The last of the trick-or-treaters had long been cleared off the street, tucked up in their beds with face paint carefully cleaned off, plastic fangs and witches hats discarded, or else still climbing the walls on a sugar-funded high. When the clock struck nine, it was the turn of their older brothers and sisters.
Caleb watched them from his living room window. He saw the Arnott girl from four doors up readjusting her top to show off what he could only imagine was a bog-roll boob job. There was one girl already who would be crying by the end of the night. If he could spot the attempted enhancement from here, there was no way she was getting it past any of the girls at the Halloween disco—at least that was where he assumed she was headed, dolled-up as she was. The older girls probably wouldn’t comment, wouldn’t even care, but the younger ones, those closer to her age, would rip her to shreds the first chance they got. If she were lucky, one of her friends would convince her that tiny tits were much preferable to a room full of people seeing you with toilet paper padding out your bra. That was—if she even made it into the disco itself. Considering she was only sixteen, and the bloke on the door would probably know that, Caleb doubted she’d even make it inside. Two embarrassments like that in one night would probably be a death blow to any self-esteem the girl might have. Before her parents knew it, she’d be giving blowjobs behind the school bikesheds to any boy who asked her.
Caleb checked his phone again, sighed, and pulled on his skeleton mask. There was no sense in wasting the rest of the night on his sofa.
As far as costumes went, it wasn’t going to win any prizes. A black hoodie with a skeletal ribcage, black trousers, black shoes. And the mask of course. The inside of it stank, a cloying and artificial sweetness, a travesty of vanilla. He’d take it off once he got inside—it was only a token gesture after all.
The car park outside the community centre was half-full of young people waiting to get inside. Girls in high-heels with fishnet tights stamped their feet against the autumn chill. They wore what their little sisters had worn—only shorter and tighter. Witches, vampire queens, black cats, nurses and nuns. Even a zombie cheerleader. Behind the cheap plastic, Caleb let his eyes rove. There were a few misses. A fat girl stuffed into a thin black sheath dress, every fold visible. The odd glimpse of an unshaved armpit. A promising body, but then a face that no amount of makeup could salvage. For the most part, the maidens of Hengefield had delivered.
He had to take off the mask for the bouncer, stuffing it into his hoodie pocket as he pushed through the doors. There were signs taped to the walls, directing dance-goers to the hall where wedding receptions, town meetings, scouting, and girl-guiding all took place. The bar was already crowded, the dancefloor mostly empty. Caleb took his place in the queue, hoping that by the time he got to the front, there’d be a little more action. The DJ was playing a mix of pop songs, interspersed with Halloween hits. Paper bats dangled on strings from the ceiling, strands of fake cobwebs stretched across the walls. There were bowls of sweets on the tables and the bar, probably left over from the kiddies’ Halloween disco the night before. All in all, it was just the kind of low-budget fare Caleb had come to expect from his hometown.
He checked his phone again, but there were no new messages. Fine. If Freya wanted to ignore him, then that was okay for now. He’d deal with it later. The phone went back in his pocket with the mask, just as a space opened up in the crowd, and Caleb finally made it to the bar.
He settled himself on one of the sofas close to the bar and looked out over the dance floor. There were only a handful of people, half-heartedly swaying back and forth. Mostly couples and groups of girls. Caleb recognised a few who’d been in his year at school, including Heidi Macmillan, who’d made it to Oxford but then had a mental breakdown—and the gossip about that was truly savage—less than a year later and had to come back home. From what he heard, she spent a couple of months in the nuthouse. She looked uncomfortable as she danced with her friends, unable to match their enthusiasm. He could see her eyes darting around like a cornered animal’s. He doubted she’d make it through more than an hour before she left, probably on her own so as not to ruin the fun for her friends. Her mum or dad would come pick her up. Nervous as she was, he just couldn’t see her walking home alone at night. And there was no way she’d trust a stranger—because chances were she wouldn’t remember him—to walk her home.
Freya texted him shortly before midnight. It wasn’t an apology as such, but as he read it, he did so in Freya’s voice, timid and mumbling, like she was apologising for so much as breathing. She’d lost her charger, yeah, wasn’t feeling well, okay. No mention of making it up to him another time. No ‘so sorry’ for making him wait over two hours before she deigned to tell him she was blowing him off. It had probably taken her all that time just to build up the courage. Even now, she was probably trembling, staring at her phone, waiting for him to text back. He was tempted to break up with her, but if he did that, he would cut off his only source of non-virtual sex for the extended future. If he saw her again, he reckoned he could wrangle a blowjob at least before he had to call time of death on the relationship.
Caleb sighed and stretched out his legs. The dance floor was busier now, the movements looser and racier. He sipped at his rum and coke, his first and only drink, and took in the view. Skirts had rucked up, tops slipped—it was a veritable sweet shop full of feminine charms. And, just like the sweet shops of his childhood, Caleb was seldom able to do more than look, to see, on occasion, what the fifty-pence piece snatched from his mum’s purse would get him.
He supposed he must be a bit of a masochist, wanting what he couldn’t have, as he watched while Oliver Anderson snogged his girlfriend Holly Glasby, hands moving up to the top of her fishnet tights, disappearing under the black netting of her skirt. Totally shameless. Caleb watched the flicker of the fabric, the way Oliver’s hand twisted, Holly smacking him lightly on the chest, looking around and giggling. The look on his face was wolf-like, straight from a fairy-tale. A leering wolf, drooling at the sight of an innocent in a red cloak. She pushed closer to him, forehead pressed against his chest. Under the lights, pulsing with reds and greens, Caleb couldn’t see her blush.
Girls tottered to and fro between the hall and the toilets. Some came back refreshed with lipstick reapplied, others returned with sweaty faces and vomit stains on their tops. A few looked to have been crying.
One of the latter came staggering out and flopped down onto the end of Caleb’s sofa. Her movements were slow, her head lolled. He edged closer, not too close, but enough to be able to call to her over the sound of the music. It didn’t really take much, a few words from him and she was bearing her drunken, sad, little soul.
“I mean, who does that? It’s like, like…” she slurred, leaning closer. Her breath stank, sour and sweet, thick and rank, but it wasn’t like he was planning on kissing her.
“He’s such a dick!” she said, for the six or seventh time. “Y’know?” She looked up at him with pleading eyes, demanding he agree. He could feel the weight of her against his shoulder, shrouded in the scents of sweat and body spray.
“Jasmine, babe, we’ve been looking for you. Aww, babes, are you okay?”
Two vampires and a deviless were standing in front of him, and then they swooped in. He moved aside as the two vampires tended to their heart-bruised sister, while the deviless regarded him with a cool stare until he got up off the sofa entirely. She slipped into his place, glancing between him and her friend.
“Jazz, you know how you are on tequila, babes, come on, don’t cry. It’s okay. You just made a bit of a tit of yourself tonight storming off like that, but it’ll be better tomorrow,” one of the vampires soothed.
Caleb headed back towards the bar. With only thirty minutes left before the disco wrapped up, the room was mostly empty. He slid onto one of the stools and ordered another rum and coke. The bartender handed the drink to him, and as he raised it to his lips, a girl stumbled over and asked for a vodka and cranberry juice. The bartender looked at her, swaying, and said, “I think you’ve had enough tonight, love.”
The girl didn’t argue, just nodded her head. She was the second princess he’d seen for the night, although what the other one wore had clearly been a costume. Ill-fitting, bare midriff and cheap fabric. The kind of thing which would go off like a bonfire with the slightest spark. This girl looked like she’d just pulled out an old prom dress, stuck a rhinestone tiara on her head, and called it a day. The lights flashed green as she turned, and Caleb saw a vision beneath that tiara. Smooth skin, plump lips, big eyes. A bare hint of make-up. She staggered toward the exit, and Caleb, draining his drink, followed.
She’d have friends waiting outside. A boyfriend. She’d call a taxi and stand waiting by the bouncer. All these thoughts went through Caleb’s head.
She passed by the coatroom without stopping, and Caleb felt more certain there would be a car of some sort waiting. Her dress was strapless, shoulders bare. The alcohol would mask some of the chill, but she’d have to be cold. Perhaps there was a coat, lying forgotten, and she was too muddled by drink to realise it. She was so small, bird-light. Caleb could probably lift her with one arm.
Outside, on the street, she turned right and began to walk.
He followed, watching as she weaved over the pavement, arms swinging at her sides. After a few steps, he fumbled with the mask, pulling it over his head and lifting his hood as well. It wouldn’t do much. He’d already been seen in this outfit at the disco, and if the girl remembered any of it, then it wouldn’t be long before he had the police knocking on his door.
On the other hand, she was plastered. As long as he didn’t hurt her, didn’t knock her about too much, it’d be fine. If he told everyone that he thought she was up for it, then maybe…
At the end of the street, she turned right again, out of sight, and Caleb forced his feet to keep a steady pace. She’d turned onto the church road, where yew trees lined the pavement, and the lights were few.
Maybe she would be up for it. A little tumble amongst the tombstones on Halloween. Her costume may have been the very antithesis of Goth, but perhaps it was all some ploy, a rebellion of sorts.
She was so small, so dainty he could have swept her up off her feet with no effort at all. Her hair was so silky and golden, even after a night spent dancing, rippling down her back like a sunset stream.
He turned the corner and thought he saw the curve of her cheek, her head turned towards him, and he froze. Then the moment passed and he was looking once more at her back, and her hair, and the soft fabric of her dress billowing out behind her with the chill breeze which swept across the churchyard. She carried on, heading not further down the church road, but towards the gates themselves. She did not glance behind her again, but, as he saw her hop over the wall, Caleb became more certain that his earlier thoughts were correct. She was game.
He jogged now, as her dress disappeared into the dark of the border hedges. When he caught up, he saw her moving amongst the gravestones, and behind a standing tomb. He moved quickly, vaulting over the waist-high wall and landing on the soft grass.
It was quiet, though out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flickers of candlelight on the opposite side of the graveyard. Probably teenagers who wore black every day with a Ouija board before them, trying to talk to the Devil. Too far away to hear a scream, muffled by flesh.
People sometimes wondered why a town so small had such a grand church, such a big graveyard. The answer came from the Black Death. The town had been bigger back then, a hub for the villages around it, but the plague had wiped them all out. The community had contracted around its church, and its graveyard overflowing with diseased-raddled dead. Somehow, centuries later, the graveyard still had space for new residents. It was rare for new burials to occur, now that there was a crematorium which was cheaper, but they did happen. Caleb remembered walking along the church road, just over a decade ago, and seeing people gathered in a corner of the graveyard—the one where the stones were all shiny and the lettering knife-sharp. He remembered the shape of the coffin, polished wood reflecting the sunlight like spears, and the sound of the wailing. The mother, he found out later.
He weaved through stones pockmarked by age, weathered and crumbling like an old man’s teeth. Always the girl was ahead of him, gliding along in her low-heeled pumps. They headed towards the church itself and around its edge, out of sight.
Caleb’s heart beat hard. The distance between them had reduced down to just a few paces. He surged forward, reaching, one arm under her chin, the other at her waist, pulling her close to him. He clapped his hand over her mouth.
In the shadow of the church, she changed.
He felt no breath, no warmth against his hand. Only dampness, a dough-like sponginess as his fingers sank.
It took a moment, signals firing, telling him that this wasn’t right. All the excitement turned to dread; a cold, sweating dread which froze him from head to toe.
When the girl began to move, he gripped tighter, foolishly, trying to stop her from turning towards him. It felt like squeezing a rotting peach, fingertips sinking through soft flesh, still wet and sticky, before meeting the hardness of the pit. His face was pressed almost into her hair, and he did not want to breathe for he knew then he would have to inhale her scent—the perfume of decay.
Too late, he realised the mistake he’d made. He wasn’t holding her—she was holding him. Stuck like an insect on a strip of flypaper, sticky and sickly. He breathed in and felt his knees start to tremble, his stomach turn. A withered hand, delicate and cold, reached up to touch his arm.
Things moved under her dress and her dry, paper-thin skin; scuttling, creeping things. Worms, beetles, even moths. He felt their wings brush his cheeks, like lips, like tender fingertips.
He heard a sound like a sigh, rattling through wasted lungs. He felt it push against his palm, a hail of dust and desiccated insect fragments, sticking to the sweat of his skin.
Another hand grasped his wrist, the one which lay against her waist and the gritty, dirt-covered satin of her dress, and pulled.
Downwards. Bony fingers gathered up the folds of her dress, lifting them high.
Part of the paralysis lifted just enough for him to whisper—not enough for him to tear free and run screaming back into the light.
The lips beneath his palm moved, scratching against his skin—the shape of a smile. She swayed against him, as if they were a couple joined on the dance floor.
She was wet inside and cold, congealed like old food left out too long. Everything parted for his hand, and she tipped her head back with another rattling sigh. Her hair, which had seemed so soft and silky as he’d followed her here, was rough and thin, clumped with grave dirt and old skin.
The things he felt inside her. Bone and grit, the juices soaking into his sleeve, running down his wrist. A brief hint of what felt like fur, sticky and damp. A rat? Packed inside her where her guts should be. Something to fill the hole.
She leeched the heat from his fingers until they were numb as stone. And when she let go of his wrist his hand just dropped out of her, dangling at the end of his arm like so much dead flesh.
She twisted in his arms, skin pulling like taffy, stretching and tearing from her bones as she moved. He looked down, and in the darkness he could only imagine what that previously angel-fine face looked like now.
Her arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him down. Her lips scraped against his. He felt her teeth as they parted, and the movement of something which might once have been a tongue, now soft as sludge. And then the feathery touch of legs, of spiders crawling across his lips.
He couldn’t fight the urge to vomit—he was amazed he’d held out this long. His stomach spasmed, and when he opened his mouth, she moved in, her liquefied tongue lapping towards his throat. When his mouth filled with the sour tang of regurgitated cola, she made a noise, another sigh. She didn’t pull away, instead licking and swallowing, drinking it all down like it was the finest spring water. Like it was life itself.
Her fingers dug in, sinking into his back. There was a tingling on his skin, on his arms and hands where portions of her flesh remained. Burning, spreading. He wanted to scream, to thrash and scratch but managed only the faintest of twitches. Her tongue reached back so far it made him retch again, more acid filling his mouth, and she absorbed it all.
Her incisors began to pierce his upper lip. The coppery taste of his own blood stirred something in him, a kind of panicked strength, enough for him to wrench his head back away from her.
She was still in his mouth. Still filling up his throat, smothering the screams he might have made. He felt her burning him from the inside out. She pulled him back to her, like they were two halves of a whole, except she was getting stronger, bigger, swallowing up everything.
The burning hit his chest and his heart. The pain did not last long. Blood pooled in his chest cavity, heavy and warm. Her tongue probed, seeking it all out, sucking up every last morsel of heat until there was nothing left.
Freya lay on top of the covers, resisting the urge to pick up her phone. She chewed on her nails. She’d done the right thing, the healthy thing.
And what he did wasn’t right.
It made her want to scream sometimes, just to see if people heard her. Because whenever she was with Caleb it was like she had no voice. Like he was swallowing her slowly, digesting her piece by piece.
Well, no more.
She rolled onto her side, out of sight from the phone on the bedside table, and shut her eyes. For the first time in months, she slept soundly.