The night-wind howled, whispering through the leaves like the raspy breath of the sick and dying. The chill of late autumn had set in, sending nocturnal creatures to scurry and seek refuge amongst the decaying foliage, leaving bare no witness to the darkness of night. Outside death’s whisper, silence had claimed the evening and given way to fall’s last breath.
The incessant wrought-iron fencing held back the fouled landscape, like the ribcage of a long-dead, infernal beast subject to decades of decomposition. During the day, for surely no one dared during the night, gnarly, brittle branches reached out over the busted sidewalk from between the blackened-iron bars like withered offal, snagging unsuspecting pant legs of passersby and snapping off into the quiet idiom like exclamations of warning.
The chained gate had long since been victim of fanciful vandals as it sat lopsided against the frame, groaning open with each gust from behind the fence like a gill on the side of some forgotten leviathan. The rusted lock and chain lie seeded deep below the earth, giving back their sustenance of borrowed ore.
Over the arrow-point spires of the crooked gate the shifting darkness pulled back against a break in the skeleton-like tree line, revealing a full, pale moon that hung low in the darkness of the sky. Shapeless clouds, too scared to cross its sullen path, huddled at its edges.
The leviathan exhaled with a violent force and sent the busted gate back against its iron cousin. Twisted-branches struck out, grabbed purchase, and held the warped gate tight. Dead leaves scratched and swirled on the wayward wind and rested onto the cobblestone sidewalk before Billy’s feet, like a carpet of dead umbrage.
The laden pillow cover from mom’s old sheets dangling in his hand, swayed back with the brutal gust. He grabbed the plastic werewolf mask just in time before it lifted off his face, and the night could claim it. The path into the old Live Lanrete Cemetery, named after the long-forgotten town that existed before modern suburbia was open. The town more forgotten than even this ancient cemetery.
A glance at the Mickey Mouse watch he’d gotten on his tenth birthday last week told him it was way past his curfew. He’d never been late for anything—always a good boy—but it was almost midnight, just shy of three hours late. Trick-or-Treating had been good. He hadn’t wanted to stop, but now he was in trouble. He looked down the dilapidated cobblestone path. If he walked around the cemetery it would take him a good forty minutes—if he was lucky.
But if he cut through…
Another gust whipped through the beast, rattling the gate, but the wicked branches held tight. He’d heard the stories, never really believing them. Adults always made things up just to scare little boys. He couldn’t be almost another hour late. Mommy—mom. He had to stop calling her that—he was ten years old, after all. Mom must be worried to death. He’d begged her to let him go out on his own tonight. For sure, she’d never trust him again. She’d said he was just a little boy, too young to be out on his own. But with his father long-gone and her perpetual late-shift, she’d given in as long as he agreed to be home by nine and called her from the kitchen phone.
He looked past the open gate and into the moonlit path of the cemetery. The old headstones were leaning into the road like mottled teeth and he swallowed hard. He was a big boy, he’d told her, and said all the kids in his class were going out on their own since last year, even though he hadn’t seen any this year without one of their parents or older brothers or sisters.
Katie Gallu’s party was next week. They’d even joked about how he was older and she should respect her elders. She’d given him a funny look, then a sly grin and said, it’s only by a couple weeks! Derek teased him, said he was sweet on Katie. He’d never admit something so yucky, but the way Katie’s headband pulled back her hair made her face look pretty.
He was definitely grounded for being so late, but if he had any chance of going to that party—any at all—he needed to get home as fast as he could and explain himself. Once mommy—mom got home from her late-shift and saw all the candy in his sack, she’d have to understand. He’d never scored such a bounty on Halloween as he had this year. Mom hadn’t been there, telling him which house to stay away from or which neighborhood he shouldn’t go into at night. It all had been fair game and he cleaned house!
Billy peered down the long cobblestone sidewalk again, the tip of his tongue poking out the corner of his mouth and the mask bristling on top of his head. They were just stories. Just stories despite the chill that was crawling up his neck like a centipede. Big boy…
He’d saved his allowance for months to get Katie that ugly Cabbage Patch doll she wanted so bad. He couldn’t miss the party—just couldn’t!
How scary could a quick walk to the other side be?
Stories, that’s all…
With that settled, he pulled the werewolf mask back over his face—better to look like a monster—and set off into the graveyard. As he walked beneath the flat, arched sign above the gate and into the cemetery, the wind threaded between the rusted cut-out letters that spelled out LIVE LANRETE and made an eerie sound that sounded too much like noooooooo.
With a nervous laugh he glanced back at the sign, the letters now in reverse, and said, “Shut up! Their just stories!”
The night was getting colder and Billy zipped his sweat jacket up underneath his chin. He was glad he’d listened to momm—mom about the jacket, only because it went with his costume. Now he wished he’d listened about the pumpkin-faced flashlight, too, as babyish as it was. The moon was barely bright enough to see anything but mere outlines, just enough to stay on the path and there were so many scraggly trees.
As he walked further into the graveyard and lost sight of the gate, he became aware of the crunching gravel beneath his shoes getting louder with each step, cutting the dead silence like a dangerous beacon shouting I’m here—I’m here!
Grandpa’s funeral had been the first and only cemetery he’d been in when he was little and that was during the day. Things were certainly much different at night. He wanted to take off those noisy shoes. Maybe if he walked in the grass that would quiet them, make him less noticeable to what he couldn’t see in the dark.
He moved closer to the edge of the path, crunch-crunch, until he felt soft tufts of sod under his sneakers. He just wanted to hurry up and get to the other side. It was cold but sweat was running down the back of his head like spiders crawling through his hair. Every few seconds he’d swipe the back of his neck, just to make sure.
Picking up the pace, he twisted his way between the headstones, trying his best to stay alongside the path. The further he went, the more difficult it became to see with the trees blocking the little moonlight that was filtering through. The gravestones, more densely scattered, pushing him deeper into the yard and away from the road as if on purpose. The gate was just on the other side. If he could just hurry across—
Billy stopped short huffing, and leaned against a tall gravestone, the surface pitted and gritty under his sweaty palm. He hadn’t realize he’d been running, but the gate…
Tiny, calcified flecks crumbled from under his hand as he leaned back, trying to catch his breath. The dark shape of a circled-cross atop the stone peered down at him from against the night sky like a telling Jack-o-lantern.
Was it even open?
He started to panic—his breath grew more shallow. He couldn’t picture the gate in his head no matter how hard he tried and he walked by it every day on his way to the bus stop.
He willed himself to think and yanked the inhaler out of his pocket. A picture of Mrs. Gallagher from the second grade flashed in his head: Billy, put your thinking-cap on. Make sure you tie it tight, under your chin.
Was the gate closed?
He just couldn’t remember…
The inhaler hissed into the cold night air like an iron lung and his breath started to repose. There was no-way he could climb the fence if it was locked. He couldn’t even climb that stupid rope in gym class. He was so embarrassed when he’d watched Katie climb all the way to the top in under a minute. He never made it off the ground.
If he walked all the way through the graveyard and found the gate locked, he’d have to walk through this entire nightmare, again. Then he’d be even more late than if he’d just walked around it in the first place.
He couldn’t risk it. Walking through this creepy old place once was enough for him—party or no party.
He walked around the gravestone and wiped his sweaty, gritty palm on his sweat jacket. If he hurried, he still might make it back in a decent time. That made him laugh. Mommy would be furious, once she was done being scared.
He headed back the way he’d come and the crunch of his sneakers returned. That damned noise was nerve-wrecking like mommy says about his KISS albums. That was before the rumor about them being satanic started going around in school and she’d taken them away.
His chest was starting to feel tight, again, so he took the last hit of his inhaler and tossed it to the ground. The world is not your garbage can, Billy, mommy said in his head and she was right. Only pigs tossed garbage on the ground and that wasn’t him.
He bent down and started feeling around in the cold grass for the inhaler and suddenly he froze. The night was closing in on him. Slowly, he stood up and took a few more steps, then stopped.
Something flew over his head and brushed against the edge of his mask. He stifled a scream.
It was just a bird. Maybe a bat, but he wasn’t afraid of bats. His imagination was getting the best of him—that’s all. But his shoes…It was cold, he was scared and he could barely see a thing. He must have stumbled back out onto the path.
He knelt and stretched his hand towards the ground. Cool blades of grass feathered between his fingers and sent a shiver up his spine. That was not his imagination.
He carefully stood up and nonchalantly continued walking and the crunching sound matched him, pace for pace until he stopped cold.
His heart pounded against his ribcage like a beast trying to escape. Cold sweat broke out all over his body even though he was now freezing. For a terrifying second it felt like his feet were planted in decade-old cement before his brain caught up and he tore off through the graveyard, painfully bumping into stone after stone, scraping his knuckles along the way. What was making the crunching sound?
He dared a fleeting look back and his sneaker caught on a grave marker, sending him hurling towards the ground. The heavy pillow case launched from his hand like a rocket, as he tried to break his fall, and caught the top of an old gravestone, raining candy down upon the long-dead resident.
His wounded hands failed to stop his fall as they plunged deeply into the moist earth with a muffled crack. The ground here was soft and his face landed into the earthy smell of grass and dirt, the werewolf mask viciously crackling in his ears.
A sickening sense of vertigo came over him when he tried to pull his hands free and a loud cracking sound rumbled beneath his stomach. He was falling again!
“Noooooo!” He yelled, clutching for something to grab hold of in the damp dirt.
The world turned upside down in his flailing effort and he was now falling on his back, reaching up, like he was going down a water slide backwards. The moon flickered in and out through dark branches, waving goodbye, as he kicked and grabbed towards the sky, dropping further and further into the ground.
Dirt and worms and black crawly things fell on top of him when he landed on something soft. It was the larger things that came down with a hollow clatter that had him worried.
When dirt finally stopped pouring in on him, he shook himself loose and pushed up on something round and sticky. His two fingers had gotten stuck inside of it like a bowling bowl as he stood up. Then he realized in shocking disgust, he was standing inside of a busted coffin, holding a human skull like he was going for a spare. He dropped the skull and frantically wiped his hands in the dirt.
Just an icky-sticky skull—icky-sticky dead skull. It’s dead, can’t hurt me.
He took long, deep breaths to calm himself. This was serious. More serious than being grounded. Grounded! Ha! That was a laugh! He was grounded. He could hear Derek in his head: You’re grounded—ha, ha, haaa!
Not funny Derek.
The entire coffin—including himself—had fallen through the earth to…Where? He squinted and looked around the best he could. Splintered wood, old silk and bones were everywhere covered in dirt, mixed with smelly tree roots. There must’ve been an air pocket or something underneath the coffin when it’d been buried centuries ago. He was at least fifteen feet down.
Why hadn’t he just walked around the cemetery?
He took a few more labored breaths. The last thing he needed right now was an asthma attack. His spent inhaler was somewhere above, littering the ground. The only thing he needed to concentrate on was getting out of this musty, sunken grave.
He felt around for the thickest root and wound it around his wrist as tight as he could and tried to scale the wall like Batman. He tried three times with three different roots, but each had pulled loose from the dirt wall and he’d toppled back down into the bones.
The wood from the coffin was nothing but dry-rot, no help there in building a make-shift ladder. His only chance was to try and climb up the dirt walls by digging footholds with his hands and feet. Thankfully, the dirt was soft enough.
Plunge after plunge Billy clawed into the wormy earth, wincing as fresh dirt ground into the gouges on his knuckles. He couldn’t help it but the tip of his tongue kept touching bits of dirt stuck inside his mask. A bad habit when he was concentrating mommy had said, but he wasn’t taking the mask off now. Somehow taking it off would make this all-too real.
He could see a bit of the moon! It was working! He was climbing his way up the dirt.
Moving faster, he sunk his hands and feet in deep and then suddenly his fingers were wiggling—whaaa?
Before he knew what was happening the dirt wall caved in and he was tumbling forward in a dirty avalanche.
He desperately grabbed at the roots, but, trickster as they were, they snapped free, letting him fall further into the ground.
When the dirt-ride was over he sat up and shook his head. Clumps of dirt that were stuck behind the battered werewolf mask flew out from each side and he spit, repeatedly, until his mouth was as clean as he could get it.
He looked down at his sore, busted hands and realized that he could see clearly, again. There was light. He stood up and looked around. He’d fallen into some kind of passageway and he didn’t like the looks of things. Out of the frying pan…
The passage was narrow and the walls were made from thousands and thousands of bones, all fitted together that created an uncanny pattern of upside-down crosses. Deep breaths, deep-deep breaths. The pattern drew his eyes towards the end where a door made of thick, old boards held together by black iron, stood tall. A big iron circle, like a bull-ring, sat in the middle and more like was glowing from under the door.
The things that had his heart racing were staring him in the eyes, just above the height of his chin. In perfect rows on either side of the passageway, skulls were embedded within the walls of bones. Perfectly straight and all the way down to the door. Inside each skull a red candle had been placed, creating eerie red eyes that lit the way down the macabre hall.
With no other choice of getting out of the sunken grave Billy carefully started down the passage, followed by the red eyes as if they were turning in the wall to watch him walk.
After all, the door had to lead somewhere. Hopefully that somewhere was out of the cemetery. He just prayed that whatever had been chasing him up above didn’t decide to drop down for a visit.
The door handle was cool as he grasped the ring and the door pushed in on well-oiled hinges—not even a creak! He left it open and stepped into a large room and, just like the passageway, it was completely made of bones. It was even furnished in horrifying furniture intricately crafted from femurs and ribcages and bones of which he couldn’t remember their names. Worst of all, the cushions were made of dried skin stitched together and stuffed with human hair. The faces were centered in the middle and buttons adorned the eyes.
What has he gotten himself into?
He was better off uselessly clawing at the dirt in the grave.
Just before he was about to turn around and do exactly that, he noticed someone with their back turned, standing by the far wall of the skeleton room. They were doing something in front of a table next to a burning fireplace made from an arch of more hideous skulls. Billy was pretty sure the calico rug beneath their feet was made of human-hair. He felt like he was going to throw up.
This couldn’t be good—no matter how you sliced it!
He was just going to quietly tiptoe out and close that nice quiet door behind him and hope that whoever it was just stayed in their nice boney room when he noticed the hairband.
“Katie?” He blurted out. It left his mouth before he had a chance to do anything about it.
She straightened from the table, took a moment and turned around straightening her hair band and sniffing at the air.
“Billy! Is that you? You came to my party early,” she said and started walking across the room.
“Party—huh? You mean next week?”
“What is that scary costume you’re wearing?” She mock-shivered as she said the word scary. “A werewolf? It’s really creepy, but you know they aren’t real, right?” She flashed him a smile and there was something dripping from her teeth. He tried to see what was on the table but she kept veering in his line of sight as she came closer.
And there was something in the way she was walking that Billy didn’t like. As if she were struggling to keep something under control.
“Katie, what are you doing down here in this—“, he looked around, “room? We have to get out of here! Maybe if I lifted you up, you could—”
“Get out of here?” She looked around as if what she saw was a cozy room at the Ritz. “Why would I want to do that? Don’t you know the stories are true, Billy?”
She was almost across the room, now, and he was getting a bad feeling that was running down the middle of his back, like someone trying to wrench the spine from his body.
“What stories? You mean the stories about Ghouls living in this cemetery?”
“Yes, Billy, those stories. But not in it, under it.”
She walked past him to the door and rested her hand on the edge as she continued. “We’ve lived here for centuries—I’m older than I look. Even before that old town called Live Lanrete. That name was actually a joke made up by the man who ran the town. It wasn’t named after an old Indian tribe—that story was a rumor. The man who ran Live Lanrete, he was one of us.” She was shaking her head in remembrance. “But like that town, all good things come to an end and there was none of you left. We quickly realized that we needed your kind to survive.” She chuckled. “We were quite the pigs back then and the town of Lanrete soon dried up. There was nothing left, so we moved under ground. And waited. Under this cemetery, Billy. And we waited and waited as the bulldozers and tractors tore everything apart, but this cemetery, and put up all the things your kind cherishes. Right over our heads, well, around it at least. Then we’d learned our lesson, not to be greedy.”
Billy didn’t understand. What was she talking about?
“I don’t understand, Katie?” He started to shake. “I thought Ghouls were scary and ugly.” He sounded like a child. He could hear the fright in his voice like he was standing in a room, listening to a little boy. Mommy was right.
Katie took off the headband and she began to transform. The pretty little girl he knew from homeroom was a horrible beast with sunken eyes, dozens of pointy teeth circled by black lips and skin like a fetid corpse. Those teeth—there were so many teeth.
“Wha—what do you na-na—need us for?”
She smiled with those awful lips and wicked teeth and nodded towards the table by the fireplace.
Billy looked at the table and his eyes widened in horror. A dark stain bloomed in the front of his pants and ran down both pant legs.
“What do you think Ghouls eat, Billy,” she said and slowly closed the door.