The girls had materialized on the street like cold night made flesh.
Both of them wore Little Red Riding Hood costumes – capes red as sin – and the irony wasn’t lost on Lucas as he and his friend Joey followed the girls through secret alleys and deserted backstreets.
Lorelei, who had red hair like Lucas, had walked on his arm, while Jezebel had led Joey.
‘Forget it,’ Lucas said when they arrived at their destination.
The crooked streetlights illuminated a stone building so covered in soot that it looked like smoldering coal. It was difficult to make out the letters carved into the stone above the entrance: Town Hall.
‘I’m not going in there.’
It wasn’t like there was a way in anyway. Not unless the girls could bust through the metal security shield over the door or the boarded-up windows.
‘Dude!’ Joey pulled Lucas aside. ‘What the heck? This is our chance to make a good impression, maybe walk away with a love bite and a couple of phone numbers.’
‘Unless the roof falls on our heads or we crash through the floor and impale ourselves on a rusty flagpole. That’s if we don’t get arrested for breaking and entering first. Do you have any idea what my parents would say, if the police brought me home?’
‘They’d probably say, “He’s sixteen, officer. What the hell do you expect?”’
‘It’s safe,’ Lorelei said.
‘We’ve been here before,’ Jezebel said. ‘Lots of times.’
‘See? They’ve been here before.’
‘Doing what?’ Lucas asked.
Lorelei smiled with crimson lips as she walked up to Lucas. ‘I’ll show you,’ she whispered, ‘if you come inside.’ She leaned closer, her breath in his ear somehow colder than the October air. ‘It’s something best done in private.’
She licked his ear, softly, like a feather, sending shivers through his body.
‘Or we find someone else to join us.’
‘Someone more up to the challenge,’ Jezebel said.
Joey glided over to her. ‘Hang on, darling. We’re up to the challenge. Aren’t we, Lucas?’
The grimace on Joey’s round face told Lucas that yes, they were, and if he said anything to the contrary, he could walk home alone and forget about calling Joey ever again.
‘Fine. But how are we supposed to get in?’
Lorelei walked up to one of the windows. The board here had a long scar running through it.
Lorelei checked that nobody was around, then pulled the smaller piece away. The remaining wood stuck out like shark teeth.
What big teeth you have.
‘See you inside.’ Lorelei climbed through the gap first and was swallowed by the darkness of the place and the silence.
All the better to eat you with.
‘Lorelei?’ Lucas called.
His voice sounded hollow in the nothingness beyond.
He leaned forward to peer into the black. His eyes hadn’t adjusted enough that he could see anything beyond vague shapes, but he thought he heard movement. Somewhere in the inky void, rubble shifted, a crunch crunch crunch that was getting closer. Closer.
Something was coming. Something taking its time. Something big and lumbering.
An arm shot out of the gap and grabbed him by the jacket.
Lucas screamed. He stumbled back, but the arm gripped him tightly, pulling him towards the gap, towards the broken wood.
All the better to eat you with.
It had taken Lorelei, and now it was going to take him. Take him down into the dark place, the place of lost children who had become too reckless for their own good, where pain waited to dig its claws into his soul, nothing but pain and eternity and the scream inside his own head.
And then somebody was laughing.
Lucas opened his eyes and saw a red cape, and then Lorelei, sticking her head out of the hole in the wood. She was laughing, and so were Joey and Jezebel behind him.
‘Sorry,’ Lorelei said. ‘You scare too easily. I couldn’t resist.’
Lucas pushed her hand away. ‘That wasn’t funny.’
‘It was a little bit funny,’ Joey said. ‘I’m next.’
One by one, they went through.
Lucas emerged last in the dark room. He could just make out a large hump in the middle of it, something glittering in a passing headlight. For a moment, he expected it to move, to unfurl into a beast with glowing eyes.
All the better-
‘Just a chandelier.’ It was Lorelei beside him.
She took him by the hand, and he was glad to feel her, glad to feel someone human in this place.
‘Speaking of,’ Joey said. ‘I don’t suppose you know where the light switch is?’
‘Not yet,’ Jezebel said. ‘The gap. We need to get to the back of the building first.’
‘Is that where the other guests are waiting?’ Lucas asked.
He had expected to hear the party once they got inside. Faint music or people talking. But there was nothing except the occasional car driving past outside.
‘Follow us,’ Jezebel said somewhere ahead of him.
‘And be careful,’ Lorelei said. ‘You don’t want to stumble over the dead.’
‘The dead?’ Lucas searched the darkness, not sure he wanted to see.
‘The busts,’ Lorelei said. ‘Old men that were left behind when this place closed.’
Old men. And now young men to join them.
As Lucas followed the others, feeling around the floor with his feet, he thought: This better be worth the risk.
The room had been the main ballroom once. It must have looked magnificent under the three chandeliers. But in the flickering candles the girls had lit, it looked more like a battlefield.
The floor was littered with debris that had fallen from the ceiling, sticking up here and there like craggy mountains. Some of the tables had remained, tipped over, lying dead like poisoned beetles.
Lucas sat next to Lorelei on a dusty chair, both of them watching as Joey and Jezebel kissed while the portable radio sitting on the fireplace played a slow song.
Lorelei looked bored, occasionally sipping from a beer bottle that had been empty for a while now.
Lucas hadn’t started drinking yet. He was peeling at the label of his bottle, stealing glances at Lorelei.
What would it feel like to kiss her?
In the light of the candles, Lorelei’s lips glistened. They looked soft, like rose petals misted in morning dew.
She turned to him. ‘You want to kiss me.’
It wasn’t a question.
She took another sip of nothing. ‘Well, you know what to do.’
Somewhere far away, Joey let out a great burp. ‘Oh God! I feel all tingly inside.’
To hell with it. In other countries, it was legal to drink at sixteen, so what was the big fricking deal? Besides, the girls had brought Botlov beer, which wasn’t that strong anyway.
The beer tasted bitter, but it went down.
‘How is it?’ Lorelei asked.
Lucas spat out the aftertaste. ‘Disgusting.’
‘Let me make it better.’
It wasn’t as nice as he had expected. Her lips were too cold, and maybe it was her lipstick or something, but they felt slimy too. Like he was pressing his lips to a slug.
‘What’s that?’ Joey was asking somewhere at the edge of the world.
It seemed the beer was getting to him. They’d probably both have a bit of a headache in the morning.
Something did feel weird inside Lucas. Like pins and needles spreading across his body from his stomach.
His insides felt like they were on fire.
Joey had doubled over, his face screwed up in pain. Jezebel was watching him, not at all disturbed by any of it.
‘What…’ – Lucas pushed the words out of a burning throat – ‘… happening?’
There were shadows around him now, as insubstantial as ink floating in water. But they were solidifying, and Lucas had a vague but terrible urge to get out before they arrived.
He just couldn’t move. He tried to get to the door, his steps heavy. He had to steady himself on one of the upturned tables.
Joey. Where was Joey? Was the same thing happening to him?
‘Don’t worry.’ Lorelei was beside him.
Good. She could run for help. She could-
Lorelei sat down on the edge of the upturned table. ‘It’s tough to get through, but you’ll emerge as so much more. You’ll be like us.’
‘Dying,’ Lucas said.
‘Not exactly. You’ll be in their glory.’
Lucas wanted to say so much, but he brought out only one word, feeling as if someone else was trying to speak through him: ‘Who?’
‘The Many as One. You can see them all around you, can’t you? You can even see them in me.’
She leaned closer, until Lucas saw only her eyes. And behind the black of her giant pupils, he saw the dark swirling of countless souls.
A scream built inside of him, rising to a terrible crescendo, unable to burst free.
They should never have come.
P. T. Corwin uses his training as an actor to read to himself in funny voices. He is proud to say that in secondary school, he read Stephen King so religiously that his teacher had a quiet word with his mother.
His stories have been published in Dark Matter Magazine, Schlock Webzine and Constant Readers. He celebrates his literary victories on his website at www.ptcorwin.co.uk and on his Facebook page (@ptcorwin).