Caitlin felt the soft crunch of the newly fallen snow under her boots. The purple laces dragged in a trail behind her, leaving blurred edges to her finely chiseled foot prints in the pristine snow beside her. It had just started snowing when she had entered the Eden Theatre for the “Christmas Miracle Movie Marathon,” but now — just seven hours later — the entire town of Gloaming Gap was covered in at least five or six inches of snow.
The theater stood out on the street with its glowing pink and blue neon lights and an old marquee with red letters that occasionally, under the right wind, would fall to the ground below. They played all the modern movies, but the owner loved to show special late night showings of classic B-movies and seasonal movie marathons. It was one of Caitlin’s favorite haunts, and she may have been the only reason the theater remained open. It was one of the few places in ‘Gap where she could go and truly be alone, no matter how many people were in attendance. It seemed not many ghosts ever wanted to visit.
Caitlin turned and waved to Steven, the projector operator, and watched as he locked the door behind her. He was a nice enough guy, and they had become rather friendly. Nearly every night, she would wander around the empty theater and help him clean up trash after the movie. She would prattle on at him, and he would nod and grunt once in a while, enough to encourage her to continue her soliloquy.
“‘Night, Steven!” she said cheerily and handed him a red “S” that had been half-buried in the snow. “Have a great holiday!”
It was Christmas Eve, and even the spirits in this town had places to be tonight. Grandma Josephine was visiting family that didn’t know she was in the room, and Uncle Raymond was laughing at his nephews as they danced around the house, with their mother shaking her head and declaring a moratorium on cookies for them.
Caitlin might have enjoyed the quiet walk home if Main Street didn’t seem so eerily quiet. It was as if she was walking through a town that never existed… or one that time had long forgotten. The crunch of her boots in the snow echoed against the empty buildings and down street. She could almost forget it was ‘Gap; it could be any small town. As the neon lights behind her flickered off, Caitlin’s shadow vanished into the darkness of the closed shops, and she was suddenly alone.
The sudden and loud crash of glass startled her; she looked up from the tiny flakes sticking to her purple laces and toward the end of the street. What appeared to be a person came running out of Thomas Toys. As it ran towards the middle of the street, its body started to stretch out; Caitlin realized this was no normal person or even a ghost. The shadow of a man stretched the entire city block long and was gone as quickly as it came, leaving not a single track in the snow as he passed by Caitlin. She felt only a rush of wind and an overwhelming feeling of sorrow.
Frantically, she ran to the toy store. She could remember looking through the storefront window as a child, staring at all the wooden handmade toys. Ducks lined up in a row. Dragons with sticks out of their backs that you could use to walk them around and watch as their mouths snapped open and shut. And always behind the counter on his stool sat Thomas. Even when Caitlin had gone there as a child he had seemed old, but his presence brought smiles to every child he saw walk through his door.
The snow in front of the doorway was littered with glass, and the shop was dark. Caitlin ducked under the hand bar on the door and edged into the shop. She looked around in the dim light from the outside street lights until she found the switch to her right. The lights flickered on.
“Hello…?” She called out.
The toys on the wall seemed impatient to answer back, though with only silence. The store didn’t bring the same feeling of joy now – on this silent night – as they had when she was a little child. She felt as if she was an intruder with all these eyes on her. Sliding her hand into her pocket, she found her phone and began to pull it out to call the police when she glanced past the corner of the counter. There on the floor, in a slowly creeping pool of blood, she saw a hand. Taking a breath, she peeked further around the corner and there, next to a toppled stool, lay Thomas.
Caitlin spun around as the little town train started steaming around its track along the top of the room. She put her hands to her chest, closed her eyes and breathed out a sigh, before putting the phone to her ear.
“911 – What’s your emergency?” Caitlin didn’t hear the rest. She nearly dropped her phone at the sight of Thomas, standing at the counter trying to gain his balance. He hadn’t seemed to notice her yet, but she knew just what to do; she had been in several of these situations.
Thomas finally turned to focus on her standing in the middle of the room, staring at him.
“What are you doing here, Caitlin? It’s after hours and why is my door…” Thomas sounded almost condescending, overcompensating for something, like he was trying not to worry her.
“It’s okay, Thomas. I know this has to be strange for you. But I assure you that everything will be OK.” Caitlin tried to calm him.
Thomas seemed uncertain about how to respond, almost confused by her reaction. This was, of course, a typical reaction, but this situation seemed… atypical.
“Strange for me? Of course this is strange for me!” he scolded Caitlin. “It’s not every night I wake from lying on the floor to find my door shattered and some weird girl standing in the middle of my store staring at me like I’m some lost puppy she needs to help home!”
“Thomas, you didn’t just wake up… look behind me, and you’ll see your body on the floor. Take a moment to think of the last thing you remember. You’ve passed on. But don’t worry, I can talk to you; I can talk to all ghosts. Really, you’re lucky I was heading home from the movies.”
“You mean… I’m not really here? You can talk to me and others like me?”
She eyed him carefully as he nodded, a flicker of relief and then attempted sadness in his eyes.
“Do you know who did this to me? Did you see them?” He sounded almost eager. Did he want to be dead? Caitlin bit her lip.
“That’s a little more complex to answer. I only saw a shadow go running down the street. There really didn’t seem to be anything connected to the shadow it was… empty.” Caitlin looked into Thomas’ eyes for some sign of recognition but found none.
Thomas looked past Caitlin, as the sound of tires in the snow outside indicated the police had arrived. “My silent alarm was tripped. I would rather not be here when they come stomping through and making my store into a crime scene.”
Caitlin smiled back at him. “Find peace, Thomas.” She turned to the door to see the chief of police, Dell, carefully step through, gun at the ready.
Dell’s eyes instantly landed on her, then continued to survey the room as he spoke, “Caitlin, what are you doing here?”
“I was walking home from the movies when I heard the glass break. I walked in and found this.” She pointed to the pool of blood and Thomas’ body. Or at least where it had been a moment ago. She looked twice. There was no body, no blood, nothing left. She spun back toward the policeman.
“Thomas’ body was there, lying in his own blood – I swear it!” Dell looked at her, raising one eyebrow.
“Caitlin… I’m sorry, hon. I’m going to have to ask you to come to the station with me until we can sort this out.” He continued to peer around the shop, his eyes stopping on every dark corner. Something had him on edge; Caitlin heard what sounded like a low growl from him.
He cleared his throat and continued. “I’m sure you had nothing to do with this, Caitlin, but we need to get you out of here – somewhere safe, until we can figure out what happened.”
After escorting Caitlin to his car, Dell turned to instruct the other two officers to start taping off the crime scene. She could overhear his hushed explanation to them.
“She’s not lying. I can tell. Still, something happened here, and we need to know what it was. Lilith will want to see us immediately, and I don’t like going to her without answers.”
What a way to spend Christmas. As Caitlin looked back towards the shop, she could swear she felt something staring back at them. Something lay in wait in the shadows of the tiny toy shop, something unnatural… but that was natural around these parts.