For someone who doesn’t much care for Halloween—blame my brother, he instilled in me massive anxiety about being outside in the dark and fearing people in masks—I actually rather like spooky/creepy/psychologically thriller-y type stories and have always longed to write one.
A couple of years ago, I got started on what turned out to be a ghost story with a science fiction twist that sadly was set aside. Then, when I was invited to read at the SFWA Pacific Northwest Reading Series back in August, I had to find something to read that was, yanno, science fiction or fantasy related and well, this one came out of mothballs and I realized, hey! Doesn’t suck. (Quit looking at me like that, y’all. You know how I am.)
Anyhow, here are the opening scenes/chapters from that story, Haunted. (What I read at the series, for those keeping score comes directly after this segment.)
“Tuck, I’ve been thinking.”
“Now, Matt, how many times do I have to remind you of the dangers of that sort of thing?”
“Dick.” Matthew stared moodily into the depths of his punch. Green. Who the hell served slimy green punch? And he didn’t even want to know what the science eggheads had done to make it bubble like that. He’d lay money it wasn’t Sprite. He’d also lay money it wasn’t anything he wanted burning a trail down his esophagus.
“Dude, tell me something I don’t know.”
With a grin that matched the one on his leering jack-o-lantern mug Tuck downed the contents, clearly unconcerned with any potential damage to his esophagus. Probably because it was his liver that was in greater danger, Matthew thought as he watched Tuck ladle up another mugful of the green slime before subtly pouring a generous slug from his monogrammed silver flask. Normally it lived in the inside breast pocket of his uniform blazer; tonight, though, in honor of the party, he had it stashed within the deep sleeves of his monk’s habit. Tuck thought the juxtaposition of costume and booze was hilarious, Matthew just thought it was stupid. How the jackass never got busted was completely beyond him—not that he cared, so long as Tuck’s inebriated bullshit schemes didn’t get him in trouble.
Whatever. Not like any of it would matter soon. He meditatively ran his thumb over the ridged outline of the hissing cat glaring up at him from his mug. Slowly, his thumb rubbed the surface, the noise and chaos of the party fading into a distant hum, like hearing it from the far end of a tunnel. The only thing that felt real was the steady glow of the cat’s eyes, a knowing expression in the yellow depths as he stroked the beast’s tail, over and over.
“Hey, now, none of that tonight, man.” Tuck’s voice broke in, snapping him from the spell. “It’s Halloween, it’s a Friday night and we’re off the clock for the next forty-eight. Come on, dude. You’re so tight, you could mine diamonds from your ass.”
“Fuck you,” Matthew replied, although without any real heat. Tuck was Tuck and it wasn’t like he was going to change any time soon. That was the problem. None of this was going to change, which was why it was up to him to make the first move.
“All right, I give. And I’m letting you know right now, I’m pissed because you’re making me do the concerned friend shtick.” Tuck dropped into the chair beside Matthew’s, adjusting the folds of the monk’s habit. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Even though for once it looked as if he had Tucker’s undivided attention and he’d been planning on telling him all along anyhow, Matthew now found himself hesitating. Maybe it would be better to just give Tuck some BS excuse and keep his plans to himself. It wasn’t as if Tucker honestly cared all that much. In the nearly four years they’d both been students and roomies at Mount Storm King Academy, the only things Matthew had ever known Tucker Harris to give a rat’s ass about were chicks, booze, and baseball. The last was the main reason they’d even bonded in the first place, since Matthew only drank the occasional beer and his taste in girls tended away from the bleached, siliconed, and older variety. Rumor had it, Tuck had even gone horizontal with one of the professor’s wives the year before. Rumor because Matthew really didn’t want to know for sure—that history unit on Watergate and the concept of plausible deniability had made a serious impression. So yeah, conversations between he and Tuck tended to veer toward nothing deeper than the Seattle Mariners chances during any given season and maybe the occasional homework assignment. But if there was anything Tuck excelled at, beyond pitching a wicked curve, it was loyalty. That was really why they’d remained friends their entire stint at Storm King—Matthew knew Tuck would have his back and vice-versa.
“Dude, come on. What gives?”
“I’m leaving school.”
“Of course you are. We all are.” Tuck’s voice took on an exaggerated drawl, like Matthew was just too stupid for the big words. “It’s senior year and we’re youth in full flower and come May, we’ll be set free to make our mark on the world.”
Tuck sat back in his chair, chuckling. “Dude, fucking chill. Of course you’re leaving. We’re all leaving, except for maybe Shaughnessey, who’s dumber than a box of rocks. But the rest of us, man—we’re golden. We graduate and because it’s from here, we don’t have to waste time with any college bullshit. We get to go right out into the world and make our mark. And with any luck, a lot of cash.”
“That’s just the point, Tuck—” Matthew’s grip tightened on the mug’s handle. “I told you, I’ve been thinking. That maybe this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I want to sleep in my own bed and raid my mom’s fridge in the middle of the night and graduate from a regular high school. I want to go out on a date with a girl who’s… normal and not one of these soulless automatons who’s got her whole life so mapped out, there’s no room for—”
“For what, Matt?” Tuck broke in, clearly impatient. “Prom? Going steady?” His voice took on a mocking lilt. “Sharing a malt with two straws before driving out to Lover’s Lane? God, who are you trying to bullshit? There’s no way you could be happy with any of that pedestrian crap after what you’ve experienced here.”
“You don’t know that.” Matthew stood, slamming the mug down on a nearby table. Catching a few curious glances aimed their way, he struggled to keep his voice quiet. “You don’t know shit about what I really think.”
Tucker shrugged as he took a long drink and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his monk’s habit. “I know you. Better than you know yourself. And I know you’re not going anywhere.” He spoke with the same eerie calm that came over him on the pitcher’s mound when facing an especially tough hitter. “You can’t.”
“Watch me.” Matthew turned to leave.
“Matt.” Tuck’s voice stopped him a few steps from the gym doors. Slowly, he turned to find Tuck standing just a few feet away, the eerie stillness still surrounding him. “Ordinary doesn’t cut it for people like us.”
“Maybe not.” Matthew met Tuck’s gaze head on. “But how do I know if I don’t even try?”
The wipers swept across the windshield, a rhythmic counterpart to the steady hum of the tires on the wet asphalt, the two combining in a chorus of “Home soon, home soon, home soon…” He’d gotten lucky, pushing the 350Z hard enough through the Peninsula to catch the seven o’clock ferry out of Kingston. Not much longer now and he’d be home. Maybe even in time to help his mom hand out candy to trick-or-treaters. Wonder if there were still as many kids around the neighborhood as when he’d been younger? That was another one of the thousands of things he had no clue about. He’d been so swamped in life at Mount Storm King, it was like the rest of the world had come to a standstill. Or more accurately, didn’t matter. The sacred mantra at Storm King. What they were doing there mattered. More than anything or anyone. It’d been okay, initially—who didn’t like feeling like they were the center of the universe, right? But more and more, something about that just didn’t sit right.
He’d planned on staying until Christmas break, but that conversation with Tuck had made it crystal there was no point. Not after three years. Three years spent toeing the line. Three years spent becoming the ideal student, the one held up as a shining example, the one who not only did everything right, but did it better than anyone else. But as his gifts strengthened, bringing him to the attention of the higher ups and generating talk of an “exceptionally promising future,” that’s when he’d started questioning that carefully mapped out future. A future he wasn’t even sure he wanted any more.
Only real way to know for sure, he figured, was to take time to be ordinary. He wanted it so bad, he could practically taste it.
Home soon… home soon… home soon…
The dark curving road narrowed, the surroundings closing in on him like a snake winding around its prey. He stretched and rolled his head on his neck, shaking off the prickling sensation crawling up his spine. Tightening his hands on the steering wheel, he leaned on the accelerator, knowing he was going too fast, but he knew these roads. This was home, man. He was almost home.
Rounding a curve, his headlights swept across the landscape, briefly illuminating a grinning jack-o-lantern and above it, a small, pale face with wide eyes that almost seemed to glow in the glare from his lights. Those glowing eyes the last thing he saw before hitting the brakes and wrenching the wheel to the side, the big tires shuddering beneath his feet as they fought for purchase on the slick road. He felt himself slammed against the car door, his head ringing, a force like nothing he’d never felt crushing his chest and pinning him to the seat. A high-pitched squeal, like a scream from a horror movie pierced the sudden silence as he clawed at nothingness, trying to find something to grab, to hold onto, but everything stayed just out of reach, taunting him, like the bottom dropping out of a sinker, his bat slicing past it, hitting nothing but air.
“No!” His voice felt like it was being ripped straight from his gut, floating out into the night, hanging there as lights streaked past in white-hot slow motion arcs before exploding. Leaving behind an eerie vacuum of silence that he had to try to break because it felt wrong—
” I’m sorry, Matt.”
“Tucker?” It was his voice, but not—muffled and thick, his tongue too big for his mouth.
“I’m sorry…” What was Tucker doing here? This wasn’t his home. It was Matthew’s home. Tucker was more at home at Mount Storm King. Always had been. He fit there. Better than Matthew ever had. Maybe he should’ve told him that before he left. He could tell him now though. He just… had… to…
“Get me out, ‘kay?” He gritted his teeth against a sharp, blinding pain as he felt his arm roughly yanked from where it’d been pinned. He couldn’t see who was moving him, but he could feel cool metal against his palm, his fingers instinctively curling around the relief it provided from the searing heat knifing through his chest and the sharper pinprick of pain in his arm.
“I’m so fucking sorry, Matt. But you did this to yourself.”
He really didn’t need this smug shit from Tucker right now. Matthew knew he was driving too fast. Too fast… and there was that small pale face with the big eyes, just like the cat on his mug… Then everything spun and lights and the rain… so hot on his face. No… no… that was wrong, too. It was Halloween. The rain should be cold. Why was it hot?
Tuck’s face was very close. “You shouldn’t have left, Matt.”
Matthew squinted, trying to bring Tuck into focus, but he was so damned fuzzy and now he was getting smaller and smaller, disappearing into the dark, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. He laughed out loud then, imagining big, bulky Tucker dressed in some frilly blue dress and chasing a rabbit down a hole, exploding fireworks trailing behind. He laughed again, except it sounded more like a cough and hurt like a mother, a deep burning pain that brought tears to his eyes.
“Tuck, man… it hurts. Come on, now… get me out.”
But there was nothing there but darkness and pain and a shrill wail echoing throughout the suddenly empty space.
“Come on kid… hang in there… we’ve got you…”
Matthew blinked up at the looming figure, so close that he shouldn’t have felt the rain any longer, but the hot sensation continued to trickle down his face and into his eyes, washing everything in red. Red rain. Heh. His mom loved that song. She loved Peter Gabriel, shooting him evil glares when he claimed the dude was stuck in a time warp and out of touch with the real world. Not like what he and Tucker liked. Metallica, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails. Those guys knew what it was about, man.
“C’mon, kid, stay with me. Can you tell me your name?”
“Matt… Matthew.” He reached for the light dancing in front of his eyes. Tried to trap it. “Want… music…”
“Okay, Matthew. You promise to stay with me and I’ll do my best to get you some music. Who do you like?”
“My mom likes…” He coughed, feeling more rain spilling down his chin. “Peter Gabriel.”
“Yeah? How about you?”
“La-lame.” But right now, he really wouldn’t mind it.
The light kept waving back and forth, like fireflies. There shouldn’t be fireflies. It wasn’t summer. And Seattle didn’t have fireflies. He’d only seen them once before during a baseball tourney back east. They’d hovered over the infield like live Christmas lights.
“I need a backboard and C-collar, stat! Definite head trauma—pupils blown, pulse weak and thready… I’m not sure how much longer I can keep him!”
The fireflies were too bright. He’d close his eyes… just for a minute…
“Come on, Matthew, stay with me. Let me know can you hear me.”
He blinked, then immediately closed his eyes again at the blinding brightness. Too bright, man.
“No, no, no, Matthew… open your eyes again. Keep them open.”
No… no… he couldn’t take it—the pounding against his skull, duking it out with other voices and intensely bright lights and it was all just too much. Too much and he wanted out. Wanted the kind of quiet he liked best—late at night in his room, staring out the window at the night sky. Out of the corner of his eye, Matthew noticed a clear blue expanse, beckoning. Yeah… now that’s what he was talking about. Deep and soft and warm, like the one time he’d gone scuba diving in Hawaii, gliding through the depths, weightless, surrounded by a whole world, yet somehow held apart from it. Almost as good as the night sky. He reached out, felt himself lifted, drawn towards the endless expanse. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw a group of people clustered around a table, frantically gesturing and yelling, even though he couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t feel anything other than sorry that they were so stressed they couldn’t even notice what was waiting for them. What lay just beyond their reach.
All of a sudden, pain radiated out from his chest, arms and legs tingling as if he’d been hit with a live wire. Glancing around, he noticed a cluster of stars just behind him. For what seemed like forever, he stared at them, trying to figure out what constellation it was… it wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before. It was beautiful. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
He stood absolutely still as it throbbed, dimming and brightening with the rhythm of a beating heart, then reached out and wrapped itself around him like a blanket, little sparks of sensation sinking into his skin, canceling out the pain and cold. A moment later, it unwound itself and began trailing away in a determined shower of sparks, pausing only to swirl around him once more. Curious, he followed, feeling himself growing lighter with each step. Only once did he pause, glancing back over his shoulder, seeing more figures gathered around the table and spilling out into the hallways. He took a step back, one hand reaching out—
Pain shot through him, a harsh breath burning through his lungs. Panicked, he looked for the stars, trying to figure out where they’d gone, wanting them to take the pain away. He ran, taking corners and running up endless flights of stairs, wanting the pain to stop… now—whatever it took.
The pain shrieked through him, driving him to his knees and forcing him into a tight ball. He squeezed his eyes shut as he crossed his arms over his head, folding his arms tight over his ears. Trying to block it all out. If he opened his eyes, he’d be home. Home. Please… he just wanted to go home.
The sound of his name prompted him to cautiously open his eyes, blinking slowly as he took in his new surroundings. It was a large, light room—or would be if the blinds were open. Instead, the room had that hazy dim glow indicating that daytime waited on the other side of the window.
When had daytime arrived?
And why was he standing by a baby’s crib?
As if sensing his presence, the baby opened its eyes, their eerie dark green glowing the same way the room did—like there was light and life just waiting to be welcomed in.
The baby blinked solemnly.
The baby yawned. Will you be here when I wake up?
“I… I don’t know.” Matthew looked around, noticed the sleeping woman in a nearby bed, an exhausted looking guy in what looked like a EMT uniform slumped in a chair, holding a teddy bear with a pink ribbon wound around its neck. “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”
Please don’t leave. I like you.
He stared down at the baby, at her chest rising and falling slowly, a tiny hand opening and closing against her cheek. He was an only kid—he’d never been this close to a baby. Reaching out, he ran a curious fingertip across the tiny hand, snatching it back as it disappeared into her skin, a hot flare of sensation shooting up his arm.
The baby’s eyes opened. You know my name, too.
“Yeah.” How he knew that, though, was kind of taking a back seat to what he suspected was turning into a way bigger issue. Carefully, he touched his finger to the blanket wrapped around Emily’s small body, the hot tingling running up his arm again as his finger appeared to dissolve into nothingness.
“Why did you call me?”
Those eyes kept staring, intent on him and yet at the same time, focused inward in a way he knew. Way too well. A way that sent a current of fear through him as he repeated, “Emily, why did you call me?”
She blinked, the intent focus of her gaze never wavering.
Because I could.
Haunted ©2013 Barbara Caridad Ferrer