The howling of Equus Cabalus was distinctly heard in the town as it was early in the morning and the streets were still deserted. The wheels of the carriage rattled on the rutty road as a few women stood their porch steps, curious to see who had graced them with their presence at this forsaken town. All they could see was a man in a long coat and a top hat, pulling on the reigns of the horses with gloved hands. The wind seemed to whisper his name but it was inaudible. As he neared the town square, what they assumed was a carriage revealed to be a cart in which a plethora of trinkets and souvenirs dangled.
The lady simply stared blabbered at him and replied, “I don’t know, son.” After a beat, she ushered her son inside the house and closed the door behind her. The strange Human had brought him to a halt outside a magnificent but abandoned mansion. She couldn’t recall anyone buying over that house of horrors after the tragic incident that befell the Actons.
A few weeks later, families waited to see if the visitor would get himself acquainted with everyone but he never left the mansion. They thought they could purchase a few trinkets themselves considering how unique they looked and portray a welcoming community. The woman who went by the name of Emma was intrigued and wanted to bake some of her famous peach cobblers to give the stranger. The house is too big for one person. Surely he must be lonely. Then, little Benjamin rapped on the mahogany door for quite some time. Finally, it opened. The stranger appeared in the doorway wearing a shirt, vest and pants without a hat, smoking on his half-burnt cigar. He was balding in the centre and had a grim look on his face. Benjamin forced out a small smile and thrust the basket of peach cobblers at the man’s chest. “These are from my Ma next door. Welcome to our town!” The stranger stared at the boy dryly. Benjamin felt uneasy and spun on his heel to head home.
“Wait,” the stranger called out in a deep, gruff voice. He stopped in his tracks. The stranger emerged from the dark of his doorway and handed him a music box. Scott received it in confusion and gratefulness.
“Thank you….?” Benjamin hinted at the stranger to introduce himself but the man just closed the door with a blank expression. He skipped to his home where his mother waited for him.
“So…?” She probed for information.
“He didn’t introduce himself nor did he say thanks for the dessert.” Benjamin retorted while examining the music box.
Ava pouted. Then her eyes lit up as she noticed the gift. “What is that?”
“He gave me this.” Ava took it in her hands. It was wooden and smelled faintly oriental like spices. “Maybe it’s his way of thanking us.” Benjamin proposed, intently staring at it in interest.
“Maybe,” She agreed and ruffled his hair, returning the souvenir to him.
From that day onwards, Benjamin would open it and play the music every night before he went to bed. Ava did not find the music melodious, in fact, it was eerie. Benjamin was unfazed and even started humming to the tune at random hours of the day. His friend, Liam casually slipped a warning into their conversation.
The next day, before anyone at home arose, Liam's mother worked around the clock to make the sweetest and tastiest raspberry cheese tarts. She carefully lined a basket with napkins and arranged the delicate tarts in it. Liam took the basket and gaily skipped to the mansion, eager to get his share of a gift. He knocked on the door impatiently and the stranger opened with a scowl. Liam thrust the basket of tarts into the man’s chest. The man grunted with annoyance then told him to wait.
Liam could feel his heart racing as the man returned inside. When the man appeared, he handed Liam a tiny bottle of perfume. He stared at it as his heart began to sink. Before he could say anything, the stranger slammed the door shut. Liam sniffed the scent and immediately his head started to spin but he could not stop breathing it in. It smelled of cinnamon and cloves. Ever since that day, he would spray some on everywhere he went even while he was at home.
The adults at home did not seem to like the scent but his friends around the town loved it. Soon, one could see a little child with a basket of delicacies standing in front of the mahogany doors of the mansion. Each time they returned home with a little gift. Yet, after all this time, no one knew the stranger’s name nor the purpose of his visit.
One night, Benjamin was lounging in his bedroom with the music box playing in the background. Ever since he first started playing it, he has always heard a tiny voice calling his name. He tried to ignore it but soon decided it must’ve been part of the song.
“Scott,” It whispered. “Come play with me.”
“Where?” He asked. There was no reply.
“Listen to the flute.” He furrowed his eyebrows. What flute? This wasn’t part of the song.
Liam too was in his bedroom and had just sprayed on the perfume after his shower. After two pumps, he gagged all of a sudden. The perfume had lost its oriental scent suddenly and smelled like dead fish. He smelled like dead fish. “Ugh, the music box would have been better.” He groaned and was going to have another shower when he caught a whiff of that foul smell. He opened his bedroom door and followed it like a trail, dismayed at how his house could reek of dead meat. He sniffed it all the way to the front door and opened it. He squinted his eyes to see a small figure in the middle of the street.
Oliver was the fifth child in town after Benjamin to welcome the visitor with her cupcakes. She was snuggled on a couch, twirling the instrument she had been gifted in her hand. She had been playing it non-stop because it was the only thing putting a smile on her face. That night, when she played it, she heard a voice. At the end of each note that she blew, a soft voice coaxed her to keep playing. So she did. But the voice continued to demand that she play outside. With everyone in her household tucked in, she snuck out and played the flute, aimlessly walking down the street.
Hence, knowing that it was past midnight, and everyone was asleep, he clambered down the steps and dashed outside. A girl about his age was walking down the street, playing the flute. “Listen to the flute,” he murmured. As if in a trance, he joined her out on the street just as Liam did too.
In a matter of minutes, most of the children in the town had joined them and were walking in a single file down the street, following Oliver as if she was the Pied Piper. She stopped playing once they reached the front of the Acton’s mansion. It was a marvel how none of the adults heard this ‘parade’. Still, in a state of semi-unconsciousness, Oliver opened the gate of the Acton’s mansion and all the children shuffled in. Liam caught a whiff of the odour again and this time they all followed the stink of rotten fish. They didn’t knock on the door. They knew it was open for them. In the dead of night, they entered the dark hallway of the mansion, completely unaware of what they were doing. The melody that had put everyone in a trance echoed throughout the mansion like a calling only meant for the children.
The strange man was seated in the living room by the fireplace, sipping rum from his glass. He hummed to the eerie melody as he waited eagerly for the children. In the last town he visited, he’d made much profit. The opportunities in the black market were endless. He grinned as he heard the song being played on the flute carried by the chilly wind outside. He was ready. He stood up and briskly walked out of the living area to the long corridor down his left. Huge paintings of his family members were framed and hung along both sides of the walls. Their ashes were kept behind the paintings, in the little vaults his father had built in the walls.
How ironic that his father had built the vaults to stash money that he got from his business dealings but unfortunately, he ended up buried in them. The visitor laughed at the prospect of his jest. He could still vividly recall the shrieks and screams of his mother and sisters. How their eyes were filled with pain and were mortified at him holding the butcher’s knife, father’s blood dripping from it onto the expensive Persian carpets.
It was too bad his brother had died a week before the manslaughter. As curious as he was to find out who killed his younger brother, he was glad that someone had done the dirty work for him, lessening his burden of one more dead body. All of the Actons had died in a single day except him. He fled from the mansion and took off into the dead of night after making a deal with the Devil of the black market. Since then, he’d been the most prized collector of human organs.
People in the black market call him ‘The Reaper’.
As he heard his front gate creak open on its hinges, he braced himself at the end of the hallway and slipped on his latex gloves, stretching them over his gnarly fingers. He couldn’t give the charming souvenirs to every kid in town, nevertheless, the select few that were innocent enough to bring him food; or rather greedy for gifts; were about to walk into the jaws of death. The fat boy who received the perfume ungratefully first entered. He remembered this one. He had those greedy little eyes that were expecting payment in return for those cheese tarts that were fed to the birds the next day. The Reaper shuddered in disgust. Children were vulnerable because of their unshameful greed.
“Welcome children.” He said. The children regarded him with blank eyes, still in a trance and unsure how to respond. “This way,” He turned his back on them and led them to an inner room under the grand staircase. It was dimly lit and had a dental engine underneath a giant spotlight right in the centre of the room. Scalpels, scissors, saws, forceps and clamps were arranged neatly on a tray beside the dental engine. He made the children wait outside in the lounge where they were served Emma's peach cobblers. The Reaper could not stomach any of the food given by the townspeople.
He brought in Oliver, the girl with the flute and strapped her to the dental engine. Her eyes were glazed over, like glass. She didn’t struggle, much less move an inch. He smiled and rolled up her shirt, raising the scalpel over her stomach. He loved it when the victim’s eyes were still open during the process, completely unsuspecting of what was about to happen due to the spell they were under.
The peach cobbler boy held up the saw and revved its engine.
The children waited patiently in the lounge and greedily gobbled up the peach cobblers that were served. After a few bites, Benjamin's eyes widened and he snapped out of his trance-like state. He glanced about, shifting impatiently in his seat.
“Liam,” He whispered, elbowing his friend. “Where are we?”
Liam looked over Benjamin, his eyes still glazed over. Benjamin forcefully opened Liam's mouth and stuffed a peach cobbler into it. Liam blinked as he chewed, suddenly mindful of his surroundings. “The Actons,” He stammered in fear. “The visitor’s mansion.”
They noticed the other children waking up from their trance, their eyes darting about in fear and curiosity. What were they doing in the Acton’s mansion at midnight?
“The flute,” Benjamin registered. “Ma’s peach cobblers.”
“The perfume,” Liam said, quickly grasping onto Benjamin's idea.
“A taste of home saved-” He was cut off by the sound of the familiar melody. The tune of the music box and the flute are played by Oliver. Someone was humming it and it was coming from that inner room.
“Where’s Oliver ?” Liam asked, swallowing hard.
The children had snuck into the room under the stairs and saw the horror that was about to unfold. Without thinking twice, they grabbed the surgical tools and Benjamin revved the engine of the saw. The Reaper did not know, this town was forsaken because of the horrors the children had dealt with and on the most part…. had done themselves. Just as the man registered their presence and what they were holding, Liam knocked him out with a hammer.
The Reaper opened his eyes, feeling lightweight and dizzy. He tried to move his arms but couldn’t. He looked down to see that he was strapped to the dental engine. What sick joke was this? He thought to himself. Who would dare do this to The Reaper? Then, Benjamin, Oliver and Liam's heads loomed above him.
“Would you like to do the honours?” Benjamin passed the scalpel to Oliver.
“With pleasure,” She grinned wryly as Liam rolled The Reaper’s shirt up.
“What are you doing? Wait! No!” He shrieked.
The children gathered around a large hole they dug in the Acton’s backyard.
“How ironic,” Liam said dryly. “To be buried beside his little brother after he massacred the rest of his family.”
“His brother was a little troublemaker, wasn’t he?” Oliver reminded. Benjamin, Liam and the other kids tripped from the weight of the body wrapped in a cloth and threw him into the hole they had dug.
“He tricked us,” a girl in the midst of them spoke up. “He tricked us to get all our food when he was the richest among us.”
“Exactly,” Benjamin agreed, heaving from the weight of the dead body. “So we had to teach the little Acton a painful lesson.” He gazed sorely at the ground next to the hole they’d just dug. The grave of the youngest brother of the Acton’s.
“And now, we taught the older Acton a lesson.” Benjamin came to stand beside the ten years old girl who’d just spoke.
That night, the children went home to their beds like nothing ever happened. Just like they did five years ago after the youngest of the Acton’s was buried.
In this town, you aren’t invited to make it your home unless the children accept you. If they didn’t, you’ll end up becomes unwelcome!