HALLOWEEN CHALLENGE HONORABLE MENTION
Scream and you would not echo. That’s what they said about the old vintage shop, so inconveniently perched on the busiest street in town, the door like a hardened, rusty shoe out to trip anyone peering in — always assuming the passersby pressed their noses against the window with a force stronger than curiosity. The relics glimmered back, evening sun running its shimmering fingertips against the plastic coverings of stopped time. That is to say, the entire shop was brimming with ripped, wrecked, and shattered clocks.
No one knew who owned the abandoned clock shop; the town had been trying to get it closed for years. Our parents, their parents, and their grandparents remembered the shop always existing. They never ventured in, they said. but that didn’t mean the place was safe from their fair share of hooligans. The vintage graffiti was surprisingly snarky. The “hooligan” had closed the “c” with bright red marker, instilling the name with two eyes that dared each and every naysayer try and tear it down.
Yet, each and every time they did try to declare the building untenable, an interloper made out a check for an obscene amount of money, with only two requests. The first one, no one but the mayor knew. The second, the inscrutable print urged that a person-sized mirror be fixed on the opposite side of the door so that one might observe themselves walking in.
Except, no one ever did.
We dared, though. That night, we were the first. Through fits of giggles, eyes wide, hysterical, defiant, we ordered the other to form a congo line and stroll right in. We wanted to see her, once and for all. Some of the people in our dorm had claimed that, on midnight strolls to that cookie place open late on Saturdays, they glimpsed the swollen girl, hunched over her piano, disfigured flesh bobbing wildly where her cheeks would be. They had only seen her through a checkered flash in The Mirror, though, and even then, they could have just glimpsed themselves in a particularly unflattering angle.
We wanted to touch her skin, then, to see if she was real. For that, we had to go inside.
A century ago, the story went, ghost girl had a habit of practicing the piano for sale at her father’s antique shop. Though he warned her never to enter the shop alone, she snuck in anyway and hunched over the cold, pale keys, compiling an off-pitch sequence of sounds. So entranced by her beginner’s tune, she hardly noticed when the clocks started sliding down the wall, bleeding dust trails, clattering at her feet. She only looked up when grandfather clock pummeled forward and slammed against the piano with a sickening crunch. She had seen and ID’ed her grim reaper; both ossified hands had been raised in protest. Afterward, legend had it that her father set all the clocks to four, the supposed hour of the tragedy, and then systematically pummeled each item to a pulp.
To this day, each hand had not changed. Even the grandfather clock which, by the way, was still there, too. If one looked closely enough, one could make out the ancient stain of blood curdling against the corners, searing into the smoky panels. We looked many times before and saw nothing. That was why the trip was in order.
I asked Demi to go with me. In truth, I had wanted to be alone with her for quite some time and maybe, if we saw the ghost girl together, she would remember me forever – I might always be, at the very least, a secondary character of a significant moment of her life. When I knocked on Demi’s door, elbow resting on the door frame, I didn’t even have to say a word: she jumped from her bed, the impression on her mattress bouncing right up, and grabbed her purse.
“Let’s go, weirdo.”
She smiled when she said this; she knew I had a taste for the macabre. We had spent hours the other day watching conspiracy videos on my phone. She had mocked me for all the bookmarks, but I saw the way her mouth hung open so heavily that crust formed at the corners, which she rubbed away with a precisely cut black claw.
At the shop, she paused at the window, chin jerked to her reflection. She raised an uncertain hand up to her dark, curly hair. At first, I thought she only contemplated her beauty, but the unvain girl said, voice low and unsteady, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
I didn’t think it was either, I swear. I only knew I couldn’t back down. She might always imagine me as a scared person, then. Implanting myself in her memories would be a delicate process that involved supreme, smooth, calculation and did not involve a shaking, scattered mess that flipped on his top hat and told the girl of his dreams that she was right and they should go. Breathe, I thought. I took her by the hand and led her into the ruins. It was she, in the end, who shuffled straight toward that soot-coated, wooden seat.
She pressed a finger to a key. The note did not ring out. A second key. Note was shy; note silent. I said that to make her laugh, but she ignored me, standing up, stool falling over behind her legs, laying her entire arm across the instrument. Her impatience roared the music to life and she cackled triumphantly. I, shaken by her sudden and abrupt emotion, shuffled carefully to the tinier clocks, checking the time. Four o’clock. Four o’clock. Four. Maybe one creeping toward four o’one, but the haunted hour rippled across the trinkets all the same.
I was a little peeved, too, that she seemed so deeply focused on that damned piano. We were here for one purpose: to investigate the room and draw the girl out. Release her from purgatory. Demi’s ruckus would usher the timid spirit to a corner, broken spirit against broken clock and me, alongside her, forever engraved as the scared, awkward man, who perused the clocks like an introvert reading at a rave.
Demi did not ask for me. “Hey, girl, what are you doing?”
The piercing notes slowly ceased. No answer. I could not see her bobbing head anymore from above the grandfather clock, and the stool, too, was still overturned. Did she crouch over the furniture?
“I’m glad you’re quiet now, Demi, I am. To be honest, I think you were drawing too much attention before. There’s a way to use a piano without having to be a complete child about it.”
“I – uh – I…”
“No, just don’t say anything. I’m not fighting with you; I don’t want to spoil the night.” And I didn’t. We had been hanging out quite a bit lately, but I didn’t know when I would get another chance with the beautiful, unpredictable, skittish girl. If she yelled back at me, her hoarse voice would erase me, overpower me, and then, in her mind, projection-me would narrow and shrivel to a sniveling, sorry excuse of a man.
“It’s shaking. Get around it, don’t stand behind it. I think it’s tipping.” Did she mean the grandfather clock?
I asked her as much, which is why, later, they found my DNA on both sides of it. A trembling eruption interrupted us, sputtering from beneath the squeaky floorboards, loosening the oak from my grip. Amid the quake, I tried so hard to grasp the hulking mass that oak angrily ripped between my nailbeds. Because she had kicked the chair away, nothing could stop the fall. Her arms wrapped around the pendulum in one final embrace, black claws clenching the hour, the minute, tearing four o’clock out of that room forever.
I, too, was freed. I tore out of that sick, cursed room, smearing the blood from my boots on the welcome carpet. I, panting, paused in the mirror. The subtle pulse of my muscles still strained against my hoodie sleeves, shoulders still broad, gray eyes still brooding. I exhaled sharply (not sighed!) and straightened my spine. Curious, yes, how the mirror had a strange, glorious, widening effect.