Welcome to the Night Harvest. This October and November, we’re be featuring scary stories and illustrations from talented authors and artists around the globe. I hope you stay awhile. After all, the Night Harvest is quite a scream. You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
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One True Desire
by Kathleen Palm
Cornstalks slash across my cheeks as I race through the field. My celebratory calls echo in the night. I’m free. Finally. Energy pulses through me, but each flicker of power dimmer than the last. My bare feet sink into the rich black dirt. The glow from the moon spills orange-tinted light over my arms as I push through the rustling leaves. The harvest moon. The reason my chains have been cut.
A simple spell, magic to ask for a clean slate. I’m never going back. Never again being who they want me to be, a me hidden behind a mask of false perfection, of forced happiness.
A rush of wings thunders through the air. Hundreds of birds take flight, and I stop. The roar of caws swallows the chaotic rhythm of my breathing. Their cries weave into words.
Shadows creep into my joy and dispel the haze of manic glee. My triumphant laugh quivers and dies. The chill September night air burns my lungs and touches the sweat on my face with frozen fingers. The flock disappears into the night, their din fading into the past. Panic brushes my mind and my heart stutters. I drop my gaze and take in the rough stalks, the black soil, and the endless field. My hair creeps over my shoulders, the blood-red ends ominous in the moonlight.
The wind falls quiet. The buzz of insects and creak of stalks cease. The still of the night descends on me in a rush of silence.
Where am I?
How did I get here?
Why am I here?
The scent of damp dirt crawls up my nose. I squint into the field, my frantic breathing a sound of unease. Row after row of corn continues until the night devours them, the eerie light unable to penetrate the dark. A lone bird caws. My stomach clenches, for it calls my name.
I snap my gaze up in time to spot the dark shape drift across the moon. The harvest moon. Huge and magnificent, it hangs low in the sky, ripe with magic.
I had been in my room.
Sitting on the floor.
Staring at that same moon.
Had the spell worked?
It must have been only hours since I settled the tattered book in a puddle of moonlight, surrounded by flickering candles. The creepy tome covered with strange symbols, the almost-letters of lines and circles. The book I stole.
My deepest need clear in my mind, I chanted the odd phrases, stumbling over words with no meaning. Then closed my eyes.
But how did I get from my room to here?
The lilting melody of freedom hums in the back of my mind. But how can I believe it if I can’t remember confronting Mom and Dad, telling them how my life will be? I have to go home. See if it worked. But which way?
A breeze weaves through the field, sending the dried leaves into whispered conversations. Darkness clings to the stalks and the ground. I shiver at the cold embrace of the wind, which rises with a growl. The corn’s hushed tones morph into frantic chatter. A scream slices the fall chill with an icy claw. I press my hands to my ears as fear spreads through my thoughts like a fire across a dead forest. I gaze into the field, at places hidden from the moon. Every sound sends me spinning. Who is there?
Only the wind playing chase in the field?
Only animals hunting at night?
Only my imagination?
Except my stomach twists as if caught in a lie. Trapped in my mind, the terrible cry lurks, repeats and insists it is reality. The screech of my name rides the cold air, the bird calls me. Warns me? Unease creeps up my spine. The moon hovers, watching, waiting. It knows how I got here. This is part of the plan. The shining orb has done its job, cast its magic. Unfettered me.
But why am I in a field? I search for the way back to where ever I began. The light of the moon brushes the edges of footprints. My prints. The way I had come. A way back home?
I follow the path and tuck my hands under my arms to capture a bit of warmth, my sweat-damped shirt only welcoming the chill. My long, extra-comfy shorts ripple against my thighs in the breeze. Goosebumps spread over my arms and legs. Is this the field behind our house? Had I fallen asleep? Maybe wandered out here under the spell? The book didn’t say anything about forgetting, losing time, sleep-walking.
Maybe I did it wrong.
Mom’s words that I can’t do anything right, that I’m not good enough scatter my thoughts. She will be waiting at the back door, a lecture perched on her lips. I hit leaves out of my way, my anger rising. More words.
When Mom and Dad discovered my deceit, they attacked with those words. It had been inevitable. Anger flares in my stomach at Mom’s actions. Just this morning, the moment she crossed the line. I don’t care, not anymore. The wind blows my hair in my face and freedom whispers in my ear. Being away from home offered choices. The choice to change my brown locks to black and red. The choice to not go to class.
At home choices didn’t exist. Only orders. Only expectations.
I walk through the field, a brave new me.
A me who defies Mom.
A me who takes a stand.
A me who casts spells.
Shadows dance at the edges of my vision. Cornstalks tap-tap-tap against each other as if sharing secrets, sending ripples of fear along my back. I glance over my shoulder at every creak, crack, and crunch. I shouldn’t be here. I should be home, telling Mom and Dad my true desires. If the spell worked, I can do that. I will do that. Unless the ritual went wrong. When I sat in front of the book to practice, hesitation made me trip over the words, the chance of failure clear in my mind.
But after this morning, after being told over and over of their disappointment. How I disregarded the path they had set for me. How I dared show such disrespect when they wanted what was best for me. But they never asked me. I opened my mouth to tell her everything. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t perfect. She wouldn’t listen. They didn’t care. Magic became the only choice.
I had never gone against them, never spoken a word, only ever cowered in a corner. How many times had tears streamed along my cheeks as I made wish after wish to be alone, to be rid of them? Mom and Dad with their rules and expectations. Gaby with her need to please them, her smiles at their praise. But I couldn’t get away, until now.
A shiver of air races through the stalks, playing the leaves like a raspy instrument, until tugging on my hair, pulling a memory free of the dark place in my head. When the spell had been completed, a gust swept through my room and snuffed the candle flames with a roar. The currents whipped around my body, and the light of the moon rushed into me. I breathed it in. Power smells of smoke, of spice, of eternity. Then…
I can’t remember.
The magic took control.
A control I happily gave.
I pause. My shirt sticks to my arms as I raise my hands to my head. Annoyed and disgusted, I peel away the fabric and gaze at the dark stain splattered across my oversized night shirt. I slide my finger across the mess and catch my breath. The same stuff covers my fingers, my hands, my arms.
I hadn’t used paint in the spell.
A blurry memory plays. Smoke swirling in the air. Moonlight pulsing around my feet as I cross my room and open my door. The dim hall leading to the stairs. The voices of Mom, Dad, and my perfect little sister drifting up from the first floor.
The scene fades to darkness. The rest of the answer to how I got here stays hidden. I shudder at the rustle of plants, the shadows and dim light dance like malevolent spirits. I stare at my hands. Confusion and worry slip into my mind like unwanted guests. The substance makes my stomach churn.
Is it paint?
What else could it be?
The thought echoes through my brain. I wipe my hands along my shirt over and over. Magic can demand a sacrifice. Spells can require symbols drawn on walls and floors.
Had I killed some animal to make the magic work? Or was it paint? Was our house covered in pentagrams and curving lines?
Shoving cornstalks aside, I hurry along the row, worry creeping farther into my mind. I have to return. I have to know that I am truly free.
If it hadn’t been for Mom, her deciding what school I attended and what courses I took, I would never have been on campus, pretending to be in class. I would never have overheard the five girls, their hair twisted and tucked into numerous braids, who sat on the floor in a dark corner of the university’s library. Strange pendants, circles like the moon with sweeping lines curling at the edges, hung from chains around their necks as they chanted words of praise. I hid behind the shelves, listening to their plans to use magic.
The power of the harvest moon.
An easy spell to wipe the slate clean.
All it takes is need.
A strong want. A true desire. To start over. To be free. Could it be real? Magic? While they weren’t looking, I took the book because I didn’t care if it was a lie, I wanted to try. The spell needed me, candles, and words. Magic, fueled by dreams, the moon able to grant my wish.
I glance up. The great orb continues to wait, to watch in silence. What wish had it seen in my heart that the magic sent me here?
My need is to be free. Always has been.
The quiet of the night presses on my ears. My toes sink into the cold dirt as I push forward. I shiver, but refuse to touch my arms to my chest for warmth.
Because of the stain.
Because of the blood.
Because of what I might have done.
Wind howls at my back, I turn and it hits me in the face, carrying a mind-numbing scream. I stop and run my sticky hands along my shirt. Is something out here with me? Something upset with what I have done, with the ritual I performed? Did I call it forth? The solitary bird flits across the moon as if trying to catch its light. Its cry rings in my ears.
The towering cornstalks bend over me, threatening. The blackness deepens and closes in around me. My gaze darts to every shadow, to every trembling leaf.
I run. My hands block the stinging slap of the reaching field. Why can’t I remember? What happened after I left my room? A scene tumbles into the light of discovery. I skid to a stop. The forgotten memory erases my surroundings, consumes me. And in my mind, I’m home. Instead of dirt, my feet sink into the soft carpet of the stairs. My hand runs along perfectly straight picture frames, which hold the perfect smiles on the faces of the perfect family, my family. Arms folded, Gaby sits at the dining room table dutifully reading a book. The wave of disgust breaks in my mind at how she shares our parents’ fake smiles. Over her head, the glittering chandelier throws broken lines of light on the sterile white walls. Behind the formal table with its twelve high-backed chairs Dad paces the living room, sending orders through his phone—every statement ends with a snap. The click-clack of Mom typing marches from the kitchen.
The memories unfold, closing on the end of the story. Anger and excitement build. As if a puppet, I reach for the door to the kitchen, but meet crisp, rough leaves. My mind snaps back to reality, the answers remain out of reach.
Why am I in the field?
Did the magic work?
Is it blood?
My breathing becomes an unsteady rhythm. The wet front of my shirt sways unnaturally. I hold my arms out to keep them from touching me… from touching anything.
Is it blood?
What will I find when I get home? Either the harvest moon granted my wish or Mom will sit me down for another lecture to attempt to brainwash me into being her good girl—not Rae, but her Rachel.
More scenes emerge from the nothingness, and my missing memories engulf me. The field disappears and I enter the kitchen. My body buzzes with power. Mom’s voice cuts through the haze, asking if I thought about our conversation. If I reconsidered my actions. If I am prepared to be responsible. I don’t answer as I turn to get a glass from the cabinet.
Orange light filters through the image of the kitchen and the memory shatters. With a growl, I sprint and smack every plant that invades my space. Mom appeared at my dorm room this morning. Her dark brown eyes twitched with displeasure as she inspected my newly colored hair. Her mouth bent in a frown, she ordered me to pack clothes for the weekend. We were going home to talk.
Talk. Mom doesn’t talk, she preaches. She demands.
She paced my room, and I shoved shirts and pants in a bag. My chest heated with rage at being dragged home like a five-year-old. She’d called the school. I wasn’t failing, her voice hitching on that word. Her hands flew through the air as she informed me that my non-existent scores didn’t qualify as failing.
She wanted to know what I had been thinking?
I want to make my own choices.
I want to go to a different school.
I want her to stop controlling me.
Fatigue in my legs brings me to a halt, and my gaze drifts to the moon. I curl my fingers into fists as a dark beast of wrath growls from the black corners of myself.
I resist the urge to scream at the piece of rock in the sky, to demand it answer my question. The spell. Did it work?
Am I free?
As Mom ranted about my lack of good decision making, my gaze fell on the book of spells.
All I need is desire.
We rode home in the car, my hands bouncing in my lap, knuckles white. Mom talked the entire three hours. She reminded me of the work it takes to be a doctor. She told me I would get my act together and go back Monday ready to face my professors. When we reached the house, Mom ended the speech with a curt nod, as if everything had been decided.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t hide. I didn’t run to my room and cry about not being good enough. Maybe being away at college had cut a rebellious streak through my usual passiveness.
I told Mom that I wasn’t going back.
She laughed, as if I was a silly kid who didn’t know any better.
And I slammed the car door.
And I wished that Mom would disappear.
And I wished to be free of them all.
I stare at the dark stain covering my clenched fists. Desire. It wasn’t the first time that need to be alone, to be free of my family had surfaced. I remember the peace of the empty house, just me. I remember wishing that Mom, Dad, and Gaby wouldn’t come home from the store. In the early morning hours, I remember hoping they wouldn’t wake up, wouldn’t be there…
How many times have I wished for home to be swallowed by dark? How many?
I hurry through the field. My heart pounds with the rhythm of my thoughts. One thought. The magic knew my desire. The harvest moon brought the power to life.
A lost memory crawls out of the back of my mind. The knives tucked into their wooden block. The squeak of Mom’s chair on the tile floor.
A shiver traces my spine.
Blood on my hands.
I break free of the field and gasp for breath. Drenched in dim moonlight, my yard stands before me. Lights burn steady from the windows of the two story brick house. As if nothing is wrong. But the light lies. The yellow rectangles drown the moonlight as they stretch across the grass, welcoming me home. Or maybe accusing me. Maybe reaching for me only to put me in a new prison, one of my making.
I remember wrapping my fingers around the handle of the knife.
I remember the surge of elation as the magic sought to fulfill my desires.
I remember Mom’s screams as the blade struck her heart.
My body shakes. I rub my hands along my hips over and over, hoping to wipe away the blood. Because it isn’t only Mom’s screams that haunt me. Dad rushed into the kitchen, and a simple flick of my wrist sent a red wave down his neck. His death reduced to strangled pleas.
I collapse to my knees. My fingers dig into the ground. Tears fall like rain, a storm of regret.
Magic has consequences. But I didn’t understand.
A sliver of light shines in the grass. I inch forward until my fingers close on the wood handle of the knife.
The knife covered with blood.
The knife I dropped as I ran from the house.
The knife the magic used to grant my wish.
I wanted to be free.
As I stared at my parents, blood pooling on the tile, Gaby called from the other room. Her voice quivered with fear. I exited the kitchen, the knife hidden behind my back, and found her standing by her chair in the dining room. Her green eyes tracked me. She shifted from one foot to another and asked what was going on.
And I told her nothing.
And she shook her head, tears dripping along her cheeks.
And I attacked.
She tried to run, but the magic was faster. I stopped her tears. Her perfect tears.
Her cries ring loudest in my mind.
Hours ago, by the power of the harvest moon uncovered my true desire. Memories flood my head, of my escape into the field, not caring where I was headed, only that I was free. Yet I paid a great price. My family’s dying screams echo in the black. Thoughts of their final moments lodge in my mind. Forever.
No more lectures. No more expectations. No more being told how my life will be.
I can choose. I did choose.
A clean slate. But I will never be free.
As a kid, she filled sketchpads with drawings of strange creatures and wondrous worlds. She dreamed of being an illustrator and studied art in college. However, in the middle of being a stay-at-home mom with two toddlers, the desire to write her own stories struck. She embarked on the journey of insanity and never looked back, except to keep an eye out for the TARDIS or faeries because, well… because. She loves the weird, the scary, and the fantastical, believing that magic makes the world a better place.
Her kids, husband, cats, dog, and tortoises add laughter and general chaos to her life, which includes writing, reading, or watching strange television shows, featuring demons or time travel.
Her debut book Doors is scheduled for release in the winter of 2016.
Anyone may enter the giveaway. This includes the artist and writers contributing to the Night Harvest, as well as the readers of the stories. Enjoy!