Horror was the first literary genre that I fell in love with back in high school. The first book I ever wrote (which is now buried never to see the light of day) was a horror novel. Since then, I haven’t tried writing the genre again. And I miss it.
So in honor of Halloween, I wrote a short story/flash fiction horror piece.
This isn’t typical for me: I’m not a short story writer. I also wrote this one quickly and have done minimal rewrites. Basically, it isn’t my best work. So treat it carefully with plenty of grace. It was just something fun to do and a little something interesting to have up here for Halloween.
Please enjoy The Haunting of Emily Palmore:
“But the legends say that young Emily wasn’t alone in this room,” the tour guide – it sounded like Annie this time – said. That was Jerome’s cue. Adjusting the bowler hat, he stepped to the edge of the closet, inches from the door that smelled like mildew. “They say that she was visited by…the man in black.”
Jerome assumed the most menacing look he could muster. Even if no one could see it, the look got him into character. A soft spray of fog, tonight it was the kind that smelled like window cleaner, misted his feet and the door snapped open while a harsh light blazed to life behind him. It was blinding, but Jerome knew the small crowd taking the haunted tour would see only his outline – to them, he was nothing but a shadow figure standing in the doorway of the closet. A few people muttered curses and gasped before the light turned off and Jerome was, again, invisible.
Really it was a neat trick, but it was easy to get wrong. He had to stand in the exact right place and the switch had to open the door at the exact right moment. A lot of moving parts. But these tour guides ran groups through this house hundreds of times a night in October and, this close to Halloween, no one messed up.
Before the door shut with a soft click, after the harsh lights faded, Jerome saw a group of six or seven huddled behind the tour guide. A smaller group than normal, but sometimes that made the experience better. At least that’s what he’d heard. Jerome had never ventured through the Palmore Haunted House Experience himself and didn’t really want to. Other people might enjoy haunted houses, so he’d leave that to them.
As the group left his room – or, should he think of it as Emily’s room? After all, everyone came to see her – Jerome left his closet and relaxed on the bed. A few years ago, someone tried to burn this house down, but, other than a few scorch marks along the walls, the house showed no signs of damage. It should have done much more damage, almost like it had supernatural protection.
Emily’s room was decorated with heavy quilts and Victorian style furniture. As if someone looked at a painting from the 1800s and matched it exactly. Everything smelled like mildew and the bed was lumpy. Jerome hated this room, but it was a job. Every October, he could count on Big Bill offering him two hundred bucks a night to stand in that supposedly haunted closet and do nothing for five hours.
Not a bad gig, all in all.
A small stove sat in the corner of the room with rotting logs of wood stacked neatly in a pile. Above the stove hung a picture of Emily: her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail and her piercing blue eyes were deep and troubled. Did they pick that portrait because of how haunting she looked in it? Even her white dress was frayed around the color and she was far too young for her cheeks to look that hollow.
A shudder ran up his spine and Jerome slid off the bed, trying to quiet the squeak of the springs. The group would be through the parent’s room by now and another one wouldn’t be here for another thirty minutes.
If he stuck to the shadows, which wasn’t hard with the minimal lighting in the ancient house, the black on black suit made him almost invisible. He stood back as the group meandered into the dining room – where Bill set up the museum to the crimes that made this house famous – and then he slipped into the parent’s room.
Jillian and Daniel were standing up, taking swigs of water, and talking to each other in low voices. Jillian pushed her ruffled collar away from her neck and Daniel loosened his tie. How could they stand to wear that? Especially under layers of thick coats and wool pants. Jerome eased the door closed and sank into the rocking chair set up in the corner of the room.
“What’s up, man?” Daniel asked with a half a glance at Jerome. He wiped a dirty rag across his forehead and winced. “My head’s killing me tonight.”
“Did you see that girl?” Jillian asked.
“The one in the back? Yeah, man. It was weird,” Daniel answered.
“What girl?” Jerome asked.
“You didn’t see her?”
“I can’t see anything, I’m in a closet the whole time.”
“Right. Well, she looked…” Jillian trailed off, her eyes flicking to Daniel for help.
“She looked exactly like Emily,” Daniel said firmly. “Spitting image.”
“Wait…like, the Emily? Emily Palmore?”
“Yeah, bro.” Daniel shook his head. “Bet she’ll get a lot of weird looks when they get to the museum.”
Jerome looked at the painting of the Palmore family hanging above the fireplace in this room. A seemingly happy couple, though their somber expressions didn’t show that, with their angelic daughter between them. Was there a hint of evil in that little girl’s eyes that the artist left out? Did anyone suspect what was to come?
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” Lillian traced Jerome’s look and walked to the painting. Inches from it, she stared into Emily’s glassy eyes. “That little girl could do something so…evil.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t seem like a killer,” Jerome said. Other than Emily herself, probably no one spent as much time in Emily’s room as Jerome. Which meant nothing, it wasn’t even decorated by her anymore, but at times it felt like he understood her. Like he knew her in a way that the other tourists who stepped into her room and stepped out never would.
But he could never understand what would make a nine year old girl shoot, dismember, and burn her parents before setting herself on fire. No one could understand that.
“Well, it wasn’t her, was it?” Daniel asked. A shadow drifted across his face and he dabbed at his forehead with the handkerchief. When Jerome and Jillian looked at him inquiringly, he set the rag aside. “It was the Man in Black.”
They all knew the stories – they heard it several times a night – but the heaviness in Daniel’s voice filled the room and goosebumps erupted on Jerome’s arms. Then Jillian laughed, a high pitched whistle, and the tension deflated.
“Right, yeah, it was some demon man who visited Emily in her sleep. Sure.”
“Look, man, all I’m saying is that makes about as much sense as a little girl slaughtering her-” Daniel cut off as screams echoed down the hallway.
Screams weren’t uncommon in the Palmore Haunted House Experience, but this type was normally reserved for the true scary experience in the barn down the road – the site of the actual murders. The house was more educational and a set up for the horror the group would experience in the barn.
With a quick glance at his watch, Jerome tracked the progress of the group. About now, they’d be in the attic, where most people claimed to see the ghost of Emily, trying to talk to her with voice recorders and maybe a Ouija board if the group was particularly daring. Those sessions never produced screams like that.
Shrill and full of pure terror, the screams didn’t stop. It sounded like a thunderstorm from the attic, rumbling down the halls. More chills spread across Jerome’s arms and the back of his neck. And the screams didn’t stop. On and on they rang through the dark house.
“What-” Daniel started, but a particularly violent scream overpowered him. Jillian’s face drained of color. They all looked at the ceiling and listened to the screams.
“That’s not normal, is it?” Jillian was new, at least newer than Daniel and Jerome. This was her first year, but even she knew this didn’t happen in the house.
“No. This has never happened.”
Jerome expected the screams to die down or filter out, maybe be replaced by nervous laughter as the group tried to make light of whatever terrified them. But, if anything, they grew even louder. Large thumps banged against the ceiling. And then Jerome heard something that made the blood chill in his veins.
Annie, the tour guide, screamed over the general roar of the group. Very clearly, she shouted “Help! Help us!” over and over.
What made a seasoned pro like Annie react so strongly?
Clearly, Daniel heard it too. His eyes widened and he watched the ceiling as if he could see through it.
“Do you think we should help?” Jerome asked.
“I dunno, man. Something isn’t right.”
“But we’re not supposed to break character and interfere with the tour,” Jillian said.
“I don’t think this is part of the tour.” Jerome strode to the door. If the others wanted to keep to the tour, they could. But, Daniel was right, something was wrong. Jerome couldn’t sit down here and listen to that.
Especially Annie. He couldn’t let anything make Annie scream like that.
Part of him noticed that Daniel and Jillian followed him into the hallway, but all of his attention focused on the rickety wooden staircase at the end of the hallway. Those led into the attic – into the room where Emily was said to most often meet with the Man in Black. Those meetings always happened around midnight.
It was currently 12:13.
The screams were louder on the staircase. Jerome heard someone pounding on the door and even more thuds. Up close, one sound stood out above the others: a high pitched, howling laughter.
What could be happening?
Jerome tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t locked, but it felt like someone was holding it closed or moved something very heavy in front of it. Jerome pushed harder, but nothing happened.
“Help me with this,” he said and Daniel moved forward, placing his shoulder against the door. Together, they pushed and the door bent a little, but didn’t open. The screams poured through the door and filled Jerome’s mind. Everything felt a little fuzzy. He had to get through that door.
Sweating, he pushed again, but it was useless. One of the screams turned watery as if the screamers throat started to bleed. Was that Annie? Oh, god, it couldn’t be Annie!
“Move,” Jillian said. She brushed past the boys and squared his stance. With one powerful thrust, she placed a kick into the space next to the door knob. With the sound of splintering wood, the door cracked. Another kick and chunks fell away.
Through the gap in the door, the world didn’t make sense.
All of the lights set around the baseboards of the attic had become strobe lights and they reflected in the heavy smoke that filled the whole room. Did the fog machine break? It was supposed to be a gentle mist that barely covered the floor, but this looked like someone set the house on fire. Shadows moved in the smoke and screams sounded from every side of the room.
And then Jerome saw it.
In the middle of the room, standing over the flickering light of a lit candle, a young girl stood with her arms raised in front of her. Shining with sweat, her blonde hair stuck to her wet face. Her white dress was covered in something sticky and the red on her hands and arms made her look like she wore gloves.
Something was slumped on the ground in front of her. Whether it was too foggy or Jerome just didn’t want to see it, it took him several seconds to realize it was a person. Or at least the remains of a person. Their head sat at an odd angle and their limbs didn’t lay quite right. What happened to them?
And then he saw Annie, pressed with her back against the wall. Pure terror stained her beautiful face. Her lips trembled and her eyes were wide, trying to track every shadow that danced around the room.
A man crouched next to her, maybe thinking that she had some authority in this situation. Something large and dark appeared next to him and then something that looked too similar to a hand erupted out of his chest. With a guttural scream, he collapsed onto the ground.
Ignoring the splinters and the smoke that filled his lungs, Jerome clawed at the cracked wood. He had to get to Annie. Nothing else mattered. Piercing blue eyes stared at him from the middle of the room. The girl’s head cocked and her fingers danced as she stretched her arms toward him. But Jerome ignored her and focused on Annie who slunk to the floor and curled into a ball, whimpering and crying.
Large chunks of the door fell away and Jerome rushed into the room, his feet slid on the floor. Was it wet? Crumpled bodies lay everywhere amongst the fog. Along with Annie, only two other people moved and they both rushed the now open door. Daniel reached out to help one through the gap, but a shadow covered the young woman. Then she screamed and fell to the ground, blood pouring from an opening in her neck. Turning pale, Daniel stumbled backwards and then disappeared as he fell down the stairs.
Annie didn’t want to move. Jerome wrapped his hands around her arms and noticed, briefly, how hot her skin was. She whimpered as he tugged at her. “Come on! We have to go!” he shouted, but her wide eyes didn’t see anything.
“I know you.” The voice behind him was a mixture of a young girl and an old man. The two voices blended together, speaking at different rhythms, but saying the same thing. “I’ve seen you in my room.”
Jerome didn’t turn around. He knew he’d see the girl from the middle of the room standing behind him, but if he actually saw that he might freeze. And then what would happen to Annie? Instead he slung Annie, who seemed to have fainted, onto his shoulder and barreled toward the clean air through the door.
Jillian stepped into the room with her hand outstretched and then her mouth opened as a shadow appeared behind her. With a sudden jerk, her chin turned sideways and she crumpled to the ground.
“No!” Jerome shouted as he ran at the door. Not Jillian. It couldn’t be true.
But he couldn’t stop to help her – she was gone. And if he stopped that shadow, whatever it was, could get him and Annie. Jerome wouldn’t let it. Not noticing the shards of wood that scratched his arms, Jerome crashed through the door. Stunned and rubbing an ankle, Daniel sat at the bottom of the stairs.
“Jerome, what the-”
“We have to get out!” Jerome screamed at him. “Now!”
“But Jillian.” Jerome shook his head and Daniel winced, the small amount of color drained from his face. “No,” he muttered. “No.”
“Yes. We have to leave,” Jerome insisted. He didn’t wait on Daniel’s agreement, he pulled him to his feet and pushed him toward the hallway.
Limping on his right ankle, Daniel couldn’t move nearly as quickly as Jerome needed to. Didn’t he know they had to get out of here? For a brief second, Jerome considered leaving him behind and coming back for him, but there probably wouldn’t be anything to come back to.
After the screaming and chaos of the attic, the house was eerily quite, almost dead. Their rough breathing and heavy footsteps were the only sounds. They turned the corner and skidded to a halt. A large man, completely black and featureless, stood in front of the door. Daniel groaned and turned toward the kitchen and the back door. But they heard whistling coming down the hallway in that direction.
Emily. And the man in black. Oh, god. What now?
Jerome pushed Daniel through the door to their right – into Emily’s room. The whistling grew closer and Jerome led them into the only place he could think to hide – the closet. His shoulders screamed as he slid Annie onto the floor in the back of the closet. Her eyes were opened now, but the way her mouth was slack and her gaze drifted around the dark closet, she might never be the same again.
How did this happen?
They needed to get out of here, but Emily and the man in black were guarding the doors. How else could they get out? All of the windows were fake. After people kept breaking in to try and catch a glimpse of Emily, Big Bill had to board them all up. Maybe they could break through one, but that would make so much noise and surely draw the attention of the ghosts.
That felt so ridiculous to think. These were all supposed to be stories! Nothing serious. No one who worked here actually believed they’d see Emily. No one thought the stories were real. But they all were. Every single one.
What were they supposed to do now?
With a flash of light and sudden influx of fog, the door slammed open. Emily stood in the doorway, the flashing light illuminating the somewhat tranquil look on her face. She stared at them with dull eyes almost like this didn’t matter to her at all. Blood stained her dress and dripped from her fingers. Jerome tried to recoil into the shadows, but it didn’t matter. Those eyes stared right at him.
When she spoke, it was only the voice of a child, but it was flat and emotionless. “I don’t like what you did to my room,” she said. She stared at Jerome and he gasped. The air felt cold and suffocating. “It should be colorful.”
“I…I’m sorry,” Jerome said, but that made her eyes squint and her head cock.
“Who are you?” Her voice took on a singing quality when she asked that.
“Who are you?” Jerome asked in return. For some reason, he didn’t want this spectre to know anymore about him.
“I’m Emily. I live here.”
Jerome’s heart thudded in his chest. Down the hallway, he heard Emily’s words repeated in a gruff, gravely voice. The voice of the man in black. It creeped down the hallway, closer to Emily’s room. Any second, that shadow would appear in the closet and then they’d all be dead.
“It’s nice to meet you, Emily.” Jerome tried to talk to her as if she were his niece. They were around the same age, at least in appearance. But Emily’s features never changed. “Listen, we really need to get back to our own houses. Can you help us get out of here?”
Her head snapped and a glossy smile distorted her face. Growing and growing, her lips stretched to grotesque proportions and her fingers clawed inward as she raised her hands. The man in black stood in the doorway of the bedroom. Two bright spots glowed where his eyes should be and he wore the same hat that Jerome did. At least they got the picture right. She stepped toward Jerome with a lurching movement, with her arms raised she looked almost like a cartoon zombie.
“Run!” Daniel screamed and pushed past Jerome, leaving Annie all alone at the back of the closet. Emily’s eyes followed him as he ran by, the the man in black wasn’t content to watch.
With spindly fingers made of shadows, the man in black scraped razor sharp shards of black against Daniel’s back. Daniel screamed as tendrils of flesh peeled away, replaced by swelling blood. He fell forward, his forehead cracking against the dresser.
The man in black wasted no time, he lunged for the body, white teeth barred and shinning from the swirling mass of shadow.
“Daniel!” screamed Jerome and he moved forward before remembering Annie.
“The man in black has him now,” Emily said. She didn’t move from her spot, but she seemed normal again. At least as normal as she ever could be. Her head was straight and her eyes clear. “I don’t like that part.”
“Then stop him!” Jerome screamed at Emily.
She squinted as if she had never thought of that before. “But he scares me,” she muttered. “I don’t like when he’s mad.”
Quietly, the voice of the man in black was added to Emily’s as the shadow straightened. Daniel’s body no longer had a head.
“I don’t want him to be mad,” Emily said and clouds entered her eyes. “He gets really scary when he’s mad.” The gravelly voice was now louder than Emily’s and Jerome couldn’t see the man in black. Where did he go?
Behind him, Annie screamed louder than Jerome thought possible. The man in black stood over her, sharp fingers reaching toward her throat. Jerome screamed, releasing all of the fear and anger he felt inside him into the scream, grabbed the first thing he could find, which happened to be the steadily flickering light and chucked it at Emily.
The glass broke as it passed through her and collided with the wall. Glass flew in every direction and a small spark ignited the dusty, ancient clothes hanging behind her. Flames licked the coat sleeves and spread quickly to the wooden hangers. In a matter of seconds, the dry clothes erupted into an inferno of swirling heat. Emily stared at it with wide eyes and then she screamed.
“My room! You’re hurting my room!” The air moved faster and faster, the flames licking against every surface. The angrier Emily grew, the man in black towered even larger, but the shadow seemed confused. It hovered over Annie, but turned toward the flames as they raged toward Emily.
Now was the only chance Jerome had. This might kill him, but he couldn’t let them get Annie.
So he slid under the arms of the man in black and grabbed Annie around the waist, throwing her over his shoulder. Even though he was exhausted and his legs groaned with the effort, he barely noticed. Nothing mattered but getting Annie out of this house. The smell of sulphur near the man in black was overbearing and his hair stood on end as if lightning were about to strike. At the last second, the man in black scraped claws along his back and searing heat exploded on his skin.
But Jerome kept running. Past the smoke that clogged his lungs. Past the flames that kicked his skin. Past the heat that dumped sweat down his neck. Past the screaming child who died hundreds of years ago. Into the room and through the hallway. Vaguely aware of the continuous crackling from centuries old wood crumbling under flames, Jerome kept running until he felt the fresh air on his burning skin and saw the clear night sky above him.
Millions of stars stood as silent watchers as he collapsed on the front lawn. He could still feel the heat as more of the house caught fire, but that was someone else’s problem now. Next to him, Annie panted at the sky, tears streaming down her cheeks.
He did it. He saved her.
But Daniel and Jillian and all of those other people. He couldn’t save them. Finally, all of the energy left his body and he felt like he melted into the grass, his shoulders shook and tears cast everything in a sort of white noise. He reached for Annie’s hand and squeezed it, trying to comfort her and be comforted at the same time.
Propping himself on one elbow, he looked back at the house. Flames and smoke poured from the windows on the left side. Glowing orange in the dark night like a bonfire, the house started to crumple in on itself. Electricity popped as outlets and appliances ignited. He felt the heat waft against his face as the flames crept higher, but he couldn’t find the energy to move. Someone would come and deal with the fire. Right? The man in black couldn’t have killed them all.
A young girl with vibrant blonde hair walked out of the front door. Her skin was charred black and pieces of her arms were missing. Blood still stained her white dress, even with the edges frayed, and dark soot covered most of it. She walked hand in hand with a large, vaguely human shadow. Together they strode across the yard and disappeared into the night, headed toward the barn in the distance.