By Sara Marian
I watch as the living cross the threshold yet again, bearing with them all their worldly possessions. First two women, one elderly. Then a man, a youth, and a girl no longer quite a child, but not yet a woman. The younger of the first pair of women turns full circle in the foyer. “Look how beautiful the house is!” She gestures to the carved staircase, the wood paneling and floor, the faceted panels of the tall windows facing the verdant front yard.
The others—even the father—notice the feel of the house more than the look of it. They almost cringe beneath the chandelier and the slant of the afternoon light. The son rubs the palms of his hands with his fingertips, exchanges an apprehensive look with his sister. The grandmother’s smile looks forced, and the father puts a hand on her shoulder as if to shield her.
This is a good beginning, I think. They are already afraid.
Only the mother of the family, her smile bright and careless, will stand against me, and so I will begin, I tell myself, with her.
Long experience has taught me that the night after a move, frightening the living is a waste of effort. They tell themselves they suffer from fatigue, ignore what their senses tell them, and sleep too heavily to rouse. I bide my time the first night and watch for weaknesses. Division between them, resentments, fears, habits.
Light stretches from beneath the girl’s door long after the rest of the house is dark. Through the wall I go, and see that she sleeps with the blankets up to her chin and tightly clenched in both fists to keep them there.
I settle to the floor nearby and wait the night out in silence, planning my campaign to rid the house of them. As expected, the girl sleeps too soundly to notice she is not alone.
I come to them at dusk—especially to the mother, who loves the house as I once did…as part of me still does, in spite of all that’s happened here. They turn off the lights as they leave the rooms. They throw away the bones of chickens, pigs, and cattle. I turn the lights back on behind them, pull the bones from the other refuse and scatter them back along the kitchen floor. When they flip the lights back off, I scream at them.
Listen to me!
You will all perish!
The mother blames the boy, then the girl, for the disruptions. When they vouch for each other, she punishes them both for conspiring to frighten the adults.
As summer wanes, my desperation increases. Cool nights prompt them to leave windows open, to light the fireplaces both upstairs and down. The fireplaces built for my family. My home.
I slam shut the windows on the west side of the house. I lock them in place, no matter how hard the living may try to open them. I care nothing for musty rooms.
They unscrew the light bulbs in their bedrooms at night—all except the girl, and now her brother, too. So I may not disturb their sleep.
I reignite the embers of the fires instead, smear lettering in ash across the worn beauty of my hardwood floors.
Leave this place!
Leave, or die!
Only death awaits you here.
Everyone but the mother comes to hate the house. I wait up nights in the lamplight of the girl’s room, watch her shiver, hope her fear will sway her mother. Even the son turns the light back on at night. And the father…he lies awake long after his wife. Before they both feign sleep, they whisper together at night.
She admits the possibility of my existence, but talks of the investment. Of the beauty of the house. It lures her in, just as it did me. The love of the place, of what it could be, if not for what it has become. She shrouds her love for it in practicality. They have paid so much in, and must see it through.
You have not yet begun to pay, I scream at her one night, and for a moment, she seems to shrink from me.
Then she clears the fog from the mirror, and finishes brushing her teeth.
Fool, I whisper, and she stops, frozen in the doorway. I see the hair on her arms raised, silhouetted against the lamplight of the bedroom beyond. Then she slams the door on me and turns out the light.
Summer falls away as autumn rises, gilding the trees outside. Still the family remains. Now even the grandmother leaves the light on at night, and the fires are allowed to burn down on their own. I should be reassured, but I am, instead, far from it.
The young ones whisper together in the kitchen one evening as they wash dishes.
“There’s no way Mom will re-sell.” The boy shakes his head, glancing furtively at the door. “It doesn’t matter if Dad believes about the ghost.”
His sister frowns, eyes locked on the plate she’s drying. “There’s something else, though, Jay….I don’t think….I don’t think it’s the ghost that scares me.”
Jay lowers the sponge, forgotten, back into the water. “What does that mean?”
“The ghost…I think it’s afraid. Of something else. Of the dark.”
“You think the ghost is afraid of the dark,” the boy says flatly.
“Think about it,” the girl whispers, looking to the door again. “It turns the lights back on. It lights fires. It screams at night. And…I think…I think from the very first night, it’s been in my room. I sleep with the lights on.”
“So do—” her brother begins, flushes, then stops. “Whatever. Why would a ghost be afraid of the dark, Emma?”
Emma turns large, somber eyes on the young man. “Maybe something awful happened to him in the dark.”
Once again, it’s the thirtieth day of October, and once again, a family has failed to heed my warnings. With each passing decade, it becomes more difficult to frighten them out of my house. It used to sit empty for many years at a time—especially if a family didn’t escape before the harvest. Then came the house flipper, who never stayed overnight but managed to restore my decaying home to its former beauty. In ways, I find myself grateful to him. I had missed seeing the old place as it was in its prime—more so than I would have expected—and at last I no longer had to wander the nighttime halls in darkness.
The darkness seems to cling to me, to smother me—though of course, I need no breath—and every moment spent in it is an agony of terror. The girl, Emma, was right. Something happened to me in the dark of this house, many years ago. Something awful, just as she said.
How the living can stand a moment inside this house without light, I will never understand. It’s difficult for me to remember what it was like to be alive, not to be able to taste danger on the air like an approaching storm.
Now that the house is beautiful again, the living come more often.
Every year of the past five, I have had to oust them, and each year has been more difficult. They no longer believe the old stories about this place, or they think the danger has passed into history.
It has been nearly twenty years since the last death.
If the current residents aren’t out by tomorrow at dusk, there will be fresh blood for the feast. And I find that this time feels even worse. Emma has been the first to guess the truth about my death, about my fear…about my purpose. Her brother, the first to voice it, for it was he who told the adults of the family. His sister assumed they would believe him, as the elder sibling—as the one taken seriously.
The trouble with people these days is, even if they’re afraid of the truly dangerous, they’re more afraid of the everyday. The loss of property. Debt. Having to rebuild. Things that were once considered just a part of living are now more terrifying than the grave. Than that which comes from beyond the grave. Or that which devours you even in death.
Evening leans toward night now, and soon darkness will consume the house, and everyone within it.
A wind picks up from the west, rustling the copper leaves and lifting the study’s curtains to drift and swirl against their bindings. I seem to hear the flap of wings on the air, and slam the tall windows down. The father jumps, glances, decides not to re-open them. Instead, he looks at the time and exits the study, seeking the rest of the family.
He finds them by the fireside in the living room, making ready to go out. There will be All Hallows Eve celebrations in the streets, at other houses. If only they leave now, before the Fear Eater arrives.
But they clown and giggle and adjust their costumes with the help of the grandmother.
To dampen their spirits, I put out the fire, chilling the room in an instant.
Nervous glances are traded.
“Don’t be silly,” the mother says hastily. “It’s windy out. Must have blown down the chimney.”
Jay and Emma look skeptically at one another behind her back. So do the father and the grandmother.
Sensing herself outnumbered, the mother heads to the kitchen and I follow.
I scatter the refuse of last night’s dinner across the floor, use the bones to spell out LEAVE! among the crumpled napkins. She starts, lets out a muffled yelp, then frowns. “Why don’t you leave?” she hisses at me.
Without cleaning up, she storms out of the room.
Perhaps the rest of the family will listen without her arguments…. I return to them prepared to chase them out at any price.
But the sun glints its last light at the horizon. A black figure appears on the west lawn as I reach the doorway. Gaunt, tattered, with withered wings and clawed hands. The Fear Eater’s sunken eyes gleam hungrily in the fading light, as they have each All Hallows Eve these last two hundred years. He raises his inhuman face to the wind and takes in a mighty breath, tasting us on the air.
The new fear, the new family. The fear of other families who have died here, still clinging to the walls. And my own fear. Familiar, yet fresh again in my new agony. In my attachment to them. To Emma, especially, and Jay. Children, like mine, who were robbed from me so long ago.
I cry out in spite of myself, knowing it only whets his appetite, but unable to stop.
The living jump at the sound, look away from one another. Emma sees him first, only a darker form within the nightfall.
“Dad…” she murmurs, eyes transfixed by the tall figure steadily approaching the window. “Who is that?”
He is close enough now that the vague, disquieting form of his face is visible, streaks of pale and dark.
“That’s quite a costume,” her father says, though he grips her close beside him.
They all know this is no trick-or-treater. The town is the opposite way, and he has not come by the road but through the woods. His form, his gait, his presence—all are unsettling, instinctively wrong for a human. He is clearly no child at play, but something Other.
As he reaches the window, the lights flicker out.
Despair holds me immobile, knowing it is too late for them to leave. If they run now, he will hunt them down through the woods—and he will catch them. He has done it before.
I watch the family huddle closer together, clutch hands.
The Fear Eater extends a talon to the window, glass screeching against his claws. If the dead could shut our eyes, I would have.
The cracked pane crashes to the floor as the door slams shut.
Screams echo off the walls.
In my panic I heave the cinders from the dead fire and hurl it in all directions. All I can do, I think, is hide them for a moment.
The living cough, faces streaked with ash, and the Fear Eater, squatting halfway through the window frame, pauses, confused by their masks and the overwhelming change in their scent.
Jay is at the door, scrambling with the handle, and flings it wide. “Come on!” he yells to the others, and out they stream.
A guttural shriek erupts from the Fear Eater as we leave him behind. My strength, too, is increased on this night—this one night of the year, when the barrier between the worlds is weakest. I slam the door against him, press it tight, turn the lock.
The living stumble through the kitchen, the grandmother tripping over the scattered bones until Emma catches her arm and they flee out the back door.
He will follow their scent—he will catch them!
I stand in the darkness between the Fear Eater and his prey, pulling objects into the air as weapons, throwing them aside, dragging the cupboard across the doorway to block him. With each passing moment, it is easier to control the physical world—objects are less difficult to move, more refinement of motion is possible. I can hear either Emma or her mother calling in the distance.
And from the hallway, a shuffling and a low, deep inhalation. He is distracted by my fear of him, savoring it. He knows he can catch up to the family in a moment.
There is a book of matches next to the stove.
I pick it up with trembling concentration, pull out a match, and drop it. I put the sound of the Fear Eater’s approach aside and try again, strike the match, and toss it among the refuse on the floor. It catches a paper napkin, fluttering bright against the blackness of the room. Now for the stove—the click of the gas, a blue flicker, then only the hiss of the fumes.
I pull anything I can into the fire on the floor—towels, napkins, dried herbs—all the while listening…listening.
“Mom!” Emma screams from outside. “Mom!”
And I realize with horror that the mother is still in the house. She never rejoined them in the living room. And they must have assumed she went through the kitchen and outside before them. She’s been calling down to them, but the shouts of the others covered it up.
Now I hear her, yelling for the children, stumbling in the dark against the staircase. The glow of a hurricane lamp grows brighter in the hall, where stands the Fear Eater, grinning.
It wasn’t me he stayed for.
I should have known!
She screams when she sees him, the lamp thundering to the floor—light spins wildly over him, then spills fire across the walls and hardwood.
As flames take the hall and kitchen, I shriek out between them, dragging the woman into the foyer.
The front door bursts open and the father stands there, still covered with ash.
His wife runs to join him, the voices of the others just beyond the threshold.
I see Emma’s wide eyes at the front window—the same tall window her mother admired that first day they came to live here.
I watch her watch the flames engulf the Fear Eater, his cries mingling with the shriek and pop of burning wood and bone.
For a moment, her startled gaze flicks to me, and I smile my reassurance before her parents pull her away to safety.
The Fear Eater will die, and the house with him. The resonance of fear will dissipate, and I with it. The ties that bind me to this world fade around me, and on this All Hallows Eve, with the veil between the worlds so thin, I will cross over, at last, to a darkness without fear.
Sara Marian was raised in the woods by wild English teachers. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, in a variety of genres and cross-genres. Her first published novel, The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, is available from Per Bastet Publications through Amazon in both print and e-book formats. Also available on Kindle are three previously published short stories. In addition to fiction, Sara has written for the Clio guide to history online at http://theclio.com, blogs at http://saramarian.com, and works for an archaeological firm in Louisville, Kentucky.
Check out more from Sara on her Amazon Author page.