I had a lot of fun participating in my first WEP Challenge a few months ago, and I was eagerly looking forward to their Halloween Challenge, which is here at last! As with the previous challenge, this one is split into two parts. The first part asks us to describe a childhood fear or phobia that haunts us to this day. For the second part, we have to write an original piece of horror fiction in 1,000 words or less. That fits perfectly into my own horror-themed plan for the month!
When talking about childhood fears, I don’t even know where to begin. I was scared of a lot of things as a child. There were, of course, the ghosts, ghouls and other assorted monsters that make the hearts of children go thump in the night. For example, after watching The Witches (based on the Roald Dahl book) for the first time, I was worried that my mother might actually be a witch in disguise. For a few short weeks, I got nervous whenever I was left alone with my mother, expecting her to transform into her true self and turn me into a rat. And catching even a glimpse of a horror film would leave me convinced that our house was haunted and whatever spirit inhabited it would only make its presence known to me.
But there were also the slightly more abstract fears. I’ve always been a bit afraid of the ocean. It’s a bit odd, because I like swimming and beaches just fine, and I’ve always wanted to live in a coastal town. But the ocean as a whole, a vast fathomless body whose depths we haven’t fully explored, frightens me. The idea of being in the middle of it, with no land in sight, is horrifying. Just an unending, infinite stretch of water, teeming with life that’s fairly alien. Add some sharks or other aquatic predators into the mix, and it’s a perfect recipe for a sleepless night.
In fact, the ocean was the subject of a short story I wrote a couple of days ago, as part of my 20 Tales of Terror series.
And now for my WEP submission, a variation on a classic ghost story.
The Stranger on the Path
Jeremy raised his lantern a bit higher and quickened his pace. He hated the idea of walking home in the dark, but it couldn’t be helped. Kara would be waiting and he didn’t want to worry her. Jeremy was the village school teacher, occasionally tutoring some of the boys in the neighboring villages. His tutoring session had longer than expected this evening, and it was well past sundown when he left.
The path between the villages was straight, with open fields on either side. On this night, the moon chose to lay hidden behind a thick curtain of clouds, and Jeremy’s lantern was the sole beacon of light in the darkness. Forbidding silhouettes loomed in the distance, but Jeremy knew they were just the trees and the hills. His heart still thudded in his chest. He had never walked the path so late before, and he didn’t know who or what he might encounter. He found himself thinking about the stories he’d heard as a child. Stories of spirits that terrorized unsuspecting travelers, leaving only petrified corpses behind.
His eyes darted around, searching for movement in the shadows. He was bathed in sweat in spite of the chill in the night air and was breathing in short gasps. He took a few moments to calm himself, swinging his lantern around as he did so. All he had to do was get home. There was no point worrying himself to death.
Presently, he approached the river that ran halfway between both villages. He didn’t have much further to go. As he stepped onto the wooden bridge that spanned the river, a voice rang out from the darkness.
Every muscle in Jeremy’s body froze. Outlined against the indigo sky was the silhouette of a man standing on the bridge. He stepped forward into the halo of light created by the lantern, smiling. He had a gaunt face, his hair was streaked with gray, and he carried a small trunk.
“Sorry if I startled you, friend. It’s just that I was headed to Felheim and I appear to have gotten a bit lost. Would you be able to point me in the right direction?”
Jeremy stayed rooted in place, unsure of what to say or do. Almost instinctively, he looked down.
The man held out his hands in a placating gesture.
“I understand. It’s late at night and no doubt, you’re wary of meeting a stranger on the road. Forgive my intrusion.”
With that, he stepped aside to let Jeremy pass. Feeling like a fool for letting childish fears overtake him, Jeremy stammered out an apology.
“I, uh, I was actually going to Felheim myself,” he said, his voice growing stronger. “And I suppose I could use some company. I must warn you, I have no money, though.”
He added the last sentence clumsily, still feeling cautious.
“No worries, friend,” the man smiled. “I will to my utmost to not rob you.”
Jeremy couldn’t help laughing, and resumed his journey.
“So what is it that takes you to Felheim at this hour?” he asked.
“I was to meet Dr. Fallon tomorrow”. Jeremy nodded in recognition of the name. “He and I were to discuss some business regarding his clinic. As it happened, I was able to come a bit earlier. But not quite early enough, it seems.”
The man indicated the blackness around them with a broad sweep of his hand.
“Well, I’m the local school teacher. I was tutoring at one of the neighboring villages and ran a bit late.”
“Ah, we are both victims of time, it seems.”
Jeremy smiled. As they walked on, he felt all the more foolish than ever for his previous doubts.
“This seems an unsafe place to be walking alone,” the man said, peering ahead.
“It’s safe enough I suppose, if you don’t let your imagination get carried away by ghost stories.”
The man laughed. “And what stories preyed on your mind?”
Jeremy cleared his throat loudly. “When I was a boy, I had heard tales of spirits that haunted the pathways. How people would often meet strangers on the road, who would request their help or pose a question. As the poor travelers stopped to talk to them, they would notice that the strangers’ feet were backwards. That’s when the strangers would shed their human disguise and reveal their true forms.”
“A gruesome tale indeed. Well, as you can see, my feet are quite normal.”
Jeremy smiled sheepishly. “Yes, it would appear so.”
At length, they approached the village, which was shrouded in darkness. It couldn’t possibly be that late. Surely someone had to be awake. Jeremy walked up to his house. Not a single light was on. He took out his key and started opening the door.
“How odd. It seems everyone’s gone to bed early tonight. Alas, I cannot introduce you to my wife, but I don’t think she would mind you staying the night. You can meet Dr. Fallon tomorrow. “
“Don’t worry about it, friend.”
Jeremy continued to fumble with the door, which refused to open.
“I can’t understand it. What’s going on here?”
“You really shouldn’t believe every story you hear, friend,” the man said, his voice seeming to blend with the wind. “Not all of us have our feet backwards.”
Jeremy turned around with a start. There was no one behind him. He raised his lantern high and looked around but there was no trace of the stranger. He also realized, on closer inspection, that not a single building around him looked familiar. He turned back to the house, which also looked alien, and which seemed to be disappearing into the darkness. The whole village was being consumed by the night.
Jeremy screamed for help, but it was no use. He was no longer in the world he knew. He had fallen into the realm of stories and legends, just another petrified corpse for parents to tell their children about on cold, moonless nights.
Word Count: 1,000 even! FCA