“What used to scare you when you were small?”
Garret Weldon asked his seven schoolmates, sitting cross-legged in a circle around a large pumpkin-scented candle on the floor of his den. The lights were off, save for tastefully-hung orange LED string lights around the windows, doorframe, and fireplace mantle. For those around the votive candle, this was tradition. Since time immemorial, they and the rest of their graduating class would congregate each year at the home of Garret and his sister Erin, for what was once called the Halloween Hoedown. It sounded cool back when they were in elementary school, but as time went on, the gathering was reverently called The Party. Each species of student would set aside their differences and celebrate together the way they did back before whatever divisive social platitude drove them from one another. Everyone was welcome. This year’s celebration was different, however—bittersweet—as the partygoers were now seniors of Gravenfrost High. This was it, the last hurrah. By the time Garret and the others sat in their sacred circle, the evening’s festivities were drawing to a close, and those who hadn’t left, passed out, hooked up, or plummeted invariably into radioactive teenage drama, felt it apropos to close it down with some scary stories.
“Clowns, man—oh! And mall Easter Bunnies.” Karl stated as he reflexively fingered the frets of his acoustic guitar with his left hand, and popped candy corn into his mouth with his other. “Maybe I’m thinking of Mall Santas…” he shrugged. The myriad of band and novelty pins that adorned his ratty leather jacket (which he rarely took off regardless of the weather) made a tinny jangle, like the world’s crappiest windchimes.
“Thank you, Karl…” Garret said with a tinge of disappointment. “Who wants to go next?”
“Think about it, man…” Karl continued. “Every picture across the country has the same guy in it!”
“You mean Santa?” Marko, Karl’s best friend and second half of their band Honkus, guffawed. The others in the circle joined in the laughter, causing Karl to blush in the candlelight.
“No, douche whistle—I mean the guy in the Santa suit, okay? My cousin Jessie is like, super old, right? Born in the nineteen eighties, right? There’re pictures of him and his sister on this sus Santa-guy’s lap, okay? Here’s the nut-kicker: my dad’s co-worker’s neighbor’s kid’s cousin has the same picture! And they live in Michigan! Same Santa with the same square, serial killer glasses!”
“So, you think the mall Santa was a serial killer?” Perry Matthews chuckled, cocking an eyebrow over the thick rim of his glasses. He unironically wore the same costume as the year before—black skinny jeans, work boots hastily painted to look like Converse sneakers, and a pumpkin-orange tee-shirt that read Don’t laugh; your mom made me this costume. He was one of the few partygoers who came dressed up.
“That, or maybe they shuffle the Santas around like diddler-priests…” Karl furrowed his brow to try and emulate deep thought.
“And furthermore, why does your dad’s neighbor have a picture of kids from Michigan?” Perry continued his conspirative scrutiny.
“Co-worker’s neighbor.” Karl corrected, and flicked a candy corn at Perry. It bounced off his cheek and nearly landed in the votive candle. “And nobody says furthermore anymore.”
“I just did—and don’t throw that crap at me. Candy corn is the trailer trash of the candy world.”
“Pssh! You only say that because your pallet is devoid of sophistication, Perry.” Karl placed the tip of the candy to his lips and slowly sucked it in.
“Your uncle teach you that?” Perry blurted reflexively, triggering a small ruckus, and pang of panic bloomed in his gut. Maybe he took it too far. Karl was usually a jovial goofball, but if there was one thing that could set him off it was talking smack about his family.
“Naw, Per’, your momma did.” Karl responded to even more laughter. Insult had been met with insult. Though the law dictated that one must retaliate with an escalated rebuke if one’s mother was invoked, it was the perfect opportunity to bury the proverbial hatchet.
All eyes were on Perry. The candle flame flickered across his glasses as he calculated his response. “Meh.” he shrugged. Good enough.
“Can we please focus?” Garret groaned. “Maria—do you have anything that used to scare you when you were a kid?”
“I guess it…maybe a couple of things…” Maria began. She sat with her knees pulled to her chest, and the sleeves of her bulky, black sweater draped around them like folded bat wings. Her bright purple hair spilled haphazardly from the black wool cap she tucked it into. She played with the buckles on her big, goth boots as she stared into the candlelight. “When I used to visit my grandparents in Romania, I remember always being scared to death of their well. My grandma used to warn me not to get too close—to watch out for the current.”
“Current in a well? What kind of wells they got in Romania?” asked Duncan Russell—aka Diamond D—halfback for Gravenfrost High’s football team, The Ghouls, and also Garret’s best friend. He wore his red and black football uniform, complete with pads, and helmet with its grinning ghoul head logo, still dirty from practice earlier that day.
“The wells in their village were connected by an underground kind of river. More than a just a stream, I guess. Anyway, sometimes they would have me fetch water, so I’d slowly scoot my way to the well, hearing the water getting louder every step. PSHSSSSH—FWAWOOOOSHHHHPSSHH—whatever, you know how rushing water sounds. I would nudge the wooden bucket off the ledge of the well, and jump back in case I’d, you know, get caught by the rope. It was so stupid of me, really. There’s no chance of getting snagged if I used the pully to slowly lower it down, you know? Whatever, though, I was young, so whatever. I remember hearing voices in the well. Like whispers, or screams from a TV with the volume real low. So, naturally, I have to look. I swear I saw faces in the current, just—wooshing by.”
“That must have been terrifying!” Garret stated then exhaled sharply.
“That’s not even half of it,” Maria continued. “I would sleepwalk sometimes…”
“To the well?” Carina (sitting to Garret’s right, dressed in a simple, black outfit, with a Dead Sled Brand™ Hearse Driver’s Union logo tee) chimed in on the pause.
“Yeah,” agreed Maria. “Sometimes I would wake up to my grandma yelling to come back. But one time… One time I woke up staring down at the dark, rushing water. There were hands in the mist below. Hands and whispers.” Maria stared into the candle, lost in memory.
“I just got goosebumps!” Dani stated, rubbing their arms. The black and white striped sweater (they went as Mr. Rogers imagined by Tim Burton) did little to suppress the creeping chill.
“One morning…” Maria began again, though this time she sounded uneasy. “I woke up in bed—soaking wet. My grandma said I must have stood in the shower while I was sleeping, but that didn’t explain why there was mud in the bed.”
“You think you went in the well? Or…something came out?” Marko asked with apprehension.
“I don’t really know, to be honest. But what I do know is grandpa made a lid for the well the next day. With a lock. And a bell. The sleepwalking stopped after that. Another thing that scared me as a kid, was my grandfather’s boots, and his axe. He had these huge rain boots that he would clomp around the yard in, and the axe was for firewood, obviously, but the combination of the two would just freak me out and I don’t know why.”
“Phobic transmigration.” A voice called from the shrouded couch at the far side of the room, startling everyone. It was Alison, laying in repose, dressed as Neil Gaiman’s Death.
“Jeeezus, mi amor!” Marko hollered to his girlfriend. “We forgot you were there!”
“Smooth, man.” Karl nodded with a thumbs up.
Duncan removed his helmet and set it in the nook between his crisscrossed legs. “What exactly is a phobic trans-whatsis?”
“Fear that is passed down genetically.” Alison stated as she adjusted herself on the couch to face the circle. The orange string lights reflected across her glasses like soft, autumnal grins. “It’s why humans still fear the dark, or the bark of a big dog. Nobody told you there were sharp claws and eager teeth beyond the firelight, but you know better than to go running off.”
“What does that have to do with boots and an axe?” Perry asked, both intrigued and skeptical.
“Someone in Maria’s bloodline must have been brutally murdered by a boot-wearing axe murderer.” Alison shrugged as though it was plain as day.
“I don’t think that tracks, Ali,” Perry said, crunching the numbers in his head. “Say her great-great grandpappy got chopped up by a lumberjack one day…it would have had to have been after he donked great-great grandma. Right? Otherwise, there’d be no genes to migrate. And by that point…the fear or whatever wouldn’t have gotten into the bloodline.”
“Trauma doesn’t have to be experienced firsthand.” Alison stated. “There’s a thing called ‘sympathetic trauma’, where an individual experiences trauma simply by hearing about it. My therapist says it’s pretty common. So okay, maybe he was being stalked by boot-wearing axe murderer…”
“Your therapist?” Karl asked while popping the tab to a contraband IPA. “Oh! Or maybe grannie was getting railed, right? And just as grandpa was about to nut, he gets his head chopped off by some jealous lover boy in clunky rain boots! Gramps gushes in her! On her! Everywhere! Spooky spooge goes in—terror gets coded in the DNA—bingo bango, you got phonic transbabulation!” Karl raised his beer can in victory then took several large gulps. His belch was triumphant.
“If he was struck from behind, I don’t think he would have even known what happened.” Dani proposed. Oh, but I guess the fear could be grannie’s then.”
“We are way the hell off topic here.” Garret groaned and popped the tab on his own contraband.
“My science is sound,” Alison asserted. She sat up and glared, then suddenly something caught her eye. “Garret, there’s…people in the window…” All eyes darted to the window where three silhouetted figures peered in. Their heads were misshapen—jagged or bulbous—with two glowing, unblinking pinpricks of red. Garret grumbled and moved to the window in one large hop and slapped it as hard as he could without breaking the glass or hurting his hand. The dark faces darted from view.
“Friggin’ Stevie.” He grunted as he returned to his spot in the circle. “Little brothers suck. Don’t have little brothers.”
“Aren’t you Erin’s little brother?” Maria laughed. “Where is she anyway?”
“Don’t know—don’t care.” Garret said before taking a mouthful of beer. “Alison, your turn. What scared you when you were a little?”
“I guess my dad, you know, when he was drinking.” She answered with a practiced resolve.
“Was there something that wasn’t your asshole dad that scared you? Something supernatural?”
“Since there’s a scientific explanation behind each and every supernatural incident—and I’m a woman of science—no. Only people scare me. People suck.”
Garret shrugged. Even if something did in fact frighten Alison, she would never in a million years admit it. “What about you, Carina? What was your thing?”
“Mrs. Crawly.” Carina whispered, staring into the candle flame.
“Who, or what was Mrs. Crawly?”
“My neighbor. She’d—when I was like, ten, I guess—she’d get into the house and just…stand at the end of the hallway.”
“Daaaaamn, that’s creepy! What was it, dementia or something?” Duncan put his helmet back on for protection.
“N-no…” Carina’s voice began to shudder. “Maybe at, like, first.”
“How’d she get in? She had a key? I know my neighbors have a key to my place. We have theirs too.” Dani asked, trying to work away a new batch of goosebumps.
“No, couldn’t have been that. We got our key back after…”
“After what?” asked Marko.
“After she died.” Carina took a slow, deep breath in through her nose and held it for several beats before slowly pushing it out of her mouth, like she did passing graveyards when she was young.
“Wait,” Perry said with his hands up, fingers splayed. “Wait-wait-wait…wait. You made it sound like this was going on after…you know…she bit it.”
Carina still peered at the dancing flame. The air outside the circle grew colder. Those in attendance (except for Alison) moved a bit closer to the pumpkin-scented candle and to each other. Phobic Transmigration (if such a thing existed) was at work. “About a week or so after the funeral, I finished brushing my teeth one night, and I was about to get into bed to read. You know the set up of my house, right? My room is at the end of the upstairs hallway. From my bed I can see straight down to the stairs at the other end. Bathroom to the right of the hall, and my brother’s…old room to the left. So, yep, I finished brushing my teeth and whatnot, and I get into bed to read. I have the nightstand lamp on and everything is normal as can be. I settled with my back against the wall with my knees pulled up under the blanket. I get cozy, and start reading.”
“What book?” Karl asked, causing everyone to scoff or suck their teeth.
“That’s not important!” Marko barked and backhanded his bandmate in the shoulder. “She was getting to the good shit, man!”
“Tryin’ to really visualize the scene, Marko! God!” Karl threw his hands up in defeat.
“Anyway…” Carina regained her verbal footing. “There’s a creak coming from the bottom of the stairs. Then another. Chills shoot up my spine and down my arms. It’s either my mom or my dad coming to check in on me, I tell myself. There were only the two creaks and nothing more, and I don’t know how I rationalized it away, but I went back to my book. I heard two more creaks, then another pause. I put the book down and stared down the hall. Over the edge of the stairs, I saw the top half of her head. Staring. At me. I remember starting to panic, and searching through my nightstand drawer for the flashlight I have for power outages and, you know, late night trips to the bathroom. The lamp began to flicker, and I looked down the hallway and saw her standing there.”
“What did she look like?” Maria asked in a whisper.
“Just a shadow—a silhouette,” Carina replied. “But I knew it was her. Mrs. Crawly. She had come back for whatever freaking reason, and just stood there with her head tilted to the side, and her fingers spread out and twitching. I tried to call out to my parents, but all I could manage was a squeak. It was like someone turned the volume way down on my voice. Where the hell was that flashlight? I kept thinking. I figured once I found it, the batteries would be dead or some crap like that—typical horror bullshit. I should say, if I found it. I didn’t want to take my eyes off of her, but if I didn’t find the flashlight before the lamp went out, I knew I was done for. It was flickering so much at that point, there was no doubt she had something to do with it. Then it hit me: the flashlight was between the bed and the nightstand! I had set it there for whatever sleepy-brain reason a while back, and all I had to do was reach it. So, slowly, I slid my hand in the space between the bed and the nightstand, never taking my eyes of Mrs. Crawly, who was slowly lowering herself on all fours like some kind of animal, and she started to make a clicking, creaking, groaning-type sound. My finger hit the flashlight’s handle and it rolled under the bed. At that point, her groaning got louder and louder and it was getting harder for me to move. I had to do something. I just knew I had to get a light on her. Don’t ask me why, but it was just something that I knew in my gut. Mrs. Crawly rushed down the hallway at me with her arms and legs moving wild.”
“She was…crawling?” Garret asked nervously.
Carina nodded. “She was Mrs. Crowley before she died, and…”
“Mrs. Crawly after.” Duncan shivered.
“I dropped to the floor and shoved my upper body under the bed. I grabbed the flashlight, turned it on, and pointed it at the doorway. There, at the foot of my bed, were her two rotted feet. She just stood there, like she did by the stairs. I didn’t know what to do, so slid the rest of the way under the bed, and started to bang the floor as hard as I could. That horrible noise she was making got even louder, and he lifted one foot—her left, I think—off the ground and up onto the bed. Then the other foot. Her weight caused the mattress to come down a bit. I knew she was laying right above me. The sound she made got so loud I could barely think! I just kept pounding and pounding my fist against the floor, hoping that someone was still freaking alive in the house. I heard the sound of footsteps coming from downstairs. My parents came running up the stairs, throwing the hallway light on. The bulb shattered the same time the one in my lamp did. My parents ran into my room and kept asking if I was alright, and what happened and all that, and I told them. Right then and there, I told them everything even though I knew they would think it was just PTSD or something, from all the times Crawly came when she was alive.”
“I would have taken the key back a long-damn-time before all of that!” Duncan said. “Wouldn’t wait for some crazy bitch to die first. I wake up and she’s standing in my hallway? Hell no and no thank you—kindly hand me that key and good luck with your scary ass!” the group laughed, relieving a bit of the tension. Something occurred to him, suddenly—a recollection—one that Duncan had successfully bottled-up and tucked away for some time. “Oh…boy…” he whispered. No one noticed.
“Did your parents believe you?” Marko asked.
“My dad didn’t, but my mom kind of did. Dad had me start therapy, and my mom set up some crystal protection-thing around my room. One or both of them worked, because I never saw her again. Still can’t figure out how no one else heard all that noise, though. It was like, movie theater loud.”
“Fear Eaters.” Alison stated from her darkened perch.
“How did I know you would have an answer?” Karl said, rolling his eyes.
“Because you’re just smart enough to know that research is my drug.”
“I don’t know how you do it, man…” Karl shook his head at Marko, who returned the gesture with a meek grimace.
“No tengo idea de cómo.” He whispered.
“What’s a fear eater? Do you think Mrs. Crawly is—was one?” Carina pulled her knees tight to her chest.
“Everything is energy…” Alison began. “You, me, candy corn, garbage guitarists, and ghosts—all energy. Thing about ghosts is that they don’t have bodies to utilize their energy like we do to manipulate the world around us. They have to pull energy into themselves to do just about anything. You know how, like, a room drops in temperature just before something scary happens in a movie, or a ghost hunt video? Or the batteries in a fully-charged camera suddenly die? That’s them.”
“But you called it a fear eater,” Perry said. “Batteries don’t feel fear. Or do they? Mwahahaha” he attempted his best evil laugh.
“What are batteries full of, Perry? En-er-gy…” Alison enunciated the last word slowly and nodded. She pulled her glasses off to check the lenses against the candle light and huffed at the smudges. She set the glasses back on her face with a defeatist shrug. “What happens when we feel fear? Our senses get sharper, our heart rate goes up, our skin even prickles. Everything is turned up to a survival level, even if it was a short jump scare. In other words, we practically throw energy out like confetti. A ghost eats it up and gets to play. If it’s a lingering, slow-burn type of fear? Even better! Sweaty palms, nervous shakes, the absolute dread of turning off a light. That’s like a refrigerator that’s never empty. Jump scares are good for a boost, but if you want to really haunt someone—start small.”
“Where in the hell did you learn all this?” Duncan asked, his eyes wide with a mix of fascination and terror.
“I read a lot. Books, internet, whatever I can. I studied Ed and Lorraine Warren’s work extensively.”
“The Conjuring people?” Garret asked. Alison nodded.
“Yeah, and you know the FBI guy who blew up The Devil’s Domicile? I follow him on Twitter.”
“How does the energy thing explain why nobody could hear me?” Carina asked with a twinge of urgency.
“It’s a trick—the Warrens talk about it a lot, actually. Though they’re usually talking about demon infestations. I guess ghosts can do it too.”
“Do what exactly?” asked Duncan. “What’s the trick?”
“Like an energy manipulation. Creating a wall of silence and isolation around the haunted. I don’t know how exactly, but it’s always mentioned in hauntings one way or another.”
“You said you don’t believe in ghosts earlier,” Perry stated. “Why are you suddenly talking like you do?”
“I never said I didn’t believe in ghosts, Per’. I believe in things based in scientific fact.”
“Yeah, but science hasn’t proven the existence of ghosts.”
“But it has proven the existence of energy, and that’s what I believe a ghost really is: our human energy without a container.”
Well, not that it’ll be easy to follow that spooky shit, but who’d like to go next?” Garret opened another beer and offered it to Carina, who shook her head no. “Marko?”
“What scared me as a kid? Shit, man, that would have to be El Cuco.” Marko held out his hand towards Garret’s fresh beer. Garret obliged and pulled another from the Styrofoam cooler.
“That’s the boogeyman, right?” Garret asked, passing the can over. Marko popped the tab and took a gulp.
“Yeah, man, pretty much. My mom used to sing this screwed up nursery rhyme when she tucked me and my sisters into bed. It went…Duérmete niño, duérmete ya… Que viene El Cuco y te comerá.”
“Bruh!” Karl swatted at Marko’s arm excitedly. “We should start a song with that! Like—like all spooky and shit. That would slap!” Karl worked his fingers across the guitar frets like a conjuror summoning a riff.
“What did it mean?” asked Maria.
“Basically, that we should go to bed and behave or we’ll get eaten.” Marko shrugged. “El Cuco has a taste for bad children. If they don’t behave, he comes in the night and drags them off to Carajo Land.”
“Did you have any encounters?” Garret asked.
“Nah,” laughed Marko. “Shit’s not real. If it was, I would have been Cuco shit a long time ago.” The group let out a collective sigh—some relieved, some disappointed. “Besides, nobody scarier than my mom when she gets pissed!”
“You okay, D?” Garret noticed his friend’s shaking hands.
“Oh! Y-yeah… I…yeah. Carina’s crawling, ghost-lady reminded me something that had me shaking for years!” Duncan knocked on his helmet three times as he regained a bit of composure. “Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. I honestly think I blocked it from my memory.” He removed the helmet and set it on the floor to his right, then immediately picked it back up and nestled it on this lap and nervously tapped it. He began to sweat.
“You sure you’re okay?” Carina asked, placing her hand on his shoulder pad.
“Yeah, Carina, I’m—I’m just kinda there again, you know?”
“Where again?” Perry chimed in. “You haven’t actually said anything.”
“The Asylum…” Duncan began. “Some of you know my dad works there. He’s a physical therapist… and not at the hospital part (well, sometimes), but mainly in the building for crazies.”
“Insensitive phrasing.” Alison stated from the darkness.
“Whatever, Ali,” Duncan sucked his teeth. “Anyway, so one day—I must have been like, seven or eight—my dad comes home from work and I’m doing my homework or watching cartoons or some shit, and he says he forgot something in his office. He asks if I wanna go, and I’m like, go see where dad works? Super important mission? I’m there, boy! So, we go. The whole ride there I’m excited. This is atypical of my usual afternoon routine, so everything has me buzzing. The Asylum in the late afternoon is like this big, shadowy tombstone against the blue-grey ocean sky. It’s like a giant stone monster sitting there, waiting for you to get too close. Anyway, we park by one of the side entrances near the physical therapy ward, and the door is set down into the ground a few steps, and covered all the way around with ivy. Dad tells me to stay close to him and to not touch anything. If someone is there, be polite, but don’t stop walking. Stay. Close. I tell him sure-sure, no problem, and he smiles. I think he was excited to show me where he worked, you know? Where he spent his days helping folks. He pulls out a big key (not key-to-the-city big, but way bigger than a house key) and slides it into the deadbolt. The door only has a deadbolt and a piece of metal that curves up and out a little from a metal plate, by the way, nothing else, not even a number or a little window. Dad turns the key and it makes a loud CLUNK. He opens the door and waves me in. I hesitate, because the first thing that hits me is the smell of lemony bleach and piss. Dad nods. I think he was so used to the smell that it just registered that it is in fact a damn terrible stink. I go down the stairs and follow him in. He closes the door and locks it (it’s the same on the inside but without the curved handle thing). The CLUNK echoed down a long, white hallway that led to a larger room at the far end. I can see gym equipment in the distance, but not much else beyond the opening.
So we walk, me behind him, slightly at first. But as we go, I get brave, and slow my pace down. I don’t know why in the hell I thought it was a good idea, but I did it. I must be, like, only five feet behind him, but in a place like that? Every step counts. Walking…walking…” Duncan moved his hands past the sides of his face to simulate the walls. “The room ahead is getting bigger, but I still can’t see everything. Walking…walking…Dad enters the room and is heading towards the brown door on the other side. Walking…walking… OH BOY!” Duncan shrieked like an old lady, and lunged his hands at Carina. Everyone jumped, and Carina screamed as his fingers simulated clawing at her shirt and neck.”
“What the actual fuck, Duncan!” She shouted while slapping his hands away.
“As I entered the room, this old woman lunged at me! She was clawing at my neck and shirt with these gnarled, brownish-yellow fingernails. She kept screaming ‘oh, boy! Oh, boy!’ as she damn-near launched herself out of her wheelchair at me. Her teeth looked like broken pieces of Karl’s candy corn.”
“Probably taste the same.” Perry added.
“Screw you both, man.” Karl flipped them both off.
“Other patients gathered around and just stood there, looming like a bunch of zombies, while that nasty old bitch kept clawing her way at me. I thought I was done for, bro! No cap! My dad straight up burst through the zombies, snapped me up, then carried me to his office. He set me down and told me that I should have listened and all that, but all I could hear was that lady still screaming ‘oh boy!’ you know? That was my goddamn focus—figuring she was gonna be waiting there when we were done getting whatever it was dad forgot. No way out but back the way we came. Dad said the thing he forgot was in a storage closet, so he walked over and opened it, and out slides a skeleton on a metal rod! Just, schluuuuunk-PAH!” Duncan shot his left hand straight out with his pointer and middle fingers acting as the legs of the skeleton swinging as it came to an abrupt stop.
“Why’d your old man have a literal skeleton in his closet?” asked Garret.
“He’s a physical therapist,” Duncan replied. “Guess that’s part of the set up.”
“Then what happened?” asked Dani.
“I woke up in the car, halfway home. I passed-the-fuck-out is what happened. My dad kept making me promise to not tell my mom. But I’ll tell you the truth, that whole thing had me shook. For years after, I would have nightmares about that day. I’d think I’d hear the old lady shouting in the distance. Screaming ‘Oh, boy!’. I would wake up with nail marks on my neck sometimes. I knew I had to have been the one to do it, though. Did it in my sleep trying to fight her off or something. I remember asking my dad only a few years back if that old lady was still kicking around. He said she died a while ago, and I gotta tell you, I never felt so relieved.”
“Bro…” Karl began, as a mischievous smile crept across his face. “Haven’t you learned anything tonight? Now that she’s dead, she can follow you anywhere! She might even be with you…RIGHT NOW! OOoooOooo!” he waved his fingers with a spooky flourish.
“I should beat you to death, asshole!” Duncan yelled, nervously looking around. “Goddamn it! That’s all I’m gonna think about now!”
“Happy Halloween, big guy!” Karl winked.
“Okay, so who’s left?” Garret asked as the candle sputtered in the pool of melted wax.
“You, me, and Captain Perry over there,” Dani said, swirling a pointer finger at Perry.
“Well, since I’m the host, and my fear is by far the scariest, I’ll go last.” Garret smiled. “Per’?”
“Mine’s easy,” Perry shrugged. “Basements and attics.”
“Because of the phenomenon where negative energies retreat and pool in areas of the house that are less frequented by humans?” Dani smiled more wickedly than Perry was prepared for.
“—That’s most likely improperly-insulated wiring,” Alison interrupted from the dark. “It causes a buildup of electro magnetic frequencies, which result in anxiety, fear, nausea, and paranoia.”
“A fear cage, yes,” Dani retorted. “You’re not the only person who knows things, friend. But I was talking about malevolent spirits using darkened recesses to gather the strength to torment the living.”
“Which is usually the misunderstanding of a fear cage.” Alison countered.
“Fear Cage is so much better than Honkus for a band name…” Marko uttered softly to himself.
“So which is it, Per’, Nick Cage or ghost squatters?” Karl chuckled.
“Neither! It’s because you never know who’s tied up in a basement or an attic.” Perry said with conviction. “How many basement windows do you pass each day? Attic windows? Probably dozens. What are the odds that there’s someone tied up, chained, and gagged on the other side? Someone chained up to a wall for years; never feeling direct sunlight, never eating with their own hands…pooping in a bucket. Just a plaything for some sicko son of a bitch.” The candle flame sputtered and gasped for oxygen then flared in a slightly-dramatic way. The flame jumping-jacked on Perry’s lenses. “’If only someone would hear me screaming!’” Perry imitated the thoughts of an imagined captive. “Mailmen might even look at the window when they’re dropping off a package for the dungeon master—”
“—Way to nerd it up,” Karl scoffed, receiving a light chuckle from the group. Perry didn’t acknowledge or miss a beat.
“—Probably something sexy for his captive to wear. Or maybe something romantic, now that it’s been a year or two together. Another trip around a sun the captive longs to feel the warmth of again. Why does the mailman never seem to hear them scream? Or all the kids running to school? Or the parents with little babies in fancy strollers? Why can’t anyone hear the screams?”
“Jesus, Perry,” Garret broke through Perry’s reverie. “Is this, like, some kind of confession?”
“Huh?” Perry cocked his head. The others began to look concerned.
“There something you want to tell us, man?” Duncan said. “You got somebody chained up in your basement?”
“I don’t have a basement.” Perry laughed, easing the tension. “None of the houses in Coven Cove do.
“Yeah, but they have attics…” Maria said with a tinge of suspicion.
Perry laughed even harder. “Dani’s turn, right?”
“Bro!” Karl exclaimed with a hard guitar strum. “Faces in windows freak me out! Like, just someone looking out the window at you. Watching. Probably rubbing one out. Fuckin’…faces in windows. Oh! And bunches of little holes in places holes have no business…hole-ing. That’s a thing, right? Alison? I assume you know what the fear of holes where holes shouldn’t hole are—is?”
“Trypophobia,” Alison replied with ease. “Some researchers say that it’s an evolutionary trigger for people to avoid infections or parasites, or some venomous animals that hasn’t faded over time in those who suffer from it.”
“Like that fear transmission thing.” Duncan said.
“What’s the fear of whales?” Karl asked, just to be a dick.
“Cetaphobia,” Alison stated without hesitation.
“Bullshit.” Karl scoffed. “You can’t know everything about everything.”
“She’s right,” Carina said with her phone raised. “I just Googled it.”
“Fine! Then how about whale-specific fear? Killer whales?”
“No idea,” Alison shrugged. “Happy?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Karl nodded.
Garret lifted the candle and moved it in slow, circular motions, in an attempt to prevent the flame from drowning in its own wax. “Dani. We’re almost done. What have you got for us?”
“Gravenfrost.” Dani firmly replied, provoking a few raised eyebrows and cocked heads. “Have any of you (besides Ali) read anything about this town’s history? The people who lived here? The hot spots of total, shameless fuckery? Let’s see, we’ve got The Devil’s Domicile for starters. The mass hysteria outbreaks of 1898, 1963, 1991, and probably more. What else? The Hollows—anyone remember the lady from the field trip we took in the ninth grade to The Hollows?”
“How could any of us forget?” Marko guffawed. “I had just moved here, too! Suddenly, I’m on a class trip to a subterranean mass grave maze or some shit. Get me the hell off this island! I told my mom when I got back.”
“Remember what the Historical Society lady said? She said it wasn’t anything like we were told—about it being like the catacombs in Italy. The Hollows wasn’t a tomb, it was a lair. The bones were all victims of…something. Why were we even there? What was the point? There was no actual reason to go on that field trip!” Dani made a sharp pfffft sound.
“She died there a while after, didn’t she?” Duncan tried to recall. “Or was found dead there, or something.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Maria.
“Well…died there means she died there,” Carina explained. “Found dead means she could’ve been killed somewhere else and possibly brought there. Right?”
“We are such morbid little darlings…” Karl stated with an unexpected air of respect.
“She was mauled by a bear, my dad said,” Carina said. “Then dragged to The Hollows.”
“When was the last time anyone saw a bear here?” Marko scoffed. “It was either suicide, a murder, or some make-believe creature. I think they said it was a bear because that made it less terrifying.”
“Anyway,” Dani circled back. “I’m sure I could go on and on about why Gravenfrost scares the shit out of me, and why the sooner we move to the mainland the better, but I still have to walk home, and I’m already chock-full of nightmare meat.”
“Another solid band name,” Karl clicked his tongue.
“Your turn, o’ most gracious of hosts.” Dani said with hands raised in praise. “What scared lil’ Garret way back when?”
“Not a damn thing!” Garret laughed, and chugged his beer. “But I’ll tell you what you should be scared of …” He picked up the candle and held it close to his face. The wickedness of his smile was accentuated by swaying shadows. He let out a long, trumpeting fart, then blew out the candle.
The final Halloween Hoedown was over.
Art: Justin Weingartner
Words: Peter Hammarberg
What happens next!?! Who are The Small Bastards? Will those plucky youths enjoy the rest of their Halloween?
You’ll find that out and more in Small Bastard Stories™, a collaborative collection of stories and images by Justin Weingartner and yours truly!
Itty Bitty Bastards was just a taste of what’s in store…
Happy Halloween, from PH & JW!