It’s Spooky Season and time for a scary story, or at least another pulp-horror enterprise set in the same setting (albeit a different time and place) as the other Punk Fiction stories. This one is 5000 words, a but gorier than previous entries, and begins of a Halloween night…
A smudge of orange light still filled the western sky, shading to purple and then to black as the evening deepened. All around stretched a vast empty plain, turned now to shadow though only hours ago yellowed grass and sleepy rows of corn stretched to the horizon. All of that natural emptiness lay gone now, swallowed up by the night. Nothing remained but the cemetery.
It was not an old cemetery, not like the boneyards back home in Baltimore. Matt didn’t think he saw a date older than 1870 on any single headstone. But it was bounded by a square fence of black iron spikes and stood upon a lonely hilltop in the midst of the farmland all around, so it managed a spookiness appropriate for the season. The sloshing of beer cans, the quiet hum of conversation, and the acrid tang of cigarette smoke filling the air did much to dispel the spookiness, though.
A few well-placed lanterns provided some illumination, tucked up against headstones to throw their light upon the teenagers but not draw too much attention from the highway which lay less than half a mile distant down a narrow dirt road. Polk County’s finest probably had more important things to worry about this Halloween night than an impromptu get-together of the high school baseball team and their friends, but no one wanted to draw any undue attention either.
Matt looked around at the kids he had known for a little over two months now. They were finally beginning to accept him, after some light hazing and bullying. Big city kid from back east, coming out to this one-horse town in the middle of dairy country, with his Orioles cap and the enormous chip on his shoulder. Matt still wasn’t sure he liked any of them. He definitely didn’t care for sleepy, dull, inbred Lincoln, Wisconsin. He missed Baltimore, the energy, the people, the color. Decent Chinese food. A movie theater that showed more than the latest Disney flick. His friends.
He didn’t miss his father, though. And he couldn’t blame his mother for throwing their meager belongings into a van and escaping west one terrible night in August. He still felt some residual guilt for forcing her to make that decision. He was sixteen now, nearly full grown, he should have been able to stand up to the man. But he couldn’t, any more than she could, and so they fled. Where his mother got the van or the cash for gas and groceries on the way, Matt never found out. He felt a certain relief when they had put a thousand miles between them and that man, but still, he missed all the familiar, homey things he left behind in Maryland.
“You’re awfully quiet over there, Baltimore,” Christina Haywood said from Matt’s left. It still bothered him that the Lincoln kids insisted on pronouncing the “t,” but he had given up on correcting them. Not that he would ever try to correct Chrissie. He felt the heat of a blush darkening his cheeks. He hoped he was far enough in the shadows to make that impossible to see.
“Just thinking,” Matt said. He could barely get a full sentence out around her, and here Chrissie was sidling up to him in the dark in the cemetery. She wore a red jacket over a black t-shirt and jeans, with red converse sneakers. In the dark, Matt couldn’t see the red highlights in her long brown hair, hanging straight down to the middle of her back, but he could see the glint of her braces in the lantern light as she smiled at him.
“Want a beer?” she said.
Matt shook his head. Then realized the gesture was practically pointless. “I don’t drink,” he said.
“I don’t drink,” he said again, a little too sharply. He could feel her stare even if he couldn’t quite see it. He felt a sudden urge to explain, but stifled the words. This was neither the time nor the place.
Strangely, Chrissie settled down beside Matt on the headstone where he leaned. “That’s cool,” she said lightly. “You’re probably bored with our dumb ol’ farm party, anywhere. Back home I bet you go to nightclubs and have real fun.”
“I don’t… this is home, now. And no, I never really went out that much in Baltimore.”
“The library, sometimes. But nothing like this.”
Chrissie laughed breezily, but not at him. “So we’re finally showing the big city kid a good time?”
Matt allowed himself a smile. She had a nice laugh, and even if he couldn’t see them right now, he could imagine her dimples, which drove him crazy. “I guess so,” he said. “Is this it, though?”
Chrissie sipped her beer. “Whaddya mean? A couple brews, some stolen cigarettes, and a cemetery at night ain’t enough for you? I guess we could use a real fire. Its fucking cold out here. If Marney’s parents weren’t home, we’d be able to use her basement.”
“Its Halloween, though. Shouldn’t we be doing something a little more exciting?”
Chrissie looked at him sharply. “You want to go trick or treating, or looking for the Great Pumpkin, you go right ahead.” She slugged her beer. “But this is high school in Polk County right here, Baltimore.”
“No, nothing lame,” Matt said quickly. “I mean more fun. Back home the night before Halloween is when most of the Hell is raised, but we could get into some trouble tonight. Scare some kids. Huck eggs at the school. Go see a movie?”
“I’ve already seen Treasure Island three time.”
Matt nodded. “Yeah.”
Something flickered on the edge of Matt’s vision and he turned, looking westward, where only a sliver of orange remained. He saw flashes of lightning out on the plain. “What the hell?” Chrissie said, half rising. She saw it too.
Matt looked up. Clouds obscured the moon and the stars, contributing to the gloom, but there had been no forecast for rain. Even as the thunder rumbled across the landscape, he thought it late in the season for heat lightning.
The others noticed the thunder and chatter ceased. Jude and Otto stood up and walked towards the lightning, out of the small circle of light cast by the lanterns. Emily and Jane immediately leaned in towards one another and spoke quick, quiet sentences to one another, perhaps comparing notes on their respective partners. Eric reached into the cooler and pulled out two more beers for Ray and Charlie, while Charlie worked on rolling a cigarette. Everyone else was smoking Marlboros or Kools, but Charlie had to hand roll every one of his.
“You guys, come check this out,” Jude said, little more than a voice in the dark. “It’s like a fireworks show.”
Chrissie snorted and shook her head, which caused her hair to swirl around. Matt caught the scent of strawberries. He wiped suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans. Otherwise ignoring Jude and the lightning, Chrissie turned to Matt. “So what do you do at the library?”
She loosed a light chuckle and nudged him in the arm with an elbow. “You said you went to the library in Baltimore. Looking for what?”
“Um, history mostly. When I was little, my dad and I used to go visit Civil War and Revolutionary War sites and stuff. So I guess I got into that stuff. Hanging at the library reading up on old battles was more fun than sitting at home in front of the TV.”
“You don’t ever talk about your dad.”
Silence. If there were any insects about, this late in Autumn, Matt would have heard their hum. Even the thunder had subsided. Jude and Otto wandered back into the light and settled down beside Emily and Jane again, Otto wrapping his arm around Jane’s slim form.
“No,” Matt said, “I don’t.”
Chrissie coughed into her fist. “I, uh, look at art books. When I go to the library.”
“Is that so strange, Baltimore? You think a farm girl can’t appreciate art?”
Heat on his cheeks again. “No, I just, I don’t know. I didn’t expect that. It’s cool, though. My mom paints sometimes. Well, used to.”
“I paint a little,” Chrissie said. “My parents think it’s silly, I think, but I’m the youngest and so they have to indulge me, right? My older brothers give me a ton of shit about it. I don’t know why, it ain’t harming anybody, and I buy the paints with my own money.” She sipped her beer, looked at the can in the dark, and said low, “I should stop drinking.”
With his freshly rolled cigarette newly lit, Charlie chose that moment to approach. “Don’t go hogging the prettiest girl in the school now, Hood,” he said.
“Charles Harper, I swear to God,” Chrissie said loudly, standing up. Matt, uncertain, looked from the dark blur of Chrissie to the backlit form of Charlie. “Don’t be a dick.”
“I’m not being a dick, Chrissie. I’m just saying the new kid does not have dibs.”
“Nobody has fucking dibs, Charlie.” Chrissie stood, dropping her half full can of beer with a thump into the grass. “I am going to kick your ass.”
Charlie, grinning, held his hands up in mock surrender. Smoke curled up from his lips. “Anybody ever tell you you’re beautiful when you’re angry?”
Matt shifted on the headstone. He had to admit, now, that while he hadn’t made up his mind about most of the Polk County kids, he did like Chrissie Haywood. But he definitely did not care for Charlie Harper. The others noticed the commotion and there were groans and moans from them. “Are they at it again?” Emily said.
So there was history. Matt suddenly wished he was anywhere but here, even back at Uncle Peter’s house with his mom. That would be a lamer Halloween than this, but it would also be a less painful one. Probably.
“Hey, hey,” Jude said loudly. “Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up! There’s somebody out there.”
Everyone froze for a moment. Eric and Ray both reached for the cooler at the same time and banged their heads together. Emily and Jane sprang up and dragged Otto to his feet so they could stand behind him. Charlie looked in the direction of Jude, while Chrissie stared straight ahead at Charlie. Matt could just barely see her fine brows drawn sharply and felt suddenly better. She looked genuinely angry.
Then all attention turned to the figure stepping out of the darkness, moving stiffly like Boris Karloff in lead shoes. Jude shuffled backward, almost bumping into Otto and the girls, while Ray surreptitiously picked up the cooler and shoved it behind a headstone.
Matt expected Sheriff Johansen or maybe one of the other kid’s parents to be the one crashing the party, most likely to put an end to the primitive festivities, but he felt a surge of painful embarrassment when he realized it was none other than Uncle Peter.
“Mr. Kowalski?” Jude said, clearly dumbfounded.
Uncle Peter was the AgScience teacher at the regional high school where they all played on the baseball team. Everyone knew him by sight. Tall, broad shouldered and ruddy skinned, with hair like straw and a broad, placid face, he looked vaguely bovine. Matt knew that some of the students would mispronounce his uncle’s name as “Mr. Cowalski” sometimes, but he pretended that didn’t bother him. And now he was here, putting a premature end to any chance Matt might have had to become one of the cool kids at this backwoods school.
Through his own embarrassment, Matt began to register some odd things. Uncle Peter stood stiffly, a pained expression on his visage as he slowly scanned the crowd before him. He wore a strange coat of green scales that hung down to mid-thigh. The handle of some kind of weapon jutted over his left shoulder and a broad strap wound around his chest. In his right hand, Uncle Peter held an enormous, silver plated automatic pistol. He looked pale and beads of sweat formed on his forehead despite the chill in the air.
“What. The. Fuck,” Charlie Harper said, the hand-rolled cigarette falling from his mouth. Sparks scattering in the yellow grass at his feet.
Matt stood up. “Uncle Peter?” he said.
Peter’s thick neck rotated and his big brown eyes widened as he recognized his nephew. “Matt? You… you kids have got to get out of here. Now!” His voice lacked strength, though, the last word coming out only a little louder than a whisper. Then Uncle Peter dropped to his knees. He swayed. A big shovel like paw came up to wipe his forehead. His eyes rolled back, showing the whites, and Uncle Peter fell face forward into the grass.
Matt saw two things, then. The weapon strapped across his back was some kind of sword. And another weapon was plunged to the hilt in his uncle’s right shoulder blade.
No one moved, least of all Matt. Everyone stood in a ragged circle, staring at the man laid out in the grass. Matt’s eyes locked on the handle of the knife jammed into his uncle’s shoulder. A dark stain slowly spread across Uncle Peter’s back, wet and red. Matt felt like he was standing outside himself as his feet began to move, approaching his fallen uncle. He watched as his hand reached out and touched the handle jutting upward. And suddenly he was back in his body again, as his fingers recoiled from the icy surface of the weapon.
Almost as if a spell was broken, the others began talking all at once. Jude admonished Matt not to touch anything. Jane started crying and Emily urged her to shut up. Charlie babbled about calling the cops, while Chrissie told him it would take too long. Eric and Ray argued over who should hide the beers.
Matt swallowed the thickness growing in his throat and placed his hand on Uncle Peter’s shoulder. He felt a slight movement. The man was still breathing. Matt looked up at Jude and Otto. “You have to help me get him to the car.”
Otto just stared but Jude nodded. “Right,” he said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t try moving him,” said a new voice, deep and raspy, with a hint of a strange accent. Another figure materialized out of the gloom, just behind Jane and Emily. Both girls screamed and scrambled around to the other side of Otto, spinning him around to once again put him between them and any potential danger. Jude made a half turn, keeping one eye on Matt or Uncle Peter.
The new guy looked like he’d escaped from a carnival or boardwalk. He was naked from the waist up, lightly muscled, with a shaved head and an enormous bristling beard. He wore green canvas pants and leather sandals that showed thick, yellowed toenails. Every exposed inch of his skin was etched with ink, even his lips and eyelids. Strange patterns and images crawled across his flesh, words in foreign languages, bizarre monsters and ghostly people, geometric patterns and shapes, and all of it blending into an eerie arrangement that was part Escher and part Dali.
“Who are you?” Jude said.
“That’s not important,” the man said, waving a hand lightly. “It’s a shame that Fafnir wandered over toward your light. Poor idiot.”
“You did this,” Matt said, gesturing at the blade in his uncle’s back.
The man laughed. “You watch too much television, little man.”
Matt felt Chrissie crouch down beside him and risked a glance in her direction. Those brows remained drawn and there was a glint of something dangerous in her eyes and the set of her jaw. “We need to get out of here,” she said in a whisper.
“I can’t leave Peter,” Matt said.
“No one is going anywhere,” the man said, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. It looked like he wore gloves, the tattoos were so thickly drawn on his hands.
Jude pointed a finger. “I think we outnumber you, and you seem to have lost your knife.”
The man smiled, teeth as yellowed as his toes. “I don’t need a knife for you brats. I have a friend of my own.” Behind him, the darkness moved. Something vast and sinuous wavered just over his shoulder. Dozens of small round red lights appeared, glittering like brake lights in the dark, arranged in a vaguely circular shape.
The tattooed man snapped his fingers and sheets of greenish flames erupted around the cemetery, bounded by the iron fence. The light from the flames illuminated the entire area with an eldritch glow, fully revealing the thing. It hung in the air, the body twenty feet long at least, thick as a tree trunk and black as night. The huge knobby head appeared featureless save for the dozens of red glowing eyes ringing it. As everyone watched in fascinated horror, the thing extended a ring of long rubbery tenticular limbs, blossoming like the petals of some demonic flower.
One tentacle snapped out, quick as a whip, and wrapped around Jude’s neck. In another instant, Jude’s head popped off like the cork of a champagne bottle. A geyser of blood erupted from his shattered neck and his body fell in a heap. The man began to laugh, a raspy, throaty chuckle.
Otto grabbed Emily and Jane and shoved them both behind a headstone. A tentacle wrapped around his left leg and lifted him easily into the air. The thing brought Otto up close to examine him with its red eyes before casually tossing him, screaming, into the air. Otto disappeared into the night.
Charlie dove behind another headstone. A tentacle flew out, missing Charlie but shattering the top of the stone in a spray of granite chips. Eric tried to find cover as well, but Ray just stood there crying and babbling. The thing reared up, tentacles lashing as if tasting the air, while the tattooed man continued to laugh.
And Matt sat hunched over his dying uncle, frozen, unable to act. Beside him Chrissie dove for Peter’s right hand and managed to wrench the strange looking pistol from limp fingers. She rose to one knee and raised the heavy weapon with both hands. One eye closed as she aimed carefully. A deafening boom echoed across the cemetery. Chrissie’s arms shot upward from the recoil and she almost fell over.
A small hole the size of a dime appeared in the tattooed man’s forehead, just above his left eye. The back of his head exploded with a belch of green fire, splattering the thing behind him with viscera. Horribly, the man still stood, left eye a gooey mess but the right eye focusing on Chrissie with a malevolent gleam. His tattooed lips moved and the thing shifted its attention from the kids trying to hide. To Chrissie.
Chrissie brought her arms back down and sighted again. Matt felt strength flow back into his frozen limbs and he sprang, throwing himself at Chrissie and knocking her aside as a tentacle flew by overhead. The gun went off, the shot going wild.
“Fuck!” Chrissie said as Matt dragged her backwards behind a headstone. “I had him!”
“You what?” Matt said, incredulous.
“I aimed for the head, like a zombie, but maybe the heart?” she said. “Like a vampire?”
A tentacle wrapped around the headstone they hid behind and wrenched it free from the ground. Matt tucked his arm around Chrissie and picked her up, throwing them both back towards his uncle as the headstone crashed into the ground behind them, shattering into pieces.
Chrissie wrenched herself out of Matt’s grip and aimed the pistol at the tattooed man again. Why she wasn’t shooting at the thing, Matt didn’t understand, It floated by overhead, banking in the air like a shark in the water. It still held part of the headstone in one tentacle. Others snaked out in various directions to harry the other kids, and Matt realized that all those eyes could see everywhere at once. And its long arms could reach everywhere as well.
Without thinking, he grabbed once more at the blade sticking into his uncle’s back. The cold burned his hand as he wrenched the knife free. The metal curved like a snake’s coils and glittered with his uncle’s blood. It was heavy and cold and nothing like a baseball, but Matt hurled it all the same, with all the accuracy of long practice. The knife buried itself in one of those red eyes and the thing recoiled.
Beside him, Chrissie sighted down the barrel of the gun, ignoring both Matt and the thing. She pulled the trigger. Another loud boom echoed through the cemetery and her body rocked against Matt. The bullet tagged the tattooed man in the left shoulder, tearing off a meaty chunk in another green flash. His mouth worked, face dribbling with gore, and he pointed a finger at Chrissie.
A sizzling beam of cold light flashed from that extended finger. It missed Chrissie by a hairsbreadth, but she howled all the same. A scorched line appeared on her jacket.
Tentacles smashed the earth around them. Chrissie almost fell over, but managed to keep her balance. Matt, already on his knees, looked up in horror and saw the thing right above them. Then a cold burning encircled his thigh and he felt himself wrenched upward. Matt tried to grab something to anchor himself, but his right hand only fell upon the sword strapped to his uncle’s back. As he was lifted into the air, the blade came free.
Chrissie fell backward and aimed up at the thing finally. She fired once, then twice, but the magic green fire bullets seemed to pass harmlessly through it.
Hoisted upside down, with cold flames etching themselves into his thigh, Matt looked into the red unblinking eyes of the thing. It seemed to examine him, much as it had Otto. Matt got his first good look at the thing, though even now his eyes refused to fully focus upon it. It looked immaterial and shadowy, though it felt real enough, and the edges of it seemed to fade away into the air, as if it wasn’t really there. Or not made of solid matter.
Matt looked away from the eyes and at the tentacle holding him suspended. Black and rubbery, it was as thick as his thigh and immensely strong. Blood rushed to Matt’s head and he felt as though his leg might separate where the tentacle held it. But the solid weight of the sword in his hand lent him strength. He swung upward, shoulders screaming, and the blade sheared through the tentacle as if it wasn’t there. Startled, Matt still managed to twist in the air so that he didn’t land on his head.
He thumped down face first, all the air blasted from his lungs. The sword spilled from his fingers. The severed tentacle thrashed on the ground beside him. Overhead the thing reeled, ichor spraying from its wound.
Chrissie grabbed Matt with her free hand and wrenched him to his feet. She shoved him behind one of the remaining headstones as he fought to catch his breath. Another sizzling beam of light whipped past them. The tattooed man lurched forward on unsteady legs, his remaining eye focused on Chrissie and Matt.
Then Chrissie did something really crazy. She kissed Matt right on the lips. She stood up, the gun in both hands, and took careful aim. Matt sucked in his first full breath, feeling his lungs expand, and he struggled to his feet as well.
This time her aim held true. The magic bullet caught the tattooed man right in the chest, knocking him off his feet. He did not rise.
Matt grabbed the back of Chrissie’s jacket and yanked her backward, just as a tentacle swept by that would have torn her in two. They tumbled backward. Matt banged his shoulder and head against a tombstone. The gun went flying into the darkness.
The thing cruised by overhead, but the greenish flames began to die. The thing melded into the night, save for the glittering eyes. Matt saw the eyes loop around the edge of the cemetery and begin to circle back.
“Matt.” Uncle Peter’s voice, weak, barely audible. On all fours, Matt approached his uncle. His right knee bumped something and he reached down to discover the hilt of the sword he had dropped. He held on to it as he continued to his uncle’s side.
Peter’s face was a pale blur in the gloom and his skin felt clammy when Matt laid a hand upon his cheek. “Uncle Peter, are you okay?”
The big man reached up and gripped the front of Matt’s t-shirt with surprising strength. He pulled Matt down, close enough to hear him. “Belt pouch,” Peter said. “Vial. Throw at spider goblin. Only chance.” His grip loosened and Peter slumped back, eyes open but unseeing. Matt felt a solid weight form in his chest and he could not help a sob escaping.
“Matt!” Chrissie shouted. Matt turned away from his uncle to see Chrissie huddling against a headstone while overhead hovered the glowing red eyes of the thing. Dark tendrils tasted the air. The thing seemed less eager, less active, now that the tattooed man lay dead. But Matt didn’t sense any less danger.
His hands swept down Peter’s sides, feeling the ridged scales of his jacket, to find his belt and seek for the pouch in the dark. As it turned out, Uncle Peter had a number of pouches, and the first things Matt pulled out were a spare clip for the pistol and a pair of road flares. He popped a road flare open and tossed it up and away, over where he though the vast shadowy bulk of the thing floated, but his aim was off. The flare bounced off its flank and rolled into the grass.
The eyes focused on Matt and began to drift closer. Matt loosed another involuntary sob. He watched the thing approach even as his fingers dug blindly. He unbuttoned another pouch and slipped his fingers inside, feeling something smooth and cold. Matt pulled it free and, not daring to look away from the thing drawing near, held it up to his eyes. In the dim light from the flare and the remaining lantern, he saw a small glass vial that appeared to be filled with puffs of purple smoke.
With the sword in one hand and the vial in the other, Matt stood up. His legs felt shaky, one thigh screaming in pain, but he forced himself to stay upright. The thing reared up and over him, looping its long body overhead. Dozens of tentacles floated down like willow branches to drift over him, almost but not quite touching. Matt could see it now, a blotch of deeper darkness against the black sky, sinuous like a snake and covered in ridges of undulating cilia. The eyes were hard unblinking disks, glowing softly. Tentacles extended outward from and receded into its trunk, seeming to expand and contract almost like breathing. But a great many tentacles remained at all times, coiling and waving about.
Matt raised the sword in his right hand and struck out at the nearest tentacle, shearing it off completely. Ichor sprayed the ground and splattered his chest. The thing shrank back momentarily and then exploded, a dozen tentacles flying at Matt all at once. He spun the sword in a wide arc before him, cutting through the weird flesh of the creature with appalling ease, and then his left hand snapped forward and sent the vial flying, straight for the center mass of its massive, bulbous, many-eyed head.
The vial shattered just as a tentacle connected with Matt’s chest and sent him flying, several ribs broken, to carom off a shattered headstone. The sword once again spilled from his hands and he was left sprawled, wounded, and wide open. He looked up expecting to see the thing upon him. But Uncle Peter had been true to his word.
The glass shattered upon the thing’s flesh and the puff of violet gas escaped. Instead of drifting away, the gas clung to the thing and flowed over it. As it did, the flesh began to bubble and dissolve. The thing convulsed, tentacles thrashing, smashing the earth and headstones and waving uselessly in the air. The sinuous body coiled around itself, as the creature balled up in a vain attempt to escape the gas. The violet smoke washed over the whole thing and then floated away, up into the sky, leaving nothing behind.
The world grew brighter as the hissing of the road flare approached. Chrissie appeared overhead, holding the flare in one hand. Her face was smeared with dirt and tears. A shallow, bloody cut traced across her forehead and there was blood on her lips as well. But she was beautifully alive.
Matt blinked and struggled to breathe. He felt an enormous weight on his chest and tasted copper on his tongue. “You’re alive,” he said.
“So are you,” Chrissie said. “I need you to stay that way, Baltimore. I don’t think I can carry you to the car, so you’re going to have to help me.”
“You go. Get help. I’ll just lie here until you get back.”
“I am not walking back to the car by myself in the dark, you asshole.” She gripped his arms and tugged him into a sitting position. He cried out as something in his chest shifted. “Are you okay? Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Matt said. He spat a wad of blood into the grass. “Give me a sec.” She did. He breathed slowly, deeply. Finally, he said, “Okay. On three?”
She lifted him to his feet on three. He didn’t cry out that time, but only because he forced himself. Together, supporting one another, they began to limp out of the cemetery, down the dirt road and back to the cars.