Amanda wouldn’t have given the missing signs any further thought on the way home except for the other odd thing that she saw.
“The sign is gone,” said Milly from the back seat of the car.
“I know,” said Amanda, concentrating on the road ahead, looking for a chance to overtake the slow tractor behind which they were stuck. “The election is over, remember I told you.”
For almost a month on the school run, they had enjoyed the entertainment of a particular candidate’s poster for the local elections. Every morning, without fail, six-year-old Milly, her older sister Jane, and Marcus, the oldest at twelve, had erupted into giggles at the smiling face of the woman on the election sign, blissfully unaware of her marker-drawn moustache and devil horns.
“Not the poster, Mummy, the triangle sign. The one with the word I don’t know. The Y word.”
“Yummy?” suggested Jane.
“Yucky,” offered Marcus.
“No, no, no,”
“Stop teasing your little sister,” said Amanda, as they slowed on the approach to the crossroads nearest the school. “It’s yield, Milly. Remember now?”
“Stop,” said Milly. “S-T-O-P.”
“That’s excellent spelling, Milly, but ‘stop’ is a different sign.”
“Stop is gone too.”
“Yeah,” said Marcus. “She’s right, Mum. See. The stop sign is gone. Shouldn’t there be a stop sign here?”
On the grass verge of the crossroads stood a tall pole, painted in the sad grey colour of an inconspicuous sky, but the demanding red head of its stop sign was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh,” said Amanda. “That’s weird. It must have fallen off. I hope they fix that soon, it could be dangerous without it.”
As usual, the drop-off point at the school was crowded and disorganized. Amanda didn’t want to join the queue. She parked on the other side of the road a hundred metres away and told Marcus and Jane to stay close to Milly while they walked up.
“Last day today,” said Jane. “Halloween break.”
“Don’t forget we finish early,” said Marcus.
“I won’t. See you later.”
Amanda wouldn’t have given the missing signs any further thought on the way home except for the other odd thing that she saw. She swung by the village shop to buy bread and milk, swapped some pleasantries about the late October weather with the shop assistant, and began to mentally plan her morning’s work. She was adrift in a mindscape of household chores and paperwork as she edged out onto the road, so she had passed the man by the time the sight registered. He was a figure she was familiar with, a man whom she occasionally saw walking the roads around the area. He was a large man, his bald head shiny-sore with the crisp weather. He wore a jacket, as large and loose as a two-man tent, that was once bright red before stains and age had conquered it, and his trousers were tucked into his boots. On the roadside, he was interfering with a pair of wooden stakes that usually had the shop’s billboard attached to them. It was nowhere to be seen.
Her husband, Freddie, was at home when she got back. They lived in a spacious house on a broad country road where the neighbours were well spread out. His truck was parked in the driveway despite the fact that he had left for work an hour before she had roused the kids for breakfast. In all her daydreams as a young adult, she never imagined herself living in a small rural community like this. She had grown up in the suburbs of a large town and gone to college in the city. When she met Freddie she had assumed the span of their life together would be spent under the bright city lights.
He was a musician and a singer when they got together. He had grown up here in Bradwood but he had seemed like a being sprouted from the pulsing music scene of the city, with his fingers wrapped around a microphone stand, a spotlight picking out the quiff of his hair, and a starry glint in his eye. Bradwood was a million miles away from his lifestyle back then. In those youthful days, it had nothing to interest him apart from occasional visits to his parents.
Things changed after he and Amanda had Marcus. Renting a one-bedroom flat behind a music venue seemed faintly ridiculous with a baby and they both wanted more children. A singer’s wage even supplemented with free beers from the bar, wouldn’t cut the mustard anymore so he trained for his truck licence and applied for a job at the Bradwood quarry from which his father was getting ready to retire.
“It won’t be too bad,” she remembers him saying. “Elvis Presley was a truck driver. It made his voice stronger, singing over the engine noise.”
In Bradwood they could afford a house, afford a family, breathe the smokeless air. They had a cabin built out the back of the house for Freddie to turn into a studio, to keep his dreams alive, but the longer life went on the more content he seemed with being a family man. He didn’t want to shut himself away from the kids in a soundproof room after work. So, Amanda took over the cabin to build her own dream. She taught violin there. Her pupil roster had grown over the years, and her reputation attracted students from miles away to the neat hand-painted sign at their gate that spelled Amanda’s Music School in letters formed of crotchets and quavers.
Freddie was in the kitchen, brewing coffee.
“Why aren’t you at work?” Amanda asked.
“It’s dead up there at the moment. No deliveries. It’s always quiet around the Halloween break.”
“So they sent you home?”
“Nah, I’m working, we’re still getting paid. I just popped back for a coffee. They’re getting a few of us to do things around the locality. Tidying up, odd jobs, that sort of thing. See, isn’t it a lovely, thoughtful community that we’re part of? You wouldn’t get that in the filthy, selfish city,” he smiled.
“You’ve changed, Freddie Cassidy. You used to be a cool, hip urbanite. Now you’re just a homespun country bumpkin.”
“Yes ma’am,” he bowed with a flourish then went to fill two cups.
“Hey, I saw something weird while I was out,” said Amanda. “You know that old baldy man who walks the roads. Finnegan, isn’t that his name?”
“Finnegan? He’s not old. He’s only around our age. He was in school at the same time as me.”
“No way. He looks…I don’t know, it must be the way he’s hunched and lumpy. And his clothes, he wears old man clothes. Like an old farmer who doesn’t care what he looks like. He’s not all there, is he? What’s wrong with him?”
Freddie put down his coffee and paused as if to consider what words he should use.
“Finnegan was taken. When he was a boy.”
“Taken? What do you mean ‘taken’? Who took him?”
“They don’t know. He was returned, after a while, but he was never right again.”
“Oh my God. What age was he?”
“That was thirty years ago now,” said Freddie. “So I guess he was about eleven. You shouldn’t go near him, Amanda. I’m sure I’ve told you about him before. He’s harmless enough but it’s best not to talk to him.”
“Yeah, sure,” she took a sip of her coffee and tried not to ponder the terror of a child being taken. “Anyway, the strange thing was that there were signs missing on the way to the school. Road signs. Milly noticed that they were gone, she usually reads them. Then, when I was driving away from the shop I saw that man messing with the shop sign on the side of the road. I mean the sign was gone and he was where it used to be, doing something with the posts. He must have taken them, don’t you think? Would he do something like that?”
“I guess, maybe,” Freddie swallowed his coffee and grabbed his work jacket from the back of a chair. He kissed her. “I’d better go. If you see Finnegan again let me know. I’ll get someone to sort it out.”
Amanda got precious little done in the half-day before she had to collect the children from school. The tragic Finnegan was treading through her consciousness like he was stealing the signposts of her mind every time that she tried to get stuck into some work. Then, when she started the car and opened the gate, his clumping presence truly invaded her day. Her ‘Music School’ sign was removed. She got out of the car and whirled around in annoyance searching for it. Her own personal sign. Why the hell would he vandalize her sign? She was about to ring Freddie when she spotted a corner of painted wood tucked in behind a bush on the driveway. Her sign. So, he had trespassed onto their property as well. She examined the sign. At least it wasn’t damaged. He had removed the bolts that attached it to its wooden post but all the bits were there on the ground. She checked the time and had a fleeting premonition of her kids standing outside the school waiting for their tawdry mother while a disgruntled teacher stayed behind with them. The sign would have to wait. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to rehang it herself anyway.
On the way to the school, Amanda noticed more signs missing. The warnings for junctions stood as decapitated poles. A cluster of signs that usually indicated the directions and distances to nearby towns had all disappeared from the crossroads at the end of her road. She slowed down as she passed a large farmhouse, despite her lateness, convinced that there was normally a large white rock outside it with the chiseled title of Bradwood Farm. Just a hollow in the grass remained.
When she arrived, her children were indeed the last to be collected but Miss Fagan, the headmistress, didn’t seem too perturbed by having to hang on.
“Sorry, sorry, I got delayed,” said Amanda through the rolled-down window.
“We thought you had forgotten it was a half-day, Mum,” said Marcus.
Milly had the red puffiness of tears in her cheeks.
“That’s no problem at all,” said Miss Fagan. “Poor Milly got a little worried, that’s all.”
Amanda got out to hug her littlest one as the other two got into the car. The low brick wall that bordered the school grounds had a heavy black tarpaulin pinned over a section that was close to the pedestrian gate.
“That’s where the school name is written,” said Amanda. She put Milly back down and took a step towards the entrance of the drop-off area and the two holes in the grass verge. “The other sign as well. Someone pulled it up. What’s going on?”
“You know,” said Miss Fagan. “With Halloween tomorrow. Vandals and the like. We’ve had the school signs defaced in the past. We thought it best to remove the temptation.”
“I don’t remember you doing that last year,” said Amanda.
“No? Well, I suppose last year it wouldn’t have fallen on a weekend. There’s more chance of trouble on a Saturday night.”
“Daddy took the sign,” said Milly. “We saw his truck out the window.”
“What’s that now?”
“Oh, yes,” said Miss Fagan. “Your husband was good enough to help take the sign down. The men at the quarry are a great help at times like these.”
“Times like these?”
“You know, troubling times. They look out for the community.”
“It’s just…” Amanda wondered if Miss Fagan’s smile was hurting her from being on for so long. “It’s just that there’s been a lot of nonsense going on with signs today as far as I can see. That Finnegan person, you know the one who wanders the roads. He’s removing signs from everywhere. He took my ‘Music School’ sign down and left it in my garden.”
“Well, he won’t get ours now, thanks to your husband,” beamed Miss Fagan.
Amanda secured Milly in her car seat, broke up a squabble between the other two, and drove away from the waving Miss Fagan. She tried to pick out the spots where she remembered there being signs on the route home. There had been a banner supporting the local football team stretched high across two telephone poles near the school. No more. She was sure she had seen it yesterday. The football season wasn’t over. Another headless grey pole near a farm gate caught her eye. It usually warned of cattle crossing. An ostentatious three-story house once had a plaque on its gateway pillar boasting its self-appointed moniker of Bradwood House. Today the blockwork was frayed and chipped around a blank space.
“No way,” said Amanda out loud to herself. “He can’t have stolen that.”
“Stolen what, Mum?” asked Jane.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Adult secrets,” Marcus said to his sister. “They never tell us anything.”
“Be quiet, Marcus!” said Amanda. They were close to home. She slowed down. There was a figure at the side of the road, crouched down and searching on the ground beside a field gate that was missing its hunting club sign. The man appeared frustrated, scrabbling around the grass. He lumbered backwards and Amanda pressed the brakes before colliding with his filthy red coat.
At their slow speed, her stop was gentle but an air of anxiety wafted from the children.
“Mummy, I don’t like him.”
Finnegan appeared disoriented, standing in the car’s path, but he gathered himself enough to put up an apologetic hand. He shook his head like he was disappointed with himself for causing this trouble. Amanda beeped the car’s horn and he again raised a hand to beseech forgiveness but he didn’t move out of the way.
“I really don’t like the look of him,” said Jane. The large man’s chin and cheeks were shadowed by rough white stubble and dirt, transferred from his unclean hands.
“Why won’t he move?” said Marcus.
Amanda beeped again and was immediately infused with an anger that drew her to open her door and get out of her seat. This idiot had vandalized her sign, her property, her livelihood.
“Hey you,” she shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re up to? What are you doing on our road, abusing other people’s property?”
Finnegan shrunk back from the onslaught, worry wrinkling his forehead.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I’m sorry. I fell backwards looking for something. I’m not doing any harm, that’s for sure. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I’m calling the police. How dare you. How dare you remove other people’s signs that they went to all the trouble of getting made. And the road signs too. That has to be an offence. You could cause a serious accident. I’m calling the police on you.”
Finnegan rubbed the stained sleeves of his coat together, hiding his hands inside them.
“No please, no police. I’m not taking signs. I’m trying to find them. Other people are taking them. They don’t want him to be able to find his way here, to recognize Bradwood.”
“What are you talking about,” Amanda asked. A good deal of her rage had subsided with her shouting fit. She was levelling off now and noticing the sideways look in Finnegan’s eye, like it was caught on a hook and being tugged by an invisible line.
“He’s due back this year. Every ten years he comes. He said he’d come back for me, he did. They think they can trick him by taking down all the signs. They think he won’t be able to find Bradwood. Their plan may have worked the last time and the time before that but not this year, not if I have anything to do with it.”
“I don’t know what you’re gabbling about but you removed the sign for my music school and threw it in my garden. I should report you.”
The invisible pull on his sideways eye slackened. Finnegan crabbed up towards the car like he could smell something tasty.
“The music school? The sign with the notes on it? That sign is in your garden, is it?”
“You know what you did with it,” Amanda slid back down in her seat. “You hid it behind a bush,” she muttered before closing the door.
She drove away quickly, leaving Finnegan behind with a fat smile opening up his features.
“What was that about?” Marcus had a quiver in his voice. Milly was whimpering.
“Don’t worry about it, kids. He’s just a damaged man. His mind isn’t well. I think you should play inside when we get home, ok. We won’t go outside, just in case. Just for today.”
Darkness landed outside their house before Freddie did. It wasn’t unknown for him to drop into the local bar for just one beer with a workmate from the quarry before heading home. Amanda wished he wouldn’t when he was driving the truck but it was only up the road, he’d argue. The kids were glued to a computer game in Marcus’s room. She was tidying away their dinner plates and left Freddie’s in the low heat of the oven.
The outside sensor lights had already fooled her a few times into thinking her husband had arrived, detecting a motion whose source she couldn’t see when she checked out the window, but the rumble of his truck backing in the driveway confirmed his presence at last.
She yelled down the hallway to the kids.
“Nearly time to shut that game off. Five more minutes, ok?”
Back in the sitting room, she peered out the patio doors. It had been a few minutes since she heard the truck’s engine die but Freddie hadn’t come in. The patio furniture was in strange positions. One of the chairs had been placed facing the doors, looking into the house. She returned to the kitchen and turned up the oven to give his dinner a blast.
The kitchen window allowed a view of the gate that was half-shrouded by an overgrown Fuschia bush. Flickers of frantic flashlight beams knifed through the gloom. What was he doing out there? Amanda took cutlery from the drawer.
The sound of running footsteps brought Freddie’s face to the window just as she turned back around. She jumped with fright then giggled. Freddie didn’t laugh. He bolted round to the kitchen door and tried to get words out at the same speed as he was thundering inside.
“The sign, Amanda. Why is the sign up? Why did you put the sign back up?”
“It’s up? No way. He must have come back and fixed it. Freddie, we had a run-in with that Finnegan man on the road earlier,” she backed up against the wall, concerned at this unfamiliar expression that her husband wore. “Wait, how did you know that he had taken it down?”
“I took it down, Amanda. We’ve been taking down signs all day. All of the signs. We have to remove them all. Every ten years it has to be done. He’s due back.”
Amanda laughed, waiting for the punchline, for the joke to be on her. Then she stopped laughing. “Who’s due back.”
“There are hoof prints on the lawn,” Freddie was crying.
He dashed into the sitting room, bounded up the stairs. Amanda held the bottom of the banister, unsure whether to go after him, but he clattered back down before she could make a decision. He cradled a random selection of clothes in his arms. A sports bag hung from his shoulder.
“Get the kids, where are the kids?”
He was circling the room now, dropping items of clothing, picking them back up, unaware that the logical act was to put them in the bag. Amanda stretched her hands out apprehensively, wanting to help and halt him at the same time. The children trailed out of Marcus’s room, pale-faced and confused.
“Freddie,” she said. “What’s wrong? I don’t understand.”
He gave up on the clothes, gathering only a jacket and their youngest child in his arms before stalling, mouth agape, facing the patio doors.
“Too late,” he wept. “He’s already here.”
Amanda followed her husband’s frozen gaze. It was too late. He was out there, drawing in the bad things of the night with his every breath, the electric pulse of his skin promising pains she could barely imagine. He sat in the patio chair, cross-legged, staring in at them, and the horrible smile pasted on his face made her heart want to stop beating right then and forever.
Colin Leonard lives in rural Co. Meath, Ireland, beneath the hills from which the ancient Samhain festivals spawned Halloween. His stories have been published in the magazines Dark Tales, Fudoki, and The Harrow and his flash fiction appears in anthologies from Breaking Rules Publishing and Ghost Orchid Press.