A man of gray in both face and clothing stood grounded in the swirling mists of the night. His features flattened against the backdrop thanks to the peculiar color of his skin. He stood silently and still as stone, watching a boy struggle with the lock on a door.
A boy, dressed for a cold autumn night, pulled half-heartedly on the stout wooden door. He had been trying for well over an hour now, and no attempt to open the door or to wake his family within had worked. It had started with panic, pounding on the door with his fist and calling out for help but eventually, his vigor wore thin and his confidence waned. He felt the prickling crown of frustration heavy on his brow while the heat of anger flared atop a hearth of fear.
The gray man kept his distance as he watched, taking great care not to appear like he was lurking. Silently, he waited for the right moment to catch the boy’s attention. The air was glacially still, but the man felt a chill wind race up his spine. He clenched his teeth and resisted the shuddering of his body, frustrated at his lack of control.
It was late and the boy was tired. He gave up his attempts at entry and resigned himself to sit on the stoop until morning. He put his back to the door and slumped down to its base, drawing his knees close. He sighed and tried to establish some relative bearing in his mind as to how late it was, based on his memories of the night. It couldn’t have been too late, by his reckoning, since he hadn’t gone that far from home. It’d be a long night of waiting and he wished that he had brought along a scarf.
The boy’s eyes tiptoed the path that crept away from his door and out toward the road. A spark of lightning shot down his back when he noticed the man looming at the end of the path. They stared at one another for several moments — neither one dared be the first to breathe.
The man gave in first. He raised his left hand in a greeting and forced a smile. The boy responded by scrambling to his feet and resumed yanking on the door. He pulled with the full weight of his body and called for help from the people who were safely locked inside. He could hear the footsteps of the gray man behind him. They were steady and confident, but they lacked the sound of aggression.
The footsteps stopped.
“You know the living cannot wake until the spirits return to sleep,” said the gray man.
The boy’s blood pounded in his ears as he spun around against the door and looked back at the man behind him. Nothing about the man colored him as a threat, but the boy felt his body go rigid in fear.
“Are— are you a monster?” The boy barely managed a whisper.
“No,” said the man. “I am not one of them. I, too, am like you. Someone who ended up in danger thanks to my curiosity.”
The boy pressed his back harder against the door and prayed. He cursed himself for not having prepared a weapon of some sort.
“Are you aware of the incredible amount of danger that you’re in?” the gray man asked.
The boy swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded. “They say tonight a beast will devour you, or worse, a demon will force you into servitude.”
“I am neither beast nor demon,” said the man, “just a dead man who sees a boy making the same mistake that cost him his life.”
“You’re a ghost, then.” The boy felt the air in his lungs grow frigid.
“Something like that,” said the man, “and you can trust that I will not tell you a lie. Just tonight I’ve seen two hounds and they’ll surely claim your soul when they head this way.”
“What do I do?” said the boy, fear clawing its way up his limbs, pulling him down toward the ground.
“The only thing you can do is hide where they cannot find you,” said the gray man. “And I know just the place if you trust me enough to show you the way. I was on my way there when I spotted you.”
The man turned his back to the boy and took a few steps toward the road.
“You’ll need to decide soon,” said the man. “The longer we linger, the further into danger we drift.”
A sharp howl broke the silence of the night, somewhere distant but far too close for comfort.
The boy took a deep breath and attempted to lessen his trembling. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his sleeve and looked up at the gray man who stood at the edge of the road. The man’s face gave away his terror and he shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“Which risk would you rather take?” said the man as a second set of howls joined the first. “Follow the only other person out tonight or take your luck with them?”
The boy crossed his arms and pressed them against his chest. He felt that either choice would surely end in his death.
“Catch up soon,” the gray man said as he began to leave.“I’m not risking any more of my own time.”
The skin on the boy’s arms prickled into goosebumps as he remembered the howling in the distance. He tried to shrug it from his mind but it clung to his thoughts like a shipwrecked sailor. Figuring that it was probably less horrifying to die by the hands of a human than by the teeth of a hound, he followed after the gray man.
“We must be quiet now,” said the man, quickening his pace as the sound of the boy’s footsteps joined his own.
The boy crammed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and kept his head low, dreading what he might see if he looked around. He walked to the side and slightly behind the gray man, careful to match his pace.
The night was cold and silent, save for the gentle, nervous taps of two sets of shoes that picked their way across the lonely road. The mist swirled around each footstep as it came quickly and carefully to the road’s surface. The longer they walked together, the more desperately the boy wanted to speak. His heart was beating so hard he could barely hear his own footsteps.
He couldn’t take it anymore.
“Where are we going?” hissed the boy in a whisper that seemed loud enough to split the darkness in two.
“Cemetery, of course,” replied the gray man in a barely audible whisper. “Please. No more speaking.”
Looking up, the boy could see the gates of the cemetery in the distance. It seemed to exist in its own isolated world, surrounded by the mists and the creeping darkness of the night. They picked up their pace toward the gates and the boy again swallowed the lump in his throat.
More howls began to perforate the darkness as they came upon the gate. They sounded closer now, from an increasing number of directions. The boy tugged on the gate as soon as they arrived. It was locked. He looked up at the gray man with fear in his eyes. The man held a finger to his lips and pulled a large iron key out of his pocket. Quickly, he unlatched the large lock and pulled open the groaning iron gates, only as wide as they needed.
The two figures slipped past the gates and the gray man replaced the lock.
The boy heaved a great sigh and centered the weight on his shoulders.
“You’re still not safe,” said the gray man. “This way.”
They snaked their way between headstones, weeds, and ancient trees, finding a path to the top of a small hill on which perched a stately stone mausoleum. It was sealed with a heavy iron door. The gray man pulled on a large ring and the door warily opened, hissing on its hinges.
“Down there,” said the gray man. “Go.”
The boy pulled his hands out of his pockets and braced himself against the doorway, peering down the stairs that disappeared into the mausoleum’s depths. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. A tide of dread filled his stomach as he looked into the inky darkness that seeped up the steps.
“Are you sure it’s—” The boy was interrupted by the sudden force of the gray man shoving him down the stairs.
He tumbled down the stone steps, down a distance that seemed impossibly long. Each edge sharper than the last, cutting between his ribs as his bones snapped and he came to a sudden stop.
“I’m sorry.” The gray man’s voice drifted down the stairs mournfully, punctuated by the slamming of the iron door, sealing the boy in the darkness. It stirred, insignificant at first but quickly swelled into a dissonant storm. The confines of the mausoleum were enveloped in a chorus of chittering tones that began to descend upon the boy.