This story was released in daily sections in the lead-up to Halloween 2019. All sections are in the form of a 99-word story. Links to the original posts are in the titles. At the bottom you can find links to the soundtrack album, ‘Children as Ghosts’. Enjoy!
He spent all day snipping away at the blanket – it had to be just right, and it had to be done by him alone. The boy even refused his mother’s help. When he tried it on in front of the mirror, he squealed with glee. His vision was partly obscured, but that was okay. It was the look that mattered. “A ghost,” he whispered to himself.
Charlie could feel the restlessness in the air. His treat bag was ready, as was his tummy. He kept checking the clock for when daddy would be home.
Tonight, they were going trick-or-treating.
Daddy was home, at long last. He entered the front door in a whirlwind, kicking off his shoes, wriggling out of his coat, dropping his briefcase right there. Charlie knew he was equally as excited for that evening.
Graham hugged his son, cheeks rough like sandpaper. “Ready for tonight, Charlie?” he asked with a grin.
“Yup!” Charlie said, dancing on the spot. In his arms he cradled his outfit.
“Got your costume sorted?”
A pause. “Is that one of the good sheets?” He chuckled. “Don’t tell mom!”
“I’ll get ready! We’re going to have a boo-tiful Halloween!”
“Don’t be too late, okay?”
“Sure, Honey.” There was a smack of a kiss.
And then they were outside, the air crisp and cool – the way a Halloween night should feel. Charlie sniffed. He could smell smoke and bonfires. He grinned.
“And have fun!” said his mother – the last words he’d ever hear from her.
“Will do!” his daddy called back, as he opened the gate.
The pair slipped out onto the street; father and son. In every direction, Charlie could see colourful lights, draped decorations, and candlelit pumpkins carved into faces.
“Now this,” said his daddy, “is Halloween!”
With bags full of sweets, Charlie and his daddy meandered into the town square, to see the parade.
“Great vampire guise, Graham!” said a stranger.
“Fangs!” replied his daddy, sounding like Dracula.
Charlie grabbed fistfuls from his haul, filtering out the those which had no wrapper by touch alone. He shovelled the sugary goodness into his mouth – knowing he’d have to brush his teeth extra hard tonight.
His daddy guided him through the crowd. So many people, thought the boy, as he munched on the candies. Every resident wore a veil of the macabre.
Not everyone was in costume.
The music was upbeat and infectious. The drums thudded – he could feel the thundering bass inside his chest. There were also brass instruments filling out the upper frequencies – trombones, horns… and was that a saxophone?
Charlie was engrossed in the booming parade of family-friendly horror and knee-slapping comedy. He didn’t notice the man staring at him. At least, not right away.
When he did look around, Charlie instantly locked eyes with the stranger. His stomach dropped and the hairs on his body stood on end. The parade’s din faded as if it were underwater.
The man had dead eyes.
People were pushing and shoving; trying to get a better view. Charlie had lost sight of the man. Why had his face frightened him so? After all, everyone here was dressed as a monster.
Charlie was shoved from behind. His father’s hand tightened around his own. “Stay near me, Charlie – it’d be easy to get lost here!” he shouted over the racket.
As if on cue, a group of teenagers dressed as werewolves barrelled into the crowd, knocking the child and separating the pair.
Through the commotion, nobody heard the quiet voice, wracked with despair: “Have you seen my daddy?”
As the townsfolk laughed and danced and drank, something was happening up on the hill of the cemetery.
Things were waking.
Soil shifted. Coffins creaked. Tombs groaned. Crypt doors squeaked.
Moans filled the quietness.
The crows cawed and fluttered their wings and ruffled their feathers – almost in anticipation of what was to come. But the birds kept their distance. They had learned their lesson.
As the clocks tick-tocked their way towards midnight, the things long-dead rose from their slumber. Their time was drawing near; the point when the veil between worlds was the thinnest.
The witching hour fast approached.
Charlie was jostled as he tried to break free from the gathering. He couldn’t see any signs of his dad.
Everyone was too tall. And too drunk. As Charlie navigated the sea of legs, the grownups shoved and kicked him. They either didn’t see him or were too inebriated to care.
Nobody asked if he was okay.
As the claustrophobia began clawing at his throat, Charlie spotted it – the edge of the mob. The crowd momentarily parted as a group shuffled past, loftily carrying beers. He darted through their legs, escaping into freedom.
Charlie hadn’t slipped away entirely unnoticed.
Charlie gulped breaths of fresh air as he watched the undulating crowd of zombies, ghosts and ghouls. He scanned the throng, looking for black capes, white-painted faces and bloody fangs. He spotted twelve different Draculas before giving up. I’ll wait here, he thought, sitting down on the stoop of a shop.
“Are you lost?” asked a voice that sounded like crunching gravel.
Charlie looked up, only to see the man from before. He was grinning from ear to ear.
Before he even knew he was going to do it, Charlie had jumped up and was running.
The man followed.
Charlie sprinted as his mind screamed. What’s wrong with his eyes?
The boy threw a glance over his shoulder. There he was, still smirking. His grin was too toothy, but Charlie wouldn’t think about this until much later.
The man’s face was painted in the fashion of a witchdoctor; white and black. He wore an old Victorian suit, with a cane and a top hat to match.
The man wasn’t running. Just ambling, casually – as if out for an evening stroll. Yet, whenever Charlie stole a look behind him, the distance between them was always the same.
Charlie didn’t know how he ended up at the cemetery. He had fled from the witchdoctor and his inhuman eyes all the way out of town… and up the hill on the outskirts. It never occurred to him that the man had driven him here intentionally.
He pushed the wrought-iron gate open. Screeeeee! Several crows flew away at the sound, cawing.
Charlie stepped into the necropolis, headstones jutting up at odd angles like crooked teeth. A fog hung low.
“Hello?” he called.
Whooooo? said the wind in response, chilling him to his bones.
Charlie sensed he was being watched.
They all noticed the child in their midst. Their cloudy eyes and rotten brains had perceived him from his first step onto the revered grounds.
“Boooooyyyyyy,” said one.
“Youuuuunnngg,” replied another.
“…sooouuuulll,” said the other, finishing the first one’s sentence with a nod.
They could sense the others stirring around them; they didn’t have much time. The pair began closing in, when they saw that Marion had already gotten to him.
“Noooottt faaiiiiirr,” pouted the initial speaker.
“Weeeee saaaawwwww hiiimmmmm,” said the second, “fiiiiiirsssttt!”
But then the gate squeaked again.
“Cooolllleecctooooor,” they whispered, grinning.
They disappeared like smoke.
“Oh no! Not again! Oh no, oh no!”
Charlie was frozen to the spot, staring at the thing in front of him. He’d gone mad. Surely, he had, for this… thing couldn’t exist.
It was a skeleton. With eyes. They rolled in their sockets as the bone-man strode back and forth, muttering.
“You can’t be here!” hissed the skeleton. “They’ll—oh, no!”
Screeeeee! Charlie knew that sound: the gate.
Somehow, the skeleton’s eyes widened. “The Collector! He’s here! Quickly, my boy! This way! Follow me!”
Charlie didn’t budge.
“Didn’t you hear? He collects their souls!”
That got him moving.
“This way, this way!”
Charlie followed the skeleton.
“What’s your name?” he asked, in between breaths.
“My friends used to call me Marion, once upon a time… And you?”
“Charmed, I’m sure! Now, quickly! No time for dilly-dallying!”
“Where are we going?” whispered Charlie.
“Away from him. Away from them. Bad, bad – they’re all bad!”
Marion stopped and placed a skeletal hand on his shoulder. Charlie shivered. “Why, the other dead, of course! Today is their day. I—well, our day, I suppose… And if they catch you—oh, no!” He squeezed. “You have to hide!”
Marion’s grave was a sad sight. 1811 – 1833 read the dates. “How did you die, Marion?”
“Now’s not the time!” whispered the skeleton. “Take this! It’ll ward them off!”
He handed Charlie a pumpkin. Carved into it was a simple smiley. “Here!” said the skeleton. He opened the sculpted head of the jack-o’-lantern and placed a single candle inside. Then he blew a small gust of air between his all-too-prominent teeth, and the flame whumped into life.
“How did you—”
“Not the time!”
“Where are you going?”
“To stop The Collector… if I can! Don’t stop, Charlie! Run!”
“He what?” hissed The Collector.
“Hhheeeeee tooooollllld thhheeee booooooyyyyy—”
“Yes, I got that! My God, you lot talk slowly!”
“Enough. Where did he take him?”
The ghost pointed further into the cemetery.
“That damned skeleton… I knew I should have—” But he didn’t get to finish his sentence, for that was when Marion jumped out of the shadows, brandishing an ancient broadsword.
“En garde!” cried the skeleton, as he struck a battle pose. “This is one child whom you shall not consume!”
The Collector burst out laughing. “You never learn!”
He drew his scythe.
“No more!” roared Marion, puffing his fleshless chest out. “You shall harm no more children!”
“What’s one more, Marion? How many did you not save?”
Marion yelled and lunged with his sword. The Collector dashed forward, easily ducking beneath Marion’s clumsy swing. With a swipe of his scythe, he sliced the skeleton in half. Marion didn’t even manage to scream.
A few of the dead who had gathered to watch the scene tittered laughter.
Far away, deep in the darkness of the cemetery, Charlie sat down with a thud as a shadow passed over his heart. “Marion?” he whispered.
With sorrow in his soul, Charlie pressed on. He carried the jack-o’-lantern, casting its glow whenever they approached.
Something with long nails and sharp teeth popped up behind a headstone. “Hey, kid!” it said, in voice that was far too deep. “Got some real nice candy, for ya!”
Charlie shone the light in its face. It screamed, swore at him, and then went skittering away into the darkness.
He walked on. How far should he go? Marion had never said. And it looked like Marion wasn’t coming back…
Minutes later, he found the crypt with the flashing neon sign.
TO THE NETHERWORLD (KIDS ENTER FOR FREE) said the sign.
“This must’ve been what Marion was talking about…” said Charlie to nobody. “He told me to hide.” He pushed the crypt door open and took a step inside. A spiralling staircase lit by candles. A whiff of smoke. And… was that a scream?
He began his descent. Round and round. Deeper he went, the smells of rot and decay filling his nostrils.
Charlie thought he must be nearing the bottom when a voice called out from above. A voice that sounded like crunching gravel.
“I’m coming for youuuuuu, Charliiieeee!”
The staircase opened out into in a library. The shelves held no books. The endless rows of glass orbs were full of things crying for help.
On the far side was a red door. Charlie could feel the heat. Could smell the sulphur.
“Charliiiiieee!” The boy spun around, heart in his throat. “Do you like my collection,” said The Collector, gesturing at the overflowing shelves, “of souls?” He grinned madly.
“Please, just leave me alone!”
“Now, now. Why be alone, when you can join them?”
“Never!” screamed the child as he threw the jack-o’-lantern at the witchdoctor.
The pumpkin hit the case behind The Collector. THUD! THUD! THUD! The rows of shelves began falling like dominos, glass orbs shattering as they hit the floor, freeing the trapped beings.
A tornado of souls began whirling about the witchdoctor. His scream sliced through Charlie’s ears. “Help. Me,” grimaced The Collector, reaching for Charlie. The boy dodged past the witchdoctor, running for the staircase.
He leapt up the stairs, hearing the man’s death throes.
BONG! A clock was chiming. BONG!
What time is it? he thought, as he frantically ran up the steps, two at a time.
The final BONG! reverberated through his skull, moments before he burst from the crypt. Charlie exploded out into the fresh air, just as the door slammed shut behind him with seconds to spare.
Charlie collapsed to his knees in the grass, eyes wide, hair wild, gasping for breath.
The sun was peaking over the horizon. He could see the sky fading from its inky blackness to the cold, grey November morning that was lethargically advancing.
Charlie watched the sun rise, laughing. But a nasty thought was nagging at the back of his mind. His smile faltered.
Something was wrong.
He was still between worlds. He could feel neither the warmth from the sun nor the blades of grass beneath his hands. The child suffered no panic; only resignation.
Charlie lay down between the headstones – not experiencing the cold morning dew dampening his clothes – and rested his head on his hands. He was tired. He didn’t think he’d ever been as weary in his life. Slowly, his eyelids began to close.
Just before sleep took the boy, he thought he heard a voice – his father.
“Charlie, where are you?”
And then a whisper: “I’ll keep him safe,” said Marion.
Children as Ghosts: A Very Bite-Sized Soundtrack