Aubree hummed solemnly—the vibration formed in her throat, built just below her jaw, and escaped into the autumn wind through her nose. That odd, melancholy tune was reserved solely for the completion of the year, the harvest, the dead.
She teetered precariously on her toes as she plucked crimson apples from a tree in the village’s small orchard. The nip in the air threatened frost, threatened the apples with the same death brought to the souls they’d soon be celebrating—or avoiding. Aubree’s hair—a shade nearly matching that of her prisoners—whipped furiously in cinnamon scented air, a chill burrowed, like a groundhog seeking winter shelter, down her spine, and frozen tears formed in her reddened eyes. Aubree tucked her face into her shoulder. The basket containing the sweet, red apples swung unsteady, to and froe, and before she could right herself, a series of thuds, like children running, smacked upon the hardened ground.
“Donovan,” Aubree huffed, “come help Mommy pick up the apples.” Aubree hiked up her long dress and stepped cautiously from the stool she had been perched upon. “Donovan?”
The young boy had escaped, again.
Among the commotion in the small village—the harvesting of corn, men dragging lumber for the evening’s large bonfire, women scurrying about leaving bread and wine on their doorsteps—there was no sign of the small dark-haired boy who had a habit of following daydreams and flights-of-fancy. Aubree rushed to retrieve the now bruised apples from the ground and jogged back into the heart of the village, nearly tripping on her skirt. The sun was beginning to droop, sleepy, in the pinking sky and they’d soon be out of time.
“Donovan!” Aubree shouted through thick inhales that stung her throat. She weaved deftly through crowds and logs and wheelbarrows. “Donovan McCollough where are you?”
Aubree shifted and turned there in the heart of the village, taking in all of her surroundings, looking for the little boy in the tattered green sweater with bare dirty feet. She groaned and began sprinting to their meager house, hoping he’d gone home looking for a crumb of bread.
“Donovan!” Aubree cried as she strode the dirty path.
“Aubree?” a thick, hard hand grasped her shoulder.
Aubree swung around, startled. “What?”
Michael O’Conner stood gazing upon her. His smile was wide and glowed in the neon of the setting sun. “Are you ok, Aubree?”
“I can’t find Donovan.”
“I just saw him down by the willow. He was fiddling with an old mask.”
Aubree leaned her head back and blew out a long stream of air, “Thank you, Michael. Thank you.”
“You shouldn’t worry yourself so much. I know how difficult it’s been, but, it won’t happen again. Not to Donovan. We’re all watching out for him.”
“Donovan isn’t nearly as strong as his brother, and he invites trouble. Tonight, of all nights, I have to keep him safe.” Aubree’s face was stone as she shuffled away, the basket clinging to her hip.
On the outskirts of the village, next to a glassy lake, sat the ancient, mottled willow tree. The trunk bent, like the back of a withered old man, and its limbs dangled thick and empty and blew like tired arms reaching out for one last chance at life. Beneath the thin, whip-like branches sat the shadow of tiny Donovan. His sweater so big that it enveloped his meager frame—his knees pulled up to his chest inside of it so that only his dirty feet poked out. In his hands, Donovan held and examined an old rabbit mask. It was made from deep maroon cotton, ivory around the snout, strange wires for whiskers. They eyes of the mask were black, hollow, and seemed to peer right into nothing. The thing, from a distance, looked as if he had decapitated a giant rabbit. As Aubree approached, the song she, herself, hummed burrowed deep within her ear as it passed on the Eve’s breeze.
“Donovan, what are you doing?” Aubree called as she approached her son. He hadn’t heard her feet shuffle through the fallen red, yellow, and orange leaves. He hadn’t heard the crunch as she bared down upon him.
“Mommy,” Donovan stood, untangling himself from the sweater. “I want to wear this mask tonight.”
“Absolutely not,” Aubree ripped the rabbit mask from Donovan’s hands. “And don’t you run off again. You can’t run off again. Especially tonight.”
“But I want Danny to recognize me,” Donovan whined. “If I wear this mask, when he comes back, he’ll recognize me.”
Real, hot tears poked like flames at Aubree’s eyes. She fought back a sob, she didn’t want to cry. Not here, not today. “That isn’t how it works.” Aubree grabbed Donovan’s hand and jerked him along beside her. “When the dead rise tonight, it isn’t to make friends, son. It isn’t a reunion.”
“What’s a reunion?”
“Nevermind. We really have to hurry now. You’ve wasted too much time. They’ll be starting soon.”
The glowing sky turned purple over the tiny village and the great fire in the center of the meager homes was lit. It burned a crisp, decadent orange that illuminated the small circle of cottages that surrounded it. Women shimmied close with torches, ignited them, and scuttled back to their domains to light their hearths for the new year.
When this ritual was complete, the village elders took their places in rotting, oak rocking chairs around the bonfire—the rest of the village’s men, women, and children sat on logs or in the dirt—and begun weaving tales of long ago, the celebration of the harvest, the deception—the trickery of the dead.
“I don’t think Danny would try to trick us, Mommy.” Donovan whispered, pulling down the brown mouse mask Aubree had sewn for him.
“Hush, not now.”
“What’s that?” Elder Rodrick wheezed through a tattered, frayed raven mask with a long, stuffed beak. “Donovan? Do you have a question my boy?”
“He’s fine, Mr. Bryan,” Aubree spouted.
“Nonsense. We have time. The boy has had a trying year, and it’s his first with visitors. What were you saying Donovan?”
“Mr. Bryan, I—um”
“Rodrick is fine boy. No sense being formal now.” The gray-haired man’s voice came muffled through the bulging beak. He didn’t turn his head to look at the boy, but only stared with the strange, blank bird eyes into the lapping fire.
“Mr. Rodrick. I want my brother to recognize me when he comes. T-That’s all.”
“I’m sure you do, boy. I’m sure you do.” Rodrick Bryan let out an ominous, guttural laugh. It only lasted a second and then disappeared like the memories Donovan had of his father who’d wondered off into the night with a bag on his shoulder when Donovan was just forming sentences, and then never came home to put his clothes back in the dresser. “Spirits, Donovan, aren’t the same as the loved ones we’ve lost. No. They are only a small piece of them. They can’t love us or tell us they miss us. On this night, they have just the smallest bit of time to touch this realm, and when they do, they are chaotic—uncontrollable. They don’t think clearly on this side anymore. Do you understand? Because they don’t belong here.”
“But Danny—" Donovan started.
“I know you miss your brother. It was a shock to all of us what happened to him. If you see him tonight, if you see anyone tonight, you must stay under cover, Donovan. Just like always.”
“That’s enough,” Aubree said through her brightly colored hummingbird mask as she placed a hand on Donovan’s shoulder.
The stories continued well into the night. The moon hung full and white over the crowd in the heart of the village as the fresh, frozen breeze began to gust furiously. Offerings were brought to the bonfire—chickens, pigs, pies, and other handcrafted specialties—in hopes that the spirits would do as little harm as possible. That they wouldn’t destroy the crops that had yet to be harvested, would leave homes where they stood, wouldn’t take any souls back with them.
Shadows descended on the village, first, one-by-one. Then, in pairs, groups, hoards. Each of them lurked just beyond the light cast by the enormous pit of flame. They were untouched by the howling wind that thrust the villagers from their seats. They didn’t fight to stand against the galing winds—not even their clothes shifted in as the scent of the air changed from cinnamon and pumpkin and ripe, harvested apples to rot and decay. As the villagers looked on, frozen in terror, the shadows crept forward—out of the inky night and into the expectant orange glow prepared for their arrival.
“To your beds,” Rodrick murmured through his raven beak, but the villagers stayed immobile, as if they had been encased in amber, as if they hadn’t done this very thing year after year. “Now!” he clapped his hands loudly.
Chaos erupted as if a sharp shooter were taking aim and unleashing bullets, like bees, upon the unarmed village. Shrieks and gasps and wails echoed in the open field, bounced off the maple and oak trees and amplified, filled the entire wood with the sounds of torment and despair. The sound of fear joined when the people saw the faces of the spirits who had come for their offerings—covered in their own bloodied, gruesome versions of woodland masks—hollow black eyes that oozed rich ruby blood. It dripped from the faces of squirrels, goats, and mules that used to belong to loved ones—sons, mothers, brothers. The spirits descended as those still tethered to the earth frantically fled.
Aubree extended her hand for Donovan, “Hurry, we have to get to our beds,” but there was no one to reach back for her. Aubree’s head darted down to where Donovan had just been, but the space he had been occupying was now cold, empty. The boy had disappeared, again. “Donovan!” she screamed.
“Go home, Aubree. Surely, that’s where the boy has gone to wait for Danny.” Rodrick Bryan’s withered voice groaned into her ear. He patted her shoulder and hobbled toward the door of his own crumbling wood cabin, just outside the fire’s circle, giving one last look to the meager offerings on his doorstep before disappearing inside.
The dirt and leaves and dried grass gave way to loud grinding beneath Aubree’s boots as she ran for home, leaving the dark spirits to gather around the enormous glowing fire to collect their seasonal gifts. Some would be appeased and leave, others would finish and wreak havoc in the quiet village—torment—travelling door-to-door. Aubree flung open her green, wooden door and quickly closed it behind her.
“Donovan?” she whispered, her eyes darting back and forth. She held her breath—didn’t dare light a lamp and call attention to their home. “Donovan,” Aubree called again into the darkness. Silence.
She stumbled through the rooms of the cottage, feeling past tables and chairs lit only by slivers of moonlight that seeped in through the few slender windows. Aubree hoped her son was already in his bed and was relieved to see a mop of cocoa hair just above the patchwork quilt atop his bed.
“You shouldn’t have run off. Stay put til morning,” she scolded him through her mask and tip-toed to her own bed.
Yet, beneath the round, battered kitchen table sat Donovan, peering into the darkness of his home. His breath was heavy and hot inside his brother’s old rabbit mask—condensation and sweat collected on his upper lip and he swiped at it with his tongue. Donovan swallowed hard against the excitement of seeing his brother and the salt of his own skin.
Time passed slowly under the table, and soon, Donovan found himself humming his mother’s strange, otherworldly tune as he picked at the skin next to his toenails. A loud creak startled Donovan from his task, and freezing air encompassed him as the cottage door shuttered and opened. Nothing. Nothing was there as his eyes searched for whomever had turned the knob and pushed open the door. When Donovan had finished holding his breath and his lungs felt sufficiently burned, he released the breath that had turned them into balloons only to sharply inhale it again when two pale, muddy feet appeared in the doorway.
The feet wandered slowly, the floorboards squeaking under their weight, as they drifted from shelving where books were kept, to knick-knacks, to the table under which Donovan hid in Danny’s rabbit mask—where they stopped, turned, and lingered silently. The only sounds left in the room were the whistling wind and Donovan’s shaking gasps, until that song, his mother’s song, quietly wafted down from above in a gravelly, guttural tone.
Without warning, Danny’s face appeared under the table. His eyes were hazy, white—no longer the bright green Donovan knew. He had no mask. His skin was pale, pale as moonlight, save the red-brown freckles that dotted his cheeks. Danny smiled, still missing his two front teeth, and that gap poured shimmering water like a spout until he closed his mouth again.
Donovan began to scream but muffled it with his hands before it could alert his mother or any other adults. “I knew you’d come,” he whimpered through cracked fingers.
Danny tilted his head back and forth, his white, glossy eyes revolving like globes, as if they were lost, confused.
“It’s me. It’s Donovan. You recognize me, don’t you?”
Danny continued to search absently, unable to make a connection.
“Here, see.” Donovan slowly reached up and hooked his thumbs under the bottom of the mask. He lifted it carefully, revealing his chin, his skinny lips, his button nose—until finally Donovan’s blue eyes stared into Danny’s translucent ones. “It’s just me, Danny.”
Danny smiled again, more water streamed from the hole in his mouth, and he choked. He extended a long, skinny arm and reached out for Donovan, but his brother scuttled away like a horseshoe crab on the sand. Danny tried again, extending just a finger and bending it inward. Then, he twisted his head and peered out the window into the night.
“You—You want me to come? Where are we going?”
Danny didn’t answer but stood from his hunched position and stalked out the front door. Donovan replaced the rabbit mask, crawled out from under the table, and chased after Danny.
“Where are we going?” Donovan whispered after his brother as they moved through the village and neared the woods.
Danny didn’t speak but turned and looked at his brother as if to say ‘stop asking so many questions’. Then, he hurried the pace.
Goosebumps covered Donovan’s skin and the wind whipped his neck, yet his head stayed toasty warm covered by the mask that kept him safe from the spirits that drifted through the village and the forest. He wasn’t aware of where Danny had led him until he looked up and saw the full moon dancing on the flat surface of lake on the outskirts of the village. The same lake where Danny had drowned a year before.
“Stop, Danny!” Donovan screamed through the wool stuffed mask. But Danny kept going. Soon he was knee-deep in the icy water. “Danny, you have to stop! You’ll—” but Donovan couldn’t find the right words, so he ran into the water after his brother. It splashed around his thin trousers, soaked them, and the cold went right to the bone.
Donovan’s teeth chattered—slammed together like two raging bulls—a result of freeze and fear. But he wasn’t scared for himself, he was horrified for Danny. He’d lost him once, he didn’t want to lose him again. “S-Stop Danny. You w-won’t come back if you go in too far. The water is too c-cold.”
Danny wasn’t phased by the water, though, it had already done its damage. He’d already lost all he could to it. Danny turned, his eyes—almost mechanical—seemed to be searching again. It was as if, somehow, he’d lost Donovan in the water.
“Danny,” Donovan shouted, understanding the problem. He hooked his thumbs to the rabbit mask and slowly began to slide it from his face, but his limbs shook so badly from the cold that he couldn’t peel it from above his lips. “Danny!” Donovan’s muffled cry rang out.
Thunderous footfalls resounded on the bank of the lake. Danny’s head shot toward the noise as Donovan’s body sunk, succumbing to the chill.
“Donovan!” Aubree’s shrill scream rang like a siren through the night as she and Michael O’Conner ran into the water.
Michael swept Donovan into his arms as Aubree yanked the mask from his face and kissed his cheek.
“I told you not to wear this,” Aubree said.
“Danny came,” Donovan murmured into her shoulder.
“What?” she gasped as she shifted and surveyed the lake, and she saw him, her boy, standing just where the men had pulled him from—floating face down wearing the damn rabbit mask. “Danny?” Aubree said as she waded out for him.
Danny turned, reached out a long, green, decayed arm and open his mouth wide. It was as if someone had opened a dam. Putrid, murky water spewed forth like all the words Aubree never got to say. Aubree inhaled sharply but regained her composer and reached out to caress her son’s face.
“My boy. I should have done better this year. Here, you’ll be needing this.” Aubree handed Danny the rabbit mask.
The boy took it, placed it over the deteriorating flesh of his face, and in the blink of an eye, was restored standing on the shore of the lake. “Thank you, Mother,” the young boy whispered, and disappeared into the fading moonlight.
#HumpdayHorror Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
Welcome to my blog. Sit back and enjoy a short story, a poem, or some flash fiction--whatever I have recently cooked up. I will post a new piece as often as possible. Check back once a week to see what's new.