HOLIDAY HEARTH STORIES: On the Second Day of Storymas, Parliament Gave to Me...
Are you ready for day two of holiday hauntings? I certainly know that I am! Today, helping us bring in the spectral sequel to our story spectacular are two new authors to the Parliaverse, Daniel Taaffe and Jacy Sellers. We at The Parliament House congratulate these two wholeheartedly, and we hope that you will enjoy these chilling accounts.
In keeping up with tradition, now, we have yet another winner to announce for our exclusive holiday giveaway event—congratulations to K. A. Miltimore! You have won a digital copy of a Parliament House Book of your choice. To the rest of you, stay tuned as we continue to reveal more stories and giveaway winners over the rest of this holiday season! Until then, dive in and happy reading!
It was a cold, wet and dark December evening. I was making my way home after going out to eat and felt inclined to look at the stars. The long walk helped settle my stomach after a hearty meal. Having made my way to the fields on the outskirts of town, I searched around for a suitable place to sit. A good-sized rock presented itself, not so high as to require me to climb atop, but just high enough that it would be comfortable.
As I admired Orion’s belt, I glanced at a piece of odd scenery nearby. A low ridge of rotten wood peeked up from the wild grass. Absolutely nothing grew within. The soil looked blighted and barren, several shades lighter than the dirt peeking through the grass around it and dry as bone. Scratches and gouges could be seen all over it. Something had been digging but must have found nothing—an odd feature for a fertile field.
On a whim, I stepped inside. A jolt ran through my body, and my vision swam. Around me had risen walls from where the protrusion had been. Outside fell rain so thick it came down in sheets, turning the earth to mud. Turning forward, I beheld a simple unlit shack. What little light pierced the rain pooled inside beneath crude, glassless windows, and a faint glow could be seen through a doorway.
I hesitated. I was unprepared for a storm but felt even less prepared for whatever was going on. I had steeled myself for a sprint through the wet when a dry, raspy voice called to me.
“Come in. None are barred from my house.”
I went to flee regardless of the invitation but found my body would not obey. I was compelled forward, passing the door, and coming into the next room. A hunched figure squatted beside a kettle resting over a small fire. The walls were lined with empty shelves, the dirt floor strewn with cracked, dry bones. My voice trembled as I hailed my host.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trespass.”
“Not at all. There was a time when I had innumerable guests. None are barred. Sit.”
Again, I was forced onward. I claimed a seat next to the speaker. I did all I could not to look, straining my neck, but that same strange power now turned my head.
Unblinking, bloodshot eyes stared at me from a face so drawn and taut it might as well be a bare skull. It sat hunched beneath a tattered cloak, left open over a body that was equally emaciated as the face. Its fingers were all bone. Worst, where its gut should have been was just a pitch-black void, despite the low flame directly before it.
“I knew your ancestors well. And not just the human ones. For eons, I was known and dreaded by all things that live. Even in this age of plenty, I have not been destroyed.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“For the evening’s entertainment. You entered by yourself, and feeling the terror of one typically outside my grip has been delightful. Remember, the routine you call your life is fragile. One disaster, personal or of a grander scale, could render you at my mercy like countless others. I may feast on you yet.”
The creature gestured to the cauldron before us, and the strange power pushed me to look. I saw a vision within—figures laughing and eating in brightly light buildings with others begging for food and scavenging in the dark outside. I recognized my host creeping among the latter. It rode on a black horse whose ribs were stark beneath its ragged coat. When one grew too weak and thin to rise, it would consume them utterly; their souls gulped down as if they were ambrosia. It ate like a glutton every day but was never sated.
With horror, I saw myself fall from one of the buildings into the thing’s hunting grounds. It turned, bearing down on me with uncanny speed. It leaned in the saddle to reach for me. I felt a hand claw at my midriff. The illusion broke; I flew from the hut faster than I’ve ever moved. I looked over my shoulder to see it riding me down on its mount, laughing madly. The hoofbeats only faded when the city lights beamed down on my head. My stomach was empty. I had no appetite for days after. Even now, I fear the horseman.
Under a balmy December sun, my teal Toyota rumbled between spindly pine trees down Highway 17.
“Chloe, this won’t take long, right? I’ve got to get to the mall for the Santa gig.” Shannon sucked the last of her sweet tea from our drive-thru lunch. Her part of the gig consisted of handling photography for the children.
“I promise. Plus, my deadline is this afternoon, and I need time to write, too.” I reached over to squeeze her leg. “I’m just glad you could come along.”
We left the pine trees behind us on the highway while driving further toward the marsh. When we passed the carved sign for Murrells Inlet, the trees transformed into curled branches wanting to snatch my car from the road. The temperature gratefully dropped a smidge with this new shade.
“The Weekly Sun will be happy with whatever you submit. You’re the best writer they’ve got.”
I blushed. As my girlfriend of three years, Shannon and I met at the Weekly Sun after they paired us for a holiday review assignment on Christmas variety shows. It was after the sixth show we attended where we shared our first kiss under plastic mistletoe.
“We’ll see. I hope to get some authenticity of this legend by visiting the original home.”
My phone’s GPS map steered us onto Winifred Road. The twisted branches of the naked oak and maples guided us toward the notable estate called The Haven.
“Why are you doing a ghost story during the holiday issue?” she asked. “It seems weird.”
“Not when they only haunt during this time of year.”
The tendrils of moss hung limp in the sticky air. A scent of decay lured us closer to the marsh as we rounded a bend to face what was left of The Haven.
Vines crept up tilted columns that once anchored double-porches—remnants of brick walls fractured in the estate’s original footprint like a half-eaten gingerbread house.
“About a hundred years ago, The Haven belonged to Dr. Gideon Barr after his younger sister, Alice, died from malaria. After he buried her, Dr. Barr left the area. They say it was out of guilt for not being able to save her.” I walked to the left of the shadowy woods where the trees opened along the marsh. “Alice’s grave should be over here.”
A low fog hovered over the still, shallow waters while blades of grass jutted through. Under the branches of a massive oak lay the flat grave marked only with a name, Alice.
“According to the legend, she wasn’t allowed to marry her sweetheart and actually died from a broken heart.” I knelt down and rubbed my hand over the cool, worn stone. “Dr. Barr threw the engagement ring into the marsh. Her spirit’s been searching for it ever since.”
Shannon huffed. “Alice’s brother disapproved. Sounds like my family.”
“Sha, we’ve talked about this.” I wrapped an arm around her, and she nuzzled into my shoulder. “Their disapproval doesn’t define our love.”
“You’re right. Most of our friends are better than blood relatives.”
“Exactly. Let me look around to soak in this atmosphere. Then we can go.” I stepped away.
A mist moved in from the water, cloaking the visibility between the trees. The gray stretched across the forest floor waist-deep. Wisps of chills tickled my neck the closer I came to the estate’s remains.
I lost Shannon while meandering through the scrub brush, but I found her at the gravesite. “Ready?”
But she didn’t move. She remained frozen under the oak; her mouth gaped open.
“Sha?” A lump formed in my throat. “What’s the matter?”
“It...moved...in my pocket…” she stuttered.
“What?” I stole a glance at her jeans. “What moved?”
“Um...I don’t want to say. But it burns.” She soured her face.
“I’ll check.” I reached into her pocket to pull out a solitaire ring. I numbed over such a committed symbol in my hand. The metal heated between my fingertips, and I dropped it onto Alice’s grave.
Tears brimmed Shannon’s eyes as she knelt down on shaky knees.
“Are you proposing?”
“It was supposed to be a holiday surprise during our anniversary dinner, but… wait, where did it go?”
A faint plop of water sounded in the marsh.
“I think it’s Alice’s spirit, checking for her ring.” My voice shook.
We slowly turned our heads.
A rotted hand stuck up from the marsh’s edge, grasping the ring, sinking under the surface.