Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
“Aw, c’mon, Rue! She’s not really a witch. The grown-ups just say that so you won’t go near her.”
I hesitated, looking up at the house looming before me, the only lights inside it coming from more of those horrible lanterns. “I know that, Tobe. Don’t be stupid.”
“Then what’re you afraid of?”
“She has skulls in her trees, Toby!”
Toby snorted, his derision visible even through his cheap ghost costume. “It’s Halloween, Ruby! Mrs. Whittle had skulls in her trees, and you weren’t scared of her.”
“Yeah, but…” I trailed off, watching Ellie go marching up the sidewalk, the big plastic eyes of her frog head rattling as she walked. “This is different.”
Of course, I knew Toby didn’t want to be standing in front of old Mrs. McKay’s house any more than I did. We had come to an agreement before we went out tonight that if anyone would give out bad candy, it would be her. Best to avoid her entirely. And besides, it wasn’t as though any of us had the first idea where she lived.
What we hadn’t reckoned on was that Big Billy Kent had thought along more or less the same lines – and that he had known. Billy Kent was in the sixth grade, and was a bit embarrassed by the fact that he had once called third-graders his friends in elementary school. Now he and a gang of other sixth-graders were trying to work their way into other friend groups by making a show of their dislike for the younger kids. Usually they limited themselves to the occasional stolen lunch or nasty prank. But they had recognized Halloween as a night when children chasing each other in scary costumes and screaming was considered harmless, and they hadn’t hesitated to take the opportunity.
And so, we’d ended up here. Mostly lost, no flashlights, and worse, no candy, in front of a house that even the grown-ups said was haunted. Toby thought we should go and ask her for help, or at least some candy so the night wouldn’t be a total loss. I thought we should run before she did something horrible to us. I hoped he was right.
Ellie got to the front door and knocked.
We waited there for long minutes, listening to the creak of the wind in her trees and the tap, tap of the skulls knocking against each other. Mrs. McKay had been predictably weird in her choice of Halloween decoration. Sure, Mrs. Whittle had had skulls in her trees too, but she had other things – giant spiders, plastic gravestones, a cheery construction-paper vampire beside her door. Mrs. McKay had none of that. She only had the skulls, hanging from skinny, gnarled trees that could almost be considered Halloween decorations themselves. There must have been hundreds of them, suspended in little clusters like weird fruit, each of them with a flickering candle inside that shone out through the eye sockets like a morbid jack-o-lantern. They lit up the yard almost by themselves, and I wondered suddenly how much it had cost to buy that many of them.
Ellie turned to us from the still-unopened door. “I don’t think she’s home.”
“But there’s lights in her windows.”
“Yeah, but she’s not coming to the door. I say we leave and don’t – what was that?”
Toby and I jumped in unison. “What was what?”
“Something moved! Inside!”
“Don’t be dumb. That just means she is home.”
“No, it wasn’t like a footstep movement. It was a bump. Like something falling.”
“Do you hear it now?”
Toby was backing away from the house. “Rue, I changed my mind. Let’s get out of here.”
“No,” I said, suddenly angry. “We’re not going to let this whole evening be a waste. It’s Halloween night. If you’re a grown-up and kids knock on your door on Halloween night, you have to answer. You have to give them candy. That’s how it works.” I stormed up onto the porch, Ellie stepping aside as I pounded on the door. “Mrs. McKay? We know you’re in there. Come out and give –”
I stopped, suddenly, my eyes going wide.
“Rue? You okay?”
I started backing away from the door, staring at it, pulling Ellie away with me. “She’s right there.”
“What do you –”
“I heard her, Tobe! Right there, on the other side of the door! She scratched on it…and she…she sounded…”
“Rue, come on, let’s go…”
I was almost in tears as Ellie pulled me back down onto the drive. “She sounded like her breath was on fire…”
We made our way slowly down the drive to the sidewalk, where the light from the skulls puddled and died. “You okay, Ruby?” Toby asked, looking nervously at me as we sat shakily there on the concrete.
“Yeah…” I wiped my eyes and stood. “Yeah…Come on, let’s go home.”
“Yeah,” Ellie said, standing and walking down the street, the flounce in her step masking the fact that her knees were still shaking.
“Um…Ellie?” Toby said, staring after her.
He pointed, and we realized what he already had. The houses were dark. The streetlights were dead. The sky was cloudy and the moon had set. Even if we had known how to get back home, we could see nothing beyond Mrs. McKay’s picket fence.
I felt the shakes coming on again, and managed to stand before they could take me over and crumple me to the ground again. “We’ll take her lanterns.”
“What, the creepy skulls?” Toby said, looking at where they swayed and flickered on their coarse twine. “Won’t we, y’know…get in trouble?”
“She wouldn’t give us candy. She wouldn’t let us call our parents. The least she can do is give us some light. And besides, she’s got so many. She’ll never notice if we take a couple.”
“I…” Toby opened his mouth and closed it again. “I don’t know…isn’t stealing wrong?”
“Ruby’s right,” Ellie said, scrambling up onto the peeling fence. “We’re not stealing. We’re returning the favor.”
She handed down three of them, one to each of us, with enough twine that we wouldn’t have to hold them with both hands the whole way home. The twine was rough and left splinters in your hands, but it was better than holding the skulls themselves. Those were made of some kind of delicate plastic, both soft and hard at the same time, with rough patches here and there along it. I had never held actual bone before, but it felt disturbingly like how I imagined it would feel.
But they lit the way, at least, in little bobbing circles of orange like miniature headlights. We picked our way nervously along the route that we thought Billy’s friends had chased us in, jumping occasionally as stray cats or looming shadows moved suddenly at the edges of our vision. But the way back looked different when we weren’t being chased along it, and it didn’t take us more than a few minutes to lose ourselves among the confused, tangled alleyways.
“No, no, I swear I remember the Santa,” Toby was saying, staring up at a huge, decayed inflatable that the garbage men hadn’t bothered to pick up since last Christmas.
“Really? ‘Cause I don’t,” Ellie said, picking up a tattered bit of latex that had fallen off it and staring down the alleyway. “And besides, do you remember seeing it or do you remember passing it?”
“I think I remember passing it? I don’t know…” He looked down the other alley, then worriedly back at the one we had come from. “Rue, do you remember this thing?”
“Huh?” I said, my attention snapping away from the jack-o-lantern grinning improbably from the roof of the building before us. “I don’t think so…But it’s not like I was paying attention.”
“Okay…” He kept looking up at it, seemingly mesmerized by the way the light from his skull played across its hollowed-out form. “Well, I’m going this way. You guys can go the other way if you want.”
“No, I’ll come with you,” I said, watching Ellie peer down one path and then the other. “I have no idea where we are.”
“You guys do that, then.” She turned and started walking away from the Santa. “And when it’s a dead end, you’ll all be really sad that I beat you home.”
“Fine,” Toby said. He started walking past it in the other direction, and I followed him, the skull held up to my chest like a shield.
It wasn’t a dead end.
We had gotten to a place we almost recognized – the back of the Pink Elephant Bar and Grill, which Toby at least thought might be near the mall – when we heard Ellie scream.
Between the panic and the flickering light, it took us almost five minutes to find our way back to the Santa. The alley she had gone down split again and again into a twisting maze, but none of the paths led to an actual exit. All of them stopped at some kind of garbage-can-blocked fence or wall. And though we searched and called through all of them, Ellie was gone.
It was only when we trudged back past the Santa that I noticed the jack-o-lantern was gone, too.
Toby and I were both shaking uncontrollably, trying and failing to stem the tears leaking from our eyes. Where had she gone? She couldn’t have come back past us. Could she have gotten over one of the walls? Then why hadn’t she answered when we called?
“Rue…” Toby said, though between my fear and his I could barely understand him. “Rue, what do we do?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…”
“She’s gone, Rue!” He collapsed onto the ground between the piles of trash. “She’s gone! Something’s out here, and it got her, and it’s going to get us…”
“We’ve gotta get home…Mom and Dad’ll know what to do…” I started walking again, knees almost literally knocking, and I heard Toby get up and follow me. “It can’t be far now…”
The Pink Elephant, as it turned out, was not by the mall. It was on a street we didn’t recognize, despite the fact that we had both driven past it more times than we could count. Lights glowed on the bottoms of the clouds in the distance, but the streetlights here worked no better than they had in front of Mrs. McKay’s house. These houses were still dark, too, and our lights flowed over forgotten Halloween decorations and bits of shrubbery as we walked. Neither of us remembered running through anywhere that looked like this, but we were beginning to realize just how poor our memories might have been.
“Hey, Rue?” Toby said, pausing and shining his light onto one of the houses’ dark doors.
“Should we ask one of them for help? They won’t be as mean as Mrs. McKay…”
I looked at the door, at the tatty scarecrow hunched in its chair on the porch, at the black windows around it that seemed to almost angrily reflect the light back at us. “What if they are?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s who-knows-how late at night – probably early, by now. Everyone’s asleep. Can you imagine how much trouble we’ll be in if we show up at the door like this and want them to help us?”
He stared at the door a moment longer and then slowly nodded. “Yeah…Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Come on. It can’t be much farther now.”
On and on we walked, until we began wondering, idly and then more seriously, why it hadn’t become morning yet. Sometimes one of us thought we recognized a building, but we didn’t know the town well enough to navigate by them. There were no cars and still no lights, and we began to wonder if the power had gone out. And then we turned a corner, and there was, at last, something besides the skulls glowing in the dark.
“Oh, thank goodness!” Toby said, taking off running towards it. “They must still be awake if they still have a jack-o-lantern out…”
“Toby!” I shouted, running to catch up with him. “Toby, wait! It was there when –”
The jack-o-lantern stood.
I couldn’t see it very well in the dark – it was tall, and robed, and it stared down at Toby with a hungry dispassion. But its glowing face, hanging there in the darkness like a ghost, is burned into my mind. Its triangle eyes faced downwards, giving it an almost sad expression that seemed at odds with its other features. Its teeth were square and blocky, bared in the carnivorous smile of a deep-sea fish. Its nose was an upside-down heart, looking almost like a third eye as it lit up Toby’s screaming face. And from deep within itself, it reached an arm.
I turned and ran.
The light from my skull danced and jumped along the sidewalk in front of me, punctuating each little jolt that my running feet sent through my body with a flicker of light. Then it was gone, drowned out by a sudden bright flash from behind me, and the sound of Toby’s footsteps stopped as his screams reached a fever pitch. There was a whoosh and a roar, drowning out my own screams as I careened along the pavement. And then the screams were gone as well, and the light behind me faded and died.
I wish I’d looked back then. Perhaps he wasn’t gone. Perhaps he was still standing there before it, terrified into silence. I could have gone back, could have helped him. But I didn’t. I ran and ran, and kept running until I quite literally collapsed from exhaustion. Then I curled up there, against the fence of a house I didn’t know, sobs of guilt and fear and sadness wracking my body until they were all I could feel.
That was where the police found me.
They said a lot of things to me, as they put blankets around my shoulders and gave me mugs of some kind of hot drink. They told me that I was all right, that I could relax now, that it was over. They told me our parents were terrified, that we had been gone for hours, that they had been trying to find us and couldn’t, anywhere. They asked me where Toby and Ellie were. I couldn’t tell them.
They seemed to understand, though, as we drove through those streets that seemed so well-lit now. They told me it was okay, that they would take me home. They said more, but I wasn’t listening. I was starting to nod off, as the waves of relief washed over my body and left one of the officers to take the mug from my hand before it spilled.
And then I saw it. Sitting there, in the middle of the road. Right in the path of the car.
I don’t remember what happened next very well. I remember the feeling in my stomach as the car swerved, the driver swearing as it careened into the ditch. I remember shouts and screams as the thing outside rose to its full height, though I don’t remember whether they came from me or the policemen. I remember the copper stink of blood billowing through the car in crimson waves as the seats crumpled together and the windows shattered as one. And I remember the instant, the tiniest second, of silence as I hung there in my seatbelt, the forgotten blanket dangling like wings around me, shards of glass falling like silver leaves from the window above, and my lungs forgetting for a moment how to breathe.
Then I had pulled myself free, crawled up through the wreckage to stare at the monster standing in the road, wrapped the blanket around myself as I stood atop the ruined car and those orange eyes met mine.
“What are you?” I screamed, backing away as it stepped forward, slipping and falling down the other side of the car and landing hard on the blood-spattered sidewalk. “What do you want?”
It did not reply. It just cocked its head, and reached out that long, impossible, many-jointed arm.
I stared at it for long seconds, breath ragged, shakes crawling up and down my body like spiders, before I realized. It wasn’t reaching for me. It was holding out its hand for something.
“The skull.” I said, slowly hauling myself to my feet. “You’re here for the skull.”
It didn’t move.
“Fine!” I shouted, tears breaking their way over my eyelids. “Take it! Just please…leave me alone…please…” I reached down for it, meaning to throw it at the horrible thing, and stopped.
The skull was gone.
Where could it have gone? I scrambled to the wreck, started to crawl back up over the ruined siren lights. Had I had it in the car? Had I left it where I had fallen? Had I dropped it when the creature took Toby? I started desperately pawing through the remains, heedless of the gore and long cuts they were leaving on my arms. It had to be here, it had to, it had to…
I felt something on my back. Something rough and long and misshapen.
The hand closed around me, fingers snapping joint by joint around my torso as it hauled me into the air. I screamed and screamed, pawing at the car, but it had already lifted me to face it, was making a strange motion like a combination of a shudder and a shrug. And with the slightest sound of rustling fabric, it opened its cloak.
I had expected a body inside. Legs, at least – it had walked towards me, had stepped down from the garden wall. I had expected something to hold up that pumpkin head, to attach to the horrible arm that arched between us. But there was nothing inside. It was just a hollow, empty cloak, waiting there like a vast, open mouth. The only thing inside that robe, lining its insides in row after row after endless, impossible row, were candles.
For a moment those candles lit me, as I hung there frozen and staring from its grasp. Then the hand was gone, and the robe had closed around me, and there was nothing but pale white fire.
And now, I am nothing. My hands are coarse twine, holding for dear life onto the branch that holds me. My eyes are golden light, staring out from my empty sockets across things which I can no longer understand. My mind is the flicker, flicker, flicker of the candle in my skull, burning each thought into me so that I may know the things I have forgotten.
I have forgotten who I am.
I have forgotten why I am here.
I have forgotten why these events have come to me.
I remember only one thing. The knowledge that when the night ends, the Lantern-Witch will come to me. She will blow me out, in a single, easy motion. And I will die.
Written by StalkerShrike