Originally published on Short Fiction Break for the Fall 18 Writing Contest here.
It came to town one cold, dreary morning. The gentle light of dusk stroked the creeping fog and the leaves danced up off the ground in a delicate pirouette. Animals stalked and birds stirred. While we slept, something arrived into town. Though we didn’t know it yet, everything would change. Our innocence was soon to be lost.
Danielle Leeming was the first to disappear.
Her father alerted the police when he went to wake her for school that morning and she was missing from her bed. She’d probably just run away, they’d said. Maybe she’d met a local boy and they were off together somewhere. That’s what sixteen-year-old girls did, wasn’t it? Not Danielle, her father had said. That’s not her.
She didn’t come back. None of them did. First it was Danielle Leeming, then it was Sarah Gleeson. Then Naomi Fleet; then Ashley Keaton. All within a few short weeks. Four families distraught and infected with grief. Eight numb parents and six terrified siblings. The houses aren’t marked, but in a town this size everyone knew which ones they were. You almost felt the wind knocked out of you as you passed. A darkness hung over the town. No one walked to school anymore; the parents arranged a carpool schedule to make sure we were delivered swiftly and safely through the front gates.
That’s why as I rode my bike down Weston Street with my schoolbag, many of the parents slowed their cars next to me.
“Alice, what are you doing dear? Please get in. It’s safer.” Mrs. Jones urged.
“I thought we weren’t meant to get into cars with adults who wound their windows down and followed us down the road.”
Mrs. Jones pursed her lips and gripped the steering wheel. “No, not normally Alice. But your mother would be horrified to know you’re out on your own.”
“I’m sure she would be if she were sober enough to notice. It’s okay Mrs. Jones, I’m almost there. I just really need some fresh air. We’ve all been cooped up for weeks now.”
Mrs. Jones bit her lip and her eyes flicked to the road. There was a Mercedes Benz right up her rear, beeping his horn and gesturing for her to hurry up. “Oh, Alice you’d better be quick. Have Molly message me as soon as you’re in school so I know you’re okay. Goodness me – yes okay Sir I am moving!” She raised her window and sped off down the road. The irritated driver shook his head at me and accelerated round the next corner. I sighed and breathed in the crisp air as I continued on.
All the girls went to my school. They were all in the year above me, all the same age and by all standards good, smart girls. They had all disappeared from their beds overnight with no signs of a break in or a struggle. They took nothing with them. Sarah’s younger brother Todd Gleeson said he’d heard music playing early the morning that she had disappeared, but that didn’t seem to help police. There were no traces; everyone was baffled, and equally as terrified.
As I rounded the corner before the school gates I had to pass the Fleet’s house. There was Naomi’s window. Facing the road with the rosebush beneath it and her curtains wide open – and her mother standing inside staring out at me. Her face was ashen and pained as she held my gaze. I suddenly felt ashamed for biking on my own and sped off towards school.
That night I lay in bed, half asleep and restless with dreams. At one point I jolted upright, hot with sweat. I stood up to open the window for some fresh air; my mother was probably passed out so at least she wouldn’t hear the lock creak. I took in a deep breath as the sounds of the night flooded my senses. An owl hooted and the trees rustled in the breeze. There was a low fog hugging the trees on the front lawn and – what was that? I leaned my head out further to listen. A soft hum, a dull rhythmic thud – music. Where was that coming from? I glanced at the clock beside my bed – 3.45am. Who was up at this time? I shoved my feet into my slippers and crept into the front room. Through the crack in the curtains I could see dim headlights – there was a car idling outside the neighbour’s house. Must be one of the Lawson boys coming home late. I went to pull the curtains when I saw someone on the front lawn inching toward the open door of the car.
“Sophie?” I murmured and pressed my face closer to the window. It was Sophie Lawson, and she was outside in the middle of the night in her pajamas. What was she thinking? “You idiot.”
I grabbed my coat from the rack and snuck out the front door. Everyone was on high alert, why was she meeting up with someone in the middle of the night? From the porch I could see her holding the open door, leaning in and talking to the driver. I started towards her but she got inside and closed the door. The music was now muffled and the car began to move off. “Sophie!” I hissed. The car pulled into the street when I saw the Mercedes Benz sign. It was the same car from yesterday morning with Mrs. Jones. What was Sophie doing meeting that guy? He had to be the same age as her father… I froze. “Oh my God.”
Without another thought I grabbed my bike and pedalled down the road after the car. What was I doing? What would I even do if I caught up to them? I just needed to know where they were going, then I could bike back and tell everyone and maybe we’d find the other girls too? I felt stupid for even considering it – Sophie was probably just meeting some older guy. The Mercedes turned down a dark street and out of view. I pedalled like crazy towards them but when I reached the street I couldn’t see the tail lights anymore. Dammit. I’d lost them!
I turned myself around to head back home, hoping no one had seen me out here. I rounded the corner back to my street and slammed the brakes – the Mercedes was right there, idling with the door open again. I dumped my bike and crept up to the door. There was no music playing anymore. “Sophie? What are you doin—“
I was shoved inside the car and the door was slammed shut behind me.
“Hey!” My head hit the far door and I landed in Sophie’s lap as the car screeched off.
I came to as we arrived in complete darkness outside a rickety barn. Sophie appeared to be in a daze, staring ahead as if she were still asleep. The man in the front seat wore a black balaclava and I couldn’t make out if it was the same guy I’d seen the day before. “Where am I?” I croaked.
He whipped his head around and met my eyes. I flinched back, terrified. He got out of the car and began dragging us both with him. Our hands had been tied together at some point during the ride and I stumbled behind Sophie as we were pushed into a dark room. The moonlight lit the far wall where I could see four other girls huddled. The missing girls.
“Why are you taking us? They’re going to find you.” I pleaded.
The man slid the door shut then shoved us toward the others. They looked petrified and exhausted as they shivered in their dirty clothes.
“They won’t find me. They never do.” The man spoke. His voice was pure evil and it filled me with terror.
“You’ve done this before? You’re a monster.”
“And you are a silly little girl. I didn’t even need to use the music on you. What were you thinking, following my car in the middle of the night?” He chuckled. Next to me Sophie was shivering, still unaware where she was. So, he uses music or hypnosis to lure girls in. I didn’t want to imagine what he’d been doing to them for the past month. I dug my nails into my palms to help from screaming out.
“I didn’t plan for you. But now that you’re here… let’s make you useful. Let’s send them a message. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt… For long.”
They found her one cold, dreary morning. Once the fog had dissolved into the atmosphere, the animals had finished stalking and the leaves dancing. Her cold and lifeless body was found under a tree at the school. While the town slept, the monster struck again. But this time, he’d killed. This time, he’d sent a message.
The Pied Piper was in town.