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‘The Shadow of Hogmanay’ by Michael Whitehouse

The new year approaches. I feel a chill in my bones and a heavy feeling in my chest as it does. I have never liked the 31st of December. Hogmanay, as it is known in my country, has never been a time to celebrate. It has always been a time to mourn.

I was orphaned when I was six. My parents died in a car crash. They were on their way to pick me up from their friends when their car veered off the road and straight into a tree. My father died instantly on impact, his chest crushed by the dashboard and steering wheel. Fire fighters tried desperately to cut my mother out of the wreckage while she was still breathing. She died of a bleed on the brain before they could free her from the mangled mess.

The events surrounding Mum and Dad's deaths were unclear by any standard. In fact, the police investigating the crash found it more sinister than any normal car accident. Two witnesses who had been walking along a nearby pavement had seen it happen. According to them, the car inexplicably sped up along a straight section of road until the engine was maxed out. Then, suddenly, the car turned, skidding along the road until my parents were crushed by the impact.

The witnesses said it was as if my dad had tugged at the steering wheel. There were suspicions that it was a murder suicide. Local newspapers mentioned that my parents had been seen arguing at a party before they left to pick me up. It didn't take much for gossip to swell, and for many to assume my dad had a moment of madness in the heat of an argument. Either that or it was my mum who grabbed the wheel.

I don't remember much about being told that they had died. The truth is, I think the shock wiped out a great deal of my childhood memories around that time. All I can really remember from that time is the fact that there was a funeral, and I wasn't allowed to go because my relatives thought it was too much for me. I remember feeling terrible guilt about that. I persuaded myself that if I had gone, that somehow my parents would have come back. Like it was a test of faith. The mind clutches at anything when facing such a tragedy.

The accident was the first in several bad scrapes with the 31st of December I've had throughout my life. And the scrapes keep coming.

I went to live with my dad's parents after that. They raised me as best they could, but they were already in their 70s, and my grandfather had problems with his lungs.

I did love them, though. They were kind, at leats to me, and they did their best despite the circumstances. It can't have been easy to find yourself parents of a six year old again at that age.

I was an only child, and my grandparents thought I was lonely, so they bought me a dog named Jasper soon after. He was a red haired mongrel. He made me smile for the first time following the crash when he used to hide his blue ball away from everyone because it was so precious to him. I had him for three years, and then, on that horrible date at the end of December, he vanished. I remember frantically searching every nook and cranny of my grandparent's old farmhouse for him. I went out over the fields into the freezing cold. Some neighbours from the next farm helped look for him, too. But he was gone.

My grandparents explained that the dog must have somehow gotten out of the house and walked so far that he couldn't find his way home. They said he was no doubt warm and safe in some unfamiliar house miles away, being taken care of by a kind family. But I knew the truth. He hadn't gotten out by accident. Something had taken him away and stolen him from my life. The same thing that had stolen my parents from me three years earlier.

I mourned the loss of that dog almost as much as I did my parents. It took months before I stopped crying each night alone in my bed, and I found myself continually looking out of my bedroom window to the hills which surrounded the farmhouse, expecting to see him suddenly running home to us like an old Lassie movie, but he never did.

It was the year after that, I think I was ten years old by then, when I first saw the thing that took him. In early December, I started to have this odd feeling. It was like I couldn't quite get a full breath of air into my lungs. Like something was pushing down slightly on my chest.

I always dreaded Christmas, but only because, when it was over, New Year was around the corner. The anniversary of my parents' deaths and Jasper's disappearance. That year, though, the feeling in my chest made its approach feel like a shadow growing every day, threatening to envelope me more than ever before.

The uncomfortable feeling in my chest grew worse and worse as the 31st approached. I remember my grandmother taking me to a doctor, but she couldn't find anything wrong with me. The doctor said it was probably a post viral thing, and that I would recover in time. I was given an inhaler and sent on my way. 'Post viral', it seemed, was just the doctor's way of saying 'I don't know what's wrong with the kid'.

I stopped complaining about the feeling in my chest after that. Not because it got any better - it didn't - but because I knew implicitly that it was an omen of something outside of me. Something that was coming to visit my life, yet again.

My grandparents didn't celebrate New Year, not after my parents died, so on the 31st, I was in my bed looking at the ceiling at about 11pm. I hoped to go to sleep. The sensation in my chest had become a strange icy swirling pulse, but I remember thinking: 'We've almost made it. We're almost through the day and nothing bad has happened.'

Farmhouses are creaky old places, they make noises at the best of times. You get used to ignoring most of the sounds as incidental. But I knew the sound of someone walking in the hallway outside my room. That was what I heard from my bed as midnight slowly approached. It was unmistakeable. The almost rhythmic, slight pushing of weight against the aged floorboards as they groaned in return. The minutely perceptible increase in volume of those floorboards as the person in the hall neared my room door. All the while, the icy pulse in my chest throbbed.

I remember my body tensing up as the creaking boards stopped momentarily outside. I was sure whatever it was, it would enter the room, that the door would be flung open to reveal something hideous. That finally, the thing that had taken my parents and my dog from me was there to take me away from the world.

But it didn't linger. It moved on down the hall. What puzzled me was that the pulsing in my chest continued. I heard the footsteps stop eventually, and I knew instinctively that the thing was outside my grandparents' bedroom door. The rattle of an old brass door handle being turned soon sounded, and then the squeak of equally decrepit hinges followed.

Fear had gripped me. My throat tensed up. I tried to shout to warn my grandparents, but just as I opened my mouth, the screams came from somewhere else. It was my grandfather.

I expected the horrible cry to stop quickly, to be snuffed out, but it didn't end there. The screams kept on, filling the old farmhouse I had come to know as my home. Nowhere was safe from them, no spider webbed corners, no discarded chests in the attic, and no recess of my mind. It was as though they saturated the wooden frame and brickwork of the house.

Panic filled my veins, shaking me loose from the paralysis of fear and I rushed out of bed into the cold hallway. My grandfather's screams continued as I approached the room and as I finally made it through the open doorway, what I saw broke my heart.

There was my grandfather, sitting in a heap on the floor at the end of the bed. My grandmother was lying across his arms in a white night gown. Her white hair was dangling from her head. The scalp had been torn backwards and her tongue protruded from her mouth, black and bloated.

But it was her eyes that stayed with me. They looked like empty glass, staring up at the ceiling wide and vacant. She was dead.

When the police arrived, they tried to take my grandfather out of the room, but he didn't want to go. He didn't want to leave his wife, or what was left of her. In the end, they had to forcibly remove him.

My grandfather was arrested and charged with my grandmother's murder. Unbeknownst to me, there had been an incident between them a decade earlier when my grandmother had hurt her back and head. She had to go to hospital and there were suspicions that it was my grandfather who had hurt her. She said she simply fell, but apparently my grandfather was known for his temper in his younger days throughout town, and one of the doctors refused to believe him.

It didn't take much then for him to be thrown in jail for killing his wife. They said he had yanked her around so badly by the hair that her scalp had torn, but that didn't explain the bloated tongue. The pathologist said he thought she may have been strangled, but they could find no marks on her neck. While he awaited trial behind bars, my grandfather's lung condition worsened and he died.

With no other family willing to take me in, I went into care. I moved around a lot, failing to settle in several foster homes. By then, I was used to life taking things from me, but at least for a while, nothing of note happened on the 31st of December.

That was until I was 15. At the time, I was staying in a foster home with three other kids. One of them had been abandoned by her parents, the other two were orphans like me. The married couple that was looking after us, the McKenna's, had never been able to have kids of their own, and instead of adopting, felt that the only way to make a real impact was to help the kids who had the toughest starts in life.

They were nice people. They were strict, but fair. And they always did everything they could to make me and the other kids feel at home.

On the 31st of December of that year, I felt the intense feeling of pressure in my chest again. It came out of nowhere and was bearing down on me. A swirling, icy pulsation somewhere within. I tried to ignore it the best I could, but my mind was consumed by the anxiety of it. I ended up confiding in Bob, Mr McKenna. I told him that bad things happened to me on New Years' Eve. It was the way of things, and I knew from the feeling in my chest that something terrible would happen that night.

He reassured me that nothing bad would happen. That I had suffered PTSD and panic attacks because of what my grandfather had done, and that I was perfectly safe. I prayed he was right, but I knew he wasn't.

That night, I waited. But I didn't have to wait long. I heard it first. The sound of nails on a slate roof. I could hear it, one clawed hand at a time moving above my head, then it scrambled to another section of the roof. I panicked and rushed out of my room in the darkness. I was able to persuade the other kids to come to my room, telling them that I felt unwell and needed someone with me.

They obliged, thank God. But when I went to Mr and Mrs McKenna's room, they were nowhere to be found. Dread filled me. We searched the house together, going from room to room, but we found nothing. I started to think about Jasper my old dog. About how he had vanished into thin air at my grandparents' farmhouse.

But just as I began to believe that they had suffered a similar fate and would never be found, I heard something from outside. The other foster kids and I were standing in the hallway at the top of the stairs. There was a small window near it, and I felt drawn to the glass.

As I approached, I remember that I felt the pressure in my chest intensifying. Swirling and pulsing, like something almost trying to push out of me. I looked out and saw only that the street outside had been dusted with snow. Then my eyes were drawn downward to the roof of the garage next to the house. I could see through a crack in the tiles that the light was on inside. All around that crack, something had disturbed the snow, large patches of it brushed to the side as though a shape had draped itself across the roof and had peered down inside only moments before.

Courage wasn't in abundance, but we found some of it anyway, put on our winter coats and headed out into the garden where the garage could be accessed. As we approached the garage, I could see yellow light spilling out from underneath the large door. I grabbed hold of the handle and yanked the whole thing up.

The door rose up with a clatter, and there were Mr and Mrs McKenna. They were both inside their car. Their eyes were open, but they were already dead. The fumes had made sure of that.

Though no suicide note was left and the couple had no history of violence or self harm, it was deemed a double suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The other kids lost it at the sight of their foster parents in that car. But I just stare, almost numb to it. Death had come to them, and I felt that it was my fault.

There was a lull again after that. Five New Year's Eves passed without incident. Without the pressure in my chest. Without another visitation. But on the sixth December after the deaths of Mr and Mrs McKenna, I started to feel the strange sensation in my chest. The icy pulse had returned.

This time, at the age of 20, I had fallen in love. Mandy was her name. She was bright, kind, had blue hair and was a budding artist. She had been a foster kid, too, and though we met under different circumstances at a coffee place where I worked, we bonded over our similar experiences.

So, when I felt that pain in my chest, I knew there was only one thing that could be taken from me. Mandy would be dead on the 31st of December unless I did something about it.

I reasoned that all the people who had been killed by the Hogmanay Visitor, as I had come to call it, had cared about me. My parents, my dog, my grandparents, the McKennas. They had all showed me love.

That was how I knew Mandy would be next.

Rather than wait for the thing to appear, I decided to follow a trail of breadcrumbs into my past in search of answers. As it turned out, my father had a half sister, Suzie, though I had barely seen her when I was a kid. She hadn't even showed up after my grandparents had died. She certainly hadn't been willing to take me in when I was orphaned, but I hoped she might know something, anything, that could help.

I found out where she lived, and appeared, unannounced, at her home. At first, she pretended like she didn't know me. But I could see in her eyes that she did. When I told her she was the only family I had left and that all I wanted to know was what had happened to my mum and dad, she finally let me inside.

We had a cup of tea together and, when I told her that I believed something supernatural had killed everyone I cared about, she stared at me in silence. It was not the reaction I expected. The fact that she didn't laugh in my face or call me crazy spoke volumes. The silence hung in the air as I waited for an answer. Then she said something along the lines of: 'I don't know if it's alive or dead. But it is real.'

My heart raced. Finally, someone else knew what I was talking about. It hadn't all been in my imagination. There was something haunting my life, taking my loved ones from me. But why? I had to know.

Suzie reluctantly told me that when she and my father had been teenagers, they had lived for a time in a small town named Windarm. I had heard of it before. It was one of those picturesque Scottish towns surrounded by mountains and lochs. I remembered reading somewhere that it had a twin of sorts, too. A town in America had been settled by Scottish immigrants in the 1700s. They gave that place the same name.

In any case, Suzie told me that when they were 14, she, my father and a few of their friends had taken to hanging around an old graveyard in the town. No one had been buried there for hundreds of years, and so it was a place they could claim as their own without interruption from the grown ups.

One day, on the 31st of December, they had been drinking some beers my dad had swiped from home while laughing and joking with each other, hiding between the gravestones. Suddenly, the laughter stopped. A dark shadow was moving on the hillside above the group. My dad saw it first. He pointed to it as it clambered between several old tombs coming down a sloping hill.

He asked Suzie what she thought it was. She wanted to say that it was a man. But somehow, that didn't sit quite right with her. The closer it came, the shadow soon looked like the outline of a figure dressed in black, and Suzie saw that it was almost pulling at the headstones with its hands as it passed each line of graves, using them to propel itself faster and faster down the hill towards them.

It wouldn't stop, and one of their friends let out a sort of whimper as the thing drew nearer. And then, they were running. Why, exactly, she couldn't say, as they outnumbered the person, but Suzie had a horrible feeling in her gut that the thing had come out of one of the old tombs.

She ran, the cold air burning in her lungs. Only once did she look over her shoulder as she rushed towards a wall with her brother and friends. She told me that she saw the figure right behind them, its arms outstretched, and that, although her memory had thankfully blocked the grim face from her mind, when she locked eyes with it, she felt an icy pulsing in her chest, and remembers the distinct impression that the eyes were like staring into the night.

Suzie told me she knew that didn't make sense, but it was all she remembered about its appearance.

I had a feeling there was something she was holding back, and so I asked her if anything had happened to my dad as they ran, anything specific. She grew quiet for a moment before continuing in hushed tones. She told me that when she and her friends clambered over the graveyard walls and back onto the streets of Windarm, my dad was no longer with them.

None of them were brave enough to go back over the wall and find him. Instead, they returned with several of their parents, telling them that my dad had been attacked by a prowler in the old graveyard. My grandfather and several others searched the graveyard and, so they told Suzie later, finally found my dad curled up in a ball inside an old tomb on the hill. It was in the oldest part of the graveyard, and the tomb itself had an engraving in the stone above the open doorway. My grandfather told Suzie it looked almost like a spider's web.

Dad didn't talk for three weeks after that. And he never said what had happened to him. But he did later tell Suzie that he felt he had been left alive by the shape in the graveyard for a purpose. What that purpose was, he didn't know, and neither did Suzie. She didn't want to find out, either.

The conversation appeared to much for her after that, and she asked me to leave her alone. I obliged.

I left Suzie's with more questions than answers, but an idea did formulate in my mind. It was the map on the underground that gave it to me. I was waiting on a train, and I was looking at the lines on the wall, the map of the underground. All those tracks intersecting, branching off away and then back towards each other, like veins. Or, indeed, like a spider's web. That was when it dawned on me.

You see, I believe that this thing, it feeds on connections. It moves like a network through people's lives. I think it did leave my father alive for a specific reason, so that it could use him as a sort of conduit.

I called Suzie on my mobile phone and asked her if anyone in my father's life had died on the 31st of December. And she said, yes. Three people had died on that exact date across a ten year period before my dad's eventual accident. All friends he was extremely close to.

This was enough to seal the deal for me. I knew what had to be done.

I called my girlfriend, Mandy, and told her that I didn't love her any more She was heartbroken, and it was so far from the truth that I can't put how horrid I feel into words. But I'm convinced letting her go has saved her life. You see, the same icy pulsing was in my chest up until that point. As soon as I split up with her, it dissipated.

That feeling I got was a warning. It was a symptom of death. The impending death of someone I loved. Now I have let Mandy go, there is no one I love. There are no connections. I have no friends to speak of, being solitary in nature ever since being moved around so much in care. I have no family members I'm close to, nor do I have any pets. I don't love my co-workers I don't love my neighbours. There are no connections now, to people at least.

This morning, the morning of the 31st of December, New Year's Eve, I booked a train ticket and travelled across the country to Windarm town. It's a nice place, at least on the outside.

It didn't take me long to find the old graveyard, and given Suzie's descriptions, there was only one hill that could possibly be where the shadowy figure first emerged and ran down towards my dad and his friends when they were teenagers.

It was from between the tombs...

I now stand here on the hill. The area is unkempt, long grass between graves and old vaults alike. But one stood out to me as soon as I laid eyes on it. It's an old grey tomb. The stone door is broken on the ground, covered by weeds and bushes. Above the doorway is a worn symbol, chiselled into the stone. It does indeed look like a spider's web.

Looking inside, the tomb is empty, but I don't expect it to be for long, not now that it's dark and we approach midnight. New Year's Day will beckon at midnight. Hogmanay will be over, and I will have come face to face with the thing that killed my parents and took everything I ever loved from me.

I am convinced that this thing uses love, you see. It uses it against you. You are at the heart of your own web. You spin it over a lifetime, and all the connections you make, those delicate threads of silk webbing between, the thing from this tomb clambers along them and slowly squeezes the life out of all you have ever held dear. It did that to dad, and when it was finished with him, it moved onto someone else to whom he was connected.

After me, it won't have anyone to latch onto. There is no one left to love. My web is broken.

I just hope I'm right about all of this.

I'll leave this journal in the graveyard and hope that someone finds it. If you do and you hear of some poor unfortunate twenty year old guy who was found dead in one of the tombs, please, do me a favour: On any day except the 31st of December, look for the tomb with the spider's web above the door and demolish it brick by brick.


Published inShort StoriesUncategorized


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