If Not For All The Screaming...
Five brothers and sisters gathered in the living room. Hector was the oldest. At sixteen, he was gangly, ridden with freckles, and pale as a corpse. Bright red hair and unctuous skin marked him as the unseemly troublemaker of the family, and he was the perfect delinquent. The youngest was Dottie at five. Unlike her brothers and sisters, she’d acquired a mystery of blonde curls no one could explain. Michael was naïve and gullible at eight. His hair and eyes were a deep, rootbeer brown. Redheaded Cathleen—the spitfire among them—was ten. She was fearless and feral in a beguiling way, the urchin of the family. Samantha, though younger than Hector, was the more mature and responsible. She was fourteen. Similar to Michael, she’d inherited the darker features and brown eyes as their mother. Her hair was thick and brown, curling to the middle of her back.
Hector was too irresponsible to tend the kids alone. He’d abandoned them once, when he should’ve been babysitting, to hang out with friends. Whenever their parents went out now, Samantha was left in charge. Hector, usurped from his throne, was still fuming about it.
Tonight, it was a cocktail party at the Macklebys. They wouldn’t be back until late.
“Make sure Dot is fed and put to bed on time, Sam,” her mother had said. “Cathleen and Michael can stay up ’til midnight. That’s okay. And well…you know Hector. I don’t think he’ll change the world anytime soon.”
Samantha nodded, giggling, not wanting to disappoint her mother.
She was rallying the troops to no avail. Despite the change in command, Hector was intent on running things his way.
Maybe his friends are committing crimes without him, Samantha thought. Why else would he hang around?
Wind screamed through the neighborhood. Gusts rattled the windows of the house on Humboldt Street. Thunder rumbled, echoing in the distance.
Samantha knew the night would have its trials. Hector wore a mischievous grin already. With his red hair and bright freckles, he looked like a demented jack-o-lantern. Poor Hector had never been attractive, she thought. Girls never called the house for him, and, she supposed, there was a sweet justice in that.
“Somebody get some candles,” Hector said.
They’d already discussed what to do with the evening. Cathleen suggested telling ghost stories, and Hector readily accepted the idea. Michael objected with a whimper, paling in fear. Dottie was too young to grasp terror’s delicious concepts—at least as far as horror stories were concerned. She was simply along for the ride.
Cathleen—the prodigy of mischief, despite the misleading blue ribbons in her hair—retrieved the candles. She set them up throughout the living room: one on the fireplace mantle, another on the end table by the sofa, one on the coffee table.
“I don’t think we should tell scary stories,” Samantha suggested. “We might scare Dot.”
Dottie looked up in her defense. Hector made a mocking face as if to say, ‘Don’t even try it, goody-two-shoes. Momma’s little helper.’
“C’mon!” he said. “It’ll be fun!”
Famous last words, Samantha thought. If nothing else, it would be fun.
Fun he promised. Tragedy ensued.
“I don’t want to tell scary stories,” Michael whined. A worried look crossed his face.
“Quit being such a baby,” Hector told him. “I swear you act like a girlsometimes. Jesus!”
Hector laughed. Michael turned bright red. Cathleen said something in defense to the women of the world, but no one listened.
“I hateit when you say that,” Michael said, on the verge of tears. “Quit calling me names!”
“Pee head,” Hector said, smirking.
“Sam!” Michael pleaded.
“‘Sam!’” Hector mocked in his best, girlish voice. “‘Sam!’”
“Shut-up!” Michael had yet to perfect the art of back-talking.
“Leave him alone, Hector,” Samantha warned.
Hector glared at Samantha as though chewing on something poisonous, but backed down. Everybody would tattle on him if things got out of control.
“Come on now,” Hector said. “Let’s all be good little boys and girls. Get cozy. Gather round.”
They sat on the living room floor, giving in to the mendacity of Hector’s scheme. Cathleen turned off the lights, the shadows from the candle flames flickering along the walls and ceiling. Samantha pulled Dottie onto her lap. Everyone got comfortable, curling up with blankets, sipping Coke around the coffee table.
Thunder cracked and boomed.
Michael widened his eyes, watching the shadows dance and jerk. Orange light flickered.
Maybe if Samantha humored Hector, she could keep the rest of them in line. She’d have to comfort Dottie, put her hands over her ears. Michael had to grow up eventually; she couldn’t hold his hand forever. And Cathleen was every inch her own girl. She could take care of herself.
Samantha raised her eyebrows as if to say, ‘Come on, Hector. Let’s get this charade over with, so we can put the kids to bed.’
Oblivious, Dottie fiddled with the bows on her yellow shirt. Cathleen wore an anxious expression, enjoying the antics.
Hector took a sip of soda, waving his fingers over the candle flame on the coffee table. The room shifted. Huge, worm-like shadows morphed across the ceiling.
“I heard once,” Hector whispered, “that when you light a candle, you open a doorway into the spirit world.”
Samantha rolled her eyes.
“Ohhh,” Cathleen said, feigning fright. “That’s sooo scary.”
Hector delivered a deadly look. Cathleen closed her mouth and looked away.
Here we go, Samantha thought.
“You know, a long time ago,” Hector continued, “in towns just like this, police found entire families butchered in their own homes, chopped into little bits and pieces. No one ever found the killer.”
My God, Samantha thought, widening her eyes. Hector’s choice of words shocked her.
“That’s not true,” Michael said, lips quivering, and buried himself in the safety of his blankets.
“You bet your ass it is,” Hector told him, a ghoulish clown in the light of the candles. Samantha thought him more frightening than the story he told.
“There’s still reports to this day…” he went on. “No one was ever caught. People thought it was a lunatic outwitting authorities. Some said the bogeyman. Some said they witnessed a shadowy ghost, a huge figure carrying an axe.”
“For crying out loud!” Samantha said, appalled.
“Nuh-uh!” Michael said.
Hector peered close, leaning toward Michael. “Don’t think it ain’t true,” he said, pointing at him. “He’s coming after you next!”
Dottie, visibly upset, protested with a whimper. Maybe she understood just enough. Axes and murder were obviously dead giveaways.
“Shh,” Samantha said, trying to comfort her sister.
“I’ve heard that, too!” Cathleen said, playing along. She stood up and ran dramatically to the living room window. “Oh my God,” she said, staring out into the yard. “Hector’s right! The murderer’s out there! He’s coming for us! He’s coming up the steps! It’s…it’s…Frosty the Snowman!”
Cathleen ran back to the blankets, screaming, and disappeared under the covers.
Dottie began to cry.
“Very funny,” Michael said, trying to sound brave.
“It’s true,” Hector said.
“Can’t we change the subject?” Samantha said. “You’re scaring Dot.” It didn’t seem funny to her, all this joking around, making a mockery of murderous things. She couldn’t take her eyes off the candle flame. Was a cold draft making it dance?
“I have to pee,” Michael said, suddenly.
“So, go pee,” Hector told him.
“I don’t want to go by myself!”
“You mean you want to pee together?” Hector said. “You are really sick.”
“Come on,” Samantha said, nudging Dot aside.
“Make sure you hold his hand,” Cathleen said. She was snickering as she peeked out from under the blanket.
Michael glared at Cathleen. “Why don’t you shut-up!”
“You shut-up, you big baby. You have to hold your big sister’s hand wherever you go!”
“Do you want to sleep outside?” Samantha asked Cathleen.
Cathleen quieted, but not before giving Samantha a deadly glare.
Michael stood up, and he and Samantha went to the hallway. Samantha turned on the bathroom light.
“I hate Cathleen,” Michael said. “What did I do to her?”
Samantha shrugged. “Beats me,” she said. “She’s just a testy witch sometimes.”
“I didn’t mean to yell,” Michael said. “Don’t tell Mom, okay?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Michael paused for a minute, shuffling his feet. “Samantha?”
Samantha looked at him, raising her eyebrows.
“Is there really such thing?” he asked. “As a shadow that kills people?”
Samantha silently cursed Hector. “No,” she said. “Nothing like that is real, can ever be real. Got it? It can’t happen.”
Michael chewed his lip. “But…” Samantha raised her eyebrows. “About the candles…” Michael said.
“What about the candles?”
Clearly, he was uncomfortable. “You know, the doorways. Hector said it opened doorways into the spirit world.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. Being in charge seemed more than it was worth sometimes. “They’re just candles, Michael. No spirits. No doorways. Okay?”
He smiled weakly, but didn’t seem convinced.
“I thought you had to pee?” she said.
Michael nodded and disappeared into the bathroom. Samantha stood awkwardly in the hallway. Soon, the toilet flushed. Michael came out seconds later. Together, they returned to the living room.
“Did you have to hold his hand?” Cathleen sneered.
“I’m not joking about you sleeping outside,” Samantha told her.
“I don’t care. I’m telling Mom and Dad about how mean you were to me. You’ll never get to baby-sit us again.”
“That would be a relief,” Samantha said.
Michael smiled, happy someone was on his side.
“You’re a dork,” Cathleen said to Michael.
Michael stuck his finger in his mouth. He pulled it out with a wet popping sound, and displayed it for Cathleen. “Sit on that,” he said.
Samantha and Hector burst out laughing. Cathleen was furious.
“I’m telling Mom!” she said.
“Be quiet, Cathleen,” Samantha told her.
“Did you see what he did?” Cathleen said, pointing at Michael.
“I’m warning you, Cathleen,” Samantha said. “I don’t want to hear it anymore. Keep it up, and you can go to bed right now.”
Cathleen fought to defend herself, but the more Samantha glared, the more flummoxed she became. She hung her head and withdrew into the blanket like a turtle.
Wow, Samantha thought. All I had to do was be mean? How come Mom didn’t tell me?
Wind howled through the neighborhood streets. Branches scraped the window.
Samantha looked at Hector. He was staring out the window with wide, terrified eyes, his face pale, beaded with sweat. She frowned. “What’s your problem?” she asked.
Hector turned. If he was acting, he was doing a good job.
“I thought…” he started. “I mean…I thought I saw someone outside.”
“Oh, please,” Samantha said, pulling Dottie onto her lap. “That’s fresh!”
Michael wasn’t convinced. He stared at Samantha, then at Hector.
“Anything to get everyone riled up,” Samantha said. “Why don’t you grow up for a change?”
“But…” Hector said, motioning toward the window. He tried to explain, but his mouth hung open. “I saw—”
Sometimes, Samantha really hated him! He didn’t care about the consequences as long as he got a good laugh.
“Who was it?” Cathleen said, giggling. “Frosty the Snowman?”
Samantha ignored her. Michael looked from Samantha to Hector as they argued. Thunder cracked overhead, and rain began to pour.
“When’s Mommy coming home?” Dottie whimpered, burrowing into her sister’s chest.
“Soon,” Samantha said, trying to calm her.
Discomfort hung in the air.
“I tell you I saw someone out there,” Hector said.
Samantha had to congratulate him. It was one of his finer performances.
“Jeez, can’t you do any better than that?” Cathleen asked.
Hector looked at her, eyes burning with anger. “I’m not kidding.”
“He’s just trying to scare you,” Samantha told Cathleen.
“Duh,” Cathleen said.
“Maybe I just imagined it,” Hector said, half to himself, looking toward the window again.
Michael watched his siblings in silence.
“Maybe it’s Mom and Dad,” Cathleen said.
Samantha knew this wasn’t the case. She hadn’t seen headlights pulling up in the driveway.
Hector shook his head. “It wasn’t them.”
Cathleen stood up. “I’m going to find out.”
“Sit down,” Samantha told her with authority.
“I just want to see if it’s them,” Cathleen said.
“Sit down and be quiet, Cathleen. You’re trying my patience.”
Cathleen opened her mouth, closed it again, and crumpled in defeat onto the blankets.
Could it be neighborhood kids playing a joke, something Hector had planned? Her brother wasn’t that good of an actor; he wasn’t even bright. But she was starting to wonder if he really had seen something.
A heavy crash issued from the front door, and everyone jumped. Cathleen screamed, along with Michael. Dottie wailed.
“Sam,” Michael whispered, inching closer, eyes riveted to the door.
“It’s only Mom and Dad trying to scare us,” Cathleen said.
Michael ignored her. Samantha exchanged a worried glance with Hector. He shrugged and shook his head, no longer telling stories. Frightened, yet defiant, he stood up to investigate.
“What are you doing?” Samantha asked.
“I’m gonna check it out,” he told her, his voice barely audible over the sudden, lashing rain.
“Please, don’t,” she told him. She didn’t know why, but she was very afraid. “Stay here, Hector. Please.”
Hector ignored her and went to the door. He wrapped his fingers around the knob, hesitating. Taking a deep breath, he turned the knob, pulled it open, letting in the rainy night.
Little bits and pieces, Samantha thought…
“No one ever found the killer,” Hector whispered to himself. Did he believe that? It wasn’t as though he’d heard it before. He was just telling a story. Why did it seem like someone or something else had spoken? As if the words hadn’t been his own?
“What did you see?” Samantha asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. He leaned outside, looking one way, then the other. The porch was empty, only the noisome downpour, the neighborhood drenched in sleet. He shut the door. “There’s nothing there,” he said.
“Is that as good as you’re going to look?” Cathleen asked.
“If you’re so sure it’s Mom and Dad,” Hector said, “why don’t you go?”
“I will,” Cathleen said. She stood up, determined to prove everyone wrong.
Samantha, however, was quick to put her in her place: “I’m not telling you again,” she said, her jaw set.
“But it’s just Mom and Dad!” Cathleen said. “You guys are so stupid.”
“Cathleen,” Samantha said, her voice like steel, “if you don’t sit down and shut-up, you’re going to bed right now. Is that clear?”
Cathleen stomped to the blankets and plopped back down. She crossed her arms, sticking out her bottom lip.
“I want Mommy and Daddy,” Dottie said.
Samantha cooed in her ear, “Soon, baby.”
“Sam?” Michael said, his eyes on the door, but Samantha wasn’t listening.
Another crashed slammed into the door, and everyone screamed. Dottie wailed in terror, her face streaked with tears.
Samantha went to stand up, but something kept her down. Michael was digging into her thigh; Dottie’s arms were tight around her neck.
Would her parents really play a prank like this? Wasn’t that a trifle distasteful?
Lightning flashed. Peals of thunder, a stentorian crack ripped through the clouds. Dottie continued to wail, and something banged into the door again.
“Hector, make it stop!” Michael yelled.
Hector didn’t move; he stared at the door.
“Damnit,” Samantha said, losing patience.
They were her responsibility! If she didn’t get up and get them to safety, what would Mother think?
A crash hit the door again, almost tearing it off its hinges. Screams filled the air. Hector sat motionless, hypnotized…
A portion of the door exploded inward. Splinters of wood sailed across the living room. A double-headed axe clawed through the door with a life of its own.
Samantha screamed. She tried to get up, but Michael was still clawing at her, drawing blood. Dottie’s grip made it hard for her to breathe.
They had to get out! Couldn’t they see that? She wasn’t that much in charge!
A monster of shadow stood in the doorway, the size and shape of a linebacker, holding an axe. Motivated by a deadly decree, it cocked its head, registering the five children.
Screams pierced the rainy darkness, and the shadow took a single step into the tiny home.
Samantha shook her head, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, as though denying the sight might make it disappear. Mom had never told her how to handle this…
The shadow advanced, raising the axe, and the children watched it fall.
It was still raining when Jonathan and Margaret returned to the house on Humboldt Street. Margaret didn’t care so much for these ‘get-togethers.’ Jonathan always left her alone to mingle while he and his buddies talked politics. If she didn’t go, however, she’d never hear the end of it. She’d spent the evening hovering around the buffet table, painfully aware of the clock’s slow progress. Despite how many hors d'oeuvres she had, she was still hungry. There might be some leftover chicken if the kids hadn’t devoured it…
Fat chance, she thought.
Jonathan pulled the car up into the driveway, wipers going mad against the windshield, and shut off the engine. They got out, holding their jackets over their heads as they hurried to the porch. The downpour was violent. She couldn’t remember the last time it had rained so hard.
Margaret bumped into her husband when he paused on the porch. The door was ajar. Not ajar, she noticed in the gloom, but ravaged. Destroyed. A thick, unpleasant aroma drifted toward them. Something fresh. Something…wet.
Jonathan took a step forward. “Kids—?” he said, his voice weak, barely audible.
“Jonathan—?” Margaret said, her hands on his shoulders, peering around him.
“I don’t know,” Jonathan said.
He pushed open what was left of the door. Murky shapes were visible, huddled in the gloom.
“Oh…dear God…” Margaret said, and put a hand to her mouth.
Jonathan would regret it later, looking for the light switch on the wall. For years, they would terrify him, the way they hung in mocking solitude, the feel of them under his fingertips. He’d wish lights switches existed nowhere in the world.
As though sensing the future, his fingers hesitated when they found it. In the next second, he flicked it up.
Blood-splashed walls flooded his eyes. Horror pummeled him like a cannonball. These were not his children. Not their children. What he saw were dismembered, bloodied heaps, bearing no resemblance to the children he’d raised, scolded, and loved. Lifeless, severed frames; bleeding hands and feet; haunting, dead eyes stared in soulless accusation, a filmy, milky blue. The sight changed him, scarred his brain.
Margaret screamed, her voice splitting the rainy night, hands covering her face.
The shock was too great. If he turned the light off, the sight would disappear…
Candles sat burned to nothing. Coke bottles lay scattered about, bloodied blankets, tortured limbs. Even the coffee table had been cut in two.
But nothing compared to the blood…he couldn’t grasp the amount of it. It splashed the walls and ceiling. It thickened the carpet in a widening pool.
He shook his head.
My home, he thought.
His brain simply failed to grasp it.
This is how people go crazy, Jonathan thought.
He might’ve even laughed once while his wife stood there screaming beside him.
It held the axe close, like a lover. Drifting through its strange, bewildering existence, it managed to smile through its tears.
There was refuge in silence, a quiet harmony…if not for all the screaming.
From one doorway to the next, it slipped between the spaces, wanting only to extinguish the reason for its entry.
Through its long and tortured existence, screams had always been there, the cause for all its tears…
…the axe was merely a tool to silence them.
If you like this tale, you might enjoy the collection, Body of Immorality: Tales of Madness and the Macabre, among many other dark horror and fantasy tales found here:
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