Scared of the Living
It's not the Destination, but maybe the Journey
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.
“Cut that out,” said the first of the three wavering figures to materialise in the old hunter’s cabin. “You want everyone to know we’re here?”
A second figure appeared, hunched by the crooked wax candle. His ethereal fingers snapped away from the flame, and it died a second later. The cabin was once again dark. Only feeble starlight dappled patches of silver on the mossy floorboards through holes in the roof.
The third figure materialised with his thick arms crossed. Within a minute, even his regrettable tattoo of a dragon with a pug’s face was visible on his arm.
“Is this all there is?” he asked, looking at the weeds snaking through the shattered windows, the ragged cobwebs hanging in the corners, the fossilised rabbit droppings littering the floor.
Marlon, first to arrive, the one who’d thought up this trip, didn’t show his own disappointment. He adjusted his uniform, and blew a snort of derision through his walrus moustache. This certainly wouldn’t have been acceptable in his time.
“How long have you been gone?” said the second of the three, an insubordinate smirk on his gaunt face, a stained prisoner’s shirt clinging to his skeleton. God only knew what vile crimes the man had committed.
“This is not my home, oaf,” said Marlon. He kicked at a cobweb and his foot passed through the wall, annoying him even more. “I thought you knew how to make this excursion work.”
“Fancy folks’ word for a jolly,” said the third man, sitting on the floor (or rather levitating in a cross-legged position to give the illusion of sitting).
“Damn right, Dewey,” said the second. “This stuck-up…” He trailed off.
Marlon heard it a moment later, and cursed the idiots for making such a debacle of their trip. Dewey uncrossed his legs and floated to the window.
“They can’t have found us,” he said. “This is your fault, Gray.”
Gray shrugged, his hand straying toward the candle again. Marlon swung a punch for him, which, disappointingly, passed straight through his cheek. The brat didn’t even notice. The voices they’d heard swayed closer on an errant breeze.
“At least we know there’s still some people left,” said Gray.
“This is a disaster,” muttered Marlon. “We have to leave now. We cannot be discovered. I knew I never should have let you fools tag along. I’ll tell them all you blackmailed me.”
“How?” said Dewey. “Anyway, you can run back if you want.” He licked his lips. “I ain’t going back to that damn haunted house. It was crowded enough when I got there.”
“Yeah, and it stinks like death,” added Gray.
The three of them bunched around the window. Marlon was first to spot the blade of torchlight slicing through the woods around them. He realised he’d been holding his breath, then realised he didn’t need to breathe at all. Still, he stared at the light with a sense of dread clinging to him.
“I swear I saw a candle light up in the window,” came a voice.
Marlon smacked at Gray’s head, but the other ghost walked through it. He began to pace, tugging at his moustache, while Gray kicked through the rotting table set in the centre of the room.
“What are we going to do?” said Marlon.
“We could go out there,” said Gray, trying in vain to grab the rusting chandelier above them.
“We wouldn’t last a minute,” said Dewey, still at the window. “When was the last time any of us were here? And we don’t even know where here is.”
“Last time I listen to some stuck-up Victorian ghost,” muttered Gray.
Marlon whirled to face the impetuous boy. “Victorian? You bloody scoundrel! I’ll teach you the difference between a Victorian and a-”
The light suddenly burst through the window, making dust storms glow in spiralling patterns. Marlon shrieked and cringed against the wall, almost falling through it. Gray blinked at him. Dewey stayed in the light. He held up a hand, and Marlon saw it become translucent.
“I see something!” called a voice from outside.
“Get away from there, Dewey,” said Marlon.
The bigger man shrugged, lumbering to the table. He crossed his arms just above it – no, he was actually leaning on it. Marlon felt a jerky flutter inside.
His heart thumped hard against his creaking ribs. After hundreds of years, he gasped in his first real breath, and the musty stench of the old cabin rushed into his nostrils. Sludgy tears trailed from his eyes.
Gray suddenly toppled over. When he hit the floor, there was a loud bang. He retched, huddling into a foetal position. His terrified eyes found Marlon, who gripped the edge of the table hard enough to make his hands ache.
Pain. God, he’d forgotten what it felt like. Why had he ever conceived of this stupid plan?
Only Dewey remained unfazed. He watched Marlon with a cool detachment. The ghosts of lice in his beard fell to the table, becoming solid halfway and plinking as they struck.
Once more, the light passed the window. The beam hovered, and Gray threw himself flat, sobbing into his sleeves.
“I want to go back!”
“Be quiet,” said Marlon, though he was struggling to recall if his heart had ever pounded so fiercely in his chest when he’d been alive. He hoped he wouldn’t have to go through dying again. That would be unpleasant.
Dewey reached into his pocket, and produced an old pipe. It crumbled to ash when he tried to light it. His craggy face distorted in a scowl.
“How do we get back?” said Gray.
Marlon leant against the table, blowing out great breaths to try calming his vitals. The light outside trembled. Footsteps crackled dry leaves, drawing closer.
“I swear I saw something.”
“Oh, you saw a ghost, did you?”
“Everyone knows the old hunter hanged himself in there.”
Dewey looked up at the ceiling with a cocked eyebrow. “Maybe the haunted house wouldn’t be so bad, eh?”
Marlon pressed a finger to his lips, his cheeks burning now. He wondered if this was what life had always felt like – whether his chest had always been so uncomfortably tight around his lungs.
The door creaked open. Gray scrambled across the floor to the table. Dewey fell back against the wall, and Marlon crashed into both of them, so they tumbled into a heap. He let out a squeal as someone’s elbow jammed into his gut.
Outside, someone screamed.
“It’s just rats, Jamie,” said one of the voices. “You go on in, since you don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Could be a bear,” mumbled another voice.
The first tentative footstep made the floorboards squeal like Marlon. He stifled his cries, as the reawakened pain of having a physical body ricocheted from organ to bone to muscle and back again. On top of the pile, Gray squirmed. Dewey reached out to clamp a hand over his mouth. They stayed where they were, hidden by a lucky patch of darkness.
The first of the trespassers crept into view. Just a youth. His clothing was far too garish, and his face too cleanshaven. Still, Marlon admired the lad’s courage.
“What do you see, Jamie?” called one of the others.
Jamie looked around at the dust and cobwebs. He looked right past Marlon, Gray and Dewey.
Something cold slithered over Marlon’s hand. His heart hammered again. Beneath him, Dewey began to shudder.
“Do you feel that?” whispered the bigger man.
The cold tightened. Hairs on Marlon’s arms went rigid. His skin felt pulled around his bones. Gray writhed atop their pile.
A second youth entered the cabin, this one with a torch. Somehow, he made the fire vanish from it, and Jamie punched him in the arm.
The strange voice rumbled through Marlon’s bones. Gray screamed, and bolted, kicking Marlon in the jaw. The youths both shrieked. The torch reignited.
In its neat beam of light, a towering figure loomed between the living and the former dead. The hunter was twice as big as Dewey, and his bear-strangling hands formed fists around the rope tie he wore. Two crimson eyes blazed deep within his face.
The two brave lads ran.
Marlon pushed Dewey away, and scrambled for the door. Jamie slammed it shut, but Marlon kept running, shocked when he didn’t just pass through it. His unwieldy flesh-hands groped for the handle.
Dewey crashed into him. Gray lunged for the window, then let out a chilling cry. Marlon spun to find the boy dangling from the hunter’s hand. The ghost’s slack mouth grated as it turned to him, exposing teeth the colour of tree-stumps. Marlon whimpered. This wasn’t the type of ghost he was used to dealing with.
“You dare invade the space of the dead?” roared the hunter’s ghost.
“Strictly speaking…” began Marlon.
“It was his idea,” said Gray, pointing to him. “He made us do it.”
The hunter swivelled to Gray, hoisting him up by his leg. Only now did Marlon notice the shackles materialising around Gray’s ankles. He looked down to find similar chains forming around his. Dewey reached down, and toppled over as the metal solidified.
“You shall be punished, defilers,” said the hunter. “You shall face untold torment for thousands of years. For millennia, your screams will be music for my work. Your pain will be the sweetest reward, to sustain me as I wait for the universe to end. I will make… Oh, good evening, sir.”
The door fluttered open. Marlon jumped away, and wobbled where he landed, desperate not to end up lying on his face like Dewey.
A tall, robed figure breezed into the cabin. In fact, it was just a robe. Where the face should’ve been, there was only darkness. Rather than step, it billowed. A badge glinted where its chest should’ve been – the scythe.
The empty cavity in the robe regarded Marlon, Dewey and Gray, finally the hunter. “What’s all this then?”
“Intruders on my property, sir,” said the hunter.
Marlon couldn’t help stumbling back as the hooded figure drifted closer. Even Gray was quiet.
“Seems you three chaps are in the wrong place.”
“It was his idea!” blurted out Gray.
The hooded thing tilted its head. Marlon got the impression it was looking at him, so he leant close, despite his misgivings, trying to discern eyes in the darkness of its cowl.
“Why did you come here?” said the figure.
“I just… I just wanted to see it all again.”
“And get out of that damned crowded house,” added Dewey.
“I could’ve stayed,” said Gray. “Believe me, I loved it there. It was them that dragged me along.”
The figure was silent for a long time. Marlon shifted on his feet, an old injury in his left knee suddenly coming back.
“Do you think you are the first to try coming back?” asked the figure.
Marlon blinked. “Well…” He sank to the floor. “Please, sir, I… When I went to that haunted house, I realised many things about my life. I realised I didn’t live the way I wanted, just the way I thought I should. Please, sir, I just want another try.”
Death leaned close. The hunter, Dewey and Gray became unimportant. Marlon knelt before the hooded figure, and, as he stared deep into the blackness in its hood, flashes of light appeared.
“What makes you think you won’t make the same mistakes, Marlon?”
The hood billowed. The void within widened into a chasm. Somewhere, Gray screamed. Dewey was weeping.
He saw movement within the hood. Blood moving through veins. Sparks of light. His leg jerked involuntarily. His thoughts seemed to contract as he thought them. They became garbled confusion.
“Do you fear death?” asked Death.
The cabin was gone now. The night’s sky had become the expanse within Death’s hood. Marlon rose, and tottered towards it.
“Try to remember,” said Death.
Marlon vowed he would. At the same time, the words suddenly seemed like nothing more than disjointed sounds. He screwed his face tight in concentration. He reached for the void as more flashes appeared within. The darkness took him.
Two enormous figures reared over him.
Instinctive terror made him flinch. He tried to run, but his body was clumsy. His hands were small, podgy things, ending in stubby fingers that snagged in the carpet.
One of the giants made noises. He remembered another enormous figure, another whose face had filled the sky. But those memories faded.
He flew. Hands picked him from the ground. Huge arms cradled him, and he looked up into a pair of vast, smiling faces.
“Mama. Dada.” Finally, his voice worked.
The giants laughed, pleased with his effort. “I was hoping his first words would be a bit less cliched,” said one.