A Halloween Story

Just finished, here’s my Halloween offering to put you in the right mood.

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I used to love horror stories. As the days shortened, Mum would often find me lost in a book when I should have been tidying my room, enjoying the creepy thrill of the inexplicable. But since last Halloween, I can’t stomach them.

 

The wind makes little shushing noises, flinging up a rain of leaves. Above the houses, gold stains the sky.

‘Winston, come!’

I peer behind the spindly silver birches beside the path. No sign of his flopping ears and curly tail. He’ll be off in the undergrowth somewhere, chasing squirrels. I curse under my breath. Why the hell did he choose today to run off? Thanks Mum for insisting I take the dog out, just as I’m about to go upstairs to get ready. Now I’m going to miss everything.

For years my parents wouldn’t let me join my friends on Halloween. It’s just a stupid American thing, Dad would say when I used to ask to go trick or treating. You never know who might come to the door, there’s some creepy people out there. I think he meant people like the Polish family who moved in down the road a few years ago. He’s always going on about how the area has been changed since all that lot moved in. This year, probably because I’m nearly 16 and it doesn’t involve propositioning the locals, they said I could go on the zombie walk. I bought pale make-up and black eyeliner especially.

‘Blasted dog,’ I mutter, jogging back along the path, giving a wide berth to three teenage boys sitting on the steps below the bridge. They’re about my age. A whiff of weed comes off them, sweet and strong. Relieved they’re ignoring me, I push my hands down into the huge pockets of Dad’s jacket.

‘Winston!’

I think I see him sniffing around the rubbish bin and my fingers close over the handle of the dog’s lead. But when I get closer there’s no dog.

I slow as I go under the footbridge, straining to make out anything dog-shaped on the path ahead. There’s only a dark figure coming towards me. A man. My heart beats faster. I shouldn’t be out here alone, so late. But I can’t go home without the dog. When I came home without Winston’s choker, Dad had a meltdown. Someone took the choker off the dog? Tell me another one.

A bike rushes towards me and I skip out of its way. When it’s passed, the man has gone. I scan around the graffiti-covered skateboard ramp by the path and up towards the adventure playground but can’t spot him. I look up towards the high wall blocking the bank on the other side of the path. A little man crouches inside an arch cut into the brickwork, a few feet above my head. He’s almost hidden, his single bare leg thrusting out of the wall as if he’s about to leap onto me. The sprite. I shiver, thinking of the Stephen King story set in Crouch End. An American tourist I saw snapping the statue told me about it. I read it a few weeks later at the library – a visiting couple get lost and are attacked by some awful thing. The woman is never seen again.

I walk on, scouring the jungly patch above the path. It’s one of Winston’s favourite places. I bet he’s up there somewhere.  But it’s almost dark now… Besides, tramps and gypsies live there. Dad says not to go near them.

‘Win-ston!’

A leaf flutters into my face, startling me.

Go on, I tell myself. You can’t just leave him.

The bank slopes up steeply. There’s no proper path. I peer into the mess of spiky stems, listening for the huff of dog breath. Two or three times I hear the rustle of paws on dry leaves.  But there’s no dog in sight.

I stop suddenly. Something’s here, among the trees – thin branches tied together with strips of plastic bag. On the ground below, bed sheets and newspapers are spread out. Beside them is an empty Heinz baked beans can full of water and a comb with lots of missing teeth.

Close by, a twig snaps. My heart thumps so hard it hurts.

‘Who’s there?’

My voice is a pathetic whimper.

Just go. Now.

I imagine Mum’s downturned mouth, Dad’s veins popping out of his temples. You’ve done it again, haven’t you? You’ve been walking around in a daze like a fucking zombie. First you lose the fucking choker, then you lose the fucking dog!

Please God, let him be here. I try to whistle like Dad. A frail squeak comes out.

A low rumble begins. Like thunder, only it’s too late in the year. I can’t tell if it’s coming from below the ground or above – it’s everywhere, making my organs vibrate like I’m standing next to a massive loudspeaker.

Then silence. Behind the bushes, a faint glimmer of light. Something’s up here.

‘Winston?’

My voice is sucked into the gloom. I fight the urge to run. I’m rigid, my mouth dry. My body has become one huge ear.

There it is again. A raspy creak, faint but regular. Something moving to and fro, maybe. A child’s swing?

I step past a bush. Then I see it, lit by a gauzy patch of streetlight.

A man dangles from a branch. He’s about Dad’s age. His clothes are loose and raggedy and his boots don’t match. His face is oddly white like it’s been sprayed with paint or he’s stayed indoors too long. A cord is looped around the branch. Its end is attached to a chain around his neck. The silvery links glint at me.

My lungs don’t work properly. My breath comes in shallow gasps. I go closer. His black eyes hide in their sockets. They stare out but they don’t see.

Someone’s tacked a piece of cardboard to the trunk. In large, neat capitals:

NO PLACE HERE

FOR SCUM LIKE YOU

As I read something bounds into me. A scream builds in my throat.

Warm licks on my hands, a bark. Thank God. I pull out Winston’s lead and bend down to fix it to his choker.

It’s gone.

I look up at the man once more then run all the way home.

 

My parents didn’t believe me. After I said I’d call the police myself, Dad groaned and went to put on his jacket.

When he came back nearly an hour later, he laughed at me.

‘There’s no hanged man there,’ he said. ‘You’ve been dreaming again.’

Next morning he told me go to the pet shop and buy another choker. On the way, I looked for the man. Dad was right, there was no hanged man. No shelter either – I searched for ages to make sure. There was only an ashy heap on the ground and a smell like burnt hair that stayed with me for days.


Blind Side (23 July 2016, Unbound) is available from:

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