James and Theo headed home. It was late, they knew they’d struggle to sleep, but Marcus insisted that they get some rest. Their next night could be even harder.
With the boy and his dad away the other three had a nasty job on their hands. Nicky and Taz were already nauseous and they hadn’t even started. Taz stared at Marcus as they walked back up the road:
“Are you serious? We have to walk up to that churchyard and dig up a grave?”
Marcus gave a sombre, curt, nod:
“Actually, in that graveyard it’s five graves. The others are buried in different places throughout the town.”
They didn’t speak another word for twenty minutes. Not when they went into Nicky and Scott’s shed. Not when they picked up the spades. Not when Marcus grabbed a sharpening block from a shelf. Not when they walked up the hill, or when they entered the graveyard.
“Marcus I don’t think I can do this. This is a graveyard. It doesn’t feel right.”
Marcus placed the sharpening block on the wall beside him:
“You’re right Nicky. This doesn’t feel right. Give me a second.”
Marcus got up and wandered around the church grounds. He slipped round the back of the church just as a police car pulled up beside the wall. The officer inside wound down his window:
“Alright Scott? Nicky? Mind telling me what you’re up to in a graveyard in the middle of the night? And while you’re at it I could do with some details on the shovels you’re holding.”
Taz had nothing, Nicky jumped in:
“Just volunteering with the St Michaels clean up group. Shame to see the place in disrepair. Left our spades. We were just picking them up to take home.”
The policeman frowned:
“If it were anyone else I’d be asking a lot more questions. You do see how weird this is? Look, do you guys want a lift home? It’s really bitter tonight.”
Taz looked back to the church building for Marcus:
“No, thanks Gordon, we’ll be fine. A wee walk won’t do us any harm.”
Gordon shook his head and snorted:
“If you’re sure? OK keep safe, both of you. Been some weird stuff happening tonight. Radio hasn’t stopped for a second. People talking about black-eyed ghost-children. Can you believe that?”
Scott and Nicky feigned surprise at the absurdity. Scott even faked a laugh:
“Ghost-children? Folk have been spending too much time on the ‘dark side’ of YouTube or something. Anyway thanks Gordon, see you around.”
Taz could see him lifting his radio. Gordon had left his window open, they heard everything:
“Gordon that’s the official count at four now. Four kids missing. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”
Gordon turned back to look for the couple with spades, in a graveyard, after midnight but they were gone.
Taz and Nicky watched from behind the church as Gordon got out the car to look for them. Marcus tried asking what was going on but was shushed instantly.
After a few minutes Gordon rubbed his arms and got back into the warmth of his police car. Nicky and Taz exhaled at last:
“Marcus, we’re not heroes. They got four other kids while we were running around finding Daniel.”
Marcus slumped on the wall beside them:
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
They listened to the sound of distant sirens. Well aware of what they meant. Marcus held his head in his hands:
“That’s not all. I can’t sense their bones. The ghoul children’s bones. They’re not here any more. ”
Taz didn’t see the problem with getting a night off grave-digging. Marcus stood up and looked out towards the east:
“I don’t deny that would have been a horrible task Taz but now we have no idea where those bones are. They were our best hope of taking control back and finding those children. We’re running out of time now.”
Nicky stared at Marcus:
“What do you mean? What will they do with the children?”
Marcus shook his head:
“No, I don’t mean that. I can feel the sun. My powers, and those of the ghoul-children go during the day. We only have a few hours to track them down.”
They left their spades behind and marched away. After an hour of traipsing their way up and down the freezing High Street while Marcus tried to ‘sense’ the bones they realised they needed a new strategy.
Marcus was sure they must be near. Otherwise, why was Daniel dragged up this way?
They sat down on the pavement at the top of Church Street. The sounds of the night had died away to nothing and the sounds of the morning hadn’t yet begun. A chill breeze dragged leaves and rubbish up and down the deserted street.
The sound grew closer, still faint. It stopped outside a shop. Something in the window toppled over with a CLANG that made them all gasp.
The echo of the falling object dwindled away and the crunching steps continued on. They grew closer still, stopping in front of them. Only now could they see the faint outline of footprints in the frost. Even Marcus drew his legs back.
A voice floated to them on the wind. It came from a spot six feet above the footprints. Barely as loud as a whisper:
“…begging your pardon…”
The crunching steps continued past them and off towards the east end of the High Street. Marcus whispered to the others:
“What was that?”
The blood drained out of their faces; if Marcus didn’t know what it was then how were they supposed to?
Faint echoes of the footsteps reflected from shop windows and walls, slowing for just a moment. Scott and Nicky wanted nothing more than to get home but Marcus jumped to his feet and followed the sounds as gently as he could. He had a sense that they were supposed to follow.
The crunching steps drew them out to the very end of the high street and stopped outside the door of a bed and breakfast. It waited for them to catch up. In a voice as cold and lifeless as the wind, it whispered:
Then it was gone.
Marcus didn’t have nerves but that didn’t stop his hands from shaking:
“I didn’t like that.”
The others shook their heads in agreement.
They barely had time to take a breath before Marcus dropped to his knees his face twisting in pain. His words came out in gut wrenched gasps:
“Here…they’re here…the kids…the bones.”
He heaved, if he had eaten anything in the past two-thousand years now would have been the time he’d have thrown it up:
“Too much…I can’t do this…wait an hour…they’ll be drawn back to their bones then…sorry, going home. Going home now.”
Marcus dissolved in front of their eyes, a cloud of black smoke dribbled away back the way they came.
The sign outside read ‘no vacancy’. The dark windows left the place looking toothless. Apparently this was the place. If two ghosts tell you where to find a pile of bones you listen to them.
An hour is a long time in the dead of night. The only positive was that no one was about to ask what they were up to. They had ducked away from Gordon’s police car a few times after they had seen him but he hadn’t been past in over an hour.
Taz held Nicky’s hand. She checked her watch, counting down the minutes.
Frost gathered on everything. Even adding a crispy quality to their eyelashes. Nicky wrapped her arms around her husband for warmth. Out the corner of her eye she saw a curtain twitch in one of the lower rooms. They were being watched.
A fire leapt into both their bellies as they jumped onto alert. Had some of the ghoul-children escaped the sheriff? Every shadow seemed to grow a pair of black eyes, their minds turning everything into lifeless faces.
Imaginations on overdrive, they almost missed the middle-aged man standing in the doorway staring vacantly in their direction. Motionless and silent, his gaze never left them. It seemed to issue a warning (‘I am here. I see you. Don’t come any closer’).
The man was clearly an ordinary flesh-and-blood human being. When they looked closely they recognised him as the owner of the B&B. Had the ghoul-children hypnotised him before they disappeared?
Ten minutes were left on their advised time but neither of them could take another second of the man’s glassy stare. They walked to him hand in hand. They’d had enough waiting.
The man stood aside to let them through. They were not ready for what lay beyond the door.
Keep up with the story
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Thanks for reading, all the best, John