutter in the breeze, and skeletons dangle from trees.
Behind his blood-stained mask, Jimmy grins. It is his first year trick-or-treating without his parents and he is enjoying his freedom. Pulling his mask back he checks his bag and his grin widens. The bag is almost full.
Jimmy turns to make his way back to the street then freezes. Standing in front of him is a witch. A witch named Alexia.
“Hey Jimmy,” she says with a smile. “Great night. Think I make a good witch?” She spins around, long black hair flowing with the folds of her black robe. Laughing, she completes her turn and is facing Jimmy once again.
Alexia does not know that Jimmy has a massive crush on her. Such is the nature of crushes.
Jimmy nods, heart racing, desperately thinking of something good to say. “You look awesome!” he blurts out, then winces, not impressed with his words.
“Thanks,” she says. She thinks his words are fine. Then turns to find that her friends have moved on to the next house. Jimmy’s friends have moved on as well.
There is a brief moment of silence that threatens to become awkward. “Hey, would you like to do a few houses?” Jimmy asks. He holds his breath until she speaks.
“Sure,” Alexia replies, “I can always catch up to them later.”
They make their way to the next house and Jimmy begins to relax. Somewhat. Intricately carved pumpkins line the walkway leading up to the front door. The large oak tree in the front yard supports dozens of small white tissue paper ghosts that fly in the breeze.
“Check out these pumpkins! It must have taken days to carve them!” Alexia kneels in front of the largest pumpkin, which has been transformed into the face of a leering goblin. The light from the pumpkin casts an orange glow over Alexia’s face.
“Cool,” Jimmy says. He kneels down in front of the next pumpkin, a perfect likeness of Frankenstein’s monster.
Alexia and Jimmy stop to inspect each of the pumpkins then eventually arrive at the house. On the porch beside the front door is a scarecrow reclining on a weathered rocking chair. The head of the scarecrow is a pumpkin, carved simply with triangular eyes and a huge gap-toothed grin.
“Wow,” Alexia says, “this is the best house yet!” A sudden gust of wind makes the rocking chair creak loudly and jerk forward. Alexia and Jimmy jump back then laugh. Jimmy walks up to the door and presses the doorbell. A loud shriek comes out of a speaker placed above the scarecrow and both Jimmy and Alexia scream. The shriek ends and they laugh again.
The front door opens to reveal an elderly man wearing a bright orange sweater with a grinning pumpkin face stitched on the front. He is smiling and holds a bowl filled with candy.
“Trick or treat!” Jimmy and Alexia shout, holding out their bags.
The man smiles. “Did my doorbell scare you?” he asks as he drops handfuls of candy into their bags.
“It was great!” Alexia replies with a grin. “Your scarecrow is…” she begins, then suddenly stops smiling. She stares at the man and her eyes narrow. Reaching forward she grabs his hand.
At Alexia’s touch the man’s body stiffens and he tries to pull his hand back. Alexia tightens her grip and the man winces. His eyes water and his lips begin to tremble. “Please stop,” he whispers, “it hurts.” Alexia ignores the man’s pleas and closes her eyes. She appears to go into a trance. When she opens her eyes again she is angry. Very angry.
“Your wife didn’t fall down the stairs, did she?” Alexia says quietly. “You pushed her. And when you looked at her broken body at the bottom of the stairs you were happy.” She shakes her head in disgust and continues. “She pleaded for help and you just let her die. And everyone believed that it was an accident.”
Behind Jimmy’s mask his eyes are wide.
The man becomes very pale then reaches for his heart. His lips tremble and he tries to speak but only whimpers. Alexia releases her grip and the man collapses. He lies on the floor then raises an arm toward Alexia in a gesture for help. “How does it feel?” she says coldly. The man’s eyes water and he tries to catch his breath.
Alexia stares at the man. It is quiet except for the rasping of the old man’s breath; the bag of candy slips from Jimmy’s hand and hits the floor.
The sound startles Alexia and she turns around. She looks down the street and sees a group of trick-or-treaters making their way toward the house. The children are younger and a group of adults follows close behind.
Alexia gently pulls Jimmy’s mask up. He looks at the man lying on the floor then back at Alexia. “How did you…” he begins to ask but Alexia places her finger on his lips and he stops talking.
“There’s a group of parents coming up the walkway. We have to tell them to get help.” She glances over at the man then looks back to Jimmy. “He just collapsed when he came to the door. Right?” Jimmy nods. He is very pale. “I’ll talk to the parents, okay?” Alexia says.
Jimmy nods again.
“I make a VERY good witch,” she says with a smile.
Jimmy stares at her for a moment as the color returns to his face. And then he begins to smile. “No, you are an awesome witch,” he says. His smile turns into a grin.
Alexia laughs softly, takes Jimmy’s hand and leads him up the walkway towards the group of parents.
During scenic drives through beautiful British Columbia, Patrick Perkins collects random thoughts which sometimes meet later on the page as short stories. He hopes that one day a short story will become ambitious enough to grow into a novel.
Brad’s car cruised to a halt on the empty country lane adjacent to Leon Whale’s pumpkin field. A plump full moon rode high in the night sky, casting deep shadows around everything it touched. In the pallid moonlight, even from sitting inside the car, it was clear that farmer Leon had a bumper crop of pumpkins for sale this Halloween. In both size and number they were an impressive sight.
“I don’t like it,” said Amy, Brad’s girlfriend. She put her empty beer bottle in the footwell and pouted. “What if we get caught? How will I explain to daddy why I spent a night in jail?”
“It’s only one pumpkin,” said Brad. “We’re not stealing the Queen of England’s crown jewels.”
“But I’m scared. I didn’t know it’d be so quiet and spooky out here. Why don’t we just come back tomorrow, when it’s light, and buy a pumpkin? They’re only twelve dollars.”
“Everywhere else pumpkins are just four dollars,” Brad reminded her. “Leon Whale’s a rip-off merchant — a lowdown thief. And what kind of name’s ‘Leon Whale’, anyway?”
“Eastern European? Jewish-American?” Amy hazarded.
Brad shrugged. “Whatever it is, it’s a strange name.”
He climbed out of the car, flashlight in hand, followed reluctantly by Amy.
The quietness of the country road was punctuated only by the soft crunch of their feet compressing the dry earth. The atmosphere, laden with a sense of impending dread, caused the couple to forget the sharp chill in the air and the goose bumps on their arms.
“I’m really frightened,” Amy complained, as a hooting owl broke the silence.
“Let’s get our pumpkin and then we’ll be on our way,” said Brad. “It won’t take us ten minutes.”
As they made their way deeper into the field, searching for the most succulent pumpkin, they became aware of the faint rustling sounds of barely perceptible movement all about them.
Panicked, Brad said, “Okay. Back to the car! Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.”
As the couple turned around, desperately trying to maintain their composure, every pumpkin within their field of vision shuddered and pulled its roots free from the soil. Then, as a body, the plants rose up, the orange gourds of their fruits supported by writhing tendrils of vegetation.
The plants turned their gourd-‘heads’ towards Brad and Amy, staring malevolently through narrow, carved eyes. Their mouths, rictuses of jaggedly fashioned teeth, grinned malevolently at the trembling youngsters.
The strange creatures advanced on the couple at a shambling shuffle, their tendrils flicking around like whips as they sought out their prey.
“Run!” cried Brad, his voice verging on hysteria.
Hand in hand Brad and Amy fled. However, they found themselves being herded in the opposite direction, away from their car. Against their wills they were forced further into the pumpkin field by the stumbling beasts.
With the monstrous pumpkins controlling the couple’s movements, the end came suddenly. Brad and Amy, sprinting away from the pursuing plants – like cattle being corralled by cowboys – fell headlong into a newly-dug pit. Seconds later, before they could get to their feet and scramble out of their makeshift grave, the pumpkins were upon them.
Sharp tendrils pierced the young couple’s flesh; and once they had penetrated to the bone and wormed their way into arteries flowing with life blood, the plants emptied the screaming youngsters of their bodily fluids.
When the pumpkins had drunk their fill, an old man carrying a shovel hobbled up from behind the carnivorous plants.
“Back to your plots, my beauties,” Leon Whale commanded, forcing a path through the jostling pumpkins.
He stared down dispassionately at the two desiccated corpses, shooed away the few loitering plants that had not fully satisfied their appetite for blood and set to work filling in Brad and Amy’s grave.
Once he had tamped down the earth, Leon limped over to the nearby road, hotwired Brad’s car and drove it back to his barn.
“I’m accruing quite a collection,” he laughed, surveying the fleet of vehicles lined up inside the barn.
There was no time to waste though, for October the thirty-first — Halloween — was barely an hour away. So without further ado he turned on his heel and padlocked the barn door.
Next morning, when Leon’s first customer of the day pulled up at the farm kiosk, she could not hide her admiration for his gargantuan pumpkins.
“How d’ya get yer darn pumpkins so plump?” she asked.
Leon Whale grinned. “I just feed them the best fertilizer, ma’am.”
Paul A. Freeman is the author of ‘Rumours of Ophir’, a crime novel set in Zimbabwe. His narrative poem ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers’, and his second crime novel, ‘Vice and Virtue’, have also been published. Over a hundred of his short stories have appeared in print. He currently lives in Abu Dhabi with his family, and despite reports to the contrary, he never swims in the nude (you’ll be relieved to know). He can be found at www.paulfreeman.weebly.com and www.chaucers-uncle.weebly.com.
“RETURN TO ME THAT WHICH IS MINE.”
The force of the stranger’s voice blew Mark back a step. He planted one foot behind him and kept his hand firmly on the doorknob. The bowl of candy he’d set out for the trick-or-treaters toppled to the ground. Miniature chocolate bars spilled everywhere in a colourful mess.
Mark looked the stranger up and down. The face was obscured by a large hood that cast it in shadow, but the voice was masculine. He wore steel armor and a long black cape hung from his shoulders.
“There’s no need to shout. What do you think I have that belongs to you?” Mark asked.
“RETURN IT TO ME.”
The door came off its hinges in Mark’s hand.
“I just had this door repaired, you know.” He frowned at the streaks of egg on the wood. Damn kids.
“GIVE HIM TO ME.”
“Look, man, I don’t steal. I’ve never even snuck anything out on the bottom of a grocery cart. Tell me what you want, or get lost.”
A loud bark shook the foundation of the house. The dog bounded out of the living room, his tail wagging with ferocious happiness. Mark tried to move aside but the massive creature knocked him down and went over him. He greeted the stranger at the door with sloppy kisses. His huge back paws were firmly planted in Mark’s abdomen.
“Ow,” Mark said.
“YOU HAVE TAKEN GOOD CARE OF HIM, AND YOU WILL BE REWARDED,” the stranger said. His voice peeled paint off the walls. Mark didn’t notice until later because he was too busy being in pain.
The dog turned and blinked yellow eyes at him. Mark had picked the mutt up in the park earlier, and at the time he’d had two eyes. There were six now. The dog’s shaggy black head had multiplied. Was that possible?
“I only drank one beer,” Mark wheezed.
The dog shifted and Mark’s bladder made a popping noise. Why was the dog the size of a horse all of a sudden?
“COME, CERBERUS. IT IS TIME TO GO HOME.”
The dog barked three times, all at once. Mark decided he must be drunk after all.
The crushing pain vanished along with the strange dog and his owner. It took Mark some time to get up, and by then he’d witnessed a group of teenagers destroying his jack-o-lanterns. Damn kids.
“I should stop picking up strays,” Mark said.
He picked up his fallen candy bowl to replace it on the table. He scooped a handful of chocolate bars off the floor and started to replace them, but something caught his eyes.
Six gleaming red pomegranate seeds rested at the bottom of the bowl, sparkling with promise.
Holly Geely has been under the influence of fantasy and science fiction since she was very young. She has been shortlisted twice on Mashstories.com. She is a fan of bad puns and bright colours. You can find her on Twitter @hollygeely.
Grandfather’s voice grumbled through the walls. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he stood at the end of the hall where my wing linked to the main house. I wanted to seal it off and be alone, but Grandfather wouldn’t give me the key.
“I said come here.”
My hesitation would only make him angrier, but I couldn’t move. My body anchored to the chair and images of Grandfather’s face flashed in my vision: his squinting eyes, red cheeks glazed with sweat, and the bulging vein that pulsed in his neck.
Grandfather towered in the doorframe, glaring at me with tarmac eyes that reminded me of all the times I’d fallen in the park. I’d limp over to where the parents sat with the other injured children, nursing their cuts, wiping the tears off their cheeks. Grandfather never took me to the park; he told me to go alone.
“I saw you.”
He clenched his hands into tight balls by his sides. He didn’t touch me, but I felt an accusatory finger jab my chest. His fists shook, shook like when the walls first started melting. Shook like he wanted to hit me, to tell me to knock it off, get my mind straight. My head whined, and he was everywhere. Yelling. Inside and outside. I had it worse when I was younger. My father spanked me with a shovel. I had it worse.
“Look at me.”
My head didn’t move; it was too heavy to lift. My eyes locked onto his knuckles. Red. Chapped. I forced thick air out of my lungs, then sucked it back in again. A sigh ripped through the silence, prompting me to apologise for something.
“I said look at me!”
I flinched as his fist came down on top of the dresser, sending the bottles scattering for safety. The picture frame toppled over, but this time nothing broke. Without thinking, I pulled my knees up and buried my head in between them. Hands pulled at my hair as I clenched my eyelids.
Hiding was something he hated, but he did it too. When the school said I was strange, when the doctor came, when the white van pulled up. He hid me. In the cupboard. Under the stairs. Behind the sofa. There’s nothing wrong with him, you can’t take him. Don’t take him away from me!
“What are you doing?”
His hands clawed my knees until they dropped down, then he shook me hard, smacking my spine against the back of the chair. Warm flecks of spit flicked against my face. He pulled my arms down and forced my fingers open so that the strands of hair fell onto the ground. I realised that my throat was hoarse; I was screaming.
I worked on my breathing. He inspected my pupils, and then turned back to the dresser and groaned. Heat bubbled up from my stomach to my throat. He spun around and ripped me out of the chair, pulling me into an uncomfortable hug that hurt my neck. I struggled, convinced that he was trying to smother me, but he held on until I went limp. Slowly, the heat slipped back down my throat and disappeared.
“Why did you spit the pills out?”
Holding me at arm’s length, he lowered himself so we were at eye level. I couldn’t tell him the truth. I couldn’t tell him that the pills dulled my senses, that I could see clearly without them, that this reality, this warped reality that he thought was true was false, and I was the only person that knew it. No. That was crazy. That was insane. I tried to break eye contact, but he grabbed my face and forced it into position.
“Do you want to go back? Do you want to be locked up again?”
After attempting to shake my head in his tight grasp, I squeaked out a fragile “no”. With a hand still on my face, he pointed to the bed. Inside, I wanted to lash out and hit him, but I didn’t want to be sent back to the institute.
“Get into bed.”
He held out my pyjamas whilst trying to avert his gaze to the other side of the room. Preferring to sleep naked, I ignored his hand and pulled myself beneath the covers. The coolness of the sheets soothed my skin. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. I wondered if he’d noticed; if he’d try to give me “the talk”. I’d already had it in the institute, but I wanted to know if he’d try. His eyes wobbled like warm jelly when he tried, when he wanted my approval. Like last year when he bought me a puppy because it was the anniversary of Mum’s death, and he thought I wanted a dog even though I wanted a rabbit. Or a kitten. Or maybe that wasn’t last year. It was before the institute. Or after. Or both.
“Look, it’s not… difficult. If you don’t take them, you go back.”
He fished the bottles from the floor and tipped an array of pills into his palm. He arranged them into a multi-coloured smiley face. It would’ve been appealing if I were four. I opened my mouth and he forced them in, making sure I swallowed.
“Jon, I don’t want you to go back.”
My jaw ached to ask why he never said that before I’d had a bottle of mind-numbing pills tipped down my throat, but my insides felt cloudy. My mind numbed. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. I pulled and pushed air through my mouth and stared at the ceiling. I felt him move towards the door. I attempted to tell him to stay, but I was falling into a pit of smoke. My eyes drifted, landing on the bottle of pills on top of the dresser, before I forced out the words, ”Gramps… I don’t want to go back, either.”
Chaz Josephs was born in Bradford, United Kingdom, in 1992. Her father is a Jamaican immigrant and her mother was born and raised in a tiny town in the Yorkshire countryside — it’s quite a mix. She doesn’t remember a time in her life when she hasn’t been telling stories. As a child, she used to make up bedtime stories for her sisters, and as she got older she started to write them down.