Holiday Greetings

by Eric Bonholtzer

He watched out the window with a marked grimace as the children frolicked in the snow, light icy crystals falling gracefully before young impressionable eyes. The white flecks nearly covered his yard with their sloping mini-hills, and in the distance he could hear a too shrill voice bleating out something about joy and the world. Mike Jove merely sputtered, and shook his head.

He turned his attention from the eager pre-Christmas revelers, a Norman Rockwell still life if he’d ever seen one, and gazed instead at an old picture frame held snugly in his hands. Portrait of an ideal family, all wide-brimmed smiles, captured forever in a frame. Mike’s stare was blank and baleful, not really seeing what he was looking at, as he slowly rocked back and forth in a recliner with his own thoughts. A grimy finger rubbed the smooth glass, his eyes closing, as he lost himself in thought. It could have been so different.

It was unnaturally warm in Mike’s house, even for the yule time, yet the large man still wore a sweater. Wrinkles creased in consternation, Mike couldn’t have gripped the frame harder if it were a life preserver in a sea of drowning. He averted his eyes, the frame all too painful to look at, as the don’t-quit-your-day-job caroler hummed on about bells of silver and other such shiny things. His dining room was a more comfortable sight than the joyful kids, but it still held its own sense of loss.

A tree squatted haphazardly near the hearth, precariously close to toppling; Mike rarely used the fireplace anymore and the precious few gifts set before it had mostly his own name on both the to: and from: lines. The mantle itself was barren. He had taken down the crucifixes at the same time he had taken down the pictures. There was no manger and no baby Jesus. The oaken table was set, as it always was, with three place settings, a single unopened letter resting before one of them. It was not just any letter, it was the letter, the only one that ever mattered. The corners of the frame dug into Mike’s hand but he scarcely felt it. It was the stockings, hung with such care, that really got to him every year. They were flat and empty, one smaller than the rest. He didn’t know why he did this to himself. It was almost as if things were kept prepared, maybe there was some hope that things would somehow, some way go back to the way they were, back when things were right. If he could only wait long enough…

It was the small stocking that did it; the soft red felt with carefully cut letters stuck on with the reckless care of an over-eager child with Saint Nick on his mind, those letters with their glitter, a constant reminder of the joy that went into their construction that always brought the tears. Mike Jove had watched and he had laughed and he had shared the laughter, once.

“Owww!” Mike cursed as the glass bit him. He had been pressing harder and harder against the frame and the glass had cracked, a shard digging deep beneath his skin. The broken frame, now in pieces, fell to the floor unnoticed as Mike pried the sliver free. A healthy flush of blood followed, but at least that shard was gone. Mike stood up quickly, only to fall back down again into the chair. He had put weight on his bad leg too quickly. It had been years, but sometimes he still forgot which side was the weak one. Remedying his error, he stood.

Mike Jove applied pressure to his wound, trying to staunch the bleeding. Gathering up the pieces, miring them with blood in the process, the wounded man attempted to pile them upon an end table, not wanting to repeat his luck later on with a shard in the foot, also realizing that he would probably be too drunk to remember if he didn’t do it now. Leaving his minuscule testament to pain, he went into the kitchen. He couldn’t help but stare, as he always did, as he passed the unopened once a year holiday letter, written in that familiar feminine scrawl he knew as well as his own, grimacing at the Florida postmarks. It only made him walk faster. Somewhere, not far away, a voice was crooning that it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

His stomach grew sour as he stared blankly at the blood welling from his finger, thinking about it again. Mike’s mind had been turning back to the subject with alarming frequency as of late, and as he queasily observed the red trickle, he wondered, not for the first time, if he had the courage to go through with it. Mike honestly didn’t know when he’d decided to do it. If he was asked, as he was sure he would be afterwards, he was not even certain if he could articulate a valid answer and wondered, if there truly was a single reason. Sure, there were those old cop-outs: too many holidays alone, too much stress, tack them onto the never ending list, but honestly Mike didn’t have a clear reason. He simply knew he was going to kill someone. That’s all there was to it. He would find someone who he had a valid reason to kill and then he’d do it. People talked about it all the time. Man I’d love to kill that guy or What I wouldn’t give to see that guy dead. His thoughts were hardly abnormal, he reasoned, he was just going to take it one step further.

Mike knew he wouldn’t kill just anyone; that was what a crazy person would do. No, he would find someone who really deserved it and then, bam, he would pop them one. Well, not really pop them one, he rationalized, too loud, too messy. But a nice little slice here and there, that would do just fine. Looking at his bloody finger now, and picturing pools and pools of the red liquid was enough to give Mike second thoughts, but he knew that he’d reached that point where all he could do was plunge the knife into himself or someone else.

The towel soaked up his blood nicely, the pressure forcing his body to coagulate and quell the flow. He gazed about, not wanting to focus on the crimson stain lest he lose his resolve. His kitchen was plain, austere, only the necessities. Mike pulled the towel away, cautiously inspecting the jagged gash. He looked toward his wrists, transposing that line. It was a futile exercise. He had trudged this road before, and glancing at the large carving knife, a multi-purpose Ginsu, sharp for a thousand cuts or so the ad claimed, he knew that if he been serious about taking the punch-your-own-ticket route, he would have done so long before now, like on that first Christmas alone. Picking up the phone he dialed his cell phone number, the task made more difficult by the pain in his thumb, forcing him to cradle the receiver in the crook of his shoulder. Punching in his code, his spirits lifted as the mechanical mistress’ voice informed him he had one new message. Carol? Despite Mike’s best efforts to quell his rising hopes, they came all the same.

It was a sultry voice, one that sounded more than a little drunk. “Hey, Merry Christmas you sexy boy. I hope you’re thinking of me, I’m thinking of you. In fact I can’t stop thinking of you. Give me a call big boy. I’ll be waiting. Oh and Phil, bring some more champagne. We’re all out.” Figures, Mike thought bitterly, the first provocative message I’ve ever gotten and it’s the wrong number.

Mike hung up the phone with resentment. He didn’t have long to think about it because a loud chime drew his attention to the door. He had never really had many callers, and as of late that declining number was trickling off faster than ever. It wasn’t just his cynical unsociable manner, it was his cynical unsociable manner and the fact that, quite frankly, Mike Jove was a man headed the wrong way down a one-way street and everyone knew it. Walking through to the dining room, and hearing a familiar nasal voice jingling from behind the door calling, “Seasons Greetings from your friend Greg,” Mike retreated, grabbed the Ginsu with his good hand, and went to make his acquaintance with his new friend Greg, the limp making the progress slow, if not more than a little agonizing.

“Hey, Merry Christmas to you, friend. Wow, will you look at that hand. Boy that had to hurt.” To Mike, the man was every bit as disagreeable as the tone of his voice. The stranger’s penchant for bluntness, coupled with the fact that he was gawking at Mike’s hand like he had two hands growing from his wrist instead of just some minor cut that was soaking into a towel, unnerved him. Mike’s good hand, held surreptitiously behind his back, clinched involuntarily, tightening its grip around the knife. “My name’s Greg Atan. Nice to meet you. God bless and keep you.” He extended his hand, which Mike made no gesture to shake, and after a few seconds, Greg withdrew the appendage.

Mike smiled. “Merry Christmas to you too, friend.” He was actually kind of enjoying this. Toying with his potential prey, trying to see if this new arrival fortune had so graciously placed upon his doorstep could fit the criteria.

“Wow, what a nice place you’ve got here. I can’t believe it’s just you living here. This is a perfect house for kids.”

Way to rub it in buddy. Chalk one up on the scoreboard. Mike almost slammed the door shut right then and there on this brazen interloper, but something tugged at his mind. “How do you know that I live here alone?”

“Well, Mike, I’ve been doing this a long time and, I mean, everybody knows that you’re here all by yourself, since, well you know.” Strike two.

“How long is a long time?”

“Three years.”

“I’ve never seen you before.” Mike said.

“Well, Mike, let’s face it,” the colloquial, I’m-your-buddyness of his speech was somehow the worst part of all, “you aren’t exactly the most friendly guy in the neighborhood.” This guy was just asking for it. “In fact this is the first year, I’ve even had the guts to come up and knock on your door.” Greg made a gesture like he was going to impart some grave secret, leaning close and dropping his voice a bit with the last, “To be perfectly honest man, you kinda scare me sometimes. You know, all shut up in your house all the time. I mean it’s just a little cuckoo, if you ask me.” He took a step back, laughing as if he’d just cracked the world’s funniest joke. “Ahh I’m just messin’ with you, pal.” Mike did not move, nor did he smile. Becoming a bit uncomfortable, Greg felt it his duty to fill the dead air. “So do you want to hear a tune? How’s ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ sound, or a little ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’?”

Mike beamed at him. “Why don’t you come in?”

Greg smiled like he’d just hit the lottery. “Really? Thanks. You’re so nice.” There was something about Greg’s over-the-top friendliness that rubbed Mike the wrong way. People like Greg looked at everything in life, no matter how bad or hurtful, as if it could be gathered, processed, squeezed and quantified, and turned into something happy and wonderful. To Mike there was just something blatantly wrong with that kind of thinking.

Mike led Greg into the dining room, taking great pains to hide the fact that he limped, but the caroler didn’t even look at his host, taking in every detail of the house, as he plopped carelessly into a chair at the dining room table. Mike fumed at the intrusion, but he kept his composure. His palm grew clammy holding the blade and he took every effort to make sure his guest didn’t catch so much as a glimpse of it. “You must be thirsty after all that singing.”

“No, not really. You get kind of used to it. Man, I just love to see the looks on people’s faces when I show my stuff.” Greg smiled, brushing a recalcitrant lock of hair out of his face. On the whole, his mane was long and unkempt, as if his mission to provide happiness to everyone in the world made it all right to neglect personal hygiene. “Hey, how come you got three place settings? You expecting company?”

“Just you.” Mike had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep from spitting a harsh rejoinder.

“Oh, but look, you got three stockings…”

“Yes, I do, don’t I?” Mike cut him off before he could say more. It stung enough as it was. “So what do you want to drink? Brandy? Scotch? I’ve got a lot to choose from.”

“When I’m doing the Lord’s work I don’t like to drink. Just a little water will be fine.”

Mike turned to the kitchen with a speed that was almost a run.

* * * * *

The knife sat on the center island of the kitchen and Mike Jove was staring at it with a trance-like intensity. He just couldn’t believe this guy. The man had barged into his home and was laying to waste everything that he still had left in his life. And he was so glib as he was doing it. He was practically begging for it. This interloper had done everything but call him a lonely degenerate. But still, there was something… Mike didn’t know if he could go through with it. After all the bolster, all the bravado, he just didn’t know if he could kill someone, especially a Christmas caroler. But on the other hand, the things this guy did, and the way he had appeared at just the right moment, it was almost a sign. Mike paced, wringing his hands as he did so, the wound on his finger tearing open again and a fresh sputter of blood beginning to trickle out. He had to do this. He had committed to it. He ran his thumb along the blade, marveling at the obscene beauty of the crimson smear on the polished steel. It would be done so fast. One, maybe two, slices and it would be over. His stomach could handle that much. The guy would never know what hit him. Sink it in, pull it out, and it would all be done.

Mike shook his head. Try as he might, staring at the blade and all its possibilities, he knew he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Shaking his head, he poured himself three fingers worth of brandy from his decanter and filled a chipped glass with water for his guest. Sardonically he thought, maybe he’ll cut his lip on the chip. I’ve heard bacteria grows in those cracks, nasty stuff, festering stuff. Maybe he’ll get a right good infection. Mike smiled at his own cleverness.

Taking up the two glasses, he started off, and then for the second time this day, he back-tracked, deciding to take the blade just in case, tucking the implement into his waistband, making sure his shirt tail covered the protruding hilt. He picked up the glasses and was off, safe in the knowledge that just because he had lost everything did not mean that he would make someone else lose everything. And to Mike Jove that was enough.

* * * * *

Mike dropped both glasses on the carpet as he walked in and saw Greg’s choice of reading material. Remarkably neither cup shattered, but both made a huge mess on the floor. He was livid. Mike had returned to see his holiest of holies violated. Each year he received a letter from his ex wife. A letter he never opened. He had hoped and feared and wondered and debated every Christmas about what was in each letter and yet he never opened any of them. A plea to come home or a stirring confirmation that his family wished he would drop dead. He would never know, but as long as he never opened it there was always that hope that one day they’d come home. He didn’t know what he would do if he knew that the most important part of his life was gone forever. He didn’t know how he would go on. So each year, for three long years, he looked at the envelope every day, tracing that fine scrawl with his finger, until the pain became just too much, the letter discolored by dried tears, and then it was filed away in his night stand until the next year’s mail came. But this guest, Greg, this stranger, had seen fit to open it and it wasn’t even his mail. And this was something more than just a letter.

“What are you doing?!” Mike demanded, suddenly torn between pulling out his knife and butchering the living hell out of his guest, or simply tearing the man apart with his bare hands. In the end, he did neither, only repeating, in a very strained voice, “What are you doing?”

“Man, that ex of yours sure seems like a nice lady. Seems all she wants is for you to get your act together. Get a job, provide a little security. Stop drinking.”

“Stop.”

“It doesn’t sound all that bad man. And your daughter, I guess she’s doin’ okay too.”

“Stop.”

“And…”

“Just stop!” It was a scream.

“Don’t yell, Mike.” Greg had gotten up, dropping the letter back to the table and with it, Mike’s hopes and dreams, withdrawing a small pistol as he did so. “I really don’t like it when people yell. It’s time for this stupid game to end, Mike. This is one of those turning points in your life.”

“Who are you?”

“Someone who’s been watching you, Mike. Someone who’s been waiting for the right opportunity.” All the colloquial camaraderie was gone, and Mike found himself realizing just how much he missed it in the face of this cold-hearted demeanor.

“But why?” Mike was crushed, his emotions riding a rollercoaster of uncertainty, but superceding all, he was confused, utterly confused. Who was this man and what was he doing here? And more importantly what did he want?

“I guess there isn’t really a reason is there? Its just something you do. Something you decide on, then you do. You look at the rewards, then bang, you do it.”

“But… I don’t understand…”

“I studied you. I knew all about you. Lived alone. Wife took off with the kid a couple of years back. You know, you got some nice stuff here, so that’s a perk. You’re a shut-in so nobody’s really gonna miss you, and there won’t be any unwelcome visitors. You don’t spend a dime, so you gotta have some sort of stash somewhere. Now do you understand what this is all about? Its robbery, plain and simple. And now you’re going to get your money for me or I’m going do you a favor and put you out of your misery. A bullet’s the ultimate painkiller, bud. Wanna try?” He motioned with his pistol.

“So this… this was all a scam?”

“Damn straight. What better disguise than right out in the open. No one’s gonna believe that nice Mr. Christmas Caroler was a stick-up man, and even if they did, no one knows who I am. I case joints and knock ’em over at Christmas time. Best time of year, everyone’s so charitable. I was countin’ on you openin’ your door for me, but I had a backup plan, just be lucky I didn’t have to use it. Now I want you to take me to your stash and gather up anything valuable you have and I’m gonna make like wicked old Mr. Grinch.”

Mike backed up a step and Greg advanced, getting right on top of him. “Don’t even think of using that knife. I don’t know what you’re doing carrying a knife in the first place, but you’re the suicidal loner so that’s your business. I spotted it soon as I flopped down in your daughter’s chair.” Mike cursed and Greg exercised control, pressing the cool steel up against his victim’s temple. “Now, slowly, real slowly I want you to take out the knife and drop it on the ground.” Mike complied, fighting every inch of the way the urge to just lunge for Greg and grab the gun, knowing he had no choice. Now that he truly had his valid reason for murder he couldn’t do a thing about it. The knife made a muted clang as it hit the floor, taking Mike’s hopes with it.

“Now you’re going to tell me where that nest egg is.”

Mike stalled for time. “How can you do this? I don’t have anything anymore. It’s so evil…”

“You’re damn right it is. But hey, one life to live right? You were the perfect mark. Just asking for it. You know holidays are the best time. All that religious junk, it just makes people soft. Just like you. You let your guard down. You let me into your house. And now you’re gonna pay.” There was a marked hatred in his words.

“But you don’t understand,” Mike was near tears, “I don’t have anything.”

“Oh, yes you do. That job incident that ended your career. Why you’re afraid of work, why you drink. Oh yes, I looked into all that, yeah, I know all about you Mike Jove. It ruined your marriage and it’s the reason why you limp. You’re too scared to even leave the house for a few minutes. Afraid it’ll happen again. Shot in the line of duty.” He pressed the pistol hard into Mike’s skull. “And if you don’t do what I say, you’re gonna be shot again. There was a settlement. You cleaned up. Now it’s my turn.”

“No. No you don’t understand. I gave it all to her when she left. I wanted her to have something to know I still loved her, that I still loved our daughter.” His voice was cracking but there was grim triumph in his words. “Apparently you didn’t do your homework well enough.”

Then everything was like a flash frame, etched in perfect detail. Greg screamed in rage, striking out with the gun. The blow took Mike in the side of the head, issuing a ragged gash in his skin, the amount of blood seeming impossible. The blow knocked Mike to the side, Greg taking aim with the gun, apparently reasoning that if he couldn’t get the money from Mike he was prepared to get it in flesh instead. Then something miraculous happened. Mike’s weak leg, which threatened to buckle under the strain did no such thing, held with a strength that felt as if a warm glow was filling the socket, keeping it strong. The glint of the shattered glass from the broken frame caught his eye, and without thinking he snatched up a handful, unmindful of the pain and jammed it into Greg’s unsuspecting face. The agony was intense, the glass cutting both ways, but Mike did not relent, driving the shards deeper into Greg’s skin and eyes. One gunshot went off and then another. Mike felt a tug in his side but he saw no blood. He had little time to think as the gun fired again and he hit the floor. Blinded by the glass, Greg was firing wildly, giving Mike a chance to snatch up the knife. Slashing without guidance, his blade sliced the back side of Greg’s leg, dropping the man to the floor. The wild firing did not stop, but one quick thrust of the knife and it was over.

For several moments, Mike just sat there, stunned, in disbelief that this whole thing had happened to him, whispering prayers of thanks over and over again in a litany. Something had happened this day, something more than just a series of events. It had been a sign.

Mike scrambled over to the letter, his face matted in blood, fear still etched in his eyes, but tinged with hope. His heart beating like a marathon runner’s closing sprint, he read and re-read the floral stationery, tears pouring down his cheeks. He crumpled the paper against his breast, holding it there, letting the sobs wrack him and the warmth fill him. Mike finally realized that he had been living in fear. Ever since the incident he’d been afraid. Afraid of confrontation, afraid of the world. He had let his life slip away from him because he had been too scared to grasp it. Mike was smart enough to know a second chance when he saw one. He always hoped and wondered if he would ever have his life back. And now he had an answer. He thought of his wife and daughter. A slight grin curled at the corners of his lips as he grabbed the phone. Dialing would be difficult, but he would manage.

He would call the police. But, first, he had one more important phone call to make.

 

Carnival of the Clowns

by Eric Bonholtzer

 

“Daddy, Daddy! Can we go in, come on, can we? Please?!” Ritchie Taylor was the textbook definition of an exuberant child. Short, bowl-cut blonde hair, with wide saucer eyes that seemed to take in everything about the world, and most importantly an insatiable curiously. And like other little children, Ritchie seemed to have an innate talent for getting his way, especially when he had his heart set on something. And Ritchie Taylor didn’t just have his heart set on going into the haunted funhouse, it was the sole reason for his existence. So there was no way, no way, he was not going in.

“Fine,” his stepfather grunted in irritation. Won’t this kid ever shut up? he thought to himself as he had at least a dozen times today, one time becoming so ticked off that he’d cuffed the boy across the mouth to quiet him down. Little squirt deserved it too. The man spat with disgust. Jason James Fisher, or J.J. as he’d been known in his prison years, did not look like a particularly mean man or an abusive parent, but appearances were deceiving. If anything, his bespectacled, slightly tanned presence made him look like a professor or scholar, but the truth was, J.J. hadn’t even graduated the seventh grade, taking a milling job when his father was killed in the bed of another man’s wife. Anyone who spent a good deal of time with J.J. realized that beneath his “Father Knows Best” appearance lay something dark, something wrong. J.J. didn’t consider himself to be a bad stepparent, but sometimes kids just talked too much for their own good.

“Yeah!! All right, Daddy! Thank you so much! That is just so cool!” Little Ritchie’s face split into a wide grin.

J.J. did not share in his stepson’s delight, a bad hangover still grating on him. “Don’t you ever shut your mouth? Never give me a damn second of peace, boy. Now shut it or I’ll shut it for you.” He reached his hand back as if to emphasize, but Ritchie didn’t need a second warning. He fell silent. “And how many times have I told you, don’t call me Daddy. Call me J.J.”

Ritchie was too delighted with the prospect of the haunted funhouse to let the admonishment hurt him for long. The carnival attraction stood before them like a dark blight against a setting sun sky. Some of the paint was wearing off the structure, showing the plywood and nails beneath, but to Ritchie it was at the same time the singularly most frightening and most awe inspiring sight he had ever seen. Painted jet black, the weathered frame looked as if it could have been there for ages, though the carnival had only come to town last week. So real, Ritchie thought to himself.

* * * * *

“Two.” J.J. told the girl at the ticket booth, his eyes slowly undressing her, while cringing over the three dollar fee. That’d buy me half of a sixer, he thought bitterly. Money much better spent. But Karen, his nag of a wife, had told him to take young Ritchie to the carnival. Just because she was good friends with the owner, J.J. didn’t see why he had to be the one to go. But after all, it was Karen’s money, and as long as she was supporting him, J.J. had no problem doing little things for her and her son. He considered himself a very generous man.

“Are you J.J.?” the ticket girl asked.

“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” J.J. retorted sharply.

“Well, the owner said to let you in free for a private show.”

J.J. smiled. Maybe his luck was changing.

“I wish Mommy could see this.” Ritchie said, a slight glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced with growing wonder as they approached the funhouse.

Little brat, always whinin’ for yer mama, J.J. thought silently. Grow up and quit bitchin’ like yer mom. JasJim this, JasJim that. And when she uses that stupid pet name… she’s practically begging for it, just like her little runt. Why can’t the kid just suck it up and be a man, like me? Despite what he wanted to say, there were people around so J.J. curbed his tongue and said only, “You know she had to work, Ritchie.”

As they entered the funhouse it looked more like a house of horrors, the sign bearing the name “Carnival of the Clowns”, scrawled in fake blood. They heard the doorman, a hunchback, shouting loudly, “Be wary of the clowns! Beware of the clowns! They’re killers!” J.J. resisted the urge to give him the name of a good chiropractor. The chuckling laughter followed even as they traversed deep into the dank depths of the haunted attraction.

It was pitch black, the only illumination coming from the few torches that hung from cobwebbed sconces lining the wall. The place smelled damp and earthen. Ritchie savored every second of it, taking in every sight, every sound, every smell, and loving it.

This stuff is so fake, J.J. thought bitterly to himself as they traversed deeper into the belly of the beast. Here and there he saw things: metal cages striped with pieces of supposed flesh, torture racks and iron maidens from the Middle Ages, that looked as if they had been bought from a surplus store. Who’s this stuff supposed to scare? J.J. continued his sour, never-ending rant against the world, but Ritchie seemed genuinely entertained. They soon entered a maze of mirrors, those funhouse staples, with their wacky reflections, some big and tall, some twisted and some small. Ritchie was currently engrossed with staring at just how he would look if he was seven feet tall with arms the length of an chimpanzee. What a baby, J.J. thought with disdain. You’d never see me hoppin’ around like a stupid ape. Ritchie turned and looked at his stepfather with a look of wonder on his face, and for a moment J.J. was almost taken aback. Below Ritchie’s left eye was the beginnings of purple-black bruise. When the hell’d that happen? But then J.J. remembered, as they continued on, and his heart once again grew cold. Oh yeah, that’s right. My magazines. The good ones. Stupid boy, thinkin’ that he can go round knockin’ my stuff down and not get his punishment. Gotta learn about the real world sooner or later. J.J. was a strong subscriber to the belief that telling yourself a lie enough times somehow made it true. Ritchie was saying something but J.J. hadn’t been listening.

“Huh?” he asked, the prospect of being home with a cold one bitterly mocking.

“I said, Daddy, where are we?” For the first time since they’d entered the funhouse J.J. noticed an emotion on Ritchie that wasn’t excitement or joy. It was fear.

“We’re right…” He looked left and saw only a vacant hall stretching off into nothingness, and to his right, the same, the distortion of the mirrors making it impossible to tell the real exit from the millions of fake ones. “You know, I really don’t know.” J.J. had been too engrossed with thoughts of cold beers to have paid much attention to where he was going, the three brewskies he had downed earlier doing little to aid his short term memory. A faint tremor of fear, quickly to be erased, because to J.J. that was an emotion reserved for children, and he replaced it with anger at his stepson who had been so stupid as to get them lost in a haunted funhouse with no directions whatsoever. J.J. reared back, ready to belt Ritchie one when a powerful voice split the oppressive silence.

“You touch him, you die,” the voice was frothing with rage, yet somehow sounded familiar.

“Oh, yeah?” J.J. turned, his hatred temporarily displacing from the boy onto whatever had the audacity to interrupt him. He glanced around, seeing nothing but his own reflection refracted a hundred different ways, from fat to skinny, short to shorter. Angered with nothing to lash out at, he became even more enraged. “Why don’t you show yourself, if you got the stones, and we’ll see just who’s gonna die?!”

Suddenly, like a ghost, a clown stepped from the shadows. But in reality, it looked like a thousand clowns stepping forth in suits of red, white stripes running down one side, and a patch blue stars across the chest. “Okay. Here I am. Why don’t you say that to my face?” The clown looked small, only 5’5″ or so, nearly half a foot shorter than J.J., making his confidence soar. Seeing this slight figure, J.J. smiled. It was always so much easier to pick on those smaller than yourself. Still, something looked oddly familiar in the clown’s eyes, something knowing.

“You think I’m scared of you?! You’ll get yours right now!” J.J. charged forward, a head-long bull rush from his younger days of back alley football. He stopped dead in his tracks after ten paces when he saw the clown pull out a very real looking knife. The blade was at least six inches long and looked incredibly sharp.

Instantly, J.J. turned and ran, fleeing from this obviously psychotic monster, pushing right past Ritchie as he went by. The frightened boy was quick on his heels, needing to get away. The clown was just behind him, its wrath seemingly focused on J.J. Soon, the hunted pair found themselves lost in the huge hall of mirrors, unable to get out, the white face and cold blue eyes of the approaching killer clown just steps behind.

J.J. and Ritchie ran with all their might, ducking and dodging behind the mirrors, everywhere they turned, seeing that grinning painted face. Suddenly, Ritchie was thrown to the ground, J.J.’s foot sending the young child sprawling, thinking that a small sacrifice could give him the time he needed to get out of there. Ritchie, infinitely hurt by his stepfather’s actions, could scarcely move, hatred and sadness burning in those sweet innocent eyes. Still the clown crept closer, seeming to be everywhere, in every mirror, in every reflection, all around. Finally, Ritchie forced his unwilling legs to move, getting up and taking off once again. The clown was definitely closer now; he could feel it. Ritchie painfully watched as J.J. ducked into a niche between two mirrors, abandoning his stepson, leaving him to the clutches of the clown.

Hoping that there had been some mistake, that his stepfather would somehow protect him, Ritchie ran to where J.J. crouched. The boy would have had better luck hoping for the world to stand still. “What are you doing, you idiot?!” J.J. was frantic with panic, nearly screaming at his crying charge. “You fool, now we’re both dead.” Almost as if summoned by his words, the mirror behind the pair shattered and there stood the chalk-white ghost face of the clown. In one swift motion the knife came down, slashing J.J., dropping him to the ground, where he lay clutching his bleeding side and crying. Ritchie was petrified, unable to move, unable to even scream for help.

The clown hovered atop them both, a thin runnel of blood already seeping from J.J.’s wound, and seemed to smile sadly, “Last chance at redemption, JasJim.” J.J. looked up at the crystalline blue eyes in wonder and terror. How did this monster, this thing know his wife’s pet name for him? Was this clown really a ghost? Something worse? There was no tremor of fear in the clown’s voice when it asked, “You or the boy? One lives, one dies. Your choice.”

J.J. didn’t hesitate. “The boy.” The clown reached down and grabbed Ritchie’s hand, pushing him towards the emergency exit.

“No,” J.J. screamed, seeing his chance of survival running out the funhouse door. “I meant kill the boy.”

The clown reached up and with a fury that rivaled hell’s own, struck fiercely, plunging the knife blade deep into J.J’s chest. “Wrong answer!” The clown screamed again and again, angry cries mixed with tears of sorrow.

As J.J. faded away, he could hear something faint, but something that made him angry, angry at himself, angry at his wife, and most of all angry at Ritchie. But none of that mattered now. It was all over now, at least for him. As the clown walked towards the exit, wiping away the thick pancake makeup and taking off the clown suit, realization struck. The last thing J.J. heard was that familiar voice saying, “Ritchie, everything’s going to be okay now. Mommy’s here.”

 

A Grave Situation

by Eric Bonholtzer

 

Digging graves was not a desirable occupation. The dirt was unforgiving, cold and solid. It was back-breaking work, a bone-wearying profession. Max had known all of this before he had taken the job, but sometimes circumstances dictated the situation. He had a problem, and try as he might, his hands just always seemed to wander where they didn’t belong and return with something that was not theirs.

But Max was an optimist. No matter how far he sank, he always considered it a temporary plight. He could dig graves. He could till the earth’s surface for as long as it took because after all was said and done, it was still just a temp job. Now, almost six months after being released from the county lockup, Max began to wonder just how long this living hell was going to last. His Uncle John, the graveyard caretaker, a gruff old man with a toothless grin and a lazy eye, had told Max when he’d started off that he’d be digging graves until he dug his own, and at the time, Max could barely suppress a chuckle, but now he wasn’t so sure.

As Max’s dirt-encrusted pick split the grass, his thoughts wandered. He wondered how, for a town of only 500 people, they could manage a body or two a week. Sure, threshers hacked people to death. Farm animals killed ranchers in freak accidents. And there was a staggering cancer rate; these people smoked like the Marlboro man was riding away with the last of their cigarettes. But still, it just seemed like a bad town, a place where people came to die.

Max’s current client, though, had been a transient. A bad car accident and no one to claim the remains. Not a particularly pleasant way to go. Max paused, lit up a cigarette, and thought that, perhaps, there weren’t all that many ways that were. Inhaling deeply, Max listened to the faint rumblings of thunder just over the hills, telling of the storm to come.

He had to hurry. There was still another body waiting on the table, an old drunk named Howard Broach, who had to be interred before the storm made the ground too muddy to till. Max’s thoughts grew grimmer contemplating the enormously corpulent deceased, whose only legacy in life was to indulge in everything to excess and leave an immensely bloated corpse behind. And while there were no shortages of mourners at his funeral, when all the smoke settled, no one wanted to be stuck with the bill. Howard Broach became another county job. Max had been sour at the funeral and he was sour now. County requisitioned bodies, those with no one to claim them, were interred for next to nothing, which made Max’s cut even less. With a grimace, he snuffed out his cigarette with a booted toe, took a swig of whiskey from the flask he always kept at the ready, and returned to his digging.

* * * * *

Night had fallen by the time the two holes were dug, and with great effort, Max wrestled the bodies into their final homes, the unwieldy body of the late Howard Broach giving him more than a little trouble. Max had asked his uncle about a coffin for the body and the man had merely shrugged. The county got what it paid for.

With a grunt, Max picked up his shovel and somberly started filling in the graves. Rain was beginning to fall, making his grip more slippery with every stroke of the shovel. “Damn,” Max groaned as the spade slid out of his hand, down onto the barely covered body of Howard Broach. Max shook his head in aggravation as he climbed down into the muddy hole, cursing his misfortune. As he bent down to retrieve the implement near a bloated hand that appeared to be reaching out of the dirt for a lifeline, suddenly Max’s run of bad luck seemed to come to a dead halt. Fortune surely smiled on him as his eye caught a glimmer that could only be gold, a ring still attached to the dead man’s finger.

It was a plain gold band with ruby inlay set in a distinct pattern. Definitely valuable. Perhaps tonight had not been such a bust after all.

Curious as to why his uncle, by no means an honest man, had not thought of the same idea, Max bitterly found out the reason as he tried to wrest the ring from the corpse. Stuck tight. Judging from the frayed and torn skin on the bloated finger, Max realized his uncle had come up with the same idea and had obviously failed. Not wanting to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, Max simply seized the burial spade and hacked off the finger with a single stroke, easily extricating the ring. Prize in hand, Max climbed from the grave, tossing the finger over his shoulder with no more thought than a discarded cigarette butt.

After relishing his treasure for a few golden moments, a subtle fear began to gnaw at him, realizing what he had just done. Thoughts of cold clammy hands bursting from the grave flashed through Max’s mind with every scoop of dirt as he quickly resumed his job of interment. Max could almost feel that cold lifeless stare watching him, waiting for something. “Sorry buddy, you’re not getting your ring back,” Max muttered under his breath. “Finders keepers. You’re not going to need it where you’re going.” Sweat beading his brow, Max swore, as he shoveled the last patches of dirt over Howard “Nine Fingers” Broach, that the corpse’s eyes were wide open.

* * * * *

Max’s house was little more than a shanty, the paint peeling and the floorboards creaking, but the refrigerator was filled with cool beer and that was enough. A pile of discarded tall cans later and the grave digger was feeling A-OK. The TV, with its blurred picture, was off, but the radio bleated a bluesy tune and a newfound sense of possibility flared in the soon-to-be-former grave digger.

Max pulled out the ring and fingered his prize gently, marveling at the uncanny smoothness. Despite the glow of intoxication slowly enveloping him, something didn’t set right about it, and Max knew it wasn’t pangs of regret. There was definitely something off about the ring, and its ruby inlay, but Max couldn’t pinpoint it, and furthermore, he didn’t really care. It was his ticket out. The money it would fetch at hawk would set him up for a while until he could find something better. Tossing a discarded can to lay with the others, Max searched for another beer. Finding it, he popped the lid and spilled the drink all over himself as he heard a voice.

It was old and hollow, as if from a great distance away, calling out to him, “My ring.” Max shivered, glancing around frantically. He was alone. Or so it seemed. He tried to tell himself it was just an overactive imagination and too many graveyard stories, but he wasn’t convinced. Trying to salvage what was left of his beer, he came up with only two shallow sips. He definitely needed another one.

Max made his way to the kitchen, flicking on the light switch as he went. A little illumination and a fresh can of beer did wonders to ease the mind. He was already halfway to feeling normal again when he saw it. Muddy footprints. And definitely not his. Following the dirty trail led a bewildered Max back into his living room.

Sitting there patiently was none other than Mr. Howard “I’m Buried” Broach. A sickly pallor coupled with dirt stained his clothes.

“What… what… the.…” Max could barely voice the words, taking a tentative step back as he spoke them. “What… what… do you want?”

Howard chuckled, an animal-like cackle. “What do I want? Hmmm… now let me see?” As the unreality of it all set in, Max suppressed a scream. “Well, a coffin would have been nice.” Again that horrid laugh. “Maybe someone who wouldn’t have tossed me into the dirt. Yeah, you thought I didn’t see, well I was watching. But you know what I really want? I want my finger back.” That same humorless smile never leaving his face, Howard held up his mangled hand, short one digit.

Max took another step back, his mind unable to handle the unreality of it all. He searched frantically for a weapon but found nothing promising. “Forget it. What’s a little finger between friends, right? But you do have something I really want back, Maximillion. My ring. It’s special. You like the ruby pattern? The ancient Byzantine symbol for immortality? I know I did. It called to me Max, like it called to you. I knew from the second I saw it on that gypsy’s finger. I knew I’d kill for it. It speaks to you, Max. But you already knew that didn’t you? I feel its voice waning in me. And I need it. It does things Max… It’ll bring me back. Forever.”

Despite his fear, Max realized just how much his own future rested with that ring. It was his, and nobody was going to take that from him. If it truly was that powerful it would be priceless. Max stalled for time, “What ring?”

“MY RING!!! My ring now!”

Max took another backward step, running into a wall, his hands going up protectively. “It’s my ring now.” His eyes closed despite himself and he waited for those cold hands that never came.

Instead there was just horrid laughter. “Over your dead body, right?”

After several moments passed and Max found himself still alive, he mustered the courage to open his eyes. Nothing. He was alone again. Utterly alone this time. He checked his pocket, the ring still nestled safely inside; his eyes catching on the pile of discarded beer cans. Had he really had that many? He didn’t feel drunk, but he knew he probably was. He tried to rationalize. It had to have been a hallucination. Stress and alcohol, never a good mix. That was the only explanation. And nearly an hour later, after a few more tall ones, as Max slipped into sleep, he had a good long laugh about the whole thing.

* * * * *

Sleep didn’t last long. The peal of thunder awakened Max in a cold sweat. He was still in the throes of a waking dream, the vision earlier still all too real. For the next hour he tried to fall back asleep, but with little success. The storm had abated somewhat, but he couldn’t shake what he had seen. Every time he shut his eyes he could see cold dead hands digging their way towards him. Another two hours of restless waking, debating on the reality of his encounter, and a full bottle of Jack Daniels later, Max reached a conclusion: he knew what he had to do.

* * * * *

The rain beat down on him like miniscule needles. Max would make sure it was just his mind playing tricks on him and then he would go home reassured. He was thoroughly soaked by the time he reached the grave. It was deserted, as he had expected at this time of night, and though he had tried his best to skirt the houses adjacent to the graveyard lest someone call the cops, he couldn’t help but feel someone was watching.

There was scant illumination from the lightning, and Max was thankful for the darkness, making his secret job that much easier. Placing a small flashlight on the ground, he hefted his shovel and began to dig, taking one patch of freshly tilled soil from the ground after another. Max emptied the grave which he had just filled, aware of the lunacy of it all, constantly assuring himself that at the bottom he would find exactly what was to be expected, one very cold, very dead, Howard Broach. And then he would sleep. He would sleep the sleep of the dead, assured in the knowledge that there was no body after him.

But as he got closer and closer to unearthing, what he fervently hoped would be a corpse, Max’s uncertainty increased tenfold. And as he removed shovelful after shovelful of dirt where he was sure that he should be striking flesh, his uncertainty manifested into full on terror, complete and abject horror because the deeper he dug the more certain he became: there was no body.

Suddenly, he felt a hand upon his shoulder. Max could not even venture a scream as the hand forced him around to stand, face to leering face, with the dead Howard Broach. “MY RING!!!” the dead man spat at him. Max was gripped by panic, unable to move, confronted by a man who should by all rights be lying in the cold ground. Max’s mind reeled with the implications, the unreality of it all cascading over him.

A stroke of lightning split the stormy night sky, illuminating Howard in all his grizzly glory. The dead man did not hesitate, instead pushing Max, still clutching his shovel, into the grave. Howard followed, landing with a thud right next to him.

Max barely had time to sputter and choke, before he felt a four-fingered hand pressing his face into the mud. Relying on nothing but instinct, Max seized a handful of earth in his hands, and in a quick motion ground the soil into Howard’s eyes. Not pausing to think, seizing the opportunity, Max grabbed the shovel and swung. He connected, the blow smashing the side of Howard’s head with the sharp trowel blade. And then as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Howard didn’t move. But that wasn’t enough for Max, not nearly enough. Howard had been dead once before. Max had to be sure this time, so he brought the shovel down, again and again, striking with unrelenting fury. He didn’t stop. Like a man possessed, he pounded Howard’s corpse into oblivion.

Lost in his rage, Max almost didn’t notice the voice of someone approaching. And even when he did, it took him a minute to pin down the sullen oaths and repetitious swearing, but as soon as he realized just what was going on, he scrambled from the hole. Taking a hiding place behind a weather-worn granite crypt, Max tightened the grip on the shovel. He had company.

Max watched as the old man stood beside the hole with a somber look of bewilderment. It was clearly not what he expected to see. Putting it all together with the pick-axe, saw, and shovel in the man’s hand, Max chuckled, stepping out from his hiding place. “I know what you want, and its mine.

“What… what?” The old man stammered, taking a step back.

“I know what you were trying to do. And I’m telling you, you’re too late. I already got the ring.”

“Max?! Is that you?”

“In the flesh.” Max advanced on the startled man, his shovel held behind his back. “I’m sure you’re a little surprised at seeing me here, huh, Uncle John?”

“Well… yes I was…” He stalled for time, his hands reflexively grasping his pick-axe. “I got a call about a grave robbing.”

“You call the cops on yourself? Is that it?” Max laughed at his own cleverness. “I know what you really want.” He approached until they were both within striking distance. “You want my ring.

“It’s my graveyard, my ring.”

“I found it first.” Max prepared for his swing. Just a little provocation and it would all be over. That was when he felt the hand. From the look on his uncle’s face he could tell that the old man was likewise startled. However, that brief moment of surprise quickly turned into abject terror when realization struck, as cold clammy hands reached out from the grave, that utter chill and fear the last thing the pair felt as they were dragged down, screaming, into the earth.

* * * * *

The town sheriff was perplexed when he saw them. Two very dead gravediggers piled into what appeared to be a cemetery battleground. The lawman stared long and hard at those two familiar faces, now so horribly distorted in death, and thought. I always wondered when those two would do each other in. Never did like each other much. Finally he shrugged impassively, telling himself to make a note of it. Guess it’s time to put out an ad for a new caretaker and grave digger. With no further ado, the sheriff picked up the shovel. County jobs, he thought bitterly, and started the arduous task of filling in the grave.