A chilled bout of breeze, the howl of wolves in the night and the moonlight casting shadows on the sidewalk.
Nicholas and I were half hidden in the shadows, our clothes rippling in the wind. We exchanged a look that was part fright and part thrilled.
“Definite?” I asked, my voice cutting through the silence.
“Yes.” Nicholas tried to put on a brave face but I could comprehend his own uncertainty.
We began advancing, remembering to remain in the dark, so as not to be seen. There wasn’t a hoot from anybody, and the silence stung my ears. Why would there be anyone out at all? I thought. Why would anybody in their senses step out of their houses unarmed in the middle of the night? On October 31st? Making their way to the graveyard?
Unless it were brazen youngsters like us.
Our footsteps echoed as we tiptoed across to the fence. A weathered sign was hung up: ‘No entry’.
The gate leading inwards was unsteady, hanging on its hinges, on the verge of collapse. It was thick with years of dust, decaying in the gloom. No one ever went in there. They said it was too dangerous. Too risky.
That’s what made it scarier.
I could make out dense fog, swirling and obstructing our view of the graveyard. It was dense and stubborn, refusing to clear.
We were carrying a torch hanging by a rope on my side, and spare batteries. Another gust of wind blew against our faces, making me shiver from the cold. The gate, not even a few feet away, swung open with a spine tingling creak as if welcoming us to our doom. As if it knew we were coming.
I stepped into the darkness, Nicholas just behind me. For a moment, nothing felt different, but when my gaze fell on the expanse of shrouded land, I faltered. I began having second doubts. Was it really necessary? Should we never have come?
No, I told myself, we’ve come so far. Don’t step back, don’t be a coward, no matter what happens.
Wasn’t it why Nicholas and I had decided to spend the night here? To see if there was really something going on like all those stories claimed? To check whether anything actually happened?
Our friends had called us crazy. No one took our word seriously. They laughed it off as if we were lying to them. We hadn’t told our parents. Never in a million years would they have permitted us to step in there.
The graveyard was not ordinary. It was shadowed by legends and folktales. Each house had one to tell, and it always went that way, those stories. Passing on by word of mouth from generation to generation, yet not questioned even once. Reality, they hissed. Fiddled tales, I told them. Over the years, I had never come to believe any of them, though everyone else did. They stayed made up to me. Fantasies that had finally spun out of control. I should know. I grew up with them.
I imagined children dressing up on Halloween and going from house to house, trick or treating. I could see the happiness on their faces. I could see their joy.
It was because of these legends none of us went trick or treating anymore. We weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween like every other neighborhood.
Nicholas and I had to manage through the night, without fail. If we did, it would serve as evidence. Proof that none of those stories were true. We would free the people of their worry. There would be no more need for anyone to fear their lives every time they stepped out. Fright would be replaced with relief.
I could see tombstones standing in the distance, clumped together in disorder. They had a dense layer of cobwebs and dust on them.
As my eyes swept the landscape ahead, I was certain of one thing:
Nothing in here was less than a century old.
We were the very first humans entering this forbidden place since the 1940s.
The air was still now. The only sound was that of our quick breathing. It was getting colder. I reached for my torch and gripped it harder, its metal icy against my hold. Our shoes crunched the leaves as we ventured deeper. The further we walked, the larger the place loomed around us. Parched trees hung over us, their branches withered with age. Not one of them held any life.
We still had yards of space to cover. Through the eerie darkness, I could perceive the cravings on the nearest tombstones. None of the names were familiar to me, nevertheless I felt shivers run up my spine as my gaze moved over each marking. They were all from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So old, so abandoned, yet all there. Trust me, I had never been to a cemetery. Seeing those scores of names from an era so far away from the present, freaked me to no end. I thought back upon how this must have looked back then. Back when people dared to walk into this graveyard.
An ear shattering screech tore the air apart, and we froze in our tracks. Our ears perked up, wary of the slightest sound. For a few seconds, there was nothing. Only the shrill silence and the sense of anticipation. Goosebumps raced over my skin. We didn’t dare move.
Then we heard it again. Someone laughing. The sound rippled through the graveyard, haunting and almost hysterical. The laugh continued, ringing in our ears and not stopping. I was certain it was a little girl laughing. The noise resonated, too loud to belong to a person, let alone a small child. It was more powerful than anything we had heard. Stronger. More threatening.
We turned sharply, trying to locate the source of the sound. There was no one. Only the two of us, standing small and vulnerable in the vast yard. The cemetery stayed as desolate and grim as it always had been.
The laugh never seemed to end. It continued stinging our ears. A splitting headache started to make its way up my head, spots dancing in front of my eyes. Whatever this sound was, I couldn’t bear it any longer.
When it died down, the air filled with the rush of silence again. I closed my eyes, grateful for the quiet. My headache ebbed away.
Nicholas uttered a cry of horror, making me jump out of my skin. I whipped to glower at him, when I noticed his distraught expression. His eyes were bulging out and his mouth was hanging open. He had gone rigid, as if he had seen a ghost.
The pressure dropped and everything became dim. For a moment, I wasn’t able to see anything at all. When my sight returned to normal, the first thing I saw, was that the route behind us had vanished.
I stifled a scream. This was becoming too unnatural. I wished we had never come. I longed to be back at home, fast asleep. Nicholas was right beside me.
“Where are we?” his voice sounded far away.
I was too shocked to reply. I turned around and tried to take in where we were. We were in an unknown stretch of land, the rocky terrain spread out. Towering mountains met the stormy sky. Sharp rocks littered the ground. It was freezing. There were city lights visible in the horizon, smoke curling from the chimneys. Cottages lined the pavement, dimly lit with open windows and doors. No one was out, but some facet to the houses made them look welcome. They were otherwise bare, very unlike the houses I had grown accustomed to.
Nagging questions bugged my mind. What was this place? How had we landed up here?
Movement caught the corner of my eyes. I swerved to look at what was happening.
A procession of children was making its way through a path, merriment and mirth ringing in the air. They were all dressed up in fancy outfits designed to look as if they were from the twentieth century. They were carrying cloth bags and carved pumpkins. Jack-o-lanterns, I told myself, They’re going trick or treating. It’s Halloween.
They were talking among themselves. A few of them were digging into their bags. I could see some of the sweets they had brought out. They were mainly peppermint candies, lemon drops and other varieties I hadn’t seen.
All from the early twentieth century, I thought.
I took another glimpse at the landscape. An uncomfortable feeling rose in my gut. I hated to admit it, but slowly, this place was beginning to look more familiar. The town hall. The newly built post box. The sturdy oak tree in the shadows.
These were the things I saw every day. Aspects that had undergone tremendous change, but were the same.
We were in our own neighborhood.
It looked so different. No wonder it hadn’t struck me earlier.
The children were moving further from the houses towards an abandoned clearing with a notice hung up: ‘Community Graveyard’
They meant to go into the graveyard.
I was a mere onlooker, yet I knew this was everything but normal. Those children weren’t going to return.
My head spun. Dimly, I recollected an infamous legend: ‘The fallen Halloween night’ from 1942. One of the most feared stories in our neighborhood.
A dozen children went trick or treating on Halloween in 1942. Unbeknown to the adults, they planned to do something outrageous. Taking their sweets, they decided to pay a visit to the nearby cemetery and summon spirits in the dead of night. It was nearing midnight when the gate creaked open and they spilled into the graveyard.
That was the last time they were seen.
A search party was sent the next night. Adults with lanterns and burning torches plunged into the clearing, determined to find those children. They spread over and left no stone unturned, conducting an intensive examination of the yard. Yet, they saw no one. They heard mysterious footsteps in the distance and flashes of light, but they saw not one child.
A youth had accompanied them. He spotted a clump of tombstones in a distant corner. Intrigued, he separated from the group of people and headed over there. Upon closer inspection, he could see that there were names carved on the stones.
The names of the children. Only the names.
He was confounded with terror. He felt cold breath on his shoulder, as if he was being watched.
When the search party returned, they were one man short.
I shook with disbelief, images flashing past my eyes. How was it possible? Perhaps we were being shown something? Were we supposed to see this happening? I knew we weren’t really in 1942. That was too improbable, unless we were in a Science Fiction movie. It was more likely to be a representation of what had happened that day.
“Nicholas,” I said, my eyes fixed on the trail of children, “We must follow them.” My fear had now dissipated, superseded by newfound courage.
“Yes. If we want to find out what is true,” My voice began soaring, “we need to see what really happened. On October 31st, 1942.” I began striding over to the graveyard, my feet plodding the ground. I didn’t mind being seen. I doubted anyone would be able to sense our presence, anyway.
Nicholas began following me, “Are you out of your mind? You know what those children suffered! Do you want us to fall into the same trap?”
“Trap? There’s no trap.” I said, “We were blatant enough to risk a night in this graveyard back in our own place. What’s stopping you now?” I lowered my tone, “This isn’t real. Not for us.”
By the time we were within reach of the gate, the stream of children had poured in. They had covered a considerable distance and we had to increase our pace to keep up. I was certain most of them were frightened out of their wits.
I ignored our daunting surroundings and kept my focus solely on the gathering, Nicholas right by my side.
When they were halfway across the cemetery, they halted in their tracks, and so did we.
“By and by, you know what we need to do.” The oldest boy, almost sixteen said, “Get to it with haste.”
That word of command was all what was needed for the other children to scurry and dig their hands into their bags. They each brought out something other than Halloween chocolate:
I inched forward, craning my neck to look. Was it what I thought it was? I could make out something transcribed on each stone. Though it was carved unevenly, it was convincing enough.
“The tombstones.” Nicholas gasped, “The tombstones with their names.”
I couldn’t agree more. Was this for real? What did these children want to do? Of what use would it be, to fake their own capture and make everyone paranoid?”
I watched as they fixed the slabs of gray stone into the soil. It wasn’t too perfect, but good enough to be mistaken for real tombstones. My heart was thumping inside me. I wanted to know what they did next.
“Three years have passed since the war began.” The older boy said, “Yet it shows no sign of ceasing. Perhaps it will never end. We have done nothing to aid in the fight. What can we do now, to help them?” he paused, looking at the other children.
He wants the war to end. Everybody does, I thought, swallowing, He must be talking about World War II. Then it struck me, He wants them to actually fight in the war.
It dawned to me. As the children disappeared in the distance, I did not attempt to follow them. I understood now. There was no need of any other explanation. These children were smarter than I had presumed. They weren’t victims of anything. They had done something which was in their own hands.
The youth from the search party getting lost didn’t seem one ounce genuine. How did people get to know what he experienced in there if the story claimed he was seen by no one? Certainly, it was a woven tale to give the people a good scare. Nothing more.
“People must know.” I noticed Nicholas wasn’t following them, either, “Their story must be rewritten. We have all been fearing for nothing.”
But how could we make everyone believe us? We needed evidence. Something we didn’t have.
Nicholas made his way to the clump of faux tombstones, “Did they take their bags of sweets with them?” he was bent over and began digging for something in the soil. He put forth an arm, pulled out a cloth bag and waved it at me.
“This.” He said, “They’ve all left their bags behind in the mud. With the sweets.”
He was right. I joined him. Why would twelve children leave behind free sweets when it could’ve served as food supplements during war?
I took one of the bags and fingered it. I stuck my hand into the bag and pulled out a fistful of sweets. I studied them, feeling something was out of place. Besides the fact that they appeared to be tampered with, they didn’t feel right. The hard candies were too soft, and the smooth chocolates felt rough and papery to touch.
I decided to take a chance and unwrapped one of the sweets.
“It’s paper.” I said, bringing out a minuscule roll of parched paper, “There’s nothing but pieces of paper.” I didn’t get the point behind hiding paper inside candy wrappers and stowing bags of it underground!
“It’s not only paper.” Nicholas noted, “There’s something written on what you’re holding, though too small to decipher.”
I got it closer to my eyes and tried seeing the minute text in the darkness. The black ink was unreadable, except a word or two, like ‘war’ and ‘secrecy’.
All of a sudden, I grasped what it could mean.
“Ingenious.” I whispered, “They’ve written it down. All of it. I suppose they didn’t want everyone to know where they went.”
The world around us began swimming, going in and out of focus. I was thrown off balance, landing on the ground on all fours. When the spinning stopped, my eyes fluttered open and I took a look around.
I no longer had anything in my hands, but I felt like singing for joy when I realized we were back in the present. Nicholas was sprawled a few feet away. We wasted no time in locating the group of tombstones. We didn’t have to dig very deep to see traces of the cloth bags in the present.
All the while, I was elated.
There’s no ghost, I thought, no ghost at all. Nicholas and I have found it out. No more apprehension. No more constraints.
I speculated how a life without fears would be.
“It’s no good for us to do the decoding.” Nicholas told me, “The paper is feeble and we’d only tear it apart.”
I could only nod as I gathered half a dozen bags in my arms. I was weary with exhaustion, and even the bags seemed to weigh me down.
“Let’s hand it in.” I said, “We’ve done enough already.” The thought of finally going home welcomed me. “I think we’d better head back now.”
Nicholas scooped up the other bags and we began our walk. The gate didn’t appear too soon for our good. Before we stepped out, I took a look behind. I wouldn’t be back here, and I was glad.
We were a few meters away when I felt someone call out my name. I turned back to look at the previously empty yard behind me.
A young girl, around ten years old, waved at me from the graveyard.