Turning right onto the small dirt road, the silver Cadillac bumped along on the uneven ground. The high noon sun blinded the passengers, forcing them to shield their eyes from the vibrant rays.
In silence rode the three college juniors, contemplating the task ahead they faced.
“Did you remember the developing fluid Alex?” the driver spouted suddenly, eyes fixated on the curve in the path directly ahead of them. His hands wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, knuckles white and braced to counter even the slightest of jolts.
“Of course,” the short male in the passenger seat retorted, almost insulted by the question. “I also have my camera, in case you don’t trust me to remember that either.” He swept a hand through his wavy black hair, pushing a few strands out of his brown eyes. His other hand continued to clutch his scholarship cancellation letter, running a shaky finger across the worn edge.
“Oh don’t go getting so butthurt up there!” The response came from a skinny girl lying across the back seat, safety neglected. “You know you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your shoulders.” With indignant silence as a response, she threw her arm over her eyes and muttered, “If we don’t stop in the next five minutes, you’re gonna need another carpet cleaning David.”
“Got it,” the driver said, pulling the car over to the side of the road. He knew all too well that was no idle threat. He killed the engine and sat back with a sigh.
Letting her sandle drop carelessly on the floor, Sabrina wrapped her toes around the handle and pushed the door open, sitting up as fresh mountain air blew over her. She slid smoothly out of the vehicle, sighing contentedly as gravel crunched loudly beneath the soles of her grey shoes.
Stretching her arms above her head, she took a deep breath then turned back towards her two companions and asked, “How do you know this isn’t another hoax, like the Glosswell Incidents?” The nausea had already began to subside as the fresh air cleared her grogginess, quickly replaced by a sorrowful nervousness.
It was Alex who answered with, “A friend of my cousin moved here a year and a half ago and he swears by it.” With another disgusted look at the words that threatened to kick him out of school he said, “We’ve got nothing else so we might as well trust him.”
“It’s not like we can afford the risk of ignoring this.” David fiddled with the strap around his neck, repeatedly adjusting the camera in his lap. His reflection in the lens [made him uncomfortable]. He felt as though his late father was gazing back at him, forever disappointed.
Sabrina shrugged, accepting both reasons as she climbed back into the car.
David glanced at her as she lay back down. “Can’t you fasten your seatbelt? I don’t wanna wind up fined if we cross a cop.” His eyes searched the deserted road ahead as he spoke.
She waved a hand above her head, dismissing his request with a “Bah you worry too much. Just drive already.” Her tone was playful yet left no room for argument.
He hesitated, then started the engine again. Of course he couldn’t defy her.
They arrived at the entrance of the small town an hour later, softly greeted by humble homes lining both sides of a smoothly paved road. Sabrina sat up to look out at the scenery, resting her right elbow on the windowsill.
Alex had fallen into a restless sleep, snoring softly with his arms crossed and the abandoned letter lying across his feet. He didn’t see the furtive glances of the town’s sparse population as they hurried about the streets. Tension flooded into the car, saturating the air with the incomprehensible emotions of the townspeople.
Dozens of curious eyes watched the car turn down Main Street, heading towards the town’s only inn. Visitors weren’t uncommon, especially in the fall when people flocked to the rural area to attend nature retreats nearby, yet the residents were filled with a foreboding sense of unease as the car disappeared from sight.
Sabrina grinned at the sight of the Victorian-style inn. With the sun casting thick shadows against the innumerable windows lined by ornate frames, the building had an almost sinister aura surrounding it.
The three student disembarked from the car, Alex rubbing sleep from his eyes, and headed toward the wooden double doors beneath the sign that was too faded to read.
The only person in the bright lit lobby sat behind the counter, leafing through a frayed newspaper. His hooded eyes hardly bothered to glance up at the arrival of the three students.
His immediate reaction manifested itself in the way his upper lip raised slightly, reluctant to acknowledge the delinquents he saw as customers. It didn’t help their case that Alex had dark bags under his brown eyes and Sabrina had a full face of heavy makeup and thin streaks of silver in her naturally blonde hair.
David walked up to the counter, resting one arm on the oak edge. “Two rooms for tonight, please.” he said. His voice had a slight vibrato to it, agitated by his agoraphobia.
“Cash upfront.” The man said, procuring two keys in a closed fist. “$150.” His eyes widened almost imperceptibly when David pushed the bills across to him. His harsh features softened as he said, “Breakfast is served at eight in the dining hall, checkout is at noon.” With a forced smile he added, “Enjoy your stay.”
The three unpacked their meager belongings in the two small rooms, Alex and David sharing while Sabrina occupied the other one alone. They created a makeshift photo development room in the small bathroom off the side of Sabrina’s room then departed from the inn.
“So where is this funeral parlor?” Sabrina asked as she tucked a stray strand of silver behind her ear. The sun’s golden rays reflected the sheer brilliance of the artificial color.
Alex responded with a yawn followed by “I have no idea. ‘E didn’t say.”
David pulled out his faded map, studied it for a few seconds, then shook his head despondently.
“We’ve got time and a full tank of gas,” Alex said. “We could drive around and ask the locals for directions.” Despite the increasing pallor of Sabrina’s skin, she agreed it was the best plan and reluctantly got back into the car.
They drove down the street slowly, eyes scanning their surroundings for any people. It wasn’t until they turned the corner that they saw the first sign of life since exiting the inn: a women with long brown hair tied up in a tight bun. She wore a black suit and carried a leather briefcase.
David rolled down his window and pulled the car as close to the curb as he dared. With the friendliest smile he could conjure plastered onto his face he called out, “Excuse me miss! I was wondering if you could help us find the funeral parlor around here?”
Her eyes flickered towards the car but instead of stopping she picked up her pace, swinging her briefcase with each hasty step. She disappeared around the corner without a word to them.
“Guess she was in a hurry.” Alex commented, turning to look out his own window.
They repeated their request to a mother carrying a baby with one arm and groceries with the other. Then again to a middle aged man who limped along with a cane. Each time they received the same cold shoulder.
“What’s with everyone?” David muttered, white knuckles shaking against the steering wheel. Sweat gathered on his brow as his breaths became ragged and uncertain.
“This town must not be used to visitors.” Alex shrugged. “Or they’re all just really antisocial.” He punctuated the sentence by glaring out the window at the passing scenery.
Sabrina, who had been quietly seated in the backseat slapped the back of David’s seat and said, “Pull over” as she rolled down her own window.
The two boys cringed simultaneously ad braced for the worst until she muttered under her breath, “I’ll show you how it’s done.” It was then that they noticed the teenager approaching the corner, hands dropped lazily in his pocket and a whistled tune hanging across his pale pink lips. His jet-black hair rode the wind currents, giving him a sloppy appearance.
He~ey!” Sabrina called out, pushing her sunglasses onto her head. A flirtatious smile tugged at her lips as her eyes danced mischievously in the sunlight.
Her attractive features caught his attention immediately. Caution forgotten he made his way over to her, bending down until his eyes were level with hers.
“I’m afraid we’re hopelessly lost,” she said with a slight pout. Her hand reached out and gently caressed his arm. “Would you mind giving us directions?” She cocked her head with a shy smile playing on her painted lips.
All three passengers witnessed the moment his entire body tensed up. They feared the boy would give them the same reactions as the other residents, abandoning them to find the parlor on their own.
“You’re not supposed to go there; especially not tonight. It’s been abandoned and after what happened last year…” His fingers fiddled with a button on his jacket.
“Oh? What happened last year?” Sabrina asked, batting her wide eyes innocently.
“There was an… incident.” His eyes wandered the streets, uncertain of how he should continue. “A few people, strangers, not from around here, went there after sundown and nobody has seen them since.”
The story sent a collective chill down the photographers’ spines. Unlike the boys however, Sabrina didn’t let her fear show, expertly hiding it with a dismissive smile.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “We’ll be eeeeextra careful.”
He conceded with a sigh. “You continue down until the end of this street, then turn left onto the path leading up the hill. It’s always been a rather decrepit building, set apart fromt the rest because nobody wanted to build a shop next to it.” Restrained tears glistened on his waterline, conveying the fear he felt for them.
“Thanks! You’ve been a great help.” Sabrina said as she pulled down her sunglasses. It was all she could do to conceal the fear that was creeping into her irises. She rolled up her window with a fake smile still stretched across her lips.
Silence intruded where words failed. The sputter of the engine belong to a different world. Even the incessant motion of the car had ceased to be significant, unable to trump the concerns that plagued their minds.
David slowed the car almost to a halt at the edge of the turnoff. His fingers twitched and stiffened, unwilling to obey his reluctant commands.
Alex’s eyes wandered to the letter at his feet. Those photographs were his last chance at the life he’d always dreamed of but was it worth risking the life he has?
Sabrina sat up, cold emotionless eyes stationed above a blank expression.
“What are you guys waiting for?” she asked in a monotone voice. “Let’s get going already.”
David glanced up at her in the rearview mirror, alarmed by the shift in personality. Although he’d known her the longest, he’d only witnessed this change twice and it was never positive.
Alex slumped in his seat, relieved that the decision was no longer his yet terrified of the outcome. His eyes wandered over to the horizon beyond the small path, straining to catch a glimpse of the funeral parlor.
David set the car in motion, listening to his father’s last words playing back over and over again in his mind.
“Make me proud, son,” he’d said. David had felt his father’s hand tighten around his for a moment before death had swept him away into the night. He had to fulfill that final request no matter what. He needed the perfect picture to prove his profession worthwhile once and for all.
And for that he knew he needed to go, regardless of the risk. Sabrina’s decision was the final push he needed. And yet, as the road curved and swayed in front of his dusty windshield, he could not refrain from sending a silent prayer up to God.
They arrived at the edge of the property within ten minutes. The area had been fenced off by thick steel wires barbed at the top.
Sabrina unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed open her door before David had pulled the car to a complete stop. She stepped out, walked a few feet, and promptly proceeded to expel the hastily fixed sandwich she’d eaten only a few hours earlier.
David and Alex averted their eyes, instead studying the funeral parlor.
It was the only building in a lot of dead grass and patches of dirt. The building stood one story tall and larger in length than in width. Ornate wooden doors stood wedged beneath two thick white pillars. The half dozen windows stood intact but streaked with dirt from top to bottom, battered by dust, wind and rain.
“You guys coming?” Sabrina asked.
The space she’d occupied stood abandoned to the shadows of a nearby tree. They found her standing with arms crossed and one foot tapping out a fast, incessant rhythm.
“How’d you get over there?” Alex asked as he pushed open the car door.
She pointed behind her at the gap in the barbed wire fence where the top had rusted and fallen to the ground. Pieces of it littered the dirt.
The two struggled significantly more in climbing over than Sabrina had but eventually all three students stood before the infamous building, cameras in hand with tripods slung over their backs.
They walked over to the closest window in unison, steps as hesitant as their heartbeats grew increasingly faster. Sweaty hands and short breaths wandered toward the closest window.
David squinted at the dirt as though doing so would help him see through it. He tried to clean it off but layer after layer had hardened against the porous glass.
“I didn’t think it’s possible to get a good shot from here…” he said, trailing off to avoid voicing the question all three struggled with.
David took the initiative this time, making the few short, shakey strides to the front door. His hand shook around the doorknob. It turned easily despite the thick layer of sweat and dirt coagulating on the surface.
The room was empty other than a small pedestal and a short-legged table on a low stage. The pews that once formed an aisle in the middle of an Oriental carpet had long since been removed. Cobwebs gathered in the corners, draping across the peeling paint like lace curtains.
Alex and Sabrina filed in after him, gazing around the room with eyes wide in a mixture of awe and trepidation. Disturbing the silence seemed inexplicably wrong so all three moved with soft, cautious feet into the middle of the funeral parlor’s main and solitary room.
“I wonder how many people came through here.” Sabrina said in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper. Her finger was positioned atop her camera’s shutter button, ready to capture the slightest movement.
The other two stood similarly poised. Shadows shifted around them as the sun plunged towards the horizon but none dared to move.
“They come out as night falls, right?” David asked.
“That’s what my cousin’s friend said,” Alex replied. His mind briefly flickered back to the letter he’d abandoned on the floor of David’s car. His entire future rested on the words of a stranger.
Sabrina opened her mouth to respond.
Lights shimmered in the decaying sun. Small orbs materialized in the air. The flurry of clicks and flashes that followed reverberated off the walls.
The orbs floated towards the center of the room, meandering slowly up and down in the air. The atmosphere grew colder until their breaths plumed before their eyes.
Shimmering figures dressed in fancy, intricate clothes from countless decades materialized in the air, painting the room with a myriad of colors. Entranced the students hardly remembered the cameras weighing down their hands.
Though the room itself was completely silent, a faint, rhythmic tune began playing in their heads, implanted by an invisible hand, The symphony of violins composed a lively waltz.
All three exchanged brief glances, instantly confirming that they were all experiencing the same thing. The jumble of emotions was evident in each of their faces. None knew whether they should feel awed at the beauty of it all or terrified at the existence of the unknown.
Their attention was recaptured by the movement of the specters. Men and women reached out to each other, hands clasping in a gentle embrace as they moved closer together. Feet walked without touching the ground. Graceful and fluid they danced across the floor, giving the cold room a lively sense of warmth.
Twirling and swaying the women were led by handsome male partners. Gowns flowed across the floor, shimmering like stars with each movement.
Every few moments they would switch partners, smoothly melting into the arms of a gentleman always as handsome as the last. They never missed a beat, never crashed into one another. It felt as though the dance had been mastered to perfection, until not a single flaw remained.
Then one of the men came towards Sabrina. She instinctively raised her camera and snapped a picture but before she could take a look at it, his hand reached out towards her. She flinched and stepped back, arms raised to defend against an attack…
That never came.
His hand remained petrified in mid-air, held out with his palm facing the ceiling. His head bowed as he leaned towards her.
Meanwhile his former partner, a lay in a midnight blue gown with golden locks that melter over her slender shoulders, stood before Alex and curtsied. Unsure of how to respond he attempted a shocked half-bow back, much to her delight. Her lips parted in a slight giggle and she reached out to take his hand.
A cold sensation enveloped his hand, not quite real but not fully intangible either. He felt as though he had thrust his arm into a large bowl of pudding without the moisture.
She led him out into the middle of the sea of people before placing her hand on his shoulder and giving him an expectant, rather amused look that made her cyan eyes sparkle. He interpreted that as a cue to put his arm around her waist in the same manner the other gentleman had done with their partners.
He felt embarrassed and underdressed but something in the repetitive tune of the music compelled him to obey.
Sabrina and David watched in awe. The sight of the living interacting with the dead in such a graceful manner was something the could only have dreamt of before this moment. They exchanged brief looks with each other as David tightened his grip around the camera hanging from his neck.
Sabrina nodded to an unspoken agreement then turned her attention to the gentleman still bowed before her. His white gloved hand waited patiently for hers. The fabric almost seemed to glow in the fading light.
She reached out as David raised his camera to his eye, finger posed on the shutter button.
She instantly felt the same cold sensation Alex had experienced. It enveloped her body as her new partner wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close. His eyes met hers, as captivating as they were warm and lively.
In the white light of the camera flashes, his strong, tanned features became visible. A sharp jawline outlined thin lips while prominent cheekbones drew the attention towards his almond shaped eyes topped by thick brown eyebrows. His dark hair was pulled back sleek over his head, perfectly parted off to the side.
Only that wasn’t what David saw.
He opened his mouth as the sun plunged below the horizon, dimming the room until only a glow as weak as a candle remained to illuminate the horror that would unfold before the three pairs of eyes.
The colors drained from the scene instantly, disappearing along with the music. The dancers dropped to the floor in piles of bones with varying amounts of decomposing flesh and scraps of once-gorgeous gowns and suits.
All but two of them, who still held on to Sabrina and Alex.
Screams burst from each of the students, raw and ragged as they tore from throats trying not to gag. Sabrina twisted and turned as she shrieked obscenities, pushing and kicking against the bones that clung to her.
Alex tore at the hand on his shoulder and tried to wrench his fingers from the ice cold bones laced between them. His wide eyes fixated on the chunks of blonde hair that clung to the grey skull before him.
David dropped his camera so abruptly that the strap dug into the back of his neck as the apparatus bounced painfully against his ribcage.
He rushed toward Sabrina, the closest of the two, intending to barrel through them and break the connection between her and the male skeleton. His feet stumbled over the stray bones littered across the dull carpet.
Dust plumed around him, a grey cloud that invaded and coated his lungs until he fell into a violent coughing fit on the ground. Curled into a ball.
He could hardly hear their screams over the raspiness plaguing his burning throat. Tears streamed down his face but he forced himself to stand in the middle of the swirlings storm of dust.
He too a blind step forward and his feet crunched on something — bone? Glass? — but he didn’t let himself trip again.
He tried to call out to them but as he opened his mouth a thick clump of rancid tasting dust crawled between his lips and swallowed his tongue.
Desperately he tried to peer through the hazed air but he couldn’t see even a hint of a shadow anywhere around him.
Sabrina felt the same way. She was being led away by the ice encasing her body but her eyes saw nothing but gray everywhere she turned. Her hand felt glued to his shoulder yet, with all her strength and concentration, she somehow managed to separate herself from the skeleton. A chunk of black fabric came with, clinging to her hand for a second before flying away into the storm.
With her hand now free she raised it into the air, curled her fingers tightly into a fist, and brought it smashing down onto the skeleton’s arm, trying to free her other hand. Despite the increased momentum thanks to gravity, the only one affected by the impact was her. Pain and numbness slid from her fingers up her hand and into her wrist. She bit her lip to keep from crying out as the pain quickly faded into an overwhelming numbness.
The skeleton man continued to lead her back step by step as though the dance was still continuing. Her feet responded to his despite her desperate attempts to resist.
The pain in her hand subsided to a dull throb. In the swirling dust of disintegrated bones she caught a glimpse of a vertical white line. Without knowing what it was she instinctively reached out towards it with her free hand.
Her splayed fingers caught hold of a chunk of smooth, almost soft wood. Paint chips lined the edges of her fingers, threatening to tear away from the slightest provocation. She dug her nails into the wood and leaned all her weight on her heels, pulling against the skeleton man.
David walked with his hands out in front of him, searching for anything he could hold on to. His hands yearned for the warmth of another human.
Smooth and cold, glass materialized beneath his hands. He turned in what he hoped was the direction of the door. With on hand following the horizontal edge of the window, he slid his feet across the flood as quickly as he could to avoid tripping. The gray dust that flowed ahead of and all around him had thinned considerably in the passing seconds. He could see the outline of something ahead of him as light permeated from the door only a few feet away.
Several strands of silver and blonde hair floated out towards him, adamantly resisting the current.
He reached out towards her with his free hand before mustering up the will to call out her name. He barely got through the first two syllables before breaking off into a coughing fit that only further aggravated the burning agony in his throat.
She heard the faint syllable through the roar of the swirling wind in her ears and her heart skipped a beat. She gripped the wooden edge tighter despite the pain in her knuckles, praying she had not imagined it.
The skeleton kept pulling at her with a strength it logically should not possess. His bony fingers never loosened between hers and his arm remained wrapped around her waist. She felt her heels sliding against the ground and knew she wouldn’t last much longer. Within a minute her feet would slip out from underneath her, she’d lose her grip on the doorhinge, and that would be the end.
He’d be able to drag her off into the night, never to be seen again like the previous victims of this wretched funeral parlor.
As the density of the barrier separating them dissipated, she found herself mesmerized by the large black eye sockets. She felt that they weren’t completely empty despite their appearance — something lay just beyond them, shrouded in darkness.
Before she could give it another moment’s contemplation, strong, warm arms wrapped around her shoulders, banishing the chills that had run rampant through her body. She breathed out a relieved sigh that blew a hole through the dust. She was saved.
No longer worried about leverage, she kicked up her feet and smashed her free arm down again, gritting her teeth against the pain.
Release. The bony arms, the tight grip, the cold, the fear, everything separated from her in that single instant. The skull floated in front of her face before it disintegrated into the same dust that flew around them. In the second before the eyes vanished she thought she caught a glimpse of sadness, of disappointment, within the inky black holes.
She fell back into David’s arms, believing in the relief of the moment. Exhausted.
The reprieve was short as the two suddenly recognized the absence of their third companion.
The swirling dust cleared suddenly, evacuating from the room like a stampede of people escaping a fire. Not a single trace remained anywhere in the now empty room.
On frightened, unsteady feet the two ran to keep up with the end of the stream of dust as it fled the funeral parlor.
Fear robbed them of voices, leaving behind only the thunderous pounding of their adrenaline-laced heartbeats. They became blind to everything except the dust they had previously wanted nothing more than to escape from. Thoughts were replaced by a single image of Alex. His face was illuminated by the unnatural glow of the blonde specter.
They stormed carelessly through a row of bushes, the sharp thorns tearing through their clothes and found themselves standing in a small graveyard. Headstones littered the lot, some leaning forward while others lay in pieces on the ground.
The dust settled into the open graves, creating skeletons in their coffins that appeared to never have moved. The scene resembled a mass grave-robbing heist but nothing more sinister.
Dirt smothered their footsteps as the two searched the area frantically, eyes darting from one hole to the other while desperately hoping he wasn’t in any of them. Neither could muter the courage to call out for fear of receiving an answer.
Sabrina stopped short in her tracks, breath catching in her throat. A scream bubbled in her chest but she couldn’t inhale enough air to let it escape. Instead silent tears, tinted black by her eyeliner, rolled down her face, leaving thick streaks across her cheeks.
David’s hand landed gently on her shoulder, a feeble warmth to combat the ice that was spreading through her chest. His eyes darkened at the sight that met them but he forced himself not to turn away.
In the open grave, surrounded by the bare walls of an oak casket, lay Alex, eternally trapped in the embrace of the skeleton woman. His wide, petrified eyes fixated blankly on the sky. His black hair clung to his forehead though a few strands had descended into his wide open mouth.
Sabrina pulled away from David’s hand, ripped off her camera, and let it drop to the ground before running away, sobs finally finding their way out. The apparatus landed in the dirt without making a sound as she tore through the row of bushes.
David remained where he was, ensnared by a mixture of guilt and sorrow. He stood still for a moment, watching shadows shift across the ground as the moon rose to replace the absent sun.
Then, he dropped to his knees beside the opening. With tears streaming down his own face he slowly removed the camera around his neck, taking the film out, and placed it beside Alex’s chest. He hardly noticed the shattered lens.
He did the same with Sabrina’s camera before closing Alex’s eyes and mouth. The task proved difficult as his jaw had begun to stiffed but he succeeded. He stood and cast one last, remorseful look at the pair before turning away. He knew in that moment that he would spend the rest of his life warning others of the funeral parlor’s curse.
Before leaving the graveyard, he turned back once, letting the moonlight wash over his tear-streaked face and whispered, “Goodbye, my friend.”