My nightmare is about to begin anew and death might be my only ticket out | Short Horror Story
This month’s story was actually written last month, as a part of a collaborative contest with five other writers (October is kind of a big thing for horror writers for, well, obvious reasons), making this my first ever collaboration! You can find links to them all at the end.
I was in the back of a limousine with a bag over my head and a gun pushed against my temple. We’d been driving for miles and hadn’t stopped since picking up our sixth guest. No one but the driver had dared to talk, and even then it was only to instruct us to strip and change clothes.
From the leather material rubbing up against me, I guessed that my costume this year was a superhero or masked vigilante of some kind. By the time I finished stuffing myself into the tight suit, we'd arrived and had been unceremoniously dumped out on a street corner with a backpack and a few supplies.
I quickly grabbed the bag and tossed it aside, getting a good look at my surroundings. It didn’t look like anywhere I had been before, so I cautiously checked the street and buildings to be sure I was relatively safe, before looking at the rest of this year’s pickings.
There were six of us altogether, each dressed in ridiculous Halloween costumes – a cowboy, a princess, an astronaut, a pirate, a witch, and me, the superhero. If we were a group of kids, we probably would have looked like your average group of trick or treaters. Not that it really mattered anyway.
‘Does anyone have the map?’ the princess asked, breaking the silence. Each of us looked through the items we’d been given by our captors; this year, I was the lucky cartographer.
The map was a grid of over twenty blocks in the surrounding neighbourhood, thirteen of which were circled in red. That was it for our official instructions, but I was more familiar with the routine than I liked.
‘We have until midnight. I suggest we split up,’ I told the others. I could see from the panicked and confused looks from the cowboy and witch that this was their first time.
‘Look, we either finish this stupid ritual or we all die. It’s that simple,’ I said, annoyed.
‘How are we supposed to know which house to go to if only one of us has the map?’ The cowboy asked, his voice trembling.
‘I think that might be what this is for,’ the astronaut responded, showing us the art supplies he was given. We quickly sketched out a rough copy for everyone.
‘If there aren’t any objections, I would really like to get this over with,’ the princess said. She seemed the most experienced, so I decided to go with her, and we headed down the first street. The map showed that there were three houses there circled in red. We approached the corner and stood there, waiting for the signal together. Like clockwork, all the streetlights went out.
‘So, how many years have you been doing this?’ the princess casually asked me as we walked together down the empty street.
‘Fourth,’ I responded.
‘Wow, really? That’s impressive.’
‘I’ve lost track. Seems like we got lucky, getting stuck with each other,’ she said, knocking on the first door. The air felt stiff as we waited.
A looming figure came to the door, blocking the entrance.
‘Trick or treat!’ we chimed in unison.
The figure reached into a small bowl and slowly revealed its long, pallid hand in the dim porch light. The wendigo’s cold eyes looked down upon us as if waiting for a response. In the bowl was a golden key – the first of many. We took it and immediately set out for the next house.
‘So, do you think we should warn the others of what’s to come?’ I asked, watching her grasp the key a bit tighter.
‘Of what? Every year is different,’ she reminded me.
‘There are certain consistencies. The streetlights back then and the dogs later on, for example.’
‘The only constant I’ve learned is to work alone and trust no one,’ she replied curtly, just before jabbing me with the key, knocking the air out of me, before I could begin to object. I fell to the road, desperately trying to catch my breath as she fled the scene.
My eyes watering, I tried to take deep breaths as I pushed myself up off the ground. I stood there for a minute, bent over at the waist trying to focus on breathing. Still staring at the ground, I saw the silhouette of a tall witch, much more realistic than the witch in our group. Looking up, it was impossible to discern anything but her eyes, gleaming with malice as they made their way towards me. I had to get moving.
I made a mad dash for the nearest house, hoping it would be enough to keep her out. I could hear her soft voice calling out to me, telling me that she wouldn’t bite. As I made my way to the entrance, the door suddenly opened. With the voice inches away from me, there was no time to think; I ran in and shut the door behind me, my heart pounding against my ribs.
A good minute or two passed, before the shock wore off. The witch was still outside the door, screaming at me to come out, her voice rough and crazed. I knew it was against the rules to hide in an unallotted house, but I wasn’t risking leaving until she was gone.
Then I felt something creeping about on my ankles. I could hear its soft groans as I heard the bathroom door a few feet away from me slowly creak open. With the screams from the toilet matching those from the witch, staying hidden wasn’t much of a choice any longer.
‘Yo, up here, you old crone!’ I heard a voice on the roof shout. A second later there was a sickening thud. I peeked through the door.
The astronaut – or what remained of him.
My heart ached for him. He saved me, at the cost of his own life. Why?
The witch slowly dragged the astronaut away, eagerly munching on his spine as she left.
This was my chance to get out. I quickly sprung up and opened the door, but fell face first onto the hard concrete. Whatever monster was in the house had managed to grab hold of my leg. I saw a mummified corpse reaching out from the crawl space sending me into a flurry of panic as I began to pull my leg away violently, managing to kick free after a short struggle, and dashed in the direction opposite to the witch and the astronaut. As I ran, I heard a distant scream of another man, silenced by a crunching sound. I didn’t dare turn to see who else had just been killed.
My legs gave out and I finally came to a halt, standing still on another street corner. That would have ended horribly for me, had it not been for my teammate. But why would he sacrifice himself?
I made a mental note to tell the others of the princess’ betrayal and the astronaut’s fate. I looked at my map once again and crossed out the building we just got the key from. If I were to survive, I’d have to find another golden key soon, so set off to the next house on the map.
I continued to limp towards it as the shock wore off and the pain set into my stomach. I stopped walking for a second and noticed a bit of blood seeping through my costume. Damned princess.
I flimsily bunched up my costume around the wound and held it firmly in place before continuing forward – it wasn’t much, but it would have to do. I hoped that the injury wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t want to waste any more time to stop and check it out. I was already falling behind and didn’t want to wind up with the same fate as the astronaut.
I finally made it to the next house and looked around the empty street. Surprisingly, no one had gotten to it yet. Or maybe they had and were now dead.
I stood at the end of the walkway and looked up at the spider web-covered entrance. They covered the lawn, driveway, windows, and the path up to the door. I knew better than to think they were just decorations. I made my way towards the front door, pushing through the spiderwebs that stuck to my arms and face.
I made it up to the door and knocked twice. No answer. I glanced at the street behind me, suddenly getting the weird feeling that I was being watched, but saw no one. I knocked once again but there was no answer, so I reached out and turned the doorknob, pushing the door open.
Inside the house, a few feet away from the door, there was a small wooden table with a closed white box and a huge orange bow sitting on it. The only source of light in the house was a single lonely lightbulb hanging above it.
I approached the box and slowly lifted the lid, expecting something to jump out at me, but nothing did. It wasn’t until I set the lid aside and looked inside, that I realised it was much worse.
There were spiders – hundreds of them – crawling around inside. Multiple kinds, weird colourations, gigantic, small, all crawling over one another as they moved around inside.
I stared into it for a few minutes, about to walk away but then noticed the golden key, gleaming at the bottom as a spider crawled away from it. I took a deep breath, my palms beginning to sweat. I tried not to think too much about the spiders, whether they were poisonous, the feeling of them crawling around my hand, possibly scurrying up my arm and onto my face and into my nose and...fuck me.
I shook my head as if that would release the anxious thoughts, and closed my eyes tightly before plunging my hand in the box. I felt the key and wrapped my hand around it, as a spider began to crawl across my hand.
I quickly yanked my hand out and opened my eyes, yelling in surprise as I noticed a spider on the back of my hand. I shook my hand violently, sending the spider to the floor, crawling away. I gripped the key in my hand and spun around, ready to get out of the house, only to realise that there were three giant dogs standing in the street out front.
Not just any dogs. The dogs I had warned the princess about. They looked like hellhounds or possibly even shapeshifters. Definitely fuck me.
I froze when I saw them, but the moment I made eye contact with them, they began to run right at me. I quickly reached out and slammed the door shut as they began to slam against it, howling and snarling. Okay, not getting out that way.
I decided to try the back door. Running through the house, I panicked when I thought I couldn’t find it, but then I saw that all of the spiders had migrated to the door. I had a split second to open it and run out as they tried to crawl onto me. I stepped out to the quiet yard and took a moment to think. At least I had a key now. That meant I had a chance.
Still, there was no time to waste. I had to get to the next house quickly – the princess would be tough to beat this year. I just hoped those giant dogs would eat her. You can judge me all you want but everything so far should make it obvious this was life or death.
Dashing across the lawn, I hopped the fence and looked around for the rabid neighbourhood mutts. They were nowhere to be seen. Once again, I was alone, only this time I was glad to be.
The hand drawn map was difficult to read in the dark. I spun it around several times trying to decide which house was next. A big colonial across the road was the closest option, so began to head that way.
There were jack-o'-lanterns on the front steps, their faces glimmering in the candlelight. I walked past them, trying to ignore their ominous glowing, and knocked on the door.
‘Trick or treat!’ I yelled with fake enthusiasm.
The door swung open but there was nobody behind it. An empty hallway greeted me, cobwebs hanging down from the ceiling, unnervingly reminding me of the spiders at the last place.
‘C'mon, not again,’ I moaned. ‘No more fucking spiders, please.’
Walking further in, I saw the flickering of candlelight from deeper inside the house, so I went towards it (what else was I going to do?). The silence was overwhelming, almost oppressive.
A door swung open to my right, revealing more darkness, and a stairway leading down. The key would be down there, I was certain of it.
‘Great. Creepy basement. Perfect.’
I pushed the door open and began to climb the steps downwards into the cooler air of the cellar. The wooden stairs creaked beneath my feet and when I got to the bottom, I saw something shimmering in the dull light.
It was a key hanging suspended from the ceiling. More specifically, it was hanging beside a bare lightbulb as if it was attached to the chain which would turn it on. The whole thing was unsettling. It was far too easy compared to the previous tasks. I smelled a trap. Still, I had no choice but to grab it – I needed another key. I couldn't risk leaving this one behind.
Snatching it in my fist, I pulled, and the bare lightbulb snapped on, impossibly bright. It half blinded me, but only for a split second. It quickly burnt out, plunging the room back into darkness.
Only barely did I have time to see the thing standing in the corner of the room before the light went out. The image was so brief it could have been a hallucination. But no. I knew it was real. It was there. A snaggle-toothed creature with grey skin, dressed in a clown suit and holding a long, rusted scimitar.
It laughed, the sound inhuman and grating on my ears. And then I heard it begin to stalk towards me in the darkness, dragging its blade across the bricks of the wall, sending up sparks in the pitch-black basement air.
Spinning on my heels, I stumbled and tripped on the first step of freedom. I fell hard, hitting my face on the wooden board. Blood ran down my lip, tasting salty and warm.
I sprung to my feet again, feeling for the hand rails and this time, managing to climb up the steps as the thing came running after me and I madly ran up the stairs.
It was so close behind I swear I could hear its ragged breathing, the squeak of those horrible, red, clown shoes. Not red, actually, it looked like the colour of raw meat that's been left out for way too long.
My feet were clumsy, slipping on each step, but I made it to the top and pulled the door open, slamming it shut behind me. I scanned the room for anything useful, maybe a lock or a gun, but nothing.
I tried to hold the door closed myself, pushing against it with all my strength, but to no avail. The thing in the basement was getting out one way or another. I had no option but to run.
I jammed a chair under the doorknob, hoping it would stand its ground, and spun on my heels. Despite my best efforts, my side was still bleeding, courtesy of one murderous princess, so the best I could do was trudge forward slowly.
The knob finally gave out moments later, the chair soon following suit. To describe the figure that burst forth as something out of my nightmares would be underselling it.
This horrifyingly comical, rotting half-corpse took things to a terrifying new level that I, for one, had no desire to experience. I ran like the devil himself was chasing me – nothing like the threat of imminent death to get that jolt of adrenaline flowing, right?
Limping and wheezing, I scrambled to put some distance between the two of us, knocking down as much furniture on my way as I possibly could. When I finally got to the front door, I almost leaped for the handle, swinging it open and falling down the steps outside – anything to put some distance between myself and that, well, monster.
I dragged myself off the ground, grateful to not have sustained any more injuries, only to be greeted with the sight of my cartoonish terror clambering to the front door. It raised a skeletal leg to cross the threshold, but was sent tumbling back as if something was keeping it inside the house.
Something was keeping it inside the house! Whatever that thing was, whatever rules the house played by, something wasn’t letting it follow me into the street. I breathed a sigh of relief and got out the map to cross another house off the list.
For the moment, it didn’t seem like anything was coming for me, so I took a moment to just breathe and take stock of the night’s situation.
Keys collected – two.
Princess – murderous; hopefully dead.
Astronaut – regrettably dead.
Cowboy, pirate, and witch – suspiciously absent.
As if on cue, a door from another house opened and the three of them walked out, perfectly intact. Aside from a few scrapes and bruises, they seemed fine. Beginner’s luck, I noted bitterly. I also noted they were armed – the witch with a wand, the cowboy with a pistol, and the pirate with a sword and blunderbuss – a weapon to each of them.
They caught me in their crosshairs, making unwavering eye contact, as they began to stride over to me. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but it looked like the pirate was swinging his blade as he walked, almost as if he enjoyed it.
‘Hey, was wondering if we might run into you! Seems this gig isn’t all bad after all!’ the cowboy howled.
The door next to the house I fell out of creaked open, a haunting echo wafting through the air. I froze in place, weighing a house undoubtedly filled with some form of murderous terror against steel-welding lunatics who enjoyed the twisted game we’d been thrust into. I checked the map. It definitely had a key inside.
‘What are these things for anyway?’ the witch wondered, catching sight of the ones I had.
Against my better judgement, I paused. ‘I’m not sure. The first year I had no idea what I was doing, but I lucked out and lived until the surviving team regrouped in the middle of the neighbourhood…’ For some reason as we approached the house, I felt nostalgic and told them more.
‘Our leader that year was a young woman wearing a cheap plastic vampire mask and a short nylon cape. She gave one of her keys to me at the stroke of midnight, and I held it tight as the dark limo thundered down the street towards us. She and I were the only ones allowed into the car. Our keyless companions were left to fend for themselves, and all I can say is that I hope they died quickly…’
The others looked quiet, and I noticed that they didn’t have any keys yet. Suddenly, I was on edge. Would they betray me like the princess? Even as the thought crossed my mind, I had no doubt that they were wondering the same of me in this motherfucking nightmare.
‘And there’s one in there?’ the cowboy asked as we approached the door. I gave a curt nod and he immediately plunged through the creaking door, the wind coming up and rattling dry leaves and bare tree branches behind us.
‘Son of a bitch!’ the witch yelled, but all went still a second later.
The silence in the house beat down on us as we stared into the dark entryway. It was so completely quiet that I could almost hear the stream of moonlight coming in from a high window. I looked around in the silvery light to see what was going to try and kill us next.
There was nothing to clue me in, save for footprints in a thick layer of dust that covered the bare floors. They began at the door, traversed what would have once been an impressive foyer, and led into a dark hallway. Most likely the cowboy.
Lacking any better ideas, I followed the footprints down an impossibly long hallway with doors on either side. I soon wished I’d waited in the foyer for a better idea.
At the end of the hallway, we found the princess.
She was standing before something that looked like the love child of a calliope and a grandfather clock. Hundreds of pipes steamed silently behind glass doors, and countless pendulums swung without a sound. She turned around and smiled at us in a way that bore her teeth but betrayed no pleasure. I saw then that she was the real deal – a vampire in the flesh, her fangs dripping with blood. At her feet I saw the cowboy, torn in two for trying to attack her.
‘Thank you for bringing me the final key,’ she cooed. Her voice was the first sound I’d heard since entering the house, breaking the dam of silence. Suddenly, the pendulums began to tick and the pipes hissed. ‘Don’t think for a second that you can resist giving it to me, my slaves.’
As she spoke, doors on either side of me squealed open. To my right, the corpse-clown reached out and pricked my bicep with the tip of his rusty blade. On my left, two of those huge black dogs were growling at me. The witch and pirate had been backed into a corner, to be torn to shreds if I disobeyed.
I extended my key to her with a slow, tentative hand, trying to buy myself time to think of a way to escape. The princess snapped it from my fingers and drew a long chain of keys from a pocket hidden on the skirt of her dress. Then she smiled and laughed as the death clown came closer and the grim hounds flanked my teammates.
‘My love,’ she cooed to the ancient monster. ‘Just as I promised, we will soon be rid of these…outsiders…invading our town. As soon as I finish the adjustments, we can begin anew.’
The clown started to burble and giggle when he heard the news and the dogs licked their lips. The princess turned and unlocked the first door.
This was my chance! I considered how far back down the hallway I could run before Smiley and his dogs could catch me, wondering if I’d make it or join the cowboy.
Then I heard a clattering behind me. The pirate had fired his old blunderbuss at the clown and the hounds leapt out of the hallway behind me. I didn’t hesitate when I got my chance – I tackled the princess.
She was a lot stronger than she looked, but I was ready for her this time. As we grappled, I bit her neck hard. Her blood in my mouth burned and tasted of sulphur, but when she yelped, I was able to wrestle the chain of keys away from her. I scrambled to my feet and took off, running back.
The pirate was pinned to the wall by the death clown, already beginning to join his rotting adversary, festering with sores as his body seemed to melt. I felt a twinge of pain but didn’t have the time for the luxury of outrage. I grabbed the witch by the hand and the two of us pounded down the hallway and back through the front door, with the monsters and their succubus on our heels.
As we spilled out into the night, I saw the limousine barrelling down the street pursued by giant spiders and decaying corpses shuffling entirely too fast. There was a sound of screeching brakes, and the limo paused in front of the house as its rear door was flung open. I heard a voice tell us to get in. We didn’t even second guess it.
Before we turned the corner at the end of the street, I looked back through the rear window and saw the princess surrounded by spiders and ghouls. Pieces of her were being torn off, and her wounds smoked in the night air. Her shrieks carried through the night as we continued to put distance between ourselves and the neighbourhood.
Then the driver hit the brakes at once. The car lurched forward, and he checked the keys.
‘You. Missed. One.’
I felt a frog in my throat. Of course I had. He turned his head almost a full 180 degrees, his dead eyes glaring at us. This was it. This was the end.
‘Wait, wait I can work this out. This ain’t her fault. It’s mine. Let her live, just take me,’ I insisted. The witch seemed surprised by my offer, but she had no idea what hell would await her if I hadn’t.
‘I’m already cursed by this. Let her go,’ I told the driver.
He gave a nod. Then there was a hissing noise and I felt cold air hit my face.
When I woke, I couldn’t really make heads or tails of what was happening and felt horribly disoriented. Then I heard a voice – the driver giving me instructions.
‘Do not fail again.’
A second later, the door opened, and a costumed pirate climbed in.
The entire hellish night had reset.
Was I doomed to relive this whole damn experience until I could find all the keys?
‘Hey spaceman, scoot over,’ he ordered. Confused, I glanced at my costume in the mirror.
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