Autumn Leaves (from Monsters in the Dark)
Donovan ‘Monster’ Smith
A light breeze cascaded through the neighborhood, sending goose pimples up Leia’s forearm like rapid fire. She rubbed at it, trying to dispel the cold as she walked to the next house over. She’d wanted to go as one of the princesses from her favorite films but wound up being a pixie instead. It was her mother’s idea, a decision she wasn’t very happy with.
“Come on Eliah, hurry up,” chirped Leia.
“You don’t have to wait for me, you know.”
“Mom said we have to stay together,” she whined.
“I can’t believe I’m stuck babysitting,” he muttered under his breath.
“I’m not a baby, Eliah,” she said, her feelings hurt.
This was Leia’s first time going trick or treating without her parents chaperoning. They had let her go with the promise that Eliah would watch over her the entire time. Unfortunately for him, he was tasked with babysitting his seven-year-old sister, although he’d much rather have gone by himself.
Eliah was fifteen years old and looking forward to starting his freshman year in high school soon. He felt he was old enough now that he shouldn’t have to keep tabs on his little sister anymore. He had his own life to live, and he would have preferred the company of his friends.
He followed Leia up to the last house on the corner of the street, escorting her to the front door. There were spookily carved jack-o’-lanterns lighting up either side of the front door, along with a bloody welcome mat for aesthetics. The owners had switched their normal light bulbs for black lights, to add to the eerie Halloween theme.
They walked up to the door, managing to avoid the flood of kids receiving their candy. One was dressed as a clown, another as a werewolf, and yet another was wearing a scary looking skull mask to compliment his jeans and plain white tee. Their buckets were overflowing with treats, and Eliah was insanely jealous.
He knew his bucket would be just as full if he didn’t have to drag his bratty sister alongside him.
They approached the door and Mr. Park opened it slowly, greeting the kids with a “Happy Halloween” and a smile.
He was an elderly veteran in his late sixties and had been a fixture in the neighborhood for nearly two decades — a lot longer than Eliah or his sister had been alive. He was stiflingly friendly and was extremely fond of the little ones throughout his neighborhood. He was always polite and willing to help with anything he could. He was slow on his feet, thanks to an injury he suffered back in his military days, and he strode with a limp, never going anywhere without his trusty old cane.
Leia smiled back. “Trick or treat, Mr. Park.”
“Well, aren’t you just the cutest little thing,” he said, all smiles. “What are you supposed to be, a fairy?”
“I’m a pixie,” she said enthusiastically.
“I see,” he said. “Well, you sure are the cutest little pixie I’ve ever seen.”
Leia giggled, and Eliah shook his head to express his displeasure at the small talk. He stuck his nearly barren pillowcase out for his share, thanking Mr. Park once they were finished. It was coming up on eight o’clock – almost time to call it quits but there were a few more streets to cover before they headed home, and Leia was excited to continue the quest.
As they journeyed to the next street over, Eliah happened to run into a few of his classmates, including Cari Worthington, the girl he’d had a crush on since middle school.
Oddly enough, she was dressed as a dancer, wearing knee-high black leather boots, a snug halter top, and the hottest skintight booty shorts he’d ever seen. His eyes bulged out of his head, like one of those old cartoon characters he used to watch on Saturday mornings when he was a kid.
He tried to play it cool, offering up a casual, “Hey, Cari.”
“Hey,” Cari replied. “What are you up to tonight?”
“Oh, nothing really, just getting candy.”
“Me too,” she said and held up her bag. “How did you make out?”
“Not too bad,” he said. “I’m about half full.”
“Yeah, me too. Jane over there, though, is making a killing. This is her fifth neighborhood tonight.”
Eliah glanced at the girl’s bag and was surprised to see it overflowing. She must have hit every neighborhood in town.
“That’s a killer costume,” he said, hoping not to come off as creepy.
“I like yours, too. What are you supposed to be?”
“I’m a mafia hitman. You like the suit?”
“Yeah, it looks good on you,” she coyly replied, and shot a smile his way. “We’re going down to the old Potter Mill right now. Wanna come with?”
“I’d love too, but…”
“Mom said you have to stay with me,” interrupted Leia. “I’ll tell on you.”
“Shut up. Go away,” he snapped, embarrassed and hoping Cari wouldn’t make fun of him for being out with his little sister.
“I’ll tell on you,” snapped Leia.
“It’s cool if you can’t come,” Cari responded, flashing a flask full of booze she’d copped earlier from her old man’s liquor cabinet at home. “Guess we’ll have to have fun without you.”
She winked at him, saying “We’ll see you later,” and disappeared into the shadows around the corner.
It was the first time she’d ever asked him to tag along, and he wasn’t able to because he was stuck watching over his snotty little sister. He was sick to his stomach.
“Why do you always have to ruin everything?” he barked angrily. “Sometimes I wish you were never born.”
“That’s mean,” said Leia, her eyes watery and red around the edges. “I hate you!”
Walking down the street after hitting a few houses, Eliah noticed a smattering of insects dancing under the streetlights. The air had grown a few degrees warmer and muggy, giving him a weird vibe as they neared the end of the street. There were only two houses left to hit on Clapton Drive – the Thompsons’ and the Wicks’.
The streetlight flickered above their heads as they made their way to the last house on the street, the Wicks’. As they drew closer, Leia saw a stuffed scarecrow sitting in a chair by the front door. Having seen those sort of things before, she knew what was about to happen.
“He’s going to jump out at us,” she whispered to her brother with a smirk.
“Duh,” said Eliah, still angry at his sister. “Mr. Wick does the same thing every year.”
“You don’t have to be mean,” she snapped back, her feelings hurt once more. “You’re no fun tonight.”
“Neither are you,” he replied snidely. “Let’s just get this over with. It’s almost time to go home.”
Suddenly, as they were arguing, Mr. Wick, dressed in his fake scarecrow costume, jumped out at them.
“Arrrggggghhhhh,” yelled Mr. Wick as he stumbled toward them.
Leia was caught off guard, and she just about flew out of her shoes. Eliah had been waiting for Mr. Wick to pounce on them and scare them, and he couldn’t help but burst into laughter at the expense of his little sister. She was such a scaredy-cat, easily spooked by her own shadow.
“Good one, Mr. Wick. You scared her good,” he said, laughing.
“Shut up, Eliah,” she screamed at him.
“Now, now, children,” said Mr. Wick through the latex mask.
She stuck out her bag. “Trick or treat,” she said, her heart still pounding from the scare.
Mr. Wick grabbed the bowl of candy he’d laid out for the trick or treaters and let them each grab a handful. He wished them a goodnight and sat back in his chair, sitting still, playing possum for his next victim.
As they finished and began toward the last street of the night, Leia tripped and banged her knee.
“Are you all right?” asked Eliah.
“My knee, it hurts,” she said with watery eyes, inspecting it.
“You’re so annoying. Get up.”
“You’re the worst brother ever,” she yelled. “I hate you!”
They were rounding the block, approaching the last street of the night before calling it quits, when they bumped into Henry Little.
Henry Little was the highly disliked neighborhood bully, who was always getting himself in trouble. He was known for getting into fights and causing destruction, occasionally spending some time in juvenile detention centers.
Recently, over the past few weeks, Henry had taken a strong disliking toward Eliah. Anytime he saw Eliah around, he made a point to pick on him, for whatever reason he could make up. Eliah had guessed the reason to be that Henry was simply jealous of him.
Tonight, Eliah was completely caught off guard when they rounded the corner and ran into Henry, next to the oleander hedge.
Bugs attacked Henry’s neck, and he smacked at them like a mental patient who just escaped a hospital. One of the bugs splattered on his neck and palm, and Henry rubbed the guts on his jeans.
He spat at Eliah, hitting his shoe. “Well, look who we have here,” he said, with an evil grin spanning from cheek to cheek.
Eliah didn’t know what to do; his main concern was getting out of there as fast as he could. He didn’t want his sister around a hoodlum like Henry. She didn’t need to be exposed to someone so vile.
“What do you want, Henry?” asked Eliah impatiently.
“Looks like I hit the jackpot tonight,” said Henry, laughing manically.
“What jackpot?” asked Leia, catching a nudge from her brother.
Eliah glanced down at her and shook his head slightly from side to side, subtly informing her not to say anything.
“Looks like I’m going to be elbows deep in candy tonight,” Henry chuckled.
“What do you want, Henry?” asked Eliah once more, waiting for a reply.
“I want your candy, dumbass.”
“You can’t have our candy,” blurted Leia, catching another nudge from her brother.
“I can take whatever I want,” he said, laughing as if he’d just said the craftiest thing ever.
“That’s stealing,” she chirped.
“And what are you going to do about it?” he snarled, glaring at Eliah.
Suddenly there was a grumbling noise coming from their right, amongst the oleander hedge.
Out of the blue, Eliah recalled a memory from when he was younger. He was around seven or eight at the time. His Uncle Jimmy told him a nasty, quarter-century-old story about a monster that lived in the oleander hedges around town.
He warned Eliah to keep an eye out and never get too close, “or the oleander monster will get ya,” he would say. Uncle Jimmy told him that the oleander monster fed on the souls of children and young adults. He said it would eat the bodies of its victims and absorb their souls for energy.
All those thoughts raced through his mind in a matter of seconds, and he took a step backwards, remembering what his uncle had told him. He never really believed in the tales his uncle told, often chalking it up to his warped sense of humor.
The air flexed with anticipation, and bugs circled in droves under the soft yellow glow of the streetlight. Henry paid no attention to the sounds coming from the oleander hedge, instead aiming his aggression at Eliah and his sister. The temperature had risen at an alarming rate over the last minute as they stood there sweating.
Henry noticed beads of moisture sliding down Eliah’s forehead, thinking highly of himself. “Either hand it over, or I’m going to beat you to a pulp,” he demanded.
“Henry, come on man,” said Eliah. “Don’t take our candy.”
“Hand it over or I’m going to smash you up,” he said with fire in his eyes.
Eliah handed his bag over. “Here, take mine, but let her keep what she’s got. She has nothing to do with this.”
“Hers too,” said Henry, puffing out his chest. “Hand it over.”
“No. You can’t take hers,” said Eliah.
“Your choice,” said Henry, and he swung at Eliah.
His fist connected with Eliah’s cheek, and immediately Eliah clutched at the side of his face. His cheek swelled instantly as his face turned bright red.
“What did you do that for?” cried Leia, concerned for her brother’s safety.
“Hand it over,” demanded Henry.
Leia lowered her head, disgusted at the bully, and stuck her bag out for Henry to take. There was nothing she or her brother could do about the situation. It was beyond them. Henry reached for Leia’s bag, when all of a sudden the bushes started moving.
Eliah let go of his face and watched as something breached the hedge, covered in leaves. It was thick and slimy, with dying yellowish green leaves plastered to it like some otherworldly sculpture. Henry had his back to the hedge and couldn’t see it stretching for him. Leia saw it coming and stood there slack jawed, staring at the thing in awe.
Without warning, the thing grabbed a handful of Henry’s shirt, yanking him into the oleander hedge. Henry screamed at the top of his lungs, but there was no one in sight to help. He kicked and punched at the thing, trying to get free.
“What the fuck?” he yelled. “Help me! Help me!”
The thing drug him into the oleander hedge, disappearing amongst the leaves. Eliah couldn’t help himself and just had to see what grabbed Henry. He parted the hedge and peered in, trying to get a clean look at the thing.
It was made up of gooey grey mush, with leaves stuck to it like skin. Deep crimson, vine-like veins twisted all over, just under a layer of leaves. Eliah watched as the thing opened its slimy, saliva-drenched mouth and bit down on the top of Henry’s head.
There was a sickening crack as Henry’s skull was split open by the monster’s powerful bite. It chomped and chewed on the skin and bone, smacking its mouth, enjoying the delicious meal. Eliah was mesmerized and couldn’t seem to pull himself away.
Henry’s left eye opened, looking right at Eliah, as he gurgled and choked on his own blood. Skin and tissue fell from the monster’s mouth as it continued to eat. Henry’s leg twitched, kicking out at the air, and Eliah knew he was almost dead.
Leia managed to get her head under Eliah’s arm, wanting to see what was happening. She saw the monster and instantly started screaming. It startled Eliah, breaking him out of the trance he was in.
“Get back, Leia,” he yelled.
“Oh my god,” she cried. “Is he dead?”
“Don’t look! Don’t look, Leia! Stay back,” he said in a state of confusion.
Henry raised his arm, a final attempt to reach for help, and the monster’s mouth snapped down like a bear trap, taking a bite out of Henry’s exposed brain. It looked like spaghetti smothered in sauce, and Eliah couldn’t stand to watch any longer. He let go of the hedge and bent over, putting his hands on his knees, trying to gather himself.
Suddenly, he heard Leia screaming and turned around just in time to see her feet disappearing into the hedge. The thing had grabbed her and drug her off into the oleanders. As scared as he was, he mustered up all the guts he could and parted the hedge, searching for his sister.
The monster was holding her in the air, its dripping, gooey claws clenched tightly around her waist. It looked at Eliah, almost smiling, like it knew a dirty little secret that he didn’t. It tilted its head, as if to get a better angle, and opened its mucky mouth, ready for the next course.
“Get away from her,” he yelled in a panicked frenzy. “Leave her alone!”
“Eliah,” she said, drowsy, half conscious, her eyelids drooping.
His mind was spinning this way and that, and he had no clue what to do. But he knew he had to get his sister. He summoned all the grit he could and forced himself into the oleander hedge.
It felt like a sauna inside the hedge, and Eliah quickly became disoriented due to the dense humidity. Henry’s body was lying on the ground next to the monster, half eaten, discarded like a chicken bone. Half of his head was missing, and his right arm was nowhere in sight. Blood and chunks of brain matter were sprinkled all about like cookie crumbs.
He made eye contact with the monster, catching its gaze as it paused what it was doing. It had shiny yellow eyes with black, vertical pupils, like a cat. Its eyes were hypnotizing and frightening, like the eyes of some unknown ancient race. Its mushy wet skin was crawling with worms, cockroaches, and various other bottom feeders.
Eliah wiped the sweat from his brow as the insects swarmed like vultures. The monster stretched its mouth wide, taking a bite out of Leia’s neck, splashing the surrounding leaves with blood. He could see the life draining from his sister, and knew he had to do something quick.
The monster munched another mouthful of Leia’s neck and instantly her head drooped as she slipped into a state of unconsciousness. It had a voracious appetite and continued to gorge itself on the body of his sister as Eliah watched in terror.
“Leave her alone!”
The monster raised its head, staring right at him, as pieces of flesh and bone tumbled out of its mouth. It continued to sloppily chew with its eyes firmly fixed on him, never once wavering. Blood poured from Leia’s head wound, washing her face with a mixture of grey mush and sticky red liquid.
Suddenly, Eliah heard voices coming from the other side of the hedge, and his heart raced at the prospect of help. It sounded like trick or treaters on their way to the next street over, probably the last of the night. He was already late getting home, and he knew that soon enough his parents would start looking for him and his sister.
“Help!” he cried out, but there was no response. “Someone, help me!”
He turned back just as the monster took another chunk out of Leia’s neck, dripping blood like gravy.
The thing was hideous, a forgotten obscenity, an abomination of mankind. It roared at him with an unquenchable, ravenous hunger that couldn’t be satisfied — no matter how much it ate.
There was nothing left he could do for his sister; she was already dead.
He turned to leave, fearing for his own life, not wanting to be the creature’s next feast. As he tried to exit the hedge, ruffling and squishing sounds drifted over him like a lullaby. He glanced over his shoulder one last time and saw the atrocious monster, two feet back. He grabbed at the hedge frantically. Just as his hands touched the leaves, he was yanked backwards into an infinite darkness.
Red and blues lit up the street as men in uniforms meticulously raked over the crime scene. Cones were placed at either end of the street, blocking any traffic, and yellow caution tape surrounded the oleander hedge.
“Hey Pranke, come take a look at this,” said one of the officers.
“Damn Jameson, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” replied Officer Pranke, parting the hedge.
“I’ve got a child over here; a female,” said Officer Jameson, inspecting the body.
“I’ve got two more over here; males, teenagers,” said Pranke, wiping the sweat from his face. “One’s missing a head. Anyone see a head around here?”
“Look at this,” said Jameson, touching a slimy grey spot on the shirt of the headless body.
Officer Pranke started toward the street, when suddenly there was a ruffling behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something coming at him, followed by a sloshing sound.
Monsters in the Dark is now available for Kindle and in paperback here. Coming soon to Audible.