As the final fall leaves abandon their branches and the chill in the air begins to bite with the coming winter, the Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) tome of stories begins to close. Thank you for joining us on this journey as we delved into the characters, places, and nightmares that have breathed life into HHN for years. Until we can all experience HHN again, I leave this last story with you. In this scare zone from 2016, the spirits of fisherman lost to sea return to give meaning to the deadly nickname this dock has been given.
The briny-air filled Sophia’s lungs as she took in a deep breath. One hand grasped the handle of her well-worn violin case, while the other pulled the top of her jacket closed beneath her neck. A thicker coat would have been wiser, as the ocean’s air had brought its chill to the docks on this late October afternoon.
The wharf was empty, and, as the historical marker Sophia passed noted, it had been that way for almost one hundred years. Dead Man’s Wharf was what everyone called it. A silent memorial to sailors lost in a foggy sea on October 30, 1931. The town was full of people who grew up by the sea, which meant they were a superstitious lot, and mostly avoided the abandoned wharf. Sophia wouldn’t have it any other way.
Much like those doomed sailors trapped in the cold embrace of the sea, Sophia felt trapped by family expectations. Her violin was a device that released pure beauty, but strict parents, insisting that she compete at the highest level so that she might enter the finest music schools, had wrung the joy out of her love for the instrument.
Unlike those poor sailors, Sophia had a choice in her fate. She strode toward the end of the wharf with purpose. Reaching the farthest edge, she looked down as the choppy water splashed against the thick wooden legs of the pier. From here, she would let the violin sink into the cold waters, drowning her family’s dreams while also shedding the weight of their expectations.
Sophia knelt, placing the case in front of her. With three clicks, she undid the latches and opened it up. There it was — the thing she loathed to love. Having picked up the bow in one hand, and grasping the neck of her violin with the other, she stood holding them out before herself. These two items had never felt heavier. Her eyes closed as she breathed in deeply, preparing her soul to be rid of the objects of her parents’ obsession. She could almost feel them staring down on her.
“What ye got there?”
Sophia gasped in fright. She turned to see who had spoken and saw a grizzled old fisherman sitting on the side of the wharf, his legs dangling over the edge. Sophia had been so caught up in what she was about to do, that she never heard the old man walk down the pier near her.
“I’m sorry,” Sophia said. “I thought I was alone out here.”
“If ye can play that fiddle, yer not ever alone. Them that can make the strings sing can call the angels to their side,” the old fisherman intoned, looking up to meet Sophia’s eyes. He had a scraggly beard that was bristled out with more white than gray, and his friendly smile made him squint. The skin around his eyes showed the wrinkles of someone who had spent most of their life on the deck of a ship. Wearing a mariner’s cap and a long black raincoat, the old sailor looked like a picture from a history book, Sophia thought.
“Well, this thing has made me feel plenty alone,” she said. Sophia wasn’t sure why she found it so easy to speak to the old man. There was something kind in the way he looked at her.
“Ah, I see. Hanging like an albatross on yer neck it is. Ye wish to be rid of it.”
“Exactly,” Sophia said. She couldn’t contain the grin she had listening to the way this old codger talked.
With a knowing kindness in his eyes, the old man said, “Well, always make sure the goodbyes are done proper, I says. If ye don’t mind, maybe play a tune for this old sailor before ye cast that fiddle into the deep?”
“I…uh…” Sophia cut herself off as she thought. Maybe one last song, and that would make it easier to throw the violin out. She wasn’t sure if she could have done it before, but maybe a proper goodbye is the best way.
“What would you like to hear, Mr. um, I’m sorry, what’s your name?” Sophia asked.
“Me mates just call me cap’n, lass. Don’t reckon I’ve gone by my proper name in some time.”
“Well, Captain it is,” Sophia said with a smile as she knelt to fasten the chin rest to her violin. “Any requests, Captain?”
“Play me something that’s like the sea. Beautiful and crude; sad and happy. Bit o’ the darkness that’s pierced by the light.”
“Wow,” Sophia said, “that is… not what I expected.” She thought for a moment. “Ok, I think I have it. Normally I play this with a piano accompanying it, but the sound of the waves will have to suffice today.”
With that, Sophia quickly plucked each string and was astounded the instrument was still in tune after being exposed to the chilly air. Placing the violin on her shoulder, she brought the bow up and began to gently play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
As she played, the violin sang with joy, and then it cried with heartbreak. It seemed the waves crashing against the wharf set a perfect tempo. Sophia could almost imagine the sound of the ocean was in pitch with her violin. She got lost in the music, her body swaying along with the way she played. Her eyes were closed. She shut out everything, from the kind old man to the pressing demands of her parents. It was just Sophia and the violin.
She continued her passionate playing until the song reached its conclusion. The final note gently vibrated in the air as she pulled her bow across the strings for one last time.
When she opened her eyes, the sun was beginning to set, and a fog was rolling into the wharf. The old man was still sitting on the edge of the pier, but he had turned his face from her. She wasn’t quite sure, but it seemed like his shoulders were slightly shaking, as if he was sobbing.
“Are you all right?” Sophia asked.
“Ye do make them strings sing, lass,” the old man said with his head turned away.
A ship’s horn startled Sophia. It was immediately followed by the sound of a ship’s bell ringing. This wharf wasn’t used anymore, but the sound was close. She looked out toward the sea, but the fog was getting thick, and she couldn’t see anything. She turned back to the old fisherman, who was now standing and looking out to the sea over her shoulder.
“It seems it weren’t the angels that heard yer song this evening-tide,” he said with a welcoming smile that froze Sophia’s blood. “Land ho, me boyos!”
Sophia turned back to see an old fishing boat emerge from the fog headed straight for the wharf. She took off running past the old fisherman and down the pier. She felt the boat slam into the wharf and the force knocked Sophia to the ground. Her violin fell from her hands and bounced into the waters below. Sophia quickly got back up and continued to run. The fog was thick; she could barely see a few feet ahead. There was no warning before she ran into the back of someone in the darkness. She fell back hard from the collision.
Sophia looked up from the ground as the person slowly turned to her. It was the old fisherman or something that used to be him. His face was mangled with the bloat of drowning. His skin was turned to hues of green and blue with barnacles scattered across the visage. Slack lips pulled back in a smile as he held a hand out toward Sophia. It was dripping wet with seaweed dangling from it. In his other hand, the captain held a crate hook that was also wet and dripping. The liquid drizzling down the hook was not that of the sea, but fresh blood.
Sophia was frozen in fear. A gurgling sound began to heave from the bloated corpse-like creature that stood before her. She could hear wind escaping from holes in the skin around its face and neck. However, the terror of the moment broke way to surprise as Sophia began to recognize the sound. It was trying to hum the “Moonlight Sonata.” It kept humming as it began to walk past her and disappeared into the fog. After it vanished, Sophia heard a scream that was cut short. It was soon followed by more screams and death throes.
Lightning flashed across the sky revealing the shadows of more fishermen around her. Many were armed with crate hooks extracting horrid violence on anyone they could find. The lightning flashed again and she saw an opening amongst the ghoulish fishermen. Rising quickly, she ran as fast as she could through the fog. The sounds of death seemed just a step away from her, but she continued to run, powered by fear that had enveloped her soul. Sophia never saw what caused her to trip, but it brought her down hard. A flash of lightning was the last thing she saw before her world went dark.
* * *
The next thing Sophia could perceive was a numbing headache. After slowly opening her eyes, she found herself in a hospital bed. Her parents had their backs to Sophia; they were standing at the foot of her bed watching the news on television opposite of where Sophia lay. The volume was low, but Sophia could make out something about an accident involving a ship running into the old Dead Man’s Wharf. They were still learning more, but many casualties were expected.
As the previous night’s memories began to creep back into her mind, Sophia questioned if any of it could have been real. Or did she just hit her head in the accident? It certainly felt that way. Sophia did recall that her violin went into the ocean. At least her task had been completed.
Sophia closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Her senses were assaulted with the briny smell of the sea. She opened her eyes slowly and turned her head to the side. There, on a small table next to the bed, was the thing she loathed to love. It was wet, and droplets ran down its curved wooden sides as if it had just been plucked from the water. Across the strings lay a strand of glistening seaweed.