Our 2015 short-fiction contest featured 15 prompts from spooky fiction both famous (Dracula, Frankenstein, 'Salem's Lot) and obscure. Entrants were required to include one of the prompts and craft a story in fewer than 250 additional words.
Here are our winners and favorites. Enjoy!
I don't care for the pale people; I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers had all seemed to run out. Yet, for some reason, the young woman who came to me in my dreams captured my attention. The first night she sat on a wrap-around porch with peeling paint and beckoned me closer. The second night she spoke in a voice so low I couldn't hear her words. The third night she said, "Sit with me, John?" My disposition shifted from fear to fascination. I woke up in a cold sweat glancing around my bedroom listening for a voice I could no longer hear.
Sleep had never come easily to me. Suddenly, I found myself stumbling through my day toward evening when I could lay my head on the pillow. For seven nights I dreamed about the pale girl. I never had a sister. She never had a brother. But it wasn't quite like that. She asked about my likes and dislikes ... favorite foods and carnival rides. "Have a girlfriend?" Rachel asked one night near the end, a little color rising in her cheeks. But it wasn't like that either. Then, she stopped coming to me. Weeks later, the UPS man delivered a package. It was an ancient movie camera I had won at an online auction. It was wrapped in crumpled yellowed newspaper, the Philadelphia Gazette. I liberated the ancient 16-millimeter camera from its newsprint cocoon and saw her visage there among the obituaries of the sick and old. Left to honor Rachel's memory, it read, her mother and father and her special friend, John.
- Rodger Wilming, Davenport
Last Man Standing
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ...
Should he open it? He'd been alone now for 264 days ... wait, 265 days. It could have been the wind, a stray animal perhaps. He walked slowly to the door.
He reached the door; he didn't open it. He strained his ears waiting for the sound to come again ... nothing. His mind began to race.
His imagination took off.
He opened the door. A white box with a red hat on it greeted him. His mouth watered as he lifted the lid. The pizza oozed with extra cheese, mushrooms, green peppers, and anchovies.
His stomach rumbled with hunger. That was not a good thought to have.
He imagined the worst-case scenario.
He opened the door. The barrel touched the tip of his nose. The man forced his way in. With his hands raised he stepped aside as the man came into his home.
He shivered violently as he pulled his mind away from the thought. It was the wind. It had to be. He hadn't seen another living soul in ... he checked the calendar. He counted the red slashes through each day ... 265 days.
He didn't need to open it. There was no one there. Then he heard the bump against the door. He slowly turned the handle. His heart raced, shooting adrenalin through his veins. He pulled it open.
His worse fear came to life. He was completely alone.
- Christina Cress, Long Grove, Iowa
Grand Prize (Tie)
I had gazed on him while he was unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived. But could he talk?
I'd gotten Max, a mixed-breed dog, right early in college. I was away from home for the first time and had a hard time making friends when I found him. The college was hosting some vegetarian shindig and one of the tables was from the local shelter featuring pets who needed a home. Max lay pitifully underneath the table, hiding from the shrilly girls who cooed and talked in high baby voices to him. I felt him make eye contact with me. His look was clear, "Help me," so I did.
He was so smart; he understood far more than my human friends. He got me. But our conversations were definitely one-sided. I became obsessed with wondering what he was thinking and knew we could surgically fix this.
I changed my major to veterinary medicine and eventually had the skills and access to the hospital morgue to carry out my plan. He needed a human larynx, tongue, and lower jaw to be able to actually talk. Then the world would finally know how smart and misunderstood our canine friends really are.
Granted it wasn't easy or pretty, but I was so excited to finally unwrap the bandages, wondering what his first words would be. "Ready boy?" Max stared at me intensely. Would he thank me? Tell me of his undying devotion? I leaned closer to hear his first utterance. It was a hoarse whisper, but I think his first words were "Kill me."
- S.J. Schipper, Clinton, Iowa
The Bleeding Truth
Lifting his mouth from the girl's neck and turning toward the boy, the stranger gave his best Bela Lugosi impression: "'I don't care for the pale people; I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers all seemed to run out.' What a pity."
"I'm ... I'm ready right now," the young man said, pulling down his collar. "I've upheld my part of the bargain."
"Blood, blood, blood," said the stranger, strolling leisurely toward him, "Our kind doesn't actually need it, you know? We just like it. Restoring one's youth by drinking a mortal's blood makes very little sense. You're filled with the stuff, and what does it do for you?"
The teen laughed nervously, and the stranger continued.
"Look at me. Am I pale? Do I have a cape or popped collar? My teeth may be sharper than yours, but ... ya know ... the whole blood thing."
Like a doctor distracting his patient from the needle, the stranger bit swiftly and drank. Once sated, he stepped away from the couch.
The boy, desperately trying to contain the blood developing around his neck, sputtered, "You've turned me right? I've been Embraced into the clan?"
"That hand, I'm afraid to say, we do play close to our chests. Quite a useful little lie, though. You'll bleed out here before anyone finds you. Deceitful? Yes, but you forget ... we are the bad guys."
The young man's eyes were already distant, his T-shirt crimson with blood. He grabbed the stranger's boot but was dispelled.
"I'll be leaving now. Don't be surprised if I don't transform into a bat."
- Jacob Ruefer, Rock Island
Such a Good Girl
If I'm being completely honest, I don't remember much.
I could feel fingers on my head. Petting, swimming through my hair. One hand after the other.
That much I remember.
Then the whispers: Such a good girl. Such a good girl. Granny loves you very much.
Some minutes or hours passed in this way. The syrupy-sweet words poured atop each caress of my hair.
Whatever she'd done, I couldn't move. I don't think I was bound, and yet I didn't leave. Didn't sprint. Didn't struggle. Didn't spit in her face.
Eventually she kissed me. First on the eyelids. Then the cheeks. Then the lips.
When it was over she wiped at her mouth and said she would let me go today if I promised never to tell anybody if I sent my pretty little sister to her tomorrow.
Whether from magic or drugs, I was unable to conjure words.
I nodded, nodded.
She held my hands as she helped me to my feet. I stumbled some as we walked down the steps of what I then learned was a train car.
That's where she left me.
I walked and walked through the woods. No idea where I was.
Eventually I exited near a farmhouse I recognized at the edge of our town.
When I finally reached home. I walked right past my mother in the kitchen. No questions asked.
Upstairs, I entered my sister's room. Said, quite sweetly, "I want to show you something."
- Brian Burmeister, DeWitt, Iowa
A Piece of Hair
I felt a hair in my mouth. Before I could remove it, Grandma called me to the other room.
"Dear! I want to show you something."
A weekend; that's all it was supposed to be. Spend time with Grandma while Mom and Dad took their anniversary trip. Then bad weather struck, their flight delayed, and I was stuck here.
Descending the steps into the sunken room, my stomach was in shambles. This was not where I wanted to be right now. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.
Using my tongue, I tried to twist the hair from the corner of my mouth. Grandma was opening a chest.
"Here it is, Darling! Look."
The strand felt unnaturally long as I pulled it with my fingers.
"Beautiful, weren't they?"
A sudden rush of nausea struck me as more than a foot hung from my mouth. I couldn't focus on the picture Grandma held: just a couple with their daughter. I barely noticed that it was a photograph of my own parents, and the girl with them was not me. Pulling at the seemingly never-ending thread with both hands now, I quickly realized something.
I was in the picture. Clutched in the girl's arms.
My mouth open wide, I tried to scream, but produced no sound. The large hole in my chest wouldn't let me.
"Oh, look what you've done. You've pulled your seam. Come here, Dear. Grandmother will mend you."
- Jacob Ruefer, Rock Island
Grand Prize (Tie)
"You're a strange one."
When the monster in the closet said this to Jacob, he paused, holding the baseball that he had been rolling into the open closet tight in his hand, fingers rubbing over the light gouges from the thing's claws when it rolled the ball back. He'd been playing with the monster for years and never been afraid, not of the glowing eyes or the yellowed fangs that glinted in the moonlight peeping through the slated blinds - so many of them.
He said, "Was Layla strange, too?" A neighbor girl, missing for a few days now. Jacob had no illusions that the thing only visited him.
The shadowy figure shifted restlessly. "She was less than ideal on many levels. I don't care for the pale people; I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers had all seemed to run out."
Jacob's heart sped up. "You ate her?"
"Does that bother you?"
"I don't know." He didn't think it was fear or disgust that he felt. "She wasn't a strange one, though?"
Jacob nodded slowly, and rolled the ball to the dark closet again.
"What about me?"
"I don't eat those like me, the strange ones."
Wind rattled outside and Jacob stared at the teeth, the eyes. His best friend. "Don't eat my family, either."
The monster grinned, claws clacking quietly.
"But the others?"
Jacob shrugged, easy smile playing on his lips. "I guess even the monster in the closet has to eat."
- Avery Mulholland, Clinton, Iowa
Living the Dream
"Mmmm ... Morning, Big Guy. Time to wake up."
"Ahhhhmmm ... Mornin', Beautiful. You look gorgeous!"
"Oh, stop ... You're killing me! My hair's a wild mess! It's full of static from the storm last night."
"Hey, I love your hair, especially the streaks. I always thought they were kind of sexy. Wait. What storm?"
"What storm? Really? You didn't hear anything? It was so loud! The thunder shook the house and the lightning lit up the sky like daylight!"
"Huh. Nope. Didn't hear a thing. But I do feel strangely energized ... hmmm?"
"Ohhh, you're such a wild man! Come on, pull yourself together and we'll get some coffee."
"Sounds good. Oh, man, I just remembered ... I had some pretty creepy dreams last night. I was in a cemetery and there were people digging up graves. They were stealing bodies right out of the coffins! There was a guy wearing a lab coat. He talked to me like he knew me and he had the craziest eyes!"
"Wow! The storm did get to you!"
"Maybe, but I was reading that scary book right before bed. Look, here's the last thing I read: 'I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.'"
"Ugh ... that's awful. How can you read that stuff? Here, drink your coffee and let's get going."
"Thanks. Awww, geez!"
"What? Frank, what's wrong?"
"My collar is soaking wet. Can you hand me a wrench, hon? That stupid bolt in my neck is loose again."
- Lynn Gingras-Taylor, Bettendorf
"Who's the strangest one here?" asked Tom, the newest aide.
"Well," said Carl, the senior aide, "as Dr. Roberts says, they're not strange, just in touch with a different reality. But I'd be careful of the one in room 564. He thinks he's the last man on Earth."
"Whenever someone comes near him, he thinks it's the Devil after him and he tears the person to shreds. Literally. With his bare hands. And his teeth. He killed four that way before he was caught. All people who made the mistake of knocking on his door. He's chained to the bed, but still we don't knock and go in like with the other patients. We have to put knockout drops in his morning food before we slide it through the slot in the door; otherwise we could never get in there to check on him."
A young man with a visitor's pass pinned to his jacket came into the room. "Excuse me," he began. "I'm a volunteer with the school psychology club, and they said I could pass out Halloween candy on the ward, it being Halloween and all."
"Yeah, go ahead," said Carl.
It didn't take long to hand out a few chocolate bars. As he was turning to leave, one of the residents said, "Don't forget him," pointing to the end of the room. "He'd love a Halloween treat."
"Thanks," said the volunteer, heading to the back of the ward.
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ... .
- Mel Piff, Moline
Alan Beachwood sat in an office chair, staring out the window at the dark empty city below. Smoke and steam rolled off the tops as the cold wintry winds blew through the rows of tall black silhouettes. No lights polka-dotting the landscape, no cars streaming through the gaps.
He sat still, with his eyes slowly scanning the darkness, trying to find any sign of life, human or otherwise. His hair disheveled, salt and pepper stubble covering his jaw, and his hands tightly gripping the arms of the chair.
Alan had thought through the night, recalling the past few days. How each morning would be the worst of the attacks, and how they targeted us individually. They knew exactly whom they were going to kill, and whom they were going to take back with them. No matter where you went, they would find you.
Keeping still, breathing lightly, he watched as the skyline changed from a deep black to a soft blue. The sun was rising. His mind flashed to images of his family and his friends suddenly collapsing, seizing and, ultimately, decaying right in front of his eyes. Sweat began to bead on his forehead. Now gripping the arms of the chair even tighter. "They can't find me. They can't find me," he thought to himself.
The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ... .
- James Draper, Rock Island
Paul awoke to blinding sunlight pouring in through the cellar door. He had been strapped to the cot in this dank cellar for three days. The only source of light had been a pull-chain fixture that never seemed to stop swaying. His stomach churned, wondering what new and different horrors awaited him today.
The young petite blonde woman that was holding him captive was surprisingly strong, and terrifyingly sadistic. Yesterday it had been The Drawing of the Three, and Paul was Roland for the day. He ended the day missing several fingers from his right hand. The day before was It. She had been dressed like Pennywise and severed Paul's left arm at the shoulder while she cackled, "They float, Georgie!" They had started this nightmare with Misery. His name was Paul, after all, and now he was missing his left foot, just like the man in the story.
Paul looked around the cellar, hoping to find something to help him escape. All he saw was the little blonde woman standing at a bookshelf. She grabbed a book and turned around. A malevolent look was in her eyes.
"Good morning, Jimmy. Looks like today we're traveling to 'Salem's Lot, she said cheerfully, holding a kitchen knife in her hand. "Page 424: 'The cellar door stood open. And the screams began.' Looks like our cellar door is already open. Time to make Stephen's dreams come true."
She tossed the book over her shoulder, and Paul began screaming.
- Chris White, Colona, Illinois
The cat is licking my beard again. My eyes open to an ever-changing barrage of colors and shadows casting themselves upon the living-room walls. The television is still on, and loud, and I wonder how I can sleep like this. I nudge the cat away and roll to my feet from the couch, notice a slight breeze coming from my right. The sliding-glass door leading onto our deck stands ajar.
As I start to shut the door, I hear something. Faint but there. Voices in the distance. Why would anyone be outside at this hour?
I slam the door shut and move swiftly towards our bedrooms. The door to our girls' room is shut, as it should be. I open it, quietly then quick.
Neither girl is in her bed.
I dash to our room, fling open the door. Our bed is empty. Our window wide open.
Fast as I can, I race back through the house, through the sliding-glass door in our living room, to the deck beyond.
I stop. Scan the yard. All is silent, unmoving.
Then I see it. And time changes. I'm no longer in the moment, but it beyond, looking back.
The cellar door stood open. And the screams began.
I raced to the cellar and down the stairs. My family was there. As was a man. Dressed in all black. His grin wide, wide.
He looked to me and said, "Good. We're all here. Let's begin."
- Brian Burmeister, DeWitt, Iowa
I can't speak. But the words are still clear, and every emotion and unspoken plea stays here. It sends lumps to throats, and shivers crawling along spines. I'm breathing down necks, trying to whisper a hundred words and no one listens but the house.
Everything in the house hears me.
The stairs have warped, the floors are sinking, and the windows are broken. Even the furniture has sagged under the weight.
I sit in the attic, knees drawn up and numb as dead leaves skitter across the floor from where the roof is gone. It's been years since those girls, since I watched them touch my things and felt the overwhelming jealousy and desire. And the house listened. So the fire burned, and the girls ... they never left the attic again. They didn't stay either, just like everyone else. Buried and gone but here I am, waiting, the dust and rot slowly collecting.
I am the lonely that seeps into every surface. The kind of lonely that takes but wants more. I've taken so much that the opportunities start to vanish.
But I've grown patient since those girls, since so many others. Someday, I'll get what I want.
Someday, you'll pull up.
You won't see me standing in the attic, wind brushing past with the smell of smoke still lingering after all this time. You'll feel it though as you look up at the shuttered house through tree branches and endless autumn-hued leaves.
Welcome to the house. Won't you stay?
- Avery Mulholland, Clinton, Iowa
From Our Staff
He gently clasps my right hand in both of his, a generous smile exuding warmth, eyes twinkling.
He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn't specify the point.
The skin is lightly, evenly tanned, with a youthful glow despite nearly half a century on the planet - and the lines appear etched gently by the sun rather than carved by age and stress. The teeth brilliant and straight. The irises an indescribable blue filigreed with gold. Strong jaw. Every feature proportional to every other, with perfect symmetry. The hair hints at wisdom in the temples and sideburns with the slightly mussed look of somebody 15 years his junior - but without any whiff of middle-aged desperation.
The body is lean and toned. His clothes, his car, his wife - all self-evidently gorgeous without ostentation.
I try - hard - to recall his high-school acne, how awkwardly he carried himself back then, some embarrassing incident, a terrible thing he did to me. But at our 30-year class reunion, I'm blinded by now.
My fingernails dig into my left palm, and I swing my fist for the straight bridge of his noble nose. He casually leans back to evade the blow and nonchalantly twists my right arm until I drop to my knees.
He's still smiling, looking down at me. From my new vantage point, the face looks different - malevolently askew.
I smile back. He should have taken the punch.
- Jeff Ignatius, Managing Editor