April was the cruelest month for grownups, but for kids it was definitely September. The wild ride of summer came crashing to an end and the return to school was like being dragged back to prison after weeks of freedom.
Heather had never minded, though, because September gave way to October. And October was her favorite month. The air turned crisp and the leaves were at their most vibrant and colorful. And best of all, there was Halloween. It was a magical time, a time when the world transformed, putting on one last show before the long cold winter set in.
Heather had turned fourteen the month before, and her dad was letting her throw her first party, to celebrate both holidays. Together they spent a week transforming their boring little house in the Austin suburbs into a haunted palace.
They decorated it with orange and black streamers and stuck rubber blood spatters on all the windows and mirrors. They turned the kitchen into a gruesome abattoir, with peeled grape eyeballs and pasta intestines laying in dishes under low lights. A cauldron filled with dry ice bubbled ominously on the stove. The bathrooms were crawling with plastic spiders while glow-in-the-dark skulls and ghosts grinned from every shadowy nook and corner.
Outside, a hideous animatronic scarecrow rose up to scream at anyone who came near enough to wake him.
It was total overkill, but it was totally worth it. Sam and Mia said it was the sickest party they’d ever seen. Word got out on Twitter and soon the house was full. You knew a party was a success when kids you didn’t even know started showing up.
They gleefully drank blood punch from plastic goblets and ate zombie cake off black paper plates. And even though they were technically too old for it, the costumed teenagers went trick-or-treating up and down the block, then gorged themselves on candy and pumpkin pie when they got back to the party. Heather had dressed as Wednesday Addams (her dad’s idea), but she was having such a blast it was impossible to stay in character. Her deadpan demeanor gave way to shrieking and giggling along with her friends at every manufactured scare.
Of course they also took great delight in terrifying any kids brave enough to come knocking. Heather’s dad jumped out from his hiding place dressed like a medieval executioner, swinging a huge headsman’s axe. One younger group of trick-or-treaters ran screaming back to their mother’s car and were too afraid to return for their treats. Heather and her friends had laughed themselves into hysterical tears over that and declared that Dave Barton was the Coolest Dad Ever.
It was the best night Heather could remember in a long time. It was almost enough to make her forget that her mother had vanished without a trace the year before.
“Night, Mom,” Heather whispered to the creased photo she kept tucked under her pillow. “You would have loved it.”
But even as she said it, she realized that the raw, aching wound in her heart had finally begun to heal. A year ago she’d never have imagined herself capable of smiling again. Her dad either, for that matter. But if the trauma had brought the two of them closer, the party had made them best friends.
She’d always secretly believed it was a magical time of year. Now she knew it for a fact. So of course she began counting down the days until they could do it all again.
• • • •
“We’re going where?”
She could remember the moment like it was yesterday. Her father had sighed and looked down at the table, where loads of important-looking papers were strewn out in front of him. “England. Just for a while. Just to get things settled.”
England. The other side of the world. Where she didn’t know anybody.
“But why do we have to go now?”
“Because otherwise the farmhouse is just sitting there abandoned. It’s already been broken into twice. We can’t afford to leave it and let it get trashed.”
Heather hadn’t been able to stop herself resenting Ruth, her dad’s recently deceased maiden aunt. She’d never even met the woman who’d surfaced from the distant past just to dump her creepy old farm on them.
“Besides,” her father added sheepishly, “we need the money we’ll get from the sale of whatever’s inside. She apparently had a lot of antiques.”
“So why can’t we go over Christmas?” Heather persisted. Missing out on Christmas was vastly preferable to being deprived of another awesome Halloween.
“Because it’s too expensive. Everyone flies over Christmas.”
“But our party—”
“Heather.” For long moments her father stared down at the scattered papers, shaking his head sadly. Suddenly he wasn’t Dave Barton her BFF anymore; he was just “Dad.”
When he finally met her eyes again, he seemed profoundly weary. Heather knew that look. He’d worn it every day until the police told them they’d abandoned the search for her mom. And then every day after that. There had been no evidence of foul play, no suggestion that she’d run off with another man, no . . . nothing. It had broken her father.
Heather’s face burned as she realized how selfish she was being. Last year’s Halloween/birthday bash had been the first time they’d had fun since the nightmare began, the first time they’d been able to cut loose. But love wasn’t just about the fun times. What had the school counselor told her? Two steps forward, one step back?
Her dad hadn’t known his aunt well. Hadn’t even seen her in twenty years. The death of a virtual stranger was nothing compared to what they’d gone through over Heather’s mom. But it was still awful. Aunt Ruth was dead. Not missing. Not vanished without a trace. Stone cold factually dead. And she’d left them her farm.
“Hey,” Heather said, her voice catching. She moved to her father’s side and flopped down on the floor, resting her head on his knee. “It’s okay. I understand.” It was all she could say without breaking down.
She felt her father’s hand in her hair, ruffling the pixie cut. “Thanks, kiddo. I knew I could count on you. And you never know—we might actually like it there.”
She’d forced a brave smile at the time, even though she knew there was no way she would.
• • • •
It was raining when they landed at Heathrow, and it rained during the long drive that followed. Heather’s first impression of England was that it was very green and very wet. Presumably one because of the other. Thorpe Morag was a small Somerset village nestled in a valley in the middle of wet green nowhere. It was near places with even weirder names, like Middlezoy and Huish Champflower.
Her second impression was that everything was old. Like straight-out-of-a-history-book old. The roads, the houses, even the trees all seemed impossibly ancient. America was all shopping malls and Starbucks and nail salons and car dealerships, all of it new and shiny and clean. Here, Heather wouldn’t be surprised to see medieval peasants plowing the fields.
A battered sign finally told them they’d reached Thorpe Morag, and a winding road led them into the village. Two rows of cottages faced each other across a wide patch of grass with a little duck pond and a couple of rotting park benches. The “village green” apparently. There was a pub, the White Mare, and a shop that looked like something from an old black and white movie. As far as Heather could tell, its name was just “The Shop.”
At the far end of the green, a cluster of trees sheltered a narrow track that led to the Barton farm. The house was a blocky stone structure that looked more like a storage building than a home. It was almost hidden in the shadows of the foliage surrounding it. The trees looked intent on consuming the upper storey, and the view from at least one window was entirely obscured. Heather shuddered at the thought of branches scraping her bedroom window like bony fingers before breaking the glass and reaching in for her.
“It’s, um . . . nice,” she said, staring in dismay at the farmhouse. The photos emailed by the solicitor had clearly been taken on some enchanted spring morning when sunlight had conquered the gloom. Heather glanced at her father, but his expression was unreadable. They were really going to stay here? Live here? A glance back at the sparse village didn’t reveal any alternatives. It wasn’t like there was a hotel down the road or anything. But there had to be a city nearby. How far away was London? Surely they could find somewhere else to stay, anywhere else . . .
Her dad took the first step toward the farmhouse and Heather had her answer. She heaved a morose sigh as she trudged after him, resigned to her fate. That was when she saw it.
Her gasp must have sounded like one of pain because her dad whirled around. “Heather! Are you okay?”
“Oh my God,” she breathed. She didn’t so much walk as float toward the fence, where a beautiful horse stood gazing at her with huge dark eyes. Its coat was a rich deep red, its mane and tail long and black.
Without hesitation Heather reached out to stroke the animal’s sleek neck, and the horse nickered softly and tossed its head. It seemed to be laughing. When Heather pulled her hand back, the horse thrust its nose underneath her palm, nudging her. It felt like velvet.
“I think she likes you,” her dad said. “Or he likes you.”
“You were right the first time,” came a voice from behind them.
They both jumped and turned to see a man standing there. Wisps of white hair framed a thin but rugged face and his bright blue eyes shone with friendliness.
“Didn’t mean to startle you folks,” he said. His accent made him sound like Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. “I’m Chester.” He stuck out his hand for each of them to shake. His grip was so firm it made Heather wince. “You must be the new owners.”
“Yes. I’m Dave Barton and this is my daughter Heather. Ruth was my aunt.”
Chester bowed his head, revealing a bald patch he made no effort to hide. “Damn shame,” he said. “She was a fine woman. Always good to me, was your Ruth. I take care of her animals for her. That is, I took care. Still will if you’ll have me.”
“Well, I think . . .” Dave glanced at Heather, who could only offer a shrug. Behind her, the horse was nudging her roughly in the back, demanding attention. Dave laughed. “I’m sure that would be just fine. Just tell me what your arrangement was and I’ll continue to honor it. For as long as we’re here, that is.”
“Fair enough,” Chester said, nodding with satisfaction. He turned his attention back to the horse. “Her name’s Callisto.”
Heather stood on tiptoe and pressed her forehead to the horse’s. “Hi, Callisto,” she said softly. “I’m Heather. And I think you just made things a whole lot better for me here.”
• • • •
From that moment on, Heather and Callisto were inseparable. Heather had never ridden a horse before, but Callisto didn’t seem to mind her inexperience. She would stand patiently while Heather clambered up onto her back from the fence. Chester had shown her how to put the saddle on, but Heather preferred the intimacy of riding without it. She loved the feel of Callisto’s warm flanks beneath her and the rich animal smell she left on Heather’s clothes.
Ruth had clearly loved Callisto and spoiled her with treats and attention, a responsibility Heather was happy to assume. The horse shared the pasture with a flock of six sheep, who seemed to be terrified of absolutely everything. They allowed Chester to get close, but they scattered whenever Heather went near them. The noises they made sounded like the voices of angry old men.
The farmhouse itself wasn’t actually as awful as Heather had imagined, but she still spent as little time inside as possible. There was nothing good on TV and her phone wasn’t set up to work overseas. And of course reclusive old Aunt Ruth didn’t have a computer. Heather felt like she’d gone back in time. But because of Callisto, she found that wasn’t so bad after all. By the end of the first week she was hardly even missing her friends back home. Sam and Mia and the others would be stuck at school while Heather had a month-long pass.
While her dad sorted out the legal headache of unloading the house and all its dusty antiques, Heather explored the outside world with Callisto. Occasionally her father went too, walking along beside them. And sometimes they both walked and took turns leading the horse.
But she was by herself the day she found out just how cut off she was from the world that she knew.
Callisto hadn’t wanted to come out of her stall that morning, so Heather walked down to The Shop to see if they sold sugar lumps. Dave and Heather did all their food shopping at a supermarket on the outskirts of town and had never even been inside the little village shop.
The sugar lumps were easy enough to find, but getting a treat for herself proved more difficult.
“Hi,” she said, approaching the ancient lady behind the counter. “Do you have candy bars?”
The woman blinked slowly at her, like a tortoise. She didn’t speak for so long Heather began to wonder if she was deaf.
“Candy?” the woman repeated, dragging out the word as though she’d never heard of such a thing.
Just then, the bell over the door clanged and Heather turned to see three teenagers—two boys and a girl. They were laughing and shoving each other, but they stopped and stared when they noticed the stranger in their midst.
Relieved to see someone her own age, Heather smiled and gave a little wave. She expected one of them to speak first, but all three merely stood where they were, staring at her. The girl had her arms crossed over her chest and looked bored.
Unable to handle the awkward silence, Heather took a brave step closer. “I’m Heather. My dad and I—”
“We know who you are,” said one of the boys. He was tall and gangly, his accent so thick Heather could barely understand him. He nudged his shorter friend, whose blank expression showed he wasn’t up on current events. “They took over the Barton farm, Harry. I told you.”
Heather shifted uncomfortably, not liking the way he had phrased it, as though they’d invaded and conquered the place. “We inherited it actually. It belonged to my dad’s Aunt Ruth. I never even met her.”
“You inherit that horse too?” This time it was the girl who spoke, her voice devoid of inflection.
The tall boy sniggered. “Chloe’s jealous,” he said, earning a black look from her.
“Shut it, Ian,” Chloe growled, glaring at him.
“You could come see her,” Heather offered, eager to keep the peace. But no one responded to her invitation. “You want these or not, love?”
She glanced back at the old woman, who was holding up the box of sugar lumps. Heather hurried back to the counter. “Yes. And a candy bar. Chocolate or something. Anything, really.”
That provoked a giggle from Chloe. Heather affected a laugh as well, assuming the joke involved the idea of her feeding candy to the horse.
The woman rummaged behind the counter and produced a bar of chocolate with an unfamiliar name. She quoted an amount and it took Heather some time to fish through the exotic coins to pay for it.
She turned to go, slightly unnerved to see that the group still hadn’t moved. She wanted to believe they were just awkward around a newcomer, but she was beginning to get a darker vibe from them. She decided to make one last attempt to make friends.
“So . . . what are you all going as for Halloween?” she asked.
Ian blinked. “Going as?”
“Yeah,” Heather said. “Won’t there be a party somewhere? Or trick-or-treating?”
Chloe snorted. “Trick . . . or . . . treating?” She enunciated each word, as though it was the stupidest idea she’d ever heard.
Heather felt herself shrinking, her face burning as she looked down at the ground. “I guess, I just thought . . . I mean . . .”
“I don’t know what you do where you come from,” Ian said, putting on an exaggerated American accent, “but Halloween ain’t some kiddie fun fair.”
Harry was the only one who didn’t seem eager to make fun of her. “We have old customs,” he said without elaborating. “Maybe you think they’re strange.”
“Oh no, I’d never—”
“Or beneath you,” Chloe sneered. “Bet she thinks we’re all just ignorant yokels.”
Heather desperately wanted to leave, to hide her face before the shame made her cry. She decided to keep quiet and let the moment run its course.
“You Americans with your stupid costumes and parties,” Ian said, now making no attempt to conceal his hostility. “What are you going as, Heather? A Disney princess? A unicorn? The Statue of Liberty?” At each insulting suggestion, he gave her a little shove until her back was against a shelf. Something wobbled behind her and fell to the floor with a thud.
Tears were blurring her vision but she refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry. The old woman was clearly not going to intervene and the only way Heather was getting out of the shop was by pushing her way through the awful trio.
“There’s things here you don’t want to see,” Harry said. “Things you have to . . . appease.”
“Don’t warn her,” Ian said. “She don’t care. Her and her rich daddy and her fancy horse, ridin’ round like she owns the place.” He edged closer, getting right in Heather’s face. “She’ll find out, though. When they come through.”
Heather felt like she’d been doused with ice water. She tried not to flinch away, but his cold eyes and colder voice were too intimidating. She couldn’t hold back her tears any longer and she pushed him aside and fled. Their laughter followed her all the way home.
She spent the rest of the afternoon with Callisto in her stall. She threw the chocolate away without eating it.
• • • •
The woods behind the farm were ancient and obviously haunted. Callisto wasn’t normally skittish, but in the woods she often shied at nothing. Nothing visible anyway. Each time Callisto jumped at a shadow, Heather would lean forward, stretching along the length of the horse’s neck, stroking her and murmuring softly until she was calm. Sometimes it felt as though their souls were connected, as though they had a language all their own. She’d heard the term “horse whisperer” before and liked the way it sounded. She couldn’t necessarily whisper to all horses. But this one understood her perfectly. Even her father could see they had a special bond.
The three of them were taking a walk one day when Dave remarked that they could throw one hell of a party in the woods, among the trees. Heather laughed, not wanting to admit that the idea made her uneasy.
There’s things here you don’t want to see.
When she didn’t say anything in response to the suggestion, Dave swooped his hand over the top of her head.
Heather frowned. “Huh? What’d I miss?”
Her dad blinked in astonishment. “Really? Come on, kiddo. You forget the date or something? Sure you didn’t fall off Callisto and hit your head?”
Suddenly she realized he’d been serious about the party. She blushed and lowered her head, stroking the lean, muscular leg of the horse walking beside her. “Oh.” She shrugged. “I just . . . I don’t know anyone here. I’d rather wait until we get home.”
“What? No way! It’ll all be over by then!”
But his enthusiasm only made her feel more uncomfortable and she pressed closer to Callisto, who leaned down to snort a burst of hot air down the back of her hoodie.
Dave sensed her discomfort and drew them all to a halt. “Hang on. I thought you met some of the other kids in the village.”
Heather shrugged again. “Yeah.” She didn’t want to say more, didn’t want to tell him how they’d made fun of her accent and her customs and hinted that something horrible was coming for her.
“That’s not like you,” he persisted. “You’re the one who walks into a room full of strangers and leaves with ten new friends.”
“Maybe back home,” she said. “Here’s it’s just you and me and Callisto.” Seeing concern in his face, she hurriedly added, “But that’s fine. I’m having a great time.”
But Dave didn’t seem convinced. “I know you love the horse, but you’ve always been a pack animal. Are you sure you’re okay? Sure you don’t want a party? We’re going to get quite a lot of money for some of the stuff in the house, you know. We can afford to ‘splash out,’ as they say over here.”
Heather smiled. “You really are the Best Dad in the World, you know?”
He looked down at the ground, embarrassed by her praise.
“But,” she continued, “no party is ever gonna top last year’s. You don’t have to try so hard. I’m okay. Really. We’re both okay now.” She wrapped her arm around him and squeezed, knowing he would take her meaning. He was often guilty of trying to fill the hole left by her mother. And if the past year had taught her anything, it was that he was all she needed.
After a while he nodded, understanding. “If you’re sure,” he said. “We’ll set our sights on next year, then. A Halloween to remember.”
“One for the ages.”
She had successfully quashed the idea of a party, but her father still pressed her about Halloween. It was out of character for her not to be excited about it and planning what to wear, narrowing down costume choices.
“They don’t really do Halloween over here, Dad,” Heather mumbled. She picked at her dinner. Frozen pizza with the thinnest crust they’d ever seen.
But Dave persisted. “Don’t be ridiculous. They had all kinds of stuff at the supermarket.”
Heather shrugged. The supermarket was only two miles from Thorpe Morag, but it might as well have been another country. “I’d rather just hang out and watch TV,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “Save all the real fun for when we’re back home.”
But even the thought of home wasn’t entirely comforting. Because going home meant leaving Callisto behind. Chester had promised to take care of her in Heather’s absence, but that didn’t change the fact that Heather would never see her horse—and she had come to think of Callisto as her horse—again.
Dave didn’t respond. Heather kept her head down, pretending to be absorbed in spreading the sparse toppings around on her pizza. She counted three whole pieces of pepperoni. When the silence began to feel awkward, she finally looked up, only to frown in confusion at her dad’s expression. A cryptic grin had spread across his features.
“Oh kiddo,” he said with a good-natured chuckle. “Don’t you think I know why you’ve been so moody lately?”
She froze with her pizza slice halfway to her mouth. He knew?
Now his chuckle became a full laugh. “Your face! You look like you’ve just seen your own tombstone.” He reached across the table and pushed her pizza slice back down to her plate so he could grasp her hands. “It’s Callisto, isn’t it? You’re upset about leaving her behind.”
Heather relaxed a little, relieved that he’d only guessed half of what was eating at her. The safe half. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m really gonna miss her.”
“Well, maybe you don’t have to miss her at all.”
Her eyes widened as she waited for him to elaborate, too afraid to risk guessing and be wrong.
He didn’t keep her in suspense long. “We’re going to make a lot of money from the farm,” he said. “A lot more than I originally thought. I didn’t want to say anything until I double-checked the figures, and I was going to wait until tomorrow to tell you, but you just seemed so glum. We’ll be able to afford some nice things back home. Like maybe a new house, with a big yard. And . . .”
Heather squealed with excitement and jumped up so fast she knocked her chair over. She ran to her father and threw her arms around him, tears of joy filling her eyes. “Oh my God, I don’t know what to say! Thank you!”
“Happy birthday, Heather.”
She clung to him, unable to hold back the tears any longer. And now she didn’t have to. Those horrible village kids could torment her all they wanted to now and it wouldn’t matter one little bit because Callisto was going home with her!
That night she went out to the stable to share the good news. Callisto tossed her head and pawed the ground, expressing her own excitement at the knowledge that they weren’t going to be separated.
• • • •
October 31st dawned cold and foggy, just like any other day in the damp valley. It was so different from Austin. Back home all the houses would have Halloween decorations up and there would be people already wandering around in costume. Lots of kids at school would be dressed up, as would the coolest of the teachers. Even people at various jobs would be in costume. But here it might as well be any other day of the year.
Heather had taken to riding Callisto through the woods, avoiding the village, and she spent the day among the trees. At one point they encountered a deer, which froze, staring, until Callisto stretched up to nibble the few remaining leaves on a nearby tree. The deer startled and was gone in a flick of her tail.
They had both grown more comfortable in what Heather called The Haunted Woods. She supposed she had the village kids to thank for that. Their nastiness was worse than anything she and Callisto were likely to encounter out here. But she was still bothered by what Harry had said about old customs.
Things you have to . . . appease.
She shook her head to banish the memory. Her favorite holiday could come and go without fanfare, but it didn’t matter because next year she and her dad would throw the most awesome party ever. She’d already decided on Callisto’s costume: she would find a pair of huge white-feathered wings for the horse. The idea of riding Pegasus filled her with joy. She left the woods and returned home feeling as though she and Callisto were already flying. They were having dinner when it happened. Someone was pounding hard on the door and there was the sound of raucous laughter outside. Heather looked at her dad with wide eyes and shook her head, silently urging him not to go.
But he frowned in confusion at her and got up from the table. “It’s probably just trick-or-treaters,” he said.
Heather followed him, feeling like a scared kid and wishing she’d told him the whole story, that Halloween wasn’t about fun here.
We have old customs. Maybe you think they’re strange.
Her father flung open the door and boldly walked out onto the step while Heather hid behind him in the porch. A group of people had gathered in front of the farmhouse, and Heather gasped as she saw what they were wearing. It looked like a gathering of demons.
They were dressed in black robes and masks. Horrible, misshapen things that looked like they’d been put together and painted in the dark. A trio at the back held torches. Not flashlights, but actual flaming torches.
“Hey there,” her dad said, sounding uneasy. “I thought you guys didn’t do Halloween.”
That prompted a chorus of laughter and one man started up a chant. At first Heather thought they were saying “nightmare.” But as others took up the chant, she realized it was just the name of the pub. White Mare.
Dave glanced back at Heather, and his expression of concern worried her. He motioned for her to stay back, and that frightened her even more.
“Listen, fellas,” her dad said, “I’m not sure what this is about, but—”
They wouldn’t let him talk. The crowd shouted him down with their strange chant. Dave stepped back inside and took hold of the door, but one of the robed figures jumped across the threshold and kept him from shutting it.
There was a flash of white among the crowd and the jingle of bells. The figure moved quickly, bobbing and weaving between the revelers. Heather covered her mouth with both hands as she caught a glimpse of it. If the people in black looked like demons, this thing looked like a monster. The head was huge and white, and the jaws made a horrible clacking sound as its mouth opened and closed.
At last it broke through and stood at the entrance. It wasn’t a monster. It was worse.
“White Mare! White Mare!”
A white sheet draped the person holding the awful clacking head. At least Heather hoped there was a person under there. What she’d first taken for a monster was only a skull. A horse’s skull, long and gaunt and grinning horribly. Someone had filled the empty eye sockets with gleaming red baubles.
Her dad shouted over the noise. “Go on! Get out of here!”
But the crowd continued to chant, growing louder and louder. The horse-man capered on the step, dancing in a circle. The skull reared back, its mouth open in silent laughter, before jerking down again and appearing to look straight at Heather. She screamed.
That was when the robed people shoved her father aside and forced their way into the house. The horse-man continued its hellish dancing as it followed, with the others standing aside to let it pass. It “galloped” down the corridor and as soon as it passed, Heather ran to her father and clung to him.
“Make them stop,” she sobbed. “Make them go away!”
Dave held her tight as he edged them both into the nearest room and slammed the door behind them. “Don’t worry, Heather. I’m calling the cops.”
An old rotary dial phone stood on the table in the corner and Dave grabbed it and dialed 911. Then he cursed and hung up, remembering to dial 999 when he tried again.
Heather listened in horror to the shouting and chanting as the group marched through the house. Some of them had musical instruments and began playing, the melodies harsh and discordant. Others sang in high screeching voices. But above the chaos, one sound was clearest of all.
Clack! Clack! Clack!
“Yes, hello? I need the police at the Barton farm in Thorpe Morag. Half the village just broke into my house!”
He was silent for a few moments as he listened to the operator. Then his expression turned incredulous.
“What the hell kind of advice is that? And they’re already in, didn’t you hear me? No, I don’t know anything about any custom but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re trespassing. They scared my daughter half to death. Now send someone out here right—” He broke off and held the phone away from his face, staring at it in shock. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “She hung up.”
Heather bit her lip as the party continued their dancing, singing invasion. The skull clacked out of time with the stamping feet and the chanting voices.
“White Mare! White Mare!”
Clack! Clack! Clack!
“What did she say?” Heather asked.
Dave shook his head. “Something about some local custom. She told me to let them in. I said they were already in!”
She’ll find out, though. When they come through.
Heather eyed the door uneasily, but the sounds were growing faint as the group moved deeper into the house. A shudder ran through her and she hurried to her father’s side. They held each other as they listened.
“Maybe they’ll just go,” Dave said. “It’s probably some Halloween prank. The emergency operator didn’t seem to think it was anything to worry about.”
Heather nodded in hopeful agreement, but she couldn’t stop replaying the conversation with the village kids. Were they here now, dressed like demons and dancing around with the others? She imagined pulling off one of those hideous masks only to find the same face underneath.
She hadn’t wanted to tell her dad about the encounter, but now it was weighing on her. This was all her fault. Because she hadn’t listened to them. In their own nasty way, they’d tried to warn her.
“Daddy? There’s something I have to tell you . . .”
Her face burned with humiliation at the memory, but she managed to tell him the whole story without bursting into tears.
Dave listened without interrupting. And when she was done he wrapped his arms around her tightly. “It’s not your fault, Heather. They’re a bunch of insecure yahoos and they were just trying to scare you.”
“Yeah, well, they did a good job.”
“We’ll be back home soon,” Dave said, his voice calm and reassuring. “Another couple of weeks and we’ll be out of here.”
The party lasted for almost an hour. More than once Dave reacted to the sound of breaking glass and got angrily to his feet. Heather stopped him each time, begging him not to leave her alone.
“If they’ve destroyed anything valuable . . .” But he never finished the threat. What recourse did they have? Sue them? If the police weren’t interested, they’d have no case anyway.
Heather’s fear had given way to exhaustion and she was curled up on the floor when she heard the front door slam. Then all was silent inside. The voices and music and laughter moved like a wave down the drive and out into the night.
“Are they gone?”
Her father went to the door and pressed his ear against it, listening. “I think so.” Then he took a deep breath and turned the knob.
Heather inched toward the doorway, expecting to find the house trashed. They went from room to room, but except for a couple of broken knick-knacks and one picture frame, the place seemed to have been left in one piece, if a little disarranged. They sighed with relief as they moved the furniture back to where it belonged.
Heather stared in dismay at the remains of their interrupted dinner before sweeping it all into the trash. She’d lost her appetite.
Once they’d made sure the doors were locked, they trudged upstairs to bed, hoping sleep would obliterate the awful memory.
• • • •
Heather slept fitfully, dreaming of monstrous figures dancing around her. They jabbed at her with spikes and called her insulting names, putting on exaggerated American accents.
Less all go tricker-treatin’, y’all!
Gimme some caaandy!
She woke with a cry and bolted upright. Sunrise was just beginning to color the sky, turning the curtains a sickly yellow. A gap in the fabric allowed a pale stripe of light to creep across the floor toward the bed like a pointing finger. She felt singled out, accused. The dream had unnerved her, but she also felt nagged by a strange sense of guilt.
She slipped out of bed and padded downstairs in her pajamas. An eerie silence enveloped the house, and she realized that the same silence extended outside. There were no birds singing, no wind rattling the dead leaves, no sound of any kind.
The front door was closed and locked. But Heather still didn’t feel reassured. Something was wrong. She knew it. Something had happened. Then she saw the note. It hadn’t been there last night. Someone must have slipped it under the door while they slept.
She thought of waking her dad, of letting him see it first. But somehow she knew the note was for her. On the folded slip of paper was a single cryptic phrase.
THE WIGHT MARE TAKES WHEN YOU DON’T GIVE
At first she thought the word had been misspelled. But she could still hear the fanatical chanting in her head, and she realized that was what they’d been saying. Whatever it meant, it must be the name of that awful skull creature. The thing you had to appease.
But what were they supposed to give it? Her stomach fluttered with unease, and then swooped in a dizzying plunge.
She didn’t want to open the door, didn’t want to look. But it felt as if she was caught in some terrible ritual, playing a part they had forced on her. Her hand shook as she reached out to turn the key and unlock the door. The handle was like ice beneath her palm. She took a deep breath and threw it open. And when she saw what was waiting for her, she screamed.
Impaled on a spike was a huge bloody mass. In her delirium it took her a moment to realize that it was a horse’s head. Callisto.
It was a long time before she stopped screaming.
• • • •
There was no anger, only despair. Heather felt drained of all emotion. Her father expressed enough fury for both of them, but it made no difference. The solitary policeman who had come to the house shook his head sadly and explained that no crime had been committed. It was a local custom to allow the guisers in and offer them food and drink.
“What the hell are guisers?” Dave demanded. “Like ‘disguise’? They were disguised, all right. We couldn’t tell who was who, but I’m pretty sure it was the whole damn village!”
“There’s nothing I can do, sir,” the young constable said calmly.
When Heather showed him the threatening note, he merely explained that appeasing the Wight Mare was an ancient tradition. It was an honor to don the guise of the spirit horse and perform the ritual. The community went from house to house, the Wight Mare and her demon entourage, where offerings would be made to ensure that the door between worlds would close at dawn. If entry was refused . . .
Heather choked back another sob.
“That’s insane,” Dave said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“This is a very ancient part of the world, sir, with ancient traditions.”
The patronizing tone only further antagonized Dave. “We’re not talking about Druids here! We’re talking about a group of juvenile delinquents who bullied my daughter, broke into my house and then murdered her horse! And for what? Because we didn’t hand out treats?”
His hands clenched on Heather’s shoulders as he spoke and she was reminded of the last time her father had confronted policemen, demanding answers to a mystery that was never to be solved. Sometimes people just disappeared and were never found.
“With all due respect, sir, the term ‘murder’ only applies to a person.” The constable shrugged as he pocketed his notepad and made as if to leave. “I’m sorry, but all I can do is repeat that there has been no crime committed here.”
“Well, that’s not good enough!”
The policeman turned back to Dave, his expression hardening. “It’ll have to be,” he said coldly. “Maybe next time you go to another country you’ll make a note of their customs and be more respectful of them.”
Heather could feel the tension in her father’s hands as he struggled not to lose his cool. She knew his rage was about more than the invasion and what the villagers had done to Callisto. She forced herself to take deep, calming breaths, hoping he would do the same.
Together they watched the constable amble back down the lane and drive away. As one, they turned to look at the shrouded thing sticking out of the ground. Dave had thrown a blanket over it so Heather didn’t have to see it anymore, but the shape was unmistakable.
The body was too large to bury, but Heather insisted they dig a grave for the head. They’d never had a funeral for Heather’s mother because they still refused to admit she was dead. But there was no gray area here, no hope that Callisto might return someday. The finality of it turned Heather’s heart to stone and she stared with dry, empty eyes at the little mound of dirt when the grave was filled in.
• • • •
Ian tried again to slide his hand up under Chloe’s skirt, but she slapped him away. “Get off, perv,” she said, laughing.
“Bloody tease is what you are,” Ian complained, not for the first time. He took a swig from the bottle of lager he’d nicked and peered up into the trees. He could see the moon through the bony limbs, a fiery eye staring down at them. Something about it made him uneasy and he looked away.
Chloe made a pitying face. “Aww, poor thing. Ain’t had enough fun already.”
A grin spread across his features. “Yeah, the other night was brilliant. Only wish I coulda seen her face the next morning.”
Chloe pawed at the bottle and he passed it to her. “Stupid twat,” she sneered. “She totally deserved it.”
Ian laughed, although in truth, he hadn’t enjoyed killing the horse. That had been Chloe’s idea. And Harry hadn’t wanted any part of it, mumbling something about how it wasn’t theirs to take. But it was just some stupid old custom their parents kept alive.
“It’s getting cold,” Ian said. “Let’s go back to your house.”
“Yeah, all right.” Chloe finished the lager and hurled the empty bottle into the woods, where it struck a tree with a satisfying smash. She giggled and staggered to her feet. Then she froze, holding up her hand.
Ian stared at her, still grinning. “What? You about to hurl?”
“Shut up! Listen. I heard something.”
He stood up and cocked his head, listening. “There’s nothing. Just—” His voice trailed away. It couldn’t have been what it sounded like. But one look at Chloe confirmed that she’d heard the same thing. He shook his head. No. There was no way . . .
They’d heard that sound plenty on Halloween, when they’d gleefully joined in the old custom, eager to teach those stupid foreigners a lesson. But now it sounded different. There was the suggestion of something wet as the jaws slapped together. And the smell . . .
They fumbled for each other, clasping hands as they started backing away. The noise was getting louder, coming nearer. And now it was unmistakable. Hoofbeats.
A cloud must have passed across the moon because it was suddenly too dark to see. Chloe held up her cell phone, but the light from the screen did little to penetrate the deepening black.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
Ian didn’t need any convincing. Harry had weirded him out enough with all that talk about how they’d stolen from the Wight Mare, that it would be back. He wanted to believe it was Harry now, just trying to scare them. But there was no faking those sounds. Or that smell. Something was coming toward them through the trees, crunching in the dead, dry leaves. Something that snorted heavily as it got closer.
“Which way do we go?” Ian hissed. “I can’t see a bloody thing!”
Chloe kept her phone up high, shining the light around. “Fuck! I don’t know! Where’s the path?”
“I think it’s—”
He gasped, certain that the light had swept across something.
Chloe whirled around, brandishing the phone. A huge pale shape emerged from the gloom, draped in a ragged, filthy sheet. Light and shadow trembled over the jagged contours, gleaming where the bone showed through the strings of muscle and tendon still adhering to the skull. The huge white teeth seemed to be grinning as the jaws opened and closed, dislodging a clump of soil caked inside.
One eye was gone. The other hung loosely from the socket, milky and deflated, but its gaze was far from blind. It was staring right at them.
Chloe screamed and dropped her phone. The light shone upward from the ground, giving the skull an even more malevolent expression. It jolted Ian from his paralysis. He tried to pull Chloe away, but she seemed rooted to the spot.
Leaves crackled and twigs snapped as unseen hooves pawed the ground. The putrefying skull turned, tilted down toward them, and opened its mouth again.
Chloe shook her head, mumbling desperately. She reached up one trembling hand as if to stroke the long muzzle. Instead, she placed her hand inside the creature’s mouth. The jaws snapped shut on her wrist and the skull jerked violently from side to side, like a dog shaking a toy.
Her screams were terrible. Wild, primal animal sounds. She flailed at the skull with her other hand, trying to pull away. But the creature pushed her down on the ground. She made a sound as if she’d been punched in the stomach, a breathy “Oof!” that might have been funny under other circumstances.
Ian could only stare in horror as something heavy pressed her down, stamping repeatedly. But there was nothing there. Only the floating shroud with the terrible skull emerging from it. Chloe’s screams became guttural croaks as the powerful jaws finally snapped the bone and wrenched her hand away. Blood spurted across Ian’s face but still he couldn’t move.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, lowering his head. He stared at the ground beneath him, where blood was trickling between the dead leaves. Chloe’s hand dropped into the detritus in front of him and he felt his stomach lurch. He couldn’t bear to see any more, so he closed his eyes. “Sorry, sorry, sorry . . .”
Strident neighing broke the silence, but Ian didn’t move. He felt his bladder let go as he sank to his knees, waiting, praying for mercy he knew would not come. When he felt the hooves smash into the back of his neck, he fell forward into the bloodstained leaves. The pain was terrible, but he couldn’t scream. His mouth was too full of earth.
• • • •
“Are you all packed?”
Heather nodded without looking up at her dad. Her suitcases were laid out on the bed and she was ready to go, ready to leave this awful place far behind.
Dave gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll take those out to the car.”
Once he was gone, Heather made her way slowly through the house and stood by the back door, peering out into the garden. The little wooden cross she had placed there lay on its side, and the soil was disturbed, scattered across the ground in a trail that led all the way into the woods.
Heather looked down at her hands, at the jagged, broken nails caked with dirt and dried blood. Beneath her shirt, the horsehair was beginning to itch.
As she made her way to the car, she clicked her teeth together, three times. It felt strangely reassuring.
Spread the word!