Waiting for Anaïs (cont)

Act II

A year had passed, almost exactly to the day, since the goddess of love had visited the Desert Fox.

She dreamed of Anaïs every night, dreams of wavy platinum hair that shone like gunmetal, dreams of gray-green eyes which spoke of untold and silent longings. She dreamed of long hands which reached out to caress, to have, to hold and to keep. She dreamed of that one sharing her bed, sharing her laughter, and promenades on Parisienne walkways. And in her deeper sleeps, she dreamed of dancing all night for Anaïs until she fell back exhausted, and welcomed Anaïs and her hungry tongue.

 And so the dancer ground her way through endless nights of neon, dry ice, itchy eyes and sore feet, waiting for the woman who had carved her name into her heart, and her left arm. The tattoo had been done in a hurry across the road one afternoon and hadn’t been inked properly, and instead of being red the heart was purple. It was speared through not with a Cupid arrow but a female biological symbol. She had never considered her own sexuality to be so elastic, but now it all made perfect sense. Anaïs had unlocked what she really was, what she had always been. It was all so simple, it was magnificent.

 And so she danced and she stripped for the lonely, the bored, the hysterical and the crude, but Anaïs did not return. The nights became weeks, mentally ticked off like 5-bar gates on a prison wall until they melted and dimmed – like her eyes when she raised them to the peering spotlights above her, staring into her, through her, miniature suns which turned supernova inside her head and bounced around on her retinae like fiery pinballs.
 She asked the bar staff, she asked the management; she asked the regulars and she asked the passers-through, but none had seen the platinum blonde, and few could even understand the name; such a strange name, a foreign name, an unusual name. No, they shook their heads as one; they would have remembered that name had they ever heard it before. And no, they would definitely remember a platinum blonde fitting that description.

 The last night, she had decided to wear black leather and her favourite tight crop top, not so tight now as it had once been, slack and lazy much like her silicone implants which barely stirred beneath it now, stern and hard where everything else had begun to wobble a little more than it ought to.

 She knew Anaïs would not come as she twisted idly around the corner pole, but she had to play the game to the end nonetheless, showing her best moves in case she was being watched from a distance, in the crowd disguised, or lurking behind a two-way mirror. After all, it had been exactly a year now, again the run-up to another religious festival she would stubbornly abstain from. In her heart, she knew she wouldn’t make it that far, even if she wanted to. Anaïs had killed her; it was that simple, though far from magnificent. Better to have loved and lost etcetera didn’t even enter into it. Her life was still a broken-down, rusted heap. All Anaïs had done was scrape off one square inch of tarnished blackness and show her a glimmer of gold peeking out from beneath. The love had not died, though it had festered; it had withered, shrunk; it still lingered but skeletal now, stripped bare and teased by its own memories, tormented by its endless thoughts of if only, and forced to watch the midwinter sun recede again over the black horizon.

 The empty shift over, she walked out, out into the night. Snow had come earlier than predicted, a thin carpet which sparkled like an inverted starscape under her feet as the freeze set in. It felt much like the moment, the moment so long ago now,  that had led to this – debating how to end it all that night: razor blades or the full contents of the paracetamol jar? She had spent so long waiting, longing, hungering – it had to end, it had to, now. There was no point, no purpose any more. The one flash of light she had seen in the darkness had long since flickered out. Not even a candle – a burnt-out 99 cent cigarette lighter on its last drop of fuel. She had hung on, she had waited. She had kept her promise, she had done her bit. Anaïs had cursed her – she had been right about that.
 After all, Anaïs could be dead for all she knew, killed by a car on her way to the club the night after they had first met. Who would know? A stranger in town – who would care? Just a Jane Doe on a slab downtown, and another one walking, cavorting, in the bar half a mile back. Dead woman dancing. Heh.

 Then a shape burst out of the sidestreet in front of her, steel-tipped heels ringing out on stone. The shadows unfurled under flickering neon and she staggered to a halt, terrified, disbelieving, ecstatic all at once. A wave of gunmetal hair broke over the black leather coat and the gray-green eyes of Anaïs stared down into her own.

 “Oh…my God. Anaïs? Jesus…You scared the life out of me.”

 Anaïs didn’t move, hands deep in coat pockets. “I thought you said you would wait.”

 “I did…hell, I did, Anaïs, I waited a year. I asked about you every night…I looked for you everywhere. I couldn’t take it any longer. All I wanted was to see you again. That was all. Do you hear me? I waited.”

 Gloved fingers stretched over her head, smoothing back hair, thumb caressing her forehead.

 “You gave up.”

 “No, no I didn’t. I waited. Listen to me.”

 “You ungrateful bitch. I rescued you that night. You were hours away from leaving this world forever. Beer bottle, razor blades, pills – what’s it gonna be?”

 She shook her head, fear gnawing at her nerves, at her gut.

 “How can you know that?”

 “I gave you life.” The tears in Anaïs’ eyes screamed in their pain. “And you – you threw it away. Don’t you understand? The minute you surrendered – you gave up your soul. Your life. Everything.”

 “But I had nothing. All I had was you. All I wanted was you – again – and forever.”

 “So you say. Yet, you couldn’t wait. You promised.”

 “Yeah…okay. But how long was I supposed to wait for you, Anaïs? Ten years? ’til I was forty, fifty?” Scarred with wrinkles and everything sagging, propped up by silicone and surgery – was that really how Anaïs wanted her?

 “That last year you spent in there – I gave you that year. That time was whatever you wanted to make of it. A year to live – or a year to die. The choice was yours. I told you we’re all cursed. Did I place so dreadful a burden upon you in order to break that curse – that twisted thread that brought us together – to just live?

 “That was all I asked for – one year of your time alone, for an eternity together. Was it really such a big – god-damned – commitment?” Her voice wavered with the threat of tears, but the striking woman with the platinum hair was stronger than that. She straightened herself, stood accusing, still seeking answers. “You tasted heaven – and you spat it out.”

 “I don’t understand.”

 “That year I gave you – I’m taking it back. With interest.” The long open razor unfolded in Anaïs’ hand. “I’m sorry.”

 The steel flashed faster than stunned senses could follow, cutting a jagged crescent of crimson across the dancer’s throat. Spots of red rain dappled the other woman’s coat and dropped to make pink petals on the white ground. Clawing hands grabbed at Anaïs’ collar as she sank toward the sparkling white pockmarks of the pavement, snapping fingernails in the thick black leather. As she fell, sucking shocked squeaks of air through the widening, bubbling gap in her neck, she saw Anaïs’ eyes shift colour from gray-green to black, a trick of the light surely. She didn’t understand, she had done nothing wrong. She had waited. She had done what she had been told.

 Anaïs stooped by the body and dragged it off the pavement into the alleyway. She shook the blood from the blade and folded it back out of sight. In the distance, bells rang out to celebrate Christmas Eve, a clamour which sent a shudder through her body.

 She hated this time of year.

 How much longer would she be cursed to walk, seeking just one who could devote herself to her – just one – one who could wait, one who was worthy of her? Once, a nation had bowed its head before her, had sacrificed in her name, held rituals and festivals to appease her.  The goddess of love and rebirth  was also the goddess of death, and where one was lost, she would find the other. It was simply that love – true, unconditional, undying love – had proved impossible to find again since the good ancient days, and death so easy. And in these strange days, nobody wanted to be reborn any more, as though oblivion had itself become a new god, a new paradise to be sought by the weak and terminally unmotivated.

 She wondered, as she wandered, how many more of the old gods – similarly banished to earthly obscurity by the coming of the new – stalked the streets as she did, looking for love, scratching their stubble in front of daytime soaps, seeking disciples in cheap bars. Forgotten, or relegated to the realm of comic books and fantasy films in garish caricatures. Or names stolen for days of the week, months, military aircraft or venomous spiders.

 And as she walked, a dark smile broke on her lips.

 One day, those bells would be silent for ever. And He too would join the ranks of the divinely unemployed.

 One day. If she waited long enough.


Find more fiction from author Chaz Wood at Fenriswulf Books.

Waiting for Anaïs, a Christmas Horror Story by Chaz Wood

The following is Christmas horror fiction from author Chaz Wood, exclusively written for Freethunk.net. Read all the way through to the end and you may be emotionally torn in several different directions.


Act I

 “How much for a private?”

It had been a night like any other night. A night of neon, dry ice, itchy eyes and sore feet. The dancer hadn’t been having the best of luck lately, and the cold, dark nights had begun to weigh her down, as though the receding sun was taking all her hope and enthusiasm away with it. Everything was an effort. For someone who was paid to give pleasure to others, she saw very little of that commodity herself; wasn’t even sure she ever would again. The Christmas rush which accelerated daily in the real world outside only helped to remind her just how empty, meaningless, pointless her life was. Nobody had celebrated her birthday for the past two years – why the hell should she get excited about celebrating someone else’s, someone who may not even have existed?

 She’d worked in Chicago and LA before making the trip to New York, hoping the change of scene would bring changes of fortune. But it didn’t matter – one sleazy blue-collar red-light inferno looked like any other, although few existed with the robust pulchritude of 42nd Street. All the men looked the same everywhere – sightless eyes, gargoyle mouths spewing second-hand and third-rate aphorisms like dirty rainwater. The women looked aloof, sometimes slightly uncomfortable, more often than not clinging too-tightly to the arm of whichever chaperone had led them there.  Now and again, one would even look vaguely interested, and if one happened to look at home, it was even odds that she was in the business herself and checking out the competition.

 It happened that night, a few days short of Christ’s unlikely birthday. It was raining outside and the forecasts had promised snow later on. She’d been glad for her job that evening, grateful for the small mercies, that she wasn’t housed in wet blankets and cardboard like some of the wrecks she’d passed on her way in and would no doubt pass on the way out, as well.

 It had been a long night. She’d had no invitations, no requests. It was late, her calves and thighs were starting to hurt from the relentless plodding which had started off as her usual strut, and had now ended up an unmotivated skiff-skiff across the tables. Maybe her sour attitude was infectious – maybe it reflected on her face just a little too much. Maybe she was too skinny, or putting on a bit too much weight, or a bit too old now for this kind of thing, maybe she just didn’t give a damn any more.

 She had never been born to be a showgirl. Two failed marriages and a string of ill-judged affairs had left her over the proverbial barrel, emotionally and financially. She had been walking home one night in the rain, mentally choosing between razor blades or the full contents of the paracetamol jar as a solution, when she passed the door of the “Desert Fox”. ‘Hostesses/dancers wanted – apply within!’ yelled the notice in the window of the entrance booth. The manager auditioned her, laughed at her attempts to cavort in 5 inch stilettos but hired her as a waitress anyway on account of her 36-inch assets. Within two months, she’d seen enough, and practised enough,  to be able to graduate to the dance floor. And there she stayed. A pantomime life, fuelled by spastic strobe lights and burning spurts of whiskey, but a life at least, until this night.

 As the last group of men at her table laughed among themselves and turned their backs, seeking drinks at the bar, she stopped.

 Kicked her heels on the wood, would have dropped her hands to her hips if she’d had the energy. The lights continued to strobe at the corner of her eye, flickering like an old silent movie about to break down and burn in its projector. So, oiled up skin and wobbling boobs weren’t where it was at for that gang. She knew if she’d ripped her G-string off and opened herself up right there in their faces that they would still have preferred the support of the bar and the dribbling profanities that passed for conversation.

 Or perhaps they just had some taste.

 She felt an uncomfortable itch in her groin, where the sweat and the baby oil mingled under hot black lycra. Longing to scratch it, but knowing if she started, it would only burn and drive her mad for the rest of the night. She’d forgotten to shave again. How wonderful. It would turn into a zit, get infected and burst, and that would be her back to waiting tables topless again for minimum wage until it cleared up.

 The slobs at the bar pulled on Santa Claus hats and got another round in. They were laughing with the barmaid, who was about ten years younger than her and magnificently carefree. Arlene or Darlene or something which rhymed with that; blonde and tanned and trim, not pale and freckled and ginger-haired, nor on the side of thirty which succumbed to gravity too readily.

 It was the night she asked herself that question again: razorblades or paracetamol? She looked at the empty glasses on the table under her, considered breaking one there and then and taking it to the bathroom with her. Nobody would notice, after all. The way that nobody had even noticed that she hadn’t moved a muscle in two minutes. The music was starting to get on her nerves, as though she had never actually noticed it before: Guns ‘n Roses, a band she used to love.

 And then she showed up, on the dirty side of midnight, swishing and striding through the bar like a dark-robed hunter, sweeping all before her with a calm sense of majesty.

 Moving through the crowd with a purpose, head moving in line with a hidden sense, as though homing in on something or someone. She came to the stage, right up to the edge, elbow resting on the rail to physically impose herself upon the dance space, demanding attention, expecting service.

 Her eyes travelled upwards to the dancer’s, dragged her down to that level.

 “Sorry – what did you say?”

 “I said – how much for a private?”

 The accent was strong, maybe European or Southern Hemisphere, though hard to define. Her hair was long and platinum, and shone like gunmetal in the lights. She was dressed in black and wine-red, impeccably in fact, and looked as though she should have been partying on uptown in an Italian restaurant than hanging around a mediocre strip joint. And she had drawn more attention in the past minute, than the previous two hours of bored jiggling had managed.
 “How much? Uh – hang on.” The dancer bent, suddenly invigorated. She pulled herself down to the floor and did fussy, nervous things with her hair. Looked around – Drum, the manager, was nowhere in sight. For a moment, she felt cold panic set in. Could she still handle this – especially such an incongruous, unknown quantity?

 The other woman blinked gray-green eyes under wonderfully thick lashes, waiting.

 “Eighty.” she swallowed a dry lump of fear. “No, let’s say-” she was about to make it fifty – she hadn’t been worth that kind of money for weeks now – but a stack of notes appeared under her nose to silence her.

 “Deal. Put this somewhere safe and lead on.”

 As they walked to the private room, drawing hushed comment and query, the stranger spoke.

 “My name’s Anaïs, by the way.”

 “Interesting name. Never heard it before.”

 “It’s French, dear. Derived from that of the ancient Persian goddess of love, Anahita.”

 “You don’t look ancient, or Persian for that matter.”

 “I’m flattered. But I’m not paying you for compliments, darling. I’m paying for pleasure. Speaking of which-” The door opened at Anaïs’ touch and she stood back, waiting. “The goddess also leant her name to a species of nocturnal, predatory spiders.” she twisted her mouth at one corner. “Well, no-one’s perfect, eh.”

 The dancer hesitated, not knowing how to handle this one. She crossed the floor into the private room, the room it had taken her three weeks to see the inside of after graduating from serving drinks to dancing. Drum liked to keep things low-key, and this one was furnished in soft velvet drapes of mainly mauve and red.

 Anaïs let the door close on them both and strode over to the couch, foregoing the close-up seat at the edge of the circular stage.

 The dancer leant herself against the pole, trying hard to invoke a fraction of the confidence that was seeping from the other woman. “I can definitely only see two legs from here,” she tried, holding back a nervous laugh. Anaïs stretched out slowly, crossing those very artefacts, encased in shiny black leather jeans. A little shrug fluttered across her shoulders. She had paid, now she was anticipating service.

 The other woman wiped the anxious grimace from her face. She could taste sweat on her palm. That zit was beginning to pulse under her skin, like something from An American Werewolf in London. No, Alien. That would be more like it. Some deformed little ugly space bug making a break for it. Hell, right at that moment she wished she could escape from her cold, shivering body as well and flee out into the night.

 “Sorry,  Anaïs. I don’t do this very often. So I apologise if I’m a bit-”

 “No apologies necessary.”

 “My name’s-”

 “Ssh. Don’t say. I like a mystery. Perhaps I’ll find out, one day. Now, please – in your own time.” Spoken with a remarkable lack of impatience, though the hand gesture suggested otherwise, a grandiose sweep in the direction of the dance floor.

 Anxiety tugged at the side of her jaw. She turned to switch on the boom box and adjusted the CD platter. This was personal choice time, so she threw out the cheap disco, the trashy rock, the sleazy lounge jazz and slipped on a homemade disc of Dead Can Dance. It was the music she had learned her moves to in the bedroom, and which she hoped would remind her exactly what she was supposed to be doing here.

 The first track was The Host of Seraphim.  Perfect backing, in fact. Anaïs’ eyes betrayed some recognition, and with a few steps across the floor, the old moves started to fill the dancer’s limbs, gently thawing out the chill which had held her stiff. It only then occurred to her that she was already half naked, and found herself having to improvise around that, but she warmed to the performance, ramping it up from slow and aloof to grinding and intimate.

 The G-string finally made its way to her ankles after the longest tease she had ever performed. Almost hobbling herself in her excitement, she drew herself down to the floor to reclaim her breath, some composure, and gear up for the predictable self-loving, oil-soaked climax. Throughout it all,  Anaïs had sat entranced as though viewing some piece of classical art, chin-stroking and head-twitching with thoughtful calm. As the G-string was kicked up and away,  Anaïs sat back, arms draped across the back of the seat and made full eye contact for the first time that night, her gray-green eyes demanding acknowledgement.

 The dancer arose, slowly enacting the classic birth of Venus, and couldn’t resist a quick glance down to check on the zit-in-waiting. It looked like a boil, it was going to be a bad one. Deciding that Anaïs wouldn’t be thankful for a close-up view of glistening pustulence,  she turned to crawl  away to the pole when a light touch brushed her shoulder. She froze – no touching was Rule No. 1, and that went for anyone, no matter how much they paid or how much they begged. Drum, if nothing else, was a businessman, and called Verboten on anything likely to endanger the smooth and profitable running of that business. His women were dancers, he would say, entertainers; he didn’t employ hookers, and he publicly despised pimps with a loud and colourful repertoire of four-letter epithets.

 “Don’t turn away,” the customer smiled, her words timed perfectly to snake their way around the dancer’s ears as the beat died and the music faded into the whooshing synthesized outro. The touch lifted again, and when she turned, Drum’s least confident entertainer was eye to eye with that serene stare, shades and tones of forest glades and cool autumn sunsets swirling in the irises. They were eyes which did not speak; they sang, melodies arcane littered with timeless truths and ancient secrets. By some clumsy quirk, she had managed to put the music on repeat mode and the track began again, subdued sitars twirling sensations of glory and ecstasy around her tired, tortured mind. A long finger touched itself to her parted, quivering lips.

 “That was entrancing,” Anaïs said. “I don’t need any more.”

 Reluctantly, the dancer pulled herself away and switched off the boom box. The other woman had migrated to the doorway, without making any noise in doing so.

 “Wait for me.” she said. “Please. I know you’re hurting. We are all cursed, in our own way. But it is only through great acts of discipline, sacrifice, and personal strength that we may lift those curses that lie upon us, and bask in true happiness.”

 The dancer was still confused. She scratched at that damn zit and it flared up. She would pop it that night in the bath. It was home time – she’d already earned her right to catch a cab and soak up sandalwood-scented bubbles.

 “What, outside?”

  Anaïs smiled broadly, a smile so enchanting that the dancer longed to see more of it. She wanted to meet  Anaïs later; no, sooner; to share that smile again, drift through those eyes, feel that once-forbidden touch everywhere, for ever.

 But Anaïs shook her head. “Not tonight. I can’t. I must not. I’ll be back, someday – someday, I’ll take you away. Far away from here, and all the hurt and all the fears will fade, forever.”

 She stooped to pick up the G-string, hung it from her finger. “When?”

 “That would be telling.”

 “Well, yes it would. What’s wrong with telling? Thought you were named after the goddess of love. Not tease.”

 “No, dear. That’s your job, isn’t it? And you do it very well. All you have to do is keep on doing it, as best as you can. And I’ll be back to partake of your delights again, and more besides. I promise.”

 “I’ll wait for you. I promise too.”

 And with that,  Anaïs was gone. The wait had begun.

See Act 2 next for the story’s conclusion…

‘Witchfire’ by author Chaz Wood

From writer Chaz Wood comes a small tale to make you cringe on Halloween night. Chaz is owner of Fenris Wulf Books and author of Maranatha,Book 1 in the “Trinity Chronicles” series. He wrote this exclusively for Freethunk in the tradition of classic horror pulp.
‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’

-Exodus, 22:18.  

“I’ve no time for any of that Hallowe’en stuff.”

Jess rebuffed her husband’s insistence with a toss of her hair, effectively ending his hopes for that evening. Pots and dishes clattered noisily into the sink, much louder than was absolutely necessary, as though to put an end to the past half-hour of unsuccessful persuasion to get her to dress up like an idiot and make a fool of herself on the last day of October.

“But everybody else in the street is partying over at the Davidsons’ place,” Harvey objected, making a histrionic plea to the back of her head. “The MacGregors, John and Willie, Old Eddie, Marsha and Vince…” 

The auburn ponytail wagged in silent rejection. Boiling water streamed and pea-green detergent squirmed into the sink. He watched it bubble miserably. It looked as though that chick from the Exorcist had just puked in his best wok. 

“If you want to go, then go.” she finally met his stare with half an eye cast backward over her shoulder, like a pinch of salt to blind the Devil. “No, really.” 

“Nah, forget it. We’re supposed to be a couple, and if I turn up there alone, people will ask. And no mater what I tell them, gossip will start-”
“No, seriously, Harve. I mean it. I’m not going to give you a hard time over it. If anybody asks, just tell them the bloody truth – I’m not into it. Okay? Don’t let me stop you doing anything you want to do.”
He hesitated, unsure how to take this unexpected concession. “Well, what will you do then?”
“Read, watch TV. I don’t know. Look, we don’t have to be joined at the hip, 24/7. This isn’t the Stepford Wives, for Chrissakes.” She touched a warm foamy finger to his cheek. “I’ll even wait up for you…as long as it’s not too late. Just don’t come sneaking in the window in a monster mask to put the shits up me later, okay?” 

“I wouldn’t do that. Well, then, I’d better start getting ready.” 

As he went upstairs to get changed, he knew this concession would require an equal and opposite favour from him in return before too long, but that could take care of itself. He had been looking forward to cutting loose at their new neighbours’ housewarming-cum-Hallowe’en fancy dress evening for two weeks now, and he was determined to enjoy himself. He’d make it up to her when he got home, after all. 

Jess searched across the cable channels for something that didn’t have anything to do with the current silly season, and people dressing up as pirates and devils. Despite being a horror movie fan, she felt stubbornly against the notion tonight and flicked away rapidly from the predictable John Carpenter and Rob Zombie offerings. Some low-key, soft-focus softcore thing about aristocratic ladies and serving men caught her attention, and it was in front of that she curled up on the sofa. It might even help to get her in the mood for Harvey coming back. 

The night unfolded quietly, as she had hoped. In the distance, a few fireworks popped and peppered the sky with rainbow-coloured flak, but that was all. Outside, the street was as quiet as the grave. She made herself a mug of tea and toasted some scones during the commercial break, and settled herself back on the sofa again. The tartan throw was wrapped around her legs, earthing her to comfort and contentment, normality and peace. 

The doorbell buzzed, a harsh, electronic burp across the living room. 

“Go to hell,” she murmured into her tea. Trick-or-treaters of any age or persuasion would find themselves hopelessly out of luck at the Grenville house tonight. Besides, Harvey would be responsible for cleaning off any rotten eggs or whatever from the windows the next morning. 

The bell buzzed again, longer, insistent. The TV light must have been visible through the curtains out on the street, and she cursed herself for not simply having gone to bed with a book instead. 

Jess snapped the TV volume off with a snarl. So, someone wanted to play, did they? She’d give those kids a mouthful they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. She didn’t care whose kids they were, or what this would do for her reputation as a bitch or a killjoy – she was entitled to her peace and quiet, and her opinions, like anybody else in Pinetree Avenue. It was a free country, dammit. 

She stomped to the front hall and grabbed up her husband’s old college ice-hockey stick that stood up in the umbrella stand. Flung the door wide, the stick held just out of sight, to find a middle-aged pair of suits blinking back at her from the top step. A man and a woman, dressed for a Sunday morning at Church, not quite what one expected to find out and about on Halloween. 


“Good evening, madam.” the man said, and actually tipped his hat to her. “I do hope we’re not intruding upon your evening?”
Caught off-guard, Jess dithered. She pushed the stick away against the wall. “Er, no. Well, I mean, I’m not right in the middle of anything if that’s what – ”
“Forgive us, but we were passing by and we couldn’t help but notice that your house is the only one in this block not to be festooned with Hallowe’en decorations.” 

“Uh, really? You know, I never actually noticed. It’s just not my thing. I kind of blank all that stuff out, you know?” 

She tried a smile, but it turned into a flickering tic. She didn’t want to look nervous. She had no right to be nervous, this was her home. Her space. She shifted her weight to the other hip, filled the gap in the doorway with her body. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but what can I do for you?” 

The woman adjusted her gold-framed spectacles, peered a little closer. 

“Would it be of any great inconvenience if we took up perhaps five minutes of your time on this evening?” 

She hadn’t heard a car pull up, so these grays had picked a strange night for a walk. Jess almost felt obliged to entertain them for that reason alone, for braving the painted parade of sniggering middle-class kids and horny teenagers, and for being as persistently uninvolved in the whole commercial Hallowe’en foolishness as she. 

Besides, if they were religious nuts, they might provide more stimulating interest than the imagined preoccupations for the English aristocracy for loutish stable boys with hairy backsides. She always enjoyed arguing with hardcore believers, having been brought up in an agnostic household where all religion had been regularly criticized as one of the worst evils ever to have afflicted humanity. And after all, it was 2010 AD, and her husband was at the other end of a mobile ‘phone, two miles away. What’s the worst that could happen? 

“Okay,” she conceded. “But my husband will be back before long, and we do have plans this evening-”
“Oh, of course, my dear.” the woman agreed, head-nodding as she shuffled past, “We will take up very little of your time. It’s just so rare to find kindred spirits these days – others who refuse to follow fashion and buy into the commercialisation of superstition.” 

She shut the front door and followed them both into the living room. The man was standing agape at the television screen, and the bare breasts and quivering buttocks thereupon. She hastily turned it off, shrugged, didn’t even waste her breath trying to justify herself. Why the hell should she? 

“Please, grab a seat, if you like.” she gestured to the sofa. 

Jess studied them both as they arranged themselves carefully on the cushions, side by side. She wore a lace collar and a floppy silk necktie, fair hair rather fussily arranged. He looked like the proverbial Mr. Average – grey in hair, and grey in face. 

“Thank you, thank you. My name is Mary, by the way, my dear. And this is Matthew.” 

“We shan’t impose for long,” he assured her, “We just thought we could share a few points of view with you, if that was convenient.” 

She spread her arms, indicating openness. “Well, speak your minds. It’s a free country, eh?” 

The woman nodded, removed her spectacles. “You know, it is a strange affliction of modern society that wherever there is a pure notion, there is someone somewhere who sees the chance to make a big fast buck out of it all.”
” Big fast buck.” the man repeated. Jess wanted to laugh at her fleeting mental vision of a steroid-enhanced Bambi on roller skates, but wiped the shadow off her mouth. She had been told she had a sarcastic smile at the best of times. 

“I mean, Easter. A simple tale of death and resurrection becomes a multi-million dollar global market in chocolate and plush toys.” 

“And of course, Christmas.” Jess added, nodding. 

“The obvious sin,” the man said, showing the merest hint of a thought of his own. 

“But, on the other hand,” Jess countered, “Isn’t Christmas just the biggest birthday bash of all time? I mean, that’s what we do to celebrate the births of mere mortals the rest of the year – give presents, mess around, get drunk and get fat. Why not give it large for the man who was supposed to be the son of God?”
“The festivities are one thing,” the woman said. “But the message is forgotten. Everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator – the mighty dollar. The list of zeroes on the bottom line. And then we come down to this night.” she turned aside and wrinkled her face, as though she had just swallowed something indigestible. “The Eve of All Hallows. The night before the feast day of All Saints.” 

Jess leant against the living room wall, unwilling to sit. This pair weren’t proving to be half as entertaining as she had hoped. They had clearly begun to feel the chill while out and about, and had simply fancied a quick heat in the first house that didn’t look as though it would be jumping with half-drunk ghouls and skeletons gyrating to the sounds of Alice Cooper and KISS. 

“Now,” the man went on, “The concept of dressing up – going abroad in disguise – is a very ancient one, of course, and at no other time of year is it more valid than now. When the forces of darkness are at their strongest, and spirits ride free – by wearing strange clothes and masks, ordinary folk may not be recognised by these demons, and therefore keep themselves safe from harm.” 

“Whereas these days it’s just another excuse for a big party, eh?” Jess concluded. “Honestly, I’ve nothing against parties in general. But I like to choose the why and the where, and not just blindly rush along with the crowd.” 

“A bold and individual stance.” The woman chewed thoughtfully on the leg of her spectacles. “And very commendable it is too.” 

“However,” the man went on, commencing the tirade which Jess had been expecting; “Even this concept has been degenerated by heathens. Not content with worshipping the dollar, this pagan dedication to Satan and his minions is tolerated by irresponsible parents the world over. They allow their children to play with darkness and evil, to open the portal to the path to Hell, and they themselves open up their own souls and minds to the infestation of the Prince of Darkness. They go out in disguise not to deflect evil, but to identify with it – to absorb it – to wallow in the blackness which the Lord of Flies has inflicted upon the earth. 

“This is the one night of the year when Satan’s grip is strongest – and what do these fools do? – they play into his hands! Truly, there is no hope for some people. They take on the roles of devils and witches, they gratify themselves with chaos, with vandalism, with threats upon the innocent – they become the agents of evil! How Satan must laugh, and how God and His angels must weep in sorrow.” 

Jess sucked her cheeks with a duck-like cluck. There really wasn’t any rational argument to any of that which would be listened to with any concern for logic or rationality whatsoever. She knew it was all harmless fun, as far removed from the worship of the Devil as Christmas was from the true birth of these people’s Messiah. 

“That’s a very strong opinion,” she said at last, unwilling to deliver the argument he was perhaps expecting. “That’s maybe why I like to keep out of it. It does seem to upset a lot of people.” 

“I knew we would find someone here who understood,” Mary said, not understanding at all. “We were so struck by the – forgive my usage – ordinariness of your house as we were passing by. The lack of grinning pumpkins – the lack of fancy lights, the ridiculous Happy Halloween wreaths and banners. We knew that we had found the one home in this block not to have succumbed to the will of Satan.” 

“I guess I just always saw this one as being more for the kids.” Jess admitted. “I rather grew out of it all when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and started to discover boys instead.” 

Her smile didn’t bring much reciprocation from the other pair. 

“I would assume, then, that you have none of your own?” Mary surmised. 

“No, not yet. Harvey and I both work. The time’s just not been right. But there’s plenty time yet. I’m only twenty-nine, and besides, Harve can be as big a kid at times. Like tonight, he’s off to one of our neighbours, dressed up as a skeleton.” she bit her lip in the ensuing stone-faced silence, feeling uncomfortably awkward. The antique clock on the wall ticked with a suddenly audible thunk. The grey bores had outstayed their welcome. “Well, it’s been an interesting chat, Mary and Matthew. But I have a lot of things to do before Harvey gets back.” 

She stepped towards the sofa, expecting the couple to rise and make their excuses. But they remained seated, still an arm’s length apart, still staring at her like some real-life American Gothic

“So…if you would excuse me?” she beckoned generally to the door. Reluctantly, it seemed, the man arose, and the woman slowly followed him. Jess wanted them out the house, out now; wanted only to run a deep hot bath and relax after that curiously unnerving visitation. She would have preferred getting called a killjoy bitch from some gang of bratty boys looking for free cake and cola; at least she knew where she stood with them. 

As she gladly shepherded Matthew and Mary out into the front hall, she asked; “By the way, I can’t say I’ve seen you around in the neighbourhood before.” 

“No, you wouldn’t have.” Mary replied matter-of-factly. 

“You mean, you just happened to come for a stroll down Pinetree Avenue on Halloween night, to discuss the commercialisation of religious festivals with me?” 

Matthew smiled at her widely, his first show of real emotion since his arrival. “Why not. It’s a free country, yes?”
“Yes.” Jess agreed. “Yes, it certainly is. Well, let me wish you both a very good night.” 

Mary made no move toward the front door, but picked up the previous thread of conversation: “Well, in fact we had other business tonight. Business not entirely concluded.” 

Jess fingered the mobile ‘phone in her jeans pocket. It was always set to speed-dial Harvey’s number, something she was now very grateful for. The silence was stretching. 

“Then please, don’t let me hold you back from your business.” 

Mary said, “We won’t.” 

Matthew reached past her to the door and turned the key. 

“What the hell are you doing?” 

“We don’t want to hurt you, my dear.” Mary assured her gently. “Please, come back inside with us. It’s safer in there.” 

“Unlock my door at once. And get your freaky asses the hell out of my house now, before I call the police.” 

“Please, my dear. We’ve done nothing wrong here. You invited us in to your house voluntarily. We only want to protect you. This won’t last all night.”
“Protect me from what? What isn’t going to last all night? Who the hell are you people?” 

Matthew said, “Did you know, in the Middle Ages, they burned witches and heretics at the stake. It was the judgement of the Lord that the unrepentant be purified by fire and flame. During mass burnings, it was not uncommon for the smell of roasting human fat to carry ten miles or more across the countryside.” 

“That’s not funny.” Jess spat, wishing her lips weren’t quivering as she spoke. 

“Nobody’s laughing.” Mary agreed. 

Jess burst past them back into the living room, aiming for the kitchen, gripped by instinct and fuelled by adrenaline. The contents of the cutlery drawer would succeed where harsh threats had failed. 

“Wait-” Matthew cried after her. She had always expected that Harvey would be with her in such a situation – his ex-sportsman’s physique and speed was a constant comfort. But she was on her own, and she had to do the right thing, first time. She pulled the drawer almost off its rails, the steel inside smashing about as the drawer jerked to the end of its runner. She knew the couple could only be seconds behind her. 

She seized the handle of Harvey’s favourite cleaver – never before had she been so grateful for her husband’s enthusiasm for cooking – and flattened herself against the far wall, beside the ‘fridge, and the telephone. She yanked down the handset and listened to silence flooding into her ear as Matthew appeared in the kitchen doorway, a grey shadow in the lamplight. 

“We’ve cut all of the telephone lines.” the grey man soothed. “It’s better that way. It ensures that the judgement shall be swift, and total.”
“What judgement?” she yelled back at him, cleaver in both hands now. “You take another step towards me, bastard – I swear – I’ll cut your fucking leg off. And your head. And your bitch’s head too, for that matter. Are you listening to me?” 

Mary appeared at the man’s shoulder. “It’s beautiful,” she said softly, “You should come and see.” her fingers wrapped around the man’s shoulder, caressing and kneading as though in a state of subdued arousal. Matthew gestured towards the trembling figure in the corner of the kitchen, but Mary shook her head. “She won’t be any trouble. Will you, my dear?”
“Don’t take another step.” The cleaver flashed, thudded an inch and a half into the leg of the kitchen table. “Or that’ll be your head, next. I’m not joking.” 

“I quite believe she’s capable.” Matthew said to Mary. The woman shrugged, fiddled in her jacket pocket and removed a dull grey rod, extending it past Matthew into the kitchen. 

Jess only stared as the silenced barrel of a Glock-17 opened up in front of her. Normal life and sanity had removed themselves from Pinetree Avenue now. This kind of thing didn’t happen outside of movies and stupid TV cop shows. She struggled to remove the cleaver, then with a cry yanked it free. A muscle or a tendon or something in her shoulder complained sharply, but she ignored it. She scrambled forward, aimed at Matthew’s brown leather-shod foot. 

The Glock spat and the front of Jess’s thigh burst like a tomato, throwing warm red spray up into her face. She twisted and howled, fearing the pain that she knew would – unbelievably – come. The cleaver skittered underneath the table and Mary’s court shoe descended onto her scrabbling fingers, grinding them into the stone tiles. Hands seized clumps of her woollen sweater and she found herself dragged, pulled like a bag of shopping, across the living room. Her head swam. She wanted to be sick, her vision faded to black and back again, galaxies of stars burst inside her eyeballs, threatening to explode through her skull. Something was prodding her in the thigh, something cold and hard, and looking down she saw the blue of her jeans streaked with red. She wondered why it didn’t look real, like so much ketchup. Maybe it was all really just a big Hallowe’en prank on somebody’s part. If this was Harvey’s idea, then he’d better brace himself for an industrial strength smack in the face when it was all over, and get used to doing nothing without her, ever again. 

She was dropped by the far wall, underneath the main window, eager feet shuffling around her. 

“Oh yes,” Matthew sang above, “I see what you mean. It is beautiful. Oh, Mary…what a sight.” 

Jess tried to push herself up from the floor. Her hands skidded over blood, saliva, tears, sweat. Her thigh burned now, hotter and hotter, and she fancied she could even smell smoke and fire. She groaned, found the energy to slap a hand up on the windowledge and push herself to her knees. 

“Look, my dear.” Mary whispered in her ear. “Please, look here.” 

They pulled her to her feet and rested her against the window, which looked down along the length of Pinetree Avenue. In the distance, someone was having a huge bonfire. The sky itself was alight, the air thick now with the scent of smoke and an unpleasant, greasy tang, like a bad barbecue. It prickled at the back of her throat, making her gag. She tasted vomit, swallowed bile. Her cheeks glistened with tears. 

“What luck to find so many, all gathered in one place.” Matthew smiled, eyes dancing with the flames. 

“So many?” Jess gurgled. “So many what?” 

“Witches.” Mary replied. “What else?” 

Jess blinked, tried hard to reassemble her thoughts into some semblance of coherence, to grab back the receding coat-tail of reality. To awaken from this stupid god-damned nightmare. 

Everybody else in the street is partying over at the Davidsons’ place. 


Matthew stepped over the shuddering, bleeding mess at his feet while Mary continued to watch the conflagration of heretical souls from the window. He removed a cellphone from his pocket and dialled a number. 

“I need to leave a message for the Archbishop. Pinetree Avenue has been cleansed. Yes, this is Matthew. Matthew Hopkins.”