Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less every week.
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four (or more) 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 sometime in 2023, showcasing all of the original works that debut here at the Night Terror Novels website throughout the year. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our latest submission window here.
The theme for October’s submissions was “Something Wicked”: stories about the spookiest season of them all: all things autumnal and relating to fall, from witchcraft and wizardry to seasonal slashers or biologically-mutated, murderous pumpkins. Our tenth month in the theatre’s auditorium launched with “The McMurdlow House” by Eric Del Carlo, a grim, utterly uncompromising take on the classic haunted house premise woven together by powerful narration. Next up, Scott J. Moses brought us “Of Monsters and Deep Magic”, a twisted, tragic tale of trick-or-treating in which nothing is as it first appears, delivered in the author’s electric prose. In the first of our Halloween double bill, Garrett Boatman joined our lineup and introduced us to “Amanda”; his delightfully twisted take on the uncanny genre trope of creepy dolls is sure to send a chill down your spine. Then, Malina Douglas relayed a sad, dark correspondence of love, death, and necromancy in her epistolary tale “Eternally Yours”. We close out October with one last piece, “Mister October” by T. Fox Dunham—a powerful and poignant rumination on the journey of life, of grappling with one’s own mortality, and with overcoming the obstacles it poses, which conjures to mind the seasonally-charged works of Ray Bradbury. You can find out more about the authors 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
As summer died, I watched the apples swell and waited for new tumours to grow while hiding from the human world, out among the foreign and forgotten wild. I exiled myself to my parent’s cabin in the Lancaster countryside—vanishing out among the secluded Amish farms that had resisted civilisation for the last century.
On the last night of summer—my first summer in remission—I went out to the wild corn that bordered the cabin’s parcel to make an offering of an apple and lit a candle to celebrate the life of friends from the chemo room who weren’t lucky enough to be here to watch the nights grow longer. Once I’d finished my ritual, I burned the letter from my mother. The flames brushed my fingers—numb from treatment-induced neuropathy—and I felt nothing.
The letter’s ashes blew on an evening breeze, and I carved stars into its skin and waited for the regular arrival of the monster in the corn. Following its usual ritual since July, the scarecrow—perhaps possessed with ancient spirits—scurried like a rat through the corn stalks, tearing the brush and weeds that strangled the abandoned fields. It pressed its burlap sack face against the invisible barrier that surrounded the square property line of the cabin and sneered, dropping bugs from its knotted red and yellow yarn hair. Some farmer had sculpted it long ago from egg cartons, burlap sacks, old clothes and everything tossed onto a midden heap—all the things discarded and unloved.
‘Come run in the cornfield, Tildy,’ it enticed through a mouldy rip in the sack. ‘Scratch and match. Isn’t your soul soggy from being lonesome? I’ll run with you on legs made from broken fences and torn jeans.’
‘You’re chemo fog,’ I said and headed to the pile of fresh wood John Mills had delivered before the fragile light died. He’d offered to chop, but I needed the physical therapy if I was to ever gain the strength back that the chemo had eroded. I slammed the maul down, struggled to lift it again then fought to raise it again. I’d gained little weight since I left the hospital in June after my last mortal battle with the malignancy. Those canned shakes tasted like metal, and I couldn’t swallow them.
‘You can’t hide in that shack forever,’ it said, and I threatened it with the maul. The raggedy man flinched backwards, then laughed. Each guffaw scratched like sandpaper. Two red flares burned from the faded visage painted on the burlap, and it beckoned me to come with chicken-wire hands, taunting me. ‘Pitiful.’
‘As long as I’m on this land, you can’t touch me. When you see the welcoming light glowing from the windows, I hope it torments you that you’ll never be invited in. You’re trapped out here in the cold at the mercy of the owls and the foxes.’
‘Just as you,’ it said. I swung the maul and missed, hitting the stump. Pain shot up my arm.
‘I have the strength to leave anytime,’ I lied. ‘But you’re just a side effect.’
‘Scratch and thatch,’ the scarecrow said. ‘I’m as real as I must be. But am I a dream in your head or a nightmare you’re dead?’
I dropped the maul, fled back into the cabin then dealt Solitaire. No one was coming to save me. I’d made sure of that by pushing everyone away, all my friends from school, my family. A thousand unsatisfied emails flooded a server somewhere, and I couldn’t help but resent them for not being here to help fight the thing.
I resolved to leave at dawn, but as I played, sipping whiskey, I worried if it would be waiting for me on the dirt road. No one would find me out here. So, I decided to stay just until I was sure.
The next day, on the first night of fall, the pagan holiday of Mabon, I came out at dusk to fetch more wood for the stove when I found a man collapsed on the edge of the cornfield. I didn’t know what to think—maybe a tourist hiking who’d lost his way or a local farmer drinking in the fields. He was so young, around my age. I ran my finger around his beautiful jawline before I tried waking him. I even tossed water on his angular gaunt face, but still he wouldn’t stir.
‘Come on, Mister …’ I didn’t know what to call him, so I named him Mister October. His red and blond hair glowed like the turning leaves. His skin smelled of earthy leaf piles and hot spiced apple cider, of rich chocolate freshly opened from a sack of Halloween candy. Straw filled his overalls and spilt from his denim as I dragged him across my mother’s cabin and made piles on the wooden floor by the cast-iron stove where I deposited his limp body. I checked his pulse, felt his hot wrists in my hands, and using the diagnostic skills I’d assumed through osmosis after living as a professional patient the last two years, I deemed him stable, though I really didn’t have the means to seek help for him otherwise. My phone had no signal, and the landline had long since died. If need be, John Mills could help me when he came in a few days. My guest didn’t wake all night, and I made him a bed from a sleeping bag then climbed up into the loft.
I woke the next morning to the rich aroma of fresh coffee redolent in the single room of the cabin. Mister October ground the beans by hand and brewed them on the stove. I swung my legs over the loft ledge and climbed down the footholds.
‘Thanking you for finding me,’ he said and smiled, looking me over with kind eyes.
‘You’re not some serial killer on the run from the PA state police?’
He shrugged. ‘Could be, but I don’t think so. I don’t remember much, but I don’t think I’d hurt anyone. At least, I don’t feel that way in my heart.’ He boiled water for porridge.
‘You know how to cook,’ I said and washed up.
‘It felt like the thing to do. You live here alone?’
‘I can’t take people right now. I had chemo and radiation for lymphoma in Philly at Penn. No one thought I’d survive but couldn’t say that to my face. But I did. It’s only been a couple of months, but I’m expected to go back to my life already in progress.’
‘Am I supposed to be sorry?’ he asked, showing a little cheek. I hid a smile.
‘I think that’s polite.’
‘Then … I’m sorry,’ he said and shrugged.
‘Well,’ I said, changing the subject. ‘I guess you best stay here in case your people come looking for you,’ I put on my red and black flannel then poured some coffee. ‘Sleep on the floor, and I’ll sleep with my shotgun for the first couple of nights.’
I wasn’t quite sure why I’d invited a total stranger to stay with me. It wasn’t that I felt charity. Maybe it was because he was the first person who didn’t act awkward when I talked about cancer. Most people quickly dismissed me with a few kind words and then got the hell out of there. He was the first person to treat me like a person since I’d found the lump under my ear. Odd how you can hate being around people but still feel lonely.
For the first couple of days, I kept the shotgun near. We chatted about life in the wild, about the moon, my favourite songs, growing up in the city, having a famous doctor for a mom. He seemed so awkward, constantly tripping on his own feet that I didn’t feel so clumsy when I struggled to compensate for nerve damage. On the seventh night, after days of chat, chopping wood, brewing coffee and boiling porridge, I found myself watching him from the loft. Finally, I set the shotgun aside. It felt like a dream—or maybe it was a nightmare. Everything looked so different after remission. I saw things, strange things that had always been there that I had just tuned out before.
‘This doesn’t mean anything,’ I said down to him as he prepared the sleeping bag. ‘Why don’t you come up? Just to sleep.’ He hesitated and looked down at the floor, but I knew. I’d seen the wistful look in his grey eyes. He must have needed my touch, yet he paused. ‘This is a limited-time offer. What’s the prob?’
‘With each falling leaf, I grow older.’
‘That’s life,’ I said.
‘No. I remember. I’m recently born. I’ll only lose you, soon.’
‘I don’t care,’ I said, but I didn’t understand. He held me all night.
Over the next few weeks, we never talked about cancer, about the potential of its return. The lymphoma had been aggressive, and most people who got it my age only got short reprieves before the inevitable. I never stopped ruminating, but when we held each other, Mister October distracted me. I’m not sure if it was real, if he was real, but it was the first time I felt good about life since I’d gotten sick—a love sans consequence. I pulled it up around my beaten body like a flannel blanket and lived a beautiful dream.
But then by mid-October, I noticed he’d changed. The rich hues of his hair etiolated; their colour drained. Wrinkles carved into his kind face, and his body turned brittle. I realised he’d told me the truth, and the dream faded into a nightmare.
‘What’s happening to you?’
‘I wasn’t born from a womb. I was born of the season. Humans don’t see my kind anymore, but you came close to death. You can see the spirits in the fields now. But you don’t understand. Your perception changes us.’
I wanted to run away from the cabin, but even though I had not heard its taunts for several days, I felt the beast biding its time. I couldn’t leave, and I decided to make the best of our shared time. ‘It’s almost a joke,’ I said. ‘All I wanted was to live long enough to grow old with someone.’
The days seemed to end faster and faster. Finally, the old year died on Samhain, and I held Mister October, feeling his body weaken.
‘Promise me something before I pass into the soil,’ he said
‘That’s not fair.’
‘Death is never fair.’
‘Promise what?’ I asked.
‘You’ll know,’ he said and never spoke again.
That night under the guidance of the ripe full moon, I challenge the beast by laying my love in the corn field, and as soon as Mister October touched the soil, he transformed: skin into old clothes, hair into red and yellow yarn. Legs became boards. And for a brief moment, his eyes glowed red, revealing Mister October’s original form. For months, I lived in fear, and the beast served my need for isolation; then, my loneliness transformed it into a loving being: the dream and the nightmare defined by my protean perception. Now, his personal season had spent, and he’d decay into dust. I wept into the weeds, feeling like a fool. I had asked for this pain by loving him in spite of his short life. ‘I promise.’
The next morning, I packed my few things, and John Mills drove me to Lancaster city. I panicked every mile he drove me to the Amtrak station but embraced the anxiety. The worry made me feel alive—animated, even potent. Maybe I’d find another human to grow old with or maybe I’d age alone, content with myself. Regardless, I never stopped being afraid of cancer, but I would no longer let it define how I perceived my future.
About the Author
T. FOX DUNHAM lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with his wife, Allison. He’s a cancer survivor, modern bard, herbalist, baker and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, was published by Gutter Books, and the book is in production by Throughline Films. He’s a well-published crime author. He’s also contributed to official Stargate canon with a story published in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from Fandemonium Books. More information at tfoxdunham.com & Twitter: @TFoxDunham.
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