Happy Halloween folks! To celebrate this spooky time, I give you this short story. I wrote it a few years ago and it was one of the first things I had published. Since then I have cleaned it up and offer it now as your treat. So no tricks! Enjoy!
Happy Halloween! Happy Halloween!
Phillip jumped at the sound of the ring tone and then groaned when he realized it was his own cell making the racket. The phone shouted its holiday greeting over and over, until he finally answered it.
“You busy?” Sarah asked.
“I told you I have a huge test tomorrow,” he said.
“Come on, Phil, its Halloween. You don’t want to spend it cooped up studying. Let’s go to a haunted house. Or trick-or-treating at the mall, come on. Please?”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“When did you change my ring tone?” he asked over her.
“Yesterday. Besides, it’s too late to say no.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m all ready downstairs.”
Phillip sighed. “Whatever. Don’t expect much ‘cause I need to cram.”
He closed the phone and eyed his roommate. Marcus sat on the floor at other side of the dorm, in a ring of flickering candles and a thick haze of incense, chanting in tones that Phillip had long since learned to ignore. The man looked like a sixties hippy but spoke like a Harvard graduate. Phillip cleared his throat and Marcus stopped his intoning, opened one eye and glared at him in the silence.
“Sarah wants up. Is that okay?” Phillip asked.
“Sure,” Marcus said. “You know I always find her pleasant company.”
“Yeah, but I need to study. So as much as I’d like it, don’t leave me alone with her. I don’t need to be distracted.”
Marcus clicked his tongue against his teeth in disapproval. “It’s a sad day when a young man denies that kind of distraction, my friend.”
Phillip poked his middle finger in the air at his friend then laid it down on the buzzer for the outer door.
Sarah was at his door in seconds.
“You have got to see this!” she shouted as she burst into the room.
“What are you so excited about?” Phillip asked.
“Check your email Marcus, I sent you a jpg.”
Marcus’s smile was a beacon of joy.
“Why send the pic to him?” Phillip asked.
“Because you don’t check your email,” she said. “It’s really wild, you guys are going to freak when you see it. Go on, Mark, fetch it for me.”
Marcus scrambled to his computer, obviously eager to do her bidding. He clicked a few spots on the screen and tapped a few keys on the keyboard. Within moments the monitor displayed a huge black box. In the middle of the box was a black and white photograph of a yard with tacky Halloween decorations in the background. Under the photograph lay the words:
Mind Game, when you see it you’ll freak out.
“It looks like one of those motivational posters,” Phillip said.
“It’s called a mind game image,” Marcus said. “They’re the latest trend in internet memes.” He drew closer to the screen and nodded knowingly. “This is one of the better ones though, I must admit.”
“Trust you to have already seen it,” Sarah huffed with a pout.
Marcus smiled up at her. “Little gets past me.”
Phillip stared at the screen and shook his head. “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to see.”
“Just look at it Phil,” Sarah whispered.
Marcus scooted away from the computer. “Come in closer, you might have to get on top of it to see it.”
Phillip narrowed his eyes at Marcus. “This isn’t one of those shocker things, is it? It’s not going to flash up some old guy’s wrinkled wang? Because I’m still recovering from that.”
Marcus rolled his eyes.
Sarah giggled. “No, silly. Just look at it, that’s all. I promise.”
Phillip shrugged and leaned closer to the monitor. He stared at it hard, searching the image of the lawn, looking for anything unusual. He frowned. He didn’t see anything. He opened his mouth to say so when he finally saw it. It was a pair of eyes, off to one side, just barely there. There was no body, no head or face, just a pair of eyes peering out of the shadows of the picture. It stared out at the camera with a fierceness that forced Phillip to shudder.
“Ugh,” he said. “What in the hell is that?”
“I told you you’d love it,” Sarah said.
Marcus slapped him on the back as he laughed. “Yeah, I had the same reaction the first time I saw it too. Just a pair of eyes staring out of the darkness. Who wouldn’t freak?”
Phillip trusted Marcus to tell him the truth, but he still stung from the embarrassment. He glanced at the picture again. The eyes were translucent and filmy, like a piece of gauze stretched too thin across the lens. He could clearly see the bushes behind the eyes and yet the image was undeniable.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“It’s supposedly some ghost caught on film,” Marcus said. “Look at the weird way it stares out at you, like it’s, I don’t know, troubled or something.”
“I think he looks sad, like he misses somebody,” Sarah added.
“Yeah, he misses his girlfriend’s body,” Marcus said.
The pair laughed while Philip stared in silence at those eyes. Eyes he was sure he had seen somewhere before.
“No,” he said softly.
Sarah and Marcus fell quiet and stared at him.
Phillip scrambled to cover his whispered word. “No. He’s sad because he-e-e ain’t got no body. No body, no body to love!”
He hummed more of the old song as his friends laughed, but at the back of his mind the familiar eyes haunted him.
“Come on now, Phillip,” Sarah said. “I demand you take me to a haunted house.”
“Not now Sarah,” he said. “I really have to study.”
Sarah frowned and crossed her arms, then turned and nodded to Marcus. “What about you, Marcus? It looks like I’m all alone tonight. You want to find some real ghosts?”
Marcus’s face went through a quiet series of quick changes from desire, to heartache, to misery. He finally rested on a small frown of disappointment and shook his head. “I can’t Sarah, not tonight. A haunted house any other night would be delightful, especially with you as company, but not tonight. Samhain is the night to honor our ancestors. As you can see I’ve already begun my own ritual of memoriam,” he paused and motioned to the lit candles and incense behind him, “you are welcome to stay and pay your respects if you like.”
Sarah answered his hopeful plea with a sharp snort. “Um, no, I don’t think so. Just like the rest of the normal world, I celebrate Halloween, not freak-o-ween.”
Marcus closed his eyes and tried his best to keep a smile as Phillip grimaced. Sarah was a beautiful girl, but she lacked a certain amount of tact, and manners. Phillip wrapped his arm around her shoulder and guided her to the door before she could make another snide remark. “Baby, you know I would kick Marcus to the curb just to have five minutes with alone with you. But tomorrow’s test is going to kill me if I don’t study.”
She stuck out a cherry-red lower lip in a mock-pout and it was too delicious to leave alone. Phillip pulled her close and covered her mouth with his, savoring the flavor of strawberries and cigarettes. Sarah snaked her tongue between his lips, ran a hand into his back pocket, and suddenly the exam seemed years away.
“Good bye, darling Sarah,” Marcus said, interrupting a perfectly sexy moment.
Sarah pulled free from Phillip and wagged her slender fingers at them as Phillip shut the door.
“You are one lucky man,” Marcus said.
“Don’t I know it,” Phillip said. “Marcus, can you print out that picture for me?”
Marcus raised a bushy brow at him. “Sure, if you want.” After a few moments of clicking and tapping, the printer hummed to life.
Marcus soon handed Phillip a printout of the photograph. “I took the words off the bottom. I figured the ghost is what you’re interested in.”
“You’re right about that,” Philip said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You know, I would love to hear your perspective on the whole ghost thing. Tonight is the night when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. The night when the souls of the departed are said to walk among us. I would be glad to tell you everything I know about the phenomenon.”
Phillip respected Marcus’s beliefs, but he really wasn’t interested in discussing crackpot theories about reincarnation or old souls. “No thanks.”
Marcus’s face fell. “Oh sure, I understand.” He dramatically turned his back on Phillip and returned to his ceremony.
Phillip felt guilty for denying Marcus an audience, but his exam was more important than discussing the dead. He slumped back to his desk and hung his head. His eyes fell on the photograph. Phillip gawked in awe. He brought the printout closer to his face and blinked at the image. It was the same picture, but the ghost had changed. Two hands were held up just below the eyes, with the palms outwards as though warding something off.
“Marcus?” he asked quietly.
Marcus grunted in response.
“Is this the same picture from before?” Phillip asked.
“Yes, it’s the same one,” Marcus answered.
“Are you sure?” Phillip asked as he rose and crossed the room.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Look.” Phillip shoved the photograph under Marcus’s nose.
Marcus eyed him with distaste. “You really need to check your vibes at the door man.” The hippy looked the paper and shrugged.
“It’s changed Marcus. Look at the hands.”
Marcus looked at the photo then back to him. “What about them?”
“The hands weren’t there before.”
Marcus nodded slowly. “Ummm, yeah Phil. The eyes and hands were there the first time I saw it, and the fifth time, and the fourteenth time, and right now. So stop your freak fest and go study or something.” He whirled away from Phillip and returned to his chant.
Phillip stared at the back of Marcus’s head in shock. “Yeah, study.”
He tried to get back to studying, but his gaze continued to wander to the printout. Finally, he opened a textbook, slipped the photo inside of it, and closed the cover with a sigh. Now it was out of site and hopefully out of mind.
That night Phillip couldn’t sleep.
He faded in and out of restless dreams, until he found himself laying awake in the moonlight, staring at the book on his desk. It was as though the photograph was calling to him, begging him to open the book, daring him to look. His mind returned again and again to Marcus’s words.
Tonight is the night when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest.
He didn’t know exactly what it meant, but he didn’t like the sound of it. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t been so quick to turn down the hippy’s lecture on the supernatural. Finally, unable to resist the siren call, he rolled off the bed, tiptoed to the desk and opened the book.
Phillip squeezed his eyes tight to shut out the image, but it was too late. It had changed again. The hands were now accompanied by two ghostly thin arms. Phillip covered his mouth to repress his squeal of surprise. He was sure his eyes were playing games on him, in the darkness. He fumbled with the lamp and turned it on. He grabbed up the printout and yelped.
“What the hell, man?” Marcus mumbled as he rubbed his eyes.
Phillip held the photograph out in one shaking hand. The arms were now complete to the shoulders. A torso had formed between the body parts, and was covered in a tee shirt with faint writing across the chest.
“What about it?” Marcus asked.
“The body!” Phillip yelled. “The arms! Marcus, they just appeared.”
Marcus snorted. “Dude, I don’t know what kind of stuff you’re into, but even I don’t mess with drugs that harsh. You need to chill out. You’re starting to freak me out.”
Phillip lunged across the room and grabbed Marcus by the shoulders. “I’m not high and I’m not crazy.” He pushed the photo into Marcus’s face. “See? This wasn’t here before.”
Marcus looked at the photograph and slowly shook his head. “Man, you’re trippin’. It’s the same picture!”
“You heard me, hippy! Pull up the dammed jpg and show me!”
Marcus stared wide-eyed at Phillip. He pushed Phillip away from him, threw back his blanket and stood. Mumbling obscenities under his breath, he crossed the room and collapsed into the computer chair. A click and tap later, Marcus pointed to the photograph on the screen; a half-formed specter of a man’s upper body, hands out and eyes turned up.
“See?” Marcus asked. “Same picture, man. Same freaky ghost guy in a T-shirt holding up his hands. Now step off, I need my beauty sleep.”
“You changed it,” Phillip said.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re in love with Sarah!”
“Yeah, this is some techno thing you’re doing to make me look like I’m crazy. Well it won’t work, Marcus. She doesn’t want you, she wants me. She thinks you’re a creep! Some weirdo bead-sucking hippy. She’ll never love you!”
Phillip drew raspy breaths through clenched teeth as he balled his fists. He was ready for a fight. But instead of throwing a punch, Marcus stood and trudged back to his bed. He sat and let out a long sigh.
“I do love Sarah,” Marcus said, “but I would never make a move on her while you two are together. It’s bad Karma, man. Besides, I know she would never go for a guy like me. I said you were a lucky man and I meant it.”
A wave of guilt washed over Phillip, and with it drained all of his anger. “I’m sorry, Marcus, I just…I don’t know what’s going on here. I just know that I didn’t see it before and now all of a sudden it’s here.”
“Well I don’t know what to tell you.”
Phillip frowned as his eyes flicked, almost uncontrollably, back to the computer screen.
He immediately regretted it.
The photograph had changed again.
A pair of jeans had materialized beneath the torso with two skinny legs reaching to the end of the photograph and the feet somewhere off camera. Only the head was missing now, leaving the eyes floating free where a face should be. Phillip looked back to the printout. It was the same as the picture on the computer screen. He grew lightheaded as his legs threatened to buckle beneath him.
“Phil?” Marcus asked. “You okay? You look bad. Are you sure you’re not on something?”
“Maybe you’re right,” Philip said. “Maybe that incense you’ve been burning got to me.”
“Don’t put this on me. I ain’t burned nothing but patchouli.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Phillip wanted to believe Marcus about the photograph, but he needed someone else to look at it. He needed Sarah. He folded the paper and kept his eyes down, away from the computer screen.
“Food poisoning maybe? Did you eat some bum sushi or something?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Phillip mumbled. “I think I need some fresh air. I’m gonna go for a walk.”
“Sure man, I’ll cover for you. I’m surprised that your shouting hasn’t brought the man down on us already.”
Phillip quickly dressed and put the folded picture and cell phone in his back pocket. He slipped out the window, crept down the fire escape, and darted from shadow to shadow until he was safely off campus. Sarah lived only a few blocks from the university with her parents, within walking distance of his dorm. He jogged along the empty streets of the college town with nervous energy. He hadn’t been on this side of town all week and the decorations took him by surprise.
Cardboard tombstones littered the neighborhood lawns as cotton spider webs hung from every other tree. Mummies and witches dressed a few of the front doors, while other houses sported ghoulish coffins and life-sized skeletons. But it was the Jack-o-lanterns that disturbed Phillip the most. The lit ones put him on edge with their glowing grins and fiery stares. The details of the unlit ones were lost in the darkness of the early morning hour; eyes and mouths turned into scars of shadows ripped from pumpkin flesh. He did his best to ignore their hollow gazes and gaping maws.
Sarah’s house rested at the end of the lane and was the only one not decorated. Sarah’s father was obviously not a fan of Halloween. He also kept the old two-story house rigged with a homemade security system to discourage late night visitors. But Sarah had shown Phillip where to side step around the lawn and not trigger the alarm. He made his way around the backyard and stopped under Sarah’s window. Phillip pulled out his cell phone, intending to wake her with a call. The piece of paper also slipped free from his pocket and silently fluttered to the ground beside of him.
He absentmindedly toyed with the cell phone as he stared down at the folded paper. Now that he had calmed down, he wondered if he was overreacting. Sarah would kill him for waking her at four in the morning over nothing. He was beginning to feel like he had imagined the whole thing. But Marcus seemed so sure the picture was exactly the same, even though it had so obviously changed. Then again, Phillip had seen the guy smoke a good share of dope in the small time they shared a dorm. He replayed the day’s activities in his mind and wondered if that was more than just patchouli Marcus was burning.
Phillip smiled assuredly to himself, but he knew there was only one way to prove it. He plucked up the paper, took a deep breath and unfolded the picture. He looked down and his breath evaporated in a gasp. His heart leapt into his throat and choked back a scream before it could rise to his lips.
The specter on the lawn was fully formed now. His hands were still held outward, warding off some unknown terror that his eyes hinted with a horrified look. His hair was neatly cut. The face was clean-shaven and the mouth was hanging open in a silent scream. His T-shirt advocated he was a proud drinker of Mount Mitchell beer. The same beer Phillip drank, and the same shirt Philip was wearing.
The boy in the photograph looked exactly like Phillip.
Phillip flung the picture to the ground and clawed at the front of his Mount Mitchell shirt, as if shredding the thing would make the madness stop. As he pulled at the fabric, he found his voice and cried aloud. The scream came from the depths of his soul, but still did not express the terror he felt. Philip spied his cell phone in the grass where he had thrown it with the photo. He snatched it up and fumbled with it, desperate to find Sarah’s number. The first burst of hot tears streamed down his face as a flood of bright lights all at once blinded him.
“Thief!” a man yelled.
A silhouette sprung from the halo of lights and ran towards Phillip. The phone slipped from the boy’s fingers as the figure raised a baseball bat and charged forward. Phillip tried to react, but time seemed to creep along slowly, like a river of thick molasses. He lifted his terror-stricken eyes. He brought up his hands, and held them out, to ward off the oncoming attack. He opened his mouth to yell, but no sound came. An unspeakable horror seized Phillip as he recognized his final posture matched the ghostly Phillip in the photograph.
But it was too late to move.
Too late to take a different stance.
Too late to change what had already happened and was happening again.
The bat struck him hard across his head, with a loud crack that rolled from corner to corner of the quiet neighborhood. Phillip teetered on his weary legs for a few moments, and then fell with a soft thump onto the damp grass. His head gently rolled to one side as a thin stream of blood ran from his temple and down his face. His eyelids fluttered and gently closed.
Fred held the bat to one side, snarling and ready to strike again. There was no way a gun toting psychopath was going to kill his family. Not tonight. Not ever. It took him a moment to realize the psychopath wasn’t getting back up. Or that the weapon lying in the grass between them wasn’t a gun at all. It was the kid’s cell phone. He lifted the bat and gingerly poked the figure. The boy’s head lolled towards Fred and he was gripped by a wave of nausea when he recognized the blood-streaked face.
“Phillip?” he asked softly. There was no answer from the still form. “Aw, Phillip, what were you doing out here?”
“Fred?” his wife asked from the doorway. “What is going on?”
“I thought he was a burglar.” Fred motioned to the kid at his feet.
Nancy pulled her housecoat tighter and slipped out onto the lawn. “Is that Sarah’s boyfriend? Oh, my. He looks pretty hurt. You want me to call 911?”
“I’ll do it. You go back inside.” Fred tossed the bat to one side and stooped to grab up the kid’s phone, when a crumpled piece of paper caught his eye. He reached for it too and held it up to the lights. “Huh, this is weird.”
“What are you going on about?”
“He had this with him.” Fred passed the photograph to his wife.
Nancy stared at it a moment before she grunted. “Why does he have a picture of our front yard?”
“Maybe he likes my shrubs. There’s no telling with kids these days.” Fred looked at it once again, and shrugged. The phone in his hands began to buzz, as it emitted a loud and obnoxious reminder of the holiday season.
Happy Halloween! Happy Halloween!