Contest Winner

Haunted Halloween by Lela E. Buis

 

It’s Halloween again, and the mist roils thick as memory. It rises from the unseen ground like a ghost from the grave. Winter’s breath, cold and impalpable, it caresses my car’s hood, the fenders, the headlights, and eddies in the low beams, obscuring the road as if I’m driving into unreality.

It’s not really necessary that I see the road, though—I’ve come this way so many times. It’s like the face of a lover even in darkness, as I remember the familiar turns, the spectral shadows of trees that crowd out the sky, making the lane dark and eerie even in the day. It seems almost brighter now with the mist, and my lights fall down over the air as if it’s a solid chasm waiting to engulf me, and something I could touch.

The house is there on the hill finally, like a cliff, overhanging and precarious. It’s a two story, Victorian style.  There’s a village below, but it’s obscured by the fog as if it doesn’t exist tonight, and can’t intrude on my purpose. I sit in the car a moment before I get out in the rocky drive. The house looks abandoned from the outside, sagging slightly with the gravity of age. It has missing boards and a cracked window pane. The yard is scraggly, overgrown with forsythia so tall it must block the front windows with color in the spring, but it’s bleached and insipid now in the winter of my soul. I remember how it looked before, with the shrubbery blooming and honeysuckle running along the fence, and I can almost smell the attar, the memory that chases behind the image.

My trepidation in the car is only fleeting, quickly gone. Once I’m through the door, it all becomes the same. The carved furniture sits properly against the walls, undisturbed, and the carpet seems as free of dust as it did when it was new. I walk through the dim parlor as if in a ritual, touching the lace curtains, the tapestry-upholstered chairs, and here and there a photo, gilt-framed. It has no business changing, after all, of departing from what it was, from what I remember. Beyond is the hall with the mauve-striped wallpaper, and the kitchen.

I hold my breath, in fear that he’s somehow forgotten. But of course there’s no need. It’s here.

It’s a gift as archaic as the house, for tonight, the night for ghosts and goblins. A card with dancing bats and a sack of candy corn; it’s propped on the counter beside the sink, with a bouquet of long-stemmed, black roses, where it’s always been, so I’ll see it when I come through the door. I laugh when I see it, in a sharp pleasure; and I think, oh, Sal, it’s been so long!

I go back to the entry, still smiling, and hang my jacket and scarf on the coat rack that stands there. I’m early. It’ll be a while yet before he comes.

I try to sit in one of the stuffed armchairs, but I can’t. I find myself up and pacing for the third time, tugging at a loose strand of my hair, checking my watch. The hands creep towards midnight. The stillness remains unbroken, the emptiness of the house, and I begin to worry that something will go wrong, that something will keep him away. It seems too quiet, the mist through the lace curtains too heavy. Am I wrong that it’s different tonight?

The two hands are almost one on the dial, and still there’s no sign. I can’t sit here anymore. Anxious, I get up to wander through the house again. In the kitchen I shift the roses, pick up the sack of candy. I take the stairs in the back of the house, climbing towards the bedrooms. Now there’s no sound, as there should be, of my shoes on the treads. It’s as if time and place have warped suddenly, as if the mist has come in, invaded the house with a malevolent presence that rises behind me, cold tendrils reaching for my back. I turn swiftly, but there’s nothing there.

“Sal?”

I hear my voice quiver, and the sound dies quickly in the unnatural stillness. A whisper seems to come from above me, and I swivel again, looking up. Nothing.

“Sal?”

The stair rail is cold beneath my hand. I take another step up, another higher. The hall is semi-dark, lit to shadows by windows at the ends of the house with deep window seats. Perhaps the sound was only branches tapping the glass. But still I’m afraid. The rooms are murky and black. The doors seem suddenly gaping like mouths to devour the unwary.

I slink down the passage, hoping to find a vantage point at the window, where I’m not looking into the light. Something is wrong. I can feel it. The certainty makes my skin crawl like gooseflesh, chills me to the bone. My breath falls into smothering, cloying stillness and disappears, except in my own ears, where it sounds loud as a bellows.

Another creak from somewhere, and I start, remembering how isolated this house really is, how far from any neighbors. Sure there’s someone else here, I move cautiously backwards, holding my breath now, hoping he can’t hear the pounding of my heart, hoping to make the safety of the stairs again. But the ancient floor betrays me. It squeals like a traitor beneath my first step; and he leaps out at me!

He’s big, a dark shadow, too heavy for anyone I know. I scream and run, but I know he’s too close. He carries something uplifted in his hands. It catches the light, glitters—an axe. He’s a crazed burglar. He bellows like a maddened animal, drowning my screams. I slip at the stairs, try to stagger up, knowing I’m going to die.

The axe swings upwards, falls towards my back, and I lurch forward. But I fall into waiting arms. There is no death, no pain. The phantom is gone. Sal’s here now, holding me. And he’s warm and solid as I am, at least for a while.

“Oh, Sal,” I say, lying slack against him, with relief, as my breath shudders out. “I had forgotten. I thought something had happened, and you weren’t going to come.”

“Cassie, I’ll always come,” he says, and his voice is as sweet as all of life.

He’s tall, and smells comfortingly familiar, dressed as he always was in jeans and a flannel shirt. His shoulders are as wide and solid as the earth. In the daylight he’s blue-eyed. I turn my face up to be kissed; and he’s there now to kiss me, as I want, as I remember.

We go back up to the bedroom, and we make love on what was once our bed, among the roses, scattered, and whisper about the last year, while we’ve been apart. Finally, we sleep, and I hold him in my arms.

Feeling the loneliness already, I wake before dawn, knowing it will be the end of our time together. I want to watch him for a while, his face as he lies there sleeping, the strong lines of his forehead and jaw, the curve of his throat. This is all I have left of him, this brief touch in darkness, cloaked in mist and winter, with the candy corn and black roses, and my heart pierced with pain as surely as the valentine he’s brought me.

The years seem hardly to have changed us. Perhaps it’s only the magic of the night, but he is as beautiful as when I first saw him. He seems to shine with the radiance of my longing, so intense on this one night, that has to make up for the distance that death has put between us.

How long has it been? How can I count the years of his life? I reach out to smooth his dark hair, to feel his warmth, the rise of his breath one last time—for I am the ghost, haunted by a living man.

The mist thins, the light grows, and my hand on his chest fades slowly away, leaving only the roses, and him, behind.


Lela E. Buis is an award-winning artist and writer. She grew up in East Tennessee and lived for a long time in Florida, working in engineering at Kennedy Space Center and as a teacher of various subjects and levels. She began writing as a child and leans toward genre fiction, having published mainly science fiction and fantasy stories and poetry. When she’s not painting or writing, she looks after a disabled cat and two part time dogs.  

Published 10/29/20

 

 

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