I can see the road in front of us cast in dusk, the orange glow of the setting sun making the streets seem brighter than they should be. I knew this road well up until a few years ago. I hate coming back to this place. Too many memories. Too much pain I can't drown.
Helen Lowry is with me. We had a fling up until recently. She wanted to take things to the next level. I just can't get that close. Now here we are, having to be civil to each other on the drive. We're professionals though, so the job has to get done one way or another.
Helen drives. I sit. We make small talk as the golden fields and trees of Fall begin to give way to the occasional farmhouse. We're trying our best. Hell, the two of us even laugh once or twice on the way, but I can tell it's forced.
I'm sorry I hurt her.
I watch as the pristine "Welcome to Windarm Town" sign comes into view on a quiet stretch of road. It quickly blurs past us. Helen asks if I'm okay. I say I'm fine. But I'm not.
Windarm was once a place of dreams for me. A loving wife. A beautiful son. A big old house. But that all went during the fire. When the ashes settled, I was the only thing left that the flames didn't touch. A mystery to the investigators, a curse to me. I'd rather be with my wife and kid.
As the outskirts of Windarm break into meandering residential streets, I see them out in force. The kids. Dressed in their costumes, some frightening, others not so. I see a boy no older than six with his dad, holding his hand and grinning with glee from beneath a painted face.
The sight cuts into me. It should be me and my boy walking around out there tonight; trick or treating for candy; ghost stories; being scared just enough to get excited; everything that makes childhood innocent. But my little boy is gone, and I'm left to carry on in a world that seems like a dream, haunted by the memory of his smile.
I push the pain down each and every night until I'm certain it'll burn a hole in my gut. Part of me wouldn't mind. Bleeding out is preferential. But I have a Mom and Dad living across the country. I have friends, people who count on me. A sister I rarely see, but a sister nonetheless. I can't quit for their sake. So, I swallow the pain again and again, facing each day and waiting for the sun to set so I can sleep and hope I don't wake up.
It's been that way for five years.
Helen turns left past Serling street. Then, she takes another few turns until we're in a cosy little spot. It's a cul de sac, encircled by large white town houses with wooden slatted walls and quaint tiled canopies stretching out above quiet porches.
The car stops and we get out. The air smells like pine. Helen comments that it would be a nice place to raise a family. She then stumbles over her words realising what she's just said. I tell her not to worry about it. She's right, it is a nice place to raise a family, or, at least, it was.
I check my revolver is in place, a habit my old Sergeant drilled into me during my first tour. Police work is different from the Army, but the same attention to detail is needed. I might not feel like living much, but I don't care for getting shot either. Besides, my partner relies on me. Helen has kids, and a husband too.
We walk over to number 12. The front lawn is small, filled with ornamental gnomes with white beards down to their knees and red pointed hats as high as my shin. They grin out at passers-by and visitors alike. Maybe it's because it's Halloween, but they seem less than friendly. There's even a small well, which I'm certain is fake, but it fits the kitsch values of the owner to a tee.
As we pass the plastic scene, the thought enters my mind that the gnomes were put there by Shelley Walken, no doubt trying to create her own pristine little world like the rest of us. She'll not be adding to it any time soon, that's for sure.
Walking onto the wooden porch, my footsteps thud against the creaking boards. If he didn't know we were coming, he sure does now. For a moment I catch a smell of something, like a chemical, but it clears out as quickly as it arrived. I wrap my knuckles against the door three times and shout, letting Jacob and anyone else inside know that I'm with the county police department and there's no time to be messing around.
But he doesn't answer the door.
It's getting dark now and I hear some kids in the street running past giggling to themselves. I need out of Windarm, fast. I bang the door several more times, then, I try the door handle. To my surprise, it opens.
Unholstering my gun, I give Helen a knowing glance, shout that we're coming in, and enter inside, carefully. Helen has my back. She always does. I'll give her that.
I shout Jacob's name again, telling him to come out with his hands up, but the house is as silent as a grave. The lights aren't on, either, and when I flick a switch on the wall next to me, nothing happens. I pull out my flashlight and continue along the hallway.
Helen points to a broken vase on the floor. It looks like it was dropped recently, perhaps during a struggle. The red flowers are crushed, probably stood on, and the wooden floor around them is still wet. We move as we know how; clearing one room at a time. The kitchen. The living room. A conservatory out back that looks onto a small back yard with overgrown bushes. The rooms of the Walken house are filled with furniture and other trinkets of modern life, but they are devoid of people. My flashlight catches a few smiling family photographs, many of them with Jacob and Shelley. I wonder if those smiles were ever real.
As we walk back into the main hallway, voices come from the outside.
It's more damn kids.
They're walking up the path to the front of the house. Asking Helen to keep an eye on the staircase to the upstairs in case anyone rushes us, I holster my gun and walk to the front doorway. Three kids are standing there. One is dressed as a low effort vampire whose parents probably didn't give a shit to make the night special. The other two I don't know much about; just strange costumes with no meaning. But then, I haven't watched any kids cartoons since my son died. The costumes are probably from some new fad I don't and never will understand.
Before they can get past saying Trick or Treat, I stop them dead in their tracks. There are no treats here. I tell them to spread the word among their friends. They seem a little disappointed. I'm not that heartless, so I open my wallet and quickly give each of them five dollars if they promise to tell people to stay away. Now they're happy, and so they practically skip down the path back out to the other houses. I hope those places are happier than this one.
I close the door to the outside this time and remind Helen that an open door is an invitation to others and should be closed. She nods, but I can tell she is annoyed with me. Taking the lead, I then unholster my firearm again and stand at the foot of the stairs. It's pitch black up there. I shout up telling Jacob that I'm the detective he spoke with earlier that day. I tell the darkness that I'm accompanied by another officer and that we will both shoot anyone up there if they make the wrong move.
No reply, so I figure we go up.
As I'm climbing the creaking stairs, I think about the possibility of finding the guy with his brains blown out up there, blood splattering all over another collection of family photographs; preferential at least to him diving out of the darkness blasting at us with a revolver.
I know he's capable of murder.
Reaching the landing, I look around with my flashlight. That's when I smell it. Helen comments first. It's not the smell of a dead body, but it's close. It smells like sulphur in the air. A rotten stench from somewhere like greens or meat gone bad, but there's something else alongside it, not dissimilar to wet soil. I whisper to Helen that it can't be Jacob because we had him in for questioning earlier that day. There's no way his body would decompose that quickly.
I start to wonder if Jacob has killed someone else and kept the remains up here.
We move slowly across the landing, but the smell doesn't increase as it should if we were nearing the source. It's as though the stench permeates the air. Like it's coming from everywhere around us. A search of three bedrooms reveals nothing.
As we approach another doorway at the end of the landing, I hear someone talking. They're whispering under their breath, agitated and confused. I stay away from the door. A buddy of mine from Arkham got a shotgun blast to the chest through a locked door once, and I'm not intending on making the same mistake.
I shout on Jacob. The whispering voice stops as I do. I identify myself as Detective Ray Cooper. When he doesn't answer again, I tell him that the time for grandstanding is over and that we know he killed his wife. The voice behind the door starts laughing. It's unhinged, and it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
"Jacob!" I say. "We have security camera footage from a gas station that shows your wife's body was in the trunk when you opened it."
Jacob finally answers me, and when he does, well... It's confusing.
"Shelley?" he says. "She ain't dead. She's right here in this house. I've seen her." He laughs again in that same subtly demented way. "One hell of a Halloween Trick, I'll tell ya that!"
I brush off the strange comment putting it down to stress or a psychotic break and ask Jacob if he's armed.
"You bet your ass I'm armed," he says. "So don't even think about coming in here."
This isn't going the way I intended. The longer I stay in Windarm, the more I can feel it seeping into my veins. The place gets to me. It cuts down somewhere into my bones. For a moment I think about my wife and kid smiling at me. What I'd give to have them back, and this bastard just ditched his own wife's body somewhere like garbage.
Helen touches my arm softly. This breaks the spell. She asks me: "What now?"
I think for a moment then I tell Jacob this isn't going to end well. One way or another, he's coming out of that room.
Jacob makes a different offer, one I don't rightly understand. He says, if we get rid of his wife, then he'll happily come out. The last place he wants to be is in that house with her walking around.
As if responding to his words, something moves out of the corner of my eye further back along the landing. I hear Helen gasp, but as I turn my gun towards it, I only get a look at it for a moment. I'm not sure what it is, but it's just moved into one of the bedrooms we already searched. I can feel my nerves pushing their way up through my mind. I push them back down again.
I ask Helen what she saw, but she's trembling. I tell her it's okay and ask her to be straight with me. I can hear Jacob laughing through the door as this is going on. I tell him to shut his mouth.
Helen whispers that she thinks we should leave and call for back up. She won't rightly say what she saw, only that it looked kind of like a mist. I ask her if she means it looked like smoke. I imagine someone hiding with a gun in that room, sucking on a cigarette, but the only smell is the rotten sulphur stench that still hangs in the air.
Helen tells me what she saw was more like a walking blur, and that there was something moving inside. I'm starting to worry that she's losing it. Jacob then asks us if we saw it, if we saw her, but I don't answer. I'm not buying into any of this. I'm in no mood for a ghost story in Windarm. Not on Halloween night. Not ever.
Helen backs me up as I walk along the hallway once more, but this time I can hear her breathing. It's nervous. Anxiety and guns don't mix. Helen is a seasoned officer and I've never known her to be spooked even when under fire. But whatever she thinks she's seen, it's left her nerves shredded.
We move quietly towards the open doorway where the thing disappeared. I shout into the darkness of the room that we're the police and that whoever is in there should come out with their hands in the air. But I get nothing back. Tonight, that seems to be a running theme. As I move to enter the doorway, Helen pulls at my arm. She whispers to me: "Don't go in there." It's like she knows something I don't.
I pay no heed.
I just want this over with so I can get out of this hellish town. I move, and... Jesus... What in God's name is that? There's something in the corner of the room between an old grey television and a brown leather couch. I move my flashlight to it. The thing looks like a pulsing black egg sac the size of a person. The surface moves as though something is encased in liquid inside. Then, I think I see two eyes staring at me from inside the damned thing. I blink and it's gone. There's nothing there.
I give myself a shake and rub my eyes. My heart is pounding. Dear God, what was that thing? I've never seen anything like it. I back out of the room. Helen asks me what I saw, but I can barely put it into words. I don't have to look in a mirror to know that the colour has drained from my face.
Unable to take it all in, I move back along the landing and shout on Jacob to come with us. But he just mutters and rants, talking about something to do with "under the stones". I ask him what he means, but I don't get time to pursue the answer. My blood runs cold as I hear a voice sharp like a knife shout Jacob's name from downstairs.
"Who's in the house Jacob?" I ask.
"My wife," is what he says in return, and then starts laughing again.
I turn to Helen and can see the worry in her face. She's frightened, and I can't say I blame her. I walk to the top of the stairs and shout down, identifying ourselves as the police. I can hear someone moving around down there.
"Is... Is she out there?" Jacob asks. I can hear a change in his voice like he's pressed up against the inside of the door.
"Someone is," I say.
"It's her," replies Jacob. "She's dead, you know."
I've met some crackpots in my time, dealt with delusions and psychotic breakdowns, but there's something about Jacob's tone that unnerves me. It sounds like the truth.
"Shelley?" I say loudly from the top of the stairs.
A horrid cry comes from down there in the darkness. It sounds almost human, almost animal, like a cat caught in some barbed wire.
I know we have to go back to the ground floor and see who it is, but I don't want to. Instead, I radio the controller at the local station and ask for backup, but he answers me in a strange way. It's as though he's hearing someone else's words. Each time I tell him that we require backup, he replies as though I've said we've arrested Jacob and are on our way back to the station. Helen tries her radio and it's the same. The controller is hearing something we're not.
None of this makes any sense.
I move down a step. Jacob responds immediately. He probably knows every sound in that house, including the noise the staircase makes when you're at the top of it.
"Don't go down there, Detective," he says quietly. "Guns don't work."
"Then why have you got a shotgun in there, Jacob?" I ask loudly.
"To shoot myself if she gets in here," he answers.
I've had enough.
I turn back to go down the staircase and... There's a person standing at the foot of the stairs. My flashlight catches something white. I think it's an old nightdress, but it's covered in black patches of what looks like soil. The woman, and I'm sure it's a woman, is playing with something in her hand that I can't make out. And this is the damnedest thing, I move my flashlight straight up to the face. But I can't see it. It's blurred like looking through glass. No eyes, no features, just a pallid white colour. There's something moving underneath, but it's obscured by a blur I don't understand. Brown hair hangs from the head. I can see a few bald patches and blood trickling from her head. Now I know what's in her hand. It's pieces of hair and scalp she's torn from her own skull.
I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. The woman now starts to walk up the staircase towards me, slowly. Jacob begins to scream at the sound of the creaking stairs and now it's Helen's turn to be the one who's more together. She steps forward and points her gun at the figure on the stairs, telling the woman to stop where she is.
"I... I can't see the face" is all I can offer to my partner.
Helen orders the woman to stop coming up the stairs towards us or she'll open fire. The woman stops in response, then she drops slowly to her knees and starts cradling her face, crying and sobbing loudly. But these cries... They echo unnaturally.
"What did you do to her, Jacob!?" I yell.
"If I got careless on the security footage at the gas station," he shouts from the bathroom. "It's because this is the fourth time I've buried her! Poison, bullets, knives, ropes, none of it works. She keeps coming back, and she's stranger each time. I... I shouldn't have put her in with the stones."
"Shelley?" I say softly.
The sobbing stops and she stands up. Although there's no mouth to speak of, a laugh comes from the empty featureless face. She takes one step forward, but this time I try to take control of the situation. I step forward too, descending to halfway down the stairs while holstering my gun and then reaching out my arm to comfort her.
Even up close, the face is a blur. I can't comprehend how it's possible, but I'm looking at something more akin to a shop mannequin than a human being. A whisper comes from her and I lean in to hear it.
"Your son rots," the voice says.
I barely have time to react. With arms flailing, the woman reaches up and wraps her hands around my neck. She's strong. I feel her fingers burying into my throat as my windpipe is pushed closed. I can't breathe. Panic kicks in. I can hear Helen shouting.
Shelley is unspeakably strong. I try to break the grasp on my neck, but as I pull at her hand she increases the pressure on my windpipe. I feel something inside of me begin to give. Any more pressure and my windpipe will be crushed. Then it's goodnight. Helen runs over and tries to pull the woman off me, but even with her arms wrapped around Shelley's neck, she's unable to make a dent.
Something begins to crack inside my throat, the lights are about to go out. I do all that's left to be done. I pull my gun and squeeze the trigger twice. I aim for the leg, but I catch her hip.
Shelley's falls backwards, releasing her grip and then tumbling down the staircase to the floor below. I think I hear her neck crack on one of the stairs on the way down. She now lies there in a motionless heap.
I sit down on a step trying to catch my breath. My neck is aching, no doubt it'll be bruised as all hell in the morning, but I'll live. Helen checks on me, but my gaze focuses on the foot of the stairs. Shelley's body is gone. Helen turns her flashlight in the direction of my gaze, and it illuminates the ground floor just enough that we both see it. A pulsating human-sized egg sac is trembling in the corner next to the front door. Something is moving inside, and it looks human.
Helen pulls me back up the stairs to the landing.
"Jacob," I say through the closed bathroom door, my voice rasping. "What the hell did you do?"
"You've seen her then," he says. "I didn't mean to kill her the first time. I just got too rough with her. She wouldn't wake up... I panicked and put her in my car and took her out to the woods. Then I saw those standing stones out there on Wallace Hill. I thought I was bein' smart. I dug all day. Enough to put her body underneath one of them stones. Thought no one would ever find her. Them stones are historical landmarks. Ain't no one gonna be diggin' them up. Only trouble I had were all the damned spiders. Like a nest of 'em under the rock. Ain't seen nothin' like it. White things they were, hundreds of 'em. I figured they could have her. Even said as much out loud. Wish I'd kept my trap shut. Then... Oh God help me... Then she came back. And kept comin' no matter what I did."
Like everything tonight, Jacob's words ring crazy but true.
I know the hill he's talking about. I took my son there several times to see some history. The standing stones on top of it are ancient, no one knows who built them, but I do remember folks in Windarm telling us that, back in the 1800s, people thought the stones were still being used for witchcraft. Some think they still are.
Helen looks frightened. I finally pull myself together and tell her everything is going to be just fine once we get out of the house. I tell Jacob we're leaving with or without him. He's adamant he won't leave until she's gone. I try to reason with him, but he's as stubborn as a mule.
I tell him we'll send help. He just laughs at that. "Ain't no one who can help, not even a priest," he says. "I'm sorry I buried her under that stone."
"You should be sorry for killing your wife," I say as I walk away from the bathroom door along the landing. Helen follows. I can hear the pulsating fluid in the sac downstairs at the front door. It makes me feel sick. We have to find another way out, so we enter one of the bedrooms and I move towards the window. Looking down to the street, I see kids still outside walking around in their Halloween costumes, going from house to house.
When I can't push the window up, Helen helps. It won't budge. There's no give in it at all. In fact, it feels strange, like something is forcing it down. Looking around the room, I see a wooden chair, but slamming it against the glass does no good. There's not even a scratch.
Something moves downstairs.
"Hurry," Helen says, looking back to the landing and the top of the stairs. I can see the fear in her eyes. It's overwhelming.
I take out my gun and shoot the window, but when the bullet strikes the glass, all I hear is a high pitched sound and then the bullet dropping to the floor. The glass remains unharmed. Whatever came back with Shelley from the standing stones, it doesn't want us to leave.
To my horror, I look out of the window once more. This time, I see a group of kids in ghoulish costumes entering Shelley's garden and then walking up to the front door, unaware of the thing in the sac behind it. They knock loudly. A laugh sounds from downstairs, strange and disconnected like it doesn't have a body. A voice with no home is not something I want to mess with, but I can't let whatever it is answer the door and hurt those kids.
I rush to the top of the stairs and look down. The pulsating, gelatinous sac of fluid is still in the corner next to the front door, but now it's larger than before.
The kids knock the door again.
In reply, the sac begins to split. A translucent fluid spurts out of it onto the floor, as though something is trying to get out into the world and do unspeakable things.
I'm terrified of what's in there, but I won't let it harm a child. We move down the stairs quickly but with as much silence as we can muster. The sac in the corner quivers as we near it. I see something press up against the viscous membrane. It's an arm, maybe two or three of them.
"She's growing in there," I whisper.
Slowly, I walk past it. There's a noise coming from inside. It sounds like someone chanting, their voice garbled with fluid. I imagine someone drowning inside.
Reaching the door, I try the handle. It's opening!
I open the door to the cold night and I'm greeted with the happy faces of the three small children, all dressed as... From up above they had appeared to be trick or treaters, but up close I now know the truth. Staring up at me through contorted humanoid features, warped pallid skin, and dark blue eyes, are three soil covered creatures as high as my waist. The rotten, chemical smell is now more potent than ever like it seeps from their skin.
"Momma" one of the says. The voice isn't quite human.
I'm frozen still with fear. They brush past me and, at the sight of the pulsating sac, they rush to it and start digging in with their hands. Globules of flesh are torn from it, transparent chunks discarded onto the ground, quivering. An even stronger sulphuric stench fills the air as a gas seeps out from the sac when pierced by the clawing soiled hands of the children.
White rotten arms then come through the holes and embrace the children. I grab Helen and pull her out of the door into the cool night air. We watch as a figure emerges from the sac, fluid continuing to weep onto the floor. It's Shelley or some twisted version of her. One arm is now lower on the body than it should be, and blood oozes from her scalp as she pulls some of her hair off with a jarring motion.
I don't see her face. But then, I don't want to. She walks slowly up the stairs, hand in hand with the children and they disappear onto the landing.
I can hear hands breaking down a wooden door and three little voices shouting "Daddy" with glee.
Helen screams that we should help. But Jacob's right. No one can help him. Call me a coward all you want. I pull Helen out of the garden, knocking a few gnomes over in my rush. In the darkness, I hear Jacob crying out as he is introduced to his newborn family for the first time. That's my guess at least. Those things are the offspring of Jacob's deeds. An unnatural mix of poor Shelley Walken and the strange spider creatures buried with her beneath the ancient standing stones. Witchcraft, it seems, is alive and well around Windarm town, or at least an echo of it.
Jacob's screams cease. When we get to the car, I make sure no kids... No Human kids approach the house while we call for backup. Out of the house away from the influence of that thing, the controller now hears our real words.
When backup arrives, they head inside. I tell the officers to keep the door open. Helen laughs when I say this.
The house is still. Jacob is gone and there's no evidence for what we saw, but I'm convinced we'll find what's left of him up at Old Wallace hill underneath one of the standing stones. I can feel that's where he is, in a family home of sorts. I know I want nothing more than to be with my family, and I'm sure that's exactly what Shelley Walken feels as well. At least, what's left of her.
But that can wait until tomorrow. I've had enough for tonight. I'm not heading up there. Not while it's dark, and sure as hell not on Halloween. They say it's a night for witches and strange things. The truth is, I just don't know who or what might be walking around up there.