Restless things trying to find their way. Entry for the Screams 24-hour contest.
|Jonathan shivered in his coat and hunkered down in the back of the sleigh next to his brother. Jordan, only a few years older than him, tried to look serious and grown-up as he steered the sleigh back home. On the horizon, Jonathan could see the humble wooden structure on the edge of the woods, which were deep, dark and beautiful.
He'd never had a chance to explore those woods even though he was 10 now. All he'd heard were warnings like, "Don't go too far, and be back by sundown." Tonight, they had to be home before the snow grew too thick to travel in. The only thing he'd been allowed to help with was hanging the bells on the sleigh, which chirped and jingled as they glided along the fresh coat of snow.
The day might have gone on without anything of note happening if their chestnut mare hadn't snorted and slowed to a stop. Jordan tried to get her moving again and she tossed her head. Eventually, the boys had to get out of the sleigh.
"Is she hurt?" Jonathan asked. He placed a hand on her side and felt the animal trembling.
Jordan shook his head. "No. I mean... I don't think so. Maybe she senses the storm coming."
They looked her over again, and still found nothing out of the ordinary.
Jonathan was getting bored. Snow was starting to fall and he wanted to go for a long walk and catch the flakes on his tongue before the snow was covered in footprints. When Jordan wasn't looking, he slipped away.
The snowflakes were cold and refreshing. He almost didn't notice at first that the wilderness wasn't quiet. There was a sound, almost imperceptible at first that made him more and more uneasy until he stopped walking to listen beyond view of the sleigh.
Jonathan tried to imagine what it was. A deer scraping its antlers on a tree, a dog digging into the hard dirt to bury scraps. Something natural. Something safe.
The sound came again and he feared it was neither.
He looked beneath a tree and behind a rock. Nothing. He looked beneath an overturned sleigh covered by a winter's worth of snow and ice, stripped of bells and reigns. The sound continued and he followed it to the edge of the frozen river and looked down at the misty ice.
The sound was no more.
Heart pounding in his chest, Jonathan knelt and reached out to wipe away the snow. His throat was dry and something told him he shouldn't do this. But he was no baby, and he wasn't afraid. He scraped and brushed until he had a clear view of the ice.
Then he screamed. A face with grey, frost-hardened skin sloughing off the face was staring back at him. It took him a minute to realize that it was a corpse. Only a corpse--as if that was any consolation.
In the distance, he heard Jordan shouting for him and shouted back that he was here, Jordan come here and see please before something happens.
He stood up and stumbled away from the river's edge (the grave, he thought), following his footprints away from the scene. Jordan caught up to him, looked him over, and demanded to know why he was screaming. Numbly, Jonathan pointed back towards the river.
Jordan sprinted there. "There's nothing here," he said incredulously.
It took a minute for Jonathan to work up the courage to look. When he did, he saw that Jordan was right. Nothing beneath the ice but water.
Had he imagined the whole thing?
Dinner was quiet. Jonathan didn't even care to argue with Jordan's comments that he was liar, liar, pants on fire. His mother put a hand on his forehead but didn't detect a fever, and declared him ill despite that. He was sent to bed after a spoonful of medicine and a kiss on the forehead.
It was still snowing and would be for days, his father said.
Jonathan knew he wasn't sick, but didn't argue. The only thing wrong with him was that he couldn't stop thinking of that face he'd seen peering up at him. The cold had warded off decay and Jonathan was sure he'd seen it looking back at him. Not with dead eyes, but moving ones that saw.
The house was silent and for some reason, that was a bad thing. Quiet should have been good. Even the old dog was still, laying with his head on his paws by the front door.
He was almost ready to doze off when he heard a noise.
Outside, the bells on the sleigh were jingling. Not the way they'd been when they rode in the sleigh that evening. They were clanging harshly as if someone were yanking on them. He listened, and after a minute the sound stopped. Then a far worse one began.
Outside on the wood of the walls.
"Max," he whispered for the dog. "Max, come here." The dog didn't budge.
The sound was now on his window. He turned, but saw nothing there.
Now it was by the front door. He waited, praying silently, and the sound didn't leave. It got more insistent, more forceful.
Jonathan tried to think. What could it want? Didn't ghost stories always have a moral, a grudge, some kind of unfinished business? A sneaking suspicion crept up on him that the sound had been lured here by another sound. The overturned sleigh he'd passed that evening, uphill from the river, had been missing its bells.
Perhaps it was just trying to find its way home. He sat up and tried to tell himself that he was being very brave, but he only felt stupid.
There was time to slip on his coat and grab a lantern before the noise grew to a frantic level. Beneath it he heard a sound like a whisper that he didn't feel compelled to investigate. He didn't think he'd ever be able to sleep again if he did. Jonathan left out the back door, careful not to make a sound, and brought one of the horses around to the sleigh.
He sat with the reins and tried to listen. No sound. Nothing in sight. Beyond the lantern's light, it was anyone's guess where it was or what it was doing. Jonathan could barely see five feet in front of him through the flurry of snow. A small part of him thought it might be over.
But when he tapped the reins and the bells started to tinkle, he knew by the way the hair on the back of his neck stood up that he wasn't.
The snow came down heavier, and he knew he had a long ride ahead of him. Several times he held his lantern out over the edge of the sled, terrified to see an arm reaching for him, and had to look for landmarks. The sky above was too dark to see the stars.
When he came to the river, he knew it by a sound even more terrifying than the scratching at the door.