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Contemporary Horror Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

The wind whispers threats through bare branches, and clouds race each other across the sky, their edges lit by moonlight.

Perfect. I can’t ask for better weather.

I check my watch and curse under my breath. I’m late. Trick-or-treaters are already prowling the neighborhood and I haven’t finished setting up. Shouldn’t be a problem. I’m not trying to scare the little ones, just the teenagers, and they don’t usually come out for another couple of hours.

As I inspect the stain on my driveway with my flashlight, a trio of tiny superheroes approaches. I wave at a couple of moms down at the end of the drive, and they wave back.

“Happy Halloween!”

One of the kids, a hobbit-sized Hulk, studies the pool of light. “What’cha lookin’ at?”

I straighten up, wincing. Bending over like that leaves my back stiff. “Tell me what you think it is.”

The kids scramble around me, kneeling down and peering at the stain on the pavement.

“It’s juice,” says Batman, his voice muffled behind his plastic mask.

“No, it’s chocolate,” says a tiny Captain America. He touches the ground with a gloved hand. “Like the kind you put in milk.”

Hulk recoils and then stands quickly. “Uh-uh. It’s blood.”`                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 The other two rise, backing up a few steps.

I chuckle. “You really think so?”

Hulk nods. “Is it really?”

“Nah. It’s just rust-colored paint. Watercolor.” I bend down again, and whisper to them conspiratorially. “But don’t tell anyone, OK? I want the big kids to think it’s something spooky.”

“Like blood?”

“Yeah. Like blood.”

“Cool.”

“So.” I put my hands on my hips. “What are you doing wandering around at night like this? Shouldn’t you be out fighting bad guys?”

“We’re pretending,” says Batman. “You’re supposed to give us candy.”

“Oh really? I didn’t hear the magic words.”

They jump up and down, their plastic buckets bouncing in their hands. “Trick or treat! Trick or treat!”

“OK, OK, I might have something for you. Follow me.” Before I start up the walk, I click off my flashlight. The stain on the cement is clearly visible in the moonlight, but it’s good to know it stands up under closer inspection. Those teenagers with their iPhones…

After the kids run back to their moms, I check up and down the street. Looks like I’ve hit a lull. Time to finish up in the garage.

I’d set my old Pioneer stereo system up there fifty years ago. Abby loved that thing. We’d park the cars in the street and slow dance as Billy Joel crooned “Just the Way You Are.” After the kids were born, it played “Rubber Ducky” and “C is For Cookie.” And with the grandkids, it was “Baby Shark” before they moved out of town.

When it was just Abby and me again, we went back to Bill Joel. Even after the cancer made it so she could barely walk, she still wanted to slow dance.

The speakers are on stands, about head height, but tonight I’d turned them to face the metal garage door, just inches away. I’d been a tech director for a local theatre for most of my adult life. My last show was three years ago, a couple months before I lost Abby. It took a couple years, but the creative juices have started flowing again. This is a good outlet.

The stereo is dark. I turn the knob to “on.” Nothing. I look at the extension cord snaking its way to the socket just to the left of the garage door.

“Things always work better when they’re plugged in.” The stale tech theatre joke still makes me smile.

After sticking the plug into the socket, I fire up the stereo and slip a CD the player…a relatively recent addition to the system. Fishing the remote out of my pocket, I step back and press the play button.

An eerie, whispering voice comes through the speakers.

Come back. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

It’s my voice, but I’ve edited it so much even Abby wouldn’t have recognized it.

I quickly press pause and shuffle back into the house and out to the porch. My jack-o-lantern leers ghoulishly from atop a little table next to the door. After checking the candle, I press play again, then descend the steps and back to the driveway, standing right on the stain.

Come back. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

I can hear it through the garage door, but it’s a little quiet against the wind. I raise the volume with a couple taps from my thumb until it’s perfect. Clearly audible but not too loud.

The night passes with a steady stream of costumed candy seekers. Between doorbell chimes, I try to take in Game 4 of the World Series. All my customers are pretty small. I wouldn’t dare terrify kids that little. By end of the seventh inning, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve gone to all that trouble for nothing.

There’s a brief lull in traffic for a couple of outs, but then I hear footsteps approaching, up the walk, then clomping up the wooden stairs to my porch. I hear their voices before the doorbell rings. A couple of older male voices. Maybe three. A girl laughs.

Teenagers. Excellent.

I push myself up from my recliner and shuffle to the door. As I do, I pat the stereo remote in my pants pocket.

They ring the bell again and pound on the door just as I’m opening it. Then I’m standing before them, looking them up and down.

Two girls and three boys.  

One of the girls is dressed in a cheerleader costume, her face done up with grey makeup like a corpse, complete with fake blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. The other is wearing a nurse outfit that looks like it came from an adult bookstore. Two of the boys have barely made any effort. One has a local high school letterman jacket and the other is in coveralls and a hockey mask.

“Trick or treat,” they chorus. Like it’s a chore or something.

It’s showtime.

“What’s the matter?” I growl. “You bored? Or just embarrassed to be high schoolers engaging in an activity for five-year-olds?”

I should win a Best Actor Oscar for my stunning portrayal of Grumpy Old Fart. Hey, I did my fair share of time on the other side of the lights. I produce my bowl of full-size candy bars.

The girls’ eyes widen when they see them. That’s one of my tricks. You have to use good bait.

“Geez,” I say, “get a job and buy your own candy. It’ll go on sale tomorrow.”

Then there’s the fifth kid at the back, just out of the glare of the porchlight. Tall. Skinny. He’s got on a costume I haven’t seen in years: a dark coat, pants, and tie over a white morph suit, the stretchy fabric making his face look featureless. Some of the teens in our youth theatre program used to dress like Slenderman for our costume parties. They used to think this was the scariest costume in the world, but it only made me think of the Terrible Trivium from The Phantom Tollbooth.

He’s the one. My mark.

I hug the candy bowl to my chest and glare at the Slenderman kid

“You think you’re funny? Wearing that costume here?”

The dead cheerleader laughs. I can almost read her thoughts. What a stupid old man. “Do you even know what it is?”

“’Course I do. Slenderboy.” It helps to make them think they know more than you do. Gives them a sense of false security.

They’re all laughing now.

“It’s Slenderman,” says Hockey Mask and Uncreative Jock in unison. Slenderman kid stays silent.

They’re still laughing as another group of trick-or-treaters troops up to my wooden porch. Little kids. I push past the pack of teenagers. “Oh my goodness! What do we have here?”

“I’m Ironman!” Another superhero.

“I’m a witch!”

“I’m Thinderella!”

There’s a mom dressed as a nurse…a regular nurse, in scrubs, not some Florence Nightingale from a triple-X movie. She’s holding a baby dressed like a panda.

The full-sized bars splash into their buckets of fun-sized candy. Ironman peers at his for a couple of seconds before looking at me. “Whoa! These are huge!”

I can almost see the admiration behind his mask.

“Take care! Be safe out there!” Now I’ve switched to the role of Friendly Grandpa in the Green House on Lancaster Street. The older kids are still on my porch. I squeeze through them to get to my door.

“Hey,” says Salacious Nurse. “What about us?”

“What about you?” Grumpy Old Fart again.

Uncreative Jock crosses his arms. “Aren’t you gonna give us something?”

I hug the bowl to my chest once more and nod toward Slenderboy. “Not ‘til your friend explains himself.”

Hockey Mask snorts. “He doesn’t talk.”

I step inside. “I see. Good night.” And I close the door.

Outside, I hear their muffled voices.

“What the…?”

“Did you see the size of those bars?”

“Jesse, c’mon.”

“Slenderman doesn’t talk.” A reedy voice I haven’t heard yet.

“Who cares? Do it anyway.”

Some more whispered conversation. Then the doorbell rings again. I count to five before opening it.

“What?”

“Look,” says Uncreative Jock, “It’s just a costume. This is my friend Jesse.”

I narrow my eyes at the kid without a face. “Jesse, huh? What do you have to say for yourself?”

He shuffles his feet. “Um…It’s just a character from…I don’t know. It’s not a movie or anything. It’s just—”

I cut him off. “You know the story of Brodie Carlisle?”

A gust of wind punctuates my question, tossing leaves into the air behind the teens and swirling them about as if Prospero himself was standing on my lawn choreographing their eerie, fluttering dance.

The maskless ones blink at me. Dead Cheerleader brushes a lock of hair from her eyes. “Who?”

I step out the door and advance toward Slenderboy…Jesse. “Brodie Carlisle. Kid about your build and height. About your age, I’m guessing. Same costume, so it’s hard to tell.”

“What about him?” asks Hockey Mask.

I don’t take my eyes off Jesse. “Fifteen years ago. Halloween. A group of five kids comes to my door. Two girls. Three boys.” I look at each of them, just to slow the pacing. I’m in the zone, my improv skills taking over.

“As soon as they get the candy, they go tearing across the street to that house over there. And then, this drunk driver comes out of nowhere, and BANG!” I bring my heel hard against the wooden deck. To my satisfaction, all five of them jump. “Four of them make it across. But Brodie, he’s bringing up the rear. I see his body fly thirty feet through the air and land in my driveway.”

The kids are silent. I have them right where I want them.

“He starts crawling up toward the house. Screaming. Crying for help. I get to him about the time he makes it to the garage door. His mask is torn off. His face is a mess. Nose gone. Front teeth missing.”

“God,” whispers Hockey Mask.

“And then he just collapses. I can still hear the splash as he drops into the puddle of his own blood.”

Salacious Nurse looks pale. Dead Cheerleader has a hand over her mouth.

Uncreative Jock’s jaw is slack. “Is that true?”

Some of it.

I raise my right hand. “Honest to God.”

A barn owl screeches overhead. The girls gasp. Perfect timing. You can’t buy this kind of ambiance.

The kid with the hockey mask has pulled it up to the top of his head. He has freckles and a Roman nose. “What happened? Did he…you know…”

“Right there on my driveway. In my arms. And his friends? They just ran away. All of them.”

Hockey Mask shakes his head. “God. That’s cold.”

“Yeah. And he kept calling for them. ‘Come back. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.’ Over and over again. Choking on his own blood. ‘Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.’ Until he just…stopped breathing.”

There are four things you need to do to make a scary story work. One, you need vivid details. Two, it helps if there’s a grain of truth. For example, there really was Brodie Carlisle who was killed by a driver on Halloween night. And he really did expire on my driveway. And they say his friends left him while he called for them.

But that’s it. It happened about fifty years ago, not fifteen. Long before I moved in.

But that brings me to the third thing: make it personal. I don’t know what kind of costume he was wearing or who he was with. I could change the story to match any situation: There were three girls and one boy. There were five boys. He was wearing a werewolf costume. He was dressed like a vampire. Doesn’t matter. All that matters is you make the group the same size as theirs and you dress Brodie in the same costume as one of the trick-or-treaters.

I set the bowl down on the table next to the jack-o-lantern and pull out five candy bars, doling them out into five pillowcases. My hands shake in the best of circumstances, but I exaggerate it, as if just telling the story is taking a toll. “It gets weirder. Every one of those kids? They were dead before the next Halloween.”

Trick number four: include a sense of threat.

“No way,” says Jock.

“Yup. Car accident killed both the other boys in January. One of them was driving drunk. Ironic right? Then one of the girls drowned in the lake the next summer. And they say the other one killed herself before school started again.”

Jock snorts bravely. “I think you’re full of it.”

I slip the last candy bar into his pillowcase and shake my head. “I get it. I wouldn’t believe me either. But you want proof? Go to the middle of the driveway, about five feet from the garage door, and look down. There’s a dark stain in the cement.”

Dead Cheerleader’s eyes widen. Her hand is at her throat now. “Is it…?”

Jesse finishes the sentence for her. “…his blood?”

I nod. “I’ve power washed it a dozen times, but it keeps coming back.”

They’re staring at me, but my gaze is beyond them. A traumatized thousand-yard stare I’ve practiced in the mirror. Another gust of wind shrieks through the trees.

“Hey,” says Hockey Mask. “Thanks. Thanks for the candy. Have a good night.”

They turn to go.

But I’m not done yet. “And the creepiest thing?”

They stop and look at me. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

“I’ve heard him. Always at night. Always this time of year. Always on the driveway. I don’t go out there in late October anymore.” I shuffle back to the doorway. Before I step inside, I then turn to them. They’re still rooted to the porch. “G’night. Be safe out there. Please. Be careful crossing the street.”

After closing the door, I listen to their whispered conversation.

“That dude is nuts,” says Jock.

“I’m freaked. Let’s go,” says one of the girls.

“At least let’s see the blood stain,” says Jesse.

“Fine,” hisses the girl. I think it’s Dead Cheerleader. “But then we’re getting out of here.”

I watch through the peephole as they move down the walkway, my thumb on the play button of my stereo’s remote. As soon as they get around the corner of the garage, I count to ten. Then I press it.

Screaming. Running footsteps. I see them charge down the driveway, then stop on the sidewalk, as if ghosts are bound by property lines. They’re all speaking at once.

“Did you hear that?”

“Oh my God. Oh my God.”

“I hate this. Let’s get out of here.”

“What was it?”

“Oh my God.”

I’m out of the house now, leaning against the porch railing, doubled over with laughter. It takes them a moment before they see me.

“What?” says Jock. “What?”

“Oh my God,” says Hockey Mask. “He got us. He got us good.”

The next thing I know, they’re coming up the walk again. The boys shake my hand, big smiles on their faces, while the girls giggle nervously.

“Dude,” says Jesse. “That was awesome. Awesome!”

“Let your friends know about this,” I say as they leave again. “But don’t give away anything.”

I tell the story a half-dozen more times before the street finally quiets down.

It’s late, but the adrenaline of performance is still pumping through me. I know I won’t be able to sleep for a while, so I decide to clean up.

Still chuckling to myself I pluck the garage door opener from the table by the door. First, I hose the fake blood off the driveway. But before I open the garage door, I press the button on the stereo remote one last time.

 The ghostly voice begins to whisper.

Come back. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

I have to admit, it would have been creepy even without the grinning moon and the wind hissing through the bare branches.

I click the garage door open and shuffle inside to turn off the stereo. Man, it’s dark. Darker than I expected.

That’s when I realize. There’s no light coming from the system. I approach and turn the knob a couple of times.

Nothing.

And then, I follow the cord to the outlet.

It isn’t even plugged in.

My scalp begins to prickle. Looking down, in the moonlight, I see the shadow of a human figure coming up behind me. I turn around.

There’s nobody there.

But the voice continues, and it’s not coming from the speakers.

Come back. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

October 28, 2023 02:32

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