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Of Unnatural Causes

     The trees glared, the wind howled, and dread loomed in the damp forest air as she crossed over to the afterlife. She had been scared half to death - twice.

     According to the obituary, she was "superstitious," a "book and film connoisseur, with a taste for the classics of bone-chilling cinema," and "interested in all things spooky." According to the neighbors, she was nervous as a Mexican jumpin’ bean. She was introverted, frail, and credulous - the perfect target for a Halloween prank - or two.

     The first time the mousy woman was scared half to death, she was taking a shortcut through the woods from the post office to her home on All Hollow’s Eve. It was an hour after dusk, when the spirits were to walk the earth. To Elizabeth, each step must have sounded like the crushing of bones, and each chirp of a songbird - punctuating her quick, erratic breathing rhythm - must have sounded like the howl of yet another lost soul. She was ready to run at any moment.

     Several local teenagers had decided that frightening the local loony - on the night when her demons came alive - would be very entertaining. They planned their fun casually, deciding on what would be cheap, easy, and spine-chilling.

     Elizabeth was shuffling along the mossy path when, according to witnesses she heard what she thought was an unnatural moan accompanied by a scratching sound. The deafening echo of her own heartbeat, pulsating at dangerous speeds, must have drowned out the clear, audible giggles of teenage girls. Elizabeth broke into a frantic run, clutching her U.S. mail package in her hand and praying for her own safety. Suddenly, she tripped on a protruding root. Looking up to a huddle of glowing eyes surrounding the silhouette of a menacing forest canopy, she could think of only one thing. The Body Snatchers had come for her.

     One of the Snatchers extended his hand towards the fallen victim with the intention to help her up, an effort that he found to be futile as soon as Elizabeth opened her mouth. The town nurse, working by the window of the doctor’s office some 2 miles from the edge of the forest, said later that not only did she hear it, but also that "the shriek was enough to give me chills." Elizabeth then fainted, and the Snatchers went to find help.

     The details after she was scared half do death the first time are rather unclear, for there are no living witnesses. An observer can assume that she came to several minutes later and created the uneven footprint trail to a clearing in the woods. It was here that footprints of a galloping horse - an animal foreign to this region - joined those of Elizabeth. At this point, she broke into a panicky run, which must have ended in a climax of terror. Her body was found several miles from where the snatchers left her, wearing torn pants and a permanent, static expression of torturous pain and fearful surprise and sporting a death grip on her,

     The obituary that appeared in the next weekly village paper informed the people of the town that Elizabeth had died of a "heart-related internal stress injury." Not quite, but why bother? It insisted that Elizabeth was "liked by those who knew her well," but those people formed a very small group. She died without a spouse or children. She would not truly be "missed dearly" - until rumors spread, the town barely noticed her absence.

     People did notice what she left behind, however. The two-story, four-bedroom house - whose exterior care Elizabeth had neglected in favor of an "exciting" façade - and the surrounding property were taken by the State, and the house remains untouched, except for a small inventory taken in the foyer. The antique book collection - consisting of topics from aliens to witchcraft to conspiracy exposés to prophecy archives - is being catalogued and estimated for value. So far, over sixty thousand dollars worth of books have been enumerated.

     People may not remember Elizabeth for her book collection, or even for the mysterious budget that kept replenishing itself in spite of her lack of a job. They will remember her for the peculiarities of her character: her shyness; her mystery; her obsession with the occult, magic, and anything chilling; and her tendency to believe at least partially in anything she read or watched. They will remember her for the mystery surrounding her death on Halloween night. They will remember her for the expression of horrible fear, forever fixed on her face.

     They will not remember that in her right hand, the U.S. Mail package was torn open to reveal a paperback of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Only Elizabeth would remember a detail like that.