Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week. This week sees a special change to our regular Friday scheduling to coincide with today’s very special date: World Environment Day. Find out more here!
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our June submission window here.
The theme for June’s submissions was earth song: stories centred around animal or ecological-themed horror, of Mother Nature’s wrath, or similar horror stories along these lines. Our sixth month begins this evening with “A Ghost Story for the End of the World”, brought to us by Brandon Applegate, author and EIC of Hungry Shadows Press. Tonight’s tale is a tragic and poignant story that addresses the very real threat of global warming and rising temperatures; the perfect story to coincide with today’s World Environment Day. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.
We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria …
Welcome to …
The Theatre Phantasmagoria
Tom brought his daughter to the old farmhouse on the same day the sky turned purple. He thought things would be better away from the city—all that concrete, shoulder to shoulder with the panicking masses. Out here they’d last longer. The dirt would absorb the heat.
‘I saw her once. The dead woman. I was seven or eight—about your age.’ Tom sat on the couch at the back of the living room. It was the same one he’d slept on when he’d come to visit as a kid. Sweat soaked him, discoloured the couch cushion around where he sat. The white t-shirt and boxers were the only cloth he could stand to touch him.
Meri roamed the living room. She still wore the fuzzy sweater her mom had gotten her last Christmas, despite the fact that the old mercury thermostat on the wall was pegged at a hundred twenty. Tom had no idea how hot it actually was.
‘You saw a ghost?’ Meri stopped her frantic orbits. The sudden stillness washed over Tom like a cool wave.
‘That’s right, just a couple feet from where you’re standing.’ Tom gestured to the kitchen arch. Meri glanced in that direction warily. ‘Back then, my grandma lived here with my uncle and my two cousins. As far as I know, they’re all dead now. Grandma certainly is.’ She’d died screaming in a nursing home in Texas before this all got started. Tom had felt so sorry for her. Little crystals were growing out of the soles of her feet. Something to do with her diabetes. He cried watching the nurses brush them off, grandma’s teeth chomped down on a leather belt—even back then there were supply chain issues and painkillers were hard to find. But she was lucky to kick it before the world burned.
‘You okay, Dad?’
Tom nodded. He’d floated away on the memory for a few seconds. ‘I used to sleep on this same couch back then whenever we’d come visit. Mom and Dad were in the back bedroom down the hallway. I woke up in the middle of the night. The quiet used to get to me like that. We—that is me and my folks—lived in Austin and there was always some noise going on no matter what time it was. All that traffic. But out here in the Oklahoma prairie, you could hear a pin drop from a mile away. Sometimes at night, the quiet would get so damn loud. It’s worse now, of course. Now you can’t even hear the birds chirp.’ Tom wasn’t sure there were any left. But you could hear the water in the grass sizzling if you listened hard enough. At least you could before it all turned black. The only sound keeping him sane was the generator behind the house, rumbling along on the last gallon of fuel, keeping the window-unit air conditioners from totally abandoning them.
‘Anyway, I was laying here and my head was down that end so I could see into the arch. Everything beyond it was pitch black—couldn’t see a damn thing. But the longer I stared, the clearer I could see her eyes. They were just floating there, side by side like they were in a face, but they weren’t. Just big round, white orbs with hateful black irises pointed right at me.’
‘Dad, can we open a window?’
‘No, baby, we can’t open the windows. I know it’s hot, but that won’t help. Just come sit with me and listen to the story.’
Meri did as she was told, came over to the couch and huddled up next to Tom, knees to chest. Tom’s skin seared where they touched. His blood boiled under the surface. But he couldn’t push her away—not now. He put his arm around her instead, pulled her close. She didn’t protest.
‘We stayed here for a whole week, and every night a little bit more of her showed up. The next night, I could just make out the curve of her skull and the tops of her shoulders. The night after that I could see her hair, all tight white curls. Her eyes were narrowed slits. She just stood there until morning. I told Grandma about it. She’s the one that told me the old lady was murdered.’
‘Murdered?’ Meri’s eyes, a moment ago staring into the middle distance, dull with discomfort, flashed with excitement. If they had a little more time, Tom would’ve introduced her to some good movies to scratch that itch.
‘Whoa.’ Meri’s face turned up to his, jaw slack and eyes wide.
‘Right?’ Tom grinned. She never failed to make his heart thump with that face. Just like her mom. That last thought bit at him with sharp teeth.
Outside, the generator sputtered and died. Silence screamed at them, made Tom’s ears ring. He wasn’t sure how much the air conditioners were doing, but it had been something.
‘Daddy? Are we gonna die?’
‘I dunno, baby. We just gotta make it to dark.’
He ran the back of his hand across his forehead, and it came off dry. Meri’s body shook against his, wracked with quiet sobs.
‘Daddy? I don’t feel good.’
Tom peeled his eyes open. They’d fallen asleep. Or passed out. The sky outside the window was eerie green, like it always was at sunset now. That should mean the temperature was going down, but if anything, it felt hotter. He shifted in his seat and felt stiff, bloated. ‘Me neither, baby.’
Tom’s throat contracted. His eyes bugged with the effort of trying to produce tears, but there was no moisture to spare. ‘Sweety, Mom’s—she’s not here right now.’ She knew that.
‘Can I have some water?’
‘No, baby. There’s no more left.’
Maybe he could ring the sweat from his shirt. He went to pull it off and his hand passed over desert-dry cloth. Nevermind.
‘Are we gonna see that ghost?’
‘Tell me about the murder.’ There was mischief in her voice even now. Tom hugged her closer and she leaned into him.
‘Well, she was sick, and her husband didn’t want to take care of her anymore, so he smothered her with a pillow. Nobody thought twice about a sick old woman kicking the bucket. The old man ran off to Houston and sold the house to Grandma.’
‘Is that why she’s so mad?’
‘I’d imagine so.’ Tom ran his swollen fingers through Meri’s hair. Bone dry, not a drop of sweat. He just needed to keep them awake and alert a little while longer. When the sun was all the way down, he could go outside, try to pump some water up from the dregs of the well. And maybe he’d get his other wish. ‘You know, I’m not the only person that saw her. Your Nana and Papa did, too. Used to tell me some pretty wild stories. Once Papa said he saw her running down the hallway.’
Tom hoped the story would elicit a giggle. Any other day it would have. But Meri just stared, her breath shallow and ragged. He couldn’t blame her. He was tired, too. Maybe if they just slept through it, they’d wake up in the dark.
He closed his eyes.
When Tom woke again, night had fallen.
‘Mom? Dad?’ He whispered. But the body snuggled into his side reminded him that this wasn’t thirty years ago. He wasn’t eight years old. ‘Meri? Sweety, we made it. It’s dark.’
She didn’t stir. Tom shook her. ‘Meri.’
He had made it. She had not.
His chest convulsed. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his chest, buried his face in her hair, drew in her scent, exhaled in broken sobs.
He’d known she was going to die. They both were. The human body can’t survive sustained hundred and thirty-degree temperatures. But he’d just wanted one more night with her. He’d hoped—
He wasn’t alone. The air in the room vibrated with presence. He looked up. Without the ever-present glow of electrical doodads, nightlights, and cell phones, the whole world had gone alarmingly black. But he knew which way to look. Same way he’d known to look into the kitchen back then.
Two white orbs floated in the murk, giving off their own dim glow.
‘There you are,’ Tom said. It hurt to speak, but he needed to say it. ‘I wanted her to see you. Thought if we talked about you, thought about you enough, you’d show. And I was right. The best way to call forth a ghost is to pay it heed, Grandma used to say. But you’re too late. She’s already gone. I just wanted her to see, like I did, that it doesn’t end here—that we go on. Didn’t want her to die scared. But I guess we all do.’ His dry, swollen tongue kept sticking to the roof of his mouth. ‘Is she there with you? Would you tell me?’
Black turned to grey. The white orbs grew dim. Tom glanced out the window and saw the violet sky brighten. The sun was unbearably brilliant as it summited the horizon. He’d slept the whole night through. A brand new day was here.
‘It doesn’t matter. I’ll see you both myself, soon enough.’
About the Author
BRANDON APPLEGATE lives and writes in a parched suburban hell-scape near Austin, Texas with his wife and two daughters who have, so far, failed to eat him. His debut short fiction collection “Those We Left Behind and Other Sacrifices” is available on Amazon and bapplegate.com, and he’s editing the upcoming “It Was All A Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right” for Hungry Shadow Press, where he’s the EIC. You can find him on Twitter (@brandonappleg8), and Instagram (@hungryshadowpress).
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