A Mirage of Shadows: I was pacing the lounge, anxiously glancing at the clock on the wall and at the door. I felt like a lion in a cage.
“It’s half-past eleven”, Ι mumbled.
“So what?” Tim didn’t even bother to put his book down. “Have you decided to play the cuckoo tonight, love? Are you going to announce the time every fifteen minutes? Why not give it a break for… let’s say half an hour?”
“Stop mocking me, Tim. Where on Earth is Victoria? Why isn’t she back yet?”
Tim shut his book and sighed.
“All right – apologies. I didn’t mean to upset you. Now, honestly, Ann, don’t you think you’re overreacting? It’s Halloween, for God’s sake! She went out with her chums and there were lots of them. They’re going around in their disguises, begging for sweets and having fun, same as all the other kids in town. Would you rather our daughter was shut up at home, so she feels like a prisoner?”
“No, of course not. But… she promised she’d be back by eleven.”
“So she’s having a great time and she’ll be a little late – what’s wrong with that? Are you scared she’ll be kidnapped by some werewolf? So there’s a full moon – the perfect night for a supernatural creature to kidnap a beautiful teenager girl!”
I couldn’t help but smile. My sweet Tim was trying to reassure me.
Not very successfully, though.
“I can’t explain why, but I have a dreadful feeling. Just before she left, Victoria told me in quite an odd tone, ‘Tonight will be a really special night, Mum.’ I wish I’d asked her exactly what she meant…”
“Come on, you know Vicky; she was just joking. There’s nothing to worry about. Let’s see what’s on TV. Should be some top-notch horror films tonight.”
Tim took the remote and zapped till he found an old horror movie. Although it was one I liked, I couldn’t focus my attention. My mind was on my daughter who hadn’t come home yet. I was overwhelmed with anxiety, my mouth dry, my heart pounding in my oppressed chest. There came a moment when I couldn’t take this anymore. I hurried to our bedroom and pulled on trainers, threw a light coat over my shoulders.
Ignoring Tim’s protests and rational arguments, I opened the door and rushed into the street like a mad woman escaping from an asylum.
The full moon was so pale it seemed to be struggling to shine. In the faint moonlight, the houses of the neighborhood were loaded with Halloween decorations like ghastly cartoons. I’d never liked Halloween. As a kid this day always scared me; now it was simply making me angry and unwilling to join in.
My aversion was at its height tonight: I had no idea where my daughter was and concern was gnawing at my guts as if I’d swallowed a piece of the poisoned apple the witch gave to Snow White. Moreover, I was shuddering with cold. My coat wasn’t warm enough and in my haste, I’d forgotten to wear gloves and a scarf.
Although it was late, many kids were still hanging about. Most were young teens roughly Victoria’s age. The youngest children had long since gone home and were probably in their beds by now. Laughter came to my ears, and boasts, and teasing. I couldn’t spot Victoria or her pals.
Of a sudden a young fellow dressed up as a werewolf began to howl, making his friends hoot with merriment. I wanted to administer a good thrashing to them all. Instead, I forced a smile – those kids were doing nothing wrong, merely having fun. Most likely my daughter was having a great time with her friends and that’s why she was late.
That thought helped me to relax.
This blessed moment only lasted till I recalled Victoria’s words. Why did that damned phrase upset me so much? No doubt because I didn’t know exactly what it meant. Why should tonight be really special? Victoria and her chums were merely going trick-or-treating. There was nothing really special – unless they intended to burgle the big sweetshop in town, which seemed a bit unlikely.
Such humour failed to cheer me up. My anxiety came back worse than before. Why hadn’t I asked her exactly what she meant? Now it was too late. And damn it that I’d never bought Victoria a mobile, no matter how persistently she pestered! With all that I’d heard, I was scared it would harm my Vicky. Never could I have imagined that I’d be the one harmed by not letting her have a mobile.
With an absent-minded glance at some building, I carried on walking as fast as I could to keep warm. But I soon paused – then returned to stand opposite that same building. Why it was the old school – I hadn’t realized I’d come so far! The old school, abandoned for many years now… Nobody had ever bothered either to repair it or demolish it, although its windows were still intact, moonlight reflecting faintly from them.
The old school was said to be haunted. Most people didn’t actually believe this; it was a local joke due to the wretched appearance of the place plus its proximity to the graveyard. I’d never been here late at night, and I had to admit that on closer scrutiny the old school did look quite scary, like some mischievous troll patiently waiting in the obscurity for an unsuspecting passer-by whom it would capture and devour.
Right; I had wasted enough time in ghastly fantasies! Ought to go back home. If Victoria was there, she and Tim must be worried about me right now. It was then that I realized I wasn’t only seeing reflected moonlight or faint moonlight within. There was actual light inside the building.
Who could be in there so late… and why?
I tried to shrug this off as no business of mine. But willy-nilly I couldn’t leave, as if something was actively holding me there. Not that I believed that the place had actually metamorphosed into a fiery-eyed troll who was mesmerizing me into its fearsome trap. I might be stressed, but I hadn’t gone mad quite yet.
Yet what if Victoria was in the old school? I’ve no idea why this absurd thought entered my mind. Nor did I care! All I knew was that I hadn’t managed to find my daughter so far. If I went back home and Victoria was still missing, then definitely I’d become unhinged. Even though it was highly unlikely that Victoria was in there, why not check the old building just in case?
I approached the door hesitantly and listened. Was that some sort of music I was hearing? So I knocked – and the pressure from my knuckles caused the door to creak open slightly with a hair-raising squeak.
How could the door be unlocked and off the latch? I pushed and walked along a hallway, to enter an area dimly illuminated by candles fixed into huge pumpkin-shaped lanterns hanging on the walls.
I was the only grown-up present. All the other guests were kids of the age of Victoria or older, all of them disguised in Halloween gear. The music pervading the room was soft and ghastly to my ears. No way to tell where it was coming from! That weird – almost unearthly – music seemed played by an invisible orchestra. A few of the kids were dancing to the gloomy sounds, but most were holding drinks in skull-shaped cups and chatting.
A masked Halloween ball in the old, haunted school; what a good idea! Yet there was a subtly macabre aspect to this staging that made my flesh creep.
I peered around but couldn’t spot Victoria. The place was quite crowded.
“Excuse me,” I asked a young chap passing by in werewolf costume, “do you happen to know if Victoria Drake is here? She’s my daughter.”
The youth moved onward without answering. I’d spoken loudly and clearly, yet he’d reacted as though unaware of my presence; as if I was nonexistent for him. The only thing he cared about was the fuming drink in the skull-cup he was carrying with great care.
I glared angrily after him as, sipping whatever fumy concoction was in his glass, he joined some other werewolves sitting around an oval table. They wore black leather jackets, black T-shirts displaying impressive 3-D skulls and black jeans with heavy chains hanging from the belts. One of the werewolves had a dark patch on his left eye and a scarf printed with skulls tied around his head – he was like a spooky version of a cartoon pirate.
Most of them were partaking of the smoky drink from skull-cups of various sizes, although a couple smoked pipes, the bowls of which were shaped like the head of a snake. The werewolves were playing a strange game involving black dice, cards with black and white pictures, and miniature phosphorescent skulls of different colours. The whiffs of smoke made me sneeze. The disguises of these guys were impeccable, but alas the same couldn’t be said for their manners. Small wonder. I’m sure that when not dressed up as werewolves they didn’t have many interests beyond motorbikes and showing off how cool they are. I’d wasted enough time on them. Happily, Victoria’s friends weren’t like that.
I turned my attention to a young girl with long, auburn hair. She was dressed in a worn-out silk gown, trimmed with intricate dark brown lacework and she wore a necklace made of black, glittering spiders.
I knew who she was supposed to be: she was masquerading as the legendary witch who ruled the spiders. She was supposed to possess power to summon those insects whenever she needed them for her magic. That witch had been sentenced to burn at the stake, but she disappeared from her cell the day before her execution. Legend has it that the spiders helped her escape from jail; the only thing found in her cell was a huge cobweb. Nobody dared approach it or try to destroy it; nobody ever saw the witch since.
To me, the young girl’s idea was far more original than the stupid disguise of the werewolves. So I went up to her and asked politely if she had seen Victoria.
Exactly like the werewolf, she seemed oblivious to my presence.
What the hell was going on here? Were all of them deaf and blind? Or was that the fault of the fumy drink in the skulls?
This time I really had to insist. I repeated my question loudly and emphatically.
No change. The witch-girl still acted as though I wasn’t there.
This stupid game was frankly getting on my nerves, so I reached out a hand to tap her on her shoulder. She couldn’t pretend to ignore me if I touched her!
I hadn’t even got that far when I felt a sharp, smarting pain. A spider had jumped from the necklace to sting my hand. That was a real spider! Yelping in terror, frantically I waved my hand to get rid of the black, poisonous creature.
Imperturbable, the spider hopped back to its post on the necklace. Already my hand was swollen and red; I massaged to try to relieve the pain. Something was dreadfully wrong here. Here was me was shrieking with pain and none of the kids gave me as much as a glance.
I was staring dumbfounded at the necklace of the witch when a young guy dressed up as a vampire approached, took her hand in his, and brought it to his lips. I expected him to kiss her hand, but how wrong I was. The young vampire sunk his fangs into her skin and sucked blood. Closing her eyes, she smiled with contentment, as though enjoying a lover’s most passionate caress.
Motionless, the spiders on the necklace looked as if they were no more than jewels made of jet.
The vampire withdrew his fangs from her hand. Gently he fingered a drop of the blood in a small wound on the young girl’s skin and blew softly. The drop of blood transformed into a sparkling red gem, which he displayed to the witch, bowing graciously. She accepted the present, offered her arm to the young man and away they walked to join a group of vampires, further into the room.
It crossed my mind that although all the guests in this weird party were young teenagers, none of them were behaving much like ordinary adolescents. Teens tease each other and laugh at stupid jokes. I’d often been annoyed at Victoria and her friends for their constant silly giggles.
Nobody was giggling here. They weren’t even smiling. Rather than dressed-up teens having fun at a Halloween party, the guests in this room were more like Dark Lords, masters of ghastly black magic, who’d come out of various parts of Nightmare-land. Something unpleasant, a kind of mysterious threat, flowed subtly in the air. As time passed, the sense of impending danger grew stronger and more terrifying.
A small girl dressed in black caught my attention. She was exactly like the child of our neighbors, who had suffered from an incurable disease and died two years back.
All of a sudden, the little girl vanished.
Perplexed and helpless, I stared at the werewolves. Now they looked nothing like older kids who love motorbikes, as I’d thought at first. More like genuine bandits. Or pirates.
They are the Lords of Nightmares where people become beasts.
A band of vampires stood motionless, absorbed in the gloomy music. Their tight suits and long full cloaks were made of silky leather. The sparkling red gems that adorned the velvet necklaces of the female vampires were probably authentic rubies, like the ones I’d admired so often in the posh jewel shop where I worked for a few years, knowing that probably I’d never be able to afford any such.
Who would spend a fortune on a costume for a Halloween party? Some eccentric millionaires? Or their kids? Somehow the solemn young vampires in their sumptuous clothing didn’t look at all like spoilt, wealthy kids.
They are the Seducers. The most dangerous kind from the Dark Realms.
Where did those thoughts come from? My heart pounded. I felt dizzy, my mind was blurred, my limbs were heavy.
All this seemed so unreal, as if I was dreaming or imprisoned in a weird distortion of reality – something like a mirage from another world.
A young boy dressed in a long, black robe vanished. Exactly like the little girl who resembled the dead daughter of my neighbors.
A moment later, another girl passed out of sight.
What was this place? How and why did all those children vanish? What about Victoria? Maybe she was here and she’d also…
This was more than I could take. Something odd and dangerous was happening in my brain. Fear robbed my mind of nearly all its powers; I felt the ground shake under my feet. I began screaming as if possessed. With my wits at their limits, I still hoped that all of this was merely a nightmare.
Everything around me is blurred. The light makes my headache worse and my head is hammering. Though I’d only just opened my eyes, I shut them again, uttering a moan of with pain.
“Mum… Are you okay?”
Is that Victoria speaking or am I dreaming?
“My head’s killing me,” I mutter.
“You’ve no idea how upset we both were. I’m glad you’re recovering, though.”
Her voice makes me feel better, so I do open my eyes and presently everything becomes clear. I’m lying in bed. Tim’s holding my hand and Victoria is sitting opposite, looking pale and distressed.
I sigh with relief. “Thank God you’re back. And you’re safe…”
“I’ll go and make some tea,” says Tim, “so you can take some of those pain killers the doctor left for you. That’ll make you feel better.” He strokes my head and leaves the room. I know he must still be worried, but he’s doing his best to conceal his feelings so as to reassure our daughter and myself.
Victoria makes no such effort to hide her anxiety. “What came over you, Mum? You scared the hell out of us.”
I’m supposed to be the angry one who asks this kind of question. Yet there’s a quiver in her voice; she’s nearly in tears. I’m left no choice but to answer her questions.
“You were late,” I say gently. “I was worried so I went out to look for you. I thought that you’d be somewhere around…”
She lowers her eyes and bites her lip. She must feel awful.
“It isn’t important, darling. Everything’s fine now.”
“You had a blackout, Mum. You collapsed. What if the kids hadn’t found you and sent for Dad? And that’s my fault…”
“Oh, so that’s what happened,“ I mutter thoughtfully. “Where exactly did they find me?”
“Near the old school. The doctor said you probably fainted because of too much stress. And cold. You were lightly dressed for a chilly night.”
I take a long breath, and now I feel more comfortable.
“Don’t blame yourself, darling.” I can manage a composed, quiet voice. “It’s no fault of yours that I’m the anxious type. Your father tried to calm me and convince me to stay at home, but it didn’t work. Now I can see there was no reason to be so upset. Just out of curiosity, where were you? And when you were leaving what did you mean about a really special night?”
Her face is illuminated by a faint smile.
“Well, me and some other kids from school formed a band. We called it The Night Birds. The name was Mark’s idea. Last night we gave our first concert. Marc The Owl plays flute. John The Crow plays piano and Steve The Nighthawk plays guitar. And I am The Bat. Playing violin…”
Right. A music band. Why on earth hadn’t I thought of that possibility before rushing out of the house? And she hadn’t wanted to tell me prior to the event.
I’m not sure that crows are actually nocturnal. But Victoria’s so happy and I’ve been such a nuisance to her. I don’t want to spoil her joy.
“Why, that’s wonderful!” And I’m sincere. “How was the concert?”
Her eyes shine.
“It was great! We played melancholy, ghastly melodies under the moonlight and everyone loved that. At the end, there was a thunder of applause and then some people started joking and pretending that we’d brought back to life the old legend – you know, the story about some night birds that turned into musicians on a Halloween night when the moon was full. They gathered in a cemetery and some of them sang while others played music. The melodies were so lovely and bewitching that all the creatures of the night, ghosts and wizards and vampires and ghouls and werewolves and all the rest left whatever they were doing and headed to the graveyard. Once there, they even forgot their eternal quarrels for that one night; they just listened to the music of the night-bird-musicians and some of them even danced…”
“Where did you say that the creatures of the night gather?” I have to struggle to conceal my consternation.
“In the graveyard, Mum. That was where we performed. It was such fun! Nobody was actually scared. Which is hardly surprising with so many kids around…”
“What about the old school? Was there no party there?”
“Not that I’m aware of! But it’s near there they found you lying on the ground. The old school was as dark and empty as ever.”
I’m trying to figure out a rational explanation for what had happened. Before I sank into unconsciousness, probably I heard music coming from the graveyard, which is close to the school. Subconsciously I must have thought of the legend Victoria just mentioned; it’s well known in our town. Probably I associated the legend and the music in my weak mind and since I was so anxious at not finding Victoria I experienced a nightmare: that gathering of weird creatures where kids vanished mysteriously.
But what if all this wasn’t merely a dream? Maybe the magical creatures of the night, once more bewitched by the music, as in the old legend, assembled in the old school instead of in the crowded graveyard…
Or else they’d come to the graveyard, but the kids weren’t able to see them. The Shadows of the Night were only visible in the old school like some kind of bizarre mirage haunting the abandoned building. A mirage of Shadows. That could also explain why they couldn’t see me.
All except for the witch’s spider.
Shuddering, I try to expel these paranoid thoughts. I may not have fully recovered from the shock of my hallucinations.
I gaze at Victoria, still dressed in her vampire outfit. Not an expensive one made of leather, silk, and lace. Just an ordinary masquerade dress hired at a shop in the town centre.
It makes me sick to look at that costume.
“Darling… could you please go and take that thing off? Yes. Your dress. Don’t worry,” I try to reassure Victoria, who seems puzzled by my demand. “I had an awful dream when I passed out. That’s why I’m still acting a bit weird. I’ll be better soon.”
She smiles at me and for a moment I feel wonderful and relaxed. Even my headache is almost gone. How beautiful my daughter is in her damned vampire costume. People must have been very impressed by her a few hours back when she was playing violin in the graveyard. Probably she stole the show. If only I could have been there to see all those kids admiring her and applauding her…
As if reading my mind, Victoria blows me a kiss. Then she passes in front of my large mirror and leaves the room.
My brain stubbornly refuses to accept what my eyes just witnessed. I sit up in my bed, my heart fluttering in my chest like a startled sparrow.
When Victoria passed in front of the mirror, there was no reflection of her in the glass.
Stay calm. This is actually impossible. A bump on the head, such as I presumably had, can cause damage to the brain and even hallucinations. So I was told when a doorknob banged Victoria in the head when she was little.
Of a sudden my hand pangs me. There’s a weird, star-shaped wound. An injury from when I fell.
Or the bite of a spider that jumped from a magic necklace?
Of course not. Definitely a nasty graze. And my eyes were playing tricks on my vulnerable brain.
Or were nightmare creatures playing tricks upon my mind?
Nonsense. Mirage spiders don’t bite you. Nightmare creatures don’t exist.
Victoria’s reflection vanished from the mirror just like those kids vanished in the ballroom. Maybe the mirage of the magical creatures rebounded when the music stopped and settled upon the musicians who’d inadvertently summoned the spirits, like a bewitchment or a curse.
I must make an appointment to see a neurologist. As soon as possible, I’ll call the doctor and say it’s an emergency.
I can’t possibly ask Tim if he sees Victoria’s reflection in a mirror. And what will she herself see? Will I hear a sudden scream – or might she already know?
Neither of these. It’s me that the curse has been placed upon! A punishment for a neurotic mother who spied on the revels of the spirits.
It might be better to forget about any neurologist, pretend that everything’s normal.
The graze looks as if a spider actually sank inside my flesh. But I did see the spider jump back to the necklace…