On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
Getting over the graveyard’s tall gates had been the first challenge, but with teamwork it was easy enough.
There were three of them, and Toby was the eldest, at almost eleven. Next came Scott who was five months younger, and then Toby’s little brother Adam who was three full years his junior. None of their parents knew where they were, and wouldn’t have approved either, despite the old church being only six doors up from Scott’s house, at the crest of the hill.
The town stretched away into the distance beneath them, lit in orange sodium lights, but they couldn’t see any of it because of the high wall that surrounded the church’s land, designed to prevent exactly the kind of trespass which they were now perpetrating.
Most of the graveyard fell under the shade of large trees which were clearly older than most of the houses in the area, and by night they created a darkness that was unnatural for the human world. But it seemed fitting here.
Toby led the other two deeper into the gloom, heading for an area beyond the unlit and silent church building itself, in the farthest corner of the yard. He knew the way, and kept to the grass instead of the gravel paths. The church was unoccupied at night, as far as any of them knew, and security was limited to the large padlock on the gates, but stealth was instinctive in such places.
“It’s over there,” Toby said, pointing ahead into the darkness, and as their eyes grew accustomed, the other two could already see the destination he’d indicated.
The gravestone was incongruously small, and it was fairly old. There were far older markers in the yard, but there were also much newer ones. This particular stone was set apart from the rest, though, both in location and size.
Scott could sense something of the privilege afforded to its placement, and its purpose as a place of contemplation and remembrance that was off the beaten path, but his mind was too young and inexperienced to properly articulate any of these thoughts. Instead, he felt a disquiet within himself, which a larger vocabulary would perhaps ascribe to realising they were committing a secondary transgression within the primary one.
“Told you,” Toby said, his younger brother standing a few steps behind him, as they each looked towards the stone. Toby had taken out a small flashlight and was now shining it on the grave marker, revealing the deeply-chiselled but noticeably worn letters.
Baby Roberts, it said.
Scott could see that there were other things written there too, including the date of death decades ago, but no corresponding date of birth to form the span of a life lived all too briefly.
“Died before he was born,” Toby said, as if perceiving the unasked question. “Before they even gave him a name.”
Scott frowned, considering this. It was the first time he’d really had cause to think about the strange period of proto-existence before a child actually came into the world. He knew some of the basics of the process, but in a vague way, and whenever he had asked a tentative question on the matter his mother had been evasive, promising him a fuller explanation at some nebulous future date. Toby himself had provided a few of the essential details from time to time, but Scott had his doubts about some of them.
“That’s sad,” Adam said, and Scott nodded, wishing he’d been the one to say it first.
“His ghost is still here,” Toby said sharply, ignoring his brother’s remark, and his voice was even a little irritated.
Again, Scott was too young to fully comprehend his own dim awareness that, by expressing sympathy for the long-dead child, Adam had humanised a person whom Toby would have preferred to think of only as a supernatural presence. It would be years before Scott would look back on this night and also understand that Toby’s annoyance was the voice of his own sense of guilt at being here.
“Ghost?” Adam said, sounding unsure, and looking back and forth between the two older boys. Scott took a step closer to him, feeling protective in a complex way that seemed somehow to be related to the grave marker in front of them. He wanted to tell Toby to stop scaring his own younger brother, but a more insistent part of himself very much wanted to hear more of what the other boy had to say.
“You can call him up by going around his grave seven times and then saying his name,” Toby continued, his voice more of a whisper now, and it was his solemnity that was the most frightening thing — because it seemed to legitimise his words, and convey a sense of even his own anxiety.
“I don’t think we should do it,” Adam said. “I think we should go home.”
“Don’t be a baby,” Toby replied, and somehow Scott knew that his friend was blushing a little, embarrassed by his own sibling. Scott put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
“Don’t be scared,” Scott said to the younger boy. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
Toby folded his arms, giving the others a dismissive look. “So you do it, then, if there’s no such thing. Otherwise why would you be scared?”
His logic was damnably compelling, and Scott inwardly cursed himself for falling into the trap of his words. He shrugged, giving Adam a reassuring clap on the shoulder.
“Fine,” he replied, with bravado he did not feel. “I will.”
As he started forwards towards the lonely marker, Adam looked back towards the tall gates, which seemed very far away now. Between them and where he stood, there were a great many grave stones, sticking up like open trapdoors leading to whatever lay beneath.
Scott circled the stone once, and then again, more quickly. The other two watched silently, focused only on counting and watching and listening.
Three times, and then four, and then five. Scott slowed down again, but kept going.
Six circles. Adam threw another glance back towards the gates.
As Scott completed the seventh circle and came to a stop at his original position, he opened his mouth, and hoped to sound both defiant and dismissive. What came out, though, was more like a whisper in the darkness.
It was certainly the wind that the three boys heard, groaning through the trees with an unfortunate sense of timing. It was certainly the same wind that chilled their skin suddenly.
And it was most definitely also the wind that lifted some unnoticed thing — a large leaf, perhaps, or litter, or a lost item of clothing snatched from a clothes-line by another breeze sometime before — and made it rise up from behind the stone, a shape completely dark but strangely fluid.
It was certainly the wind. But of course they ran anyway, and the youngest of them had no trouble keeping pace with the others. They reached the gate in a scant handful of nightmarishly elongated moments, and they flitted up, over, back down and away as quick as a phantom would, the only sound being the slapping of their shoes on the street beyond.
They reached Scott’s house first, and the other two didn’t stop when he did, each of them knowing in a place beyond reason that only the unique and special safety of home would do, and that not all homes are created equal.
Front doors were slammed, and footsteps thudded on stairs, and boys were admonished half-heartedly from living rooms even as bedroom doors were slammed shut above. And all for nothing but childish superstitions, and the wind.
But a lesson was learned, especially by the youngest of the three, which would never be spoken of amongst them, but would also never be forgotten. There are places, and things, in the world which are put beyond the boundaries of youth for a reason — and those boundaries ought to be respected.
Did you enjoy this brief tale?
I'd also love to hear any feedback or other thoughts; you can find my contact info here.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.