Once Upon A Halloween Night: “HACK”

Hosted by Christopher Golden and actor and bestselling author Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Once Upon A Halloween Night featured St. Martin’s Press and Tor Nightfire authors teaming up to write a horror short story in real-time. The end result was “HACK.”

A special thank you goes out to all of the participating authors (in order of appearance): Clay McLeod Chapman, Jessica Guess, Craig Laurance Gidney, and Jonathan Maberry.

The full replay of the event is available below.

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“HACK”

They didn’t tell us we would get sick. They didn’t tell us much of anything to be honest… The president. Our mayors. Everyone told us we’d be okay. 

The masks were a joke. Who’s going to wear one of these? Not me. Not any of my friends. We didn’t believe it mattered…

Then the cough started. You’d hear it just about anywhere. Anyone. I don’t know when I really began to notice it… but you started hearing it all around. And once you got in the right wavelength, once you were tuned into the hack and sputter from other people’s lungs… you couldn’t not not hear it, you know? You heard it everywhere. Everyone. It was a wet cough. Like it rooted itself in deeper. Even deeper than your lungs. Almost like your whole body was soggy. 

Ghosts. You could feel them. In your lungs. 

I didn’t get sick with my ghost until about three months in. We were supposed to stay inside, stay away from everybody else… but. Who listened? I went out for groceries, had to get groceries. The bag boy was the one who hacked on me and I tried to get out of there but… I tried to run away but…

I could feel it. Rummaging around inside my chest. It didn’t settle. Never settled. It was wet and ragged and all I wanted to do was get rid of it.

Release it. Hack it up. A phantom of phlegm.

So I ran. As fast as I could before it could follow me, but follow it did. I ran across the freshly cut green lawns of neighbors, past my girlfriend’s house, past Mrs. Norris’s house into the woods so no one could see it. Behind me it whispered my name… Ellen. Ellen I need you. 

I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. What if another one sprang out. Once I was in the woods, I couldn’t run anymore. I collapsed near a dead willow tree as tall as any skyscraper. 

It was there, above me. Watching me. Waiting. 

A woman with long black hair and translucent skin. She looked at me and I stared back at her, trembling. 

W-what do you want? I asked. 

You summoned me. You wouldn’t wear your mask. You didn’t follow the rules. So here I am. To remind you. Of what to do. Always. 

Always? Like, you’re going to tell me what to do and if I don’t what will happen?

She shrugged. Try it and see. Stand up. 

I folded my hand in front of me. No. 

The ghost smiled and suddenly I felt it again. That hacking wet feeling. I bent over.

I stood up.

Leave me alone, I said to the phantom. It’s my right not to wear a mask!

You silly girl, she said, her voice reverberating in my head. Masks are always important. I died of the Spanish Flu back in the 20s, and I didn’t wear a mask. I was like you.

I don’t care, I said! I began to run again, away from her. But she was everywhere. In front of me, at every step.

Move aside, I told her. Let me be!

No, she said.

So I walked through her.

That was the wrong thing to do. My nostrils filled up with the stench of decaying flesh. I felt wetness on my cheeks, a slimy feeling. When I looked, I found that I was inside of her body. I saw the wasted viscera, the gluey strands of connective tissue, and the spongy feel of old, old organs. Her message was clear to me. I would become a rotting sack of flesh if I didn’t follow her. 

I staggered through the woods. Carrying the memory, the feeling, the taste with me.

Tripping.

Falling.

Getting up. 

Walking into things. Through dappled sunlight and shadow.

Blinking. Losing moments. Losing more than that.

Hours?

The sun was different. It fell the wrong way through the trees. The way it does when the sun is about to roll off the edge of the world and give night full license.

The sickness was unbearable.

I wanted to vomit. Needed to. But… how? How does one vomit up a ghost?

The edge of the woods was there. A hundred yards away. I could see houses. The first street lights were sparking on, pouring a rich orange glow down onto the parked cars. Onto kids playing in the grass beyond the trees. On people walking.

There was a path winding into where I was, and to where I’d been I could feel her calling me. Her. 

When I’d passed through her there was a transformation of some kind. A changing of me. Of my perception. I turned as if expecting to see her behind me… but I was alone. 

And yet I could feel her. The tendons and muscles, skin and bones around me, as if she was a suit of clothes I’d pulled on. A second skin, but more than skin. I was still inside of her flesh. Somehow. Impossibly.

“Please leave me alone,” I yelled.

Thought I’d yelled. It was less than that. A whisper. A croak. Something weak like that. But…

But it wasn’t my voice. Not really. 

It was ours.

* * * 

For more information on the participating authors’ books, and to download free content from Tor Nightfire, click here. Thanks again to all of our participating authors. We’re looking forward to our next Crowdcast event soon.

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