Born of Night Without Warning

A Horror Short Story Written By Christopher O’Halloran

Born of Night Without Warning

by Christopher O’Halloran

CHRISTOPHER O‘HALLORAN (he/him) is the factory-working, Canadian, actor-turned-author of PUSHING DAISY, his upcoming debut novel from Lethe Press (2025). His shorter work has been published or forthcoming from Kaleidotrope, NoSleep Podcast, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and others. He is editor of the anthology, Howls from the Wreckage. Visit COauthor.ca for stories, reviews, and updates on upcoming novels.

The blade of Miss Viviana’s knife was sharp, but there was little weight to it; she had to really push to slide it in between radius and ulna. Removing her hand wasn’t easy. It required the methodical slicing of flesh, tendon, and eventually, the breaking of bone against a rock the size of the dead mayor’s head. All while blood slicked the ornate, gilded handle and made it near impossible to hold.

She should have stolen a cleaver. To hell with tradition, to hell with using the knife she always wielded.

Stupid.

Through much cursing and sweating, she eventually held her right hand in her left. The fingers of the dead thing curled upon her palm like an expired tarantula. One she would leave dead, no matter who grieved it.

Already, she had bled copious amounts into the water. It trickled down and out of sight, caught in rapids that churned and frothed.

She stood at the mouth of the river that fed the town. The point at which it narrowed to a handful of tributaries, running up and over rocks to some glacial point she had never seen.

It tickled her to think there were things she had still not seen.

A crow fluttered onto the low branch of a fir tree and cocked its head at her. Left, then right.

Sorry, friend.” Miss Viviana said. “This one is for the fish.”

She tossed the hand into the river and watched it bob along the surface before being lost in the same rapids that took her blood.

The crow cawed a curse at her—one learned during her frustrated hacking—then set off once more into the night.

She followed at a more leisurely pace. The stump of her arm left a wet trail through the undergrowth.

Miss Viviana didn’t always despise the village; that came later. After months of abuse. After calls in the middle of the night. After being interrupted on the street, in the market.

Weepy mothers. Trembling lovers. Orphans and myriad vagabonds without a penny to their name, but with all the entitlement of the crown.

Bring them back,” they’d cry. Everyone had a story. Their loved ones were lost, but Miss Viviana made true the sense of the word.

With her, the dead weren’t truly dead, weren’t truly gone. Simply lost. And she alone had the power to find and guide them home.

All of them.

Miss Viviana brought her quarry back whole. Not always in form, but always with full mental faculties. Capable of love, of joy, of life. She not only raised the dead; she made them live.

The wet ground squished beneath her boots. She strolled through the forest that surrounded the village, out of reach of the streetlamps with nothing but dappled moonlight to illuminate her way. The branches of swaying pines and hemlocks grasped at her black dress in an attempt to punish her for the curse she had unleashed. They made her smile.

Miss Viviana held dominion over them all. Who were they to level judgement? The deed was done.

Tonight, she had been called upon by the council to rectify the mayor’s current state for the third time—resurrecting him brought him back to the same habits that caused his heart to seize in the first (and second) place.

Enough was enough.

It was no wonder the villagers went mad with their demands. They lived in a time when death only existed for the few. When everything but complete dismemberment or vaporisation could be remedied with just a drop of Miss Viviana’s blood and a few whispered words.

They didn’t realise it took so much out of her. That she was happy to provide sparingly but lost the desire once she became the tool of a greedy populace.

No matter. They wouldn’t ask her to bring anyone back anymore.

She smiled.

They wouldn’t have to.

#

Her blood mixed with the water. The flesh of her hand mingled with algae and attached itself to the soil along the river’s bank. Her magic slipped from it, sucked into the dirt by the extensive city of underground roots. Carried onward to town. To a village of entitled brats.

To the field where they buried their dead.

Gully worked that field, often bringing Miss Viviana and a grieving soul to the resting place of their loved one. Lately, there wasn’t enough time to bury the dead; the mourners always conscripted Miss Viviana shortly after learning about—or finding—the deceased. They summoned her as if ordering a meal. As if calling a dog.

Gully sympathised with her. They didn’t give any weight to the rumours. Miss Viviana wasn’t a witch. She looked like a woman. A tired woman.

There was a twitchy madness to her. A quiet, observant quality that encouraged whispers. But that was surely something that came with the job.

Great wings flapped in Gully’s ear when a crow dark as pitch soared over their shoulder. Born of night without a warning.

Good god!” They flinched away from the winged beast, losing the cigarette in their mouth.

The ground shook and pulsed. A rumbling shook its way up the chest of salt Gully rested on. They jumped off the chest, looking around for a stampede.

What the—”

Nothing came. Just the rumble.

They looked over the field toward the forest. Something would charge out of the trees. An army, maybe, though Gully would be damned if they could think of one reason to invade.

An army came, but not of invaders. These were locals.

Gully fell onto their ass, pushing themselves back against the chest. Their hands went to their ears to block out the sounds of the ground breaking apart.

The army of expired villagers were pushed from the earth, mounds of dirt piling on either side of their graves. The fruity smell of rot filled the air. Sweetly disgusting, like a rat left broken in a trap.

Gully lay in a ball and shut their eyes tight. The sound of mobilizing bodies was a cacophonous roar.

This had to have something to do with Miss Viviana.

What had she done?

#

Del didn’t care for business much.

Or at least he didn’t think he did until his father, Usar, decided to sell their shop. Eeted Mercantile would fall into the hands of some fool who’d run the family business into the ground in a misguided attempt at growing profits.

Del had to take care of him. It was either that or spend years caring for his father in his infirmity while they spent money that had stopped coming in. That would have been no kind of life for either of them.

In all honesty, Del had done him a favour. The old man would have spent years in pain. Losing his memory. Losing everything that had made him Usar, the Titan of Industry.

Drowning was said to be a peaceful way to go. Del had done him a favour.

Heading out, Mister Del,” said the kid brought on to fill the void left by Usar.

Did you sweep the aisles?” Del didn’t take his eyes off the money he was counting.

Of course,” answered the kid. “Mopped too.”

Don’t have to be a kiss-ass about it.”

I’m not,” stammered the kid. “I just—”

Back when I was doing your job,” said Del, “I’d have all that done thrice during the day. Wouldn’t just leave it until the end of the night.”

I’m sorry, Mister Del.”

You have a lot to learn.”

The kid scuffed his feet. Del let him simmer in the discomfort. It would help him. It would make this lesson stick.

I appreciate you teaching me,” said the kid eventually.

You’ve been a real help.”

My pleasure, sir.” The kid opened the door, the bell ringing above his head. “Want me to lock this behind me?”

Don’t worry about it, I’ll be only a few minutes longer.”

The kid left. The door batted the bell once more before sighing into its frame.

Good kid. Del never had any of his own—and at his age it would be foolish to start—but he liked to think if he did, they would have turned out like the kid.

The bell rang again.

Forget something?” Del asked.

A crow’s shout was cut short by the soft closing of the door. The kid didn’t say a thing.

The kid was on his way home to his actual parents. The ones who didn’t quite trust Del, but wanted their son to get experience in the workforce. Learn about responsibility. They would be asleep, and soon so would the kid. The dog he’d buried two weeks ago would drag a decayed tongue across his face in the morning. A good sleep ruined by a rude awakening.

But sleep was out of the question for Del.

Wet boots plodded across the hardwood floor. They squished and squelched.

The son of a bitch who slipped in past closing was making a mess.

We’re closed,” said Del, looking up from his money and into the eyes of his father.

They were clearer in death. Much clearer.

#

Julia washed dishes. It was their deal; Michael cooked, and Julia would clean up while he took his whiskey on the front porch with a jar of dill pickles from Eeted Mercantile. Sometimes Usar Eeted joined him, but lately the old man had been taking his drink at home.

Rib bones tumbled into the trash, and Julia dropped the plates into hot, soapy water. It turned murky with dinner’s remains.

Their love was new. Julia and Michael had spoken occasionally before his wife died. Pleasantries at the bar where she tended. Sometimes, he had even stayed ‘til closing, helping her lift chairs onto tables.

She didn’t quite feel like a cuckoo swooping in to steal another woman’s nest, but the guilt was still there. This house still belonged, in part, to Michael’s wife.

It had only been a few months. Her lingering presence would fade eventually. Michael was willing enough to let her go. When Julia had asked why he didn’t get Miss Viviana to bring Shirley back, he shrugged.

Accidents happen,” he had said. “People are supposed to die. It’s the way of life.”

She didn’t know about that. Evolution was also the way of life, so wouldn’t they be spitting in the face of nature by not utilising Miss Viviana’s gifts?

You’re new.”

Julia jumped. Water splashed up her wrists, jumping past her hot pink gloves and burning her skin.

She winced, then dipped her arms into the cool rinse water.

Sorry,” said the woman at the window above the sink. It looked into the backyard; one Michael talked about filling with playful kids. “There should be some aloe in the upstairs bathroom. Under the sink.”

Julia froze. She knew who was at the window, but it was impossible. It couldn’t be her. Michael never made the request.

Maybe she’d go away if Julia didn’t look. If she just ignored her.

Where is my husband?” asked the woman at the window.

He’s—” her voice caught, and Julia had to clear her throat. She should lie. Protect the man, buy him some time. This wasn’t Shirley’s house anymore. This was Julia’s house. It was.

Wasn’t it?

He’s on the front porch.”

Of course.” The woman sighed. “He cooks; you clean.”

Julia grit her teeth and nodded.

He is a good cook, isn’t he? Though I guess if he was satisfied with his own work, he wouldn’t be out front with that goddamn jar of pickles.”

Outside, the leaves of a fig tree shook as something heavy landed on a branch. Talons tore at the bark, hopping along the length of the limb, but Julia didn’t dare look up to scare it away.

She shook. Her bare feet were freezing. Shirley’s slippers were in the living room where Julia had left them after complaining about the heat. Before opening the window above the sink to let in a breeze.

A wheezy rattle shuddered over the sill like tumbling ice cubes.

I’ll leave you to it, then.” The woman walked off, bare feet slapping against the back porch in a hitching step.

Julia collapsed to the floor, hands covering her mouth in order to contain the scream crawling up her throat. She didn’t look out the window, but her mind formed the picture of Michael’s wife anyway.

Shirley’s body had been broken almost completely in the accident. Burst organs, and torn flesh. Bones peeking out of skin, slick with blood and viscera. Michael told Julia he couldn’t even bring himself to look at her on the table.

He’d look at her now.

#

Orange light flickered against sheer curtains. The streets were full of ruckus. There must have been a festival outside. Screaming children, parents yelling. Footsteps on gravel and the sound of wagons rushing down the road.

Someone got carried away and a window shattered. Elouise ignored the sounds.

Elouise waited to die, but it took longer than she expected. After her children were taken from her—roasted alive in that abandoned tire shop—she had no reason to live.

The thought of going to Miss Viviana and asking her to wake them from eternal slumber crossed her mind, but the burns were too extensive. Seeing their precious bodies that way for the rest of their unnatural lives would be torture.

So, she stopped eating and drinking. Penance for the sin of negligence. Elouise should have been there to stop them from entering the building. If she had been there instead of in Eeted Mercantile comparing nutritional information between peas and carrots, they wouldn’t have wandered into the tire shop. Wouldn’t have startled the vagrant in the backroom.

The vagrant wouldn’t have spilled his oil lamp in his hasty departure, and Elouise’s precious babies wouldn’t have died choking on burning rubber.

I’m coming,” she whispered. “I can feel it.”

It was true. The afterlife was so close. She could feel the presence of her children again. Eight-year-old Andrew and twelve-year-old Dana. It was as if they were there in her bedroom. Crawling into bed just like they did during those nights of bad dreams and boogeymen.

She felt so cold. Her body was a ghost of what it had been. Eating itself in frustration.

You don’t have to suffer, Mama.”

Elouise rolled over and grew even colder.

Andrew lay in the bed, his tiny body shrivelled and charred. He looked like the foetus he had been so long ago. The one in the sonogram pressed in a photo album under the bed on which they lie.

His mouth cracked as it moved, lips splitting at the corner.

You don’t have to suffer,” he repeated.

I had to carry him here.”

Elouise rolled over again, and there was Dana. Always tall for her age, always strong.

Of course, you did, baby.” Elouise reached out and wrapped her fingers around her daughter’s hand. “You were always such a good sister.”

Dana’s hand was crunchy. Flakes of burnt skin fell off onto the duvet.

I’m going to take you somewhere safe, Mama,” said Dana.

Elouise looked into the bright eyes behind that scorched face. They were bloodshot and wide. So wide, as if the lids had been burned away.

I’m so tired,” said Elouise. “I’m tired, baby.”

Dana crawled into bed, taking her mother’s head into her lap. She stroked Elouise’s thin hair with her dry, leathery hand.

I used to run my fingers through your hair,” Elouise whispered. “Remember? You’d lay in my lap, and I’d use my fingers to brush your curly hair. You—” She broke off into a cough that sent a deep ache over her back. “You can’t brush curly hair like yours. It just gets frizzy.”

She looked up into Dana’s bloodshot eyes. Her hair had been devoured by the flames, leaving behind skin that shone red where it wasn’t blackened.

Elouise closed her eyes. The smell of smoke filled her lungs.

Andrew shifted closer to her. A shrivelled boy trying to get comfort from his mother. He hummed a slow song, his voice breaking.

Elouise recognized the tune. It was the song she had sung to him in his crib. The one her mom had sung for her, and her mom had sung for her, and…

I’m just going to rest, okay?” Elouise sighed, her bottom lip quivering.

Just for a bit, Mama.” Dana wiped her tears away, leaving smudges of soot on her cheeks. “Just for a bit.”

Something tapped at her bedroom window. Rhythmic, like the tick of a clock. Counting down Elouise’s final moments on earth with something hard like a shard of glass. A stone. A beak.

#

Gully stood next to the fire chief as volunteers scoured the field for babies birthed by the earth. It wasn’t a hard job for them; most of the babies were easy to find, wailing and flailing. Clumps of dirt pushed aside by the erupting whelps. It was the odd one laying in tall grass that required a closer eye. Occasionally, they stepped on something that squished; they ranged in size.

What happens if they’re just left on the ground?” asked Gully. They sat on the salt chest once more, a hand-rolled cigarette jutting out the corner of their mouth.

Hard to say,” said the fire chief. She held her hand out to Gully.

I’m out,” they said.

The fire chief lifted her eyebrows.

Gully sighed and dug their last cigarette out of the pocket of their overalls.

If we just leave ‘em there,” said the fire chief, taking the cigarette, “I reckon coyotes would get ‘em.”

Nasty sight,” said Gully. “Parents will be glad to have their kids back.”

The chief grunted as she struck a match, then held it to the cigarette in her mouth. “If we can return the babies to the right family.”

They should match the marker to the baby. Write the name on the heel before they toss them in that wagon. They’re not even looking at the gravestones!”

You’re right. Wise as ever, Gully.” She made no effort to tell the volunteers about Gully’s idea. The end of the cigarette glowed bright. The chief let smoke out through her nose, twin streams curling up along the side of her face like the horns of a bull.

Or a devil.

Gully didn’t know what was going on in town. They didn’t want to know. All the dead marching back in various states of decomposition. Shambling skeletons, grey meat and myriad injuries.

And the anger. Some of them had been so angry.

No, Gully would stay at the cemetery. The babies were creepy, but they weren’t very threatening. The worst they could do is give Gully nightmares haunted by squealing infants.

Keep an eye on this lot,” said the Chief. “I gotta see a man about a horse.” She turned to leave but stopped in her tracks.

I got a toilet in my shack, Chief, no need to go all the way back to—”

The ground began to tremble again. Shouts and cries came over the hills, mingling with the sound of marching footsteps. The scent of decay returned, strong as when the ground evicted the dead.

Was the army returning to their graves?

Gully hopped off their chest and turned to see what had startled the fire chief so.

Their cigarette fell from their mouth. It landed on their boot, leaving an ashy smudge.

Hordes of the dead marched toward them, faces rigid with determination. They were not alone.

They carried back living hostages.

Old Usar held his son by the ankle, dragging Del on the ground. It looked like they had fought; Del was bruised and bloody about the face. His breathing came shallow, and the leg Usar wasn’t holding was bent and swollen.

Shirley Godwin carried her husband over her shoulder. His wrists and ankles were bound like those of the roasted hogs he brought to village potlucks. A gag—what looked like a sock—was crammed in his mouth. He struggled feebly, but his wife plodded onward regardless.

A scorched girl cradled Elouise Fischer. Holding her like a baby, Elouise resting her head in the hollow of the girl’s throat. It looked like she was sleeping.

Should we stop them?” asked the fire chief.

There were hundreds. The vengeful dead balancing the scales.

Miss Viviana stood at the treeline, cradling her arm. There was no hand at the end of it. A crow fluttered from a branch to rest on her shoulder.

They had asked so much of her, and Miss Viviana had complied.

You want your dead back? Well, here you are.

You want to stop them,” said Gully, “be my guest. Didn’t seem to work out so well for their captives, though.”

The fire chief put her hands on her hips as the innumerable dead passed them. “Well, shit.”

Gully turned around and headed off toward their shack.

Where are you going?” called the chief.

Gotta get my shovel.”

There were holes to be filled.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


five + 5 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.