by Claire A. Murray
We had several Halloween mystery short stories submitted to our contest recently that while they didn’t make the final five, they are well worth publishing–here is another one–Cheating Death, a never before published short story.
“Geez, kid. What’d you have to go and shoot him for?” Willie took Bobby’s gun and stuffed it in his jacket pocket, almost crushing the three packs of cigarettes and map he’d stolen from the convenience store.
“’Cause he was gonna shoot me! He pointed that rifle right at me.” Bobby’s voice shook as much as his hands.
Willie looked around the empty parking lot and surrounding street. “Waving that thing around, you’d have every cop in town on us in minutes. I already got all the cops in Ohio chasing me. Find us a car. We gotta get outta this state fast.”
Minutes later, Willie jimmied open the door of a ‘94 Honda Accord parked outside an auto body shop. He leaned over and unlocked the other side and hotwired the engine before Bobby was in the car. For a big man with a hefty beer belly, he moved faster than the younger, skinny, tow-headed Bobby. Heading northwest on Route 27, Willie lit two cigarettes and handed one Bobby to help calm his nerves. Bobby coughed on the first few puffs but kept smoking.
Willie drove just under the speed limit, stopped at all the stop signs and slowed down as he passed a group of older youth in gaudy Halloween costumes, capes and sheets fluttering in the late-evening breeze…anything to avoid looking like he was in a hurry to get away. He figured the teens were returning from the youth center party he’d seen advertised in the convenience store. Typical small town event. Keep the kids out of mischief so they won’t grow up to be criminals, like me.
Both stiffened when two police cruisers screamed past them going towards the store they’d just robbed and where Bobby had shot the clerk. Willie looked at Bobby and saw sweat and a trickle of tears streaming down his face. Why’d I ever hook up with this baby-faced piece of trouble?
Willie hoped his nephew’s stupidity hadn’t hammered the final nail in their coffins. He flicked his cigarette out the window and turned to Bobby, his voice weighted with years of smoke and whiskey. “What you gonna do now? Piss your pants? It’s over. You did it. Learn to live with it.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Uncle Willie. You’ve been in trouble all your life. Me, I’ve never done nothin’ like this. Never. It’s just like Momma always said. ‘Uncle Willie is trouble. Stay away from Uncle Willie.’”
Willie kept his eyes on the road and ignored the growing whine in Bobby’s voice as he continued to talk through his tears.
“Why’d you give me a loaded gun? You said it wasn’t loaded…it was just to scare people. Well, here’s a news flash.
It scared someone. It scared me. And now I’ve shot somebody and I’m gonna die.” He broke down in sobs. Willie said nothing to console him, just kept driving.
Tree-lined streets with homes and businesses became large stretches of farmland, with Highway 27 offering few turnoffs and little traffic this late in the evening. Willie stepped on the gas, eager to get away from Ohio and all the trouble he’d been in there throughout his life.
Start over, that’s what I need to do. Just gotta get out of this state. By now, police may be hitting the highway. He turned left onto a westbound street. Crossing the north/south railroad tracks, he figured he was getting close to the Indiana border.
Bobby stopped crying long enough to ask, “Where are we, anyway? I’ve never been this far away from home. Where we going?”
“Goin’ nowhere and everywhere, kid. I’m wanted in Ohio, so we’ll cross the line up ahead into Indiana. But shooting that clerk this close to the border? Well, you made it a little bit tougher for me to get away from my past. So we’ll–damn! We’re almost out of gas. Kid you have brought me nuthin’ but trouble since I picked you up at your Momma’s funeral last week. I don’t know why I bothered.”
He steered the stolen car into a cornfield before it stopped on its own. “This’ll hide it a while. Stuff that loot in the backpack and strap it on. We walk from here.”
Cornfields on both sides offered a place to hide if anyone came down the road, which ran straight as far as they could see. They followed it, eventually turning south with the road. A few hundred yards farther, another road intersected. Willie looked around, calculating their next move, not wanting to backtrack. Southeast led to a nearby farm. Northwest, farther away but in the direction he wanted, he spotted the silos of another farm. He didn’t care about Bobby’s sore feet and led them northwest. They could hide in a barn and rest while he checked the map to see how close they were to the border. There wasn’t enough moonlight to see it well on the road and the breeze would blow out his matches too quickly.
Willie cautioned Bobby to remain silent. “Sound travels far when there’s nothing to block it. And see that small house ahead on the right? It’s close to the road. We don’t want anyone hearing us. Stay on the road and keep quiet.”
Bobby complied and they passed the house in silence, advancing to the farm ahead on the left. Willie didn’t see any barns from the road. They took shelter between several metal silos and the large electrical unit that seemed to manage them. It was sufficient for him to light a match and check his map.
“The border’s close, Bobby–walk able–but it’s all farmland. The closest town is some place called College Corner, a bit north. From there, we can hit the county road. It goes straight west and meets the north/south highway near Liberty, Indiana. The farther away we can get from the border, the better.”
Bobby nodded, his mouth stuffed with food, swallowed and said. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble…shooting that man. I was scared, Uncle Willie.”
“Yeah, kid. I know. First time’s the worst. Gotta shake it off, though. Let’s eat and rest. Then maybe I can find a car that’ll get us there quicker.”
Willie awoke, alarmed at first that he’d fallen asleep in the middle of a getaway and realized he’d drunk quite a bit from the whiskey bottle he’d also stolen. Strange, I don’t remember drinking. I always remember drinking. And I don’t drink in the middle of a getaway. He shook off the prickly feeling along his neck and stretched to warm himself. Bobby dozed nearby.
Willie used the silos for cover and scouted the farm. Set back from the road, the large farmhouse was dark. Several vehicles were parked alongside. When the moon peeked through the clouds, he saw another building, off to the left, and headed for it. A voice spoke, stopping him mid-step, as if it were in his head. His ears heard nothing but crickets and bullfrogs.
“Willie…Willie Collins. I’ve come for you.”
“Who?…What?…” Willie completed his step and looked around. Flattening his back against the frame of a silo, hand on the gun he’d taken from Bobby, he inched around the silo expecting to find a farmer with a shotgun. But this farmer knew my name. How…?
“Willie. Turn around.”
Willie whirled as the voice in his head instructed. In front of him was a cloaked figure, face hidden except for the grinning teeth. Taller than Willie, taller than anyone he’d ever seen. The figure shook its fist at Willie, who shivered in fear as nausea washed over him. Teeth chattering, Willie summoned his courage and asked. “Who…who are you? What do you want?”
“Why, Willie, I want you!” The faceless mouth smiled, showing yet more teeth. It raised an arm and Willie saw the bony, clawed hand reaching out for him. Willie stepped back and fell on his behind, his stomach jiggling upon impact. He could not take his eyes off the apparition, which chuckled at his misstep. “I’ve been looking for you.
You’re on my list. Taking that man’s life tonight, that was what moved you up…to tonight.”
“Wait! I didn’t…I didn’t kill him. Bobby did. My nephew Bobby. He shot the man.”
The apparition chuckled again. “Do tell. You gave him the gun, told him it wasn’t loaded. You are responsible for the clerk’s murder. And here you are, selling out your sister’s son, the boy you swore to her you would protect if anything ever happened to her. You are quite a man, Willie. You’ll do just fine in my entourage.”
The apparition reached out again and Willie pressed himself back into the dirt, unable to let out the scream that sought release. As suddenly as it appeared, the apparition vanished.
Bobby ran to where Willie lay, shaking and swearing. Bobby helped Willie stand and they returned to their temporary shelter.
“What happened, Uncle Willie? You were talking really loud. You could’ve gotten us caught.”
“You…you didn’t see it? You didn’t see that Thing?”
“What thing? What are you talking about? You were talking to the air. It woke me up and I went to find you. What happened?”
“Nevermind. We’ve gotta get out of here. This place is…well, never mind. I…I gotta change. Give me a minute.” Willie walked away with the backpack and changed his pants and undershorts, swearing the whole time. “Bloody hell, blaming me for Bobby’s stupid mistake.” He swapped out the items in his discarded pants, looking at the time on his burner phone. Twelve-fifteen. Twelve-fifteen. Twelve-fifteen a.m. It’s morning. That ‘thing’ said “tonight,” but it isn’t tonight any more. It’s a new day. I just Cheated Death.
When he returned to pick up their things, Bobby asked him why he seemed so cheerful. Willie smiled as he answered, “It’s just my lucky day, dear nephew…new lease on life, that sort of thing. Let’s clean up and not leave any clues that we were here.”
He picked the lock of the storage building he’d seen earlier, took two full gas cans and put them in the back of a truck, the one with no alarm on it, parked beside the house. Breaking the collar lock and setting the truck in neutral, he and Bobby pushed it out to the road. Willie hotwired it and took off for the Indiana border. “Man, this is too easy, almost. Like my new lease on life has turned my luck.” He searched the radio for a suitable station while driving fast over the country road. “What’sa matter kid? You keep lookin’ at me funny-like.”
“I’ve never seen you like this, Uncle Willie. Well, I’ve not seen much of you in the past ten years. But all week you’ve been this grumbly kind of person and now…you’re suddenly…happy? I don’t get it.”
“I was in the joint most of that time. It gets to ya. Not much to be happy about when you’re in the joint or on the run. Since I been out, well, I’m on the run again, ya know?”
Bobby still stared at him. “Yeah, but something happened tonight. Something you’re not telling me. You were talking to yourself back there, when I found you. And you looked real scared.”
“Me? Scared? Yeah, maybe. At first. But then…then I looked at the time, boy, the time. Everyone’s got a date with Death. You never know when it’s comin’ but it is. But what happens when Death comes and the time slips by? What if your day is today and Death is late? Can you Cheat Death? Do you die or do you live? I just found out the answer, Bobby. And the answer is–what the–?”
Willie swerved to avoid hitting the apparition in front of the truck. It swerved with him and he drove off the road into a tree, just missing the sign that signaled the border between Ohio and Indiana.
The apparition chuckled. “No one cheats Death, Willie. You and Bobby were on my list for Halloween Day. But you didn’t realize that when you crossed the border, you also crossed time zones. Twelve-forty-five a.m. eastern standard time in Ohio is eleven-forty-five p.m. central standard time in Indiana…and still Halloween Day. Welcome to my entourage!”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories, and more Halloween stories all month, in our mystery section.