The Monsters Among Us

I originally wrote this story for Jolene Haley‘s Halloween Showcase on her blog last year. I’m reposting it here to kick off October!

 

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The rhythmic sound infiltrates my dreams, blending with the hatchet chopping through the bathroom door, until I come to my senses enough to realize that the bloody tool I held in my dream isn’t making that noise.

With a sigh, I roll over and pull the covers over my head, trying to find my way back into my dream. The blood doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve gotten used to it.

The thin comforter does nothing to block out the noise, though, so I get up and turn on the light. My spacious room is dimly lit by faux-gaslight lamps, the only signs I’m staying here are the four-poster bed rumpled by sleep and my small suitcase sitting near the bathroom door.

I pad over to the window and peek out of the curtains of my first-floor room. The silvery moonlight illuminates a dark shape almost right outside my window.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The shadow’s shovel scrapes and bites into the damp earth. Over and over, digging a hole deeper and deeper.

I hold my breath, as if the figure might be able to hear me, but he keeps digging, oblivious to his audience. I let my breath out and continue watching, curious.

After another half an hour, he pauses and wipes his brow. The hole seems sufficiently deep for him now, an arbitrary decision from what I can see, and he rolls a sack into it before beginning the long task of refilling it.

The mid-morning sun shines through the gap in the curtains right into my eyes. I glare at the light before rolling onto my back and stretching out, feeling the silky sheets against my skin. The expansive bed envelopes me and holds me in its safety.

They’ll never find me here.

The thought swells within my chest and I laugh at the sheer exhilaration of freedom. I wrap my arms around my chest and roll back and forth on the bed.

I am safe now.

Still grinning, I dress in the only set of clothes I own. A sensible brown dress and sensible shoes. Everyone knows that “sensible” really means “ugly” but in this moment, I feel like a queen.

Gliding down the hallway toward the main lobby, I nod to the peasants who stomp past me. I forgive them for their ill manners. They don’t know what it’s like to be free.

“Miss Crawford,” the concierge says as I walk past. I glance around and then realize he’s using the fake name I gave last night. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir,” I say, magnanimous, my coy smile hiding my momentary lapse. “I was hoping to find some breakfast.”

With a smile of his own in return, he directs me into the dining room.

I like this man. He’s kind and pleasant. I look at the name placard placed on the countertop, proudly proclaiming him to be MR. HENRY WILKINS.

A good name for a good man.

I float into the dining room and the hostess seats me at a table on the glass-enclosed patio. The walls shimmer in the sunlight, making the dying gardens surrounding the room a hazy dream.

The hostess frowns at my clothing when she thinks I can’t see. I do not like her, but I didn’t look at her nametag before she left. I give her up as a lost cause. She’s not that bad and not everyone can appreciate true beauty.

Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes. A feast the likes of which I’ve seen but never had cause to eat before. This, truly, must be heaven.

The gardener pushes a wheelbarrow full of fallen leaves past the glass wall in front of me. He looks like he’s in pain, hunched over the handles and limping. His mouth is parted, his breathing labored, and sweat drips down his brow.

Last night, when I arrived in the darkness, the air was tinged with a faint promise of winter. The gardener must be working very hard to be sweating so much in the cool autumn air.

I finish my breakfast and the gardener scoots by again. The wheelbarrow is still filled with leaves, but pushing it doesn’t look as difficult anymore.

With a smile, I resolve to meet this gardener. He seems like an interesting man.

Leaves crunch under my sensible shoes as I walk just outside my room’s window. If I didn’t know the ground had been disturbed, it would be easy to miss, but I look for the edges of the hole and find them beneath the leaves.

“Miss,” a gruff voice says from behind, “You shouldn’t wander off the paths.”

I turn and face the gardener. His graying hair is cut short and mostly hidden beneath a cap. A grizzled beard hides his mouth, but I can tell he’s nervous from the way his dark eyes twitch.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” I say, pitching my voice into the girlish incompetence he’s expecting of me. “It’s just that I’m staying in this room,” I gesture to my window, “and I wanted to see these pretty views in the daytime.”

“In the daytime…” He narrows his eyes at me, like he’s trying to figure out what, if anything, I saw.

“I got in late last night and couldn’t see much in the darkness.”

He grunts and shuffles his feet.

“Well, as you can see there’s not much here, miss.”

But the way his eyes keep darting between my face and the hidden hole next to my feet tells me a different story. I smile at him.

“You’d um… best be finding your way back to the path.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

I march past him without a backwards glance, proud of myself for the restraint I’m learning to show.

There are no holes dug outside my window tonight. I know. I sat next to my window waiting for him to come back, but he didn’t. Not tonight.

Men’s voices rumble urgently outside my door, their footsteps thudding dully on the carpet. I creep over, as quiet as I can, and press my ear to the cold wood.

“–no one here by that name,” MR. HENRY WILKINS says.

“Harrumph,” another man says.

Ice freezes my veins. I know that voice.

He’s here. They’ve found me.

“Do you have a photo?” The concierge asks.

My breathing is shallow. I can’t seem to catch my breath.

My hunter grunts and I imagine him patting his pockets, looking for it. Their footsteps recede.

“…seem to have forgotten it…” His voice fades.

My breathing eases. I can’t stay here much longer, but I have a little time. He’ll come back with that horrid photo they took of me. The one where my hair’s all matted with blood they wouldn’t let me clean off.

“It’s evidence,” they said when I asked if I could wash the blood off.

But they didn’t understand that what I do is necessary. The man who came after me understood least of all.

One more day here. That’s all I need before they come back with the photo and the concierge won’t be such a nice man anymore.

Deep breaths calm my frantically beating heart. This will all end up okay. I know it.

I didn’t come all the way here to not remain a free woman.

I like living in the space between invisible and not-quite-noticed. My plain clothes and quiet ways lend themselves to not really being seen. People interact with me, answer my questions, be polite, but as soon as I step away, I’m forgotten.

Not so with the gardener.

I can feel his eyes tracking me when I walk the winding paths outside. The only place I’m free of him is inside the walls of the Thornewood Hotel, but I enjoy being outside. The chill air wakes me up, reminding me of who I am. What I am.

And I’m going to enjoy my final day here, no matter what.

The gardener stalks, waiting, watching.

I bide my time, pretending at being oblivious.

This is the part I love the most.

Damp earth squishes between my fingers sending the scent of dirt and darkness upward. I push my hand down, reaching deep into the soil until my fingers touch the gardener’s prize.

I wanted to be sure before…

Most people need to dig up the whole damn grave to be sure, but I don’t need to. I know the feel of dead skin.

The gardener is a very bad man.

Unfortunately for him, I’m worse.

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Halloween Short Fiction Contest!

This year, in honor of my favorite season, I’m running a flash fic contest for Halloween! Read on for details.

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What: Short fiction under 1000 words in the spirit of Halloween! Give me creepy, spooky, or funny. Let your imagination run wild and do what you do best! (Please, no graphic violence.)

Where: Send your submissions pasted into the body of the email to writingrosa at gmail dot com. Any emails with attachments will be disqualified and deleted.

When: Sub your stories by October 1!

Who: 18+ humans can submit. 🙂

There will be 1 winner and 2 runners up! Your stories will be posted on my blog during October and all winners will receive e-copies of a creepy Halloween book (Book TBD!)

Good luck and happy writing!

The Dreaming

Dusty cardboard boxes loomed over me in the attic of my late grandparents’ house. With a sigh I grabbed the nearest one and opened it. I hoped for treasure and instead found moth-eaten, ancient-looking nightgowns. A growl rumbled in my throat.

This was useless. How did my mom ever expect me to find anything up here?

I kicked the box down the steps.

“Watch it!” Mom’s good-natured voice, tinged with amusement, called up from below. “You nearly decapitated me.”

“At least then I wouldn’t have to go through this shit,” I muttered under my breath.

I trudged the length of the attic, nudging box after box with my foot. They probably all had stupid things in them. My grandma couldn’t even pack away her clothes right. Everything else was probably ruined, too.

Dust motes danced in the weak stream of sunlight coming from the small window at the far end of the room. The dust tickled my nose and I sneezed. Wiping my nose on the back of my arm, I moved closer to the window.

The outer pane of glass was cracked. The spiderwebbed pattern broke my view of the yard into little slivers that almost made a complete picture. My baby brother played in the yard with my dad. All the work left to us women, as usual for my family.

Anger coursed through me and I kicked the nearest box as hard as I could. Jewelry skittered across the floor from the newly split cardboard. Shiny fake jewels and cheap gold caught the dim light and gleamed. A pale silver ring rolled out and stopped at my feet. I crouched down and touched it.

I woke up in a pool of sweat, my mind sluggish, my skin hot and taut. My sheets were bunched around me and I shivered. I pushed back the covers and tried to stand, but my legs gave out. With a crash, I fell to the floor. Mom came running in.

“Oh, baby.” She held my arm and helped me back into bed. “Just lie down and rest.”

“Bathroom,” I gasped. She helped me to the bathroom. My legs shook violently from the effort and I shivered uncontrollably in the cold air. Mom changed my sheets while I did my business.

When I was done, I looked at myself in the mirror. Greasy hair plastered to my skin. Dark circles under my eyes. Haggard and sickly. I brought my hand up to push my hair back. The ring was on my pinky finger.

I didn’t remember putting the ring on. The last thing I remembered was touching it, and then I woke up at home.

I pulled the ring off and left it on the counter. After washing my hands, Mom helped me stagger back to bed where I fell into a deep sleep.

My head was clear the next time I woke up. And I wasn’t soaked and shivering, which was an improvement. I sat up and swung my feet to the floor. Taking a deep breath, I tested my weight. They felt solid under me and I made it to the bathroom on my own this time.

The ring still sat on the counter where I left it. I didn’t touch it. Something was off about that thing.

Mom came in with a breakfast tray. Scrambled eggs and ginger ale. Yum.

She helped me get comfortable and sat on the edge of my bed while I ate.

“How are you feeling, sweetie?”

“Better,” I said. Raising the fork to my mouth was tiring. “Tired. How long have I been sick?”

“Only a few days. Probably that bug that’s been going around.” She smoothed my hair back and smiled. Memories of the ring flashed in my mind. I wasn’t sure I believed her. “Just keep resting and you’ll be better in no time.” By the time I was done eating, I was ready to go back to sleep.

I dreamed about a room. Dark. Walls with peeling paint. A small, barred window with missing glass. A single chair sitting in the middle. The chair had a metal frame and a ripped vinyl cushion. I didn’t want to go near it.

A man entered the room. I didn’t know how because there were no doors, but one minute he wasn’t there, and then… he was.

I wasn’t even sure that “man” was the right description for him. He felt male, but he was more smudgy black smoke than man.

“I want my property back,” he said.

This is just a dream, I thought.

“Is it?” he asked. I was confused. Maybe I’d said that out loud?

Yes, I thought, careful this time not to say it out loud.

“If you say so,” he said. “Give me the ring.”

Or what, I thought.

He didn’t answer. Instead, spiders swarmed out of a crack in the corner of the room. My skin crawled just looking at them.

Maybe that’s where he came from, I thought before my blood ran cold. I hated spiders. My heart raced, sending shards of ice through my veins.

I woke up in pain but my first thought was: How am I going to get that ring into my dream?

The ring sat on the counter, pale silver against the dark countertop. I was afraid to touch it, but I wouldn’t have been able to say why. It seemed to have a life of its own and I was quite looking forward to being rid of it. If only I could figure out how. I slipped it into a small velvet bag without touching it and put it in my pocket.

Like other moments in my life when I was faced with a problem I couldn’t solve on my own, I went to the library. I was on the tail end of whatever this sickness was, but I needed to figure this problem out. Mom agreed to let me go if I promised to take it easy and call her the first moment I started feeling tired.

I holed up in the fairy tale section, scouring the books for stories about magic rings and dreams. After a couple hours, my eyes burned and my hands were dry and I was no closer to finding a solution. It was no use. I slammed the book shut and pushed it away from me. I propped my head up, hands pressed to my eyes.

A shadow loomed over me.

“Do you need some help?” His voice was smudged smoke and creeping things that crawl from dark corners. I didn’t need to look at him to know him.

Staring at the table, I reached deep into my pocket and pulled out the velvet bag. I held it out to the side and then it was gone.

“You have no idea what you possessed and gave to me so freely.” Faint laughter met my ears.

When I turned my head to say something to him, I was alone except for a sinking feeling that I’d done something very wrong.


Originally published on burntheboxdown.wordpress.com for the prompt “a stolen ring, a fear of spiders, and a sinister stranger.”

Cinderella, At the Ball

Light seeps in around the edges of the door. Not enough to see by, but enough to know it’s daytime and I should stop sleeping now.

I pick at the hole near the baseboard of the closet. Insulation pokes out and makes my hands itch, but I ignore it. I focus on making the hole bigger.

My plan to escape the closet came after hearing mice in the walls, scrabbling around as I tried to sleep. If they can move around in the walls, maybe I can, too.

The only problem is working without making noise. As the wall rips away in my hands, the hole grows, but so does my fear of discovery. They can’t know. They can’t find out.

The jingling of keys forces me to the front of the closet. It must be time to eat. Or maybe it’s time to go to the bathroom. I can’t always keep the schedule straight.

Bright light hurts my eyes and I duck my head down until they adjust. She’s standing in front of me, blocking some of the light. Well, one of them, at least. I can never tell them apart. I think they like it that way.

She thrusts some paper into my hands. No, not paper. An envelope. I open my mouth to ask about it, but she turns and leaves. She doesn’t shut the door again, so I take it as an invitation to leave the closet.

The envelope is heavy in my hands. Who knew paper could weigh so much.

I slit it open with my fingernail and ease the contents out. Frilly pinks and whites surround elegant handwriting.

You are cordially invited to the Branson’s for Emily’s Sixteenth Birthday Masquerade
Saturday, October 31
7pm
Please wear a mask

A masquerade! My heart leaps at the thought of fancy masks, feathers, and ballgowns. I can’t let the twins know about it. They’d never let me go. I burn the invitation.

I count down the days until the ball. Back in the dark of the closet, I have to fight to pay attention, counting meals and bathroom trips. I can’t miss the party.

The hole in the wall is almost me-sized. The pieces are stacked in the back corner of the closet, as far from the door as possible. The ladies haven’t seemed to notice.

I wish I knew why they kept me in here. I wish I could tell them apart. Every time I thought I had a connection with one of them, the other would show up and confuse me again. All I wanted was to get out of this closet.

Saturday comes. Dinner is served. The ladies settle in downstairs for the evening. The soft blare of the tv reaches my ears, muffled through so many walls and doors.

The hole in the wall is big enough. I’m amazed the ladies haven’t caught me. The thought disappears once I wiggle into the space and find my way outside. I had to break another hole in the outer wall, but freedom is worth any price.

I don’t have a dress. Only the rags the ladies saw fit to allow me to wear. I run into the woods near our house. Their house, I remind myself. It was never mine.

Leaves crunch under my feet. Twigs snag my clothes and snap. I fashion a mask from sapling twigs, pliable and strong, and leaves stolen from trees. Acorns adorn the sides where jewels and feathers should be.

I am ready.

People at the party give me a wide berth. I want to dance, but no one crosses the gap between them and me. This makes me want to flip tables over, but I don’t because that would make me a bad guest. I want nothing more than to stay here.

I eat the food and stalk the edges of the crowd. No one speaks to me, but everyone watches me from the corners of their eyes.

A mirror reflects my image as I make my rounds around the room. A waif of a girl stares back at me. Dingy clothes, matted hair, a mask made of the wilds. I don’t recognize myself.

Grabbing the nearest heavy object, a crystal vase with real roses in it, I smash the mirror. The crash satisfies the beast inside me.

The music stops. Everyone stares at me, the wild girl with feral ways and bared teeth. I growl at them. They take a collective step back.

The ladies glide through the crowd, confident and calm. Without a word, they grasp my arms and guide me home. Not to the closet, though. I’ve become too good at escaping for that.

I don’t know what lies in store for me at our home. Their home. It was never mine.


Originally posted at https://burntheboxdown.wordpress.com/ for the story prompt “identical twins, a party invitation, and a locked closet.”

 

The Hanging Tree

The night pressed down heavy on the men traipsing through the dark forest. The forest was still, expectant. Their swords jostled at their sides. Their boots crunched on the leaves covering the forest floor. An occasional curse hovered in the air when a root rose up to trip one of them.

It was a night all of them dreaded.

The clearing was empty when they came upon it. Grass grew in tufts, silvery gray in the moonlight. The Hanging Tree, gnarled and ancient, loomed in the middle. Its branches like fingers, reaching out for them.

It knew why they had come here.

They’d not been standing there long, huddled in a group, eyes fixed on the forest around them, when a woman glided into the clearing. Her white dress glowed in the moonlight, accentuating her swelling belly.

“You came,” she said. Her voice was quiet and breathless in the dark night beneath the trees.

The group whirled around. One man’s mouth opened into a surprised o, his hand pressed to his heart.

“Who are your friends?” she asked. She looked from one to another, her eyebrows knit together in confusion. They were meant to meet alone. His friends shivered and moved closer together, their hands near their weapons.

He ignored her question.

“I’ve come to say goodbye,” he said instead. His voice was not quite friendly.

She grew still, her face stony and impassive.

“Did you honestly think I’d run away with you? That I could love you?” His words cut through her.

“Yes.” Her voice was as quiet as the wind sighing between the trees. She placed her left hand on her stomach.

“Well… I don’t. I just wanted to have some fun, but you’re turning into more trouble than you’re worth. It was never going to happen.”

He looked to his friends, who nodded their support. His family had spoken sense into him that morning and his friends had been sent with him to the meeting. He took another breath and opened his mouth, but she spoke before he could.

“You’re right. I should have known you could never love me.” She smiled. “But I won’t have us leave here as enemies. Will you walk with me?”

She reached out her hands to him. Without even a moment’s hesitation, he took them. His friends tried to stop him, but she held him tightly. They disappeared into the trees.

A single scream broke through the thick silence. Everyone living near the forest shivered and shuttered their windows against the night. They knew what that scream meant, even if they were too young to have heard it before. But they also knew that the one who dwelled in the forest did not take things that were not hers.

The man’s friends hung their heads, knowing in their hearts that he was lost. As one, they left the forest, trudging home to deliver the news that they could not save him. Just as the men before them could not save the last one.

Tomorrow, they would return to gather his body from the Hanging Tree. He would be wizened and ancient, like the tree itself. And, like the tree, he would now forever belong to the forest.


Originally posted by me on https://burntheboxdown.wordpress.com/

Ocean’s Pull

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Photo by Lisa

Nothing’s been the same since Pa left us last year. He got up early one morning, said he was going for some cigarettes, and he never came back. Ma said he left us for that bimbo secretary of his, but I know different.

He left us for the sea.

And now the same waves crest and crash in my soul. I’ve been trying to ignore it for Ma’s sake. She needs me. But the pull is strong and I can’t resist anymore.

It’s a wonder Pa lasted out as long as he did. I’m not as strong as him.

So tonight, when the moon is high and the night is deep, I’ll pack my things, kiss Ma’s sleeping forehead, and leave. She’ll understand. She’s got to.

Pieces of my Heart

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Photo by Lisa

“It’s not what it once was,” I said. We stared at the run down house, trying to imagine it in its prime.

I blinked back tears at the gaping windows and falling roof and porch overgrown with weeds. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

You placed your arm around me and I tried to stop shaking. As you squeezed me tighter, heaving sobs surfaced and I buried my face in your chest. I soaked the front of your shirt with my tears.

“It’s okay,” you murmured in my ear. Over and over, a mantra I clung to. I wanted so badly to believe you, but I knew it would never be okay.

They say you can never go home again. I finally believe it.