Kristen Houghton’s A Cate Harlow Private Investigation series has been voted one of the top five mystery/thriller series by International Mystery Writers. Her novella, Welcome to Hell is a Horror Book Club award-winning Quick-Read.

She is the prolific author of nine novels, two non-fiction books, a collection of short stories, a book of essays, and a children’s novella. Houghton loves writing horror stories which she terms her ‘strange imaginative gift’ and credits her love of the original The Twilight Zone, and writer Rod Serling, for this passion.

Branded X: The Blonde Society, the fifth book in the Cate Harlow series is due out in Spring, 2023.

Kristen Houghton has covered politics, news, and lifestyle issues as a contributor to the Huffington Post. Her writing portfolio includes Criminal Element Magazine, a division of Macmillan Publishing, Hartford Woman, Today, head writer and senior fiction editor for Mused Literary Magazine, interviews and reviews for HBO documentaries, OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and The Style Channel.

She and her husband Alan William Hopper, a baseball historian, divide their time between the NYC area and Sanibel Island.


by Kristen Houghton


The unanswered phone calls were followed twenty minutes later by a loud knock on her door.

She debated not answering the knock just as she had ignored the three separate phone calls and the annoying text messages. But Deidre knew that if she didn’t answer the door now, her well-meaning nephew would just call the police and request a ‘wellness check.’ She didn’t want or need the police. They would just get in the way. And what if they came after dark?

Sighing, she walked to her front door. She heard him calling her, his adult male voice sounding more like a scared kid than a grown man.

“Aunt Dee? Aunt Deidre! Are you okay?”

She swung the door open just as her nephew was about to knock again and Aidan almost fell into the room. Oh, how much you look like him! she thought. An overwhelming feeling of sadness hit her. And you think he is dead, my darling boy! Tears welled in her eyes. She hugged him tightly for a few seconds.

“Aunt Dee! Why aren’t you answering the phone or my messages? You scared me half to death!”

Deidre glanced around outside, then beckoned him in before quickly closing, and locking, the heavy oak door.

She braced herself for his usual harangue about how she should get out of the house more or even sell it and find a nice condo near him. Over and over again she had heard this for the last three years. Nice young man, but he didn’t understand, he didn’t know about ‘it and out there.’ How she had to stay here because—

Aidan took a deep breath as he looked around the small living room. “Your shades are drawn and the shutters are closed. How can you live like this?”

“I don’t want or need to go out there.”

Aidan looked at his aunt. “Out there. Out where? Why do you always say it like that?”

“I only said I don’t want to go outside.”

Aiden showed his frustration. “You’ve got to get out! You’ve been alone here ever since my dad…well ever since…forever…”

Forever? Oh dear God if you knew what forever really means!

“Aunt Dee, you need to at least get out and take a walk or something.”

Deidre’s eyes flickered when he mentioned getting out and taking a walk, but she said nothing. He looked so much like his father—her brother—that her heart almost stopped.

Aidan sighed deeply. “Well, at least let me open the door. Let some fresh air get in here.”

He went to open the door but Deidre was faster than he was. She moved in front of him and stood, blocking his way. “No! I don’t want it open. It will be dark in another two hours. You have to go before then.”


Aidan stayed for less than a half hour and as he walked to his car, he shook his head. Maybe her wanting to stay inside all the time with the shades drawn down was a sign of early-onset dementia. Saying that he didn’t understand. Understand what?  No matter how hard he pressed for answers, she never explained.

Or maybe what she had was some form of depression. After all she was alone, no family, just him, and he knew what being alone felt like. His father had died when he was ten, his mother last year while he was in his senior year in college. Aunt Dee was his only living relative but, after his father passed, she made some strange rules about any visits from him.

He was only allowed to visit her once a month, which wasn’t too bad considering he lived two hours away. Another rule was that he always had to leave before dark. Why? She wasn’t making any sense. Something wasn’t right here. He really should get her to a doctor, someone who specialized in mental health problems.

A chill seemed to hit the air as he got into his car and sat in the driver’s seat. He opened the window. A smell of decay seemed to be carried on the breeze and Aidan knew it came from that ravine in the woods. It seemed worse in the autumn months—everything molding and rotting like the leaves that fell from the trees.

People said there was nothing like living out in the country but Aidan disagreed. Everything was darker and unsettling in a rural setting, especially in the autumn. As a child he’d always hated this time of year when the days grew shorter. The early nightfall filled him with dread. And the wind, that dreadful wind that blew from the ravine, seemed to moan like a human in pain.

He put the car in gear and drove away, expecting to return next month.


Deidre watched her nephew drive away and felt lonely.

It waits for me to let down my guard. It waits. I know it watches me. It always watches me. It wants to take another from me.

Before darkness came, Deidre shut all the lights in her house after making sure that the doors were barred and the heavy shutters covered the windows. Then she sat in a chair facing the front door and waited for its nightly visit.

An hour after sunset she could feel it near her.

The handle of the front door jiggled, a quiet, gentle back and forth motion. A small tap on the storm shutter of the front window and a sound of slow, deliberate shuffling let her know it was moving. She heard light taps on the other shutters as it went slowly around the house seeking an entrance. It wanted inside. Wanted her.

Wanted her because she had escaped it once. Took one she loved and cherished to punish her for her escape.

“He lives, Deidre,” taunted its sweet voice each night. “Come with me and see him.”

Deidre covered her ears with her hands but still heard the cajoling voice.

After a long while the tapping and shuffling sounds stopped, indicating that it was about to go away. A wind seemed to pick up briefly but Deidre knew it wasn’t the wind. It was a long sigh of frustration from the thing trying to get inside. It had finally gone.

But it would be back tomorrow after sundown. It would always come back for her.

That night Deidre lay fully clothed on her bed too tired to get undressed. Seeing Aidan today had brought back the horror of what she had lost.

She remembered what her grandmother, her beloved Nan, had told her about ‘the nowhere of out there.’ Told Old World stories about a goblin-like creature in the form of a kindly old man with a heavy brown sack that holds a large golden key who comes out after dark in the autumn of the year. He will engage you in friendly conversation for a while then ask for your help in carrying its heavy sack ‘just down the road apiece.’

“Be warned. If you follow it out there to its hiding place, it will grab you and lock you in its cell with his golden key where you will stay forever in the nowhere of out there.”

Deidre had asked in her child-like way if there was any way to stop the goblin.

There was a legend, her Nan continued, that said if you could steal the goblin’s key and smash it into little pieces, it would lose its power forever but Nan had never heard if that was true.

Deidre sighed, remembering. She grew up and moved to what she believed was her dream home in the country. Her Nan’s story just seemed like another Grimm’s fairy tale from her childhood. Just a story to scare children to stay in the house after dark.

But ten years ago just at sunset when she was out walking, she came across a small stooped man who was picking flowers. He greeted her in a cheerful way and Deidre stopped. Before long they were talking about the warm weather and the abundance of different flowers in the area. It was pleasant, easy conversation.

And then when he pointed to a sack that was hidden by a tree and asked for her help in carrying, it ‘just down the road apiece,’ she grew afraid. Her grandmother’s words, ‘You will stay forever in the nowhere of out there,’ seemed to echo in her mind. She backed away from the little man and ran toward home, ran faster than she had ever run before.

Deidre thought she had escaped it but it seemed to know where she lived, seemed to be obsessed with her, and seemed angry that she had escaped its clutches. The night of her escape was the start of her terror. Her dream home had become a self-imposed prison.

The creature had haunted and stalked her and when it couldn’t get her, the goblin made her suffer by taking someone she loved.

Oh God, why did my brother come to see me after sundown?


The morning came and Deidre rose to shower and change. While waiting for her coffee to brew she made a decision, something she had been thinking about for a very long time. I am so tired of this torture. So very tired, she thought. It has to end and, if I am very careful, it will end my way.

She would confront this goblin—confront it tonight. She was the one who had escaped him all those years ago. It was her he wanted. She had to face it. Tonight.

Just before sunset, Deidre hid a hammer in a planter just outside the door to her house and put a heavy doormat on the top step. Then she placed a small flashlight and earplugs in the pockets of her old pair of cargo pants. She stood next to the porch watching the last rays of the sun flicker on the horizon.

She sensed its presence well before she heard the scraping of its feet along the gravel path. Deidre turned and looked directly at the goblin. It was surprised to see her, staring at her in a kind of bewilderment, dropping its sack onto the ground. Then slowly its expression changed and a look of cunning came into its eyes. A look of evil.

Shaking and with her heart pounding in her chest, Deidre walked right up to the creature and spoke to it.

“I will not play games with you. I will offer you a deal.” She swallowed hard and stared right into the goblin’s eyes. “You say my brother is alive.”

“He lives.” Its voice was sweet and gentle. “Do you wish to see him? Come with me, Deidre.”

She backed a few feet away from the goblin. “I will come on one condition. Release him and I will take his place. It’s me you wanted all along. I’m the one who escaped you.”

The goblin’s eyes narrowed and it bent its ugly head to the side as it seemed to consider Deidre’s offer.

“An exchange? You for—him?” Deidre nodded yes and waited. “I do not usually make deals or let anyone leave my cage but,” the goblin grinned eerily and salivated, “I have waited a long time for you. Yes, ten years. I will exchange him for you.”

The goblin looked all around the yard. Then he lifted his sack, handed it to Deidre, and motioned her to follow him.

The road led past the putrid smelling ravine directly toward the bottom of a mountain. It seemed as if they walked for miles. Though the air had that autumn chill in it, the heat from a churning pond in the ravine made the air slick with humidity. A foggy mist swirled near it. Deidre forced herself to look around and remember details along the way: trees, boulders, stone-filled sandy ground. 

Past the deep ravine, the goblin took her through a swampy bog and far into a dark cave. Deidre shivered. The goblin laughed. “Welcome to the Nowhere of Out There, my dear, only one way in and out.”

They walked deeper into the cave, finally stopping near the very edge of a swampy pit. Deep within the pit Deidre could glimpse what looked like a rusty iron cage covered by rotting tree limbs and rocks.

There was a hunched-over figure inside. She bit her lip. Her brother? Could that poor creature be her brother?

The goblin took the sack from her and reaching deep inside it he took out the large golden key. He pointed at the cage and nodded.

“You—for him.” He turned and walked over to the cage, motioning her to come.

The figure in the cage moved slightly and faced Deidre. She squinted hard. It was her brother but a very different person than the young man who had disappeared one twilight ten years ago. Now he looked like a very old man; his clothes were rags and his hair was gray, long and matted with leaves and twigs. His skin was whiter than chalk and his eyes looked haunted and terrified.

When he saw the goblin, frightened animal sounds came out of his mouth. An overwhelming smell of his human waste and urine made her gag.

The goblin placed the large gold key in the enormous lock on the door of the cage. A sound of creaking hinges was heard as the rusty gate was opened. It almost sounded like a person screaming in pain.

Her brother looked at the opened gate in disbelief. He ducked and covered his head with his hands and began moaning as the goblin reached his long arms for him. The goblin grabbed him by the hair and thrust him toward the gate.

Then, quickly, on all fours like a terrified animal running for his life, her brother scurried through the opening and crouched in fear a distance from the cage.

The goblin gestured toward Deidre and then to the gate. She looked at the wild animal-like creature that had been her brother. Walking slowly to the cage, she ducked her head inside and screamed. The goblin moved closer.

“There’s a rat in the cage!” Deidre cried. “I can’t, oh please—I can’t go in there with that large rat!”

The goblin grunted in anger and leaned into the cage to see where the rat was hiding. In a single moment, Deidre slid past him, then shoved him inside, slamming the heavy iron door shut. She put the weight of her whole body against it.

The enraged goblin shoved himself against the door, trying to break free but Deidre had a strength born of desperation and fear. Without turning to look at her brother, she screamed for his help.

“The key! Turn the key and lock the gate! Hurry!”

Her voice seemed to wake her brother from his stupor and he shuffled over to the cage. Grabbing the key in the lock, he turned it sharply and a loud click told Deidre the cage was locked with the goblin inside it. She took the key from her brother and backed away from the cage.

The goblin rattled the rusty gate in anger demanding they open the gate.

“My key! My power! Give me back my key!”

Then his voice turned gentle and cajoling, asking them to please release him and give back his key. At the sound of his sweet voice, her brother paused and stepped toward the cage almost as if hypnotized by his words, but Deidre pulled him away. Quickly she took the earplugs from her pocket and placed them in her brother’s ears.

When he saw her do this, the goblin screamed in rage, “He’s mine! Mine!”

Deidre willed herself not to listen and grabbed her brother’s hand leading him away from the screaming goblin. Turning on her flashlight in order to see better in the gloominess, she wound her way slowly through the cavernous dark retracing her steps past the swampy bog out of the cave. Her brother moaned with fear but she kept on pulling him along with her.

The goblin’s shrieks followed her every step but she gripped the key tightly and made it back to her house where her brother crouched in a corner of the porch watching her and making frightened animal sounds.

She placed the gold key on the ground and covered it with the heavy doormat. Grabbing the hammer from its hiding place, she smashed the large key over and over again. A strong moaning wind whirled around the house knocking her to her knees but Deidre kept on smashing the key.

When she removed the mat, she saw that nothing but small pieces of damaged metal remained. It could never be made whole again.

The wind whipped up wildly then slowly died down like the sighing of a lost soul. There was nothing but silence. His power was gone. The goblin was left locked forever in his own cage in the ‘nowhere of out there.’


She turned to see her brother standing on the porch, the look of fear gone from his eyes. “You saved me, Deidre.” Slowly he stood and came to her and she hugged him.“You saved me.”

Deidre shook her head and cried with relief.

I saved us both.