|Freebies |poetry |short story |horror |ghosts |paranormal
Every year, around Halloween, I try to do a little something for readers, followers and casual browsers who just happen to stray across my website, I hope you enjoy. If you do, please spread the word! Thank you.
I dedicate this story to my friend, Marie Bowen. Marie, I hope you enjoy x
Dana crested the highest of the Tops, the name the locals used for the series of low hills that separated the small rural town she lived in from the village the other side. The gravel crunched softly beneath the wheels of her bicycle. The ground was still wet, raindrops falling silent as tears from the heavily leafed trees flanking the road, such as it was. The sudden downpour she had been caught in had come to an equally abrupt stop.
Overhead, a pale moon showed now and then through the smoke-grey clouds as they drifted. To the west the sky was a darker grey, threatening more rain to come.
Dana rested one foot to the ground, catching her breath. She shuddered; an involuntary action due less to the cold and her sodden clothes clinging to her and more to the shadows that lurked in the surrounding woods.
‘Not far to go’ she told herself. The route from here was mostly downhill, though the road twisted and turned treacherously at points. She knew the way like the back of her hand, could do it blindfolded if she had to. She had been taking this road back to town all of her life. It had never made her feel so uneasy before.
Something moved to her left. She turned, searching the darkness beyond the trees. Logic told her it was probably nothing more than her imagination or a trick of the eye, but her instincts were telling her otherwise. Wasting no more time, she lifted her foot and pedalled hard, taking her over the crest and down, allowing her to freewheel as gravity and momentum did its work.
The ride was far from smooth, loose stones, cracks and bumps in the neglected road rattling both her frame and that of the well-used bike. She swore as an especially jarring bump sent a shockwave up her spine. She tightened her hold on the handlebars, hoping they weren’t too slippery with rain and sweat to make her lose her grip; the last thing she needed now was to come off. Vowing to pass the driving test she had booked for the coming week so she would never have to do this again, she gritted her teeth and ploughed on. Next time she babysat for a family in the village the other side of the hill, she would be coming home in a car.
Small, stinging pellets began peppering her back as she bent to her task, gaining speed as she went. More rain, coming down hard enough to hurt. The droplets bounced as they hit the ground ahead, a drumbeat that quickly became a torrent. The way ahead all at once obscured by a sheet of rainwater, Dana had no choice but to slam on the brakes, simultaneously turning the bike sideways to prevent hurtling over the handlebars. She skidded to a halt, a ridge of sludge forming along the edge of her wheels and the side of her trainers.
She was sure she had felt something pop. Dismayed, she pinched the front wheel, the rubber coarse to the touch. It was flat, losing air rapidly. In her haste to stop, she had punctured the tyre.
Her hair plastered to her head, clothes soaked through, she swung her leg free of the bike and tilted it upright, preparing to wheel it down the hill. She didn’t relish the thought of walking home from here, but riding the bike was impossible now, not to mention dangerous. With a heavy heart, she realised she had no choice.
She began slowly, alarmed at the way her feet were losing their grip, each tread more of a slide than a step. Trying to estimate the closeness of the next turn, Dana twisted the handlebars, directing them straight into the searching tendrils of a shrub. She backed away in shock, the scratchy feel of the foliage through the sleeve of her flimsy jacket unsettling her. She had never known rain as obscuring, as absolute, as this.
Something flitted amongst the trees to her left a second time. Her head jerked round involuntarily, her body responding to the movement before her mind had time to acknowledge it. She was certain it was real this time, not the effects of the rain or anything else. Something was out there.
Fear gripped her, catching in her throat. Clutching at the bike for support she picked up the pace, allowing herself to slide with each step.
Her brain refused to cooperate. As much as she tried to focus only on her descent, nagging questions came from the back of her mind. Who could be out there in this weather? Okay, she was fool enough to be out in it, but in her defence there had been no sign at all of this coming when she had accepted her pay for the evening. Refusing the offer of a lift, able to smell the alcohol on the young father’s breath, she had declined firmly but politely and pulled the front door closed behind her. He was probably safe and warm in bed now, fast asleep, she thought resentfully.
Why would anyone be hiding in the shadow of the trees? Why didn’t they just come forward, make contact? Even if just to express their distaste at the weather?
There was only one reason Dana could think of for why someone hid in the dark and watched from distance, and there was nothing at all friendly about it. He, she, it, meant her harm.
It. Now where had that come from? There were no wild animals in this part of the world. Some kind of escaped, vicious dog would have attacked her long before now. Shaking, she refused to admit to herself what she already believed; that it could be something supernatural, otherworldly.
She felt rather than saw the bend in the road, the one she had misjudged moments ago. She allowed the bike to follow its curve, leaning into it as if it might offer her some comfort.
This time the movement was closer, as if whatever it was grew in confidence. Panicked, Dana began to run, the bike juddering alongside her.
She thought for a moment that it had lost interest, or that she had outrun it. It seemed once more that she was alone in the rain. Then she felt an unmistakable breath of warm air on the back of her neck.
Dana nearly fell to her knees in sheer terror. Whatever it was, it had stepped into the road and was now close enough to simply reach out and touch her.
She screamed, a timid sound that was lost to the elements. She threw the bike aside, nearly tripping over it as it toppled, the pedal whirring gently. She redoubled her efforts, arms pumping. Her legs were leaden, her terror making her clumsy.
A fresh breath of warm air on the exposed skin of her neck. The sensation made her skin crawl. Then another touch, this time of light, bony fingers upon her shoulders…
Light flashed across the canopy of trees across the way. It shifted, like a searchlight, across the green expanse, offering hope. Dana could hear the thrum of an engine working against the incline and the weather; a car was coming.
The hands resting on her shoulders fell away. There was a coldness at her back. Dana understood that whoever had occupied the space behind her only moments before, had gone.
She was so caught up in her relief and anguish, she hadn’t realised she was firmly in the path of the approaching vehicle. With visibility as reduced as this, it was very likely that it would hit her if she didn’t move. She sprinted for the opposite side of the road, determined to flag down the driver and get in, even if it was going the wrong way for her.
Too late. A van turned the corner too fast for the conditions, sending mud flying, the glare of the headlights sweeping across her, blinding her. Dana threw her arm across her eyes, shielding her from the worst of it as she threw herself bodily across the road. Fractionally too slow, the van clipped her knee, taking her legs out from beneath her. The breath was driven from her lungs as she hit the ground, landing with a solid thump on her back.
She lay there, dazed and winded, the rain falling into her face as if attempting to drown her. She coughed painfully, turning onto one side, regretting it immediately as a sharp pain shot through her leg.
For one horrible moment, Dana thought she might be the victim of a hit-and-run, or that the driver hadn’t even realised they’d hit anything at all. The prospect of being left there, lame and defenceless, filled her with dread. She squinted through the downpour, watching the van roll on, hope leaving her. She called for help, though it hurt her chest to do so, the sound swallowed up the moment she made it.
Then, a small miracle. The van stopped, its rear lights blurry, and the driver door opened uncertainly. A head popped out, a hand holding the on to the open door’s handle as whoever it was turned to look behind them.
Bracing herself against the pain, Dana shouted for help again. It seemed she had made herself heard this time, as the head disappeared back into the vehicle briefly before its owner stepped out fully into the rain, a jacket held over his head as he crossed over to where she lay.
The man, bowed over her, creating a hazy sort of aura around him as he blocked out the car’s lights, “Are you all right? Sorry, a foolish question. Can you stand? Here,” He reached out a hand to Dana, who took it gingerly, already knowing her knee would not take her weight. She braced herself, resting the foot of her good leg on the ground as she pushed up. She didn’t get far, letting out a gasp as she fell back heavily, panting with exertion.
“Here, let me help you,” the man said, taking the jacket from over his head to wrap it about Dana’s shoulders. The removal of the jacket revealed a strong face with very defined features, mature yet handsome. His thick, black hair was close-cropped and neat, making him a striking figure. He tucked a hand beneath each arm, “On three, we lift together, all right? One, two, three,” he spoke the last word softly, yet he lifted Dana easily, as if she weighed nothing.
“There,” he said, “Can you make it to the van, do you think, if I take your weight for you?”
“I think so,” Dana said curtly, suddenly aware of how bony the man’s fingers felt, digging into her flesh. She couldn’t help noticing how tall he was, Dana barely reaching his chest.
She was grateful for his sure-footedness, unable now to rest her foot on the ground at all. They reached the van, Dana attempting an awkward sort of hopping movement, the man steering her left, to the passenger side. Through the streaking rain, Dana made out the legend ‘V.P Raime Quality Butchers,’ printed on the van’s side.
The man opened the door and rested Dana gently on the seat, helping her swing her legs around and into the footwell.
“Fasten your seatbelt,” he said, slamming the car door shut, leaving Dana alone for a moment in the interior of the van, the rain pounding on the roof and windows. She leaned back and closed her eyes, allowing a sense of sheer relief to flood her. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, pardon the pun, but her situation had just got a whole lot better, despite the metallic odour of blood that was reaching her nostrils. ‘It’s a butcher’s van,’ she told herself, ‘calm down and stop imagining things.’
The driver door was yanked open and the man ducked in quickly, pulling it shut behind him. Dana followed his advice and clicked the seatbelt into place. He turned to look at her.
“You are all right?” he asked a second time, “No bleeding?”
Something in his tone made Dana uncomfortable, but she couldn’t determine what. She put it down to a mixture of things; fear, panic, her recent experience. In the shelter of the van, she started to wonder if she had imagined the fingers on her shoulder, the breath on her neck as she ran. She had let her situation get the better of her once tonight, she was determined not to give in to panic again.
She forced a smile, “I’m in quite a lot pain, but I’ll be all right, I think. I’m glad you happened to be coming this way,”
“As am I, though I am so sorry I hit you. Talking of which, what are you doing out alone at this time of night? And in this, too,” he gestured at the windscreen and Dana watched as lines of water traced their way down it, to well in the groove at its base.
“I was on my way home. It wasn’t raining when I left,” she was aware that she sounded almost apologetic, as if she had asked for this.
“But it was late, no? When you set out?”
“It was late, yes, I suppose,”
“It is not wise for a young girl to be out alone at night,” the man said, though his tone was more conversational than reprimanding, “especially in so quiet an area. You never know who is around,”
Dana’s sense of unease grew. Something about the man wasn’t quite right. He was just sitting back in his seat, his head almost touching the roof of the car, showing no sign of starting the engine and moving off.
“Can we go now please?” Her voice came to her as child-like in the cavity of the vehicle.
“What is your name?” the man asked. He was looking directly at her, his expression benign, harmless.
“Dana? A pretty name. You know what it means?”
Dana shook her head. He had seemed concerned for her welfare as she lay in the road, stricken. Now, there was no urgency about him at all. Her knee throbbed gently beneath her sodden clothing.
“Do you have relatives from Denmark?”
Again, Dana shook her head, “I don’t think so,”
“Then it most probably means something like ‘all the most beautiful things together,’ something like that, you know? Just right for a pretty girl like you I think,”
Dana’s heart sank. Had she really escaped the rain and the strange, lurking thing in the woods, only to be delivered into the hands of some kind of pervert with a thing for young girls? The man was more than old enough to be her father.
Unsure what to do, knowing there was no way she could cut and run even if he hadn’t locked the car door, she chose to deflect instead. Reaching up to the sun visor, she pulled it down to check her appearance in the mirror.
“I’m not so pretty at the moment,” she said, the words vain and hollow in her ears, trailing away to nothing when she saw there was no mirror there, just a small rectangular stain where the glue had one held one in place.
“You are too modest, I think,”
Dana turned a questioning look at the man, who laughed softly, “The mirror fell off long ago. This van is old. I keep it for business purposes, nothing more,” he said by way of explanation.
Dana nodded, snapping the visor back up, “Could we please go now? My knee…”
“Does anyone know you are up here, alone?”
This time, fear knotted in her stomach like a solid thing. The question was an odd one. Dana struggled for the best way to answer it, searching for words that would make this strange man think twice about anything he might have planned for her.
“Yes,” she said, unable to keep her voice from trembling, “my father and my brothers know. They are waiting for me at home. If I am not back soon they will come looking for me. They usually do,”
The man studied her, a glint of amusement in his hard eyes. She began to squirm under his scrutiny and used her knee as an excuse to shift position, tearing her eyes away from his as she massaged it gently, feeling heat emanate from it in spite of how cold she felt.
“My bike is in the road ahead,” she volunteered, hoping to distract him, “You’ll have to be careful to drive round it,” A hint to move off.
At last the man looked away from her, into the road ahead, “Thank you for telling me. I will get it for you, put it in the back of the van. Perhaps one of your brothers can fix it for you,” his tone was derisive, telling her he hadn’t believed a word of her lie. All she had at home was her mother and she was most likely slumped in her armchair, drunk and asleep by now.
At long last, the key turned in the ignition, the van thrumming into life. They moved slowly, the man craning, searching ahead for Dana’s abandoned bike. They drew alongside it, the man applying the hand brake, leaving his door wide open as he once more left the engine purring and stepped out into the rain.
Through the streaky windscreen, Dana watched as he bent to retrieve the bike. Holding it aloft in one hand, he paused, his attention caught by something in the woods opposite it seemed.
Dana held her breath, wishing he would hurry up and get back in the van. Whatever threat he posed to her, she would sooner deal with it away from this place.
As suddenly as if someone had flicked a switch, the rain stopped. There were no lingering drops or drizzles. It just stopped, as if a tap had been firmly turned to off. The man did not respond to it all, but stood unmoving, his focus on the woods beyond.
Dana wondered if she could handle the van, if her knee was up to driving it. If she was quick, while he was distracted she could slam the door shut, turn the thing round and head back to town alone. She was willing to deal with the consequences of arrest for car theft if she had to, she just knew this whole thing was weird.
The man snapped his head in her direction, grinning at her through the smeared glass. Dana’s blood ran cold. It was as if he had known what she had been thinking.
She had to move. Gritting her teeth against the inevitable pain, she cocked her leg over the handbrake and slid into the driver’s seat, pulling the door to. She released the brake and depressed the accelerator, abandoning her idea of turning round and just veering forwards instead, back towards the village. If the man got in her way than so be it, she was getting the hell out of here.
He had moved too, though she hadn’t seen it. Now he was standing in the middle of the road ahead, the bike in one hand, the other hanging loosely at his side. He was still smiling.
Dana blanched. She was bound to hit him if he stayed there. If he would just get out of the way…
The man held up his hand, his palm facing her, the gesture to stop. Dana had no intention of doing anything of the sort, slamming the accelerator still harder.
The van stopped, as completely and suddenly as the rain. No juddering halt, no screeching of brakes. It simply stopped, dead and lifeless, only the lights still glaring.
Dana scrabbled for the locks, terror mounting when they refused to work for her. The man approached and Dana gave up, her mouth dry with fear, wide-eyed as he drew level. He moved on, passing her with barely a glance. He seemed to float by, as if his feet were not even touching the ground.
She twisted in her seat as he disappeared from viewing, realising for the first time that the van had no wing mirrors either. There was a rush of damp air as the back doors were opened and her bike was thrown inside.
The man gave a low, melodic whistle. Dana whimpered softly, her instincts screaming at her that everything was wrong here. He whistled again. Definite movement came from the treeline in response.
A tall figure emerged from the woods, this one obviously feminine. She covered the distance to the car unnaturally rapidly, going to the man and falling into his brief embrace before clambering in alongside Dana’s bike. The doors were slammed shut, the man appearing moments later, sitting in the passenger door alongside her.
She turned to face them both. The woman was peering at her from the space between the seats, her shapely lips accentuated by a deep red lipstick, her almond eyes wide and intelligent. The man had lost his grin and was staring at Dana with obvious interest.
Dana was aware that she was gripping the wheel, as if it could offer her any sort of help now. Her knuckles were white with the effort, her knee pounding, heart racing.
“Who are you?” she managed, her voice barely more than a breath.
The man laughed, “We never give our names,” he said cryptically.
“There is little point,” the woman added, her voice smooth as silk, “You will have no need of them when we are done,”
“What do you mean, when you are done?”
“Ah child, you know in your heart, if you care to truly examine it, what we mean,” the man replied. He turned to look at his companion and Dana couldn’t help but notice that they were both bone dry, not a droplet on them. She sat, shivering with fear and dread, her own clothes so drenched they were sticking to her, her hair slick; dripping tendrils sending trickles snaking down her neck.
“Such a pretty neck too,” the woman said, reaching out a slender hand to brush Dana’s hair aside. Dana flinched, the movement stopped by a strong hand the other side of her neck. The woman was fully behind her now, her breath once more warm on Dana’s skin.
She cried out as the woman took a handful of her hair and yanked her head violently backwards, exposing her bare skin more fully. Dana tried to release her grip on the steering wheel and fight back but found she couldn’t. It was as if her hands were welded to the thing.
“After you,” the woman said, gracefully.
The man smiled, reaching out a hand to touch the woman’s cheek tenderly, “No my sweet, you did much of the work after all. After you,”
If there had a been a mirror in which to see it, Dana would have witnessed the woman’s beauty fade as she drew back her exquisite lips to reveal a row of stained teeth, two sharp and pointed fangs among them. She would have been able to see as those teeth sank into her flesh, puncturing her skin with two perfect holes, penetrating her bloodstream to greatest effect.
But she saw none of it, lost as she was in her horror and pain, the man looking on with relish, waiting for his turn.
Outside, the wind blew, sending myriad miniature downpours as the trees shivered in response, releasing captured raindrops to the ground below. The sky was clearing, the pale moon a little brighter now. The scudding clouds were lessening, the world fresher, as if washed clean by the storm.
In her armchair by the fire, Dana’s mother stirred. She had been enjoying a dream, ensconced in the cosy glow of a half-bottle of brandy. Something had pierced her subconscious. Her eyes flickered open, momentarily aware that it was very late. Was Dana home yet?
She shrugged, unconcerned. The girl had always come home before. She took another swig of the near empty brandy bottle, sinking back amongst the cushions, letting it fall to the stained carpet at her feet. She would go back to sleep.
Everything would be all right in the morning.
S P Oldham
This is a little poem dedicated to that fleeting image we often catch at the corner of our eye, if nowhere else.
The Fear Collector
You will never catch it, never spy it, never see it
Though it dwells in the corner of your eye
You think, if quick, you’ll glimpse it
But you’re too slow and it always seems to fly
Nothing more, you hope, than a shadow
Nothing more substantial than a shade
There’s nothing to be scared of, this you know
Yet your heart races and you are afraid
Where does it go, when you have turned the lights out?
When there is no contrast to alert your watchful eye?
Your daytime certainties soon become doubts;
It must go somewhere, or does the darkness make it die?
That tiny touch, feather-like, when you’re drifting?
The weird sensation that you are about to fall?
That makes you lurch in your bed, your body shifting?
Could it be that flitting figure does it all?
Perhaps it’s just as well you are too slow
To lay eyes fully on the spectre
That makes you turn your head, lets you know
Here be a subtle fear collector
S P Oldham