by Logan Noble
It’s Halloween night and the dark is closing in. I take my pills and finish my coffee. Bennett, my dutiful fiancée, is waiting for me in the kitchen. She’s smiling and dressed in a grey jacket and pumpkin orange pants. She’s a beautiful woman, and I’m lucky to have her.
She holds up a flashlight. “You’d better take one too.”
I shrug. “Why? It’s not even dark yet.”
She makes a face and motions toward the far window. Past the dandelion curtains and the smudged glass, it’s dusk. I see the silhouettes of trees and shadows forming. I have time for one thought: where has the day gone?
I wave her off. “No flashlight. It’s…it’s just barely dark. Besides, I know these woods. And you have a flashlight and I’m sticking with you.”
She raises one sculpted eyebrow in a facial tick that carries more meaning than I’m comfortable with. She’s a beautiful woman, but sometimes she can be cruel.
We get ready in silence. I turn off the TV, pausing only to catch the last snippets of the news—and she searches through kitchen drawers as if she’s lost something. I used to ask her what she was always looking for, but questions like that set her off. She’s very specific about her things. She says it stems from her childhood; I don’t ask her about that either.
The night air is bitter cold. Our patio is decorated with jack-o-lanterns and ghost-shaped string lights that Bennett had hung above the door. We take the stairs down and step onto the carapace bed of leaves that are spread across the lawn. I’ve been meaning to rake them up. Even though I work from home, I somehow lose all my hours. By the time I find the energy, the autumn daylight is already gone.
Bennett is talking. “…the grandmother dies at that point, but it’s the perfect end for the second act. It’s the perfect Halloween movie. So much death.”
“Right,” I say, all context lost on me, “because it drives the protagonist into his growth.”
When Bennett talks about movies, she throws her hands around like a theater major. “Yes! Exactly! You’ve seen that movie, right? Wolves at the Door?”
We watch a lot of movies together, especially in the thirty days leading up to Halloween. I don’t always pay attention when she plucks something from the streaming algorithm. I rack my brain and consider lying but decide against it.
“No, actually. Lucky guess about the second act.”
“Well, you’re not lucky because you haven’t seen it.”
As we near the edge of the lawn, we pass the trampoline. It’s rusted and bent now, the bouncy material eaten away by decades of rain, snow, and sun. I spent so many hours on it as a kid. So many hours. So many—
Bennett’s phone dings, and she turns away to respond to a text. She always hides her phone from me, but I try to not let it bother me. She has her own life, her own friends. She’s texting and enjoying them, enjoying life. She types out a response, and the phone goes away. We’ve paused at the edge of the forest. The trail ahead of us is clear, even with the impending dark and autumn debris from the trees above.
“It’s a Hankin film, so you know that it will be dense. It’s from the early part of his career, back before he drank himself nearly to death and then put a shotgun in his mouth. I saw the pictures of his suicide. His head was just a burst balloon. Skull, brains, and some more brains.”
She’s waving her hands again. I’m not sure if she realizes how morbid she’s being.
“Anyway…Wolves at the Door is about a family. At least, superficially. The mother and father work hard, and the kids go about their lives in this small town that feels familiar because everyone from America is from a small town, even the ones that aren’t.”
Bennett stomps down the trail, and I scurry after her. She talks about Wolves at the Door as if I’ve seen it. She talks about this director (Hanklin? Hackin?) as if I’m familiar with his work. Truthfully, I’ve never heard of him. I conjure a mental image, though; an ancient man in a suitcoat with two caterpillar eyebrows. He has a massive nose and is stained tan by the sun. This conjured director looks like my father, though my father never dressed as nice as this fellow. My father was an alcoholic garbage man. He owned one suit and wore it to weddings and funerals interchangeably.
“…of course, the ship is a symbol of the father’s manhood, a reminder of the frustrations and failures of his life. He has a dream where he’s being hung, and it’s only a symbol. That’s how Hanklin eventually went out you know. He hung himself in a forest, the same forest he spent time in as a kid. They saw his eyes were bulging out and that his son sobbed when he saw him and that—”
“Bennett!” I yell, only to stop the avalanche of words coming from her mouth. Her ramblings confuse me. The director hung himself. Or shot himself?
She turns around. It’s much darker now. Under the cover of the branches, everything is too long and too dark. Bennett is a small woman, but even she is looming. I can’t see her face.
“Are you following me?” Bennett’s tone is accusatory. Antagonistic.
The question confuses me. “What? No! We’re on our nightly walk. In the woods. Outside my house.”
She shifts on her feet. “Fine. Just keep up.”
She turns and strides down the trail. She’s acting strange tonight. Way too strange.
I follow, losing sight of her as she ducks into an overgrown section. I also duck down until I get beneath the low branches, but when I stand up, Bennett is nowhere to be seen. I scan the area as I walk, small inklings of fear blossoming within me. The trail is narrow here and hard to discern once it gets dark. The trees grow together, and the thickets create a wall of twisted thorns.
I should have gotten a flashlight. I consider turning around, but with the way Bennett is behaving, I have no interest in proving her right. I quicken my pace, glaring into the gloom. Where is she? She couldn’t have gone off the trail, not here at least. I follow the next bend, expecting to see her impatiently waiting. I’m greeted by empty trail and exhale shakily. I feel a panic attack coming on, tightening my chest and throat. I remind myself that there’s no reason to panic. No reason—
Bennett’s voice comes over my shoulder, but when I spin around, I’m greeted by bare forest.
“Wolves at the Door is a return to form for your father. To think that he’d quit his job as a garbage man to make films again—I think that’s pretty impressive if you ask me but since you didn’t ask me, I won’t tell you anything else.”
“My father’s dead,” I whisper, but Bennett isn’t there. In the spot where her voice is coming from, two glowing eyes have appeared. They are large and deep, and I instinctively know they belong to a wolf.
There are wolves in these woods, and you never speak to them. Fatherly advice that I never received.
From that spot, the wolf speaks. “Bit lost aren’t you, kid?”
I nod. The wolf’s voice is familiar. I trust it, even though I know I shouldn’t.
“Follow me, kid. I got something to show you before I take you home.”
I smell cheap leather and cigarette smoke. The air is filled with it. The eyes blink and turn away, followed by the sound of the thicket breaking. I step off the trail and into the brush.
I follow the wolf, doing my best not to cry out as thorns and skeletal branches dig at my flesh. I push through them, keeping my eyes on the indistinct form ahead of me. Every once in a while, the eyes look back to check on me, and I picture a yellowed human smile beneath the golden orbs.
We eventually crash into a clearing. Some starlight shows the details. There is a wooden dwelling, bent and nearly collapsed. Light flickers from its open windows. I recognize it, but I don’t know why. I’ve never seen it. Or—
The wolf with the familiar voice is gone. I push open the door and am greeted by a flickering television and dandelion wallpaper on warped walls. A man sits at the table. It’s Hanklin, dressed in a tweed suit; he has a goatee. He looks up at me expectantly. The director looks just like my father: same red cheeks, same vanishing hairline. Hanklin leans on the card table in front of him and motions to the empty chair on the other side. On the TV, a black and white movie is playing. The POV is from someone fleeing through dark woods. Nooses sway in the trees. Wolves’ eyes glow from the spaces between the tree trunks.
I sit down across from him. Bennett’s phone—I recognize the dandelion graphic on the case—is face-down on the table before him. When he speaks, his voice is accented with my father’s Georgia drawl.
“Did the wolf touch you?”
I shake my head; the question is confusing. “No. He just led me here. Nothing else happened.”
Hanklin nods and watches more of the movie play out. “I made this picture at a bad time in my life. Do you remember?”
I do remember. I remember waiting for him to come home, waiting for Mom to come back from wherever she’d vanished the year prior. I remember being terrified of the dark, sleeping on the couch with every light in the house blaring. I remember him coming home, reeking of cigarette smoke and cheap whiskey. He’d wake me up and show me yellowed teeth harbored in an inhuman smile.
“I never forgot about the war. I never forgot what it was like to watch people die, to witness the end of humanity at the end of so much violence. Coming back to the states as a young man felt wrong. I’d left the jungle to come home, but home no longer existed.”
On the screen, a mother is sitting at a table. Bennett is the mother, but her face is obscured in noir-like shadows. The contrast is glaring. She’s serving mashed potatoes from a bowl that never empties. The light shifts on screen—the father is home—and Bennett stares at the camera, her face twisted with contempt.
I look away with Hanklin leaning forward.
“What do you need to tell to me, boy?”
I feel small. I feel afraid. When I finally find my words, my voice shakes. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill yourself?”
Hanklin shrugs. “I saw the future. I saw the wolves at the door, and I knew they would be there until the actual date of my death. I also suspected I had some sorta cancer, though you’d never catch me on a doctor’s butcher table. And your mother went off to make movies, so it was just you and me.”
I blink away tears. My father died when I was in college. Not at home. And my mother didn’t go off to make movies. Or, at least, I told myself these lies at some point.
When I look at Hanklin again, I catch movement in the far corner. Something is uncoiling. I squint at it as it forms further, elongating and suddenly dropping. It’s a makeshift noose, made of orange electric cord. I try to warn Hanklin, but it’s too late for that. The noose is coming for him, adjusting for the length of his neck.
I leap up out of my chair, sending it to the floor. The noose lowers in front of the director, who notices nothing.
“I wish I had told you. Told you I knew what really happened,” Hanklin says, and Bennett’s phone dings.
The noose suddenly rips tight, jerking Hanklin away. The unholy force of the cord pulling upward makes his eyes bulge and his face flash crimson. He chokes out a howl and the TV snaps to violent static. The noose reels into the ceiling corner and Hanklin thrashes, his work boots kicking at empty air…
I flee into the night, fear turning my blood to accelerant. Everything is pitch dark, but my internal compass drew me forward. I clear the thicket and crash onto the regular path, blood running from my forehead and down my arms.
I find my feet again just as the forest changed. Moonlight half-lights the path. Electric cord nooses hang by the dozens from the skeletal branches and the foreboding pines. I run between them, screaming Bennett’s name, screaming my mother’s name, screaming my father’s name. The nooses drift toward me, each silent threat grasping at my sweaty neck. Nooses come down from thin air, and I swat at them, the hard cords snapping at my flesh.
I duck under the branches at the turning point, panting like a wolf. In the home stretch now. My house lies at the end of this straightaway. I take the path at a dead sprint, not stopping until I’m clear of the woods.
I collapse on the familiar lawn before me. I know I’m safe. It’s an inexplicable knowledge, but knowledge all the same. Lights shine from Victorian windows, and I see Bennett’s shape pass by the kitchen window.
As I get up, I hazard one last glance at the trail. The wolf stands there, his eyes once again trained on me. But he’s taken the form of a man—a familiar one. He was my next-door neighbor when I was a kid, the one the police eventually took away.
“Remember, kid. This never happened.”
Back inside, my house reeks of cigarette smoke and cheap whiskey. I wander into the living room. The TV is on, showing the final moments of Wolves at the Door. Bennett pokes her head in, once again the beautiful woman I love.
“Where have you been? Halloween’s almost over! You’re missing the movie!”
I look in the hall mirror. A noose hangs from my neck; purple bruising crosses my larynx. My clothes have been swapped with my father’s tweed suit. Death shines in the carotenoid glow of my eyes. From the couch, Bennett’s phone gives a familiar ding. On the television, the wolves stand at the door. It swings open, and the man inside lets them in.
Logan Noble is an award-winning horror writer who spends his days with his wife and pets. His short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including Vastarien: A Literary Journal, Pickman’s Gallery, Déraciné Magazine, and Sanitarium Magazine. His complete works can be found at logannobleauthor.com.
∼ Read September’s story, “Zoey” by R. Wren ∼