Sometimes stories just write themselves.
The inspiration for “Silhouette” stemmed from a night of oddities during my sophomore year of college.
Six o’clock on an October evening, I was heading to a staff meeting for my university’s art and literary journal. A storm was brewing; the black-out curtains of cloud were drawn, smothering the air. Wind set the trees swaying with an eerie quiet. On whole, the night looked akin to a classic gothic novel or horror movie cliché. “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”
I stepped into the comforting lobby of White Hall, where a few stand-up lamps cast a soft glow about the room. The old house used to be a girl’s dormitory. Now, it housed the offices of professors already gone for the day. The hall lights were off. The offices dark. With no natural light pouring in the window, the lamps cast long shadows that melded into the darkness beyond. As the staff gathered, we laughed off the unnerving atmosphere and set about reading submissions.
There were an unprecedented number of spooky stories that evening.
The worst was one that I remember little about except that a girl walking through a graveyard had her ankle grabbed by an undead arm bursting forth from the soil. We passed that one around so everyone could enjoy the chills running down their spin.
Halfway through the meeting, the front door swung open with a clang. A security officer walked in, apologizing for the interruption. He asked if a man had come in the building, and we all shook our heads. He nodded and without explanation, walked down the halls to check that all office doors were locked. On his way out, he simply said, “I’m going to lock the door behind me, just to be safe.” After a pause, he added, “Don’t walk around campus by yourself tonight.” And then he was gone.
We all clamored in speculation. Who was the guard looking for? Was it an intruder? Maybe the security officer was just looking for a student. We finished reading for the night, but lingered a little longer, not quite willing to step into the night.
Then we got a text from our art advisor. She’d seen the mystery man.
She’d been down in the ceramics studio at the edge of campus. When she walked in and flicked on the light, a man had ducked behind a table and she ran out of the room. Apparently, he had been lingering around campus and security had had a number of complaints about him.
We never heard about him again. But he proved a wonderful bit of inspiration for a spooky October tale.
By Karley Conklin
The storm was building. Helen gazed up at the ominous clouds which darkened the sky and threatened rain with mumbles of distant thunder. She wondered if she should have cancelled her small group tonight. Most of the ladies would skip because of the weather.
She shrugged and stepped out of her car. Too late now.
Helen unlocked the side door of the church and flicked on the hall light, making her way to the Sunday school room. After putting down her bag, she grabbed the coffee pot and went to the kitchen for water.
As she came back down the hall, she noticed the door to the basement door was ajar and the light left on. Helen shook her head. Allan Piper needed to learn how to flip a switch. She shut the light off and closed the door. Satisfied that the hall had been set right, she went back to the Sunday school room to wait.
Alice was the first to arrive, Melonnie the last. Five ladies came in total; the other four members of the group had opted to avoid the rain.
“Jenny wanted us to pray for her boy. He’s still got that awful cough.” Sandra said, adding another prayer request to their list.
“Of course. Anything else? No? Okay, let’s pray.” Helen closed her eyes and lead the women in their opening prayer. As she said amen, a male’s voice pierced through the room.
Thunder cracked and shook the walls, causing Helen and several other ladies to jump.
Alice giggled, and Helen sent her a silencing glance, then turned her attention to the guest.
It was a police officer.
“I didn’t mean to startle you ladies. I just wanted to ask if anyone else has come through this building tonight,” he said.
“No sir, we’re the only ones here this evening.”
He tilted his head. “Have any of you, by chance, seen a man in the area? Dark hair, wearing an orange jacket?”
Helen looked to the other ladies, all of whom shook their heads.
“Alright. Thanks for your help.” He started to leave and paused. “Are you able to lock yourselves in?”
“Um, yes sir.” Helen raised her eyebrow.
“You ladies might want to do that. There’s nothing to worry about, but you would probably be safer with the door locked. I’d recommend you head home, but the storm is terrible. It wouldn’t be safe to drive in right now.”
“Of course, officer. I’ll lock the door behind you,” Alice offered.
The man tipped his hat. “Thank you, ma’am. Have a good evening, ladies.” His voice was light, but his dark eyes made his attemped smile unconvincing.
The room was silent as he walked out, Alice trailing after. Helen listened as Alice called goodnight and heard the door bang shut. A moment later, Alice returned, and all the ladies stared at each other.
“Well, I never.” Sandra said. “What on Earth do you suppose that was about?”
“They must be looking for a criminal.”
“Good heavens, Gracie, don’t say such things. You’ll give me goosebumps!”
Helen stood. “There’s nothing to be worried about. We don’t know anything about the man. Maybe he just went missing and was last seen around the church.”
Alice leaned forward. “But then why would the officer tell us to lock the door? He must think that whoever they are looking for is dangerous.”
“Perhaps another patient disappeared from the hospital.”
Helen could sense the tension in the room rising. “I suppose it’s possible, but-”
“I heard on the news this morning about a man being admitted temporarily into the psych ward. He’s suspected of murder.”
Another burst of thunder rang out, and the lights in the room flickered.
As the bulbs steadied, Helen felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. “Now, that’s enough of this. We are perfectly safe here in the church, so let’s stop this nonsensical fretting.”
All the women nodded except Melonnie.
She looked around the room and then down at the floor. “I’m sorry, but can I just point out that none of us heard the officer come in? I don’t mean to startle everyone, but if a man wearing keys on his belt can come in unnoticed…”
“I’m sure the officer would have seen him. He came in while we were praying, remember? Before that, several of us were looking at the door. No one other than us could be in the building right now.”
While Helen was still speaking, a crash rang out from the skies, shaking the earth. As the thunder quieted, soft music drifted down the hall, and every woman in the room froze.
Someone was playing the organ in the sanctuary.
High pitched cords rose and fell into a quiet melody, too indistinct to be recognized. The women stared at each other, their faces white.
“Helen,” Alice whispered. She opened her mouth to say more, but the music stopped.
After a moment of silence, Helen cleared her throat, but the words came out faint. “It could just be Mr. Petters, practicing for Sunday morning.” The music started again, even softer than before. “Alice and Gracie, you two stay here. Sandra, Melonnie, and I will go check the sanctuary to see who it is.”
Gracie nodded, and Alice grabbed her arm. “Be careful.”
Sandra and Melonnie slowly stood up, and Helen lead the way. All the classrooms were dark as they walked by, and Helen wished they had shut all the doors on Sunday. Passing the black empty spaces was eerie.
The music halted abruptly, and Helen paused. Sandra nudged her, and she kept walking, hoping to see Mr. Petters emerging from the double doors before her. He didn’t, and she pushed through the doors without a moment’s thought.
The bright sanctuary was empty, though every light was on.
“Mr. Petters?” Sandra called, with no response.
“He could be behind the stage,” Helen whispered, as hairs on the back of her stood up. The other women nodded.
“Maybe.” Melonnie’s voice was barely audible.
“I’ll go check,” Helen volunteered, and as she stepped forward, Sandra grabbed her arm, following closely.
The room behind the stage was dark, and Helen reached for the light switch. Her hand couldn’t find it and after groping a moment, she gave up and pulled out her phone instead. She and Sandra began poking between the equipment, peering through shadows for… something. Helen wasn’t really sure what at this point.
A pounding of footsteps in the sanctuary halted her searching, accompanied by the clang of double doors swinging open and slamming shut.
“Helen?” Melonnie’s voice stuttered from the balcony. “Sandra?”
“We’re still here, Melonnie.” Sandra grabbed Helen’s hand, and they rushed back to the stage.
Melonnie was looking down from the balcony, her hands gripping the rail. “I don’t think that was Mr. Petters.”
Sandra nodded. “We should call the police.”
Before anyone could move, a scream rang out from down the hall.
Helen took off running, Sandra right on her heels. Melonnie’s footsteps pounded behind them down the balcony steps.
“Alice! Gracie!” Helen called their names frantically.
The two women rushed out of the classroom and met them halfway down the hall. Alice’s face was red. “I’m so sorry…there… there was a mouse.”
Relief flooded Helen’s heart. “You didn’t see the man?”
Gracie’s face dropped. “No. It wasn’t Mr. Petters?”
Sandra shook her head. She opened her mouth to speak when another crash outside shook the building and the lights flickered off, blackness filling the hall.
“Call the police, call the police,” Alice’s voice wavered.
Melonnie’s cellphone glowed in the darkness as she dialed, and the other women pulled out their phones as well, turning on their flashlights.
As Melonnie talked to the operator, Helen ushered the women into the closest Sunday school room. “Sandra and I will go grab some more flashlights from the basement. Stay here and wait for the police,” Helen whispered as Melonnie gave the address of the church.
She and Sandra rushed down the hall quietly, the rain pounding on the roof of the church. The wind began to howl as the storm picked up, every noise louder in the dark.
Helen reached the basement stairs and noticed the door wasn’t shut all the way. Before she could say a word, Sandra was already through the door, carefully feeling her way down the steps. Helen sent up a quick prayer and followed her friend, unable to find her voice to stop the other woman’s movement.
They reached the floor and shined their tiny circles of light about the room. “The flashlights should be over here,” Sandra said.
They walked past the boxes of clothing donations, and Helen grabbed Sandra’s shoulder and gasped.
“What is it?” Sandra turned and dropped her phone.
On the ground before them was a discarded orange jacket, and the boxes of clothes, normally so neat, were obviously rummaged through.
“What do we do? Helen?”
“Let’s just go.” Helen turned back toward the stairs, Sandra clinging to her sleeve. A rustling erupted from the corner. Helen’s nerve broke and she ran forward, crashing straight into a pile of boxes and tripping to the floor. She looked up in time to see a figure shoot out of the dark and race up the steps.
Sandra’s scream hurt Helen’s ears, and then Helen realized she was screaming as well. The door at the top of the steps slammed shut, and Helen grabbed Sandra and clung to her. After a second, they heard shouts coming from upstairs. They raced back up.
As they reached the top steps, the door flung open and there were the other three women, all hysterical.
“We saw him, he ran right past me…”,
“Are you alright, we heard the screams…”
“The police are on the way.”
Helen pushed past the women and tried to figure out which way the man went. “Let’s get outside and wait for the officers.”
The women ran down the hall to the nearest door and felt wind as the door crashed open before them. They halted as they saw the rain pouring down, lightning filling the sky. Sirens wailed in the distance, coming closer.
Helen reached the door, and, as another bolt of electricity shot through the sky, she saw a silhouette running across the street. The light faded, and he disappeared into darkness.