Gail crushed the empty beer can and hurled it at the portrait of her parents that hung above the fireplace. It bounced off the painting’s gilded frame and landed on the plush carpet—powder blue, the color reminded her of crying babies. She’d done her own share of crying when she was growing up in the house with dear old Mom and Dad, until she got smart and learned that whining was for losers. Winners didn’t take shit from anybody. Winners got even.
“Happy Halloween,” she yelled at the painting.
Her father looked right past her like he wasn’t even listening. Her mother’s smile didn’t waver, but her eyes narrowed as if she was judging her.
Gail grabbed the TV remote and hucked it at the painting. Her aim was so off, the remote didn’t make it to the wall. She grunted and stood. She was buzzed, but not drunk enough to pass out. Swaying, she walked to the kitchen. There were four cans of beer left in the fridge.
At first, she assumed that the hazy apparition standing beside the kitchen counter was a hallucination. The phantom had her mother’s face and body, dressed in the Chanel suit Mom was buried in.
The ghost’s face solidified. Her dyed brunette hair was flat on one side, as if she’d been sleeping and hadn’t brushed it. Wrinkled lips painted with the rose lipstick that the mortician had applied spread in a mawkish grin, revealing capped teeth that still looked dazzling white, except one canine was chipped.
“Miss me sweetie?” the phantom said with her mother’s voice.
Gail was so shocked, she couldn’t speak.
The ghost grasped a crystal decanter from the counter. Yesterday, it was half full of bourbon. She’d bought the decanter, a new stereo system, and a widescreen TV with the cash that she’d gotten from pawning her mother’s jewelry. Her parents were killed four months ago in a car crash. She was still waiting for the life insurance to pay off.
“Tacky, tacky,” the ghost tutted, raising her penciled black eyebrows.
She closed both fists around the decanter, crushing it. Shards of glass rained onto the marble tile floor. Her mouth opened impossibly wide, creating a hole that filled most of her face. It inhaled the shards, sucking in broken glass like a vacuum. Teeth masticated, making a crunching sound that sent shivers down Gail’s spine.
She tried to run, but her feet were stuck to the floor.
The phantom snapped her gnarled fingers. The joints were swollen from Rheumatoid arthritis—an affliction that had cut short her career as a concert pianist.
Gail yelped when she levitated off the ground. The yelp turned to a shriek when her body hurtled towards the window that was above the kitchen sink.
She raised her hands to protect her face and tensed her shoulders, bracing for impact. A split second before she would’ve crashed into the window, the glass turned to dust and was inhaled by the phantom who followed fast on her heels.
Gail soared into the night, gasping as she levitated above the driveway. Her yellow Ford Bronco was missing. In its place was the smashed white Cadillac that her parents had died in. It’d crashed down a ravine after the brakes failed.
“No, this can’t be happening!” Gail shouted.
The phantom disappeared.
Still levitating, Gail whooshed away from the three-story colonial that she’d inherited from her parents. “Help,” she yelled.
Glowing jack-o’-lanterns on the neighbors’ porches grinned at her, their mouths spreading wider.
Gail screamed again, but no lights in houses turned on. Cars that should’ve been parked in driveways were gone. The cul-de-sac seemed deserted.
She flailed her arms, trying to stop her momentum, but she soared higher, above trees and houses, heading south. Her gut churned like she was riding a rollercoaster as she reached the Winnetka Golf Club. Her parents had always attended the club’s annual Halloween bash, but the lights were off in the clubhouse. A single SUV was in the parking lot. The interior dome light was on.
“Help!” Gail screamed.
A powerful downdraft hurled Gail towards the asphalt. She thought she was going to splat, but the motion suddenly stopped. Frozen in mid-air, she hovered three feet off the ground.
The SUV’s engine turned on with a throaty rumble. The vehicle surged towards Gail. The driver’s head looked like it belonged to an insect. The prominent mandibles clacked so loudly, it sounded like someone was breaking branches.
Gail’s gut cramped. Vomit surged from her throat and splattered the SUV’s hood. A split second before she would’ve slammed into the windshield, an invisible chain wrapped around Gail’s neck, choking her scream. Yanked by the leash, she was hurtled through the air, towards Sheridan Road. Four minutes into the hell-ride, she’d left Winnetka and reached Kenilworth. Three minutes later, she’d reached Wilmette and was heading south towards the Baha’i Temple. There wasn’t a single vehicle in sight. It was like she’d been transported to an alternate reality where nothing existed except her and her terror.
She wanted to believe she was dreaming, but wind buffeted her face, making tears stream from her eyes. Her pace accelerated until she was flying so fast that the ground became a blur.
After agonizing minutes, the propulsive pull slowed and finally stopped. She hovered above a strip mall on Howard Street, on the border of Evanston and Chicago. A red neon sign in the window of 24 HOUR EZ PAWN flashed OPEN.
The sensation of the chain choking her throat changed—hands replaced metal. The phantom was still invisible, but she smelled like Guerlain Samsara, her mother’s perfume. The woodsy floral scent made her bowels gurgle in fright. She struggled, clawing at her neck, but the grip tightened, long fingernails biting into her skin until she bled.
“Let me go!” she cried, but her plea was muffled by the strong grip.
The clench around her neck relaxed to a caress, a light touch that was a little more than a tickle. She felt the fingers warming as they drifted to her cheek.
“Wh—what do you want?” she stammered.
A disembodied hand appeared, floating in front of Gail’s face. The index finger grazed her lower lip. She tried to jerk her head away but was paralyzed.
“What do I want?” a voice near her ear whispered. “You never asked what I wanted when I was alive.” The hand slapped Gail’s face so hard, her teeth bit her cheek. She tasted blood in her mouth.
“I was a good daughter,” she sobbed.
“Good?” the phantom snarled. “Lies will not save you.”
“What do you want? I’ll do anything.”
The disembodied hand twitched. “Give me back my ring,” the phantom commanded.
Suddenly, Gail plummeted towards the parking lot, falling fifty-three feet. She landed facedown with a thud. A flash of excruciating pain, then nothing but blackness.
For a moment, she thought she was dead, but her lungs still worked. She inhaled a shaky breath. As her vision returned, she slowly sat up and touched her face. It should’ve been a bloody pulp, but the jaw wasn’t dislocated. The nose wasn’t broken. All her teeth were still in her mouth. Only her forehead was slightly sore. Her mouth flapped open in a barking laugh as she felt her arms and legs. None of the bones were broken. She laughed even louder, the sound booming through the empty parking lot as she stood.
Gail checked her jacket pockets, but they were empty. Her cellphone must’ve fallen out. The light on the bus shelter across the street beckoned. Her wallet was still in her jean’s back pocket. She had a five-dollar bill. Enough cash for the fare home, but buses didn’t run after 1:30 AM on Halloween.
A frigid gust made her shiver. She crossed her arms over her chest and hugged herself. Wouldn’t it be ironic if she died from pneumonia?
She turned toward the pawnshop. Big windows faced the parking lot. Lights were on, but she didn’t see Gus, Charlie, or Tom at the counters, which was strange. One of the brothers was always there handling business—legal transactions and shadier deals. She knew from experience that they didn’t want to know where their customers got their goods.
She inhaled another shaky breath and strode to the door. The metal handle felt normal when she gripped it—smooth and cold. She gave it a yank, and the door swung open, the bell at the entryway jingling.
“Gus, Charlie, you here? Tom?”
No one answered. The showroom reeked like rotten meat. Overhead speakers were playing the Oingo Boingo song, “Dead Man’s Party.” The volume of the music kept changing, getting louder, then softer, then louder again.
She checked the storeroom door, but it was locked. The phone mounted on the wall had no dial tone. She considered punching 911 to see if the call would go through but set down the receiver. She’d never trusted cops. Besides, no cop could rescue her from a ghost.
Jewelry was locked in a glass display case. She saw her mother’s ring glinting in the second row. The platinum band and the diamonds had been polished.
She was going to leave without the ring, but something shoved against her back and slammed her into the case. The glass shattered. Fortunately, her sweatshirt was thick enough to protect her from the shards.
A skinny clerk with tattoos of insects on her face came running out of the storeroom and caught Gail shoving the ring in her pocket.
“Stop!” the clerk said as she lunged at Gail. The flies and hornets on her face were buzzing. They were real bugs!
Gail twisted around and sprinted toward the door. The metal gate was rolling down. Invisible hands locked the padlock.
The clerk grabbed an aerosol canister and sprayed Gail. The spray can was labeled mace, but the gooey stuff that spattered her face smelled like tar and was raging hot.
Gail shrieked as her skin blistered. She clawed at the tar. Her fingers got as hot as her face. Bloody skin sloughed off.
The clerk laughed. Her mouth opened wider and wider until her head was a black pit surrounded by buzzing insects. A voice from the pit commanded, “Give me my ring.”
Weeping in agony, Gail kept clawing at her face.
The command repeated, “Give me my ring!” shouted in her mother’s voice.
Gail shoved her bloody hand in her jean’s pocket and pulled out the ring. She hurled it into the pit. There was a blinding flash of light and a loud boom. Gail’s ears rang.
As the light and the buzzing faded, Gail realized that she was alone. Her pain had vanished. Shaking all over, she gently touched her face and breathed a sigh of relief. The smoldering tar was gone, and her blistered flesh had healed.
The metal grate rattled as it rolled up, propelled by an invisible force.
The glass door was unlocked when Gail pushed against it. Crying in relief, she stumbled outside, only to be greeted by a hellscape.
The parking lot was gone. Gail was enveloped by a Cumulonimbus cloud, a thunderhead churning thousands of feet above Chicago. Lightning cracked, the energy pulsing through her body. Thunder rumbled so loudly that she couldn’t hear herself when she screamed. Like a helium balloon, she was tossed up and down as the storm raged.
Days passed, or maybe they were only hours or minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Her teeth chattered until the pain in her jaw was so acute, she knew the joints would snap at any moment. She’d never felt so cold, an icy fire that burned inside of her bones. Giving up, she stopped resisting the wind and drifted, drifted, until dawn finally bled through the cloud.
Exhaustion, a numbness that felt like what she imagined death must be like, cocooned her. As the sun rose, her eyes closed.
At first, Gail thought the sound was a thresher. She’d dreamed of wheat fields and visiting her granddad’s farm. Metal blades whirring. Harvest time. She’d loved sitting beside Granddad atop the big machine. But when she opened her eyes, she was hovering about twenty feet above Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, the cemetery where her parents were buried. There was no thresher in sight, not even a lawn mower.
Like a rock, she dropped from the sky. Her body smacked into a stone mausoleum and ricocheted to the ground. Fallen leaves filled her mouth, gagging her scream.
She heard footsteps thudding, walking towards her.
“You okay?” a man said. His voice was muffled, as if he spoke through a scarf or had a thick parka around his head.
Gail tried to spit out the leaves, but her tongue and lips wouldn’t move.
Something grasped her shoulder and tugged, jostling her gently. “Can you hear me?” the man said. The voice was clearer and somehow familiar.
As the fog that muddled her brain lifted, Gail turned her head. She felt no pain, but when she saw a prosthetic hand touching her shoulder, she shuddered. It was a myoelectric model that resembled a robot’s hand. She didn’t have to see the man’s face to know that it was her father. Dad had lost the hand and arm to an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
The ghost bent down and peered at her.
“Praying for forgiveness?” he said. His gaze was as cold as the November morning. Dad’s ghost squinted, staring with such intensity that Gail felt like the eyes were drilling into her soul.
Gail trembled. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” The ghost leaned closer. His breath smelled like death.
“For being a disappointment,” Gail whispered.
Compared to her father, she’d always felt weak and stupid. Gail had washed out of bootcamp after she’d enlisted in the Marines. The physical training was too arduous. Then she flunked out of college. Finally got a job after she enrolled in an automotive training school and became a mechanic. Spent fourteen years fixing cars. Being a grease monkey wasn’t respectable enough for the daughter of a Marine LtCol and a pianist. Grease monkey—she loathed the insult. That’s what her mother had called her. They probably also knew she was a thief.
“You’re sorry for being a disappointment? You’ve got nothing else to say?” The phantom raised his prosthetic arm.
Her father had never struck her, but Gail flinched.
A gust made tree blanches clack together. Gail flinched again. “I—I’m” she stammered.
“Stop sniveling. Get up!” her father said.
Gail’s heart pounded as she stood. Her legs wobbled but weren’t broken. Miraculously, she felt only a twinge of soreness. She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. She was almost as tall as her father and thirty-five years old but felt like a little girl again. Inconsequential. She swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat.
As if he’d read her mind, her father said, “An adult takes responsibility for her actions. You ready to atone?”
“I didn’t do anything!” Gail’s voice cracked as she shouted.
“That’s the way you’re going to play it?” Her father shook his head. “You had one chance.” He turned away and strode toward a stone mausoleum.
Gail blinked back tears. “Wait. Dad!”
The ghost kept walking.
Gail held her breath. She wanted to run towards her father, but something stopped her. Guilt? Pride?
When she was about fifty feet away, her father faced her. “You ready to confess?”
“I’m sorry that you died. I’ve missed you.”
“Missed me?” The phantom cackled, a terrible mockery of a laugh.
The hair on the back of Gail’s neck stood up.
The ghost’s mouth opened wider, and wider still. His teeth morphed, becoming whirring steel blades. The suction from the blades was so strong that Gail levitated from the ground and was propelled towards the shiny metal maw.
As she flew past a tree, she grasped a branch, hanging on for her life. The branch snapped.
In dreams, people fantasize about flying, but no nightmare could instill such terror. Urine flowed down Gail’s leg as her feet touched metal.
“I cut the brake line,” she shouted, but her confession was swallowed by the thresher.
This story previously appeared in Creepy Podcast.
Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba.
Alicia Hilton is an author, editor, arbitrator, professor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic, and monsters. Her work has appeared in Back 2 OmniPark, Creepy Podcast, Daily Science Fiction, Eastern Iowa Review, Litro, MetaStellar, Mslexia, Neon, NonBinary Review, Space & Time, Unnerving, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4, 5 & 6, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Her website is https://aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01 and Blue Sky @aliciahilton.bsky.social