It’s October, everyone. That means it’s time for our annual Halloween special. This year we’ve gone for a theme, presenting a collection of horror stories about endings, both figurative and literal. The dead and the undying. Spirits sea monsters. Apocalypses writ both large and small. Welcome to The End of the World.
Of Pumpkin Soup and Other Demons
by Natalia Theodoridou
The shutters rattled in their hinges as rainy fists banged against the wood. Katina rubbed her knuckles. They made a creaky noise. “Old bones, what did you expect?” she chuckled. “Old bodies are as good as coffins.”
She stirred the pumpkin soup boiling on the stove and tasted her wooden spoon. “Almost ready.”
The wind pounded on the door with all his might and fury. It almost sounded like knocking.
“Are you set on tearing my house down?” she asked him.
Then, another knock. And another.
Katina looked at the door, her left eyebrow raised.
“Is someone there?” she asked.
The voice behind the door sounded childish and cold. “Yes,” it said. “Hello? We are here. Please, open up.”
Katina limped to the door, her knees protesting the sudden strain. She cracked the door open. There was a boy standing at the threshold. He looked tired and very, very wet.
“Oh my,” she said, opening the door wider. “What are you doing here? Are you all by yourself? Come on in before this crazy wind sweeps you up like the twig that you are.” She pulled the boy inside and closed the door behind him.
“Thank you, granny,” the boy said, glancing at the shut door.
“What’s your name, boy?”
The boy’s clothes and hair were drenched, and a cool air seemed to hang about him.
“Well, Christos. You’re dripping all over my rug. Go fetch a couple of towels from that cupboard over there and we’ll dry you up.”
The boy did as he was told.
“That’s about as dry as you will get tonight,” she told him after she finished rubbing the rain off his hair and wrapped him in a dry towel. “I’m afraid I don’t have any clothes for you, though. No more grandchildren around here.”
“That’s okay, granny,” Christos said. “Thank you.” His voice was low, almost a whisper.
Katina shivered. Even though the boy was dry enough now, that cold air was still there, as if coming from within him. As if he had swallowed the storm itself.
“Are you hungry? I have hot pumpkin soup. Would you like some?” she asked. “It’s very good,” she added, winking at the boy. “I make a wicked pumpkin soup.”
“Yes, please.” He looked up at her, expectant.
He was an odd one, for sure, but all hungry boys look alike.
“Take a seat.”
Christos climbed on one of the wooden chairs and watched her make her way to the stove. She set a bowl of steaming soup in front of him. She could see the sweet pumpkin smell made his eyes water. Yet, he hesitated.
“Go ahead,” she urged him, but instead of diving in, the boy crossed his hands in front of his chest and whispered what could only have been a prayer. Then he dug in.
“Aren’t you precious,” Katina said, watching him eat. “What were you doing all alone in the storm?”
“I was not alone,” the boy said between blowing on the soup and swallowing.
“I am with my Papa.”
Katina blinked. “You mean you were with your father? Where is he now?”
“Outside.” Christos stuffed himself with soup, avoiding her eyes.
“He is outside right now?”
The boy nodded.
“Why didn’t you say anything? The skies are coming down out there. It’s freezing.”
“He doesn’t mind the cold.”
“Nonsense,” Katina said, and pushed herself to walk to the door again, to her knees’ dismay. Much as she disliked the idea of strange men in her house, she wasn’t about to make an orphan of this child tonight.
She threw the door open and poked her head out. “Hello? Mister?” she called. The wind ruffled her hair. “Goodness. Hello?” She waited for a few moments, trying to see through the dark and the rain, but she couldn’t make out anything. Her bones complained. Reluctantly, she shut the door. Poor child, she thought.
“I told you he doesn’t want to come in,” the boy said. He had finished the soup and put the dirty bowl in the sink.
She nodded to herself. Poor child. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Let’s get you to bed, shall we?”
Katina spread one of her old sheets on the sofa and piled a few blankets on top of the boy. Still, the coldness lingered about him. He didn’t seem to mind.
“How long have you been alone?” she asked him, just as sleep was about to claim him.
“I told you, Papa is out there. We’re going north, where it’s cold.”
“You ought to go south, where it’s warm, my silly bird,” she whispered. She ran her crooked fingers through the sleeping boy’s hair. “Let the angels watch over you, child.”
In the morning, the storm had given way to a thick fog that settled over the valley like soup. The temperature in the house had dropped dramatically over night. Katina opened the shutters to let in the light and its warmth. It didn’t make much difference. The day was dark and heavy with the dampness of last night.
Christos ate the toasted bread she gave him and was eager to leave as soon as he devoured the last crumbs.
“But where will you go, child?” she protested. “I can take care of you. God knows I could use the company.”
“Thank you, granny,” he said. “But my Papa is waiting.” He turned as he was reaching for the doorknob and added: “He won’t forget this.”
Christos stepped outside and she went after him as fast as her old legs would carry her. The boy was already walking up the hill when she made it to the road. He was heading north. The fog was about to swallow him up.
Katina shook her head in disapproval. “Go south, silly bird!” she shouted.
A gush of wind stirred the air and the fog parted briefly. For a moment Katina thought she glimpsed a tall figure walking next to the boy; the dark outline of a man, holding the child’s hand. She squinted. The man turned his head. She couldn’t make out his face, but she could have sworn that the man looked straight into her eyes, and nodded.
When she blinked, both man and child were gone.
Katina rushed back in and locked the door behind her. The house felt much warmer now. She leaned against the door frame.
“He won’t forget this,” she muttered, and crossed herself three times.
The Ghost of Grammy Goneril
by Austin H. Gilkeson
Dead grandparents give the worst candy. Alive grandparents give bad candy, too—hard stuff that tastes like chalk and air freshener—but you can eat it. The stuff that comes from the Other Side? It’s ineatable. Inedible? Whatever. It’s gross.
Maybe you’re not a witch like me and you don’t know about this stuff. It’s like this: On All Hallows’ Day a door opens between Our Side and the Other Side, and our dead relatives come back to visit. We build altars in our houses with a mirror for the dead people to come through. We put out their favorite foods, too. Pizza, oranges, eel-bacon. The dead can’t eat it but they like looking at it. Dead people are weird.
The dead are supposed to give a gift from their side, too. It’s usually good fortune or a glimpse of the future. But with my grandmother Goneril it was always gross dead candy. You want to know what it tastes like? Find a slug. Dip it in fish guts. Let it rot for thirty years. Eat it. That’s what it tastes like. Death.
This year it’s all I got. I didn’t go to the All Hallows’ Eve Feast with the other witches on Black Cauldron Lane. No roast pork, no candied yams, no pumpkin pie. Mom grounded me for eating the eel-bacon off Grammy Goneril’s altar. I didn’t see what the big deal was. She wasn’t going to eat it.
“Mab Yuka Ipswich, now you listen to me,” Mom said right before my family left for the feast. She used my full name so I’d know she was really mad. “If I find a single mote of dust out of place when we get home, you will spend the next week scrubbing the attic floor. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said. Of course I didn’t mean it.
Right after they left I got my broom. I figured getting left behind wasn’t so bad. Nobody could stop me from flying around the house as fast as I wanted. But the broom didn’t lift off. I tried a few other spells but nothing worked. Mom had jinxed me. I couldn’t do magic.
I tried to watch TV, but Mom had jinxed that, too. The only show it picked up was a documentary about broccoli. I tried to read, but every page of every book in the house had turned blank. I tried to listen to music, but Mom had hexed my music player so every track was just her yelling.
Mom can be really evil. I was trying to think of something awful I could do to get back at her, like clog the toilets with her scarves, when someone said my name.
In the mirror on Grammy Goneril’s altar was Grammy Goneril’s face.
“Grammy? What are you doing? It’s All Hallows’ Eve. You’re not supposed to come till tomorrow.”
“The door between worlds opened early, and… well, I couldn’t wait to see you all!”
“Okay…” I said. Her voice sounded weird, like she was scared.
“Oh, look how big you’ve gotten! How old are you now? Four?”
“I’m eleven, Grammy,” I said. I was four when Grammy Goneril died. Dead people aren’t good at remembering stuff that happens after they die.
“Eleven! My how time flies when you’re no longer part of the space-time continuum! Now, be a dear and help me out of this mirror…”
I hesitated. Getting stuck at home with nothing to do was bad. Getting stuck at home with a dead person was worse. I didn’t really remember Grammy Goneril. Just that she used to give too tight hugs and smelled like soap. She probably wanted to ramble off a bunch of boring stories about when she was alive. I bet she had gross candy, too.
“Please…” she said.
“Okay.” It’s not like I had anything else to do. I went to the altar and stood at the mirror so it looked like Grammy Goneril was standing behind me. And then she was. She patted my head. It felt weird. Like she’d touched me but nothing had touched me. Like the echo of a touch.
“Thank you, Mab. Here, have some candy,” she said. I sighed and held out my hand. You have to accept what dead people give you or they can’t stay. Three black things that looked like burned frog guts dropped into my hand. I put them in my pocket.
Grammy gazed at her altar. “What a lovely altar! Oranges, donuts, fried eggplant! All my favorites, but… no eel-bacon. Oh, and I’d been so looking forward to the eel-bacon.”
“Why do you care? You can’t eat it.” I felt a little bad about eating the eel-bacon. Not that I was gonna tell her I ate it.
“I can’t eat it, but I can sense it, in a way. You’ll understand when you’re dead,” Grammy said. “Food evokes so many memories. It helps us remember who we were in life, what we did… Oh, but you can’t imagine how much I miss eating! Such a wonderful sensation! Although it is nice not having to go to the bathroom afterwards. What a hassle that was! I don’t know how you stand it.”
I told you dead people are weird. Grammy looked at the food for a while. I tried to think of something to do with her. Normally we just talk to the dead on All Hallows’ Day. We ask for blessings and they share their memories. That’s it. It’s kind of boring.
“Do you want to play a board game, Grammy?” I asked. I hoped Mom hadn’t jinxed them, too.
Grammy smiled at me. “Oh, no thank you, child. I was just hoping to visit and… where is everyone, by the way?”
“At the All Hallows’ Eve Feast. I’m grounded so I can’t go.”
“Oh, poor child, to be imprisoned all alone on All Hallows’ Eve!” Grammy said. “Whatever did you do?”
“Uh… I clogged the toilets with Mom’s scarves.”
Grammy burst out laughing. “Like mother like daughter. You know, child, when your mother was fifteen I forbade her from seeing this boy she’d been dating. She got so mad she turned all my diamond jewelry into coal.”
“She never told me that,” I said. I was starting to like Grammy Goneril.
“Your mother also used to sneak into my bedroom at night and put slime-spiders in my sock drawer. She was quite the handful,” Grammy said and chuckled.
It was hard to imagine Mom making trouble. She definitely didn’t like me doing it. “Hey Grammy, I saw some slime-webs in the basement. Do you wanna put the spiders in Mom’s sock drawer?”
Grammy’s orange eyes twinkled. “Oh, a little revenge would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
I smiled. This was better than some dumb feast.
Dead people can only go where their reflection goes, so I grabbed the mirror off the altar. It was heavier than it looked. I almost dropped it. That’d have been bad. If you break a dead person’s mirror, they get stuck on this side and their spirit fades. Mom would kill me if I did that to Grammy. Plus it’s seven years bad luck.
“Let’s go!” Grammy said. I carried the mirror down to the basement. We found a couple of green slime-spiders behind the washing machine. Grammy grabbed them. The spiders spat their poison slime on her but it just dripped through her see-through skin.
I lugged the mirror upstairs to Mom and Dad’s room. Grammy laughed as she stuffed the slime-spiders in Mom’s socks. Mom was gonna shriek like a banshee when she found them. I couldn’t wait.
“Hey Grammy, I can get grounded every year on All Hallows’ Eve,” I said. “Then we can play pranks on Mom together.”
“I’d like that very much, child, I—” Grammy started to say. Then she looked at the mirror and went pale. I mean, even paler than a ghost usually is.
I bent my head over the mirror. In the glass I saw half my face upside down, Grammy looking freaked out, Mom’s dresser, and flames. That was weird. There was no fire in the room.
“They found me…” Grammy whispered. “No! I can’t go back… not yet…”
Grammy sank onto Mom and Dad’s bed. “When I was a young witch, I wanted power. And in its pursuit I did terrible things. Unforgivable things. I wish I could make it right, but there is some black magic that can never be undone. And so when I died I was condemned to the burning darkness. Like other spirits, we can slip away on All Hallows’ Day. It is the only relief from our torment. Tonight I managed to escape a bit early, but it seems the demons have found me out. They will be angry.”
The mirror grew hot in my hands. “You mean you went to H—?”
“No swearing, please,” Grammy said. “Mab, you must promise me you’ll never tell your mother! It would hurt her so, to know my fate. I’m so sorry, child, to put this on you.”
Dark shapes moved in the flames. I couldn’t let the demons take Grammy, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even do magic. The mirror burned my hands. I had to set it down or I’d drop it… Then I got an idea.
“Grammy, what if I break the mirror? You’ll fade, but that’s better than going back to He—”
“No swearing, please,” Grammy said. “No, I can’t ask you to do that. Not for me. The bad luck alone… and your mother, she wouldn’t understand.”
I shrugged. “I can take potions for the bad luck. And I can make it look like an accident. Mom believed it when I blew up my sister Tamora’s computer.”
Grammy was quiet for a while. Then she nodded. “My spirit will fade into the ether like a raindrop into the sea… Such peace… Yes, I’d like that.”
I got some oven mitts and carried the mirror downstairs to the altar. Grammy looked around the living room for a while. She looked sad now, not scared. “So many memories,” she said.
The demons in the mirror got closer. I could see the reds of their eyes. “Uh, Grammy?”
“I’m ready. Tell your mother I love her very much. Good-bye, Mab, and thank you. I only wish we’d had more time together.”
“Me too. I’ll miss you, Grammy.”
Grammy smiled and gave me a nod. I lifted the mirror above my head and then let it go. The glass shattered on the floor. I heard a sound like a big sigh of relief. Grammy’s ghost flickered out like a candle.
My bad luck started quick. Right then the front door opened. Mom stepped inside, took one look at the mirror, and screamed. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
Mom ran over and knelt by the broken glass. She started crying. “Oh, Goneril, I’m so sorry you won’t be able to visit this year,” she said. Then she turned to me. “Was this to get back at me for grounding you, Mab? Is that why you did this?”
“No! Grammy wanted me to break it. She didn’t tell you, but she was in Hel—”
“Enough!” Mom shouted. I’d never seen her so mad. “I don’t want to hear any lies! Go to your room! I will think of a punishment for you later.”
Clean the attic every day for six months. That’s what I got for being a good granddaughter. But at least Grammy was free. That made me feel a little better when I was scraping bat crap off the floor. A little.
Mom believed me about Grammy eventually, but I still got grounded another week for the slime-spiders.
I never ate the dead people candy Grammy gave me. I keep it on my dresser. That way it’s like the altar food, it helps me remember her.
Plus I bet it tastes really gross.
About the Authors
Austin Gilkeson writes books for children and essays for people of all ages. His writing has appeared at Catapult, Vulture, Tor.com, The Rumpus, The Toast, Points in Case, Unbound Worlds, and the Chicago Reader online. His stories for children have appeared in the children’s literary magazines Underneath the Juniper Tree and Spellbound, and here on Cast of Wonders.
Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers, and a writer of strange stories. Natalia’s work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and elsewhere. For more, visit www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.
About the Narrators
Christiana Ellis is a writer and podcaster living in Massachusetts. She is the creator of the fantasy novel “Nina Kimberly the Merciless” as well as the award-winning Scifi Audiodrama “Space Casey”. She always has something in the works and everything posts at Christianaellis.com. Follow her on Twitter.
Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.