The 2016 anthology 'Horrid Halloween' contains my latest short story 'La Danse avec Morte' . You can download the entire anthology at
I have also posted just my story here.
La Danse avec Morte
by Steven Reinagel
The doorman brought his pikestaff down on the marble entryway with a sharp rap and cleared his throat. “The Lord and Lady DeMeuse,” he announced with a pompous air. From behind him appeared a peacock, resplendent in emerald greens and azure blues, peaked with a fantail crown of black, unblinking eyes. Alongside her stepped a greyhound in a shimmering silver tailcoat and breeches. A ripple of welcoming replies and gloved claps came from the menagerie of animals spread throughout the ballroom.
The greyhound and the peacock gave each other’s hands one quick squeeze before yielding to the age-old predilection of diverting in separate directions; he to his cluster of friends, and she to hers. The circle of women welcomed her with outstretched arms.
“Oh Charlotte, that costume is simply marvelous!” gushed a woman enveloped in white feathers.
“Why, thank you, Abigail. Your swan is stunning. And Daniella - is that you beneath that adorable feline mask?”
Before they had a chance to continue their compliments, a portly fellow ascended the stairs, pulled away the mournful face of a clown to reveal a smile underneath, and addressed the assembly.
“Welcome, my honored guests. As you all know, tonight is that very night when the spirits take to the air and whirl about in hellish delight, setting the moonlit hills and mist-laden vales affright with their cacophonous music and demonic pirouettes. That is why we hold our all-night ball, here in the safe company of our dearest comrades, and will not quit our celebration until the morning sun casts her dispelling light and sends evil retreating back into their grottos and tombs.”
“But do you have enough wine and food to carry us through the spectral siege?” a black bear called out.
The host’s smile spread even wider. “Ah, an excellent question. The answer is: yes! The finest of wine and the most sumptuous of delicacies. So let the revelries begin, and take no notice if the phantoms knock on the windows in envious desire to join our fun. Our music and laughter will drown them out.” And with a wave of his hand to the conductor, the orchestra began to play.
The cat leaned close to the peacock. “Do you see that tall figure in the bronze-colored mask? Standing by the fountain?”
Charlotte strained to peer through the growing crowd on the dance floor. “The one in the black coat and gray cravat?”
“Yes,” Daniella replied. “He has been eyeing you most studiously since your arrival.” She hid a smile behind her fan.
“Then he also undoubtedly saw me arrive with my husband,” Charlotte sniffed.
“Some gentlemen are not put off by that.”
“Then he is no gentleman.”
“Whether he is or no,” interjected Abigail, “he approaches, and you will get the opportunity to correct him, if you truly wish to.” She blushed slightly.
Charlotte turned sharply, preparing to rebuff the stranger, but was halted by his dignified, almost noble bearing. “Good...good evening,” she flustered.
“Good evening, madam,” the man replied. His voice was even, like an unbroken stretch of dark water, subdued, but infused with an underlying influence. He exuded a potent authority which eddied around them like a current, drawing a slight chill up the back of their bare arms.
Charlotte collected herself, cradling her arms with gloved hands. “That’s a very handsome mask you wear. Is it of one of the gods? Zeus or Apollo?”
“It is indeed. If you would agree to dance with me, perhaps you can figure it out. Will you accept?”
“Oh, I’m not sure. My husband, you see...”
“...Appears quite engaged with his fellow cohorts in rapt merriment. I doubt he will even notice our dance before the piece ends.”
Charlotte glanced at the cluster of men to see the stranger was right; they were consumed in banter, laughing loudly and clearly enjoying themselves.
“Why not?” she replied, extending a hand. He grasped it lightly and led her onto the dance floor, leaving behind a ripple of gasps, sighs and other scandalous sounds from the circle of women. They found a suitable space near the center of the floor. He bowed before lifting her hand and placed his other hand on her thin waist. They took up the waltz.
“You dance admirably, stranger,” Charlotte said, “although a little stiffly, if you’ll forgive my saying so.”
“It is not in my nature to engage in this leisurely act often enough to develop the grace for it. My work does not allow me the time for such frivolities.”
“And what is your nature, and your work?”
“The answers to your questions lie beneath my mask. Have you guessed who I am yet?”
She shook her head.
“Do you wish to see?”
As they continued to dance, with his hand around her waist, he released her hand and grasped the mask. It swung open to the right on a hinge. Beneath was a visage so grisly and so filled with leering, writhing horrors that she would have fled and fallen if he hadn’t held her firmly.
Her breath tremored in her chest as she tried to utter her revelation. “You’re...you’re...”
She was unable to finish the sentence. He nodded slowly as he closed the mask.
“Yes, that Ravager of men’s ambitions, that scurrilous Ender of Hopes, that Douser of the Fragile Flame, that Severer of the Silver Cord that tugs and draws us into life’s dance.”
Powerless to command her composure, she had no choice but to continue following his lead. As they twirled and weaved, her wide eyes were locked in horror upon him.
“But why do you come for me?” she finally managed in a whisper. “Why must I die tonight? I suffer from no ailment. I have no enemy who wishes to take my life. Do I succumb to an accident? A fall from a balcony or stairway?”
“You misunderstand. I’ve not come for you this night. I’ve come for your husband. The hands that move across the clock of his life fly with a frenzy pace and have come full circle. When this dance ends, I shall take my leave of you, approach him and draw his soul from his chest, much as a doctor would draw a newborn from a mother’s womb.”
“Then why do you dance with me now?” she implored. “To give premature birth to my anguish and rob me of my last few moments of ignorant joy?”
“No. There will be anguish enough when the moment comes. But it is the anguish of the souls that remain behind - they are music to me. And to be acquainted with the source of that anguish makes the music all the sweeter. You dance delightfully, by the way.”
“I will dance with you no longer!” She strove to break free, but he held her fast.
“If you end our dance now,” he spoke, “I will simply claim his soul all the sooner.”
She looked over at her husband, who was still caught up in carousing. He had not yet taken notice of her position. A thought struck her. “So as long as I dance with you, he lives?”
The stranger tipped his head slightly to one side as he considered her question. At length he answered. “Yes, while we dance. I perceive your intent, madam; you believe if you can keep me dancing until the dawn, I must yield, and depart without my prize.”
“Am I wrong?”
She could almost sense a lipless smile forming behind the mask. “You are not. Your proposal intrigues me. Very well, then. We will dance as long as you like. You may win the dawn, if you have the resolve. But there are other steps to our dance you must learn and abide by.”
“You may tell no one who I am, or for what purpose I have come. If you were to do so, I would have to claim all the souls assembled here tonight. There have been times past where I have done that very thing, but my purpose tonight will be satisfied with but a single life.”
“Very well, I agree. But I will rob you of that satisfaction, if I can.”
“But in repayment, I will have the close company of a beautiful woman for the entire night.”
The first piece ended, and a silence pervaded while the orchestra shuffled their music sheets. Charlotte hesitated. The stranger tilted his head toward her.
“If we stop, our dance ends,” he said. In reply, she quickened her step, forcing him to catch up and resume the lead. Heads began to turn their way as the two continued to dance to a soundless melody. Charlotte felt an uncomfortable itch spread across her body. She glanced again toward her husband. He had also noticed the blatant indiscretion. It seemed to last forever. She was gratefully relieved when another song was soon struck up.
As they glided and revolved to the piece, she saw her husband break away from his cluster of friends. With every turn, she saw the resolute progress of his approach across the floor, and felt her heart tighten in dread with every truncated glimpse. At last he stood behind them.
“Sir, may I cut in?” he asked.
“I shall defer to the lady,” the man in the bronze mask replied. “It is her choice.”
“He is a stranger here, and is known by no one,” said Charlotte. “I am doing him this kindness.”
“But there are other damsels here, less spoken for, who can show the same kindness.”
“Are you jealous so quickly, my love? We have the whole night before us. This momentary separation will make our reunion all the more wonderful. Enjoy the company of your friends for a time.”
He retreated, with jaw hard set, shoulders square and back straight. Charlotte and the stranger danced through the hours without stopping, for every heavenly piece and through every horrific pause. She caught glimpses of her friends speaking closely and knew, from their fearful, furtive glances, what fired their conversation. Her husband’s friends were no different.
When the night was half-spent, he approached again, with eyes as an inferno. She trembled in the stranger’s arms.
“Sir, I really must insist...” he began.
“Would you be so ungallant, sir, as to force a lady to act against her wishes?” replied the man in the mask.
“Yes, my husband,” Charlotte quickly interjected. “We will have other balls to attend, and I shall devote my every dance to you. I only ask that you relinquish me tonight.”
The words could barely escape through his clenched throat. “If that is your wish...”
“I’m sorry; it is.”
His fists shook as he backed away. She avoided his furious glare.
So they danced on, until her feet became sore, and the sores became welts, and the welts rubbed raw, and the raw flesh began to bleed. Still she refused to stop, knowing that to do so would mean the doom of the man she loved. The hollow chuckle that emanated continually from behind the handsome mask infuriated her, and she tried to use the anger to bolster her strength.
She bit her lip against the pain and fatigue, blinking to see through the tears that welled up in her eyes. More than once her head drooped forward to rest on the chest of the cloaked figure. But memory of the abhorrent features that lay behind the mask jolted her erect.
The night felt as if it would never end.
At last the red glow of sunrise touched the tall eastern windows of the ballroom, and immediately a voice called out to halt the music. Waving his arms and smiling, the host again took the stairs.
“My sturdy and stalwart guests; you have done it. We have made it through the night, and all is set to right again. We have bested the ghouls and phantoms at their own game and may now retire to our homes. Thanks you all for coming. Fare thee well, and safe travels!”
The stranger released Charlotte and bowed low. “My congratulations, madam. You have indeed bested me and stymied my task this night. Few have accomplished such a feat. Take solace in that, as I take my leave.”
With his noble bearing, he turned and, mingling with the bent and weary guests, made his way out of the ballroom and was soon lost to sight.
Only one figure remained in the room; a man in a silver tailcoat. The face of a greyhound lay on the floor beside him.
“You have much to atone for, madam,” he spoke in a low tone. “You have spent the night with a stranger, and clung to his embrace, in view of friends and kin, until weariness made you incapable. What have you to say for yourself?”
She squeezed her quivering hands before her bosom. “I can say nothing, except that I love you.”
“Clearly you do not, or you would not have humiliated me and yourself so thoroughly. If you can give no better accounting of your actions, then we are quits. You will find no forgiveness or welcome beneath my roof.”
“No, don’t leave me! You don’t understand. What I have done...”
“What you have done is reveal your true nature to me. There is nothing more to say. I leave you now for good. Perhaps that stranger will receive you back into his embrace.”
The slamming of the door echoed through the wide room, leaving her in solitude. The pain in her feet and the grief in her heart stripped the strength from her legs. She collapsed onto the floor. The blood that seeped from her shoes was leeched up by the edges of her dress and quickly lost among the vibrant peacock colors. Her cascade of tears suffered the same fate. The grand ballroom, within which so many had been lavished with blissful merriment, now echoed with the profane, mournful melody of soul-rending sobs.
art by Anne Stokes
My newest short story, published in the 2014 anthology, is posted here in its entirety. The whole anthology can be found on Amazon. Enjoy!
Here's to Halloween
By Steven Reinagel
I stared out the kitchen window, my index finger hooked through the handle of my mug which held one final swig of coffee -- now cold -- and groaned.
“What’s wrong, dear?” my wife asked from the next room.
“It looks like it falls on me again,” I replied.
I guess she hadn’t noticed the dense, unbroken layer of leaves that blanketed our entire back yard. The multi-hued scourge of the suburbanite. Sure, the autumn colors were beautiful, but at the moment I couldn’t see beyond the burden of a whole days’ worth of raking. Probably two days’ worth. They looked a lot more beautiful when they still hung on the trees.
“The raking,” I said.
“Well, you knew it would happen as soon as Kyle left for college. I’m sure he’ll be happy to drive home on his weekends to do it for you,” she replied with a peppering of sarcasm.
“Ha, ha,” I peppered back.
With a sigh, I downed the last mouthful of coffee and put the mug on the counter. “I guess I better get started.”
The icy bite of October air stung my face as I trudged into the yard, rake in hand, to start the battle. I’d barely begun amassing my first group of crunchy casualties when a strobing red light, emanating from a police car in my neighbor’s driveway, caught my attention. I stopped and gazed at the scene. What had happened? My mind quickly furnished a list of morbid possibilities. Did they get robbed? Possible. A car accident? Their oldest daughter had just gotten her license. Domestic violence? Maybe, but the Martins had always seemed like a content family. I hadn’t heard any shouting or gunshots. But they say it’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for...
A rustling shuffle from behind caused me to turn. It was my next-door neighbor on the right, Bill Sterns, cutting a swath through the fallen leaves as he headed in my direction. No one had ever accused him of being too quiet. He held a blue insulated cup in his hand, which was known to hold any variety of interesting liquids. At this time of the day, I hoped it was just coffee. I nodded to him as he stopped beside me.
“Hey ya, Dan,” he replied, his eyes studying the police car.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Haven’t you heard? The Martin kid went missing last night.”
“Yeah.” He took a sip from his cup. “Janice found out when she called Evelyn. Never came home for dinner. They don’t think he ran away, though. They think he might’ve been abducted.”
His words struck like a mallet blow to the head. The mere mention of abduction froze my thoughts. I stood, unable to speak.
“I don’t know,” Bill continued. “You seen any shady characters walking by, or vans driving through the neighborhood?”
“No...,” I managed.
“Well, I’m sure the police are going to go around and ask everyone anyways, so be ready for that.” He took a big breath and released it with a snort. “Huh, and with Halloween only a few days’ away. I doubt anyone’s going to let their kids go out trick-or-treating after this. Janice already bought a ton of candy, too.” Stretching, he ran a hand across his broad belly. “I guess I’ll have to deal with the leftovers.”
After dropping a heavy hand on my shoulder, he turned and made his way back to his yard.
Tommy Martin. A good kid, as far as I knew. My guess was that he was about ten. This sort of thing didn’t happen in our neighborhood. How terrible. And I had just seen him yesterday. The police would be interested in that. It would be a good idea, I decided, to go over what I remembered so I could give a concise report to them. Perhaps in doing so, some vital little detail would spring to mind. And if it led to solving the mystery, that’d be fantastic. I might even be considered a hero. Also fantastic. At one time I’d thought about being a policeman or an investigator. I was sharp enough...
I interrupted my daydream, which was quickly taking me down the path of becoming an unassuming civilian genius, like Sherlock Holmes, to whom the police would turn whenever they hit a brick wall, and snapped myself back to reality. This wasn’t the time for wild imaginings. A child’s life might be at stake. Now, what could I recall about yesterday?
Tommy was playing with a friend, Jordan I think, in the back yard. They were jumping in a leaf pile. His father, Grant, came out. He seemed to be angry about something, but from the vantage point of my kitchen, I couldn’t hear what was being said. Based on all the pointing, though, the topic of contention seemed clear; he wanted Tommy to take care of the pile of leaves. I understood Grant’s irritation. The pile had been there for about three days, and if it remained there much longer, it would kill the grass underneath. When I was a kid, my own father would get on my case for the same thing.
Judging from Tommy’s pleading posture, he was probably attempting an emotional appeal to prolong their fun, but Grant seemed unmoved. After making a final pronouncement, he marched back inside. Looking much subdued, Tommy and Jordan exchanged a solemn moment before Jordan also left. I watched for a minute more to see how quickly Tommy would obey. He raked the squashed pile back into an impressive mound, studied it, and then gave into the temptation to jump into it again. I smiled and shook my head, the child inside me totally relating to the irresistible urge, before turning to tackle my own chores.
That was the extent of it. Clearly no case-breaking information there. Oh, well. I propped the rake against the shed and went back inside to share the news with my wife, and to wait for the inevitable visit from the police. We didn’t have long to wait. It took even less time to relate what I saw. Sherlock Holmes would’ve been very disappointed in me. They thanked us and proceeded on to the next house.
As the day wound on and news, like a spiderweb, spiraled slowly outward through the neighborhood, it turned out that I was the last person to see Tommy Martin. Now I wished all the more that I had had some key evidence that would’ve helped the police. No longer for any personal glory, but as a way to deal with this inexplicable guilt I now felt. I couldn’t help thinking that if I had only stood there and watched him for a little longer, perhaps I would’ve seen what happened to him, and been able to stop it.
Pacing around the house was only making me feel worse and agitating the crap out of my wife. I needed to do something. The mass of leaves waiting outside now appeared as a Godsend, providing a task I could put my energies to. I slipped on my coat and hat and headed back outside.
It was just what the doctor ordered; some physical labor to expend on a much-needed job, providing tangible results and a sense of accomplishment. I could happily spend the day out here, breathing the crisp, fresh autumn air and listening to nature’s musical percussion as it blew through the dry weeds and rattled the bare branches. Yes, this would work.
Except my eyes kept returning to my neighbor’s yard, and the neglected mound of leaves that occupied the middle of it. A mound that would probably sit there much longer, now that the Martin family had weightier issues to deal with. The neighborly thing would be to offer my raking services to them. It was the least I could do.
I stepped onto their porch, which was liberally ornamented for the upcoming holiday, and rang the doorbell. Grant answered, looking more haggard than I’d ever seen him.
“Hello, Grant,” I said.
“Listen; I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I want you to know that we’re all pulling for you and your family. Do the police have any leads?”
“No, nothing. No one’s even seen so much as a stranger in the area.”
“Well, I’m sure Tommy’s going to come back safe and sound.”
“Thank you. Yes, we know he will.”
“Let me do something for you. I know that leaf pile in your back yard has been sitting there for a while. Let me rake it out to the road for you. I’m sure you have other...concerns today and you shouldn’t have to worry about such trivial stuff. Can I do that for you?”
“Um, sure. I’d appreciate that. Thanks.”
“No problem. And please let us know if there’s anything else we can do for your family.”
“Sure. Thanks again.”
I returned to my shed to collect a tarp and brought it over to the pile of leaves. It was more disheveled than yesterday. The police had kicked their way through it. Did they really expect to find Tommy’s body inside? I guess I couldn’t blame them, when there were no leads to go on. As I started to reshape the pile I noticed that the grass underneath was indeed in a sorry state. My father would’ve been pretty upset if I had let it get this bad.
Not a deep or complex man, my father drove a front-loader during the week and drank beer on the weekends. And was no stranger to the occasional outburst. Our lawn was one of the touchy issues. It’s not that we had one of those meticulously manicured lawns. Far from it, but killing any of the grass was akin to committing a capital offense. He probably just wanted to keep what little we had looking as good as possible.
Thinking back on it, he wouldn’t get so much angry as he would get...worried. Once I had finally gotten a big enough leaf pile together, of course I wanted to jump in it. “Please, dad,” I would beg. “Let me play in it for a while.”
He would look at the pile, as if judging its destructive potential, and finally murmur, “Alright. But get it out to the road before it gets dark.” I never realized it before, but neglecting a piles of leaves was the only time he ever reacted that way. What did he worry about?
I plunged my rake deep into the pile and hefted a great quantity of leaves toward the growing mound. As I did, a green glove rolled to the surface. A child’s glove. Was it Tommy’s? Staring at it, I scoured my brain in an effort to remember. Yes, I think he was wearing this.
I returned to the Martin’s front door and presented it to them. They looked confused and upset, as it seemed important, but provided no real direction. They went back inside to notify the police of the find.
I thought it best to leave the pile alone for now, so I decided to resume work on my own back yard. The afternoon marched on, but my progress was slow. My thoughts were elsewhere. This all reminded me of something from my childhood, a story I had heard, or a book I had…
I dropped the rake and headed to my house with a pace driven by purpose. There was a box in my attic that I needed to check. As I climbed my deck and pulled open the sliding glass door, a voice, insistent and anxious, echoed between the neighborhood houses.
“Trundles, where are you? Trundles, come here, girl! Where did you run off to?”
Halting, I dropped my head and slapped a hand against my forehead. The voice belonged to my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Peltham. Her ranch house was clearly visible, with her back yard sharing a property line with the Martin’s. The only time she ever opened her back door and yelled like that was when her rambunctious little pug ran away. It would only be a matter of time before she called all the surrounding neighbors to stop what they were doing and help her find the wayward animal. A sigh seeped from between my lips. I didn’t have time for this.
But didn’t she get an invisible fence installed in the Spring? I thought it had done the job, since there hadn’t been any escape attempts since then. I turned and looked. She was standing on the patio, dressed in a housecoat, looking frantically about. There was no sign of the dog. In the middle of her yard was a leaf pile, neatly raked and waiting to be relocated out to the roadside.
Another memory from my childhood rattled into place. Turning my back on the woman’s cries, I resumed my course to the attic.
I knew I had a challenge set before me. Our attic had become the dumping ground for everyone in the family. Weren’t sure where to put something? Throw it in the attic. After twenty years, it had nearly reached critical mass. I undertook the expedition to reach the east summit. After losing two sherpas and a shoe, I made it to my destination. Of course the box was near the bottom. I gingerly unearthed it, taking care not to cause an avalanche of boxes above.
The cardboard reliquary represented the totality of my father’s library. He wasn’t a big reader, and when he did open a book, it was usually one of the paperback pulps of Phillip Marlow, Doc Savage, Burrough’s Tarzan or a similar such gritty hero. But the one I sought wasn’t some dime-store novel. Rooting through the box, I eventually found it hiding at the bottom. I wiggled it free.
Bound in hardcover, the book was a collection of mythology and folktales from the Old Country. Even though it was very different from all the other books, its presence didn’t surprise me. If nothing else, my father had been staunchly devoted to his heritage. As I opened the book, the binding creaked like an ancient casket and the aroma of old paper enveloped me. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, or where in the book it was. I was trusting that when I found it, I would know. As I turned the pages, trying to extract key words to aid my search, the gradual inundation of eerie terms and disturbing lithographic imagery wormed into my mind and instilled in me an altogether unsettling feeling. I was being pulled into a world of hedge-witches, vengeful specters, goat-headed priests and alters daubed with pentagrams. Crouching there in the dim light of a single attic bulb, with the hollow voice of the wind whispering into the cracks, wasn’t helping the sensation, either. Thankfully, my wife took that moment to call up the stairs, breaking an age-old spell that I felt was starting to overshadow me.
“Hon, are you up there?”
“Well, supper will be ready in a few minutes.”
I put the book aside, grateful for the interruption, but the restless feeling that I was close to my goal caused me to hurry through the meal. I muttered only grunts and monosyllabic answers to my wife’s comments before excusing myself and quickly returning to the attic.
Sitting, I snatched up the book and opened to where I left off. Flipping pages…faster, faster…it had to be in here. Time was fighting against me. The tiny round window in the upper corner of the attic gable revealed a darkening sky. I felt the cloying, twisted hand of the spell creeping again towards my shoulder…
Ah, finally I found it, on a page entitled The Shepherd’s Beacon. It recounted a bit of old folklore about strange occurrences that would perplex the villagers during harvest time. When the crops were cut and farmers formed haystacks to sit and dry in the fields, the great mounds did not always remain undisturbed. Something would trouble the piles.
Young lovers, slipping away for a tryst, would hastily return in a panicked state, claiming they heard terrifying noises and witnessed furtive movement from within the mound. They were met with knowing chuckles, assuming the occurrence was the work of a disgruntled father attempting to protect his daughter’s virtue. But that didn’t explain events of a more ominous sort. A sheep or calf that wandered out in the midst of them would sometimes never be seen again.
It was believed that the haystacks, sitting out day after day, would attract the attention of some wandering entity, which would take up residence within. It would lurk there, waiting for a hapless creature to stray too close, and then snatch it and pull it inside. Hearing the frantic cry, the shepherd would go in search of the creature, only to find it had vanished without a trace. The only conclusion they could draw was that an unwelcome visitor had crept into their midst.
To drive the thing away, they would sacrifice the haystack by setting it on fire. Sometimes, before the torch was even put to the mound, the hay would ignite as with the very fires of hell. The smell of sulfur would fill the air, as if the denizen of that dark abyss was trying to escape by opening a doorway to its infernal home and thereby releasing the Unquenchable Torment of Damned Souls. As the flames leapt skyward, a woeful cry would arise and then die away, or change into the bleating of the lost lamb which would emerge, shaking in fright, from the haystack. Or the animal would stumble out of a different mound entirely while the other burned. Or sometimes the haystack would burn away, revealing only the bones of the missing beast. But it would put an end to the disappearances for the rest of the season.
I slammed the book closed, disturbing a layer of dust that took flight and swirled about like an angry apparition. Coughing and beating it away, I tried to comprehend the implications of what I had read. No, I avowed firmly. It was too incredible, too preposterous. Superstitions were simply nonsense. They belonged firmly rooted in the Old Country. Such archaic thinking didn’t immigrate to the new, modern world.
But could I take that chance? Could I keep secret what may be Tommy’s fate? I’m going to look like such an idiot, was all I could think as I thundered down the stairs.
“Hon, can you go to the Martin’s and tell Grant and Sylvia to meet me in their back yard?” I yelled as I headed for the back door.
“What? Why? What’s going on?”
“You’ll find out soon,” I shot over my shoulder.
The moon had climbed above the rooftops and the wind had died away. By the time the Martins arrived with my wife, I had their leaf pile raked back to its previous impressive state, and was putting the final touches on clearing the stray leaves out of the way.
Grant frowned at me from over the top of the pile. “Dan, why did you call us out here?”
I dropped the rake and pulled a box of matches from my coat pocket. “You have to trust me, Grant. If I try to explain, it’ll just sound insane.”
I took a long breath, weighing the decision of whether or not to lay out all the lunatic logic to him. But I knew that the more you try to convince someone you’re not crazy, the crazier you sound. No, better just to let them see – if there was anything to see. “We need to burn your pile of leaves,” I told them.
“Dear, what do you have in mind?” my wife asked with that familiar you’re off your rocker inflection in her voice.
I ignored it. “Just bear with me,” I replied. I lifted a broad, brown leaf, struck a match and held the flare against it. As it caught, I lowered it gently onto the edge of the pile. The fragile flame touched the nearest leaves, licking them as if to test their palatability, then began to consume them. The tiny fire grew.
“Hey, whachu guys doing?” Bill Sterns came out of the darkness, blue cup in hand, and stopped next to me. He looked at the spreading blaze. “You know, I think this might be against town ordinance…”
“Shhh!” I snapped. My senses strained to be ready for anything that might happen. A crackling commenced, punctuated by hissing as damp leaves underneath reacted to the heat. Part of the pile settled slightly, sending a handful of glowing embers twirling into the air. My wife flinched.
My nerves went taut. Fire raced across the leaves. The hiss suddenly turned into a shriek, and then stopped. There was a heartbeat length of silence, and then I caught a new sound. A faint, dry rasping came from Mrs. Peltham’s yard. I looked in time to catch movement in the pile there. A small flurry of leaves, reacting to some inner disturbance, erupted outward.
I was off like a shot, bounding toward the mound. Without hesitation, I dove headfirst into it, plunging myself into pitch darkness. There was a small, startled yelp from inside. My immediate thought was that it was nothing but Mrs. Peltham’s dog, simply hiding in her leaf pile. But as I clawed my way in, reaching for the source of the disturbance, my hand found a limb; long, narrow, completely hairless, but hard and sinewy. It jerked out of my grasp. I dug deeper, searching for it, but instead I came in contact with a length of slippery material wrapped around something firm. I latched onto it, pulling it towards myself. At first it came willingly, but then another force took hold, hauling the object of my effort in the opposite direction, further into the mound.
I dug my toes into the ground and used my free hand to burrow to the bottom of the leaves, hoping to find rooted grass I could cling to. The strength on the other end was fierce and inexorable, and I found myself being dragged in as well. I resolved not to lose this tug-of-war. I grabbed with both hands. Bracing my elbows and knees, I applied every bit of my strength to an all-out effort. For a single moment, the struggle came to a standstill as our opposing forces reached a stalemate.
Then, without warning, the resistance vanished. I flew free of the mound, tumbling backwards, holding the arm of a boy in a winter coat. We landed together in a heap.
“Tommy!” Sylvia cried out.
I rose unsteadily to my feet as the shocked onlookers rushed towards us. Grant and Sylvia lifted Tommy and buried him in hugs.
A moment later a terrified pug bolted from the pile as if a hellhound were on her tail. Trundles. My wife reached down and scooped her up. I leaned over to catch my breath, resting my hands on my knees. Despite my shaky limbs, a satisfied glow filled me as I gazed on the Martins engaged in their family group hug.
My wife looked sidelong at me, a faint smile offsetting the scowling brow. “So did all this have something to do with what you were rooting around for up in the attic?”
“Yeah,” I replied, breathing heavily. “There was a book up there, helped me…figure this out.” I let go of a knee and pointed to the pile. “Monster…in the leaves.”
“Uh-huh, monster. Just so I’m prepared, what other books do we have tucked away in the attic?”
Bill Sterns gawked in stupefied wonder at the leaf pile before dropping his eyes to his blue insulated cup, then back at the pile. Maybe he was considering giving up whatever inebriating liquid he had in there, but I was considering just the opposite. In fact, I concluded that a drink was just what the doctor ordered.
So when you do your autumn raking, just remember not to neglect your piles of leaves for too long.
Cause if you do, you know, it might kill the grass underneath. You don’t want that.
A Handful of Halloween
I've put my 2013 short story entry here, for those who want to read just my piece. The entire anthology can be purchased on Amazon.com.
One Day with a Witch
As I sit down to write this tale, the wallpaper on my laptop keeps moving in peculiar ways, slowly receding, like the opening credits to a Twilight Zone episode. Just an optical illusion, I tell myself. I took a walk fifteen minutes ago, to collect my thoughts - something I do before I write. I passed a row of light poles. One of them was vibrating as if it had a chill. Only one in the entire row, without the faintest breeze stirring in the air. And now it feels like there’s something in my hair. I keep running my fingers through it as I sit here, but there’s nothing there. Weird day. But not my first, and certainly not my weirdest. I leave that distinction to another day, back when I was just a clueless kid in high school.
I never really got the hang of high school. It wasn’t the academics - I could pull off high B’s without trying. No, it was the social aspect - the making friends’ part. It’s not that I didn’t have any. I had a small circle, half a dozen guys I played role-playing games with, but I could never seem to grow it much beyond that. That’s what made that one day so strange.
My freshman year was spent with three-hundred other freshmen in an isolated brick-and-ivy building. The rest of the high schoolers were in their own, newer building. Perhaps we should’ve been grateful that we were out of the line-of-fire of every day abuse, but the seniors worked to make up for it during those times we were stuck together, like pep rallies. Yeah, great times. Word of advice - when you’re a freshman, throw the rallies and let the seniors win. You’ll be glad you did.
Anyways, my first class of the morning was Social Studies. It was just around the corner from my home room so I was always one of the first ones there. I was standing beside my desk, already thinking about the end of the day. My buddies and I were planning on using the activity period to pit some miniature Roman soldiers up against a patchwork unit of ex-slave gladiators. They were hand-me-down lead figures from my friend’s older brother. In their tiny fists, trimmed-down pinheads became maces and thumbtacks became shields. You learn to work with what you’ve got.
There were only a handful of us in the room. Even the teacher hadn’t shown up yet. That’s when I first felt it. An odd sensation that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was coming from behind me. When I turned, I saw one of my classmates. She stood a few desks back. Her hand was raised towards me, fingers wiggling in a curious pattern. Her lips were forming silent words. Then she dropped her hand and began to laugh. It wasn’t a lighthearted laugh, but neither was it a wicked one. It was more like a ‘I’m making fun of you’ laugh. ‘I pulled a prank and you don’t even know it’.
I shrugged it off. How do you respond to something like that, I ask you?
We were given the class time that day to do research on an upcoming project. We could stay in the classroom or go down to the library. I opted to stay, since I already had the books I needed. Most kids took the opportunity to head to the library, where they could dawdle on the way and talk with their friends more. I cracked open my books and got to work on my B+ paper.
One of my classmates, a blonde haired blue-eyed girl, plopped down in the chair in front of me and turned around to lean her arms on my desk. Her friend, an exotic contrast with dark eyes and raven hair, took the desk next to mine. These were the cutest, most popular girls in the class. And they started talking to me. Smiling at me. Flirting with me. Yesterday they didn’t know I even existed. I felt myself turning three shades of red. I tried to talk, but I’m sure nothing I was saying was witty or even intelligent. I was way out of my league. I tried to make some excuse about needing to get my work done, but they didn’t leave me alone. For the entire period. By the end I couldn’t even think straight, and I swear blood was going to shoot straight out both ears from how hard I was blushing.
I was relieved when the bell rang. I collected my books and bolted. But did it end there? No. That day, as I went from class to class, it seemed like every girl I passed in the halls turned and smiled at me. Some even said ‘hi’. I ducked and slunk my way from class to class - not easy to do when you’re a full foot taller than everyone else. I buried my head in my hands during classes to avoid eye contact.
This should’ve been a fourteen year old boy’s dream-come-true, suddenly turning popular and having the attention of the cutest girls in the school, but I couldn’t enjoy a single moment of it. The whole thing had completely weirded me out.
Art class. The day was almost over. Kids were milling around the room getting supplies and looking at each other’s drawings in progress. I was in the back of the room sharpening my pencils when a girl came back. Another beautiful blonde, but with the bearing of a senior. She wasn’t the greatest artist, but she had the figure of a Botticelli.
“Hey,” I replied.
“You’re kind of cute.”
I stood there, holding my pencils. My mind was a complete blank.
She smiled. “You can say ‘thank you’, you know.”
“Uh, thank you.”
She smiled again and walked away.
I was never so happy to ride the hot, noisy bus home when that day ended. I spent the rest of the evening beating myself up over my string of stupid reactions and replies, and trying to figure out how I could ask one of them out on a date, and deciding which one of them I would approach. There were so many to choose from. Tomorrow would be different.
But do you know what the weirdest part was? The next day, things were completely back to normal. Those same cute, popular girls, who couldn’t leave me alone, now didn’t even give me the time of day. I was invisible again and, in a way, relieved as all get-out.
And my classmate, the girl who started my school day with her strange gestures and mumbled words? Did she make me the target of some crazy love-hex experiment? I’ll never know for sure, since I avoided her like the plague for the rest of the year. I had no desire to become her pet project for perhaps a less harmless spell. But I did learn one thing from that day; when you get a complement, say ‘thank you’. It took another year to learn that’s even okay to give a compliment back.
Oh, and as for the skirmish during the activity period - the poor, disorganized gladiators got trounced by the Romans. No surprise. You just can’t beat a solid phalanx.