The House at Graves End
By the end of the day, Saturday, September 21, Jim and Janet Bristol were settled into their new home.
Things had gone surprisingly well, considering Janet's objections. The truck driver, Bill Mason, even helped them wrestle their furniture out of one house and into the other. The furnishings looked pitifully scant in the big house. The only payment Bill would accept was a sandwich and a cold beer. He wolfed them both down in a hurry and, as he pulled out of the gravel driveway in the late afternoon, waved and said, "You folks be careful, hear? Be careful."
"Wonder why he said that?" Janet asked. She turned and looked up into Jim's eyes, worry showing in her own.
"Don't even think it, babe. It's just an expression, not an omen. There's nothing in a cemetery that can hurt you. Nothing."
Janet had an irrational fear of cemeteries, and it was a monumental sacrifice for her to finally agree to uproot their young family and move with Jim to New Conakilit. Unemployed for over a year, Jim's new job came at a time when his marriage with Janet was at its most tenuous. The job was a miracle, really; it had saved their marriage and it had come, seemingly, from out of the blue.
Jim had toured the cemetery grounds once before, during his job interview with the mayor, a council member of New Conakilit Rofs, and Reverend McVie. Surprisingly, his tour hosts didn't seem to know anything about the job and even less about the layout of the 28-acre cemetery. They had been content to ramble up and down random rows of headstones, talking about anything else but the job; when Jim coaxed the conversation around to his duties as caretaker of Warden Woods Cemetery, he was assured he'd take to the job like a duck to water.
"But I've never operated a back hoe," he admitted.
"Nothing to it. We'll call up old Bill Mason; he'll give you a lesson."
"I'm really a writer, you know? Oh, I've had lots of other jobs, I've got experience in retail sales, computers, and last year I worked in a slaughter house outside of Tweed."
"Well, with all that varied experience, this should be well within your abilities. We have every confidence in you, Mr. Bristol."
They meandered to the crest of South Hill and the walking interview had abruptly ended as the group hustled Jim back to the cemetery parking lot and said their good-byes.
Jim spent much of his first two weeks on the job wandering the grounds at night. He told Janet it was just part of the job, and maybe in those first days he believed that was what brought him out at night. But slowly he realized the real reason was the sense of peace and harmony it gave him. No time clocks to punch, no bosses breathing down his neck at the plant, no wild-eyed animal stares, and none of the smells of the killing floor.
During the day, wen he wasn't maintaining the grounds, he was flicking away at the keys of his typewriter downstairs in his "office." The screenplay was bursting from his fingertips. A horror story with a twist. Something entirely new that Jim knew would be snapped up as soon as he mailed it off. He just had to find an agent.
After sunset he was out most of the night, patrolling like a jealous phantom, working out scenes in his head, soaking up the ambience. The only time Janet and the three kids saw him was when he sat down long enough to eat. He was becoming a stranger. No, he thought; he was becoming his own man.
It might not be so bad for Janet if they had visitors, but none of their old friends would come to the house. They joked that the place was haunted and, anyway, seventy miles was a long drive for a weekend get-together.
The only people who visited were the Reverend McVie and his wife, Iris. Jim had met McVie at the original interview, and it was McVie who had asked a series of intimate questions about his family history that left Bristol wondering what that had to do with the job.
One evening in mid-October, the Reverend and Iris came to tea, as they liked to call their visit, and the conversation turned to the original owners of the house on the edge of Warden Woods. Iris spoke while the Reverend sat quietly on the couch, looking resigned to the fact that nothing would sway his wife once she got started. She loved her history.
Iris related how the Bristol family's house had been originally owned by Hugh and Amanda Carroll, relatives of the family linked to the slaughter of the Black Donnellys, outside of London, Ontario, in the 1880s. According to Iris, the local Carrolls were no better remembered than the infamous Donnellys, leaving Ireland under a cloud of dark suspicion and mere steps ahead of the hangman. They had been suspected of cannibalism during the famine years. It was widely believed that they had been murdering travelers to supply the succulent meats served at their tables while the rest of the country starved. A search of their inn's cold cellar subsequently uncovered the butchered and partially denuded carcasses of what the police surgeon testified were the remains of individuals unknown within the immediate community. The inn was burned to the ground and the ground salted. The bloodied butcher's block was the last thing to be consumed by the angry flames. Or so the story went.
Iris spoke with glee of long-remembered tales of the Carrolls feuding with every neighbor they had truck with in their adopted land: disputes over water rights, and land boundary disagreements that escalated into fist fights or worsebrowbeating by Hugh and nose-lifting snubs delivered by Amanda. But always the stink of what may or may not have happened in the old country followed the Carrolls' boot heels into the new world.
And then Iris recounted a time when Walter Brock accused old Hugh Carroll of making off with his only bull and slaughtering it for winter stores. Hugh Carroll stalked away from the wire fence, the gathered crowd, the argument, and the whole heated mess, and returned half an hour later with his old shotgun. Cold as a corpse, he blew Walter Brock's head into red mist. Hugh Carroll never spent a moment behind bars, for the judge of Hastings county was his uncle from the old sod and a Carroll by marriage to Hugh's aunt.
When two youngsters went missing and were feared dead after a long absence, speculation turned to the Carrolls and their constant, unpalatable reputation. The dark shadow they preferred to cloak themselves within had always separated them from their community and assured them privacy from it. But rumors are powerful things that can bridge all chasms, cut through all niceties, and jump to any conclusion.
And so a search was conducted of the Carroll farm, and articles of clothing said to belong to the missing children were found in the root cellar, along with the butchering knives Hugh undoubtedly used for dressing meat. There was no doubt as to the disposition of the young angels. The Carrolls had had them just as surely as they'd had Brock's bull. And this time they were not about to escape by means of an uncle in the judiciary.
On the morning of October 21, ("why that's next week isn't it?") 1888, in the town of New Conakilit Rofs, a band of vigilantes marched a beaten and bloodied pair of luckless souls past Judge Nobel's street-front courthouse and onto South Hill, just past the cemetery proper. Barricades were jammed against the judge's doors to prevent his escape, but he could squint out of his windows into the growing light of the morning and make out the unfolding drama. The Carrolls were tied neck and feet with heavy rope and the longer ropes, those tied to their necks, were passed over a strong young oak, while the ropes at their feet were fastened to millwheels of no small size.
Talk was sparse, save for a passionate curse against their persecutors from the Carrolls, and no real time passed before the two were suspended between the stretch of the oak's bough and the drag of the millwheels. An old Percheron was backed onto the foot of the hill and its harness fixed to the taut ropes looped around the darkening necks of Hugh and Amanda Carroll. A sign was given by the leader of the vigilante group, and the horse was soundly whipped.
Judge Nobel had no legal recourse against the perpetrators of the lynching, since the view was poor from his windows and nobody he suspected would testify against the others or, later, so much as admit to knowing the Carrolls. But Judge Nobel made a list of attendees, nonetheless.
"And, funny as it sounds, the two missing children turned up later at their grandmother's farm in Tweed, seventy miles away. They were never in danger and they never were missing. Fancy that!"
Janet didn't appreciate the history lesson, and she politely let it be known. Jim should have mentioned her dread of cemeteries and her irrational fear of ghosts before Iris launched into the entertainment, but he had been so thrilled to hear any background that might add to his screenplay he had said nothing. It was certain Janet endured the cemetery at her back door only at Jim's insistence, but there was nothing to worry about, really. Legends are make-believe and life is a bitch who demands all your imagination. Why not have a little fun?
The Reverend McVie apologized for his wife's enthusiasm and assured Janet that all the tales were well within the realm of folklore and not to be taken seriously. These kinds of stories follow the history of every town in every county and countryside throughout the world. How else do we find our little thrills? Jim offered another round of drinks. The Reverend and Iris demurely refused and left, thanking Janet for her hospitality.
The next afternoon, it began. Laura ran into the kitchen, fresh tears glistening on her chubby cheeks, heaving great ragged sobs. Janet closed the dishwasher door, pushed the "on" button, turned, and knelt to embrace the six-year-old.
"What's the matter, honey? What put those nasty old tears in your eyes? C'mon, it's okay, you can tell Mommy."
Laura's small body shook with a renewed wave of sobbing. Then, with an exaggerated expression of control on her little face, she sighed loudly and said, "Jimmy and Timmy went for a hike to their secret place again. They promised me I could go with them next time if I didn't tell. This is next time and they still won't let me go. It's not fair; they promised!"
"Oh, don't worry, honey. You know boys are like that. They're just real mean to little girls, sometimes. I'll tell you what: we'll make cookies and we won't give them any, okay?"
"Chokit ship cookies?"
"Yep, chokit ships."
While the two were busy mixing the batter, Laura asked, "Mommy? Is it okay if I tell Jimmy and Timmy's secret? They broke their promise." She looked up from licking the goo from her spoon. "And they said they'd let me go if I didn't tell, but they didn't. The worms won't eat my eyes, will they?"
Janet was stunned. Worms eat her eyes? Who would scare a little baby with images like that? What kind of nightmares must Laura have had, with a threat like that on her mind? If Jimmy Junior or Timmy had laid that on her, Janet would give them the spanking of their young lives.
Her anger must have shown on her face, because Laura began whimpering, thinking she'd said something wrong. Janet caught herself quickly, before Laura could start crying. Smiling sweetly, she said, "Oh, sweetheart, fair is fair, right? Sure, you can tell me their secret."
The boys were on the slope of South Hill playing "Castle Dracula" in their fort. The fort was a hollow formed by the slope and the overhanging boughs of a stunted and crooked oak tree. Within the hollow, the earth was damp and musty, covered with dead oak leaves, pine needles, and the leaves of other trees caught by years of wind and deposited there to rot, bits of paper and other litter contributed by hundreds of mourners over the seasons, and the leavings of small animals who couldn't know that their shelter was now the undisputed property of two small boys who played out their fantasies within that close darkness.
Castle Dracula was somewhere above the tip of the oak, in the cliffs of the Borgo Pass, and the hollow was where Dr. Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker awaited the master vampire each day just before dusk. Naturally, Jimmy was Van Helsing and Timmy was Harker.
Together they schemed and planned the best means of surprising and trapping the vampire king as it made its nightly visits to the village below. Sitting on two crumbling markers, the vampire hunters fashioned crude wooden stakes with Jimmy's pocket knife and stuck them in the soft dirt at the mouth of the hollow.
Jimmy had discovered the hollow one afternoon during their first week in the house, while returning home from school through the "boneyard." Since they were much closer to school now, their mother didn't have to use Dad's car to pick them up. And the shortcut through the cemetery made it even shorter getting home. He was well aware of his mother's feelings about the cemetery, She'd even threatened their father against letting them walk with him on his rounds, even in the friggin' daytime! What was she so afraid of, anyway? Hell, he was twelve. He'd seen graveyards before; they all had. Why was she acting so jerky about this one? He guessed her reasons didn't matter. The fact that the place freaked her so much was reason enough for him to keep silent about ever having been inside. If she ever found out, there'd be hell to pay, then, boy.
Jimmy wasn't even going to tell his brother, except Timmy had followed him home one day and found out he was cutting through the cemetery. He'd had to let him in on it then, or Timmy would've opened his big mouth. No problem, they could share the secret. But when Laurie found out, he had to put his foot down hard, as his mother would say. And put it down he did, where it hurt the little girl moston her imagination. Jimmy had the sneaking feeling that Timmy must have bragged to Laurie that they had a secret fort. But by the time he found out she knew, it was too late to do anything but make sure she never told their mother. That's when Jimmy came up with the idea of scaring Laurie in the worst possible way.
"If you tell on us," he whispered to his little sister, "the worms in this graveyard will suck the eyes right out of your head. They're hungry, these here worms, and they like little-girl eyes the best. And you can't come in here alone or they'll getcha. I gotta get rid of the ghouls and vampires and I gotta make sure the worms are all asleep before you can come through."
"That's right," said Timmy. "Jimmy knows how to talk to these worms, an' he can tell them to getcha if you don't keep quiet. We'll let you come with us next time, won't we, Jimmy?"
"Maybe, maybe not," Jimmy said, with an air of calculating an important decision.
That's when Laura's nightmares began. But the bad dreams hadn't dampened her excitement about someday going with her big brothers to see their fort. She knew Jimmy would protect her from anything bad. She waited and watched and hoped that the day would come when all the worms would be asleep. She didn't dare go into the cement-tree alone, because she knew the worms would know she was there and they would wriggle and squirm up from the dark soil and slither toward her in an army. Huge worms, all black and wet, with red eyes and tiny, pointed teeth. And they would crawl up her legs and pull her down under their weight to the black earth and bite her all over and drink her blood and move all over her until they found her eyes.
And then, when she couldn't see anymore, the bad man she had seen from her bedroom window, the tall, skinny, naked man who followed her father around the cement-tree at night, he would come and take her back down into the ground with him. Back down that big hole she had seen him climb out of last night, when Daddy was making his rounds. Laura knew the bad man lived in the part of the cement-tree her Daddy never went to, the part with the long brown grass, just in that dark place under the bent old scary tree and the side of the hill. She thought it was called a holler, or something, but that's where he lived.
And Laura knew her big brothers could protect her from the bad man, too. That's why she was so upset. They'd been sneaking out to their fort for nearly three weeks after their promise to her and they still wouldn't let her go with them. So she told her mother on them. She was even going to tell her mother about the naked man from the ground in the holler, but her mother looked so mad, she didn't dare. Maybe Laura wasn't supposed to know about the man. Maybe her mother would get even madder at her if she did.
She would keep quiet about that part, but she delighted in telling Mommy about the worms and what they looked like and what they would do to her if she went into the cement-tree all by herself. It was good to share that part with Mommy, because when she talked about it out loud, with Mommy holding her, it wasn't so scary anymore. But she could tell Mommy was real mad at Jimmy and Timmy, so mad she looked like she was going to cry. And she was saying those "F" words her Daddy hated.
Janet was outraged. She was alternately frightened for the boys' safety and filled with burning anger over what they'd done to Laura. How could she have raised them so badly? What had she done wrong, that they should grow into such bullying monsters? And Jim, that bastard! Where was he? Why didn't he know the boys were in the cemetery against her strictest orders? For weeks he hadn't paid the least bit of attention to any of them. Less than a month in this place, and her children were already being warped by its evil presence.
The afternoon sun was growing weaker as it arced toward night. The two boys were frightened. They had seen Laurie's expression when they told her she couldn't come with them. They were afraid she might be home telling their mother where they were. Timmy was crying softly to himself and Jimmy was stoically thinking about what his mother would do to him when he got home. He was the oldest and most to blame. It was a very bad time for both of them.
They knew they'd done wrong, and they were sorry, even if Laurie hadn't told on them, they were sorry. But they both knew it was too late for sorrys. It was the guilt as much as the anticipation of what was to come that kept them rooted within the hollow, Timmy sobbing and asking, "What're we gonna do, Jimmy? What're we gonna do?" Jimmy sat on the soft damp earth in silence. He didn't know what they were going to do, but what they weren't going to do was go home until he thought his mother had calmed down a bit. By then their father would be home, too. Dad was okay, he'd understand they didn't do anything wrong by going into the stupid cemetery. Kids did things like that all the time. They'd just wait until he got home.
Jim was sitting on a bench just out of sight of the chapel, enjoying the last rays of the October sun as he jotted notes for the final scene. The movie had taken a delightfully nasty turn, a juicy, horrifying turn. The dead in his screenplay didn't end up wiped out as he'd first written; they turned out to be the ones who survived. He liked this twist. All the brave protagonists dragged down to the depths of hell, screaming to a God who was too busy to listen, and the dead left to begin the new world. Christ, he liked that idea. Talk about being original. It was perfect; not even Straub could come up with anything as good as this. He would type it up as soon as he had supper. Forget the rounds tonight. Who cares? Nothing ever happens here, anyway.
During his short tenure as groundskeeper at Warden Woods, Jim hadn't once been called upon to dig a new grave. The back hoe lay dormant in the tool hut beside the house. He'd had precious little contact with the people who hired him, save for the outrageously funny Reverend and Mrs. McVie. It seemed to him that nobody cared what he did or didn't do, as long as there was someone present on the grounds. He thought again about how lucky he'd been to get the job. Like it was planned that way, almost. Aside from mowing and manicuring the lawns, pruning a few overgrown hedges and making his regular night patrols, Jim found himself with little else to do but sit out in the late autumn sun and write his movie notes. It was as if they wanted him to be left alone, he thought on his way back to the house; to be left alone with the cemetery and forgotten. Lucky man.
Unlike Janet, Jim ate up the stories about his house and the Carrolls who had lived in it for so many years. He'd heard the fear most people in town felt for the cemetery. How many people had disappeared during the Carrolls' lifetime in the town? No matter. Jim didn't believe any of the wild rumors about their cannibalism. That's why he'd laughed at Iris McVie's story, or rather, at the fact she'd really believed what she was saying. And the vengeful ghosts of the Carrolls? They were pathologically shy, as far as he could see.
He was thinking this when he entered the house through the kitchen door. He was excited and eager to tell Janet that he finally had the perfect ending for "Darkly Abide the Dead." But before he could speak, Janet sprang out of a kitchen chair and was on him like a madwoman, flailing her clenched fists in his face and screaming.
Jim tried to hold her at arm's length, but she was suddenly very strongdesperately strong. A string of obscenities exploded from her twisted mouth, and a few became distinct through her hysterical onslaught.
"...don't care, do you, you bastard? They could be hurt or dying for all we know ... should have been home hours ago ... doing in that goddamn cemetery, anyway? ... supposed to be their fucking father!"
Jim swung his right arm and slapped her with the palm of his hand. His fingertips stung. Janet went dead still, staring at him with a mixture of shock and hatred, fists still poised to strike.
"I hope you die," she whispered.
Jim felt a prickling sensation at the base of his skull. He felt like he was acting out some surrealistic play in Hell's own amphitheater. He didn't know this woman. This was not his wife. Those were not words she would ever use. He knew this. And it couldn't have been his hand that struck her. He knew that, too, because he would never raise a hand against his wife.
But, like an actor in a play, he said his lines and followed the stage directions, his mind rebelling at the alien nature of the thing.
"Now, tell me what's happened," he said, voice tight. "I don't want you to raise your voice, I don't want you to get upset, and I don't want you spewing any more filth from your dirty mouth in front of our daughter. Just tell me what's wrong."
Janet dropped her hands to her sides. Her eyes burned into his and the left side of her face was a pale canvas for the vicious red outline of his fingers. She began softly, almost inaudibly, confused as much by the pain as by his actions.
"The boys are out in the cemetery somewhere," she began. "At first I was only angry that they disobeyed me and that they scared Laura. They've been going in there for weeks, and I warned them not to. They have some kind of fort or clubhouse in there. But, Jim, they've been in there for hours now, and I'm scared something's happened to them."
"Do you know where they are?" His voice had lost its tightness.
"Not the exact spot," she answered, a tremor sneaking into her voice.
"Then how do you know they're even in the cemetery?"
"Laura told me. She knows they have a place they play in after school, but she doesn't know where it is. They wouldn't tell her. They wouldn't let her go with them; that's how I found out. You see, they had a deal with...."
His daughter looked up at him with teary eyes and bobbed her chin. "They're in the cement-tree, Daddy."
The sun had set fast, sending long shadows stretching like bony fingers around the fort, caressing the wild, weedy grass and crumbling gravestones with darkness. The fort itself, always in the shade of the misshapen oak, was now just a black hole on the face of the cemetery. The boys were frightened. They had never been in their fort at night, in the cemetery, with the dead things. In the light of day their imaginations were a gift, an asset, but now they were the enemy, prodding and taunting and daring them to close their minds to the night.
Every rustle became the shrouds of the walking dead, flapping against skeletal forms. The scraping and cracking of tree branches became the clacking of bones as monsters shuffled toward them. The scurrying noises of small rodents were the decomposed hands of hundreds of ghouls scratching and clawing at the buried wood that was their prison, climbing from their graves with one purposeto find Jimmy and Timmy and murder them. Fingers clawing rotten wood and moist soil. Reaching. Finding. Tearing.
Both boys felt it and each was silently listening to his own death, terrified by the images offered up by wild imaginations.
Each was preoccupied with his own personal nightmare, each deep in his own hideous thoughts. And the scratching sounds continuedcontinued beyond their imagination. Neither realized that what they heard was real, and directly behind them.
Sitting with their backs well away from the markers inscribed with the strange prayer, "God grant that they lie still," they were too wrapped in their own terrors to see the earth shift and pour in on itself, as first one, then another mummified hand broke through and spread groping fingers wide to the night. Then a third and a fourth. Both Carrolls were fighting free of the clinging loam, not just Laura's "bad man" by himself this time.
Jim could see that Janet was becoming panicked; her every movement showed she felt caged and helpless. She couldn't simply wait for the boys to return without making an effort to go out into the twilight and meet them on their way home. Yet she was still too frightened to go into the cemetery, even with Jimand too frightened not to go.
Jim knew his going alone wouldn't ease her fears, so he lifted the phone and extended it to her, knowing that she had to call somebody else for help. Janet rushed to him and took the phone out of his hand. She managed to reach Iris McVie on the second ring.
Of course, they would come right over. No, there was probably nothing to worry about, but better to be safe. Just stay calm and she and the Reverend would be right there. And Iris would even call Bill Mason, the man who helped them move. If the boys were lost in the cemetery, Bill was the man to find them. After all, wasn't Bill the groundskeeper before Jim got the job?
Timmy became aware of the sounds behind them before Jimmy did, and as he turned to look, he reached out to touch Jimmy's shoulder. He never made contact. The shock of Timmy's piercing scream snapped Jimmy's head around like a whip.
What Jimmy saw first was his little brother frozen in a mask of terror. Timmy's face was so distortedeyes bulging, facial bones in sharp relief beneath white skin pulled taut, his mouth open too wide to be realthat Jimmy thought for an instant the eight-year-old boy beside him was a monster-movie travesty of his real brother. Mr. Sardonicus!
The scream went on and on, like a stuck siren, high-pitched and painful to hear. Timmy's left arm was outstretched toward Jimmy and his right pointed to something moving behind them. Jimmy felt his life shrinking into itself and a warm dizziness in his head as his eyes followed Timmy's pointing finger to the two dark figures struggling to free themselves from their graves.
For a single heartbeat that seemed to last forever, Jimmy sat motionless, his brain absorbing the monstrous details of the demented picture.
Then he bolted. Grabbing Timmy's arm and roughly yanking him to his feet, he ran, tugging his still-screaming brother behind him. With every pumping motion of his young legs he mechanically repeated a litany of raw horror, "Momeee! Dadeee! Ohmygaawd! Momeee, Dadeee, Ohmygod, ohmygod!" sounding like the laboring of some alien engine. He ran, pulled, dragged Timmy behind him, all the way up and over the crest of South Hill and along the path to the house. "Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. Momeee help! Dadeee help. Pleeease!"
"Sweet Jesus. That was a child's scream!" Iris McVie's eyes were round with fear and concern. She slapped a hand over her mouth and looked from face to startled face in the living room, expecting one of the others to take charge.
Janet looked up at Jim. "Timmy? That was Timmy! Oh, Jim, where are they. What's happening to our boys?"
"Come from over on the South Hill, God damn it," said Bill Mason, already rushing for the front door. "Fuck them bastards! This ain't right."
Jim was beside him and then out the door before the older man. Janet ran to the open door a second later and followed her husband and Mason out into the deepening night. She thought Timmy's scream would never end as it cut through the darkness like a beacon. Rivers of fear ran through her veins, washing away any thought of her own deep phobia, her mind manufacturing wild pictures from the sound of Timmy's voice. She ran hard, but Mason and Jim were easily outdistancing her, lungs burning she pushed herself harder. She must reach her sons, she must save them from whatever danger caused that scream.
The cold, dry husk of Hugh Carroll was completely free of the clinging grave. He stood to survey the dim landscape, his naked and torn body a dull gray in the cold October moonlight. Bone and sinewy muscle peeked through the torn and tattered parchment that had once been robust and corpulent flesh. His eyes were shriveled and buried within deep sockets, but they still saw. His face and tongue were all but eaten away by the years and the wormsthe real worms, not those of Laura's worst nightmares. His cheeks were sunken and drawn tightly over his skeletal face; his lips were pulled and shredded to reveal strong, brown teeth; his hair and beard were long dusty wisps taken up by the winds of autumn. Hints of rib and bone stood exposed to the moon's uncaring glare.
Hugh Carroll pivoted and turned toward his wife, who was still thrashing to be rid of the damp earth that held her. He bent and grasped her sharply angled arms and started to help her, for he was still stronger than she. He had worked free of his own grave many times over the past nights while the energies grew more pronounced and his hunger more acute.
As he reached and stooped to grasp Amanda's searching arms, his head fell forward and to the left on a neck broken by the hangman's knot.
Iris McVie held Laura tightly in her arms. The little girl cried and fought to follow her parents into the cemetery, but Iris held her fast. She looked at her husband.
"You know what it is, don't you? You've been waiting for this. You and the mayor knew about this when you got rid of Bill Mason and hired that man in his place."
"No, Iris, I prayed it was not...."
"Liar! Did you pray for yourself, as well? They're not just legends, are they? Are they?"
Timmy had stopped screaming. Jimmy pulled him along in the dark, past trees and headstones. The memory of what he'd seen spurring him on ever faster. Silently he hoped the monsters were not following them, and the thought of the monsters pumped renewed energy into his tired legs. They ran on in silence, their feet a muffled pounding, too quiet to hear. And their silence was the seal on their father's death warrant. The two groups passed each other in the darkness of the night, both following opposite yet parallel paths in the cemetery, not fifty yards apart, each frantically engaged in its own endeavor and neither saw nor heard the other.
Iris McVie was bundling Laura up in her fuzzy parka, preparing to take one child, at least, as far away as possible from New Conakilit.
"You and can wait right here for any survivors," she snapped at her husband. "I'm going to make sure this little baby lives long enough to forget this night and this filthy town. If I remember, if it'll do anybody any good, I'll send help from Tweed to clean up your mess."
But, before she could reach the front door, it exploded inward and the two terrified boys literally fell into the living room. Then the wailing began.
"Monsters! Mommy, Daddy, monsters! Out in the graveyard! They're not dead anymore. They're not dead!"
It was Jim screaming; Timmy sat on the carpet where he'd slumped, not moving, not seeing, and not hearing nothing his big brother had said.
"Laurieee, where's Mommy and Daddy? Where are they? We gotta get outta here. The monsters are comin'," Jimmy hollered.
At the mention of monsters, Laura remembered the "bad man" she'd seen, following her Daddy around the cement-tree and she, too, cried. Iris wasted no time marshaling the children out to her husband's car.
Isaac McVie stood in the middle of the living room trying to think, trying to believe it was really happening. He fought to understand how a century-old curse could possibly be fulfilled, could possibly come back to haunt The Rofs. Trembling, he dropped to his knees and prayed. He prayed that it was all a mistake.
Jim reached the crest of South Hill first, but he could see nothing of his sons. Bill Mason pounded up a few steps behind him, winded, lungs sucking desperately at the sweet, cool air. Then he saw them, down under the oakalive again. His heart coughed up into his throat as he tried to warn Jim away from that place, but he couldn't speak.
Jim thought Mason was trying to show him where his two boys were, and that thought blinded him to what he really saw.
It looked like Jimmy was helping Timmy out of an open pit. Attaboy, Jimmy, take care of your brother. Timmy must have hurt himself when he fell in, that's why he screamed. Jim shook off Mason's restraining hand and ran down the hill toward his sons. Faster, faster. Timmy was in pain. Faster. Have to help Jimmy with his brother. Can't do it all by himself, still too young. Faster. Jim was a streak of color moving down the slope, and then was lost to sight. He'd caught his foot on an outcropping of exposed root, and pitched violently forward. As he sailed through the night air, he saw the two figures turn to look at him. My sons?
Suddenly, he felt an unnatural coldness in his throat, chest, and abdomen. His face was pressed deeply into the soft earth at the rim of his son's fort. Jim felt dizzy, disoriented, and he thought he might have peed himself. When he tried to lift his head, a ripping pain shot through his neck. He wanted to cry out, but his voice was gone. He found it hard to breathe.
Jim tried to push himself off the ground, but something was pinning him solidly to the earth. He heard Janet's scream from somewhere high above him. Then bony fingers twined in his hair and groped at his clothing. As he was lifted, he saw small, sharpened sticks, like a kid might carve with a jack knife; sharpened stakes that glistened darkly in the moonlight. And something dark dripped from his shirt front.
Who was lifting him, Mason? He raised his eyes to see. The grinning, rotten skull of Hugh Carroll was just inches from his face and, as it moved closer, Jim could make out another skeletal face beside the first, both with mouths opened.
Again, he tried to scream, but one stake had torn through his vocal cords, and the other two had ripped through his right lung and stomach, filling his chest with blood and bile. Strange, he thought. If I'd only come down once in a while to cut the grass and clean up the garbage, I wouldn't be here now.
Jim was dead before the teeth came together to masticate the flesh of his face.
Janet screamed as she saw her husband impaled on the stakes, and she screamed again when she realized what the two dark figures were and what they were doing to him. It was true, thenit was all really true. Mason had her arms pinned firmly behind her back, so she couldn't move, although she fought to run to Jim's side. Then she saw the first creature bite off the side of her husband's face. She fainted in Mason's arms.
"I hope you die," she remembered saying. "I hope you die."
Mason stood immobile, watching the Carrolls tear at Jim Bristol's body. Amanda opened the hole in Bristol's abdomen and pushed her bony hand deep into the cavity. When she withdrew her hand it grasped what might have been Bristol's liver. She put it to her gaping jaws and began to eat.
Mason dropped beside Janet and vomited.
Hugh Carroll heard Janet's scream, too, and turned to peer up the dark incline of South Hill, his grotesque head tilted at an ugly angle on his scarecrow's body. He brought his attention down to Jim Bristol for a moment, then back up to the people on the crest of the hill. He wavered, as though weighing certain possibilities, then came to a decision. He compromised. Without turning his gaze from the two on the hill, he reached down and took Jim Bristol's head in his hands. With a deliberate motion, he wrenched it free of the torn neck. And with this prize to consume at his leisure, Hugh staggered up the slope of the hill.
Amanda glanced at her retreating mate, opened her blood wet jaws as if to call out after him, then returned to the corpse on the ground beside her.
Reverend Isaac McVie, having made whatever supplications he was prepared to make for the sake of his soul, lifted himself off the living room carpet and walked to the telephone. He reached the mayor.
"They're here, Edward. Mark the date. Past debts are paid. But new debts are due."
He ripped the handle from the phone cradle and slowly composed himself. Then he lit a brace of decorative oil lamps from the mantle and placed them at his feet and sat in the center of the room to make preparations.
Iris McVie was pushing the small Renault to its limits, making directly for the cemetery exit, three short turns away along the snaking gravel path. The three children were a bundled mass in the tiny front seat, refusing to be separated, wide-eyed and sniffling. This was the first time Iris ever regretted the house was hidden at the farthest and least traveled extreme of the cemetery, well back from the entrance and the chapel. The House at Grave's End; how appropriate. Then her thoughts were shattered by the sound of Janet's scream. Iris stood hard on the brake with both feet.
The sound came from her left, near a deep hollow. God, that's the South Hill, she thought. So close to the house? The four-cylinder engine grumbled as Iris sat with her feet on the brake pedal, debating with herself. What if they need my help? She sat, white-knuckled hands on the steering wheel, not knowing what to do.
Mason raised his head and wiped the vomit from his mouth with his sleeve. He was breathing hard and still gagging when he saw Hugh Carroll shambling up the slope toward them. Swinging from one skeletal hand, dead fingers entwined in its hair, was Jim Bristol's head, its face more than half gone. Hugh's teeth were working on something that turned them dark and glistening. His crooked head convulsed with each movement of his jaws, and his face was fixed on Mason and Janet. Although he could see no eyes, Mason was sure Carroll was watching them, measuring them.
Mason got weakly to his feet and tried to lift Janet, but her unconscious weight was too much for him to bear alone. They were both going to die.
He could still save himself; make a run for town to get help, or just make a run for it ... but he couldn't leave this woman to die like her husband.
He had gladly given up his job when the mayor had approached him.
"I'm not firing you, Bill. It's a paid leave of absence. Think of it as a vacation. I just want Bristol to take over for a few weeks."
But none of that mattered, now. This was real and it could have been Mason dead instead of Bristol. The goddamn legends were true, and the mayor was counting on that. He couldn't leave the man's wife alone. Mason draped himself over her body and watched as Hugh moved slowly closer, grinning his dead grin and swinging Bristol's head up to his mouth.
The mayor and two carloads of trusted men were driving toward the cemetery, scattering small stones and clouds of gravel dust as they turned off the main streets and onto the side road. McVie's cryptic message had not been lost on the mayor. It had taken him only ten minutes to mobilize The Rofs' "select" force. They didn't have to be told where they were going, or why.
Iris McVie slammed her palm on the steering wheel, "Oh, dear Christ," she snapped. She turned the wheel sharply to the left, took her feet off the brake, and pressed her right foot on the gas pedal to speed in a tight circle toward South Hill. Dirt and gravel flew like angry hornets behind the Renault as she gained speed. She slapped the lever on the steering column to put on the high beams. Trees, tall grass, path, headstones and vaults stood out in silvery relief against the blackness of the cold night. The children beside her sensed something strange and terrible in Iris's determination, and the look on her face in the backwash of the high beams frightened them. They began to whimper again. Iris moved her right hand to pat them and she took her eyes off the path for an instant. That's when it happened.
Timmy, stunned into silent paralysis since seeing the Carrolls tear themselves from their graves, shot forward in the seat and yelled, "Daddy! What's he done to you? Dadeee!"
Iris snapped her eyes back to the path and saw Hugh lumbering to the top of the hollow. Right in front of the careening Renault were the two prone bodies of Janet Bristol and Bill Mason. She hit the brake pedal again with both feet, felt the brakes catch for a heartbeat, then heard a thumping grind as they failed.
Mason heard the child's voice and then the sound of brakes grinding and slipping. He looked over his shoulder in time to see the small blue Renault jerk to a near stop and then shoot off to the right and crash into a row of crumbling headstones.
Then there was only the silence of the night, marred by the sound of Hugh Carroll's shambling footsteps. He was just twenty feet from Mason and Janet. Mason knew then, as certainly as he would know anything in his life, that he and Janet were dead. The brief moment of hope when he'd heard the car speeding toward them had been shattered by the sound of the car crashing into marble and granite. And, as if sensing the same, Hugh threw back his head and laughed in silent triumph.
But Janet had heard her son's terrified voice, and it acted like a stimulant, pulling her up from the depths of her safe somnolence and shocking her into full wakefulness. Her children needed her. They were in danger! She tried to move, but something was holding her down. She tried to find her voice to scream. It was difficult, but she fought with all her motherly, protective instincts, and finally cried, 'Timmy, Jimmy, Laura! Mommy's here. I'm coming."
The moment Mason felt Janet move beneath his weight he was galvanized into action. There was still a chance for escape. But as if reading Mason's thoughts, Hugh threw Jim's severed head aside with savage disdain and redoubled his effort to reach them.
The head bumped and rolled back down the hill to where Amanda Carroll remained engaged in her carnal pursuits. She looked up and, seeing her mate so close to his prey but in danger of losing it, she dropped the ravaged torso to the damp earth and stood to follow him. She moved more slowly than her husband, her steps tentative and hesitant as she climbed the slope like a badly handled marionette.
Hugh was within an arm's length of grasping Janet's coat, but as he reached, his forearm was brutally smashed from its elbow and went spinning away into the shadows of the night. Iris McVie stood bleeding and terrified, a heavy branch held loosely in her trembling hands. She told Janet and Mason to get in the car. They backed away, still watching Hugh, then made for the Renault's open door.
Hugh looked down at his shattered arm, then slowly up into Iris McVie's frightened eyes. Then he shook his crooked head and snapped his jaws in rage and defiance, lunging at Iris.
She swung the branch with all her strength and Hugh's body cracked in two at the base of the spine, crumpling to the ground like so much dry rot.
Iris stood for a long while, breathing deeply and raggedly, trying to fathom the desperate evil of this thing that could defy death. The rising shouts and cries from the car were merely an annoyance at the back of her mind. As she stared down at the corpse, Mason's voice became more distinct, more insistent. She turned away and began to walk to the car.
She was stopped by the spectacle of Hugh Carroll pulling his broken body up on one arm and raising his head, his shrunken eyes stabbing her with malevolence. Iris turned and tried to run the car, only to be halted by the blood-slick embrace of Amanda Carroll's arms.
Janet pounded on Mason's shoulders, demanding he get out and help Iris. He didn't stop her, but neither did he make a move to leave the safety of the car. He knew it was too late for Iris. She was dead. He watched in disbelief as Hugh Carroll dragged his half-body closer, hunger and satisfaction filling his shriveled eyes, to the woman being ripped open and steaming in the cold air.
Then Mason turned the key and started the car.
The mayor and his entourage approached the entrance of the Warden Woods in time to see the Reverend McVie's battered Renault speed past them in the opposite direction. Through the cracked windshield the mayor could barely make out a knot of whitened faces, but he could see the driver was not Iris or Isaac McVie. Before he could tell his driver to stop, they were already far behind and headed in the direction of town, and the mayor's own car was already through the cemetery gates.
The two vehicles converged in the chapel's parking lot just inside the gate. The men got out, waiting for the mayor's signal. He scanned the nervous faces. It was evident nobody really wanted to be there.
"Search every square inch of this place, every row, every stone if you have to. You know what to look for."
There was little left of Iris McVie when the Carrolls were through. Hugh supported himself on his one arm and searched the cemetery. The power that had given them life had been waning since the first human died. It was that first man's energy that Hugh had felt so many nights ago. It was that first man that Hugh had followed, controlling his hunger until his wife had strength enough to free herself so she could join him. But now the man was gone and so was his great energy. They were weakening, losing direction and purpose.
Amanda Carroll stopped, lurched, and began shuffling in the direction of the nearby house. Then Hugh felt the pull, too; weak, but it was there. In their old home.
Together, crawling, shambling, they closed the distance between themselves and the Reverend McVie's emanations. He was their beacon of hatred, violence, and retribution ... not nearly as strongly as the other man, but growing powerful now, irresistible.
The search of the cemetery was painfully slow. The men knew what they were looking for, but none of them wanted to find it. It took twenty minutes to cover the distance from the chapel to South Hill, where, logically, they should have begun. There was only silence until a burst of excited shouts rang out in the night air. "Holy Christ! I found something."
In a moment they circled the cooling remains of Iris McVie. Two men rushed away to the cover of thick brush. The rest looked to the mayor, waiting.
The stillness was finally shattered by the sharp crack of splintering wood. It could only come from one place.
Isaac McVie sat cross-legged on the carpet, gently rocking back and forth and singing to himself. The loud crashing of the front door caused him to miss a beat, but he regained his rhythm easily and continued rocking and singing. He lifted his eyes to the shattered door and watched the Carrolls enter.
"Welcome, Hugh. So it's true, is it? Conakilit Rofs saw the last of you bastards a century ago, and I'm here to put a nail in it now. You'll walk no more this new sod. Welcome to the temple of damnation, you shit eaters."
With that, Isaac took up the two blazing oil lamps from the carpet and flung them at the approaching figures. Then he pulled a gallon container of kerosene from behind him and poured it over himself.
"Welcome to the temple of damnation, you heathen pricks."
Bill Mason, Janet Bristol, and the three children didn't stop in New Conakilit Rofs, nor did they stop in the town of Tweed. They kept driving south. Mason stared at the highway before them as Janet cried softly to herself, fearing to wake the children now in the back seat.
"It'll be all right now, Missus. We got nothing to worry about. We'll just keep on drivin' 'til we get clear of the whole country. It'll be all right. I sent my family down Florida way. It'll be all right. Don't you worry. We'll take care of you and the little ones. I got my family. It'll be all right."
He, too, began to sob.
The mayor reached the burning house first, the others close on his heels. The heat of the inferno barred them from entering, but they could see clearly past the shattered door. Two fiery figures were crumpled in the middle of the room, locked in an embrace, but too badly burned to recognize. The assembled men watched as the two figures were consumed until only bits of blackened bone and hissing flesh remained. Then the second floor of the house collapsed and hid them.
The next day, when the fire burned itself out and the ashes were cool enough to rake, the township's medical examiner informed the sheriff they had two additional corpses, both male, aside from the ravaged bodies in the cemetery proper.
"What're you talking about?" asked the mayor, at the sheriff's elbow.
"What I'm talking about is two skeletons. Two males. One considerably older than the other and missing a number of bones."
No suspects could be found and there was no apparent motive for the massacre. Another crime, another mystery. The Rofs were becoming noted for mysteries and missing persons.
The sheriff and his men had long since left the cemetery and the smoking ruin of the house. Mayor Edward Noble carried Amanda Carroll from where she had taken refuge in a crawlspace under the tool shed and placed her on the bed of a pickup truck. She lay quietly, now, sated, her eyes milked over with a yellowish glaze as she watched the man handle her twiglike body. Her jaws made feeble attempts to close on his hands, but only as instinct, not on purpose.
The mayor stroked her decayed cheek and made comforting sounds.
Inside the truck were the implements he needed to re-inter her. Mayor Noble had also arranged to secretly collect the charred remains of Hugh Carroll from the hospital basement; they were bundled in a rubber morgue sheet beside Amanda's head. She let her face roll to her left to allow her closing eyes a glance at her husband as he stirred, stronger now, beneath the rubber sheet. The truck drove deep into the cemetery toward South Hill.
The two were buried in their original graves. Mayor Nobel walked back to the pickup and sat in the driver's seat. He wiped his face on a handkerchief, drew a long pull on a bottle of Beefeater Gin, and took a tightly wrapped package from the glove box.
He untied the wrapping and exposed a leather-bound book of old, hand-bound parchment. Opening the book, he withdrew a fountain pen from his suit coat on the seat beside him and unscrewed the lid. He located the name "Bristol" on one of the pages and drew a heavy line through it.
There were four names before "Bristol," all with faded ink drawn through them. There were only two names after "Bristol" in the ancient book, and Nobel crossed one off the list: "McVie." Then he blew the ink dry, closed and re-wrapped his great-grandfather's diary, and took another healthy swallow of gin, thinking of his history.
Thinking of the future.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM