If you’re just joining the party, go read Ch. 1.
The worried, flabby man. The giant, looming shadow…the dream had been strange. Strange and disturbing, but just a dream all the same.
Funny that I found myself thinking it over on the walk across UTK’s campus to Terry’s Halloween party. Not counting the garish and ghoulish decorations the residents had plastered on any surface that wasn’t moving, over the last year and a half, I’d gotten used to odd nighttime visions.
Yeah, but they usually only happen when you’ve been knocked out.
I couldn’t remember being knocked out recently, but my dreams are generally weird. Suppose this was just barely recalled bits from the night before. Still, my brain worried at it like it was trying to remember a familiar word suddenly forgotten. I tried to set it aside, but it itched, just faintly, in the back of my mind.
The walk to Terry’s place wasn’t long, even after stopping to pick Hannah up at the Dry Glass. She dressed as one of the Brides of Dracula, slinky almost sheer fabric and low neckline with lots of powder to pale her olive-toned skin. A black wig concealed her chestnut hair. I missed most of the walk, my mind flitting back and forth between how Hannah’s costume hugged her figure and the crazy dream about the giant bird. Beholding the spectacle of Terry’s decorations in full glory rinsed the thoughts cleanly from my head.
The battered crests of tombstones jutted up through the tall grass like bones poking through dead flesh. The remains of animals, some small, some not, hung sporadically from the bent and blackened spikes of the buckling wrought-iron fence. Shreds of clothing once white, now soiled and bloody, rippled in the branches of a gnarled weeping willow.
We all thought it.
“Terry really goes all out for his Halloween party,” Hannah said in a childish glee that only comes from no longer being a child but remembering it fondly.
“Sure does,” I said.
Amnesia means I have no such memory of childhood, but it seemed like an appropriate response.
We ambled up the broken steps, negotiated the tangled sidewalk, and went up the dramatically creaking porch steps and knocked on Terry’s door. Hannah did the knocking. I stopped to pat the weather-beaten stone lion that sat sentinel on Terry’s front step on its craggy head.
Terry answered the door, a patina of disappointment on his face, well what of his face I could see. His usual shiny, bald noggin was covered, neck to crown, in a fine, downy fur. Tusk-like fangs protruded from his lower lip in a gruesome underbite. His glasses were replaced with sickly-yellow contact lenses. I couldn’t figure out if he was going for comical or scary. Knowing Terry, it was probably both.
“You didn’t ring the bell,” He said, motioning to the hangman’s noose dangling from the door jamb. “I rigged it especially for tonight.”
“Aw,” Hannah said, kissing him on the forehead. “Did we ruin your night?”
“Not at all,” Terry said, smiling through his overlarge lower canines.
I reached up and pulled the noose. A deep, almost gravelly voice bellowed, “You rang?”
Hannah giggled, and Terry beamed.
As usual, I had no clue what the voice was a reference to.
I hate amnesia.
I’ve only had four years, or so, to catch up, culturally, to everyone I know. In the last year, Hannah had been introducing me to Elvis, and the Beatles, and something called Acid Rock. We hadn’t gotten to many television references yet, as I still didn’t own a TV, and the only one Hannah had was bolted to the back wall of her bar. My friends had made sure, especially in the lead up to the holiday that I’d been educated about some Halloween traditions. My friends made sure of that, especially in the lead up to the holiday. Terry was doing his own take on The Wolfman, fake fur completely covering his shiny-bald head. A scruff of beard around his jawline where his devil’s beard usually sat. I thought of going dressed as a detective from 1940s L.A. like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel, but Hannah said it looked too much like what I usually wore. She was right. On her suggestion, I ended up cobbling together a passable Frankenstein’s monster at the last minute. The spirit gum I used to attach the bolts was beginning to make my neck itch.
“And how is the abominable creation?” Terry asked.
“Booze good,” I said in my best Karloff impression. They’d made me watch all of the Frankenstein films, even the one with Abbott and Costello.
“It is indeed, and it’s that way,” He said, turning to the side and sweeping a fur-covered arm inward.
Hannah slid through the doorway first, making sure to brush her breasts in a full sweep across my chest as she slipped past.
“Excuse me,” She said, flashing me a coquettish glance before moving on.
“She did that on purpose,” Terry said when she was safely out of earshot.
“And God bless her for it,” I replied.
Terry sniggered and wrapped a sinewy arm around me, pulling me over the threshold.
The inside of Terry’s house lived up to the expectations set by the outside. Large spider webs with human skeleton-sized cocoons festooned several corners. Moldy black gauze hung in tatters and shreds from the chrome fixtures. There were bleeding candles, waxed hands of glory, and realistic skulls that had conversations with anyone who got too close to the bookshelves. The music drifted randomly between spooky mood music and old classics like the Monster Mash. The lighting followed the emotional tempo of the music, brighter for the old favorites and darker or even strobing for the mood pieces. There was a shriek from the back hall, followed by a string of curses and giggles. Terry looked at me and raised a fist in victory: the animatronic zombie cat he’d set up earlier in the day had just pounced on some unsuspecting prey.
Yes, Terry ‘The Horror’ Horrowitz had, in fact, outdone himself this year.
All manner of hags, haints, spooks, and specters populated the party. Vampires roamed the halls and linen-wrapped mummies lounged on plush leather couches. Succubae drank toasts with pirates and made passes at zombies eating finger foods. There was even a lady dressed as the Red Death from Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. I’d caught a lot of the old monster movies at the Dry Glass, Hannah’s bar, while waiting for her to close up. The costume was surreal in its detail right down to the skull mask. Couldn’t tell what, but something about it unsettled me. I chalked it up to lack of liquor and went to find the punch.
Detective Justin Hagen arrived at the party with his date decked out in a nearly perfect Errol Flynn Robin Hood costume, right down to the feather in his felt hat. The greens and reds seemed to compliment the deep caramel of the rest of him. And if the getup showed off his runner’s legs, I’m sure we had Max to thank for it. His companion and our resident medical examiner, Dr. Maxine Gault, was elegantly dressed as Olivia DeHaviland’s Maid Marian. She was taller than him by a good three inches and as pale as he was dark. They made quite a pair.
“Robin Hood eh?” I asked when I sidled up to them.
“I live for irony,” Justin said, smirking at me.
“You look positively lovely,” I said to Maxine.
“Why thank you,” She said. “And don’t mind him, I think the tights are chaffing his mood.”
“Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?” I laughed. “Where do you hide your badge in that getup?”
Justin opened a leather pouch on his belt, showing me his ID and his holdout 38.
“Should have come as the Sheriff of Nottingham,” I said.
“The Sheriff doesn’t get the girl,” Maxine said.
I looked at Justin. He looked at me. We nodded our agreement. Most of what passed for communication between Justin and me went unsaid. Because, why say it if you both already know?
“Where’s Hannah?” Justin asked.
“Think she went to mingle among the monsters,” I said.
“A lot of them,” Justin said. “Terry’s parties always this popular?”
“That’s what I hear,” Maxine said.
Justin and I both shot her a puzzled look.
“What?” she asked. “I work around campus, and I listen.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Why don’t you two get some punch and I’ll go find my undead date.”
“We’ll meet you by the witch’s brew,” Maxine said, leading Justin by the arm over to the bubbling cauldron full of smoke and punch.
I wound my way through the crowd, which seemed to be thicker than just a moment before. The music took an eerie shift, and the lights dimmed to almost nothing. A group of ghoulish candy stripers passed close by, each one inflicted with wounds more gruesome and gorier than the last, everything from bruises to compound fractures, bone shards sticking through the skin. Giant gashes tore across torsos, exposing ribcages and viscera. The last one in the group seemed to have been crushed by something with hands like coal shovels. The lights strobed in time to a heavy tom-tom beat. Something large bumped against me in the darkness between flashes. The air turned dense and hot, making it hard to breathe. The music got spookier, more sound effects; wailing, sirens, thunder. The lights ebbed darker. In the crash of a drumbeat, I saw Hannah across the room. She was talking to some dude dressed as The Angel of Death. His coal-ash wings dripped ichor. The feathers seemed to curl around, cradling her. Something about the scene got under my skin. Too weird. Too close. Just too much. Maybe it was the itching on my neck, or the creepy music, or the vapor from the fog machine, but I had to get some fresh air.
I struggled through the crowd toward Hannah. It was slog through invisible mud. The air itself turned viscous and slow. The crowd grew impassibly thick, drums throbbed, the lights dimmed and flared. I wished Hannah hadn’t talked me out of bringing my .45. It took forever before I squeezed through enough of the crowd to get to her. I popped through the last tangle of costumes, and Hannah was gone. In her place, Red Death.
“Sorry,” I said, almost bumping into her. “I was looking for someone else.”
“I know what you’re looking for,” she said.
The lights went out. The room shook. Someone screamed. The sound was not followed by cursing and giggling, but by more shrieks. The lights strobed painfully bright, then dim again. I could only see her eyes under the skull mask. They gleamed like wet emeralds. Her gloved hands cradled my face. The smell of soft leather and spent gunpowder washed over me.
I know you.
“Yes,” she said.
But you only come around when I’m…
“On the verge,” she repeated in the same flat tone.
The screams around us grew louder, more terrified. The air filled with the sounds of panic and suffering.
On the verge of what this time?
But if you’re here, then this is only…
“Yes, but you’ve got to come back now.”
Okay, but first I’ve got to get Hannah.
Even as I thought it, I could feel the cold creeping up my spine. Red Death kept my face in her hands.
“If you have to,” she said, letting my face slip from between her gloves, “But be prepared.”
The crowd parted around her.
“Something is coming,” she said, and the sea of costumes swallowed her.
People jammed together, crushed by their own panic to flee. I couldn’t see what it was we were supposed to be fleeing from. The lights strobed. Each explosion of darkness brought with it a new series of pained howls and cries. The house rocked. The floor pitched under my feet. Hannah cried for help. I fought the crowd, and the heaving floor, heading in the direction of her voice. Lights blotted out completely. Music died. Space opened up around me. I couldn’t hear or see anything.
An odor, astringent and acrid all at once, like ammonia, crept into my nostrils. I forced myself not to choke on it. Heavy, stomping steps circled me. I spun in every direction, trying to get a fix on them. The scent intensified, impossible to ignore. The stomping grew louder and closer with every step. I lashed out at the darkness, fist whistling through empty air. A deep, guttural laugh echoed off the walls. It came from everywhere. I froze, hands clenched into loose fists, waiting for it to come. A hand, cold as winter wind and hard as granite, clamped down on my left shoulder. An icy sensation shot into my chest, wrapped around my heart and squeezed. The laughter, a sound like rocks being pulverized, filled my ears. My legs gave out. I hit the floor. Cackling, so loud it hurt, pounded on my eardrums and throbbed behind my eyes. I craned my neck to see. Eyes like burning coals stared at me from the black. The hand gripped tighter. The twin fires burned brighter. Heat baked my skin.
And then the world exploded in white.
Tune in tomorrow for th next thrilling installment.
The Hungry Dark comes out Thursday, 3/19. 5.99 e-book & 12.99 paperback, (USD). You’ll be able to find it pretty much everywhere online. But also feel free to request it from your local library.