It was a lonely stretch of road, the quiet stillness of dawn broken only by a long aching cry, longing for company, for the family it had lost. It was the cry of a cat.
The sun was setting around the huge old barn. As the last rays of the setting sun filtered through the door, it caught the many eyes inside, casting them in an eerie reflected shine. Then there was only darkness
I lolled in the passenger seat, my hand on the open window as scenery flew by. The last days of summer vacation were here. Time to get back to the job search. But the break had been a welcome one.
“Wait,” I said, struggling to raise my sprawled form. “Stop the car, Emily.”
Emily slowed the car. “What, Meg?
I fumbled my way out of the car and onto the dusty road.
Emily got out beside me. “You want to go to an amusement park? Why? We’ve just come from one. This place looks like it’s not even open.”
The Rompin Stompin Wild West Amusement Park had seen better days. The sign on the chain link fence was faded, but I was intrigued by the pictured barn advertising a huge wooden maze, a series of steps upward and downward. Steps led to the center, but only one path. The others were dead ends, or mirrors. While I’d played on something similar in my youth, I’d never heard of one so large or located indoors.
But Emily was right; the place was a wreck. The corral was leaning, several posts broken, and the tents were dilapidated, the ripped fabric faded and frayed. Only the barn was intact, the huge sliding door shut tight.
“Let’s go in,” I said, pushing the gate on the chain link fence open.
“Ever the adventurer,” she said, rolling her eyes as she followed me inside the park.
Neither of us saw the man approaching until he yelled. “What do you kids think you’re doing? This is private property!”
“Sorry,” I said, trying hard to fake regret, and not managing it. “We just wanted to look at your maze.”
“It’s closed,” he said. “I do shows here at Halloween, but not until October.”
“What about the other attractions?” Emily asked the man.
“You see how things look,” he said, gesturing with his hands. “There’s no money in that nowadays.”
“When was the place built?” I asked.
“I’m kind of busy,” he said, flashing the aw-shucks grin as he waited expectantly.
I offered him two bills in an outstretched hand. “Here’s ten bucks, now tell us everything.”
The creep looked like he wanted more, but knew he wasn’t going to get it. “The maze was built here first, years ago. Originally, it was part of a school, then later it was enclosed to save on repairs. Then there was the tragedy.”
He began walking back towards the gate. Intrigued, Emily and I followed him.
“There was a family down the road,” he continued. “Their house is gone now, just like the others. Termites.” He scratched his groin, then continued. “The father, Jonas, was a bad man. He drank too much and took a strap to the wife, along with his fists. One night the man went after the mother, and their son hit him with a hoe, opening his skull. He chased the kid outside and into the maze. The kid got out, but the father never did. Found him two days later with his neck broken near the center of that wooden monstrosity. The coroner declared it an accident, of course. Everyone was just glad he was gone.”
I was surprised he knew how to pronounce the word monstrosity, much less use it correctly. “Sounds like an urban legend.”
He took my disbelief for fear. “Little lady, don’t worry.”
“I’m not,” I said, stifling a snicker. “Can we see the maze or not?”
“Come back tomorrow,” he said, closing the fence behind Emily and I. “Late morning is best.”
Emily and I walked away, glancing back now and then. The man had disappeared.
“It’s not right,” Emily muttered.
“I know, that guy was—”
“I mean us not getting home tomorrow,” she interjected. “I don’t have any money to stay in another hotel, Meg.”
“I’ll treat,” I said, getting into her car. “Let’s go get a drink.”
The next afternoon, I arrived at the park tired and hung-over. A drink had turned into several. Emily was at the hotel, still trying to make it out of bed. It was a sure thing we wouldn’t be leaving tonight, either. But either way, I was determined to see that maze.
The chain link gate was open, so I went right in. As I approached the barn, I noticed police tape fluttering in the breeze. It had been tied across the door, but was already falling off, like someone had ripped it down. Curious, I picked up a piece. Both ends were ragged, gnawed and bitten by small, sharp teeth.
I backed away quickly, running to the car and slamming the door. Cranking the engine to life, I drove as fast as I could back to the hotel.
“What can we do?” Emily said, sipping her water. “The accident was real; it was on the news.”
“They found his body in the doorway of the barn,” I answered, tossing down the bitten piece of tape. “The news said wild animals had been at him. Whatever gnawed on him also gnawed on this tape. I’m betting whatever it is lives in that barn.”
“So I’m going back there tonight,” I said, putting down my untouched drink of water. “I’m getting to the bottom of this.”
“Let’s hurry and get this over with,” Emily said grumpily, using the bolt cutters to cut the chain.
We both entered, then headed toward the barn’s silhouette, the large sign over the door proclaiming it The Haunted Maze.
“Look,” she said, pointing. “The barn door. It’s open.”
We walked hesitantly to the rough door, switched on the light, and peered in.
Whoever had designed the structure was amazing. It was a child’s fantasy come to life, the huge square paths leading up at least two stories in places. But what was odd was there were only mine and Emily’s footprints in the thick dust. We walked to and fro for a while, but there was nothing suspicious to be seen.
Finally, after an hour of searching, we were ready to pack it up. I’d seen nothing except a feral cat that had scratched me when I tried to pick it up.
“It was empty,” she said, walking to the door. “So much for your big theory of killer monsters.”
I nodded, then trekked out after her, switching off the light. “You’re right—”
A caterwaul broke the sudden dark silence. The feral cat, its tail tucked and ears flattened, leapt through the air between us. It hit the ground running, disappearing over by our car.
A soft purr rose up behind me, then another.
Our heads slowly turned, and then we saw them. Cats, of all shapes and sizes, some with collars still attached. Cats with eyes red as blood and black, black pupils. Tails slowly twitched, as if considering what to do with us. Then slowly, one cat came forward. Its neck was bent to one side, as if it were broken.
It had been, more than ten years ago. “Leia,” I whispered.
She came up to me as she always had in life, hesitantly putting her feet up on my knee. I slowly reached down to touch her, sure that my hand would go right through her. Instead, it rested softly on fur. She purred, the unearthly sound echoing through the building.
Another cat came forward, then another, and another, the last limping from a broken leg that had been set.
“Opal,” I whispered, tears streaming down my face. “Funny Face. Samwise.”
“That’s him,” Emily whispered. “That’s Samwise.”
I tried to pick up Samwise. He had no weight, though I could feel his body in my arms, and hear his warbling purr.
“I helped you bury him,” Emily said, reaching out her hand to touch Samwise. “How can he be here?”
“Where are the others?” I whispered, looking frantically. “Where are Jake and Lydia—?”
The purrs abruptly stopped. Samwise gave a long, loud cry. The other cats all joined in, the sound ricocheting off the walls, all-encompassing in its scream of loss and pain. I dropped Samwise and stumbled away, hands clapped over my ears. Stumbling outside, I made it to the car and got in before Emily sped away.
“My God,” she exclaimed. “What just happened?”
“Save the questions until we’re back at the hotel,” I said, gazing at my hands. Fur shining with an unearthly hue clung to my fingers. Then before my eyes, it melted away.
“Why are ghost cats haunting a maze?” she asked for the third time, as we sipped drinks in the dimly lit hotel bar. “How did they get there?”
“I don’t know,” I said for the third time. “My only guess is that they got stuck somehow. Maybe the children drew them in with their laughter and youth. But those cats aren’t evil. They’re lost.”
“They caused the owner’s heart attack,” she said darkly. “Then they gnawed on him. That’s not innocent.”
“Samwise and the other cats that came over to me were my own pets, ones my family had since I was a child. They were loving and good. But a couple cats, Jake and Lydia, weren’t there.”
“There were a lot of cats there, Meg.”
“Jake and Lydia didn’t come to greet me,” I said stubbornly. “They weren’t there, so this isn’t a portal to cat heaven.” I took a sip of my seven and seven. “I don’t know how or why these spirits got shut up in that barn. But we need to set them free. I can’t leave the spirits of cats I loved trapped in an old maze.”
“But they’re killing people,” she argued. “Setting them free might just give them access to more victims. Maybe we should burn it down. They say fire purifies.”
“What if they can’t leave the place? Didn’t you notice that not one followed us outside?”
“Maybe,” Emily remarked. “I’m still for burning. There were some containers of gas near the back of the barn.”
Had the owner tried to burn them out? Maybe the cats had just defended themselves?
“The place will likely get bulldozed,” Emily said gently. “You saw how rundown it was—”
My cats hadn’t always died happily of old age in their beds. I would be damned if I let them suffer again now that they were dead. “I’ve got to go back,” I said, rising and tossing some money down on the table. “I can’t let them stay there and get burned, or smashed up—”
“Get killed, you mean,” Emily supplied. “But they’re already dead, Meg. All of them. They’re ghost cats, or wraiths. They can’t die again.”
“They can feel pain. There was agony in their wails tonight. I have to do something—”
“You can’t go back there,” she said, grabbing my arm.
I wrenched it free. “I have to.”
Returning to the barn in the predawn darkness alone was plain scary. I parked, walked through the gate, and then saw the light in the barn.
I ran inside. The cat spirits were there waiting, watching angrily with twitching tails, the scent of gasoline heavy in the air. There were a couple empty containers near the maze, and a figure at the far end of the barn
“Time to cut my losses,” he said, lighting a match. “You all can go back to hell.” He lit a match, then tossed it on some kindling. There was a whoosh as flames engulfed the pile of kindling, roaring high.
“Stop!” I screamed. “You can’t burn them, not when they can’t get away!”
The man turned, then started for me. “Who the hell are you?”
I reached to grab the nearest cat to toss him outside the barn door. He yowled, scratched me, and ran into the blackness. There were no visible cuts on my hand, though I felt like I’d touched a stinging nettle.
“Leave them be,” the man yelled at me, as he tried to light another pile of wood doused in gasoline. “The fire will take care of them.”
The cats started to growl as one, some stalking closer.
I shoved the man off balance, and he dropped the lighter. Turning with a growl, he grabbed hold of me. I swung at him, missing, but making him take a step back.
“Trying to hit me?” he scoffed.
“”No,” I said, bringing up the mace and squeezing the trigger.
He screamed and went to his knees, clawing at his eyes. Suddenly, cats launched themselves onto him from all directions, biting and clawing. The man yelled, and ripped one off, only to have two more attack him, clawing his eyes. Blinded, the man staggered to his feet and raced towards the back of the burning barn, cloaked in biting and yowling cats.
“No!” I screamed.
There was a flash of fire as another pile of kindling caught, then a roar as fire caught the side of the barn, racing up the fuel soaked wood. I ran outside, then turned to watch, tears in my eyes.
Fire engulfed the barn in record time, black smoke billowing up into the air from the doorway. Then there was movement, as small shapes gingerly stepped out, tails alert, heads intent on the surroundings. My cats were there, alone with a thousand others. The group walked a short distance from the barn, then lay down. Slowly, one by one, they disappeared, tiny sparks winking out.
“By dawn, nothing was left but smoldering remains. The owner was a burnt husk in the center of the ash and charred remaining timbers.”
I nodded distractedly. Emily put aside the paper.
“I thought I heard a purr of peaceful contentment as the last ones left,” I said, sipping my coffee. “But maybe it was just the fire.”
“What happened? Did they need him to die to escape? Do you think he imprisoned them somehow?”
The arsonist had said he had to cut his losses. Had he and his partner wanted a haunted barn, and dabbled in sorcery to bring back the ghost of the man killed in the barn, only to unwittingly draw in other ghosts? I would never know.
“The only thing I know for sure is that they moved on. We helped them do that. That’s what matters.”
There was a piteous cry from the backseat. Emily and I shot an alarmed look at each other, then stopped the car and looked in the back. A black cat sat there, gazing back expectantly.
“That’s the cat that the ghosts booted out of the barn,” Emily said.
I stretched out a hand and petted it. “I guess you can come with us.”
Taking back my hand, I gazed at the palm. On it were black hairs, and a few with unearthly hues. As I watched, the shimmering hairs disappeared, melting away in the morning sun.
Tara Fox Hall is an OSHA-certified safety and health inspector at a metal fabrication shop in upstate New York. She received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a double minor in chemistry and biology from Binghamton University. Her writing credits include nonfiction short stories, flash, short and novella-length horror stories, and contemporary and historical paranormal romance.
Her horror stories have appeared in Deadman’s Tome, Flashes in the Dark, Ghastly Door, The Halloween Alliance, Black Petals, SNM Horror Magazine, Microhorror, Dark Eclipse, Cemetery Moon, and various anthologies. She also coauthored the essay “The Allure of the Serial Killer,” published in Serial Killers – Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
Her first E-Book, Surrender to Me, was published in September 2011. Just Shadows, her first short story anthology, was published in January 2012. She is the author of the paranormal action-adventure Lash series and the vampire romantic suspense Promise Me series.
Tara divides her free time unequally between writing novels and short stories, chainsawing firewood, caring for stray animals, sewing cat and dog beds for donation to animal shelters, and target practice.