Blade McGowan white-knuckled the steering wheel. He tried to remain calm as he drove out of the city toward the sanctuary of the hideout. Sweat formed on his brow soaking into his ski mask.
The stolen Mustang’s rear wheels slipped and spun, scrabbling for grip on the wet asphalt. The fat tires finally found some adhesion and the car accelerated onto the highway like a bullet from a gun, a 420-horsepower killing machine penetrating the night.
McGowan’s accomplice, Killian Sutter, sat in the passenger seat. He peered over his shoulder checking for cop cars through the rear windshield, his nervousness unmistakable.
“Alright Dale Jr., wanna ease off the gas now? This isn’t Talladega. Get us where we need to be in one piece. We’ve got half of the Union Springs’ finest lookin’ for us already.”
Blade dropped his speed down to 50 mph and eased across to the inside lane before taking the next exit. Rain hammered the blacktop, beating against the car roof and windows.
“Sometimes I don’t know where yer head is. Do you have any feelings at all? How many people did you hit? What did they ever do to you?
“You wanna go to jail? You wanna die right now?” Killian shouted in anger through his mask.
“Do ya? I can make it happen, asshole.” The rant continued as he waved a pistol around within the cramped confines of the Mustang.
After screeching to a halt in a quiet side street, the two men grabbed their bags and jumped out of the car. They ran for almost a mile until they reached an abandoned house opposite a cemetery.
The dismal, almost funereal building stood emaciated against the thunderous night sky. It had been three decades since footsteps had reverberated within its walls. Three decades without the dust disturbed and the ghosts waiting within awoken. A house once loved, now abandoned.
The door hung ajar, the hinges weathered by three decades of rain. Ignoring the warning signs to keep out, they entered the deserted sanctuary. Both men had to shoulder the door to open it. The weary wood gave the impression they were opening a gateway to hell. They stepped inside, a cloud of dust and the overpowering smell of mold greeted them.
Dust gripped each surface like a layer of dirty snow. Old cobwebs cloaked cloth-covered furniture. The stench of dust, mold, stale air and animal droppings hung in the air like cancerous cloud.
Shafts of watery moonlight burst through large holes in the boarded-up windows. Spiders weaved their webs from ceiling to wall, leaving them to billow in the draft. The wooden floorboards creaked with each step the men took further into the house. A disgusting brown and green patterned runner led from the front door to the staircase.
Killian took off his sweat-soaked mask and threw it on the living-room floor in disgust.
“You can’t help yourself, can you?”
He lit a cigarette and used the same match to light a small tiki lamp he had brought with him. He placed it on the floor. The lamp’s glow silhouetted the shape of a couple of chairs and a small table.
“I gotta quit smokin’. I’m outta shape.
“Why’d you have to pull up like yer ass was on fire, huh?
“More unwanted attention. Trust me Blade, nobody’d care if you went to jail. You’re damn stupid. Nobody’d care. I’d be doing the world a favor. One less dick in the food chain.”
Blade’s stomach turned. He studied his hands. They were shaking violently in a screaming, explosive mix of adrenaline and rage.
“Yeah, alright, I get it. I’m freakin’ dumb. You know I’m dumb, but I can steal cars and wave a gun around. Why else do ya keep me here?
“D’ya think I hit those people on purpose? When I close my eyes to sleep I’m gonna see their faces hitting the windshield and flying over the car. I’m sorry. D’ya get it, I’m sorry.”
Killian blew his cigarette smoke at Blade.
“Yer damn right you shouldn’t have hit them. Shit man, they were trick or treating with their kids. They were out having fun. Then you charge around the corner like the Dukes of Hazzard with a bunch of hellhounds chasin’ after you.”
Blade took off his mask and ran his fingers through his greasy hair.
“I’m sorry!” He shouted. “What more d’ya want me to say?”
“You’re sorry? Tell it to the people you left lyin’ in the street, ya dumbass.
“Much as I hate it, we can’t change anything now. It’s done. But we gotta get rid of the car. All the cops in town will be searching for it. We’ll torch it in the woods.”
Shifting from foot to foot, Blade studied the squalid conditions surrounding him. The artifacts of lives lived and abandoned. A torn sepia-tinted photograph of a smiling family glared back, reminding him of the people he had struck car earlier in the evening.
“Nice place ya got here, Killian. Feels like someone’s watchin’ me.”
“Screw you, Blade. I put some beers in one of the bags. Go get yourself a couple and calm down.”
Using his iPhone as a flashlight, Blade disappeared into the kitchen. It was small, cluttered and grungy with a thick coat of dust hugging it. The sink was repulsive and full of dirty plates and bowls. The floor tiles were green and moldy. He came back with two uncapped bottles. He gulped the first one down in one long chug and belched, aware, once more, of someone watching him.
“Oh man, this beer’s warm,” he said before lifting the second bottle to his mouth and draining it.
Killian took off his wet jacket and turned one of the chairs toward the window. He placed his pistol on the nearby side table next to a baseball bat. Pulling the cover off one of the decaying and frayed chairs, he sat down.
“So, apart from the obvious screw-up, did ya you get your kicks tonight?” He said, watching the wind blow the rain down the street.
“We did good, Killian. You said the Sunny Side Up Diner would be busy, and it was. Easy pickings. We got plenty of cash and some expensive jewelry we can fence. Gotta love Halloween for bringing people out.”
Blade chugged on a third beer and let rip another loud belch. He dropped into the empty chair and delved into a bag of Halloween candy. A thousand backlit dust motes floated into the air around him.
“What poor kid d’ya steal the candy from?”
“Dunno. They all wore masks.”
“Like us then, shithead.”
As both men laughed, Blade opened up a local news radio station app on his phone. The late evening bulletin had started.
“…the out-of-control, stolen car plowed into a group of trick-or-treaters in Union Springs. Three people died in the incident – a 10-year-old girl and her parents.
“Bram and Candace Winters, both 34, suffered severe head injuries and died at the scene. Their daughter – 10-year-old Mara – died shortly after arrival at a local hospital.
“The Halloween horror unfolded around 5:30 pm in the Parker Hill neighborhood. The car, believed to be fleeing from an armed diner heist, swerved to avoid the group but hit them and continued.”
“There was a family walking and laughing behind me,” said eyewitness Louise Stigliano. “Then a car hit them. It came out of nowhere. A little girl wearing a Grim Reaper costume was screaming in pain. There was such a lot of blood…”
“Nice one, Blade. Yer famous. Momma would be proud of you…”
A loud, metallic jangling sound interrupted Killian. A 1970s telephone began to ring in the kitchen, the sound penetrating the house.
Blade jumped out of his chair – and his skin – in surprise. The empty beer bottle and candy slipped through his fingers and dropped to the floor. Shattered glass fragments and confectionery scattered years of accumulated detritus. He stared, wide-eyed, at the wall where the sound was coming from, unable to believe his ears.
“What the hell? Why’s the phone ringing?”
“How should I know? There’s been no power in this place for years.”
The phone continued its shrill symphony. Blade’s legs trembled as he walked toward the sound. He took the grimy plastic receiver from the wall mount and moved it closer to his ear.
“H, H, Hello?”
A childlike voice spoke through the white noise.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord, my soul, to keep.
If I die before I wake, pray the Lord my soul to take.”
The line went dead…Blade’s shaking hand returned the receiver to its cradle.
Killian stood in the kitchen doorway, his body blocking out the light.
“Who was it?”
“It was a kid’s voice chanting a prayer. It was freakin’ scary. I don’t like this place one bit, Killian. I wanna leave. This house gives me the creeps.”
Killian walked into the living room, shaking his head. Through the window he spied a small child peering back at him from the entrance of the cemetery. The gravestones standing to attention like rows of long-forgotten soldiers.
“What the hell…”
Dressed in a dark, hooded robe, the child’s eyes were two hollow black holes staring deep into Killian’s soul.
“We’re holed up in a haunted house. C’mon Killian, let’s split. We’ve got our money.”
Killian continued watching the child. Its gaze fixed on the window.
“Blade, come and look at this kid. Tell me I’m not losin’ it and seein’ things.”
“Screw it, I’ve got better things to do.”
“Like what, dummy?”
“Like getting the holy hell outta here before I get possessed or crap myself.”
“Come here, now. Man up. Check this little kid out, it’s starting to piss me off, standing out there in the rain watching me.
Blade moved toward the window. The child had faded from view.
“Okay, what am I lookin’ at again?”
“A kid was standing out there in the cemetery entrance, it must’ve gone.”
“Something’s wrong with this house, it’s cursed or somethin’. I wanna leave. If we stay here any longer we’re gonna get caught.”
“Hey asshole, you’re the one who wanted to stay. I wanted out earlier. You had to be the big man and scare the shit out of little kids for Halloween.”
“I’ve got it out of my system. I’m ready to go.”
“I’m not. We need a new plan thanks to your driving. Shut up, have a drink and deal with it.”
For the next five minutes, Killian peered out of the window, smoking. The wispy ribbon of smoke twisted and squirmed like a snake. He contemplated his next move. Blade drank beer and shoveled candy into his mouth, brooding over having to stay the night in a creepy old house. Apart from the frequent, beer-induced belching, the room was silent.
The sound of footsteps above the living room shattered the silence.
“Killian, there’s someone upstairs,” he whispered.
“Don’t be stupid, dumbass. How can there be someone up there?”
A door slammed shut above their heads. Both men heard footsteps again, this time in a different part of the room.
“I’m outta here, Killian. You’re on yer own.”
Blade got out of the chair and made to leave. Both men jumped, aghast, when three loud knocks hammered on the front door. The house shuddered.
Killian took the cigarette out of his mouth and threw the butt on the ground. The glowing embers sprinkled across the dusty floor as he stamped it out.
“Who is it, Killian? No one knows we’re here.”
“Geez, Blade don’t ya think I know? Shut the hell up.”
“What do we do?”
“Nothing. Shut yer mouth.”
After a few moments of silence, the door knocked again. Three harder and more insistent knocks, followed by a child’s voice.
“Trick or Treat!”
“It’s only a kid trick or treating,” Blade said, sighing with relief.
“Who tricks or treats this time of night? It’s after 11 o’clock for Christ’s sake.”
Blade got up and walked to the door, the hallway floor creaking as he moved.
“Don’t open the door, Blade.”
Despite the warning, Blade opened the rotting wooden door an inch or two. It creaked open. A bone-chilling blast of cold air and a golf-ball-sized orb of light rushed past his face into the house. A cold shiver of fear rushed down his spine.
“It’s Halloween! Trick or treat?”
Shivering, Blade spun around to see a little girl standing in front of him. She wore a Grim Reaper costume and held a scythe in her right hand and a small bag of candy in her left. Blade could see her hollow, jet-black eyes; her face caked with congealed, cracked blood.
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Where the hell did you come from?” His breaths visible in the gloom.
She took a step forward. Blade took two steps back. Despite her age, she intimidated him. She emanated an aura of menace that filled his lungs until they hurt and his head ached with uncertainty.
“Listen, little girl, you should be at home with your mom and dad. It’s late. It’s pouring out there. You’ll catch your death, ha, ha, ha. Now beat it.”
“Trick or treat, Mister. You either give me a treat, or I play a trick on you.”
“I ain’t got no candy. I choose trick, ya little pain in the ass.”
The little girl cocked her head to one side and pouted.
“I wanted candy,” she cried. “I hate when it’s trick. Now I have to think of something for you.
“Hey kid, here’s an idea. Why don’t you get the hell outta this place and run along before I throw you out?
Her empty black eyes burned into him.
“I can’t. My mommy and my daddy are dead. I want to play with you. It’s cold and wet outside and I have nowhere to go,” her voice deepened with each word.
“Wait, I’ve got something for you,” she said, flashing an evil smile.
The little girl set down the scythe and reached into her bag of candy. She pulled out a knife and jammed it deep into Blade’s stomach.
“Trick! It’s a good one, isn’t it? My name is Mara Winters.”
Blade fell to the ground clutching his stomach. Blood oozed through the space between his fingers as he tried to cover the wound with shaking hands. A heady cocktail of pain and fear flowed through his veins as his blood soaked into the filthy carpet.
He regarded Mara, fascinated, as she skipped around his prone body. She sang a nursery rhyme in a haunting, almost demonic voice…
“Ring-a-round the rosie…
“A pocket full of posies…
“Mara Winters?” He groaned, the metallic scent of blood seeping into his nostrils. “I know your name”
Still holding the bloody knife, Mara studied Blade as he writhed in pain. A pool of blood congealed on the floor around him.
“You should. You killed me and my mommy and daddy with your big black car.”
The little girl moved into the living room. Killian glanced up to see an apparition levitating several inches off the ground in front of him.
“What the hell…Who are you?”
“Hello sir, my name is Mara. It’s Halloween! Trick or treat? Your friend chose trick.”
Dumbfounded, Killian sat trying to comprehend the scene before him.
Blade lay on the floor, his hands clutching his stomach to try and staunch the bleeding. His vision blurred as his shirt soaked up the blood, each drop lost taking his life away, leaving him pale and weak.
“She freakin’ stabbed me, Killian. I’m bleeding. I’m dyin’.”
“My daddy says you should never take the Lord’s name in vain, Mister.”
Killian reached over and grabbed the pistol from the side table and pointed it at Mara. He pulled the trigger and shot Mara between the eyes. He laughed, with a total lack of remorse, as she fell to the floor. A cloud of dust rose around her.
“We gotta go, NOW! I’m scared. She’s the dead girl from the radio. She’s some sort of living dead girl,” said Blade, crawling into the living room.
Killian jumped out of the chair and helped Blade to his feet. They shuffled toward the door. He opened it a few inches, but the handle shot out of his hand and it slammed shut, blocking their escape.
Mara sat up, giggling. There was no entry wound from the bullet…
“Let’s do it again.”
“Blade, what’s going on? What’s happening? I shot her in the head.”
Killian raised the pistol and pulled the trigger again.
“Oops, someone’s out of bullets,” said Mara, her voice bouncing off the walls.
Killian emptied the clip to see plenty of ammunition. Slamming it back into the gun, he pulled the trigger again.
“Are you having trouble with your gun?”
Mara turned to Blade who was leaning against the living-room wall.
“You’re bleeding a lot. Are you okay? Want me to take a look at it? I can make the pain go away.”
Blade backed away from the girl with the sickening, satanic smile.
“Killian, get her away from me.”
“Don’t worry, it will all be over soon. Don’t be afraid,” Mara said as she held up the knife.”
“No! Please! Oh God, get her away from me.”
Killian, baseball bat in hand, moved behind Mara. Aware of his movement, she pirouetted to face him with the knife raised.
“I wouldn’t if I were you. You won’t like what happens. The other me is mean.”
Waving the bat in her face, Killian laughed at the little girl.
“And what you gonna do, eh? I’m tired of this shit.”
“I can do this,” her voice changing to something not of this world.
Mara stabbed Killian in the fleshy upper part of his left thigh. His tortured screams of pain and distress filled the room. Gritting his teeth, he pulled the knife out of his leg. Warm blood gushed from the wound. He pressed a hand against the laceration to try and quell the free-flowing surge of fluid.
Killian grabbed Mara from behind. Holding the bloody knife to her throat, he slashed her neck before stumbling back into the chair. Both men gawked in horror as the child rose from the floor once more.
“What…What are you?” Killian stammered in disbelief, his eyes fixed on her neck and the absence of blood.
“I told you, silly, I’m Mara,” she said with a malevolent smile.
Her voice changed to a deep demonic-sounding growl.
“I used to be an angel, a symbol of cherubic purity, but now pain and suffering sustain me.”
The blood-covered men stared at each other with dread.
“What are you? A demon?”
Mara held out her pale, almost translucent, hand to Killian. “Give me the knife.”
Killian sat and stared as he tried to blank out the torrid pain in his thigh.
“I’m a little girl who’s asking for her knife back,” Mara said, her voice returning to normal.
She studied Blade who was shivering in shock from his blood loss.
“And trying to get some candy…”
Using his foot, Blade pushed the stolen bag of candy along the floor to Mara, his leg leaving a thick, scarlet arc on the floor.
“Oh look, you found some.”
Mara grabbed the candy and walked toward Killian.
“Give me the knife.”
Startled, Killian passed the knife to Mara, his hand shaking. She started to walk away but stopped and turned back, her voice ominous and dark again.
“Thank you. I have to go now. It will all be over soon.”
Mara giggled and threw the knife at Killian’s good leg. She hissed with delight when it sank deep into his femoral artery. A jet of viscous red blood spurted into the air from the wound and kept on spurting in pulsing waves. Blood gushed from his leg and splattered the floor. The four corners of the decrepit room bore witness to the gore of his flowing blood.
She stared, fascinated, as Killian exsanguinated to a slow death. His skin took on a corpse-like pallor. As the moments passed, he lost control of his limbs until, finally, his head slumped to his chest.
“Killian! No! Don’t die, I need you here.”
Blade tried to shout but his voice was a hoarse whisper. Seeing the panic etched into his pale face, Mara lifted the scythe above her head.
“Don’t cry, Blade. I haven’t forgotten you. It will all be over soon.”
The scythe flashed through the air. It sliced into his neck a little way below his ear until it protruded from the other side. She then pulled it toward her, slashing his neck through the throat. A forceful spray of thick red blood cascaded from the wound. Several horrific, gurgling screams followed. Blade gasped his last breath and dropped lifeless to the floor, joining the rest of the garbage.
Mara moved across the room, dragging the bloody scythe behind her. The blade snagged on the lamp and pulled it over. The oil spread across the room, igniting as she walked. The dry, dusty floorboards became a sea of flames.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
“If I should die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take.
“If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways.”
The fire spread with ease, the house engulfed by a swirling inferno of flames. The sea of red, yellow and orange flames lit up the room. Black smoke billowed up the stairs and pitched dark columns into the night sky. The front door was alight, the remaining paint bubbling in the intense heat. A window blew out in the living room, sending shards of glass into the overgrown, unkempt yard. Within minutes the house was nothing but ashes and charcoal…and scorched bones.
Mara walked through the fiery room toward the door. She stopped and laughed at the two dead bodies incinerating in the conflagration.
“Trick or treat?” She asked with a childish giggle, her ghostly form manifesting into a bright, white orb of light.
A cacophony of sirens approached the building, the street awash with flashing red and blue lights. Crowds of onlookers gathered in the street to watch the abandoned eyesore burn to the ground. None of the sightseers were aware of the circle of light as it appeared from the doorway and followed the cracked gravel pathway, now overgrown with tall grass. As it moved wisp-like through the night air, groups of firemen rushed past in the opposite direction – toward the flames.
The orb headed to the cemetery entrance where the outstretched, welcoming arms of her parents greeted it as Mara returned to her ghostly form. Holding hands, they turned to watch the flames roar into the dark night sky.
Dry wooden beams burned and snapped under the intense heat, causing the roof to fall into the building and send a shower of sparks and smoke to the heavens. Within minutes, the house was just a charred, blackened wooden skeleton.
Mara stood between her parents watching the carnage she had created. A smile lit her angelic face as she spoke:
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