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An ancient ghost, set loose for the month of October. Superstitious teenagers, set loose on their own for a night or two. The tragedy of death and the mystery of sudden disappearance...This is a short-story collection, updated every Halloween.
Chapter 1, 2006 - Of Black Cats and Harvest Moons
We had a bonfire that night, the last one for that year. The air had a crisp, cool taste to it all day, and I knew it would be icy when we got the marshmallows roasting, that the little kids wouldn’t be so keen to play hide-and-seek unless they had some awfully warm coats.
So the neighborhood got together and we laughed and I listened to the men talking about the football game they were going to see together, and the kids laughing and our next-door neighbor, whose fire pit we were using, arguing with them over who had the most perfect marshmallow. Me, I just sat on the grass and watched the glowing embers, nibbling at plain marshmallows because I’m allergic to chocolate and roasted marshmallows are too sticky.
I let out a yelp as my brother swung down near me and his stick got caught in my hair, spreading white goop over the red-brown strands. He barked a startled laugh and I jerked away, nails clawing at the sticky spot in a vain effort to get it out.
“You did that on purpose,” I accused, and he shrugged.
A good friend of mine heard my cry and came over curiously. She’s the only person the same year as me anywhere, as far as I can tell--everyone else is at least two years younger or older, so most of my friends live farther away. “What’s going on?”
“He stuck his marshmallow in my hair,” I responded sullenly, showing her the sticky spot and now trying not to touch it. “I don’t have time to take a shower tonight, either, after this.”
“Maybe Mr. Lonte has peanut butter, for the s’mores!” she suggested enthusiastically. “Then we could get it out!”
My brother’s friend swung over, because apparently marshmallow in one’s hair is a very interesting attraction these days. “One,” he took pleasure in correcting my friend, “you don’t put peanut butter on s’mores. And two, peanut butter is for gum.” He made a face. “I’m a guy and I know that! Geez.”
My friend scowled and tossed back her hair. “I like peanut butter on my s’mores,” she argued, and because she said it so loud I was pretty sure she was trying to flirt with him. It was a pretty disgusting thought, and I made a face to myself.
But my brother’s friend had already turned away from her and to me, a serious expression about his face but a wicked gleam lifting the corners of his lips and dancing in his eyes. “Well, Claire, you had to get something for Friday the Thirteenth, right?”
“I’m not that superstitious,” I protested, but not very convincingly. Everyone here already knew I was.
“Come on!” he taunted. “You have to believe it. Haven’t you looked at the news lately? A snowstorm on one side of the country, an earthquake on the other--it’s true, it’s got to be.” He paused, then added mischievously, “And if I remember correctly, it’s someone’s sixteenth birthday today, and the first time her birthday’s been on a Friday in how many years?”
“I don’t believe it!” I insisted.
“She’ll prove it!” my friend added for me, and that evil light in the neighbor’s eyes got brighter. “You know she’s not superstitious!”
“You’ll prove it?” he asked me solemnly, and I nodded, because there was no way I was going to look like an idiot in front of the entire neighborhood. The firelight glinted on his teeth as he grinned with his lips pulled back.
“All right, then. Meet me on the corner of your street and mine in an hour. Make sure no one sees you.” He turned like he was going to snicker with my brother, then glanced back at me over his shoulder. “Oh, and come alone, with last year’s Halloween costume. I know you wore one.”
My friend was bouncing next to me excitedly, but I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
* * *
My rendezvous partner was late.
I knew he was doing it just to scare me, but I shivered all the same as I waited, alone, on the corner. The moon was an orangeish color, like a miniature harvest moon not quite full, and made the streetlamp above me seem dingy even though it was the same color. I was getting cold quickly: my brother had passed on to me that I was supposed to wear the costume, not just bring it, and so my skin broke out in bluish goosebumps as I rubbed my arms, wishing I’d dared to wear a coat. Last year a friend had dared me to dress up for the first time in three years--why couldn’t I just turn down these challenges?!--and I’d gone as a fairy, wearing a pale green leotard and brown tights, with stupid jaggedy cheap-cloth wings that have a rent in one side now, and a little cape thing that I hadn’t been able to find. The marshmallow in my hair felt all the more disgusting now that I’d put it up in a ponytail.
Minutes passed. Suddenly a pair of unblinking green eyes appeared in the hedge, accompanied by a loud rustling sound that made me jump, and I took a shaky half-step back before recognizing a white splotch in the mass of dark fur and realizing it was my own cat.
Bad luck when a black cat crosses your path…especially if the moon is full and it’s Friday October Thirteenth.
The moon isn’t totally full and the cat isn’t totally black, I told myself, trying to calm down, and anyway it’s your birthday so things are supposed to happen the opposite way.
I was trying to cheer myself up but it wasn’t working very well. Anyway, if it was half good luck instead of bad did that mean it was more bad luck for me? What if the moon not quite being full meant a lot of good luck, which meant a lot of bad luck, and if a cat with just a little white on its throat--
Said cat darted past my feet into the road. My heart started pounding and I flinched as I watched it make its slow, deliberate way across the street, expecting any minute that I would hear the screech of brakes as a car veered to avoid it, feel the humongous weight of tons of steel crashing into me…
Nothing happened, and after a minute I peeked an eye open to look. The cat was safely across the street. I let out a sigh of relief--
And a pair of big, furry hands latched onto my bare arms.
I let out a screech and twisted--there was a moment as we grappled and then I slid out of the fuzzy arms--I lost my balance, twisted and fell with my hands scraping on the pavement--
And looked straight up into the mocking eyes of my brother’s friend.
He let out hoots of laughter, toppling over, eyes streaming. I felt my face grow hot and my heart was still pounding, but he just kept standing there laughing, making me feel more stupid by the second as I sat there, half on the grass, half in the road. Slowly the adrenaline drained out of me and I was left feeling more practical and calm than I had since the older boy had suggested this game, and definitely a bit annoyed. So maybe I sounded more crabby than I should have when I snapped, “So I’m here. What do you want me to do?”
He fell serious in an instant and it was then I knew he’d been trying to make me mad, laughing like that, and I did get mad. It was bad but at least it made me warm. He pondered, watching me, and rubbed his furry paw-hand against his chin…he was wearing a werewolf costume, with fake fur all over and too-big boxers sewed onto the legs/pants of the outfit.
“You sure you don’t wanna back out? This is serious stuff, girl.”
“I don’t!” I growled, and he grinned.
“All right then. It’s pretty simple: I know the people two houses down from me are at the bonfire. So, you gotta ding-dong ditch the house, see if anyone comes out, then go in…I know where their spare key is if you need it. Then…” He paused as if thinking, “then you gotta go and take the mirror on the second floor in the room to the right of the staircase and bring it out here, without turning the lights on. I’ll be waiting here and I’ll tell you what to do next.”
My heart was thumping because I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t back down now. Without a word I turned with my nose in the air, hair whipping around as I pulled off the best act of snobbishness anyone’s ever seen, and walked with my back straight till I was out of sight of my challenger, at which point I started sneaking like anyone would eat me if I was seen. Which might very well happen, considering I was wearing a Halloween costume several weeks early.
I found the house he had indicated and climbed up the steps to the porch. It was several long minutes before I could work up the courage to press the bell--then just as I had my finger to the button a prickling rose on the back of my neck and I whirled, caught sight of a flash of green before there was suddenly nothing on the other side of the road.
It was nothing. Maybe the cat, is all. Nothing weird about your cat following you when he’s got nothing better to do…
Quickly I shoved my finger into the bell before I could lose my nerve. A peal sounded inside the house somewhere and I ducked away into the bushes, waiting, heart thudding…
Nervously I climbed back up and turned the handle--it was unlocked--pushed the door open with a little cruck of well-insulated-door-not-wanting-to-leave-frame and leaned my head in. A light was visible somewhere in the house, but upstairs was ominously dark…irrationally I remembered how scared of this place I’d been as a little kid, because the owners were always out on Halloween and you had to walk the narrow little path between the lawn and the garage before you got to the enclosed porch, and it was all so close and dangerous…
My heart was in my throat so that I could barely breathe, but somehow I managed to creep slowly toward the staircase and lay a hand on the railing. It was reassuringly solid and steadying, and I clung to it for all I was worth as I slowly tiptoed up the stairs, my sneakers slippery against the wood floor.
Thick carpet sank under my feet as I reluctantly let go of the banister and turned to the right, fingers half out in case of obstruction. But the door was open, and to my left I saw myself dimly, reflected in a silvery frame. I reached out slowly and touched the smooth, cold surface, fingers trailing up to touch the intricate border decoration.
It was awfully big. Wouldn’t someone would see me if I took it? But I remembered with unease the way no one had been on the streets as I made my way to the house, and reluctantly put my hands on either side of it, lifting it off its hook.
Something made me look back as I slipped through the doorway. A black cat with piercing green eyes watched me from its place curled up next to the frosted window, unblinking. Just my pet again.
How had he gotten through a closed window and a door I’d locked behind me?
My brother’s friend was still waiting at the street corner as he’d promised, and gave a predatory grin as he saw the huge mirror I lugged with me. Taking one side so we both stood together, facing our reflections, he directed, “When I count to three, drop the mirror.”
“But--” I protested. He gave another sharp grin and I knew what he was thinking, knew he didn’t believe in seven years’ bad luck and thought I did, but to break a stolen mirror--
I caught a glimpse of dark movement out of the corner of my eye. My cat again…why was he so set on following me?
Wait a second--that had been a tall flash, over my cat’s head. Was someone watching us? It could be a prank--but no one could move that silently--nothing but an animal--
“Wait--” His green eyes locked with mine and I felt a chill at how far he might go.
His side of the high-held mirror fell and my half slipped from sweaty hands. I watched it frozen even as he dodged out of the way, knowing what would happen if I stayed but too terrified to move--it twisted and crashed to the ground--
The world exploded in a flash of crimson.
There was an instant’s tearing pain like nothing I’d ever felt before and something jerked inside of me. My vision spun and I sensed something leap over my head, the breeze of its passage ruffling over my head--I didn’t know what was happening, couldn’t see--was that me on the ground surrounded by glitter?!--
I spun to face the blank, open eyes of my brother’s friend and lost myself in panic.
He was dead--there were these great huge gaping holes in his costume and, and--oh, God--I turned to flee and tripped over a black cat in front of my feet--how had it gotten there?!--I stumbled over it and ran for all I was worth, but the cat chased after me--
Abruptly I stopped, realizing it wasn’t my own cat, there was no white on it at all, and with the same shock decided it was a she even though I couldn’t think why. I could only stand stock still as it gazed up at me with the same cold calmness that had followed me from the moment my cat left my line of sight, then slowly stepped forward, delicately twining around my ankles.
I bent down shakily and reached out to pet her, thinking that maybe this was a dream, some sort of joke. After all, there wasn’t any blood on me at all, I hadn’t even been cut by the mirror like I thought I would…
But then my hand froze as the cat stepped back and looked at me with a calculating coldness that was altogether too human, then slowly bent her head down toward my hand and sunk gleaming white fangs in the middle of it.
Her cruel emerald eyes never left mine as I crouched there shaking, and as she opened her mouth again a hissing whisper caressed my ears.
Be released, for now it begins…
I jerked but suddenly she was gone, vanished into the night like she had never been, and there was something behind me--hot rank breath steamed the back of my neck--I whirled to meet the ferocious eyes of the hugest animal I’d ever seen--oh, no, it was going to kill me--
We’ve turned into our costumes, that’s it, I thought frantically, stumbling backwards and tripping over a stone. I’m tiny and he’s huge, and he’s a wolf--he’s going to kill me and I’ll die a fairy--
A great tawny expanse filled my sight and I squeezed my eyes shut. You’ve messed up on every count as far as superstitious goes, girl…born on Friday the Thirteenth, in one night you cross three black cats under an almost-full moon, break a stolen mirror with silver on it, get a friend killed and make a cat talk to you. Maybe the worst of all, you try to make it Halloween early. Maybe you’ve just gone insane…
There it was, that breeze again, and as I looked up the great creature was flying over my head and in its place the cat watched me once more.
I flinched at the two words, they sounded so final, and scuffled backwards on the lawn. The cat seemed to grow in my vision and I almost had to close my eyes again in terror, because surely this time I was a helpless little fairy. The voice swelled, taking up everything around me, everything inside of me till there was nothing left but an empty shell.
I had hoped you would do better, Claire. So superstitious all this time, and yet you could not break through those barriers to belief…look, now peace has been lost to you in your terror, when you could have so easily avoided all this. To others’ demise, but what else am I to teach? Come with me now, child, and you can perhaps someday prove your worth after these earthly bonds have been broken…
Silent and defeated, a teenage girl trailed after a beautiful woman, their forms pale and flickering in the light of the moon and few stars that shone upon the suburbs--hardly more substantial than ghosts. The next morning dark headlines would flare across the top of newspapers: Teenage Boy Killed By Mad Wolf; Girl Murdered in her own Neighborhood; Mirror Shards Chase Family Out of Country.
But doubtless there were many people glad that they themselves had not seen a wolf--for though they are indeed majestic beasts, there are nightmares one never wishes to meet on an empty nighttime street…death is one of them.
And Claire deMontra’s favorite cat would never be seen again.
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