Horror Mystery

It's the same routine every night that saves me from insanity. 

We sit by the window while she rocks and stares. I make sure she has blankets. Grandmother Pearl always sleeps till morning. 

When her eyes close, I'm gone, out the back door, closing the white gate softly. 

Only a few blocks from the house the world of streetlights and asphalt ends and the trail that leads to Hartselle Woods begins. What begins as a paved trail for tourists that branches off the highway quickly becomes the darkness and the quiet that I need. I leave the trail almost immediately for the dead of forest. 

Soon the dark woods close all around me.

It’s then then I hear them. The voice of insects, speaking to me of the unseen paths of night. 

They didn't even think I'd survive as an infant. My mother died in childbirth. I never knew my father. I had two older siblings who died when I was seven, suddenly, inexplicably. Our family was devastated. Everyone thought I would drop dead too, like them.

As a baby they diagnosed me with epilepsy and put me on every drug you can imagine. Nothing worked until I learned what my mind was doing.

From the time I was a child I heard a constant buzzing, like a radio in my ears. When the buzzing became too strong my mind shut down and this was when I would have seizures. Again and again I lost control.

I could barely walk, could barely speak. I had terrible fits of rage. School couldn't handle me. When I was three years old I went to the zoo with my grandmother, for the first time. It was then I finally began to understand. It was the internal voices of animals I was hearing, and my brain was a radio tuned to every frequency at once, and I couldn't process any of it.

That day at the zoo was my worst seizure. It was the first time I actually lost consciousness. I was just a baby then but I started to realize it. It was the animals that did it. But too many, all at once, that's the problem. Too many large animals like that, and my brain shuts down. 

Those were the darkest times for me. I would lash out, seize, and awaken without memory. No one thought they could cure me. 

They started to treat me with electroshock therapy then, after medicines failed. That's what they gave the credit to, for me getting better, for me learning to walk and to read. 

It wasn't the shock therapy. I cured myself.  

It's ironic that animals are the trigger, but also the cure. It's not a matter of avoiding them completely. Instead I choose the simplest voices. Being among large animals is like a crushing waterfall of noise. But the smallest creatures have thoughts like a trickle of water. 

I started at night, after that, to go out to the backyard, to crawl on the ground with the ants, the worms, the ground dwellers. I went out after dark when the world becomes alive with ants and beetles and nameless crawling things. 

I tuned my mind to their impulses, their thoughts. In the darkness I saved my mind. 

The lowest creatures of the world don't think like us. That's why this works. They think things like, my tree, my bush, looking for a mate. They know what death is. But they don't mourn. They are recklessly impulsive. Not every word is something important. Most of it is static.

The most important thing to the crawlers is justice. They know justice intensely, feel it in their exoskeletons. For them justice means a cycle. Birth, death, life, death. Anything that disturbs the cycle is the enemy. They are one of a million generations.

They have no law against eating, or being eaten, but their law requires balance, everything that eats also being eaten, equally. A ledger of violence.

I listen to the voices. I process and I purge, like mediation, like prayer.

Tonight is different, though. Something is happening in the woods. 

The word they use tonight is unmistakable. There is news. Meal. Death. A body. Food. The crawlers are alive. They're moving, somewhere. 

Something has happened. So I follow their lead, tracing their shadows.

It's not unusual for me to be led to an animal that has died in the woods, when the voices become excited. I'll walk for hours to find the carcass of a deer, or the spilled entrails of a lost dog. Should it bother me to be near dead things? It used to. But it's something I've become acquainted with. 

But tonight is not the same. The creatures of the lower world are talking in force tonight. And it's not just that. There is a sense of confusion in the chorale. 

I hear more of the voices as I descend deeper into the woods. It's a bit beyond the usual places where I wander. The woods are deeper here. I can be away from Grandmother until early morning but not after the sun rises. That's when she has to have her medication, when she gets confused. 

The leaves over my head bury me in darkness as night finds its fullness. 

I emerge at a central opening where the trees part ways, not knowing what I expect to see.

The worms and the bugs have centralized on a space in the middle of the clearing. I can detect an area of swelling there. A pile of leaves and sticks. Something hastily assembled. The work of human activity. 

I feel a hand on my arm. 

It's not frightening. I feel a sensation of peace. But there shouldn't be anything alive in these woods, besides me.

“Don't be afraid,” says the voice, in my ears and not my mind. A human voice. 

It's a child. A little shorter than me. She has pigtails, and she's wearing a white church dress. Her face is clean. But her body is tattered, ragged. 

I've never seen a ghost before. If she is a ghost. I recognize her face, though. Anyone in Hartselle would know her immediately. There are no bones present, and no carcass on the ground. Just this spectre.

Aria Estelle. She and her sister died eight years ago, and their bodies were never discovered. The most famous murder in the history of our community, by far. 

Her mother was my doctor. She was killed in an accident when the electroshock machine she was using to treat me malfunctioned. 

That was tragic enough. But then girls were murdered and no one ever found the killer, or their bodies. The deaths split the community in two. There have been a thousand conspiracy theories about what happened. Somehow I've been brought to them.

“You were led here by the worms,” she says.

“Yes,” I say. 

 She turns her face away and I see the puncture wounds in the back of her neck. One conspiracy theory says she was killed with an icepick. Nothing could ever be proven. 

“Are you Aria?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. Her breath is wet and misty, like morning grass.

“You were murdered,” I say. I look into her eyes. They're hollow, empty, deeply sad. She has the beautiful outline of a young girl. But her frame is broken. Whatever waits for us after death, it seems to have been punishing for this one. Perhaps being alive it's not possible for me to understand the dead, whatever torments they endure.

“I need you to help me complete the circle,” she says. 

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“Talia,” she says. “She needs to rest.”

Talia Estelle. The sister. I remember her picture in the paper as well. Her body was never recovered. She's taking me to her. Ghosts live when things are left undone, bodies left unburied. 

We walk through the dark woods. Behind me is her presence. Her footsteps barely graze the ground. I feel her breath on my neck.

A owl whistles above us. “What do you remember of us?” she says. It's jarring, the first time she's spoken in awhile of walking.

“I know you lived in town. I know your deaths were horrible,” I say. “But I didn't know you.”

“You knew my mother,” she says.

“I did. She was a good doctor. She tried to help me.”

“Did you have parents?” she asks.

“My mother died giving birth to me,” I said. “I never knew my father.”

“My father died of a broken heart after my mother died,” Aria says. 

“Did he kill himself?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “He just went into the house and turned the lights off and never left again. He didn't want to live, anymore.”

“I'm sorry about the way your life was. Do you want peace for your sister?” I ask.

“I don’t want peace. I want justice,” she says. 

 We're in another clearing now. My sense of direction is lost. But there's another pile, and another presence. This time I can see white bones, stacked up and bleached against the earth. Human remains. 

“Hello, Talia,” I say. 

She's taller than her younger sister. Talia was sixteen when she died. Her eyes stare at me. Half of her face is scarred away. I see the same massive wounds in her neck. She's stronger than her sister, more fearsome. 

There's a hole in the ground. Talia and Aria walk to it, one on each side. The bleached bones are adjacent to it. 

I walk towards the bones, towards the hole. 

“I want to bring you peace,” I say. “Let me help you.”

Is this something that I can do, something good, to set things right?

“Bury my body,” Talia says to me. “Let me rest.”

I lay my hands on the first piece of skeleton. A rib, cold, fleshless, from years of exposure.

Closing my eyes I feel the pores and callouses of bone. A shock of cold air runs through me. 

Opening my eyes I realize the hands of both girls, both spirits are touching me now. 

“Look,” they say, two female voices harmonizing in unison.

The woods melt into memory. I'm in the electroshock therapy room, somehow. It's cold. I'm wearing a hospital gown.

There is blood, everywhere, all over me. 

Dr Estelle is standing above me. She's wearing her pearl necklace. But her face is pale, bloodless. I'm holding a hypodermic needle with the tip stabbed deep into her neck. Blood is seeping from her lacerated jugular vein. 

I've killed her. Did I mean to do it? I've stabbed her, during my seizure. I didn't know, I say.

But this isn't right, I think. The memory must be false. Dr Estelle died in an accident. 

Grandmother Pearl is there. She screams, then muffles the sound. I'm dazed, post-seizure, barely aware of what I've done. Dr Estelle crumples to the floor. 

There are footsteps running down the hall to the treatment room. Someone is coming. 

The look on Grandmother's face is terrified. She knows. She sees my broken face, my shriveled body. She knows they'll never forgive me for what I've done. 

I see grandmother Pearl take the electrical paddles, still live with electricity, and I see her shove their glistening current under the running water of the sink in the exam room. There is an explosion. 

Another vision. I'm at our house. It's night, maybe some time later. I see Grandmother, watching out the upstairs window, as two faces approach the house. I hear their voices. It's Talia and Aria Estelle. But they're still alive.

“Kill that freak bitch dead,” Talia whispers. I realize she's talking about me. She's carrying matches and a can of gasoline. Her intention is to burn the house down, and us in it. She is moving with hatred in her eyes. She blames me. She thinks I killed her mother. 

Grandmother Pearl hears every word. Then she disappears in the dark of the house. 

The girls are too absorbed in themselves to notice her coming out the back gate, walking behind them, and stabbing them through the brain with an ice pick in the dark. Talia dies first, then Aria, swift and silent. 

The last vision. I'm in a dark room, nighttime. There are bodies, sleeping, in twin beds.

My brother and sister always shared a room. It’s them. They’re alive.

When I hear screaming I turn and I see Talia. Her ghost arms are stretched impossibly wide. The aura of her presence casts light on the bodies of my brother, my sister. Talia's hands are in both of their mouths, their life draining out, into her, killing them as they sleep.

And now I'm in the woods again, the vision ends, and I realize what is happening. Justice. A life for a life. 

The ledger of night. I have killed one, my grandmother one, and they have taken two. It should be in balance.

But the ghosts do not care about justice. It's not Talia they want me to bury.

The two hands that gave me visions shove me into the grave they've dug for me. 

“Revenge,” Aria says. 

I hear the voices of the insects, surrounding me, so close. Justice is my death, my burial, the execution of a killer. I hear the screaming of the worms and the crickets and the ants and the aphids, louder than ever. My mind is on fire. I feel Talia's ghost reaching down into the grave towards my face.  

But it's not enough. Not justice. The insect world is aflame. I feel them coming, but not for me.

The insects render their verdict and my death would tip the balance too far. 

They raise from the ground, every crawling creature, every nameless one-eyed beetle, and they swarm and slither and crawl. I can feel them, where they're going. The bones. 

They devour the skeleton. It takes a thousand of them, a million. The ghosts fight back. But they has no power. It is the law of woods and darkness and insects. Justice. The night world bends inexorably towards it. 

There is no revenge among the insect world. Only justice. 

The bones are devoured. I feel Talia's presence lifting. 

I sit up in the grave. The crawlers depart as they came, to their homes. 

And they issue me a message. Grandmother, they say. This we cannot change. Justice. Another seeks to tip the balance.


Turning I run blindly back for home, as fast as I can.

Crashing through the back door I bound upstairs, to her recliner, where I left her.

But I'm too late. A spirit hovers over Grandmother's chair. He is short, weak, but his animus is rabid, ferocious.

It's the ghost of a man, small, broken. The father. Mr Estelle. He seeks revenge for his daughters, for his wife. 

The ledger is filled. I killed his wife, one of his daughters. His daughters took two of mine. This is why the insects refused to allow my death. 

I cry to the insects to save my grandmother. There are weevils, cockroaches in the walls of the house. They could act, as they did with Talia, to save my grandmother. 

The balance is even, I say. Do not allow this. 

But they call back to me from the walls. And the answer is no. 

Aria died with her sister, they say. Justice requires a death, now. His taking is just. 

So the balance is three of theirs, two of ours, and the scale must be evened. 

I lunge for him but I'm not in time. I feel Grandmother's life leave the room.

“A life for a life,” he says. His spirit departs. I am alone in the house.  

The insects help me mourn. I bury Grandmother's body in the backyard, after dark. She deserves my honor. She was my protector. 

I return her body to the worms and listen to their voices as I place her in the ground. 

She was my protector. But she cannot protect me anymore. 

I have many questions as I return to the woods, as evening draws back over me again like a cloak. I believe Aria is still alive, that she somehow convinced the lower world that her spirit passed on. I say this because I feel her presence and her hatred of me, nebulously, in the same way that I hear the voices. 

I'm also not convinced of the truth of her visions. It's hard for me to believe that I killed Dr Estelle, or that Grandmother could have faked the electroshock machine accident without killing herself. Could these be a false memory, meant to weaken my resolve?

Aria still seeks to destroy me, I tell the insect voices. She seeks revenge.

She is dead, they say. But the father. He seeks you. He will come again. 

They will both come for me, somehow, living or dead. 

I know what I have to do. If the father walks as a ghost, he must be unburied, somewhere. Similarly Aria. The key is their remains, which must have never been committed to the Earth. I must find their bones and bury them, or destroy them, and send their spirits to Hell. 

The insect voices watch carefully. They will only balance an uneven scale. But they accompany me, observing, chattering, watching over me through the night.

I descend into the woods again and let the shadows cover my path. 

October 24, 2020 02:07

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S. K.
22:32 Oct 28, 2020

great job! i don't usually read horror stories but this was assigned to me and i'm glad i read it! this is a wonderfully crafted story. i really like how you tied everything together, with the girl being able to hear the thoughts of animals. you're great at description and the story itself! i found no major issues with this story. the only thing i might suggest in the future is varying your sentence types/length? you have a lot of sentences with the same "rhythm" if that makes sense. variation is good. but this is a fabulous story and really...


Matthew Eubanks
03:05 Oct 30, 2020

you are super nice and i will definitely think that through. i’ve had similar critiques before so that is something i can work on ... i will check your stuff out too... appreciated


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