Beware

Fog drifted in from the depths of the mountains. It flowed into valleys and dry riverbeds, congealing the night’s blackness into a pool of sacrificial blood. The townspeople of Bruxin drew their curtains tight shut and whispered to each other about spirits and demons. The cool October fog whispered back: Beware.

Tucked into a grove of oak trees at the far edge of town lay a small cottage. Puffs of smoke tripped up the chimney to join the Halloween gloom. Through a small crack in the worn curtains, flickering light spilled onto gnarled tree trunks and watching eyes.

Ava Jenkins struck a long match. The flame sputtered to life before settling in to consume itself. She lit the circle of white candles one by one before blowing out the match. The halo of sea salt around the votives shimmered in the soft light. She sat cross-legged at the center of the circle. The clock on the mantle ticked softly.

“This is so stupid,” she said, loudly, as if to make sure any lurking phantoms heard. She stared at the Ouija board she’d dug out of the closet. Its letters were faded, smoky black. Hello, Yes, No, Goodbye. The last word filled Ava’s mind, echoed there, taunted her, reminded her that Mary hadn’t even said it.

The planchette stood innocently in the middle of the board, waiting for her touch to give it life. The glass center watched her chip off black nail polish. The shimmering raven flecks found the board like ash from a far-off fire. Light from the circle of candles bled through the glass and cast muted rainbows over the board. Rain tapped the window steadily.

It had been exactly a year since her best friend died. Ava had drifted through today, a ghost in her own right, unable to think or speak or breathe past her grief. The hole in her chest where Mary used to be felt especially cavernous, yawning wider and wider until Ava thought it might swallow her whole. As the last bell of the school day rang, she made a decision: it was time. She needed answers.

“I can’t believe you left without saying anything,” Ava whispered to the planchette. It regarded her wordlessly. A tear slipped from the end of her nose to join the bits of nail polish. She balled her fists tightly, relishing the bite of nails into palms.

The house shifted as old houses are wont to do. Thunder rolled across the sky two towns over and up Ava’s back, a warning.

Ava unclenched her fists. Crescent moons lay on her palms, two rows of four headstones. Trembling fingers found the smooth wood of the planchette. Careful not to move, not to pretend the board worked when it didn’t, Ava spoke.

“Mary?”

Silence answered. The white candles burned around her without wavering. Voice shaking, she tried again.

“Mary? Mary, are you… are you here?”

The planchette jerked to one side. Ava’s eyes widened and she snatched away her fingers as though bitten.

“Nope, nope. Too creepy. What was I thinking?” Ava stood. Her long, dark hair brushed the board. A little hysterical laugh bubbled up from deep inside.

The planchette skittered across the Ouija. It bounced to a halt.

Three letters shrieked up at her through the glass eye. Yes.

“No way,” Ava breathed. “I just knocked it with my hair. That’s all. She’s not here. No one’s here.” But even as the words fell from her lips, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the protective circle.

The planchette twitched left, then right. Back on Yes.

For a moment, there was only the sound of creaking trees and Ava’s heartbeat. Her gaze slid up, up, up from the planchette to the mirror on the wall. An unfamiliar pale face stared back at her, head tilted curiously, framed by curtains of greasy black hair. Blood dripped from charcoal eyes, soaking into the girl’s stained nightgown.

“You dare to summon Mary?” the apparition asked, sharpened teeth glinting in the candlelight.

“W-wait. How…? You’re not —” Horror dawned on Ava’s face. “Oh no.”

The creature’s grin stretched as it watched panic play across its victim’s face. “Oh yes.”

Mary grasped the mirror’s frame, cracked fingernails digging into the gilded metal. She pulled herself forward and stepped out of the mirror. Gore spattered the wood floor with each halting step. Her joints crepitated sickeningly, but still she advanced on another unwitting victim.

Ava stumbled backward. Candles toppled over behind her. Their flames stared longingly at the wood below them, but they stayed their hunger, for now. Salt whispered beneath her feet. Don’t break the circle it said. Too late.

Mary let forth a shrill scream to the heavens. As if on command, the candles’ flames began lapping at everything they could touch.

At her back, Ava could feel the heat of the newborn wildfire. Her eyes darted to the door just as an icy gust swept Mary toward her. The scent of death and decay followed close behind. Frozen fingers found her neck and dug in, lifting her to the ceiling. Ava scrabbled against the demon to no avail, legs flailing uselessly.

“Please,” Ava choked. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to talk to my friend.”

Bloody Mary bore down harder. Her mouth split with the force of her grin. Crimson blood dripped from her lips.

“You will. I took her, too.”

Symptoms of a Haunting: Part V

The next few seconds dragged into minutes as I fought to comprehend Edna’s words.

“What do you mean you’re seeing him, too?”

Edna’s lip quivered slightly as she took a steadying breath and her wispy white hair fluttered in some unknown breeze. Finally, she raised her orb-like eyes to meet mine.

“At first I thought I was going crazy. Just an old woman struggling with reality, you know. I’d see a shadow here, a flicker there. Then it became something else. Instead of shadows it was a definite figure. A man. A man that didn’t seem entirely friendly. He’s never said anything or even touched me, but I don’t like him, Emma. He… He frightens me.”

A heavy sense of foreboding settled over me while I listened to Edna; I knew exactly what she was talking about. But the thing that was needling at me was the question of how Edna knew I was seeing this man. Unspoken pact between us aside, Edna and I don’t generally chat. We are there for each other in times of need, not during the everyday, and I had never mentioned this man to anyone except my online friend, Katie.

“Edna,” I began carefully. “Why did you say you’re seeing him ‘too?’ How did you know I’d been seeing him?”

Edna’s face remained still. I wondered if she had been spying on me, but thought it very unlikely. Finally, Edna exhaled, saying, “Well, I guess it’s about time you know.”

I leaned toward the woman, a bundle of curiosity and anxiety, determined to have an open mind about this mysterious thing I needed to know.

“Emma, you’ve known since you moved in that I have an ability. I know a lot about a person just by touching them. As I’ve aged, it seems that my abilities have changed and grown. I am also able to discern a few things about a person by touching something of theirs. In your case, I came in contact with your mailbox. At first, it was innocent. Some of your mail ended up in my box. After I realized what was happening, I would make a few discreet trips to your mailbox a week. Creepy, I know,” Edna smiled sheepishly. “It’s not the same as when I touch an actual human; its more like I’m listening to a badly tuned radio. With enough listening and a bit of intuition, I can usually piece together what’s going on.”

Edna paused, eyes flicking over my shoulder. I glanced over my shoulder instinctively but saw nothing. I looked back and Edna, the crackling of the fire the only thing breaking the silence. She still looked over my shoulder, her expression unreadable. I stood from the couch, fully turning toward the darkened space behind me. Despite the roaring fire, I felt a chill cross my skin. Then I saw him.

He had the same dead skin, the same eerie eyes peering from within the skull. The only thing that had changed was his mouth. No longer was his jaw broken, hanging from his face as a foreign object. It was right where it should be and his lips were pulled back in a garish smile. My hair stood on end and I felt a scream building within me.

I turned back to Edna, intending to usher her out of the room, but I found she was no longer seated on the couch. She was standing before the fire, the glow of the flames outlining her fragile silhouette. Her grey eyes were clouded over and frozen on the figure of the old man. His smile had grown impossibly wide, beginning to split the decaying flesh around his mouth. He breathed in heavily with a deep rattle. Just as I realized I had never before heard him breathe, he raised his arm and pointed a long, grey finger at Edna. In a voice that oozed from nightmares and dripped from death, he whispered, “Go.”

Without a backward glance, Edna turned toward the fire and crouched down, her old knees cracking with the effort. When she was eye-to-eye with the fire, she leaned forward, as if in slow motion, pitching toward the flames.

“Edna, wait!” I whipped toward the woman, but it was too late. I reached for her and the flames reached for me, gnawing on my skin. I pulled away in horror as Edna began to scream, losing my footing and falling backward, scrambling away from the hearth with both feet until my back was against the couch. Unable to move, I watched as the fire consumed the kindly woman that had been able to see me for who I am.

Symptoms of a Haunting: Part III

“Katie, I swear I saw someone,” I murmured aloud as I typed, the clicks from my keyboard my only company.

I had met Katie on a paranormal abilities forum where she had been posting about the emergence of her abilities. Katie was clairsentient, which meant that she could perceive future events. This wasn’t “seeing” into the future; she would get feelings about certain people or places, and these feelings always turned out to be accurate of the events that would take place there. That said, Katie had confided in me that she had often had dreams that had come true. This kind of premonition was frowned upon in our little paranormal community; it was considered a form of deja vu, which had already been explained as the brain’s response to certain “puzzle pieces,” as it were.

My computer chimed as Katie’s message came in.

I believe you, Emma. But you know how the community is. You need ~proof~ … *eye roll*

I sighed. She was right. For a group of people who believed in the paranormal, they were surprisingly anal about evidence, especially in a field where the scant evidence is rarely tangible.

I know, I know. Sigh. I know if I went to Jan with this, she’d laugh me right out of the forum.

My computer chimed again.

LOL. You know that’s right.

I smiled, suddenly very grateful for my virtual friend. I’d never really trusted anyone in the real world after my family abandoned me, but my friendship with Katie felt safe. She was a kindred spirit in a way, though her family has accepted her abilities with far more grace than mine had.

Katie, what do I do?

There was a long pause in which I watched the words “Katie is typing…” appear and disappear several times over in the chat window. It seemed that she was just as lost as I was in this situation.

Well, I don’t know, Em. You could always do the typical teen horror movie thing and do a Google search of ghosts or hauntings. 🙂

I rolled my eyes

Ha ha, Katie. Very funny.

Yet, I was curious. I opened Google in another tab in my web browser. I looked over my shoulder, half expecting to see the man staring back at me in the darkness, but I was alone.

My nails clacked against the keys as I slowly and apprehensively typed out “symptoms of a haunting” into the search bar.

Symptoms of a Haunting: Part II

Knock, knock, knock.

I groaned, rolling over in bed and pulling the covers up to my chin. I was too warm to deal with visitors. Who would be coming by this early on a Saturday?

Knock, knock, knock.

Persistent, aren’t they? I lay in bed, eyes still closed, trying to pull myself from the sleepy fog and gain my bearings. I’m a solitary creature, so going out to parties or having friends over are not my ideal Saturday activities. Saturdays are reserved for getting caught up on sleep and laundry. I pity the soul that comes between me and my sleep.

Knock, knock, kno-

My eyes snapped open and the final knock stopped short. Silence hung in the air, pressing the oxygen from the room. I reached out for my cell phone, pressing the home button to wake it and consequently temporarily blinding myself with the light from the home screen. When my eyes adjusted to the onslaught of light, I was finally able to read the time: 3:18.

I blearily rubbed my eyes, puzzled. No one would be knocking at my door in the middle of the night. Mentally saying farewell to the warmth of my blankets, I swung my legs out of the bed and onto the floor with a heavy sigh. The wood below my feet was ice cold — very odd for an early autumn night. I shivered and glanced toward the window across the room. Trees rustled in the wind, dead leaves and branches occasionally scraping the glass.

I raised my hand to my face to rub the sleep from my eyes, then froze. There. Next to the window. There was someone standing there. And they were watching me.

***

Eternities passed. Was it the man I had seen before? I couldn’t tell. Darkness staunchly impeded my vision, daring me to move to turn on a light. My breath came in short puffs before my eyes. I wanted to see who or what was next to the window. I needed to. But I couldn’t. Fear and a survival instinct held me in place, like a rabbit hiding from a predator.

Finally, there was movement in the shadows. The figure was coming toward me. My heart quickened and leapt to my throat. It sauntered across the room, footfalls making no sound. I blinked, and it was as if my movement was a cue. The figure rushed toward me, streaking across the room and no longer touching the floor. In the split second it took for this thing to reach me, I took in its features.

Mottled skin hung from a man’s skull, grey with age and rot. Jaundiced eyes bulged from their sockets, huge in the sunken face and filled with untold rage. His mouth hung open at an odd angle as if his jaw had been broken, and sharpened teeth dotted the aged gums within. As he came toward me, the air was filled with the white noise of a person who has no voice attempting to scream.

I closed my eyes tightly and braced for impact. When it came to fight or flight, my instinct was to forgo those options altogether and freeze. After a few moments, when no impact came, I cracked open my eyelids.

I sat bolt upright in bed, eyes straining against the sunlight streaming in through the window, looking frantically around the room.

The man was nowhere to be found, gone as if in a dream.