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Never Enter a Graveyard After Dusk

Megan had these prompts to choose from:
Prompt #1 Jen- A pinwheel. A graveyard. How do they connect?
Prompt #2 Wendy- If Atlantis existed today?
Prompt #3 Amy- What do you do when you are stressed?
Prompt #4 Erika- Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ideal vacation
Prompt #5 Cameron- When Hello Kitty Meets Good-bye Doggy

And after much deliberation, here is the result of using prompt number one…

Alleridge hated dealing with dead kids. Especially little snot nose brats like Clifford Huntington the Fourth.

“You’re not doing that right,” the brat said from somewhere over Alleridge’s left shoulder.

Casting a beleaguered glance skyward, Alleridge jabbed the metal stick holding the pinwheel into the earth besides the grave with more force than strictly necessary. “I do this every bleeding year,” said Alleridge reaching into his bag for the second one. “And every year it’s the same blasted complaint.” The stick bent as it hit a patch of frozen ground. Alleridge swore. Clifford Huntington the Fourth laughed.

“Told you.”

Turning Alleridge gave the brat a two finger salute which Clifford returned with a rude jeer. Clifford Huntington the Fourth had died forty years ago at the age of six.

You wouldn’t have guessed it from the way he acted.

Currently, Clifford was sitting cross-legged on top of the crumbling grave of the Honorable Mr. Richard Jenkins.  Clifford had had the unfortunate fate to have died while wearing a blue herringbone suit that his mother had picked out after seeing a similar suit on Prince Philip. Clifford hated the suit when he was alive. He hated it even more now that he was dead and couldn’t take it off.

Alleridge could have cared less about Clifford’s clothes. All he wanted was to stick the last blasted pinwheel in the ground and head off to the pub for a pint. But this was Alleridge and when had he ever gotten what he wanted?

Straightening the bent stick was difficult with hands half-frozen from the below freezing temptatures that invade English cemeteries at 11:55 at night in the middle of January, and forcing it into ground that was as tough as old boots made the weakened metal snap. Alleridge let off a string of profanity that would have had Clifford’s mother washing his mouth out with soap if the dear lady had been there.

Luckily for Alleridge, Mrs. Clifford Huntington the Third was in a rest home in Brightlingsea and at that moment fast asleep having no idea that the soul of her one and only son was entertaining himself by singing the Man-U anthem at the top of his tiny lungs.

Clifford was well into the first chorus of “Glory, glory Man united” when it happened. The breeze that had been blowing hard for the last hour came to a dead stop. All sound died, including Clifford’s. He went still on top of the Honorable Richard Jenkins’ grave. “Their coming,” he hissed at Alleridge who had also gone still, the last pinwheel still clenched in his hand.

Alleridge shot the kid a dirty look. It wasn’t like he needed to be told. With a quick appeal to the Keeper, he shoved the pinwheel’s stick into the earth directly over the body of Clifford Huntington the Fourth and stood up. With studied casualness he brushed the damp earth from his knees, careful to keep his head down as his eyes darted about the quiet cemetery.

Nothing moved. Then, off to the right, he saw them. They came drifting down the gravel walkway, feet making no sound. There were three of them, all cloaked, hoods pulled up tight over their faces. Their skin, where it showed, was milky blue in the dim light and Alleridge felt his heart rate kick up a notch.

Which was silly. He’d dealt with creatures much worse than these three. But their silent approach always reminded him of the first time he’d come face to face with the dead. That encounter had ended with him in hospital with a concussion and three broken ribs.

The dead could be downright nasty when they wanted to be.

Casting a quick glance down showed that the three pinwheels were where they needed to be—arranged in a triangle with one point directly over the head of the body of Clifford Huntington the Fourth and the other two just off to the sides.  From here, the pinwheels looked like the ones you’d buy from the shop on the Fourth of July. But instead of plastic, the three pinwheels decorating Clifford’s grave were made from blessed iron that Alleridge had pounded down into sheets as thin as aluminum foil. They’d been the devil to fold into their present shapes and Alleridge could only hope that he’d gotten the intricate spell work that laced each fan of the pinwheel correctly lined up.

Things would go ugly, fast, if they weren’t.

Silently, Clifford moved to stand just behind Alleridge. He would never have admitted it, but he felt safer with the big man between him and the three figures gliding to a stop at the foot of his grave.

“We have come for the boy.” The voice issuing from the middle figure was deep as if it came from down a dark well. Clifford flinched in surprise.

“I don’t have to go with you,” said Clifford, voice lacking a fair bit of the petulant force he’d spoken with to Alleridge. Clifford glanced quickly upwards. “Right?”

Alleridge nodded, hands slipping nonchalantly into his pockets. “You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to,” said Alleridge calmly. This was a blatant lie. Alleridge knew it. Clifford knew it. The three figures knew it. But Clifford was comforted none the less.

Rather rude snorts erupted from the three figures. “The soul of Clifford Huntington the Fourth is forfeit to us,” they said the words falling like icicles into the air. “Forfeited by his own actions.”

Clifford’s little body drew up straight, indignation pouring from every surface. “Bullocks!” He cried. “All I did was steal Mrs. Glebe’s horse! I didn’t know he didn’t like to be ridden!”

A slightly stunned silence fell. Alleridge turned to regard the small boy, one eyebrow arched. “You stole a horse?” Funny that in the five years he’d been doing this, this particular detail had never come up.

“Yes,” came the mulish answer from the dead horse thief. Clifford glared at the three figures. “But I didn’t mean for any of the other stuff to happen; it wasn’t my fault the stupid horse trampled Mr. Boyden’s begonias or ran out into traffic!”

Alleridge thought that it probably was the little blighters fault but didn’t say so; the three silent figures at the end of the grave were radiating enough disbelieve for all of them.

From beyond the walls of the cemetery the clocks of Manchester began to chime. Midnight had come. Behind Alleridge and Clifford the first of the three pinwheels began to spin. There was no wind to move them but magic didn’t need wind to work. Alleridge had gotten the spell right.

Thank bloody Christ.

A jeering smile slid over Clifford’s small face as the second and third pinwheels began to spin, faint green sparks running along the edges of the spokes as they twirled faster and faster. In front of the grave the three figures let out a sound half-way between a moan and a snarl.

“You have no right Runner! The boy is ours!”

“Maybe so,” said Alleridge. “But on this anniversary the pinwheels protect him. And whether he goes with you is up to him.” Alleridge turned and peered down at Clifford Huntington the Fourth who peered back with smugness laced with trepidation. And a certain amount of fatigue.

Clifford had been dodging the Ifreann collectors for forty years; ever since he’d ridden Mrs. Glebe’s horse into the path of an oncoming lorry, killing himself, the horse, and the lorry driver. Every year the collectors came—and every year there was a Runner there to protect him.

Alleridge knew none of this. All he knew was what he had been told by the Runner who’d been his predecessor: “Jus’ stick the pinwheels in the ground before midnight and make sure to stand between the brat and the Collectors. And in five years you can pass the job on to the next unlucky sod.”

So Alleridge had made the pinwheels to specification and made his way to this tiny cemetery at the edge of Manchester every January 15th for the past five years. And every year Clifford mocked him and the three figures came.

This was the first year the three figures had spoken. Alleridge didn’t think that was a good sign.

It wasn’t.

The Ifreann collectors were as tired of being thwarted as Clifford was of wearing his blue herringbone suit. The boy had died as a result of a wicked act; he was theirs. And Ifreann always collected what was theirs.

As one they moved closer until they were all in a row at the foot of Clifford’s grave. The pinwheels spun faster, the sparks shooting higher as the three clasped hands and began to chant.

“What are they doing?” asked Clifford nervously.

“No idea,” said Alleridge. He shuffled backwards hand out as if to push Clifford back as well. The two moved until they were level with the imaginary line created by the two pinwheels. The pinwheels were screaming now as they moved, the sound like the whistle of a firecracker right before it takes off. The wheel at the center of the each pinwheel was white-hot with the friction.

The chanting grew louder as Alleridge motioned Clifford to stand in the center of the triangle. Clifford did so gingerly afraid of the sparks even though they couldn’t touch him.

Alleridge licked his lips, mind whirling through possible solutions and discarding each one. All his necromancer tools, which might have been helpful in binding Clifford to this plane, had been confiscated by the boss when he’d gotten this gig. After all, Runner’s were meant to send the dead on to their final reward not call them back.

The scream of the pinwheels became earsplitting. “Alleridge,” said Clifford, voice high with strain. “Do something!” Turning, Alleridge saw that the three Ifreann collectors were now behind him, one at each pinwheel, surrounding Clifford. Long, pale arms reached for the boy.

An idea came to Alleridge. “Wait!”

Miraculously the three halted, turning their cowled heads slowly towards Alleridge who was frantically digging through his pockets. He had to have it here somewhere; he knew he’d grabbed it…there!

From the inside pocket of his suit jacket Alleridge drew out a final pinwheel. Why he’d made four this time instead of the usual three he couldn’t have said. Instinct maybe. Now he held it out towards the three collectors. “I call upon the One who bound the soul of Clifford Huntington the Fourth!” he yelled. If he sounded slightly desperate it could be forgiven. Mitigating circumstances and all that. “Come forth!” Alleridge practically screamed the words.

In his hand, the pinwheel back to spin. Entranced they watched as the pinwheel spun counterclockwise, the edges taking on a pink glow that grew brighter and brighter until the light encompassed them all. Warmth flooded the graveyard and the glow coalesced into the figure of a young woman. She stood, tall and slim behind Clifford wearing a pink dress that flowed about her like the breeze itself. A beatific smile crossed her face.

“Finally!” she said. “Someone with a bit of sense.”

They all stared at her in varying degrees of shock. “Who are you?” demanded the Ifreann collectors.

If they meant to intimidate her, they were in for a disappointment. The smile grew. “I am the Keeper of lost souls,” she said. “It is my duty to see that the souls of those who die get a fair shot.” Her smile grew sad as she knelt down besides Clifford. “He wasn’t a bad little boy,” she said addressing her words to the collectors. “He just did a bad thing; there is a difference you know.”

Clifford watched with growing awe and adoration as she held out a slim hand. “You are sorry, aren’t you?” she asked, eyes warm with sympathy. Clifford hesitated. It had been forty years. All his bluster faded and he gave a nod, tears rising.

“I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt,” he whispered, his voice the only sound in the now quiet graveyard. “I only wanted to ride.”

The Keeper of Lost Souls beamed. She stood, hand still out to Clifford. Tentatively Clifford took it. The three Ifreann collectors stirred, bodies tense with outrage. The Keeper of Lost Souls shot them a look. They stilled. They knew when they’d been beat.

Clifford’s hand firmly in hers, the Keeper of Lost Souls walked over to Alleridge. Smiling at him, she plucked the faintly glowing pinwheel from his hand. “Thank you Benedict,” she said. “I see I was right about you.” And with that, she kissed his cheek and walked down the gravel path, her and Clifford slowly fading away until the only figures in the graveyard were Alleridge and the collectors.

There was a bunch of disgruntled crumbling among the three and then they too disappeared and Alleridge was alone. He stood there for a long time, a bemused expression on his face, hand pressed to the spot the Keeper of Lost Souls had kissed. Finally he shook his head, plucked the three pinwheels from the ground and strode off into the night, another nights work done.

Thank bloody Christ.

***

Business Card pic Megan Wahl lives in San Jose, CA where she is currently busy working on her first novel ‘Dying is the Easy Part’.