One of the morgue's corpses is missing.
Your friend wants to meet late at night, but they're not acting like themselves.
Immerse yourself in the macabre, the gothic, and the chilling with this collection of fifty short stories.
Release date: December 4, 2016
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 366
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Small Horrors: A Collection of Fifty Creepy Stories
The Dog’s Grave Digger
Rick swerved a fraction of a second too late. His car’s tires screamed, leaving black tracks on the asphalt. Then there was a muffled thump. Rick felt a jolt move through his body, and the car rocked to a halt.
For a moment, Rick didn’t dare do anything except breathe. Then he swore, loudly, and threw open the door. His car’s high beams sliced through the night darkness, leaving trails of pale gold on the road. The markings from his tires spread out in a lazy loop, starting where he’d first seen the dog and ending three feet too late.
Rick knelt beside his car and looked over the result of his accident. The lumpy, bloody clump of fur was definitely dead and was barely recognisable as a dog. The impact must have killed it instantly. Thank goodness for small blessings. Rick grimaced and felt around its neck, but it didn’t have a collar.
A stray, then? It does look thin.
Something about its nose, though, made him think it was a purebred. It might have been a stray when he’d hit it—he suspected it was because there weren’t any houses for a twenty-minute drive in each direction—but it had probably been someone’s pet at one time.
Rick swore again and pulled off his jacket. He’d lost a dog of his own when he was a child. The driver hadn’t even stopped. The inhumanity had cut him deeply, and even twenty years later, he couldn’t imagine leaving the animal on the side of the road. If it had belonged to a child, that child would want his pet treated respectfully.
The body mostly hung together, though one of the legs was only attached by a strip of flesh and a few muscles. Rick shrugged out of his jacket—good thing I’m wearing the cheap one tonight—and wrapped it around the dog, then carefully lifted the bundle into the passenger seat.
He returned to the driver’s seat and hesitated as he tried to decide what to do with the animal. He could take it to a vet and hope they disposed of it kindly. Or he could take it home and bury it in his backyard. Or…
Rick put the car into gear, a smile growing across his face as he remembered what he had stored in the trunk. He’d bought a full set of gardening equipment the week before and hadn’t gotten around to moving it out of his car. In amongst the shears, spades, and gloves was a shovel. And surrounding him was a forest.
Yes, a burial in the woods, where its body will nurture the trees. It’s the best thing to do.
Rick drove until he found a gap in the trees wide enough for him to manoeuvre the car into. He drove past it then reversed, so that the back of the car would be facing the woods. He was able to get the car about twenty paces into the forest before it became too thick for him to continue. It wasn’t quite far enough to disguise his car if a wayward driver happened to look in his direction, but at least it was more private than leaving his vehicle on the road. He hoped no one would see him. Goodness knew what a passer-by might think if they saw a lone man digging a hole in the woods at a quarter past midnight.
Rick turned off the car, smothering the headlights. The moon was full and bright, and the trees were sparse enough to let plenty of natural illumination through. The fallen pine needles crunched under his feet as he rounded his car and opened the boot. Inside were the tools lying on a tarpaulin. He took the shovel, walked ten paces to a clear patch of ground, and started digging.
The dirt was tightly packed, but not as bad as he’d been expecting. Even so, it was exhausting work, and he started sweating before the hole was deeper than his arm.
It’s got to be deep enough, he thought, so the wild animals can’t smell it and dig it out.
The air was frosty, and his breath plumed in front of his face every time he exhaled. He knew his fingers would have become numb if the exercise hadn’t been pumping blood through them so quickly.
A car came down the road, and Rick froze. The vehicle was travelling quickly, though, and passed Rick’s hiding place without slowing down.
The rural road was rarely travelled, even during the day. Rick hadn’t passed any cars during the last ten minutes of his drive, so he didn’t expect to be disturbed again.
He dug until the sweat stained the underarms and back of his T-shirt and stuck his dark hair to his forehead. He’d made a good hole, a little larger than the dog would need and deep enough that the bones wouldn’t come up for a long time. Everyone deserves peace.
Panting, his limbs trembling from the exertion, Rick climbed out of the hole and turned back to the car. Instead of going to the jacket-wrapped bundle in the passenger seat, he went to the boot and pushed the tools off the tarpaulin. Then he grabbed the corner of the blue material and pulled it out of the boot, straining against the weight. Dead weight. He chuckled to himself as he hauled his baggage towards the hole.
She’d go in with the tarpaulin, of course. A little extra insurance to protect her from being dug up. The tarpaulin couldn’t be traced back to him; he’d bought it two states away at the same time as the tools—a complete set, to ensure there was no suspicion—and paid with cash. As far as anyone knew, the last time he’d seen his wife was that morning, when she’d kissed him on the cheek and left for work. Her car would be found abandoned at the train station the following day.
Rick gave the bundle a final shove and watched it tumble into the hole. Then he returned to the passenger seat of the car and drew the dog out with significantly more care. The dog had never cheated on him. The dog had never lied to him. In all likelihood, the dog had never even had a malicious thought. He knelt on the edge of the grave and laid the animal’s body on top of his wife’s, then he set to pouring the mound of dirt over the pair of them.
We all need rest.
Karla used an oar to push off from the shore. The canoe rocked as it swept past the rushes clustered around the lake’s border and entered the clear water. The icy-cold wind snapped at her exposed skin, but the jacket she’d brought protected her from the worst of the chill.
Night creatures wailed mournfully from the forests bordering the lake, but their calls became increasingly remote as Karla steered her canoe towards the lake’s centre. The moon wasn’t quite full, but it was close, and the lights created odd ripples across the water where her paddle disturbed its surface.
Once she was far enough into the lake that the cabin’s lights were a faint glow, Karla pulled her oar back into the boat. The canoe continued to roll in the tiny waves she’d created, but it gradually stilled. The air was calm, and in the distance, the water was still enough to act as a mirror for the sky. Its surface was dotted with thousands of stars. It had been years since Karla had visited the remote lake, and she was always astounded at how clear the night was without light pollution or smog clouding it.
She folded her hands in her lap, closed her, eyes, and began to hum. The tune brought back a rush of memories from her childhood. She and her friends had sung it every time they’d gone on the lake, and she found it easy to remember their faces: Clarice, Peta, and Mary, beaming, laughing and splashing water at each other. It’s been so long since I last saw them, last spoke to them. Time slips by faster with each passing year.
From what she’d heard, no one went on the lake anymore. She’d even passed some aged warning signs on the way to the cabin. The water wasn’t safe to swim in, the signs insisted.
Not that a sign was enough to deter Karla. Her family had virtually lived on the lake when she was a child; some government official who had probably never camped under the open night sky had no right to tell her where she could and couldn’t tread.
She closed her eyes as she continued the mournful tune. The boat had been drifting while she sat, and the forest’s noises were now inaudible under the gentle lapping and her hums.
Something scratched on the boat’s underside. It was so faint that Karla almost didn’t hear it. She snapped her eyes open and looked across the lake. Everything was still.
Probably a fish.
She resumed the tune and leaned back. The air still felt cold, but she was slowly adjusting to it. She knew her fingers would be numb by the end of an hour, but she didn’t intend to stay on the lake for that long.
The brushing noise repeated. Karla didn’t move, but her eyes snapped towards the boat’s hull, to the section of wood that separated her from the creature below. The noise had been too loud and too drawn-out to be a fish—unless it was a very large, very slow fish.
Karla wet her lips. She glanced behind herself towards the shore, where the cabin lights glittered in the dark. She was the only one on the lake that week. With the water off-limits, holidaying families had moved on to more inviting camps.
The sound came once again, only this time it was accompanied by a scraping. It sounded like long, dull claws drawing across the boat’s hull.
Karla’s breathing was shallow. Sweat broke out across her already-cold skin. She wanted to pull her legs off the wooden base, but instead, she reached for the oar. She raised it too quickly; one end bumped the boat’s side.
She froze, her heart throbbing against her ribs, knuckles white on the oar’s wooden handle. There was perfect silence for a second—a quiet so deep and so vast that Karla’s ears rang with it—then a solid thud shook the canoe. Her knock had been answered.
There was no one to hear her scream, even if she’d had enough moisture in her mouth to make a noise. Karla dunked the oar over the canoe’s side and dragged it through the water. She managed two strokes towards land before the paddle was seized.
Karla gasped and tried to tug it free. She was able to pull it partway out of the water before the pressure increased, dragging it from her hands and sweeping it deep into the lake, where it would likely never be recovered.
Without the oar, she was stranded in the lake’s centre. Karla twisted in her seat, her eyes straining to see movement through the dark. There! Water to her left rippled as something moved through it. The shape disappeared as it drew closer, and then a slow, horrific scraping sound ran along the underside of the boat, starting at one side, drawing below Karla with agonizing slowness, and ending on her other side. Ripples disturbed the mirror-like water.
She wanted to squeeze her eyes closed and clamp her hands over her ears to block out the sound, but she knew doing that would be suicide. She hunkered low in the canoe, hands resting on the clutter of shapes in its base, as shivers ran through her.
The world was quiet and still. Karla’s breath plumed with every exhale, and her heart continued to thunder, but everything else was perfectly calm. She could almost think she’d imagined the whole thing.
Then the unseen visitor hit the boat hard enough that Karla would have been thrown over if she’d been standing. She exhaled a grunt as she hit the wooden side. The boat twirled like a leaf in the water. Another bump came from the other side, sending her careening in the opposite direction. Karla tightened her hands on the wood below her to keep her seat. The visitor was trying to throw her out of the canoe, and she clung on with every ounce of strength she possessed. The idea of being cast into the ink-black lake, her legs kicking feverishly as she fought to reach land, a waiting morsel for the unseen visitor, made her heart freeze.
The boat spiralled wildly, twirling in place, then was snapped to a halt. Karla blinked back tears as she searched the rolling water for the eyes she knew were about to appear.
The creature rose out of the lake. It was perfectly silent except for the water dripping off its misshapen form. The eyes—hundreds of them, all human, scattered erratically over its pulsing, off-grey hide—swivelled to look at her.
She thought she recognised a pair. Child-sized, the exact shade of blue that Clarice had possessed, bulging in the same way Clarice’s had in those last moments.
They had thought they were being brave by leaving camp in the middle of the night. Their parents had been asleep, and they were eager to reach the opposite shore and explore the woods before going home. Peta’s oar had been pulled out of her hands as they neared the lake’s centre. Confused, she’d leaned over the boat’s edge to peer into the water. She’d been pulled in.
Then came the scraping and the rocking. Mary had tried to stand and toppled over the edge. Clarice and Karla had clung to each other in the boat’s base as the bulging-eyed creature rose out of the water, reached forward, plucked Karla’s friend out of her arms—
At first, she hadn’t known why she had been spared that night. It was only during the following years that a sense of purpose had come over her.
Karla’s fingers tightened around the wood in her hands. She lifted the harpoon, a decade of practice and the throbbing adrenaline making the barbed spear seem to weigh nothing, and turned to face the visitor. Hundreds of eyes from countless lost souls stared at her, lidless and unblinking, and Karla stepped forward to claim her revenge.
I should’ve come earlier in the day.
Jack took his hands out of his leather jacket pockets and rubbed them together. The towering abandoned apartment building was shrouded in shadows at that late hour, and it was impossible to see through the windows on the sixth floor.
He turned to look at the building across the street. Hutchison and Proud, Attorneys at Law. The noble name belied a fundamentally seedy business that barely scraped by in the slummy downtown suburb. But his girlfriend, Cammi, worked there as a secretary.
Jack turned back to the abandoned apartments. The front door was boarded over. He knew there would be other ways to get in—broken windows and ledges and doors without locks—but the thin plywood was rotting from age and had fractured with a solid kick. It felt good to break something. Cammi had been upset for weeks about what she saw through the sixth-floor windows, and her constant crying had built a tension in Jack that could only be solved through violence.
Inside, the foyer was full of dust and long-abandoned cobwebs. A scrabbling sound came through one of the gaping black doorways. A rat, probably. Jack rubbed the back of his hand across his nose and glowered at the dark area.
The building had been vacant for more than ten years. It was in such bad disrepair that Cammi claimed it would be cheaper to knock it down and build a new building than to renovate it. But the downtown suburb already had too much housing for its dwindling population. Whoever owned the apartments must have given them up as a lost cause.
Broken glass, tiles, and dusty plaster coated the staircase and scraped under Jack’s shoes as he climbed. His footsteps rang through the space, echoing eerily back at him from a dozen directions and blending in with his laboured breathing. He’d been unemployed too long, he decided. The flab from too many beers and days spent in front of the television was setting in, and his heart had to work harder to lift him up the stairwell.
He repeated Cammi’s words under his breath as he counted the floors. “In the window opposite my office.” That would mean the sixth floor, near the building’s corner. “He just stands there and stares at me all day.”
He won’t after this. Jack squeezed his fingers into fists. He would teach the creep a lesson. It didn’t matter if it was a drugged-out hobo, a runaway teen, or just a run-of-the-mill pervert. If they didn’t swear to stay away from the window, he would tip them over the sill and let them smack into the concrete sidewalk. The police wouldn’t care. Deaths were common in the area, and unless they were blatant murders or easy to solve, they were mostly swept under the rug.
The stairwell opened onto the sixth floor, and Jack paused to catch his breath. The empty hallway stretched ahead of him, sad and decaying. Half the rooms were missing doors, and wan dying sunlight came through them. The whole area smelt of urine, rot, and sickening organic decay. He sniffed, rubbed at his nose again, then set out down the hallway, counting the rooms as he passed them.
It’ll be one of the windows furthest along. Second or third from the corner room, probably. That would look directly out at Cammi’s window.
He peered into each room. A couple still held furniture, though they were so badly damaged that they would be worthless. Rat droppings were thick on the ground. One room showed signs of being lived in within the last few years, but dust clung to the mattress, suggesting the owner had moved on some time ago.
At last, at the hallway’s second-last room, Jack found he was no longer alone. A figure, tall and thin, was silhouetted against the light. Standing at the window, he stared out at the street below.
Jack’s heart raced, but he drew in a breath to spread his chest. He placed a hand on each side of the doorway, blocking the stranger’s escape, and bellowed, “Oy!”
The figure didn’t reply and didn’t move. Something about it struck Jack as unnatural. No human could keep that still; it wasn’t even breathing. He held his pose in the doorway for a moment, watching it, then cautiously stepped into the room.
As soon as he got the light out from behind the figure, it became clear. The shock and relief caused a laughing fit, and Jack doubled over as he hacked in breaths and drew a shaking hand through his hair. It was just a mannequin.
Jack moved up to it and poked the cold porcelain skin as his chuckles gradually subsided. “Jeeze, buddy, you’ve been terrorizing my girl for weeks.”
He pulled his mobile out, took a photo of the figure, and sent it to Cammi with the caption, “Found the creep opposite your window. He’s a real dummy!”
It was a good pun, Jack thought as he turned towards the window and stared at Cammi’s workplace. He could barely see the little cactus she kept at her window. She’d been right; the figure was almost perfectly opposite. He wondered idly if someone had left the mannequin as a prank or if it had just been abandoned like the other furniture.
His phone buzzed with a reply message. “What the hell? Did you actually go there?” quickly followed by, “You promised you wouldn’t. It’s not safe.” The phone buzzed a third time. “And that’s not the window guy. He doesn’t just stand still. Sometimes he paces.”
Jack frowned at the final message then drew a sharp breath as a hand landed on his shoulder.
Meaghan sat in the plush armchair beside the window and watched the streets. A number of figures had passed within the last half hour. They’d moved out of and faded back into the mist like phantoms, never lingering. Even though the street was empty, she didn’t dare relax.
Seeing her town so quiet was surreal. There were no more dogs left to bark. No car horns blared. None of her neighbours argued or started their lawnmowers, even though it was Sunday morning. At least, she thought it was Sunday morning. She was starting to lose track.
Taj approached from behind. He’d shed his shoes in favour of layered socks, and she wasn’t aware of him until he leant over her shoulder and passed her a note.
Is it safe to open a tin?
Meaghan slipped a pen out of her pocket and carefully wrote back, I think so. Haven’t seen any for a few minutes.
Taj nodded and returned to the kitchen, his padded feet making no more noise than Meaghan’s heartbeat. That was important. In this new world, the world of the Sightless, noise equalled death.
No one was completely sure where they’d come from. The earliest news reports—the ones that had made it through before the media blackout—said they’d poured out of mines that had gone too deep. A few people called them aliens, though that was an unpopular phrase, as they’d come from inside earth. Others called them demons, but they had very little in common with the demons Meghan had been raised to believe in. Meaghan and her two companions, Taj and Lisa, called them Sightless.
They couldn’t see, and they couldn’t smell, though they somehow seemed quite comfortable navigating the suburban neighbourhood. The only way they could find their prey—humans—was through sound.
Meaghan didn’t know how many people were still alive in her street. Possibly none. Before the media blackout—before the creatures had rushed through her town like a deadly wave—there had been stories of entire cities being overrun. She hadn’t seen any of her neighbours for more than a day.
She was lucky, she knew. Her parents had been preppers. That hadn’t saved them from the Sightless… but at least it had ensured Meaghan’s pantry was filled with tins of long-life food and five-litre jugs of water. It was enough to keep herself, Taj, and Lisa alive for a few weeks, at least.
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