Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dead of Night - a short story for Halloween

The sun illuminates all things, the moon nothing but the shadows of our minds.

Cold mist had settled on the distant cemetery. The moon was almost full, and Elise watched as incandescent light danced across the graves. Big arms of her grandmother’s rocking chair comforted her. One of the few possessions she’d managed to save from the fire that had recently consumed her home. Now, it creaked on the front porch of the house where she and her daughter had moved.
Winter begins early in the mountains, and a late fall chill encompassed the valley. Elise wrapped Grandma’s Afghan around her shoulders as wolves howled in the foothills. She flinched when someone tapped her shoulder.
“Sorry, Mama. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You got school tomorrow, Jesse. Why are you still awake?”
“There’s a voice in my room.”
“What?” Elise said.
“A man’s voice.”
“You hear things.”
“No, there’s something in there.”
The coal oil lamp gave off so much soot and smoke, Elise only burned it for short periods. Now it didn’t matter. Jesse followed her through the tiny house to the bedroom.
“No one here. You were just dreaming.”
“But I saw him.”
“Your imagination is playing tricks on you.”
Jesse shook her head. “He was all aglow, his eyes blazing red.”
“A nightmare, then. There’s no one here but you and me.”
Elise was only an inch or so taller than five feet, daughter Jesse’s chin already reaching her shoulders. They were different in other ways: Elise’s hair and eyes were dark. Jesse had green cat eyes, her hair reddish-blond and cut in a tomboy’s bob.
“You’re almost tall as me, Miss Jess. Must have got it from your dad’s side of the family.”
When mention of her dead father caused Jesse’s eyes to dampen, Elise wiped them with the sleeve of her dress.
“Sorry I’m such a baby.”
“It’s okay. I miss your daddy much as you do. He’s in a better place and watching over us from heaven.”
“Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“You’re too big to be sleeping with your mama.”
“But I don’t like this house.”
“It’s the only place we have. Tomorrow, before school, we’ll meet our new neighbor.”
“You mean the crazy old woman that lives on the other side of the cemetery?”
“I didn’t know there was a house there.”
“More like a shack. The woman sits on her porch all day. She scared me when I was looking at the big grave.”
“What were you doing in the cemetery?”
 “Chasing a rabbit. I found a grave with a big iron fence around it. I almost bumped into the old woman when I turned. She gave me this crazy grin, cackled like a witch and hurried away before I could say anything.”
“She’s not the neighbor I want to meet. I’m talking about the house on the way to town. Meanwhile, please stay away from the cemetery.”
***
Elise and Jesse waded through ground fog as they left the house the next morning. Sun peeked over the mountains, warming the long hike to their neighbor closest to town. Smoke wisped from the big stone chimney as Elise knocked on the door. A smiling woman with snow-white hair opened it.
“I’m Elise, and this is my daughter Jesse. We’re your new neighbors from the house by the cemetery.”
The woman grabbed Elise’s wrist and pulled her inside. “Your arm’s ice cold. Warm yourself by the fire. I’ll get us something to drink.”
The roaring flame felt so warm and comfortable, neither Elise nor Jesse heard the woman when she returned.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.
“And we didn’t mean to barge in,” Elise said.
“Glad you did. I don’t get many visitors. I’m Hattie.”
Elise held the warm cup with both hands, letting wisps of steam warm her nose before taking a sip. Jesse was busy looking at family pictures on the mantle when a large white dog came running, its tail wagging. When Jesse bent down to hug her, Hattie’s smile beamed.
“That’s Moby. A killer pit bull, but you wouldn’t know it from this one. She’s a real baby.”
Moby was licking Jesse’s face. “Hi, pretty girl. I think I like you.”
“Seems the feeling’s mutual,” Hattie said. “She belonged to my granddaughter. Couldn’t take Moby with her when she went away to college. Moby misses her something terrible.”
“Can I take her outside to play?” Jesse asked.
“You bet. She’d love it, and your mama and me can talk.”
Once the front door closed, Hattie led Elise to the kitchen table and poured her more coffee.
“You’re white as a ghost,” she said. “Sure that scanty shawl you’re wearing’s gonna keep you warm?”
“We were in a fire. Most of our clothes burned. Jesse’s in school and I have a job at the fabric shop in town.”
“You’re living at the old house, aren’t you?”
“Something wrong?”
Hattie glanced out the window, but not before Elise noticed her look of concern.
“Nothing. How did you find it?”
“A distant aunt left it to me when she died. When our house burned, we had no other place to go.”
“Is your husband . . .?” A single tear ran down Elise’s cheek. “We’ll talk about it some other time. I have things you may need.”
Hattie returned with an armload. “Lots of clothes around this house I’ll never wear,” she said.
“We can’t,” Elise said.
“They’re cluttering my closet. They were my daughter’s and granddaughter. Both gone now. I bet they’ll fit you and Jesse. Try on this coat.”
Hattie helped her slip a wool jacket around her shoulders. “It’s warm,” Elise said.
“And it’ll keep you that way no matter how deep snow gets in the valley. Try on these boots. They look your size.”
“Won’t your daughter miss them?”
“My baby won’t be coming back.”
Elise hugged her. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m just a lonely old woman, and I’m so happy to see you and Jesse. Moby too.”
Elise didn’t remove the jacket. “And we’re happy to meet a friendly neighbor. Jesse told me the old woman that lives by the cemetery scares her, and our house is so cold and dismal.
“You got firewood?”
“I wasn’t expecting it to get this cold so fast.”
“I have a man that’ll bring you a wagonload,” Hattie said.
Elise shook her head. “Can’t afford it till payday. I been kinda making do till then.”
“Gonna freeze tonight. I have plenty of food and firewood. You two stay with me until you get paid.”
“Can’t,” Elise said.
“You sure? I have lots of room. You and Jesse are welcome to stay long as you like.”
“Something about our house frightens me. Doesn’t matter cause I’m determined to make our new life in this valley work. And that means living in our own house.”
“Something scare you?” Hattie asked.
“Jesse heard something last night in her room. A man’s voice. She got scared and I let her sleep with me. Is there something about the house I should know?”
“Nothing,” Hattie said. “You and Jesse stop by on your way home. At least let me cook dinner for you. I’ve been eating alone and I’d love the company.”
***
Early evening shadows crept over the mountains as Elise and Jesse returned to Hattie’s house. Jesse had waited at the fabric shop until her mother finished work. Mrs. Lambert, the store owner hadn't said a word to her all day.
“You like your new job?” Jesse asked.
“I love working with fabrics, their smell, touch and feel. I don’t think Mrs. Lambert likes me, though.”
“Why?”
“She never smiles.”
“You’re just nervous cause it’s your first week,” Jesse said.
“Hope you’re right. We really need this job.”
***
Elise was out of breath when Hattie opened the door. Moby, tail wagging, ran to meet Jesse. They were soon wrestling on the floor as Hattie helped Elise with her coat.
“You’re exhausted.”
“A little out of shape, I guess.”
“What did you eat today?” Hattie asked.
“I wasn’t hungry.”
“I hope your appetite’s returned cause I got a pot of ham and beans simmering on the stove, and cornbread cooking in the oven.”
“Smells wonderful,” Elise said.
After dinner, they sat by the crackling fire as Moby and Jesse wrestled on the floor.
“Spend the night,” Hattie said. “Snow’s beginning to fall, and it’s a long walk from here to your house.”
“We’ve imposed enough,” Elise said.
“What are you doing for heat?”
“Lots of fallen branches in front of the house. Enough to keep us warm.”
“If you must, I insist you take Moby with you. She’ll scare away any critters you meet on the way home.”
“You mean it?” Jesse said.
“You bet I do,” Hattie said with a smile.
***
Elise was again out of breath when they reached their dark house. Snow whistled down the valley in cold gusts, a coyote howling by the cemetery.
“Look,” Jesse said. “Someone brought us a load of wood and stacked it on the porch.”
“But we don’t have money to pay for it.”
Jesse wasn’t listening, already carting an armload into the house. Flames were soon crackling in the fireplace, and Elise warmed her hands. Moby was busy nosing around the room, sniffing cracks in the floor and pawing at the door to Jesse’s room. When Jesse opened it, she ran inside and jumped on the bed.
“Good girl,” Jesse said. “I won’t get cold tonight with you sleeping next to me.”
Elise remained awake long after dark. She put another log on the fire before collapsing on her bed. A dog’s persistent barking awakened her. It was Moby.
“What is it?” she said, rushing into her daughter’s room.
Jesse could only point at darkness in the corner. As Elise tried to see what she was looking at, she became aware of the room’s iciness. Her breath, Jesse’s and Moby’s wafted from their mouths. A terrifying chill of death that raised the hackles on the back of her neck.
Jesse’s voice trembled when she said, “Who are you, and what is it you want?”
When Elise saw who Jesse was talking to, an involuntary sigh escaped her lips. Incandescent light illuminated the room. Two red eyes remained as it died away. Moby’s barking had become threatening growls. The light flickered like a dying candle, revealing the pulsing image of a frowning devil with demon eyes. Elise grabbed Jesse’s arm, pulled her from the room, slamming the door behind them.
“Get your coat,” she said.
Jesse grabbed her coat and raced for the door.
The moon was bright and almost full, its light filtering through snow falling in gentle waves. Hattie met them at the door, pulling them inside and hustling them in front of the crackling fire.
“I couldn’t sleep. I knew something was wrong,” she said. “Can you tell me?”
Elise shook her head as Jesse sat by the fire, hugging Moby.
“A demon with glowing eyes,” she said.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Hattie said. “People say your house is haunted.”
 “And you didn’t tell us?”
“I’m so sorry. Till I heard you knocking on the door, I didn’t know it was really true.”
“I knew something was wrong,” Jesse said. “The house had an under smell. Moby noticed right away.”
Elise gave Jesse a look. “You never said anything.”
“Didn’t want to scare you, Mama,” Jesse said.
Returning her attention to Hattie, Elise said, “I know you ordered wood for us. We’ll pay you when I collect my first week’s wages.”
“You’ll do no such thing. That’s my house warming present for you and Jesse.”
“Then thank you,” Elise said.
“You’re safe now. I’m not letting you leave. My granddaughter’s room is down the hall. Moby knows the way. She’s slept there since Mattie left for college. Elise, there’s a bed in the loft. No one’s used it since my daughter died.”
“I can’t take her bed.”
Hattie tapped her wrist. “I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“Thanks, Hattie,” Jesse said, rushing down the hallway, Moby close behind.
“Will you tell me the rest of the story now?” Elise asked.
“Let’s have coffee first,” Hattie said.
Wind had begun whistling outside the house, snow piling up on the porch when Hattie returned from the kitchen.
“An immigrant family moved to town almost twenty years ago. A man, woman, and their daughter. They say he began having an affair with the woman living in the house on the other side of the cemetery. They were doing things. Crazy things.”
“Like what?” Elise asked.
“Devil worship. They say she put a spell on him.”
“And?”
“It was the night of a full moon. I’ll never forget because it eclipsed and turned blood red. Dogs were howling, along with wolves up in the foothills. The man went home from his lover’s house and murdered his wife and daughter with an ax.”
“Oh my God!”
“Neighbors found them the next day and buried the mother and daughter together.”
“What happened to the killer?”
“He went crazy, eyes all red and bloodshot and drool dripping from his mouth when they captured him. Townsfolk strung him up, and he died wailing like a banshee. Before he died, he vowed to return with the next Blood Moon and take his daughter with him. They built an iron fence around his grave, locking it with chains of iron to keep his spirit from escaping.”
“You’re serious?”
Hattie nodded. “I was there the night they buried him. Weather had turned cold, and Mama’s old coat couldn’t keep the chill off my neck. Blood red lights began dancing over the grave. I ran away, along with everyone else.”
 “Do you remember the daughter’s name?” Elise asked.
“Filippa. Why?”
“That’s what the demon called Jesse. When the moon turns red, I’m coming for you, he said.”
***
Elise awoke the next morning to the thud of someone adding wood to the fire. When she peered over the railing, Hattie glanced up and smiled.
“Bacon, eggs, and a fresh pot of coffee brewing,” she said. “Bring the blanket with you. It’s still cold down here.”
Snow drifted through the door when Hattie opened it for more wood. Elise climbed from the loft with the old blanket clutched around her shoulders. Jesse was already up, playing outside in the snow with Moby.
“You must never return to that evil house,” Hattie said as she poured Jesse’s coffee from a steaming pot.
“What did the demon mean by the moon turning red?” Hattie looked away without answering. “Hattie?”
“There’s a Blood Moon tonight.”
“What’s a Blood Moon?”
“The full moon will eclipse and turn red. Something that doesn’t happen often.”
“How often?”
Hattie sat the pot on the stove. “Been a while.”
“Did the murder . . . ?” Hattie didn’t answer. She didn’t have to. “Oh my God! What’ll I do?”
“Been thinking about it. You and Jesse have to leave the valley.”
“But we have no place to go.”
“My sister lives in Salt Lake City. We could take the train and visit her.”
“The demon would just follow us. I have to stop him somehow.”
“Child, there’s no pastor in town, our only church dark for over a year now.”
“I have to do something.”
Hattie stared out the window, watching a hawk float in a winter updraft. “Maybe Efe Hentooth can help us,” she said.
“Who is she?”
“A black woman from down south somewhere. People go to her for potions and poultices, and to cast spells.”
“She’s a witch?”
“People say she communes with spirits.”
“I have to see her. Can Jesse stay with you?”
“Course she can.”
“Then, where can I find this Efe Hentooth?”
“Her shanty, by the town dump.” Before Elise departed, Hattie handed her a bag. “You’ll need to give her this,” she said.
***
Elise’s new boots kept her feet from freezing as she slogged through ruts left by wagons from the mines. By nightfall, all the miners would be in the saloon, getting drunk and spending their week’s wages. Darkness had come early, and Elise had other things on her mind.
Cold nipped her nose, but not enough to mask the smell of the village dump. A tarpaper shack stood alone, smoke wafting from its stovepipe. The frozen porch creaked beneath her feet as she rapped on the door. A large black woman opened it a crack and peeked out.
“Mighty cold out there,” she said. “Better come in this house.”
Cardboard and tarpaper insulated the shack, heat radiating from an old potbelly stove. The woman seated Elise in front of it. When she pulled up a chair beside her, Elise gave her the bag. She grinned when she saw the bottle of whiskey.
“Thanks for the hooch. What’s your name?”
“Elise. Are you Efe Hentooth?”
“One and the same. What brings you out to see old Efe on a frozen night like this?”
“A demon.”
Efe’s smile disappeared. “You didn’t just move into the old Lenzo place, did you?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“You know what tonight is?” Efe asked.
“Blood Moon.”
Efe nodded. “Haven’t had one since that crazy man murdered his wife and daughter. Wish there was something I could do, but I can’t help you.”
“You were my only hope,” Elise said.
Efe, hands clasped behind her back, began pacing circles around the room. When she finally stopped, closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead, Elise started to weep.
“Don’t cry, baby. I got an idea.”
“You do?”
Efe nodded. “Your only hope is to keep him from escaping the grave.”
“And how can I do that?”
Wind whistled outside the shack, blowing the door ajar and dusting the floor with snow. Efe shut it, parking a big rock in front to keep it closed.
“The town church had a little graveyard for the homeless. Later, they used it as a garden to help feed the poor and needy. It’s hallowed ground.” Efe handed her an empty pail that was sitting in the corner. “You must fill this bucket with dirt from that old garden.”
“Then what?”
“Take it to the demon’s grave. Pour an unbroken trail of dirt around it.”
“Will it keep him from escaping?”
“Don’t know, but it’s the only thing I can think of to do.”
“Oh my God!”
“One more thing. You gotta finish before the moon eclipses.”
“And if I don’t?”
Elise’s hand went to her mouth when Efe said, “Then the demon will drag you and your baby to hell.”
Efe opened the whiskey and drank straight from the lip. After wiping her face with her arm, she handed the bottle to Elise.
“Take a big swig,” she said. “You gonna need it.”
***
The moon was full and beginning to eclipse as Elise stepped off Efe’s porch, heading for the deserted church. Snow fell in wet clumps, the ground beginning to freeze as she dug with a stick in the garden. Her hands were bleeding and dirty, head spinning from Efe’s whiskey when she started away with the pail of dirt. 
The bright orb in the sky was near eclipse and turning red as she passed Hattie’s house. There was no time to stop though she thought she’d heard Jesse’s voice calling to her. Another mile and she passed the dark house where the murder had occurred. After peeking up at the moon, she hurried faster, knowing she was running out of time.
Moonbeams glimmered off the snow, an aura of milky red dancing over the grave. Elise began circling the iron fence with dirt from the pail when an eerie cackle stopped her. She looked up into the crazy eyes of an old woman.
“Too late, dearie. He’s already free!”
She hobbled away, talking to herself as Elise looked at the moon. By now, her heart was banging inside her ribcage as she stared at the sliver remaining. The gate to the grave was clanging in cold air gusting down from the mountains. The broken lock lay buried in the snow. Behind her, a fire was burning. Even in the cold, she felt the heat on her neck. Putrid smell of death almost gagged her as she turned to see what it was.
Flames danced across the snow, the skeletal image of a living corpse inside them. Pits of the creature’s eyes glowed red, its translucent body pulsating beneath the muted light of a moon about to eclipse. The demon’s voice spoke to her.
“How long I have waited. The moon is red,  you and Filippa about to join me.”
Something behind Elise frightened her almost as much as the wraith moving toward her. It was Jesse and Moby.
“We followed you from the house.”
“No, baby, run!”
Jesse didn’t listen. She and Moby stepped in front of her. Moby crouched with fangs barred, her low growl menacing enough to halt any human in his tracks. The demon moving toward them wasn’t human. Jesse and Moby began backing up.
“You stop right there,” Jesse yelled.
“Or what?” the demon’s voice boomed.
Elise looked up at the moon. It was blood red.
“Run, Jesse!” she called. “Please run.”
Jesse yelped in pain when she tripped and fell backward in the snow. Moby was giving no ground, growling and biting at dancing flames growing ever larger and stinking to high heavens. The moon had eclipsed, Elise thinking, maybe it’s too late. Gasping an icy breath to keep from fainting, she rushed around Jesse and Moby.
“Take me, not my little girl.”
“I’ll have both of you,” the demon bellowed.
The fiery monster, heat from its glowing body, began raising blisters on Elise’s face and neck. Jesse was in the snow, Moby guarding her. The demon was almost on top of them when she launched the dirt from the pail.
“Go to hell!” she yelled.
Elise didn’t expect what happened next. The demon issued a guttural groan as if mortally wounded. The glow of its body flickered, turned brown, and then began erupting like a mud volcano. When it reached its crescendo, it exploded into a million pieces, knocking Elise into the snow.
It wasn’t the only explosion.
The valley rocked as the grave behind them blew into a thousand pieces. Their house, and the hag’s also exploded into balls of fire. As silence of a blood red moon engulfed the valley, Jesse and Moby joined Elise in the snow.
***
A thaw had begun, icicles dripping when the sun arose the next morning. Jesse, Elise, Hattie, and Moby, along with half the town, trekked to the spot where the haunted house had stood. Like the demon’s grave, nothing but charred earth remained. At least almost nothing.
A chair, rocking in a gentle breeze, stood alone in the middle of blackened soil. Elise’s grandmother’s chair. Crumpled but uncharred, her faded Afghan was draped across its back.

END


Eric Wilder is the author of the Paranormal Cowboy and French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Dead of Night, please check out more of Eric's writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages