It's Halloween, and the monsters have come for him again.
He remembered the first time he encountered them. They had come through his window one night, when the moon was at its highest.
The twelve year old lowered his blanket. Two girls and a boy stared at him. The dark-haired girl grinned at him, her brown hair in a messy knot. There was blood along her cheeks and on her neck, the flesh cut open.
But Charlie wasn't scared. He had seen enough horror movies to know that monsters didn't exist. “Hello,” he replied softly. “How did you know my name?”
The other girl smiled, her blonde hair glistening in the moonlight. Her smile was so big that Charlie could see her teeth. No – her fangs. She crouched down and examined a toy truck on his floor.
“We know a lot about you,” the boy said, coming forward. His shaggy hair fell into his strange, yellow eyes. “We've picked you, Charlie. You're special. We've been watching you. You're smart, resourceful.” The boy grinned, his teeth normal. “I'm Liam, and this is Olivia and Carly.” He indicated the blonde, then the dark-haired girl. He peered at Charlie. “You're not afraid of us.”
It wasn't a question.
“No,” Charlie answered bravely. “You're not real.”
“Are you sure?” Carly wondered. She tried to wipe the blood from her face. “It itches,” she told him. Sitting on the edge of his mattress, she looked around. “You have a nice room.”
Charlie didn't answer. He was too busy looking at her neck. At the wound that now seemed too real. And she smelled, he noticed. She smelled so bad that he needed to cover his nose and mouth. She was putrid, rotten.
She reeked of death.
Olivia smiled again, her sharp teeth startling.
Charlie had always been fascinated with vampires – and now there was one in his room. He couldn't wait to tell his friends.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you,” Liam said. “They'll just think you were playing a prank. Remember, vampires, werewolves and dead girls don't exist.”
Charlie took a deep breath, and reached out to touch Carly's hand. It was cold. So cold that he pulled away. When he spoke, his voice was trembling and full of fear.
“Oh my God.”
That was when Charlie screamed.
From that first night when he was twelve, and the three had come crawling through his window, Charlie Cross was marked. For years afterward, it was the same as if he had stepped back in time.
They looked exactly the same.
They asked the same thing of him.
Always the same thing.
“We chose you. We want you to join us. We want you to kill with us, Charlie. So we can stay here. Won't you do it?”
And he always refused, terrified of what would happen if he didn't. Would they ask him to kill his parents or friends?
“They're important to you,” Liam told him. “But we need you. You're the fourth.”
Olivia slipped her arms around Liam, her chin on his shoulder. “We'll just keep coming, you know.”
They had kept that promise. When Charlie turned sixteen, he thought somehow he was safe, that he had reached the age where nothing could get him. He was wrong.
He was sitting on the couch, remote in hand, after everyone had gone to sleep. He kept hearing footsteps upstairs, and assuming it was his parents, he allowed himself to drift off to sleep.
But he had barely closed his eyes when a familiar voice called his name. He sat up, eyes wide. But he wasn't afraid. He knew they would come again, just like before. He was stupid to think they were still imaginary, even after all this time.
That was when he saw her, standing by the TV. She twisted her long blonde hair around a finger. Her brown eyes fell on his startled face, and she smiled. “Hello, Charlie,” she said softly.
“Olivia,” he said. “Hi.” He looked around. “Where are Liam and Carly?” He thought it was strange that she was here, alone, a week before Halloween.
As she sat next to him, he caught a scent that made his stomach churn. Blood. He knew that smell all too well. He wanted to ask her about it, but thought better of it.
“Don't kill him, Liv.”
Carly emerged from somewhere in the darkened room, making Charlie wonder if she had been there the whole time. He never got used to the sight of her slashed neck, or the smell of rotten flesh.
“I was just talking,” Olivia said. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“You're trying to persuade him.” Liam put a hand on Olivia's shoulder, his nails digging in. “Aren't you, sweetheart?”
“Of course not,” Olivia said. “Charlie can make his own choices.”
“It's not Halloween,” Charlie reminded them. “And I'm not going to help you, I'm sorry. I won't kill anyone.”
Olivia's eyes darkened and she scowled. “Yes, you are.” She slid her nail along his arm, some blood trickling down his skin. “You refuse us again and you'll be sorry.”
“Olive!” Carly shouted. “No, we talked about this. We need him, so you cannot hurt him. He's the fourth.”
“The fourth what?” Charlie asked. “You said that before. I don't know what you mean.”
“One more person makes us stronger,” Liam answered. “Each of us needs to feed on someone to continue to gain access to this world during Halloween night.”
Charlie shook his head. “This is such a nightmare,” he whispered.
“Only it's not,” Carly said, sitting on his other side. She glanced at the others. “We have to tell him.”
“Tell me what?” Charlie asked.
Liam spoke, his voice apologetic. “This is your last year to refuse us. You won't get another chance next time.”
Charlie swallowed, his pulse racing. “What are you talking about?”
“We've lived so long because of others. Eventually, before their sixteenth year was up, they agreed to help us.” He cast a glance at Olivia. “Until she decided we didn't need them anymore.”
Now he understood.
Every year for as long as Charlie could remember, he'd heard the stories. Halloween had come and gone, and with it, another body. Everyone thought some troubled teen had decided to take off.
But Charlie knew the truth now.
And he prayed he wouldn't be next.
“You're not serious,” Charlie muttered, looking at them. “Oh, shit. You are, aren't you? You're the reason all of those kids went missing.” He dragged a hand down his face. “Oh my God. And now you want me to help you. No. Fuck you. No way.”
“You don't have a choice,” Liam answered. “We told you that.”
“Why?” he asked, eyes narrowed. “Why do I have to help you?”
“You're not afraid of us,” Carly said. “All of the kids we've encountered were terrified at first. But once they realized that we were real, and we weren't going to hurt them, they accepted their fate.”
“Fate?” Charlie's voice turned hard. “Their fate was not to die. It wasn't to help three monsters murder another human, only to be killed themselves because you decided they were worthless after they served their purpose.”
His last words were directed at Olivia, who only glared at him. She stood, bared her fangs, and hissed. Liam pushed her back down as Carly gripped her arm.
“You have a very strange way of looking at the world,” Liam told him. He sat on the armrest of the couch. “You value human life, mainly because you don't know any better. But I've seen the way people treat each other.”
“I would never hurt anyone,” Charlie snapped.
Olivia's hand wrapped around his. It was cold, like Carly's, but he knew the difference. She looked at him, and in the light of the TV, he could see her eyes darken. She ripped herself from Carly's grasp and stood. Her fingers slipped around his neck, and she squeezed lightly.
Leaning over, she whispered, “You don't want to help us? Then you won't mind if I kill you right now.”
His eyes slid to hers, then he shut them. He braced himself, but the pain never came. Instead, her hands left him, and warmth enveloped his body once again. He let out a breath and opened his eyes.
Liam stared at him, yellow eyes glowing. “You're the only one that can help us, Charlie. We've found someone worthy of death. Once you help us, you'll go on living a normal life for many years. But we won't exist in them.”
“No one is worthy of death.”
“Yes, they are,” Carly said softly.
Charlie glanced at her. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Liam sighed and sat onto the couch next to Carly.
“His name is Ash,” Liam said, his voice a growl. “He's the man who killed Carly.”
Carly stiffened at the man's name. She touched her neck, but no blood came off on her hands. She looked at Charlie and lowered her eyes. “Now do you see why we need to dispose of him? You have to help us.”
“I'm sorry that happened to you,” Charlie said, sitting next to her. “But I'm not going to help you kill someone, no matter how much they deserve it.”
From across the room, Olivia groaned. “You're such a good boy, Charlie. It's really quite disturbing how you can hear something that fucked up and not want revenge for your friend.”
“Look,” Liam started, placing a hand on Charlie's shoulder, “stop, okay? We decided a long time ago that Charlie was a good kid, a kind soul.” He glanced around the room, yellow eyes narrowed. “But right now we've got to find Ash. It'll be up to you whether you want to help us.” He looked at Charlie, smiling, his canines sharp.
“But if you back out, I'll make you pay.” Olivia swept from the room, her voice cold.
“Don't listen to her,” Carly said, standing. “You do what you think is right. With or without you, we can get rid of Ash.”
Charlie nodded as Liam spoke quickly, ushering them to the front door.
“You should realize that if you help us just this once, that's it. That's all we need, to stay here for another year. If you don't, well, then we'll say goodbye to you tonight. But don't let Olivia's attitude sway you. It's taken me a long time to see that she's not in charge, that she shouldn't have killed all those kids, just because they were useless to her. That wasn't right.”
“Why are you here now?” he asked. “Halloween isn't for another week.”
Carly frowned. “That was Olive's idea. She's all talk, as you can tell. She just wanted to spook you.”
“I don't spook easily,” he replied, opening the door.
“That much is clear.” Liam chuckled and stepped into the night. He shut the door behind him and looked around at the front yard. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Charlie stared at the sky; it was dark, ominous. He nodded.
Ash Terrence lived in the woods by Charlie's house.
“What are you going to do?” Charlie asked.
“He's going to know what it's like to beg for his life before he dies,” Carly answered. She didn't sound like herself. She was angry, and with good reason.
“Easy,” Liam said, putting a hand on her shoulder. His eyes gleamed in the moonlight. He looked at the house. “It's time.”
Olivia chuckled and stood next to Carly. She smiled. “Oh, darling. We've been waiting for this moment.”
Ash had been drinking a beer when the window to his house exploded. A giant dog had come through, the glass raining down on its back. It took Ash a moment, just a moment, to realize the beast before him wasn't a normal dog, but a wolf.
He cowered from his chair, and lodged himself into a tight corner, screaming. When the wolf didn't advance, but changed right in front of him, Ash cried out. The boy smirked, his yellow eyes radiant in the soft glow of the lamp on the side table.
“Hello, Ash,” he said, his voice cold. “I'm sorry for the intrusion, but we need to speak. It's quite important. Also, I have someone here who would like a word with you.” He looked out the broken window. “Come on, darling.”
Ash tried to control his trembling body, but found it useless under the circumstances. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them, and shut them again. Again and again. Because there was no way, no fucking way that this was happening. He was either dreaming or severely drunk that he was hallucinating.
“You may be drunk,” said the boy, flashing his canines, “but I can promise you, this is real. It's real and now you're going to pay.”
“Pay?” Ash said, his eyes wide. He clutched the beer bottle tighter. “Who are you?”
“My name is Liam,” the stranger said. “And my dear friend Carly would like to discuss something with you.”
Ash wanted to ask who he was talking about - he didn't know anyone by the name of Carly. But when the girl stepped over the window frame and into the house with her savaged neck, ripped clothes and blood streaked face,that was when he remembered. The memory tugged at him, forced images.
She had been crossing the road, and his brain never told him to stop. He was so wasted that he never registered her until his car slammed into her. Her body flew into his windshield.
Once he opened the door, he vomited. Wiping his mouth, he rushed out into the cold to check on her, already fearing the worst. The fog was so thick that he could barely see his hand in front of his face, but when he approached her, he had to will the second round of vomit down.
The girl lay across the hood, her body broken, mangled, and dead. She was dead. He'd killed someone. Her blood was on his hands, he saw, as he looked down. Her blood was all over him. All over his car. He swallowed and lifted her, and then he heard it.
The flesh of her neck had gotten caught on something and torn. Blood spraying.
Holding the dead girl in one arm, he rummaged through her pockets. For her wallet, an ID, anything that would help him know who she was. He needed to know who she was. And then he found it.
Shoving the wallet into his jeans, he carried her toward a field he'd passed. Dumping her body seemed terribly cruel, but what else was he going to do?
He took out a small knife from his jacket and pressed it to the wound on her neck. Pressed hard and dragged until more of her flesh split.
He stood and waited for another car.
He would claim to have found her.
Murder, he told himself.
He was a murderer.
He would pay for his sins.
He knew she would come for him one day.
“You've come,” he whispered, voice strangled with anguish and fear. “Oh God, I'm so sorry for what I did to you.”
Carly blinked at him, then her eyes grew glassy, hard. “You should be. Because I wasn't dead when you left me there in that field.”
Silence filled the air.
“We're here to give you what you deserve,” a new voice said. Female.
Before Ash closed his eyes, he saw a boy standing over him. A normal boy. A boy who looked afraid, but determined. Then the pain came. It came from everywhere. It exploded inside of him and he couldn't stop it. He screamed and screamed.
And then he didn't move again.
Ash Terrence had died a marked man.
“Clean off your hands before you go home,” Olivia told him. She licked the blood from the corner of her mouth, and smiled. “Wouldn't want your mom to see what you've been doing.”
Charlie nodded, his eyes on Carly. “What's going to happen to her?”
Liam followed his gaze: Carly was sitting down, her back against the couch, eyes fixated on the destroyed body of Ash Terrence.
“Hopefully her unfinished business is through,” Liam said quietly. “Then she can go home. We all can. Her final wish was that we helped her, and we have.”
“You'll be free of us soon enough,” Olivia replied, walking over. She looked at her friend. “She's full of regret.”
“Regret?” Charlie answered, and he couldn't believe it. “For what? He left her to die!”
“Easy there,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes. “I don't think that goes away. She wanted to hurt him, because he deserved it. An eye for an eye, isn't that the saying?”
“A life for a life,” muttered Liam.
“Basically.” Olivia frowned. “Hey, why do you look so sad? You got your revenge. You should be celebrating.”
“I killed someone,” Carly answered, her voice hoarse.
“He left you for dead, and correct me if I'm wrong, but you did die. He ran away, without taking you to a hospital. With their care, you could have lived. As far as I'm concerned, and you should be too, Ash Terrence is a murderer.”
It was Charlie who spoke. After hearing everything, he couldn't feel anything for the dead man, whose blood covered his hands. It was thick and warm, and to the untrained eye would have been mistaken for paint.
They had caused more carnage than Charlie had ever seen in his life; Liam, taking charge, had changed back into a wolf and ripped out Ash's throat, killing him instantly, and spraying the rest of them with his blood.
None of this appeared wrong to the human boy, Carly noticed, when Ash took his final, choking breath. Charlie had stood over the mangled corpse, taking it all in.
This worried Liam, too, as he watched the scene in his fur, his brain struggling to understand the strange expression on Charlie's face. But when he was in his skin again he heard a thought that rattled him.
Charlie Cross would become a killer.