Horror folk, gather ’round. Our favorite season is upon us! Soon the leaves will fall; the candy will flow. Naysayers might wonder, “Why start the countdown so soon?” Hahaha. A lot of us started our countdown on November 1st of last year! Am I right??? 🙂
So anyway, I just released a collection for Kindle and NOOK entitled The Tooth Collector and Other Tales of Terror, and since one of the stories is Halloween-themed, I’d like to share it here.
This story originally appeared in Dark Moon Digest. I hope you enjoy it.
Daniel turned the pages of his mother’s photo album, fighting back tears. Pictures of his own face—in various stages of development—stared back at him, a reminder of innocence lost. Snapshots filled each glossy slot in careful chronological order. His mother’s handwriting marked the months and years on bits of paper underneath. A familiar lump returned to his throat as he resisted the urge to cry.
Daniel closed the book and rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had failed her. He was a loser. After forty-eight years of life, it was obvious. He hadn’t accomplished much of anything, so busy following his dreams that he never thought to set aside money for his mother’s needs.
In the end, when mom had passed, he was forced to sell the few valuables he owned just to pay for her funeral. Even then, he couldn’t afford a casket. Mom now rested in a porcelain urn.
He stood up from the foot of his mother’s bed and smoothed the wrinkles from the cover. It occurred to him that this was a pointless action, that sooner or later the bedding would join her other possessions in a truck heading for the nearest Goodwill. But he adjusted it anyway, noticing its age for the first time. It was the same ragged quilt she’d been using for decades.
He looked around the room at the outdated decor, the open closet full of thrift store dresses, the ancient TV atop her dresser. She hadn’t lived a glamorous life. Her only child, Daniel, had failed to provide.
Placing the photo album in a box marked “keep”, Daniel turned to face the rest of the closet’s contents. The clothes would all go; that was easy. The boxes full of knickknacks and keepsakes, those would take some time to sort through. He owed her that much, to handle her items with care. They were memories, after all, souvenirs from a lifetime spent encouraging her loser son. First, with his failed movie career. Then, with his non-selling novels. Mother always kept the faith that he’d succeed.
Daniel grabbed a shoe box from the shelf and placed it on the bed. It was old, the logos obviously passé. His fingers left prints on the dusty surface as he removed the lid, setting it aside. The box contained papers—some folded, some rolled, some small enough to fit without bending. He unrolled a paper: the deed to the house. He walked it over to the “keep” container, setting it next to the box so it wouldn’t get buried beneath the other items as he sorted.
He started a pile of old receipts, crumbling them as he scanned them for importance. And then, further down, underneath the top layer of papers, he spotted something that made his brow furrow. It looked exactly like something he’d seen in his youth. The words were different, but there was no mistaking the font.
He picked up the red post card with the bold, black text. The words were scrawled in haunting, gothic letters. As a boy, he had marveled at the shape of each character. He’d never seen writing like it. And now—as a grown man—he knew he hadn’t seen it since.
There was no picture, no friendly greeting, not even a stamp. The card was the color of blood, but lacking the glossy coat that some post cards possess. Just the dull, crimson paper with the strange black letters.
He remembered how Jimmy Hannigan had gloated, waving it around. A chubby redheaded kid with an ego so big it made you wonder what he saw in the mirror, he carried himself with an attitude that suggested he was Top Dog. Jimmy was a hellion, a cool outlaw, trapped in the body of an overweight ginger. Daniel knew this was why he bullied the other kids, like in that moment, as he taunted Daniel with the post card in his hand. “Didn’t get one, huh?”
“Don’t want one.” Daniel kicked a rock with his dirty Ked sneaker, eyeing Jimmy with thinly veiled chagrin.
Ever since the delivery man had appeared on Jimmy’s doorstep and handed him the strange invitation, he couldn’t stop beaming from ear to ear. Jimmy had spent the school day with that dumb smile on his face, questioning all the children in their seventh grade class. “Did you get one?” he would ask, waving the crimson card around. With each “no” he seemed to walk a little taller, as if hand-picked to join a group of socialites.
The invitation itself was peculiar. The letters looked like they belonged in the credits of Vampira or The Addams Family, and Daniel was thoroughly intrigued. He found himself trailing Jimmy as he posed the question to each classmate. So far only Teddy Green, Dennis Halloway, and Johnny Cougar had matching post cards. The oddest part: they were the worst kids in school.
Daniel was partly telling the truth when he said he didn’t want an invitation. There was a twinge of jealousy at having been excluded, but something about the blood red card, inviting the recipient to the “best haunted house this Halloween” sent a chill down the length of Daniel’s spine. He had been there when the delivery man arrived on Jimmy’s doorstep. The lanky figure in the long, black trench coat seemed to appear out of thin air that afternoon. One moment they were discussing Heather Janeson’s tits, the next they were sitting in his shadow.
The autumn air was crisp, carrying the scent of fallen leaves, and it whipped at the stranger’s colorless hair, which hung in a tangled mess from beneath his ebony top hat. His face was even paler than his thin, white hair, and his dark eyes leered at Daniel from the shadows of the hat’s brim.
“Are you Mister Jimmy Hannigan?” his deep voice inquired. Daniel thought it sounded more like a growl than a question. He caught a glimpse of sharp teeth as the delivery man spoke. Slick with spit, the jagged teeth glistened behind chapped lips, brownish-yellow and tapered into points. Jimmy, who was accustomed to speaking his mind, who had told countless teachers and parents to “fuck off”, only nodded in response, taken aback by the proximity of the imposing figure.
The man handed Jimmy a black envelope and curled his lips in a closed-mouth smile. The expression seemed to strain the muscles of his face, as if causing him actual pain. Daniel caught another glimpse of those cat-like teeth as the man spoke again in that low, bassy tone, “We hope you can make it.” With a tip of his satin top hat, the man turned and walked away, leaving the boys to stare at the envelope in wonder.
“Open it,” said Daniel, licking his lips.
“Chill out, spaz. I just got it ten seconds ago.”
Daniel looked in the direction the man had walked, but he was nowhere to be seen… already gone. “That guy gave me the creeps.” He rubbed the goosebumps from his arms.
“That’s because you’re a pussy,” Jimmy said with a roll of his eyes. He ripped at the envelope, shredding the seal. His eyes widened as he read the words aloud, “You are invited to Manic Manor, the most terrifying haunted house in the state.”
Realization dawned on the boys, and they laughed, releasing their tension.
“So that explains the creepy getup,” said Jimmy. But not the creepy teeth, thought Daniel.
“Admission is paid in full, courtesy of someone who believes you can survive the terror.” Jimmy looked up, pride obvious in his eyes. “Halloween night. 10 o’clock. The old mansion on Pennington Hill.”
Leaves skittered down the sidewalk in the autumn breeze. The jack-o-lantern’s candle had burned down to a nub, its flame fighting to stay lit against the wind. Daniel breathed deep the smell of melted wax. It was a comforting aroma, reminding him of past Halloweens, when he’d been allowed to enjoy the festivities. Now he was twelve, going on thirteen. Too old for silly costumes and trick-or-treating.
Jimmy smacked his lips, savoring the candy bar with as much etiquette as a pig at the trough. “You sure you don’t want some?” he asked, holding the bag out to Daniel.
He shook his head, “No man. It aint even ours.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes. “Okay, suit yourself.” He plunged his chubby hand into the depths of the treat bag, digging for another snack to join the pile of empty wrappers at his feet.
Daniel watched his pal, pondering—as he often did—what exactly made them best friends. Teachers, parents, authority figures: they all pegged Daniel for a hooligan because of the company he kept. He could save himself a lot of trouble and accusations if he just stopped hanging around with Jimmy. The truth was, deep down, Daniel didn’t feel like a bad guy. He didn’t want to smash pumpkins or egg houses. He especially didn’t want to steal candy. Yet, those are the activities that had filled his evening, because for some reason, Jimmy Hannigan was his pal.
“What time is it?” asked Jimmy, sucking the chocolate from his fingers.
Daniel checked his watch. “It’s 9:12.”
Jimmy jumped to his feet. “Shit, we’re gonna be late!” He dumped a handful of candy into the bag, stuffing the empty wrappers into the pockets of his jeans. He stashed the stolen candy in the bushes, where his parents would be none the wiser.
Daniel stood from the porch, his eyebrows arched high. “Hold up. We are gonna be late?”
“Yeah, man. You didn’t think I’d go without my best friend, did ya?”
Daniel thought. “Well, what—what if they don’t let me in?”
“Hell man, I don’t know. Let’s go find out!”
The abandoned mansion towered against a backdrop of tiny stars as the boys groaned, rubbing their feet. Daniel marveled at how far they’d come, loosening the laces of his grass-stained tennis shoes. The road snaked its way downhill, winding through the forest and back out again, until it met with the heart of town. There had been an unspoken consensus to travel it alone, without the cushy comforts of a car. He scarcely believed they’d climbed the entire hill on foot as he stared down upon the rooftops, breath forming clouds in the crisp October air.
One by one, they had gathered outside the iron gate: Teddy Green, Dennis Halloway, Johnny Cougar, and Sally Hendricks. A scraggly-haired tyrant of a girl, Sally’s name struck fear into the hearts of her classmates. She might as well be one of the guys.
Daniel noted, with mild amusement, that the amount of lunch money stolen between these kids might be enough to jump start a small business. He snorted through his nose to keep from laughing, catching a suspicious sideways glance from Teddy, whose narrow eyes wiped the smirk from Daniel’s face.
Dark windows stared down at the children, like empty eye sockets in a moldering face. The once-glorious home loomed over them, glowing gray in the moonlight. The rotting wood exterior was riddled with tiny, black knots. Dead, brittle vines weaved through the broken slats of the lattice, cobwebs visible in every corner. The gauzy white webs accented the frame of the tall, black door, which seemed to sit crooked in the face of the house.
Pennington Hill had once been the subject of envy around town. Built for the mayor and his prestigious family, the three story, twenty-eight room manor had been the setting for galas and elite social events. As decades passed, the wealthy class developed a desire to blend in. A mansion atop a hill became a thing of the past, an ostentatious display of riches. Following the family’s departure a near century after it was built, no one seemed to know what to do with the old house. It sat, untouched, for so many years that it fell into immense disrepair.
The children heard the squeaking of a shutter as it hung from its hinge and thumped against the window frame. A lone owl hooted in the distance, sounding too much like a horror movie sound effect. Their warm breath formed white clouds in the air as they waited.
Johnny Cougar’s blue eyes darted from face to face, as he rocked back and forth on his heels. “What should we do? Climb the gate?”
Jimmy shook his head, pointing at the invitation. “Patience, bonehead. It says right here: 10 o’clock. Just wait a minute. Someone will let us in.”
As if on cue, the wrought iron gates swung open. Teddy and Dennis stepped forward, showing no fear at the sight of the heavy gates moving on their own. Johnny and Sally glanced back, at the road leading home, then forward to the gates, which scraped along the gravel as they opened. “Pretty cool trick,” said Johnny.
“Yeah, pretty cool.”
Jimmy pulled Daniel aside. He patted the pocket of his jacket where a walkie talkie was hidden. His freckled cheeks puffed up as he beamed a crooked smile. “Remember, even if you don’t get in, you can listen.” Jimmy’s hazel eyes twinkled in the plump roundness of his face. He raised his hands to Daniel’s shoulders, grinning like he’d given him the best gift in the world by letting him tag along. Jimmy had insisted on bringing the walkie talkies, just in case the two boys got separated. His best friend was coming with him, no matter what. “You ready?” he said, squeezing Daniel’s shoulders with his palms.
Daniel nodded, “Yeah, let’s go.
“Together they walked under an archway that connected the pillars of each gate. Granite faces peered at them from intricate carvings in the stone. The gray eyes seemed to follow them as they passed. Both boys noticed, but neither one said a word.
Trees lined the stone path leading to the mansion’s front door. Twisted limbs entangled from opposite sides of the path, forming a tunnel of gnarled branches and leaves. A canopy of twigs and fire-colored leaves entwined above their heads, throwing the children into darkness. Moonbeams shined through the gaps in the branches, casting thin patches of light across their bodies as they crunched over the fallen leaves that littered the pebbled ground.
Shadows moved in the foliage, weaving through the tree trunks. At first Daniel thought it was dogs on the other side of the branches, but the more he focused his eyes, he saw dark splotches moving along the inside of the tunnel. The shadows looked human in shape, as if cast by the group of kids, but there wasn’t enough moonlight for that. The black figures moved in a blur, so quickly Daniel couldn’t single one out.
The trunks were covered in a dark brown, crumbling bark that seemed to move, like the puffing of a chest as it breathes. Daniel knew it was foolish, but he felt as though the trees were alive. He could hear them panting: a labored wheezing sound over the whistling of the wind down the trail.
“Do you hear that?” Daniel clenched Jimmy’s arm, urging him to stand still and listen.
Jimmy cocked his head, waiting. “Hear what?”
Daniel paused. He scanned the mossy trunks, waiting for the vegetation to move. Waiting for the bark to ripple as it had seconds earlier. Nothing happened. “Nevermind,” he said, biting his lip.
Jimmy chuckled. There was a nervous, high-pitched lilt to his laugh. “C’mon, man. Let’s keep going…” They jogged to catch up with the others.
Dennis and Teddy reached the staircase first. They glanced back, suddenly aware of how shadows crowded the porch, dark and unmoving. They resembled human figures, huddled together in the darkness of the covered patio.
The tough guys searched the faces of their peers. Their eyes said it all: They were just as scared as Daniel. They gripped the wooden railing that ascended the stairs to the pillared wrap-around porch. The archway was fit for a cathedral, aside from the mold that speckled the wood and the peelings of paint that hung in large chunks, fluttering in the breeze. With a gulp, Teddy and Dennis climbed the stairs. The other children followed, close behind.
Daniel jumped when a wooden stair broke with a loud crack, splitting under his foot. The others looked back with smirks on their faces as if to say “Smooth move, dork.” But no one said a word as they reached the top step and the shadows retreated to the far side of the porch.
The crickets stopped chirping on Pennington Hill. Everything went silent, save for the nervous breathing of the children and another noise, like the raspy wheezing of a thousand creatures, so quiet you could barely make it out. And it was coming from the shadows.
Sally grabbed the rusty door knocker. She tried desperately to steady her hand as she thudded the metal ring three times. She couldn’t let the boys see how nervous she was. She stifled a gasp when the door knocker blinked its beady eyes. She glanced around. No one else had seen it aside from Sally and Daniel, but the copper lion, green in its old age, had blinked its eyes as she banged on the door.
The door creaked open without so much as a push. The large marble foyer was covered in dust and dimly lit by tall candelabras. Daniel’s eyes adjusted, and he realized the flames flickered atop piles of bones. Each candelabra was mounted to a grotesque stack of skulls, layered together like bricks in a pillar. While his friends admired the “special effects”, Daniel was pretty sure he spied a skull with some of the flesh still attached. A rotted eyeball dangled from the socket by a wet, pink thread. It all looked too real to be safe.
The man who had delivered the invitations stood dead center, in a ring of candlelight. Flames danced in the dark, sunken sockets above his jagged cheek bones, mirroring the fire from the candles. He wasn’t wearing his top hat, and his white hair hung in thinning patches from his sickly, pale scalp. Blue veins showed through his nearly translucent skin as he pressed a hand to his abdomen and bowed.
The man stepped forward. His black suit reminded Daniel of the shadow people.
He could see them, dark figures huddled together in the inky blackness of the hallway. The man’s voice was a low growl as he spoke. “Sally,” he said, nodding in her direction. “Teddy, Danny…” His pale face studied the children, thin lips pulled taut over his ghoulish, pointed teeth. “Johnny and Jimmy…” His dark eyes settled on Daniel. “and… who do we have here?” He clasped his spindly fingers together in a steeple-like formation and slanted his thin eyebrows at Daniel.
The shadows deep within the house, past the ring of candlelight and hiding in the darkness, seemed to pulsate and stir. Their collective breathing rose higher in volume, yet it was still barely audible, like a gust of wind whistling through the old mansion. Human forms stirred in the hallways, writhed in the nothingness of the staircase. Daniel was positive he saw a pair of red eyes staring at him from the abyss.
“What’s your name?” the strange white-haired man asked.
“D-Daniel,” he replied.
“I’m afraid, Daniel, you must go back the way you came. This party is invitation only.” He leaned over, and his sour breath made Daniel’s skin crawl. “No exceptions.”
Blackness spilled from the halls, from the vaulted archway of the staircase. Darkness crept into the light and extinguished candle flames as it moved. A shadowy fog enveloped the room. Red eyes opened inside the massive shadow that rolled in, an ominous wave of contorted human figures. A thousand eyes stared at Daniel, like rubies shining in the blackest of nights.
The shadows rushed at Daniel. Hundreds of fingers and dozens of palms shot out from the hazy black mist, pushing him. Their collective force caused him to sway and trip over his own foot, toppling backwards onto the moonlit patio. He felt a gust of air as the heavy door slammed, and a chorus of screams erupted from his friends.
Daniel scrambled to his feet. He cleared the stairs in five steps, avoiding the broken plank and leaping onto the leafy stone path. He dashed into the tunnel of gnarled branches. He didn’t look around as he ran. If he did, he might see more of those things lurking in the shadows. And he never wanted to see one again. So he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, focusing on the beam of moonlight at the end of the tunnel.
He emerged from the canopy of twisted tree limbs, falling to his knees in the grass. He could see the gravel road leading into town. Small buildings in the distance, at the foot of Pennington Hill, were beginning to turn out their lights. The moonlight was dimming, swallowed by a layer of clouds.
Daniel dug around in his jacket. He pulled the walkie talkie from his pocket. His shaky fingers fumbled, almost dropping the device as he flipped the power switch to “on”.
A scream rattled through the speakers. One of the boys was crying, hysterical, coughing and wheezing in fear. A blood curdling yelp poured from the walkie talkie, closer than before. Daniel thought it sounded like Sally.
Someone yelled, “Let me go!” It was a distant echo on the staticy air waves.
Then another boy spoke. This one was closer, louder. “Why are you doing this?” Jimmy pleaded.
The man’s answer rumbled over the air waves like a crack of thunder. His bassy growl shook the device. It rattled in Daniel’s hand, and he dropped it to the grass. “We are the evil eaters. We feed on evil souls.” The children all screamed in unison. There was a loud thud. The walkie talkie squealed, then fell silent.
The morning of November 1st dawned bright and sunny. Daylight shined through the wispy clouds. Birds chirped as they poked their beaks through the dirt, searching for food.
Daniel paced back and forth. He had arrived at the bus stop fifteen minutes early, something he hadn’t accomplished in the history of his school days. But after a sleepless night of watching the clock and waiting for morning to arrive, he was up before his alarm clock that day.
Daniel’s eyes scanned the row of neatly mowed lawns, the trimmed hedges that lined the curb. A paper boy peddled a bicycle down the street. A small dog yelped from behind a picket fence.
Daniel tried not to stare, but his vision kept settling on one house: Jimmy’s. He paced a straight line, gazing up at Jimmy’s front door every time he spun around. One thought repeated in his mind: He is dead. My best friend is dead.
Jimmy’s front door opened, and Daniel caught a glimpse of his ginger hair. Jimmy stepped from the patio, his freckled skin looking pale in the sunlight. He plodded down the length of his driveway with a spring in his step, his portly body bouncing toward the street. Daniel had never seen Jimmy walk that way before, like a small child with too much energy.
Daniel waved as Jimmy stepped onto the sidewalk and headed toward the bus stop. He knew Jimmy wouldn’t return the gesture, probably even make fun of him for waving like a little kid, but he was so relieved to see his friend alive, he didn’t care. Jimmy smiled at him—a closed lip, timid smile. Not his usual shit-eating grin. Then he extended his chubby hand into the air and waved.
Daniel waited for his friend to reach the street corner. “Uh… hey. How’s it goin’?” he asked.
“Hi!” Jimmy opened his hand and wiggled his fingers in the air, waving a second time. He smiled with his mouth closed and shoved his hands into his pockets. This wasn’t like Jimmy, whose grin often reminded Daniel of the Mad Hatter, who tossed pebbles and drew invisible pictures on the pavement with sticks, anything to keep his hands busy. It was odd to see him standing there: quietly, patiently.
“So about last night…” Daniel began.
“Oh, I know. I regret my actions, Daniel. Vandalizing property like that…. and taking candy from those children. It was terrible of me, and I apologize.”
Daniel’s mouth hung open as he attempted to respond. He blinked his eyes and slowly shook his head. “No… uh… the other part of the night. That house.”
“Ah, yes. It was wonderful! I’m so sorry you couldn’t stay.”
Daniel’s skin crawled with unease as he studied his friend. By every physical law, Jimmy Hannigan stood before him. The same voice. The same hazel eyes and rotund, freckled face. But something had changed. Those eyes lacked a certain twinkle that made Jimmy so very… Jimmy.
“It’s a beautiful day, Daniel. I think I’ll walk to school.” Jimmy turned and began to walk away, and that’s when Daniel knew. This wasn’t Jimmy. He never walked to school instead of taking the bus. He never did anything the hard way. And the apologies. Two apologies in one morning. Jimmy never said sorry… for anything. Not once in the entirety of their friendship.
Daniel watched Jimmy disappear down the sidewalk, and he felt as though his best friend had died. The bus rolled up, filling the air with exhaust fumes. A set of yellow doors swung open. Daniel shook his head and boarded the bus, feeling more alone than ever. He knew, the evil eaters had changed Jimmy. They had sucked the Jimmy right out of his soul.
A tear rolled down Daniel’s cheek. He wiped it with the back of his hand. Thirty-six years later it still bothered him to remember that strange Halloween. Jimmy Hannigan had disappeared that night, replaced by a shell of a boy.
Daniel stood at the foot of his mother’s bed. He stared blankly at the red card that looked so much like Jimmy Hannigan’s invitation. It was identical in every way, except for the words:
“Do you have a troubled child? Do you pray they will change their incorrigible ways? Look no further. We are a group of mystery men who guarantee results within the week. 100% pain free. Your child will not be harmed. We work swiftly and discreetly. Enjoy your family life. Have a loving child again. Sign the dotted line and return to the nearest mailbox. (No postage is required.)”
Jimmy’s parents had received the same card as his mother. In that moment, Daniel knew it was true. All the parents of the “bad kids” were offered an easy fix. Teddy, Sally, Dennis, Johnny: they never stood a chance.
Jimmy Hannigan had graduated with honors and went on to college. He had started a family and made his parents proud. He probably sat in an office somewhere, making good money but lacking a soul. And that is the most valuable thing of all, thought Daniel. Just ask the evil eaters.
Daniel walked the card over to the box marked “keep”. It would serve as an important reminder. His mother had protected him, accepted him, even when offered an easy solution.
He hadn’t failed her. She had always been proud.
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AMAZON KINDLE: http://www.amazon.com/Tooth-Collector-Other-Tales-Terror-ebook/dp/B014EXATA4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1441887010&sr=8-1&keywords=tooth+collector