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Hold Your Breath (short story)

Hold Your Breath (short story)

Feb 09, 2023

As Jack gripped the metal bars that stood between him and freedom, he sighed. He still wasn’t entirely sure how he got there or what the next course of action was. He just knew he had to get out. So he waited there, day in and day out.

“Y’alright, rookie?” A round man with a thick mustache drifted next to him, a boyish smile stretched across his face. Jack shrugged, wringing the bars between his cold, pale hands.

When Jack first arrived, the man called George took him under his wing and eased Jack’s initial shock. He had lumbered toward Jack in his loose, striped clothes and cleats like a bear in a costume. If Jack hadn’t been in such a petrified state, he might have run away. The man helped set him straight and explained why they were all there. The crowds of people roaming between the carved stones and monuments, casually talking as though chatting in a grocery aisle, was nothing out of the ordinary.

But nothing about this was ordinary, and Jack wanted out. He knew he didn’t belong there.

“Still sulking, I see.” A shaggy haired man around Jack’s age appeared on his other side. He wore a black band tee Jack couldn’t recognize, beneath a worn flannel. When he arrived, the man introduced himself as Robbie. Jack ignored him, trying to will himself out of this place.

The sun was starting to set behind the tall trees surrounding their prison. Fewer cars passed, but even as they did, Jack couldn’t call out for help. He had found that out early on. Robbie had explained that most cars wouldn't even be able to see them, and those passengers that managed to would think nothing of their presence.

“Cheer up, slugger, it’s your lucky day.” George placed his hands on his hips, his smile broadening into an enthused grin. Jack’s grip slacked on the bars, perking up to whatever news George had to offer.

“Is it that time of year already?” Robbie looked at the nonexistent watch on his wrist. His face brightened as a crowd started to gather. “The veil is thinning.” George laughed with a youthful glee despite his fifty year old face.

“The what is what-ing?” Jack’s face twisted in confusion. The people here had a tendency to speak in a slang that he couldn’t grasp.

“Thought you were a good little college boy before you wound up here?” Robbie looked at Jack quizzically. “You don’t know about Samhain?” Jack shook his head.

“Halloween, he means.” George clarified.

The two beckoned Jack to follow them down the path toward the front gate, high and pointed. George drifted through, his body disintegrating into a white fog before reappearing on the other side of the locked gate. It reminded Jack of the times his mother was overzealous and placed her baking mixer on high, creating a cloud of powdered sugar and flour.

His jaw dropped as Robbie followed and the crowd started jeering at him to “get a move on” and “quit holdin’ up the line”. Robbie waved at him to walk through the clearly solid metal bars. He closed his eyes and felt a lifting sensation in his gut, like the time he went on a rollercoaster and vowed to never get on one again due to the nausea it inflicted.

But as he opened his eyes and the butterflies settled, the nausea sensation didn’t come. Robbie and George chuckled as they started walking along the road.

“Will people see me now?” Jack inquired excitedly, jogging to keep up with the two.

“Nah,” Robbie looked over his shoulder at Jack. “Well, some might. Babies or old people, but you don’t want to latch onto a geriatric.” A resentful grunt called from behind them in the crowd. Robbie clapped a hand across his mouth to stifle the laughter.

“What are you talking about?” The more Jack asked, the more questions he seemed to have. Nothing they said made much sense to him, and he was a studious, fact-collecting young man.

George pointed at a spot ahead of them and Robbie jogged to it. Jack followed and folded his arms across his chest, tapping his foot. Robbie ran his fingers through his hair and looked toward the dusky orange sky, a look of bliss on his face.

“Tonight is a special night. Each year, we come out here and wait for our vessel.” George explained, gesturing to the road in front of them. “You ever heard the term, ‘hold your breath when you pass a cemetery’?”

“That old superstition,” Jack scoffed, rolling his eyes. Robbie tilted his head at him.

“You’re here, aren’t you?” Robbie shook his head and turned back to the night sky that grew more and more blue as the minutes ticked by. He had a point, but Jack wouldn’t believe it until he saw hard evidence. And not just the cemetery behind them.

“Well, we can’t latch onto a mortal vessel unless they’re… well, breathing. Make sense?” George explained.

“No.” Jack replied bluntly. “You do this every year?” George’s face twisted as he struggled to find his words. Robbie stepped forward to take over.

“When you latch, you stay with them until they lose their mortality. Then we come back here and wait until our next turn.” Jack’s mind whirred with more questions as Robbie answered. “That’s why I say don’t latch onto a geriatric. Less time on the outside.”

As cars passed, Jack watched as the crowd along the path thinned. One at a time, people turned into wisps of white smoke that were then sucked into the cars. That’s when it struck Jack. He turned to George.

“This isn’t a busy road.” He stated. George avoided his gaze, twiddling his thumbs. “We’re not all going to leave, are we?” His gaze burned into George, who finally looked at him sheepishly.

“No, kid, we’re not.” He sighed before looking at Robbie. “Someone has to stay behind. Teach the new arrivals what’s what.” Robbie’s face was forlorn, placing a hand on the older man’s shoulder.

Jack needed to leave. He pushed past the two, abandoning them to their intimate moment. Robbie called after him, “Hey, you can only go along the perimeter!” Jack wasn’t listening. He would stop when he was forced to and not a nanosecond sooner.

This wasn’t fair. He was trapped if he didn’t find someone to get back to his world and the likelihood of that was slim to none on a rural backroad like this. He had to get back. He had to find out what really happened to him weeks ago. He had to find his family. He needed the truth.

He walked until the high, pointed fence made a sharp turn and he was forced to follow it. It was like there was an invisible barrier ten feet from the cemetery’s fence. He continued begrudgingly, stomping his feet as he walked until he heard a sharp intake of breath. He looked up and turned on his heel, his jaw dropping upon the sight of her.

He must have walked right through her and she felt him. She shivered even beneath her winter coat and layers of leggings. She looked as though she wanted to hop the fence. She couldn’t of course, unless she was a gymnast. Though, as Jack studied her closer, she did look athletic. And familiar.

“Myra?” He spoke her name under his breath. She had been gripping the bars just as he had earlier but finally dropped her hands and turned around. She took two steps before Jack blurted out, “Wait!”

He ran to her, reaching for her… arm? Shoulder? How was he supposed to latch? It didn’t seem to matter, as it appeared she heard him. She whipped around right as he ran straight through her, causing another shudder through her body.

She turned again and her face paled. Eyes wide, she breathed, “You’re alive?!”

He realized he was past the invisible barrier. It worked. He latched onto her. He met her bewildered gaze and shrugged, “Not exactly.”

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