The Vanishing at Hemlock Hill
by Savannah Brooks
You are walking past Hemlock Hill Cemetery at midnight, but you aren’t afraid. A cemetery at midnight is too cliché a setting for anything to actually happen, you think, as the tune you’re whistling dies into the empty darkness. And you would usually be right. Usually. But not this night.
You are reading the names on the headstones: Harold Holt, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Arnold, Jean Spangler. It’s hypnotic. You almost let your eyes graze right over your own name.
You stop walking, heart in your throat, and look back. The tombstone is set back from the fence and patterned with shadow; you can’t quite make out the words, but you could have sworn you saw your name perfectly stenciled in to the stone. You walk closer and peer into the darkness.
You’re almost positive the birthdate is your own.
You should keep walking, but you have to know. As you deliberate, you finger a peak of the black, iron fence. It is colder than this October night.
You decide. It’s not like you’ve never cut through the cemetery before, and you’ve always been too curious. You know this about yourself.
You take a deep breath and jump to the other side of the fence. When you land, the myriad of shadows on the ground seems to shiver. As you look at them, a dull sensation spiderwebs up your spine. You walk on before you can realize why: there aren’t enough trees to create so many shadows.
You make your ways to the headstone, trying to hum away the encroaching fear. Now, you can clearly read the name on the stone. It isn’t yours, just close; the birthday is the same, but of a different year. You let out a shaky laugh. It quickly disappears into the night, leaving you in silence.
For a moment, at least. You’ve turned almost fully to the fence, but stop when you hear a faint sound, barely audible on the breeze. It sounds like a child singing. You shake your head and take a few steps, but you hear it again, more solid this time. There are no houses around.
The night is clear and the moon is bright; the smooth, paved pathways through the cemetery are simple to follow. You take one more look at the fence, but walk in the opposite direction, toward the singing.
Your eardrums are thudding with your pulse and your muscles are held taut, so you tell yourself little stories to keep calm. You only fully come back to the present when the singing gets louder; but as it does, you notice a subtle shift. Your brain begins to fire small warnings, but the singing stops before you can be sure of what you heard. Where before, you could have sworn you were hearing a child’s voice, now you suspect a rasp, an edge, the grating of smoke in the lungs. You begin to hesitate.
As you do, you hear something else.
At first it’s only a rustle in the grass, a swirling of dead leaves in the wind; then you hear the sound of a branch being scraped along the sidewalk.
You slowly back yourself against a tree, every nerve ending electrified, aware of the noises of your body. Something rattles and shuffles into your view. It is hunched over, wrapped in the tatters of a black cloak. Though the moonlight is bright, you can’t get a good look at the figure; it seems to be shrouded in shadow. All you can see is the obsidian fingernail of a long-fingered hand hanging low, scraping the ground. The hand of a porcelain doll, spotted with age, burned with time.
It trudges by, trailing the smell of decay. Your instincts scream to run, but you are paralyzed. You silently pray—to God, Allah, Zeus, anyone—that the thing does not turn to you. It doesn’t; but it stops at a grave before you.
The thing crouches down, stirring what must be symbols into the exposed grit of the grave. As it does this, it begins to sing, and you recognize the siren’s song, mutilated as it is. You can feel the subtle shift in the air, and you know a ritual has begun. Terror is a dog-whistle in your ears, silent but shrill.
As the singing gains in intensity, builds towards crescendo, you feel the words brush across your skin and into your pores. Your fingers twitch, longing to drag your body from the shadows. You begin to sense that nothing is real. And if it isn’t real, it can’t hurt me. You are about to move when a shock wave rocks through your core and breaks the enchantment. The earth cleaves itself open at the figure’s feet. The tips of the grass begin to blacken. The stench of putrefaction clings to your hair. Hysteria triggers your gag reflex, but you choke it down.
You peer around, staring at the jagged gashes that now vein the cemetery. The dusty smell of antique death permeates the air; then the nauseating smell of recent death; then the metallic smell of fresh death. You slowly refocus on the figure. In a daze, your eyes follow the length of its cloaked arm down to its blackened hand. It is clutched around the torn appendage of a fleshy corpse.
For a moment, you are too repulsed to remember that you’re terrified. Then you are filled with an overwhelming comprehension. I am going to die.
Bile rises in your throat and fear tears through your organs; you lock down your jaw to harness the scream that is boiling up your throat. Your body screams to run, but your terrorized mind will not obey, so you hunker down further into the trunk of the tree, dizzy with the desperation that it will not find you.
You do not move. You do not breathe. If you can stay perfectly still, unnoticed, you may still be able to get out alive.
But I know you’re there.
Savannah Brooks an MFA in creative writing student at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota. Brooks’ is the Hamlin’s graduate literary magazine and assistant fiction editor of Hamline’s literary annual. Brooks’ work has been published in On the Veranda.