*Author’s Note: “Hallowed Ground” is a standalone story, set in the same universe as my other Reedsy short-stories, with overlapping characters/events.*
The storm cloud was closing in ahead, chasing away the sun as it set behind me. The dark had begun rolling in earlier as the days quickly became night.
Ahead I could see lit campfires. We didn’t have that luxury, our mission was too important to risk unwanted attention. I came to a halt now I knew the buildings weren’t as abandoned as they appeared. As soon as my footsteps stopped, Cyril was alert.
“We’re going back,” I said, nodding my head over my shoulder to confirm the direction.
Cyril came closer, and stood in front of me on his hind legs, looking up like he couldn’t believe his ears. He gave me his low chirp to make it clear he disagreed with my decision.
“We’ll go back to the graveyard we passed earlier. There weren’t people there.” Cyril chirped ‘no’ again, as if I hadn’t heard him the first time. “It’s getting too dark to find somewhere better,” and before he could interrupt I added, “we’ll leave at first light.”
Cyril jumped forward, then kicked off my shin to emphasise his opinion. Ever the optimist, he still had hope he could persuade me to change my mind, but this wasn’t a democracy.
I turned away from the conversation, with Cyril still mid-rant, and walked toward the fading light. I listened, and counted. It took twenty seconds before I heard him scrabbling toward me. His stubbornness usually only lasted a few seconds; ten if it was really serious. The last time he sulked this bad was when I gave him a pea rather than a peanut. He really didn’t want to go back to the graveyard.
The thump as he jumped onto the back of my leg was harder than usual. He settled on my shoulder, and chain-chirped ‘no’ in my left ear. He showed no signs of stopping so I flicked my hand up at him, and then he jumped on top of my head to avoid it. He knew sitting on my head annoyed me, but as he’d stopped chirping I let him take the high ground.
The silence didn’t last long, and he soon jumped back down onto the ground. He span round in tight circles, chirping and grunting, trying to burn off his frustration and anger.
“Save your energy for fighting off the ghosts.”
He stopped dead at the sound of my voice, and gave me a death stare, as he let me catch up to him. Cyril possesses a child’s confidence – a soul not weighed down by responsibility – and hated covering old ground. How he ever expected to find the nuts he’d buried amused me; it was one of the many moments of joy Cyril gave me, which kept me warm on cold and dark days like today. He was a wandering squirrel now; the Wasteland has changed humans, and animals alike.
“The graveyard is strategic.” I knew Cyril wasn’t convinced, but at least he’d stopped spinning, and only ignored me instead. The graveyard was the right decision. I knew there was cover from when we walked through it earlier. The open spaces meant we’d spot anyone approaching from a distance, and the multiple entrances meant we couldn’t be trapped. I wondered why those lighting the fires hadn’t chosen the graveyard themselves.
We re-traced our steps, and Cyril looked less interested in the re-run of his searches, but carried them out nevertheless. He happily ignored me until he recognised the wall to the graveyard, then he went rigid, but I kept walking. We would climb over the wall, just in case the entrances were being watched; as I reached forward to begin my climb, Cyril scurried up the brick wall, and nipped my hand.
“Oi!” I looked around, realising I'd shouted too loudly. “What’s wrong with you?” I said down to Cyril, who was now on the pavement. His face was low, and rear end high, ready to pounce if I reached for the wall again. His tail whipped erratically, contrasting his still body. I crouched down and spoke with a soft voice.
“Enough. It’s safe.” With each word the tension in his body lessened. “It’s the same place as before. Just darker.” My words had convinced his body, but not his tail.
I stood up, and turned back to the wall. Within seconds Cyril was on top of it watching over me, and then I knew we were back on the same team, as I began my climb. His trust in me was always more persuasive than my words.
As soon as we were on the other side of the wall, silence rolled in like a mist. I looked around to get my bearings. It had only been a couple of hours since I had stood on this hallowed ground, but the darkness stole away its familiarity from me. I could still recognise the main landmarks in the low light, and zeroed in on the direction of the caretakers shed, where we’d spend the night.
Cyril was deathly silent as he walked point, and I missed the sound of his chirping rants. The night-time graveyard was a different place for him. Now his investigations didn’t venture out as far, and the closer we got to our goal, the closer he stuck to me.
We stayed off the main path, and walked between the graves. The night was catching up to us, and I tracked how long we’d walked by the distance I could read the names on the tombstones from. During the day the names and ages had depressed me, but now I clung to those details. The darkness made the tombstones shadowy figures; each one reminded me of a family member lost, a friend gone. I knew it wouldn’t be their names, but I still felt a mix of relief and guilt, once the engraving confirmed a different life lost. We’d never know how many lives were lost when the bombs dropped, but I knew there wasn’t enough of my heart left to lose anyone else.
Cyril’s tail flicking erratically flagged the immediate risk I was in, and snapped me back to the moment. He kept moving forward, but I could see fear flowing through his body; it entered through his nose and ears, and pooled in his tail. His silence was what scared me the most – it meant he was still too busy listening to warn me.
Cyril slowed his pace, and I followed his lead. He began looking in all directions. I unclipped my catapult in readiness, and unzipped the bumbag containing my best stones. I still couldn’t see where anyone would launch an ambush from, but if I wasn’t ready Cyril would never let me forget it.
Then Cyril stopped looking in all directions. He narrowed his focus. The threat was to our right. I pulled out my catapult and loaded a stone. As he moved forward I followed his eyes, and saw the threat was coming from a tree. I crouched down, and edged my way towards it. I had already mapped out which tombstones were large enough to take cover behind, and was ready to strike. Cyril chirped ‘no’, but it was too late now, it was my turn to protect him.
As I inched forward I heard a noise, and took cover behind Elsie Burke, beloved wife and mother. I listened, and the noise was irregular. Cyril climbed onto my shoulder, but had stopped protesting so we could both listen. There was still enough light to spot any enemies, and I could see there weren’t any. I looked at Cyril, and his tail didn’t share my threat assessment, so there must have been something in the tree. We’d experienced ambushes from above before, but only with the cover of a forest, not a solitary tree.
I pulled the elastic of my catapult, and then peered around Elsie. That’s when I spotted the target. It moved in time with the noise.
“You dope,” I said, looking down at Cyril. “You were fooled by a pair of witch’s knickers.” Cyril looked back at me; fear replaced by curiosity at the tone of my voice. The threat was a dark blue plastic bag. It looked in good condition, and plastic was always handy. I sat down, leaning back to let Elsie comfort me.
“Cyril! Fetch.” Cyril stood on his hind legs…paused…then bounded onto my knee. Cyril sat too, and took a closer look at me. “F-E-TCH.” Nothing. He just sat there, twitching his nose at me. “I wish you were a dog.”
I returned the stone back to my bumbag, zipped it closed, and re-holstered my catapult. I walked over to the tree, and could see an easy route up to my target. It was only fifteen foot up the tree. I took off my rucksack, and leant it against the trunk in case it snagged during my climb. When I grabbed hold of the lower branch, Cyril flew up the tree, and ringed the trunk above my head.
“If you were going to come up here anyway, you could have saved me the trip.” Cyril showed no sign of guilt, and supervised my climb – to him I must have looked like a toddler taking their first steps.
I was soon back on the ground; the valuable plastic folded in my rucksack, which was on my back again over my shotgun. I continued walking toward the caretakers shed again, and as soon as I passed the tree, Cyril flew into action. He climbed onto my shoulder, and grabbed my ear lobe for purchase as he screamed ‘no’ in my ear.
I swatted him away, and he run under my chin, flicking his tail in my face, and then chirped in my other ear instead.
“It was just a bag. I don’t like the idea of spending the night with the dead either, but there’s no one alive here.” I held out my hand, palm up, and Cyril ran down my arm, and lay flat in my hand. “I know it’s creepy, but ghosts can’t hurt you.”
I stroked him to calm him down, but it didn’t work. He willed me to turn back with his gaze. I had to look away because I could feel myself being convinced, but it was too late to go anywhere else now. And it was when I looked away from his pleading eyes that I saw it. Straight ahead a white figure side stepped behind a tombstone. Cyril spun in my hand to look ahead too, in reaction to the expression on my face.
I slowed my pace but kept moving forward. I strained my eyes but it was gone. Was it really there? Then I heard a noise to our left, and Cyril’s claws dug into my palm. I forced myself not to panic, and pushed the limits of my peripheral vision, seeking the rustling that was now on both sides of me. When a twig broke behind me my heart stopped. Just as I had begun to convince myself that spirits don’t snap twigs, the ghostly figure dressed in white appeared in front of me again. I squeezed Cyril, and he squeezed back.
I unzipped my body armour, and placed Cyril into his sock, which I had sewn on the inside of my armoured vest. I bribed him with a peanut from my trouser pocket, and out of habit, softly whistled the command to reinforce his training.
“Fweet. Fweet. Fweet.”
Despite how low it was, the figure disappeared again after the first whistle. I zipped up my vest and he was safe.
Then I heard it to my right. Nothing living could move this fast. The rustling noise circled me in a tightening spiral, getting closer and louder.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
I patted my breast-pocket, and kept walking forward. I could see the shed ahead, and for that moment there was nothing between me and safety. I was transfixed on my goal, and hadn’t realised my loaded catapult was back in my hand. My instincts told me no sudden movements, but every time the spiralling rustling was directly behind me my mind told me to run! The command to run became a pulse. Run. The rustling changed to heavy breathing. Run. The interval between each command became shorter and shorter. RUN!
The spirit appeared in front of me again and I ran at it. I fired my catapult and the stone flew true. Even in the dark I could see it was going to hit. Before it reached its mark I was fumbling for another stone. The stones I’d collected during my journey spilled out of my bumbag, and as I ran fast across the uneven ground the peanuts leapt out of my pocket to safety too. The first stone was a direct hit, and the spirit howled as I reloaded.
The spirit moved aside, and I kept running to the spot where it was. Shed, dead ahead. I fired my second shot, and the sound of the elastic snapping made the spirit howl again in anticipation. The second hit made it yelp, and as the panting behind me turned to growls, the spirit began taking a form. My mind could make sense of what my eyes saw. It was a white dog running across the graveyard, with its tail between legs, and its hind quarters low, expecting another hit. My third shot missed. The dogs behind me barked and yapped with excitement as the hunt began, and they chased me down.
There was no chance my stones could kill a dog, but it was still my best option. You can’t bluff a dog, so the paperweight holstered on my back was no good without bullets, and there was no chance I could be quicker with just my knife. I loaded my fourth stone, but there were no targets left in front of me. They bore down on me from behind, safely outside of my kill-zone.
My legs burned, but I was going to make it. The shed was only twenty-five feet ahead, and when I saw it was still on the ground in front of the door, I smiled despite myself. I threw my catapult to the floor, it was useless now. Mid-run I bent down to scoop up my new weapon.
With the rake that I had seen earlier in the day in my hand, I spun mid stride, just in time to see the lead dog jump up at me. I keep the head of the rake between me and the head of the dog, as sharp teeth crunched against metal tines. The momentum of the hound knocked me off my feet, and I flew into the side of the shed.
The first dog to strike was unsurprisingly a long dog, and looked like a cross between a greyhound and poodle. It was soon flanked by the rest of its pack, and it sounded like more terriers were bringing up the rear. It was like a crossover between Crufts and Sean of the Dead; the pack was after blood. The greyhoodle had released the end of my rake, and I swung it out in an arc in front of me. After a couple of side swipes to their snouts, the pack was backing off – all except Ghost, he was still out for revenge.
I held the rake out in front me with one hand, and fumbled for the door-handle behind me with my free hand. I turned the handle, and would have to take my chances that it was still empty inside. I threw the rake at Ghost to create enough distance to back into the shed, and close the door after me.
The catch clicked, and I dropped to the floor with my back to the door, and felt the force of a dog throwing itself at the wood. I was sure it was Ghost. It barked and snorted at the narrow gap under the ill-fitted door. I swung my rucksack off my shoulder, pulled out my wind-up torch, and turned it on to scan the room. It was still empty.
I checked the latch as the pack continued to throw themselves at the door. I searched the shed, and piled anything heavy into barricade in front of the door, which thankfully opened inwards. Satisfied that they couldn’t get through, I placed the torch in the middle of the floor, and sat on some pallets to catch my breath.
I unzipped my armour to check on Cyril, and he was shaking inside his sock.
“It’s okay, we’re safe now.”
Cyril looked up at me but stayed where he felt safe. I didn’t blame him, I was petrified and I’d seen what was chasing us, whereas all he had was the noise and darkness to fuel his imagination. We could still hear the pack snuffling against the barricade. I knew they were only dogs, but my hands still shook from the adrenaline coursing through my body.
“I reckon we need to upgrade our armoury, don’t you lad?” I hoped my catapult hadn’t become a chew-toy, and would still be there in the morning.
Cyril popped his hands over the hem of his sock, as his confidence was returning to him.
“At least they weren’t ghosts.” I unbuttoned my breast-pocket, and took out a small sketch pad.
The noise of the pack outside had quietened down, and Cyril slowly crawled out of his sock. I looked through the sketches I’d drawn of my loved ones. Ink was all I had left of them; their true faces were fuzzy in my mind – like spotting a friend at a distance who’s barely recognisable.
“These are the only ghosts that haunt us eh.”
Cyril climbed onto my shoulder. He wrapped his tail around the back of my neck, and chirped ‘yes’ into my ear.