The penultimate entry in this midwinter foray into flash fiction has arrived, and the fourth day of our haunting holiday story extravaganza has begun! We invite you to raise a glass of coquito, sip on your holiday nog, tipple the celebration cocktails, and prepare yourselves for the descent into the spooky. It is time to gather ‘round and enjoy these holiday ghost stories for Holiday Hearth Stories
But wait! We have the giveaway that keeps on giving! And so we find ourselves yet again waiting with baited breathe to announce our fourth winner: Congratulations to Isa! They are the recipient of a gift certificate for the Parliament House shoppe!
Now read on, Parliaversians, and let the spirits of the season guide you...
The lily pads and algae that scummed the surface of the pond made a face that grinned at me from the water’s edge, a stark contrast to the smoldering mask that floated in the bole of the tree grown long years in the center of the island that lay far out in the pond.
“All the bad things end up there,” my father told me, as he had explained it in terms a child could understand. It was the lowest part of our property, and the fertilizer flowed down here with the rains. The rocks pulled up from the fields were rolled into the water, and the wind pushed any loose garbage down where it got stuck in that whirling pit of wind and water.
The island in the center hadn’t been touched in years, or at least that’s what my parents told me. Neither my father nor mother acknowledged the mask, and all their words begged me to ignore it, even if they never said as much.
“There’s nothing there,” my father said.
“You’re imagining things,” my mother told me.
As children do, I obeyed, but I was ever curious about it, and I strayed there time and time again, drawn to the strange thing.
There was no grass on the island in the center. I wondered if I should think of it as an island at all. It was one of the many stones that rolled down there, with a tree growing on top of it, roots clutching it like a hand wrapped around a grey egg. The base was covered by algae near the water and by moss further up. The tree split in two, and nestled in the crook of that wound was that eyeless mask, staring at the rest of the watery pit with empty eyes.
Did it hurt? I wondered. Did the tree even care? My teacher and father and mother all told me trees didn’t, but why, then, did this one have a face? Animals had faces, and they could be mad or sad or angry. Bugs didn’t. Spiders didn’t. They only had eyes so they could stare. The mask reminded me of a spider, with only eyes in a face that had been stolen from somewhere else, sitting in the central web of the lily pads and algae and moss and scum and stones.
I didn’t like that and stayed away, growing older and forgetful of the pond and the mask.
“It’s important to learn, son,” my father said to me. He was always encouraging an education and skills to work around the house. How to build things and how things worked. He never looked at me, but he taught me all the things he’d done to make our land better.
I asked him why the pond wasn’t used.
“All the bad things end up there,” was all he said and tried to let it go.
I went down to see it. It had been years. I remembered my dreamy memories of strange faces and giant webs that never let go. I remembered the eyeless face. I was almost disappointed to see that there was no face, just as my parents told me. I wondered where the fear and wonder of childhood had gone, now that I was a man. I almost felt bad.
The ground was muddy, the sides were coated in slime and filth and moss. I slipped and grabbed the edge, but the algae and the grass were worn smooth by years of erosion. I tumbled down into it, pulled by mud and the weight of my sodden clothes. My head cracked on one of the rocks at the water’s edge.
The mask appeared amid the blood and pain. It looked at me, and I remembered my childhood. I remembered how it sat there like a fat spider, waiting and watching me. I remembered the snake I’d put in my baby sister’s bed because she was getting more attention than me, and how I escaped the wailing of my mother by hiding here.
I remembered then.
All the bad things came down here. The thick roots of the tree crawled out from the stone in the center of the rotting web. The water near me turned red as I bled, and the eyeless face stared at me, mouthing the words so that I would know why I was here again.
“All the bad things end up here,” it said. “Welcome home.”
In the beginning, I believed it to be nothing more than a piece of grit lodged in the corner of my eye. I stood before my bedroom mirror, pressed the pad of my thumb on my lower eyelid, and gently pulled the delicate skin down until my inner eyelid was exposed. The flesh inside, gleaming and thread with hundreds of fine red capillaries, housed no visible grit. I removed my thumb and blinked, hoping that a quick succession of movement would dislodge whatever disturbed my vision. I looked about my small room; bed, chair, and a desk scattered with papers. It was then I was it, a vague shadow looming at the corner of my eye. I swung my head around, but the shadow had vanished.
Over the next few weeks, I saw glimpses of the shadow. I saw it in cafes, at the office, and while I soaked in the bath. Each new sighting brought fresh terror and more detail. While riding the bus, I concluded that the shadow had the murky outline of a woman, for I could, if I strained my vision, see the tell-tale silhouette of long hair and a ragged dress. It seemed, too, that the shadow grew denser and more visceral with each appearance. I began to fear that it was somehow feeding off my terror.
One night I awoke to the scent of dirt. I reached for my phone to check the time and felt my fingers knock against something solid. I spread my palm across it and felt the grain of rough wood against my skin. Did I fall out of bed? Was I on the ground, touching my bed frame in the dark? I tried to sit up, but my forehead collided with yet more wood. Gasping, I tried bringing my hands to my throbbing head, but as I did, I felt my limbs restricted. As I groped around wildly in the blind darkness, a chilling revelation washed over me.
I was in a coffin.
I felt them then. Thousands of tiny legs suddenly swarming me. Spiders. Scuttling through my hair and underneath my clothes. I felt maggots burrowing to my bones, growing fat from my flesh. I tried to call out, to scream that I was not dead, but as I opened my mouth, the spiders rushed in the gap and forced their way down my throat, suffocating my scream before it had even left my lips. I woke up the next day with a searing pain on my neck. I had scratched my throat raw in my sleep. The pain was tremendous, but it was nothing compared to the stinging on my palms. On inspection, I found them pierced with dozens of splinters.
My granny has been in the home for as long as I could remember. The stroke had taken much of her, and a few years later, dementia arrived to claim the rest. The dayroom was brightly lit and smelled of disinfectant and second-hand shops. Granny was sitting by the bay window.
“Granny,” I said, “It’s Jessica.“
My grandmother turned to me and smiled, although that was no guarantee that she remembered who I was.
“Oh Jessica,” she said, ‘you’ve brought a friend to see me.“
My blood ran cold. The shadow was lurking behind me.
“Yes,” I said, “problem is granny, I don’t know what she wants.”
Granny looked over my shoulder.
“She’s very sad,” said granny, “poor girl. She wants you to help her, so she won’t be sad anymore.“
“How do I do that?”
Granny looked over my shoulder once again.
“She says she’ll show you if you follow her.”
“Sure,” said granny, ‘that’s what friends are for.”
The October night was bitterly cold. I exited the nursing home and saw the shadow beneath the glare of a streetlamp. Walking toward it felt like marching to the gallows. I did not want to see its face, so I hung my head. When I reached it, the shadow turned and began to glide. I followed the shadow out of town, through curling laneways, and eventually into a wooded area where an ancient friary once stood. The shadow came to a stop beside a river.
I stood, frozen in terror. The shadow’s arm jerked out from its side. Its long, crooked finger pointed at the ground beneath it. It moved away, allowing me to search the area by the light of my phone. I looked but found nothing. Suddenly, I felt my knees buckle, and I was on the ground, digging with a fury I did not know I possessed. My nails parted from my fingers as I dug, but I did not care. Two feet down, I felt a wooden box and yanked it free from the earth. The shadow looked on as I opened it.
It was filled with small bones, a filthy blanket, and a cloth bow.
The shadow moved, and I followed, carrying the box beneath my arm. The harvest moon hung high and yellow as I pushed open the graveyard gate. The shadow ventured downhill to the lowest ebbs of the graveyard, where the weathered tombstones were no more than lumps of rock. It halted by one such grave marker. I knew what I had to do, and forgetting the significance of the box I held, I dropped it to the ground. A pained howl, the likes of which I had never heard before, erupted from the shadow. I quivered back as the shadow advanced on me. I felt its icy breath on my face and quickly sunk to the ground. I forced my bloody fingertips into the ground and pulled dirt and stone from the earth. When I had made a hole of two feet deep, I felt a cold hand rest on my shoulder. I took the box, gently this time, and placed it in the hole.
As I smoothed the final piece of earth upon the grave, the shadow vanished.