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(17) The Guard and the Gate

IT WAS UNLIKE ANYTHING SHE had ever seen before – and much worse.

As Bethanie stood before the gravestone at the stroke of midnight, the stone changed consistency. She watched the door-shaped rectangle start to swirl, the stone cracking, darkening, smoking like it was being burned. All too quickly, it resembled a black steaming mouth, a dark liquid void that whirled and bubbled.

Then she saw the hand, pushing through the gloopy darkness and emerging into the world. It was too much.

Bethanie span on her heels and started running. Past the ancient smoking gravestone, past the tree line, past rows and rows of graves. She stumbled out into the meadow where the sky looked down ominously, dark as the bubbling void she’d just left behind. She swore she could see shadows assembling around the rim of the meadow, tangling with the trees and the darkness.

Bethanie had made it halfway to the road when Florence appeared before her, manifesting out of thin air.

“Where are you off to so quickly?” she said, but it wasn’t her voice. It was deep and crackly, like static, like something flickering between two worlds. “Don’t you want to watch the show?”

At once, the shadows she’d thought she’d seen in the trees emerged into the clearing. They were not, in fact, just shadows. They were people, bloody and hard to look at. Every time you thought you knew what they looked like, they shifted and became once again unknown and unfamiliar. Bethanie felt her spine tingling; her back and neck burned with countless eyes.

“Who are you?” she said. In her fright, she staggered backwards and tripped on a headstone, nearly toppling to the ground. She swung around in a full circle; the figures were there on all sides, crawling and stumbling towards her like zombies. “Who are they?”

“The dead,” Florence replied. “Ghosts, spirits, souls. Call them as you will.”

Bethanie was floundering for words. This isn’t possible, this isn’t possible. And yet, somehow, it was. “But – but why?”

Chaos,” Florence breathed, eyes glinting, like the word was something to be worshipped. That’s when Bethanie remembered: the icy air, the figure looming over her in the dark house, the face swirling up in her memory surrounded by ethereal light and floating hair that coiled into the darkness, inseparable. Florence. Florence had sent her here, somehow.

And beneath that was a greater revelation: Florence was not Florence at all.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“Always the same questions. I tire of them.” Then Florence frowned, head snapping to the left like she was listening for something. “Well,” she said, and disappeared.

To say Bethanie was confused would’ve been an understatement. But her fear overrode the emotion, escaped the confines of her mind and flooded her body. The dead were coming closer and she was caught in the midst of them, alone and defenceless.

And then, an engine, reverberating in the trees. As the ghosts loomed up around her, headlights cut through the night, slicing the ethereal figures into fragments: a scarlet lop-sided smile; wrists marked with bands of bruises; an eye, wide and foggy; pale grey flesh cut open and flapping in the wind.

The car came to a screeching halt before the first headstone. Only then did Bethanie realise its was her car. Her Volvo, dark grey and releasing light into the graveyard like an archangel, a metallic saviour full of majesty.

The door flung open and a figure emerged, drenched in the shadow. The world stopped, slowed. The dead lunged for her. The figure stepped into the light.

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