Owl Goingback has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and is the author of numerous novels, children’s book, screenplays, magazine articles, short stories, and comics. He is a HWA Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient, a two-time Bram Stoker Award Winner (for novel and first novel), and a Nebula Award Nominee. His books include CrotaDarker Than NightEvil WhispersBreedShaman MoonCoyote RageTribal ScreamsEagle Feathers, and The Gift.


by Owl Goingback


“Bullshit. I don’t believe you.” Paul Roberts reached the top of Barker’s Hill, trying to catch air on his bicycle. The thirteen-year-old imagined he was legendary stuntman Evil Knievel, sailing his Harley Davidson motorcycle over a row of parked school buses. But then his back wheel slipped on some loose gravel and he almost went down, fishtailing to keep control of the bike. The other boys laughed and hurled catcalls at him.

“I saw it the other night,” Howard Baker replied, topping the hill but not attempting to catch air. Howard was overweight and the rusting frame of his old bike would probably snap like a twig if he tried to jump it. He was the biggest kid in eighth grade, blaming his size on overactive glands and not from all the pasta and baked good his mother cooked.

“Liar. You did not see The Exorcist.” Paul slammed on his breaks, bringing his bike to a sliding stop. The Exorcist was the biggest movie of the year, at least to Paul and his friends. The movie had been released nationwide in theaters on December 26, but hadn’t yet been shown in the small town of Logan, Missouri.

Howard pulled to a stop beside Paul, breathing hard from peddling up the hill. “I’m telling you; I saw it.”

“Liar. You did not already see The Exorcist.” Eric Henderson rode up beside the other two boys, having caught air perfectly at the top of the hill. Eric was thin and muscular, a regular jock compared to the other two boys.

“I’m not lying,” Howard said, his voice taking on a familiar whine. “My sister took me to see it.”

“Okay. You saw it,” Paul said. “Where?”

“Where what?” Howard asked.

“Where did you see the movie?”

“In a theater,” Howard answered

Eric laughed, snorting out his nose. “Of course, you saw it in a theater, dipshit. Which one?”

“I…I. It was…” Howard stammered, seeming at a loss for words. Paul and Eric smiled at each other, knowing they had caught their friend in another fib. Howard had a habit of stretching the truth, especially when trying to impress the others.

“I saw it in St. Louis,” Howard finally said.

“Really?” Paul didn’t believe him. “You drove seventy miles one way, on a school night, to see a movie? And your mom was okay with that?”

“My sister took me, so it was okay.” Howard looked around nervously, trying to see if his story was being believed.

“Which theater?” Eric asked.

“Uh, ah. . . Howard stammered. “I don’t remember.”

“You saw the biggest horror film of the decade, and you don’t remember the name of the theater?” Eric asked, astonished.

“Okay, you saw it,” Paul patted Howard on the shoulder.

“We believe you.”

Howard visibly relaxed, smiling.

“How does Regan die?” Paul asked, grinning. He squeezed Howard’s shoulder, holding him so he couldn’t pull back.

Howard’s smile melted like ice cream on a warm summer day. He stammered, “What? Who?”

“Regan. The girl who gets possessed. How does she die?”

“She…she gets staked through the heart.”

Paul burst out laughing. He had read the book, and knew the ending. Nobody got staked in the story. “You’re such a bullshit artist. I knew you were making it up. You haven’t seen The Exorcist.”

Eric also laughed. “Staked? She’s not a vampire, dumbass. She was possessed by the devil.”

“We were going to see it, honest, but my sister had a flat tire on the way,” Howard said, making up a second lie to cover the first.

Paul let his hand fall off his friend’s shoulder. “Sure, you did.”

Neither of the boys wanted to make a big deal out of catching Howard in another lie. He might be a constant fibber, but he was still their friend. And he had the biggest collection of comic books and monster magazines in town, which made him a valuable member of the group.

As a matter of fact, Howard’s bedroom was their preferred meeting spot. His room was decorated with monster movie posters and Aurora model kits. He also had his own television, so they could watch Creature Features, Dark Shadows, and old Beach Party movies. His parents both worked late, so they usually had the house to themselves.

“Let’s go get Sally,” Paul said, changing the subject. “She should be home by now.”

“Her dad isn’t home. Is he?” Howard asked, nervously.

Howard was scared of Sally’s father, but he wasn’t alone. They were all frightened of her father. Ben Freemont was a former army soldier and probably the toughest son of a bitch in Logan. Everyone steered clear of him, even the cops, especially when he was drinking. The man was a mean drunk.

Ben had served two consecutive tours of duty in Vietnam, earning a chest full of medals and a face full of scars. Rumor was he had been captured during his second tour, spending six months in a tiger cage, finally managing to escape by killing two VC guards with his bare hands.

Whatever had happened to him over there must have been really bad, because he spent nearly a year in a hospital after returning stateside. And then, every three months, a long black car would stop in front of Sally’s house, and two men in dark suits would go inside to check on her father. The three of them would talk in whispers in the back room, talking so low that his wife and daughter could never hear what was being said.

Sally had once shown the boys a patch that came off her father’s uniform, probably the coolest patch any of them had ever seen. It featured a human skull wearing a beret. Underneath the skull were the letters MACV SOG. None of them knew what the letters stood for, but Sally said one time she asked her mother about the two men in the black suits. Her mother told her the men were CIA agents and she should never ask about them again.

Sally’s mom, Edna, was the complete opposite of her husband. She was really nice, like Sally, but there was a quiet sadness about her. She rarely smiled, like she was afraid the happiness would slip off her face and run away. And, like her daughter, she always seemed to be sporting new bruises.

Reaching the bottom of Barker’s Hill, they cut through the neighborhoods behind the high school, crossed the rickety old footbridge spanning Lost Creek, reaching the city limits sign marking where Logan ended and the county began.

Code enforcement didn’t exist beyond the city limits, and the houses they now passed all needed painting, roof repairs, and general maintenance. Junk cars silently rusted in yards choked high with weeds, old tires stacked like rubber totem poles beside them.

Leash laws were also nonexistent in this area, so they all rode with their heads on a constant swivel. They were especially on alert for a large German Shepard that loved chasing kids on bikes. Paul had lost the seat of his favorite blue jeans to the dog’s fangs, and Howard had once received several puncture wounds in the calf of his left leg. But luckily, the Shepard was nowhere to be seen.

Sally lived in a clapboard house at the end of the dirt road, its fading white paint almost grey. Two massive oak trees took up most of the front yard, casting their shadows over much of the property. The trees were a welcome addition during the hot summer months, but a pain in the
backside when their leaves started falling in Autumn. By mid-October, there were usually dozens of leaf piles waiting to be stuffed into giant Jack-O-Lantern trash bags.

Paul spotted Sally sitting on the front porch reading a book, feeling a nervous little flutter deep down in his stomach. He had known Sally ever since the first grade. She had always been part of their group, but in the past few months he started thinking of her less and less as one of the guys.
Maybe it was because Sally had filled out in all the right places. She was still thin, a bit on the boney side, but there was now a softness to her that hadn’t been there before, making it awkward when they wrestled or played Twister. He felt his face flush on more than one occasion when their bodies touched. He wasn’t sure if she had noticed. If she had, then she didn’t tease him about it.

Sally closed the book and looked up as they rode into her yard, her smile framed by long blonde hair cascading down to her shoulders. It was a school day, but she had already changed into her play clothes: a pair of faded denim bellbottoms, Pink Floyd t-shirt, and white sneakers.
The boys all said hello, dropping their bikes in the front yard. Sally stood up, brushing the dirt off the back of her pants. “What’s up, guys?”

“Nothing much,” Paul answered. “We’re going to ride over to the Rexall Drug Store to see if they’ve gotten any new magazines. Might stop off first at the Dairy Queen for a shake. You want to go?”

“Sounds like fun. Let me go put this up, and we’ll go.” She started to take her book inside the house.

“What are you reading?” Howard asked, always the nosey one.

Sally turned back around, a sly grin unfolding on her face. She held the book facing her, so only she could see the title. “This? This is a book about magic.”

“Magic?” Eric asked. “You mean tricks, like Houdini?”

She shook her head. “Not tricks. Real magic.”

Howard laughed. “There’s no such thing as real magic. It’s all an illusion, done with smoke and mirrors.”

“Not smoke and mirrors,” she said. “Real magic, ancient knowledge handed down for centuries.”
She turned the book around so they could all see the front cover. There was no title, or author’s name, just a black cloth cover with a large white pentagram painted on it. “Spells. Chants. Forbidden things.”

“You mean witchcraft?” Paul asked, staring at the book.

“Where did you get that?” Howard asked, his eyes getting bigger. There weren’t any real bookstores in Logan. The drugstore had racks for magazines and comics, and stocked a few paperbacks, but the selections were rather slim. And the public library refused to carry any titles about the occult, not even horror novels.

“I bought it at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago.” She slowly stepped down off the porch, her voice dropping to a mere whisper. They circled around her, like football players in a huddle. “Do you guys know what day this is?”

“It’s April 30th,” Howard said, beaming because he knew the answer to her question.
She looked for one boy to the next, studying their faces. “April 30th. That’s right. But do you know what tonight is?”

“April 30th night?” Howard asked. Eric punched him in the arm. “Ow. Why did you do that?”
“Because you’re being a moron,” Eric said. “Stop interrupting.”

“But she asked—”

“Are you finished?” Sally gave Howard a look that cut him off mid-sentence. He nodded.

“Tonight is Walpurgisnacht, Witches’ Night, a time for real magic, when the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest.”

“You mean like Halloween?” Eric asked.

“Yes, like Samhain,” she replied, using the original Celtic name for the celebration.”

“A second Halloween. Cool,” Howard said. “We can go trick-or-treating.” Eric punched him in the arm again.

“I’ve never heard of it,” Paul said, staring at the book she held. Ever since The Exorcist had come out the media had been flooded with things about the occult. There were stories about covens and cults, witches and demons, and deep dark stories of the Catholic church. Sally had been fascinated by it, much more than the rest of the group, almost to the point of being obsessed.

She had gone to new age shops in the city in search of black magic and occult items, hiding her new possessions behind the bottom drawer of her dresser so her parents would not find them. Paul knew her secret, because she had shown him the items a few months earlier. He didn’t like the occult stuff, but figured she was going through a phrase. And who was he to complain about such things, when he loved monsters and all things horror. But the monster movies were all fake, and Sally had been trying to get hold of real occult stuff.

“Walpurgisnacht isn’t celebrated much here in the United States,” she continued. “but it’s really big in Europe, especially in Germany. It’s a night when witches and warlocks gather on the highest peak of the Harz mountain to do magic. Dates all the way back to the old ones.”

“Old ones?” Eric asked, intrigued.

Sally nodded. “Pagans and witches, gods and demons.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” Howard said. “Not really.”

“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it’s not real. Tonight is a night for witches, and for ghosts. The boundary between the two worlds will be thinnest. Doors can be opened, allowing the dead to…"

She stopped talking. Stepping back, she looked at them for a moment before speaking again. “I will prove to you that real magic exists. Tonight.”

“Tonight?” Paul asked.

Sally nodded. “It’s Friday night; your parents won’t mind if you stay out a little late. Just tell them you will be at Howard’s watching movies.” She turned to look at Howard. “And you can tell your folks that you’ll be at Paul’s.”

“Where will we really be?” Eric asked.

She smiled. “We’ll be in the old Catholic Cemetery.”

“The cemetery, at night?” Howard gasped. “Why the cemetery?”

“Because tonight we will be asking favors of the dead,” she said. “And if you’re talking to the dead, then you need to go where they are. Now, you—”

They heard a vehicle coming down the road, the engine revving loudly as if the transmission was stuck in second gear. They all turned to look, and spotted a beat-up green pickup truck coming their way, swerving back and forth across the dirt road, a cloud of dust billowing behind it. It was Sally’s dad, and he had been drinking again.

“You’ve got to get out of here,” she said, a look of absolute terror coming over her. “I’m not supposed to have visitors. He’ll kill me.”

“What should we do?” Howard asked, his voice becoming a whine. “He’ll see us for sure.” He was right. If they rode out of the front yard onto the road, they would be spotted.

“Quick. Run,” Sally said, pointing at the far side of the house. “Around the house and out the backyard, there’s a hole in the fence. Cross the field to the woods. Stay low.”

Sally and the boys took off for the side of the house, cutting around to the backyard. Paul and Eric grabbed their bicycles, running with them, but Howard left his bike lying in the weeds. In the terror of the moment, none of the others noticed he had forgotten his bike.

They cut through the overgrown backyard to the hole in the fence, racing across the open field. They stayed low, trying not to be seen by Ben Freemont.

The pickup slowed, turning into the gravel driveway. It was at that moment Paul noticed Howard did not have his bike.

“Howard, your bike!” Paul yelled.

Howard looked at him. “What?”

They reached the edge of the open field, ducking into the woods and stopping. Sally ran up behind them, also stopping.

“Your bike,” Paul repeated. “Where is your bike?”

Howard pointed back at the house. “In the yard.”

Sally looked shocked. “You left your bike?”

“You said run,” Howard answered. “So, I ran.”

“Moron, she meant get your bike and run,” Eric said.

“I’ll go back and get it,” Paul said, dropping his bike.

Sally put her hand on his chest, stopping him. “No. You can’t; It’s too late. You’ll get caught.”

“I’ll go,” Eric said, also letting his bike drop. “I’m the fastest. I won’t get caught.”

“No,” Sally said, genuine concern in her eyes. “Don’t. You don’t know what my father’s like when he’s drinking. It’s not safe.”

“But he’ll see the bike,” Paul said. “You’ll get in trouble.”

“Maybe he won’t see it,” Howard said. “The grass in your yard is really tall.”

Just then they heard her father call out, his voice angry and slurred. “Sally. What the hell is this? Get your ass over here.”

Sally’s complexion went pale as alabaster, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “I’ve got to go.”

“No. Wait,” Paul tried to stop her. “I’ll go with you. I’ll say it’s my bike, my fault for coming over. I’ll cover for you.”

She shook her head, a trembling smile touching the corners of her mouth. “It won’t do any good.” She reached down and took his hand, touching the tips of his index and middle finger to her lips, lightly kissing them. “Just be there tonight, at the cemetery. Be there for me.”

She let his hand fall, then turned away and ran back toward her house and the drunken fury awaiting her. Paul watched her go, feeling his heart break. Had he been older, stronger, braver, he could have done something to protect her, could have been her knight in shining armor, but he was none of those things. He was just an eight-grade boy, and her father was a trained killer of men.

“Come on, let’s go. Before he sees us.” Eric grabbed Paul’s arm, turning him away from Sally’s house. Paul reached down and grabbed his bike.

“What about my bike?” Howard whined.

“Forget it for now,” Eric said. “We’ll get it later, when her dad isn’t around.” The three of them turned away from the house, following a path through the woods. They walked in silence, for they knew what kind of hell Sally was about to endure. But there was nothing they could do about it. Not even the cops would intervene.


The sun was setting when the boys arrived at the front entrance to the old Catholic Cemetery, just west of the town of Logan. Howard rode his older sister’s pink bicycle, much to the amusement of the others.

There was a noticeable chill in the air, so all three of them wore blue jeans and jackets. Reaching under his jacket, Howard pulled out the rubber werewolf mask he had been hiding the whole trip, slipping it over his head and growling.

“Dude, seriously?” Eric said.

Howard took off the mask. “What? Sally said tonight was like a second Halloween, and how many chances do I get to wear this thing?”

“I don’t know. How many?” Eric asked.

Paul looked at Howard, shaking his head. “You probably wear that stupid thing every day. Heck, you might even sleep in it.”

“Take it off before Old Man Sharkey sees it and calls the cops on us,” Eric said, his voice serious.

Howard took off the mask, stuffing it back under his jacket. Old man Sharkey lived in a two-story brick house atop the hill on the opposite side of Cemetery Road. He had a pair of military binoculars, and was always on the lookout for kids messing around in the cemetery at night.

“Do you think Sharkey saw us?” Howard asked, worried. “Do you think he called the cops?”

“You know he did,” Eric teased. “Deputy Harding is probably on his way here right now. Going to arrest you, and throw your ass in a cell.”

“That’s not funny.” My parents would kill me if I got arrested.”

“That would be the least of your problems,” Paul said, joining in on the teasing. “From what I hear, those guys in jail get really lonely. They would just love a sweet young thing like you.”
Eric grinned. “Yeah. You’d be somebody’s bitch.”

“No. I wouldn’t,” Howard argued. “I’d kick their ass if they tried to touch me. I know karate.”

Both of the other boys laughed openly, knowing Howard was telling another fib.

“Karate. Since when?” Eric asked.

“Since last summer. I took a course at the YMCA in Warrenton.” Howard stuck a pose, doing his best Bruce Lee impersonation. Paul and Eric cracked up.

Howard lowered his hands, looking around. “Where’s Sally? Figured she would be here already. This was her idea.”

They all looked around, but didn’t see any sign of her or her bike.

“Maybe she’s already in the cemetery,” Paul suggested. “Let’s go in.” They rode their bikes through the open gates, following a graveled path up the hill to the oldest section.

The old Catholic cemetery was only about twenty acres in size, surrounded on three sides by dense forest. In the center of the cemetery stood a large metal cross that always seemed to glow at night, no matter how dark or cloudy.

On the back side of the graveyard, in a small clearing behind the last row of headstones, stood a five-foot marble statue of a young girl in an old-fashioned dress. The statue was so lifelike some of the older teenagers swore that it moved, especially late at night after a few beers or some weed.

They spotted Howard’s bike leaning against the statue. A blue burlap bag with a white drawstring cord sat on the ground beside the bike.

Sally stood in the shadows just beyond the statue, in the middle of a patch of bare dirt. She held the large black occult book open in her hands, quietly reciting words out loud.

“Hey, Sally!” Howard called.

“Shhh… Keep it down. We don’t want the whole world to know we’re here,” Paul warned, suddenly aware of how quiet it was in the cemetery. Quiet and very creepy. Maybe conducting an occult ceremony on Witches’ Night wasn’t such a good idea. By the light of day, it didn’t sound so bad. But now, darkness fast approaching, it sounded like the dumbest damn idea in the world.

Sally turned to face them, stepping out of the shadows. She wore a sleeveless black dress, and shoes to match, the light material moving ghostlike in the evening breeze. It was the same dress she had worn two years ago on Halloween. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

Paul felt his pulse quicken. Standing in the clearing, the black dress billowing around her pale white frame, the setting sun turning her blonde hair the color of fire, Sally was absolutely stunning. It took a moment for him to find his voice. “We promised to be here.”

Howard cleared his throat, destroying the magic of the moment. “If what you’re saying is true, then how do we summon these ghosts?”

Sally closed her book and tapped it. “With this.”

“The book?”

She nodded. “With what I found in it.”

“What did you find in it?” Paul asked, his curiosity aroused.

She pulled a folded piece of paper from between the pages, carefully unfolding it. The paper was old and yellowed, looking like parchment. On it were handwritten words, the lettering thick and coppery brown.

“What’s that?” Eric asked, leaning forward to get a better look.

“I found it in the book,” she said. “I guess the previous owner left it there. Maybe they left it for someone like me to find. It’s a spell.”

“A spell?” Paul said, a chill walking down his spine. He suddenly felt as if they were all standing on the edge of a deep dark pit about to step off.

“What kind of spell?” asked Howard.

Sally looked into Paul’s eyes, as if only talking to him. “It’s a spell to open the doorway between the worlds.”

Eric laughed. “Someone is pranking you.”

She held the paper up for all to see the writing. “If so, then they went through a lot of trouble. The spell is written in blood.”

Howard snorted. “Bullshit.”

“Look for yourself,” she said. Howard stepped forward to take a closer look at the paper, but he didn’t take it from her. Maybe he was afraid to touch it, just in case it really was written in blood.
“It does look like blood,” he said, looking around at the rest of them.

“But you can’t be one-hundred-percent sure,” Eric added.

“I’m sure,” she said. “Someone left this spell for a reason. They want us to open the doorway tonight, and let the spirits through.”

“Sally, no,” Paul said, his voice a whisper. “You don’t know what you’re messing with. Something bad could happen.”

She turned to look at him, lowering the paper. And it was then that he noticed the fresh bruises on her right arm. A set of four dark stripes just above her wrist, finger marks. She had tried to hide them with makeup, but the bruises were still darkening and showed through the concealer. There was another set of bruises around her neck that he had mistaken for shadows in the fading sunlight, and more along the inside of her thighs.

“Something bad has already happened,” Sally said. There was a slight quiver to her voice, as if she was on the verge of tears. She took a deep breath, quickly regaining her composure. “This couldn’t be any worse.”

“Gee, I don’t know—” Howard said, about to back out.

“I’m in,” Paul said quickly, not really understanding why he did it. Maybe because Sally had let her armor slip, and he had seen the frightened, abused girl beneath it.

“You’re in?” Eric asked, not believing his ears.

Paul shrugged. “Sure. Why not? Unless you guys are chicken.”

Sally smiled, knowing Paul had ended any and all debate by throwing out the word “chicken.” None of them wanted to be branded a coward.

“Sure, why not?” Eric said, seconding the decision. “We don’t have anything better to do.”
“So, what do we do?” Howard asked.

Sally set the occult book on the ground, referring to the piece of parchment paper. She picked up a stick that was lying next to the burlap bag. “First, it says to draw a pentagram on the ground.”

“A pentagram?” Howard asked. “I thought that was for werewolves. I don’t want Lon Chaney showing up here tonight.”

“Relax, it’s not just for werewolves,” Eric said. “Besides there’s no full moon.”

She ignored their banter, using the stick to draw a large five-pointed star in the dirt. When done, she tossed the stick aside and walked back over to her bag, removing a zippo lighter and three red candles set in glass vases.

Walking back over to them, she handed each boy a candle. “They’re supposed to be black, but this is all we had so I guess they’ll do. They’re leftover from Christmas.”

She lit all of their candles with the Zippo. “Now, each of you pick a point of the star to stand.”
Walking slowly so the flames of their candles wouldn’t blow out, they each chose a point of the star. Sally walked back over to the statue, dropping the lighter into her bag and removing the final item. “We’re supposed to make an offering.”

“A what?” Howard asked.

“An offering to the spirits,” she answered. “A sacrifice.”

“I say we offer Howard,” Eric suggested.

“Screw you,” Howard replied.

Paul’s heart skipped a beat as Sally straightened up and turned back around to face them. In the palm of her left hand she held an orange and white ball of fluff, complete with tiny legs and a tail. A ball of fluff that made a tiny mewing sound.

“Sally, no!” Paul said, horrified. “You can’t sacrifice a kitten.”

“It’s okay, Paul. This poor thing has pneumonia. The whole litter’s infected. Daddy was going to put them down in the morning, so they don’t suffer no more. We’ll just end this guy’s pain a little sooner.”

Putting down an animal with country folks usually meant shooting them, especially if you didn’t have money for an expensive vet bill. Howard had to do it two years ago with his beagle, Chips, after the dog got hit by a car while playing on the road.

“Okay.” Paul nodded. “If it’s sick, I understand. It’s not right to let it suffer.” He looked at the others. “Okay with you guys?”

“How are you going to do it?” Howard asked. “None of us has a gun.”

For the first time that night Paul saw Sally’s confidence slip a little. She hadn’t thought about how to kill the sacrifice. But before anyone else could say anything, Paul answered, “I’ll do it.”

“You?” Eric laughed. “You got sick dissecting a frog in biology class.”

He turned to face Eric, feeling his face flush with embarrassment. “Yeah. But I’m not going to dissect the kitten. I’m going to snap its neck like my grandma does when she kills a chicken for Sunday dinner. Quick, easy, and painless.”

“I doubt painless,” Howard mumbled.

Sally walked forward, placing the kitten in Paul’s hands. Never had a cat felt so warm and so alive as that poor little thing, and he felt like a monster for what he agreed to do. The kitten raised its head and tried to look at him, but its eyes were glued shut with mucus.

Sally moved to the center of the pentagram, taking a stand with her legs slightly apart and her left hand raised to the night sky. Holding the piece of parchment paper in her right hand, she read what was written on the page.

“Oh, spirits come onto us this Walpurgisnacht. Come through the portal and be among us. Oh, Satan, great dark lord, I beg you to open the doorway and let the ancient ones pass into this world. On this Witches’ Night I offer you this sacrifice of flesh and blood, and ask that you pull aside the veil that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead.”

As Sally spoke, Paul noticed the air behind her begin to ripple like heat waves over a fire. Tiny molecules of darkness began to swirl about and bump together, the movement slow at first but quickly becoming frantic. The shadows behind her became a few shades lighter, more gray than black, the boundary between two very different worlds becoming thinner, forming a doorway.
Paul was spellbound by the sight, unable to look away. Sally’s voice seemed to fade into the background as she read words off the parchment page, in an ancient language he didn’t understand. He suddenly found it difficult to breath. A strange buzzing filled his ears.

The patch of moving air grew wider, more turbulent, like steam above a large cauldron of boiling water. The veil between the worlds grew even thinner. Beyond the rippling air, Paul could suddenly see dozens of humanlike shapes.

The shapes took on definition. They were people, but they were not flesh and blood. Nor did they belong to the world of the living. They were shadow people, spirits, perhaps even demons, huddled together in a group, summoned by Sally’s words, waiting for a magical portal to open.
And then what? What would the shadow people do once the gateway fully opened and they were allowed entrance into the world of the living, entering a cemetery where four teenagers performed a ceremony calling upon dark powers they knew nothing about?

Paul had seen enough horror movies to have a sudden suspicion that what we were doing would not end well. Maybe this was why ancient people erected bonfires on Samhain and Walpurgisnacht eons ago. They built bonfires to keep the shadow people out.

But Paul’s sudden suspicion came a moment too late, and he heard his name frantically being called. Hearing his name broke his stupor, causing the buzzing in his ears to dissipate and his mind to clear. He looked at Sally.

She stood with both arms by her side, fists clenched. She screamed at him, her voice frantic, “Now, Paul. Now. Make the sacrifice!”

He looked down at the kitten, but the thing he held no longer had the face of a tiny sick cat. Instead, the little ball of orange and white fluff had a human face, complete with bloodshot eyes, scars, and the unshaven stubble of a beard. It was the face of Sally’s father.

Paul screamed and let go of the kitten, watching in horror as the human-faced monstrosity fell to the ground at his feet. Sally yelled again. “Paul, pick it up. Do the sacrifice. Kill it. Now!”

The other boys stood motionless, holding their candles and watching him. They were too far away, the night too dark, for them to know what was going on. They didn’t see the cat with the human face lying in the grass at his feet, or the evil smile that suddenly unfolded on Sally’s face. A vengeful smile.

“Go on, Paul,” she said, speaking in a voice only he could hear. “Do it. He deserves it. Do it for me. Kill him.”

Slowly, he bent over and picked up the kitten, holding it in the palm of his left hand. Ignoring the human face, he reached his right hand around the back of its head, thumb and fingers on opposite sides of its face. Feeling the human beard stubble made his skin crawl, and he realized that he was about to kill more than just a kitten. The sacrifice being offered to the dark gods this night was Sally’s father.

Paul let his right hand fall limply to his side. “I can’t.”

Sally looked at him in stunned disbelief. “Paul, you must. It’s midnight, the witching hour.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”

“Please. You have to,” she begged, fear edging its way into her voice. “You don’t know what he’s done to me.”

“I know.” He looked into her eyes. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “We all know.”

“Then why won’t you do it? Why won’t you help me?”

“Because we’re just kids, Sally. And this is not kid’s stuff.”

As he spoke, the boiling patch of air behind her began to slow and become less frantic. The shadow people grew dimmer, the veil between the two worlds growing thicker and more solid. As it did, a pair of humanlike arms shot out from the darkness of that other world and grabbed Sally around the waist from behind.

“Paul, Noooo—” Sally’s eyes went wide in terror; she reached both hands out to him in desperation.

Paul ran toward her, leaving his place in the pentagram, reaching out with his right hand to grab her and pull her back. Their fingertips briefly touched, a feeling of electricity shooting up his arm and into his heart.

And then she was gone, snatched by one of the shadow people into the land of the dead. A sacrifice had been offered to the dark gods this unholy night, and a sacrifice had been claimed.

“Paullllll…” Her voice stretched out into a long cry of agony and despair, fading away into nothingness as the door between the two words closed.

He looked down, and saw that the tiny sick kitten he held once again had the normal face of a cat. It was spared from a ritual death, and spared from a trip to the local veterinarian. Maybe it would get better.

Howard and Eric walked up and stood beside him, staring at the place where Sally vanished. None of them spoke.

The boys slowly rode down the hill to the front of the cemetery, leaving the book of magic and the bike of Howard’s sister hidden in the forest. They knew none of them would ever talk of this night. They also knew horror movie marathons were now a thing of the past. Scary movies were no longer fun when you knew real horrors existed in the universe.

As Paul rode away from the cemetery, he wondered if the world where Sally now resided was any more, or less, horrific than the one she had left behind

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