Harcourt Manor

Harcourt Manor

Illustration by Shane Watson

by Dean P. Turnbloom

 

The letter itself was strange. After all, who writes letters nowadays? An email would have been the norm for communicating with an old friend. But then, an email is much easier to dismiss—easier to forget about. A letter is a very deliberate thing.

In the letter my friend divulged that he was quite taken by surprise when he was contacted by his great-grandfather’s lawyer, or solicitor as they are termed in England, and even more surprised to discover he’d been bequeathed a sizable estate worth a substantial sum of money. My friend was the only child of an only child and both his mother and father had died tragically in an auto accident some five years past.

Even more surprising, he had been bequeathed the estate, all very properly and legally, with the title and deed signed and sealed, even though his great-grandfather was still very much alive, if not well, and residing on the estate.

If it were just the letter that would certainly be strange enough. But Charley had enclosed a coupon good for a one-way ticket to London, England.

Charley and I had been best friends at college—roommates in the dormitory our freshman year and roommates in a small apartment off-campus the remainder of our days at old Indiana University. More than once, we’d sworn that should one of us ever need the other, never mind the reason or the hardship it might impose, we’d answer the call unhesitatingly.

Still, after so many years, years in which neither of us had heard from the other, I was inclined to deny the oath taken in such youthful exuberance, and throw the letter, coupon and all, in the trash. I would have done just that, except my personal circumstances, coincidentally, suddenly lent themselves to taking a trip.

Susan and I had been dating for over a year, and I suppose I just assumed I could continue to string her along indefinitely. But it had very recently come to my attention that Susan had taken matters into her own hands in a way that was sure to upset the status quo. I discovered quite by accident that Susan was sleeping with our mutual friend and my teaching partner, Ted.

Rather than suffer the humiliation of being a cuckold, I fabricated a story about a research grant that I could not pass up. I told Susan we would have to put our relationship on hold for a year, while I pursued this wonderful opportunity. I then arranged to take a sabbatical in pursuit of the supposed grant to write a treatise on English literature of the eighteenth century.

I thought it would do me well to get away and I had been meaning to write a book on that very topic, so my story had a ring of truth to it.

The opportunity to actually begin the book by first taking a trip to England was irresistible to me. I was certain that in addition to fulfilling my oath to my dear friend and cheering him out of his obvious well of depression I could use the occasion to prowl the aisles of London’s best research libraries.

I determined to go at once and replied via email to the address my friend conveniently included along with his telephone number at the bottom of the letter.

I was met at Gatwick Airport by a bespectacled middle-aged man with a mustache in a dark brown uniform. He was my driver, James, engaged by Charley to make sure I arrived safely at his estate. The ride from Gatwick Airport to Harcourt Manor was picturesque. The scenery was pastoral and quite beautiful as the sun set on the horizon.

With the gathering darkness it became increasingly difficult to discern the countryside, then impossible. Just as James announced we were on the private manor road, the moon rose. As we approached the manor, the trees grew thicker and the shadows darker. What little light penetrated the blanket of leaves only served to heighten the sense of gloom.

Abruptly we came into a very large clearing. There in the middle stood what could only be Harcourt Manor. The expanse of stone and mortar that appeared to gleam in the soft moonlight stood in stark contrast to the dark forest beyond and the terraced lawn in front. The low ground fog gave the entire scene an eerie, ethereal quality.

James pulled up to the entry. As I emerged from the auto he retrieved my bags from the trunk, placed them neatly by the door, and then returned to the limo and drove away without a word. I watched as the taillights faded from view.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I drew back an enormous iron knocker, letting it swing against the door. It struck the door with enough force, I thought, to send the reverberations throughout the sizable manor house. I waited, not wishing to appear impatient. The door creaked as it was slowly opened from within.

At first there appeared to be no light whatsoever from inside the manor (I say manor because “house” is woefully inadequate to describe it, and “manor”, although it may be somewhat lacking, brings to mind a structure more closely akin to what Harcourt is). As the door swung inward, I became aware of a dim flickering in the entryway, which grew brighter and warmer. Its source then became fully visible as a tall, gaunt but smiling man holding a candelabra greeted me most congenially. So emaciated was he that he appeared mere days or perhaps hours even from the grave. His skin had an ashen quality, his thinning hair was unkempt, wild even, and even in the pale candlelight the rheuminess of his eyes, wide and animated, was clearly visible.

The combination of these factors gave the impression of a man near madness. As he greeted me, however, there appeared no trace of madness in his voice—nothing about its tone or quality that betrayed any trace of insanity.

Could this be my friend? It had been twenty-five years since we had last seen one another, but my friend (and I by now realized this was Charley) with whom I’d lived for four years while we were in our salad days, appeared to me to be fifteen or more years my senior.

Greeting me in the warmest fashion possible, “Come in, Winston, it’s so good to see you again.”

“Charley,” I said, “it’s been a long time,” and I took his frail hand in mine, shaking it gingerly, afraid I might damage it. I must admit, though, his grip was surprisingly strong.

“How’s your family?” he inquired as he led me through the foyer, down a long hallway, and into the drawing room. There he had prepared a roaring fire. “And Jack, and Alice, do you see much of them?” he continued, asking about friends long forgotten. “Please, sit here by the fire,” he said, inviting me to sit in one of two chairs situated on either side of a small table on which was arranged a light repast of cheese and wine.

“Thank you,” I replied, looking around the room in which the only light came from the fireplace and the candelabra Charley had placed on a table. The furnishings were old, but obviously of great quality and probably valuable antiques.

He laughed nervously, then said, “One of the many annoyances in a house as old as this one,” he explained, “is that you have to put up with frequent interruptions in the electrical service.”

As my friend poured the wine, I sampled the cheese, and we talked about old friends we’d known, reminiscing about our youth. My friend showed none of the frenetic anxiety displayed in his missive. I asked him about the letter, “Charley, you seemed so distraught and troubled in your message, I couldn’t help but come. But you…”

He interrupted, “Oh, the letter. Yes, well, I was a bit upset. My great-grandfather had recently passed you see, and I was feeling overwhelmed… lonely and melancholy. I’m afraid it got the better of me,” he said apologetically. “Just seeing you here, though, is like a tonic for me.”

When he spoke of his great-grandfather, he looked away nervously. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I distinctly remembered it later on.

At a little past nine my friend suddenly arose, yawning. With the promise to continue our conversation in the morning, he said, “I’m sure you must be exhausted after your long trip. I don’t wish to overtax your energies here on your first night. We’ll have plenty of time for chit-chat tomorrow.” Rising and fetching the candelabra, he said, “I’ll show you to your room. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”

“After the airplane, I’m sure it’ll be heaven,” I replied.

He led me down the corridor and up a stone staircase to a second-story room. Placing the candelabra on a table, Charley removed two candles. One, he placed in a candle holder beside the door leading to the hall, the other in an identical holder leading to the adjoining bath. He then bade me goodnight and disappeared down the dark hallway.

The room and adjoining bath appeared surprisingly modern. There was a king-sized bed, a large overstuffed chair for lounging and a smaller straight-backed chair at a desk with a reading lamp. My bags, which I had left in the foyer, were placed neatly at the foot of the bed. Suddenly finding myself to be very tired, I retired for the night.

At about two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a loud voice. It sounded as though Charley was having an argument over the phone, as his was the only voice I heard with pauses where another voice should have been. I arose, but as soon as I opened my door, the house grew suddenly quiet again.

The next morning I awoke, showered, and made my way downstairs before 8 o’clock. The electricity had been restored sometime during the night. I explored more carefully the path I’d taken to my room the night before. A fortune in antiques, paintings and artifacts lined the corridors and the walls of the drawing room.

One painting in particular caught my eye, as it appeared to be a portrait of my friend, but not as I’d seen him last night. This portrait was of a much younger, more robust man, a man of my own age. I realized this was the man I had expected to see when I arrived, not the shadow I’d seen the evening before.

The painting was nearly life-sized; a full-length portrait of my friend standing before an antique globe in front of a shelf of books. The painting itself and the frame that held it also appeared to be antique, but the clothing he wore was of obvious contemporary fashion. As I stood examining its intricate detail, my friend suddenly spoke my name from directly behind me.

“Good morning, Winston,” he said, “I trust you slept soundly.”

Startled, not having heard his approach, I jumped and turned to face him. The look on his face was fearful and a tic appeared in his left eye that immediately brought the letter to mind. This was the face of the man who’d written me. “Charley, you startled me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be very welcome. I was just admiring your portrait.”

Casting his eyes downward, in a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “I didn’t commission that; it came with the house. Tradition, you see.”

After a moment he looked up at me smiling—the wide, toothy smile of someone hiding something—and invited me to the dining room for breakfast.

As we sat down to eat, I asked, “Charley, who was that you were on the phone with last night?”

“On the phone?” he asked, seeming genuinely surprised by the question.

“Yes, I heard you about 2 a.m. It sounded as though you were in violent disagreement with someone.”

Looking a bit shocked, he said, “You must be mistaken.” Then, gaining some of his composure, he posited, “Perhaps it was the wind. It sometimes howls through the house. It can play havoc with a sleepy mind.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I was sure he was lying.

As the days passed, my friend’s health and vigor appeared to quickly mend. By the end of the first week of my visit I felt he was sufficiently well enough for me to venture into London. I wanted to at last begin the research I had hoped this trip would enable. When I’d arrived his health had appeared so precarious that I was uneasy about leaving his side. But with each passing day he looked stronger. Equally important, his spirits seemed brighter.

I approached my friend, “Charley,” I said, “since you appear to be feeling so much better, I thought I’d pop into London to do a little research.”

His face grew suddenly pale and wan and he appeared near fainting. I ran to get him a glass of water, “Are you all right?” I asked.

He said, “Yes, I’m sorry,” taking the water, sipping it slowly. “It’s just that your proposal to leave caught me off guard. I know it’s silly, but I suddenly felt anxious. Alarmed, even, out of fear you might not return.”

Reassuringly I said, “Charley, I have every intention of returning. I promise I’ll be back this evening.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for being such a pain,” he said, seeming genuinely contrite. “Might it not be possible to postpone the trip? You haven’t even visited the manor library.”

“Manor library? You mean you have your own library here?”

“Of course. It’s quite extensive, actually. In bygone times, it was quite common for rich aristocratic sorts to build their own private libraries,” he confided. “You could start your research here, until I’m a bit stronger perhaps, and then go to London.” He grasped my hand, “It would be a great comfort to me.”

“I didn’t realize you had a library, Charley. Of course I’ll wait to go to London, if you like. I’ve read that some of these old private libraries are quite extensive. I just hadn’t thought to ask.” His mood improved immediately.

That evening as my friend and I sat before a roaring fire, I inquired about the history of the manor, “This old place must have a lot of stories attached to it, Charley. Have you learned much about it?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” he began. “The manor itself, although renovated, updated, and added to over the years, dates from at least the early sixteenth century—handed down father to son, generation after generation.” Somehow he sounded a little detached, like a bored tour guide, “The estate encompasses over 300 acres of woodlands surrounding the manor. Beyond that I’m afraid I know of no remarkable events having occurred in or around the estate.”

“Considering it’s age, that seems a bit odd, don’t you think?”

“Not really. It’s pretty quiet in this area and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much over the years.” Again, I had the feeling he was hiding something.

At about nine o’clock I rose saying, “Well, I’m off to bed. I’m going to need a good night’s rest,” I yawned, “if I’m going to get an early start investigating your library in the morning.”

“By all means, Winston. And, thank you,” he said looking at me with sad eyes.

Looking up at the extraordinary painting of my friend, I paused for a moment as I was walking out of the drawing room, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. I asked my companion, still seated, “Charley, do you see anything different about this painting?”

He stood, walked over to where I was standing and gave the portrait a long look. I thought I could detect a glimmer of a smile come over his face, a smile originating not on his lips, but more in his eyes, then it was gone and he turned to me saying, “No, it looks the same to me as it always has.”

I mentioned, “I was under the impression that the painting was much more detailed, but now the face and figure appear less distinct than before.”

“I think you’re wrong,” my friend again insisted. “I’d say your memory is just playing tricks on you,” he said with a smile.

I relented, “I suppose that’s what it is.” But I was sure it had changed. And what’s more, I was sure Charley noticed it too. “Oh well, goodnight, Charley,” I said and continued to my room.

As I was walking to my room, through the corridors and up the stairs, I felt the air in the corridor rush past me, much like someone having opened a door on a blustery day, and I assumed my friend must have done that very thing, or perhaps a window. I thought to myself that the very house itself appeared to be drawing a breath.

The next morning I met up with Charley in the drawing room. As I entered, I was awestruck with how much better my friend looked. His face appeared fuller, with good color and he had begun to put on weight. “You are looking very well this morning, Charley,” I commented as we turned to go to breakfast.

“I have you to thank for it,” he replied earnestly.

As we turned to leave the drawing room, I glanced up at the portrait, stopping dead in my tracks. It had definitely changed. The face was undistinguishable. It no longer bore any resemblance to my friend whatsoever. Now it appeared as only a smudged mass of flesh-toned paint, blurred and out of focus, bearing none of the sharp detail it had possessed.

“Charley look,” I said. “You can’t possibly fail to see the change now.”

Charley took a long look. “You’re right,” he admitted stone-faced. “It’s certainly not as distinct as before. Perhaps the fireplace, or its smoke, has damaged the pigments. It is rather close.”

Had the entire painting suffered the same damage this argument might have been plausible, but it had not. The rest of the painting maintained the sharpness of detail about which I had first remarked. Resignedly, I feigned acceptance, “Yes, that must be it.” Wondering why Charley would offer such an obviously poor explanation and determining to inspect the painting more closely when Charley was not around, I proceeded in to breakfast.

The peculiarities of the painting faded from my mind as my excitement about the prospect of digging into the manor library grew. After breakfast, my friend led me down the main corridor to an oaken door at the rear of the manor. Behind the door was a narrow staircase. It led to the library.

As I entered, I was impressed with the size and sheer number of books it contained—there must have been several thousand in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At the far end of the library was a massive, antique, and beautifully carved wooden desk, beside which stood a large wooden globe. I knew instantly it was the same globe as in the portrait.

As he turned to leave, my friend said, “If you should need anything, you’ll have to return to the main floor. The staff isn’t allowed access to the library. There are far too many rare and valuable books here.”

“I see. No matter, I’m sure I’ll be all right.” I barely noticed his departure as I began perusing the shelves. There were volumes dating back to the 1600s. Here was The Book of Urizen, by William Blake, circa 1818; and there was The Ornithology by Francis Willughby from 1678. Every shelf appeared to have a treasure trove of books in various languages. I gathered half a dozen and took them to the desk for further examination.

After about twenty minutes it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to look in the desk to see what treasures might be hidden within. Opening the six uniform drawers on either side of the leg well, I was disappointed to find them all empty.

Then I noticed that the bottom drawer on the left side appeared to be shallower than its counterpart on the right side. Pulling it out to its limit, a small notch in the bottom of the drawer appeared.

Excitedly I pulled out the drawer and turned it over on the desk top. A leather-bound journal fell out of the hidden compartment. Upon close examination, I discovered this was the journal of my friend’s late great-grandfather.

Stuck in the middle was an old photograph. It was of a portrait very much like the one of my friend in the drawing room, but the subject was bald and bearded. Scribbled on the back of the photo was the name of my friend’s great-grandfather and the date, 1917. A flash of dread came over me. Examining the photo more closely I became convinced that except for the central subject the portrait was identical in every detail with the one in the drawing room. I tried to convince myself that this might indeed be some quirky family tradition as Charley had said, but something deep within told me it was more. I turned to the front of the journal and began to read.

The first few entries in the journal were innocuous enough, detailing how he had inherited Harcourt from his father, who had become quite reclusive. It recounted some of the business and financial interests of the time. I thumbed my way toward the end of the volume, looking for more current entries. One of the last entries was dated 13 November 1938; it read:

It is with great satisfaction that I have taken this course of action. The curse of Harcourt Manor will end with me. Once I’m deceased, so will it cease to be. What I was unable to do during my lifetime, I will accomplish after death—the total dismantlement of Harcourt, every last brick and stone. My regret and heartbreak is at having to banish my only son to the foreign shores of America. This is surpassed only by my joy of not subjecting him to this curse. My time, I feel, is near. I’ve only to wait.

 

The final passage was written by a hand less sure, but undoubtedly of the same person, dated just last year. It read:

 

My beloved son, grandson or whomever this cup must pass,

 

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

You will find within the contents of this library as complete a history of Harcourt Manor and its former residents as exists. Once you have familiarized yourself with it, I’m sure you will add this journal to the many you will find on the shelves here.

 

These portfolios are compilations of the preceding owner’s statements of apology, lament, or revenge to their unwitting successors. A great many have been from father to son, but on occasion the ownership has changed from one family to another—or rather I should say the manor’s occupancy, for no one truly owns the manor. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

 

In this most recent entry, while I await your arrival, I shall attempt to relate a synopsis of the history of Harcourt, derived through long years of reading and re-reading the aforementioned journals and regional histories. My own journal will not be concluded, I’ve come to accept, until after the manor has changed hands once again.

 

I had hoped to let the manor and the curse die with me, but at one hundred thirty-seven years of age I have come to accept that the manor won’t release me until I release it.

 

The origin of the curse dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century when the manor was held by the first Baron of Wexley. A cruel tyrant, he was renowned for the evil he visited on the serfs who worked his land. Very much hated, the baron levied taxes so steep the only way the peasants could survive was to hide at least part of their crops and livestock from his equally cruel tax collectors.

 

On those occasions when they found a peasant cheating on his taxes, the collectors burned the offender’s crops and homes to the ground. Then the head of the household was tarred or killed. If there were a young girl in the family it was not unusual for her to be raped and savaged before the eyes of her family. Should a peasant protest or dare even to cast a scornful look at the baron he would feel the sting of the baron’s “cat”, a stiff handled whip with three barbed tails.

 

Frequently as entertainment for himself or friends, the baron would summon the prettiest of the young girls in the neighboring villages to the manor. On one particular occasion a young orphan girl was brought to the baron. She was taken from her grandmother’s hut while the grandmother was away. A particularly beautiful and virtuous young girl, the baron was pleased and dragged her to his quarters.

 

It is said she put up a valiant fight. At the last, rather than surrender her virtue, she jumped to her death from the baron’s window high in the manor. The baron, untouched by this, had his servants carry off her body to be dumped at the doorstep of her grandmother’s hut.

 

Upon seeing her dead granddaughter, the old woman, who many claimed to be a witch, shed not a single tear. Instead, she retrieved a hollowed-out gourd from her hut and a knife. With the knife she opened a vein in her granddaughter’s arm, collecting her blood in the gourd.

 

After walking all night, she stood outside the manor the next morning, the gourd of blood, not yet coagulated, in her hand.

 

Murmuring in an incomprehensible tongue, she dipped her fingers into the gourd of blood and slowly walked around the manor. As she walked, she flicked droplets of blood along the ground. When she’d gone full circle, approaching the point where she began, the baron emerged from the front of the manor and demanded to know who she was and what she was about.

 

As the old woman completed her circuit, she obliged the baron, telling him it was her own granddaughter that had died by his hand the previous night. The baron reared back and laughed mightily saying the old woman was better off without such a worthless harlot.

 

The old woman’s eyes flashed. Her toothless grin became a grimace. With a voice strong and clear she swore, telling the baron that since he was so proud of his riches and his manor, she would see to it that they would never be parted. Intoning a short curse, she looked at the baron, spat on the ground, and said, “It is finished.” Without another word, she turned and walked away.

 

The baron, unused to having anyone turn their back to him, started after her, his “cat” aloft his head ready to tear into her back. But once he advanced to where the blood of the old woman’s granddaughter had been sprinkled, he could advance no further. His feet were unable to cross the line formed by the droplets. The old woman turned back toward him. As the baron cursed and ranted, she laughed. Finally, she said, “You shall remain always a prisoner of your own evil deeds,” and then she vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again.

 

The baron spent the rest of his life within the confines of the manor. When he died, his body was removed, but his soul remained, inhabiting the manor.

 

Empty for many years, its grand style eventually attracted a new owner, a man named Ezra Harcourt, by whose name the manor has since become known.

 

Ezra Harcourt had of course heard of the curse. But over a hundred years had passed since the death of the baron. Fear and curses fade with time.

 

When he moved into the manor, he was astounded by the painting on the far wall of the foyer. The similarity between the likeness of the baron and Harcourt was uncanny. This surprised Harcourt because he had always heard the baron was tall and thin with dark wavy hair, but the baron’s portrait showed him to be portly with thinning hair. Harcourt had the painting moved into the main drawing room and made certain all who visited observed the resemblance.

 

Harcourt, who had always been an active, outgoing man of business began, shortly after moving in to the manor, to become reclusive and withdrawn. He was never seen outside its confines and his behavior began to become erratic, even paranoid. He lost weight.

 

Within six months after taking occupancy, his once robust countenance took on the look of a skeleton, a mere shadow of his former self. He appeared to have aged twenty years.

 

His worried son moved his small family into the manor to care for his father. So frail was the elder Harcourt by this time that his son was unable to leave his side. The elder Harcourt survived another three decades with his son by his side throughout. By the time the father died, the son was well past his prime.

 

This pattern of the hermit-like occupant of Harcourt passing the manor on to his son, who in turn becomes a hermit, repeated itself, with few exceptions, for nearly three hundred years. It appeared that the curse the old witch had put on Baron Wexley was passed on to whomever inhabited Harcourt Manor.

 

I spent many years studying the bounty of rare books in this library before I happened upon two of the journals. After having read them, I began an earnest search for others. All totaled I found 37 such journals. There may be others. From these journals, I discovered that rather than a curse on the manor, it was Baron Wexley himself that turned the occupants into hermits.

 

The evil that is Baron Wexley gets its sustenance from the inhabitants. Like a blood-thirsty monster, he feeds on the very life-force of the imprisoned occupant. If one listens carefully enough, one can hear the baron’s voice within these walls.

 

I determined to end the curse, my life, and the manor all at one time. After preparing the necessary paperwork with instructions to tear down the manor after my death, I took poison, enough to kill ten men. Although I lingered near death for nearly a month’s time, I did not die. Several other attempts to end my own life also failed. Finally, I resigned myself to live out the remainder of my days at Harcourt. In the end, I judged, I would win the fight. No one lives forever.

 

Or do they? At one hundred thirty-eight years, I’m no longer so sure.

 

I also discovered something else that was very interesting. I discovered the painting, that so delighted Ezra Harcourt because of its resemblance to himself, takes on the image and likeness of whatever occupant from whom the manor feeds…

 

As I read these words, my heart stopped and I felt all the blood drain from my face. I leapt to my feet, flying down the stairs through the long corridor and into the drawing room. As I ran, I felt the air in the hallway moving first with me, then against me as the house inhaled and exhaled. I ran to the portrait and stood there. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I gazed upon it. There I saw staring down at me my own image.

The scream that tore from my throat echoed throughout the empty manor. To my surprise, it was answered by the whisper of a baritone voice I didn’t recognize laughing as it called my name, “Winston… welcome home…” it said, over and over, laughing maniacally. My knees suddenly became weak. I reached for the chair by the secretary near the portrait.

As I sat, I noticed a letter addressed to me, written in my friend’s hand. With trembling fingers, I took it and tore open the envelope.

 

My dear friend,

 

 

Please forgive my hasty departure. I came up to the library to see how you were getting along and noticed that you had found my great-grandfather’s journal. Although I didn’t think you’d come across it quite so soon, I was gratified that I had the foresight to prepare for the eventuality.

 

You will find in the drawer of the secretary beneath my, or should I say your portrait, a signed deed giving you complete claim to Harcourt Manor and all lands in title. I’m sure you will find all is in order.

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

I’m sure you recognize those words from my great-grandfather’s journal. Don’t be fooled; I was. What my deceased predecessor did not tell you about the curse of Harcourt is that the sustenance and life the manor derives from the occupant flows both ways. Evil is infectious. I neither expect nor ask your forgiveness. What I’ve done to you is unforgivable.

 

If you are so inclined, you will find my grandfather’s journal on the shelves of the library, secreted there by him before he ran away to America. Undoubtedly, my great-grandfather didn’t know it was there or he likely would have destroyed it. My great-grandfather was preparing to pass on the manor to his son when my grandfather learned of the curse. He ran away before the portrait had transmuted. Because of my great-grandfather’s advanced age when he passed my “inheritance” on to me, the manor began sucking the life force from me at a startling pace, which is why I was so emaciated when you arrived.

 

Now you know the true curse of Harcourt. I’ve no idea if I can truly escape. If others have escaped by foisting this curse onto some unsuspecting tenant they have left no written record. But I am determined to try. I pray that the evil that allows me to pass this curse on to someone for whom I once had such genuine affection will eventually dissipate as I distance myself from its source.

 

I earnestly wish you all the best.

 

Your devoted Friend,
Charley

 

After reading the letter I spent the next three weeks in bed, suffering from an acute case of depression. Finally I determined there was no use crying over spilled milk. I knew what I had to do.

I ordered my solicitor to give me a full accounting of my newfound wealth, which is considerable. A good deal of it is in perpetual trust to the Harcourt Manor Estate, but there was enough liquidity for me to provide myself with a hefty bankroll to live for the rest of my days, once I am rid of the curse. I also had papers drawn up to transfer the estate.

But you’ll please forgive me now, Ted, if I continue this explanation a bit later, as I believe the limo bringing you and Susan to me has arrived.

 

In the Dark Woods

In The Dark Woods

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Laura Davy

 

The girl vomited on the bloodstained floor as she idly wondered how hard it would be to clean up the mess. Maybe after they got the wolf’s corpse out of the house they’d be able to start tidying up. But despite how clean the house got she knew she wouldn’t be able to look at her grandmother’s floor without seeing blood. She felt like giggling and then she felt sick, but this time she didn’t vomit. She silently savored her victory and went back to trying not to think about anything.

The girl wiped her mouth clean with the corner of her soft red cape and her grandmother came over and rubbed her back. It was a comforting and familiar gesture, but the girl tried not to flinch at her grandmother’s touch. The girl reminded herself to forget that Grandmother had been swallowed whole by the wolf.

The hunter shifted his grip on his axe as he walked over to a window and looked out into the dark woods.

The girl wanted to ask what he saw, but now knew that when she asked a question she might not like the answer.

The girl’s grandmother spoke softly to the girl, “It’s alright.”

But it wasn’t alright. She was the one who talked to the wolf and told it where she was going. Because of her the wolf came to the house and swallowed her grandmother and attacked her. If it wasn’t for the hunter they would both be dead. She wasn’t sure if she was going to be sick or cry. Instead she did nothing.

Her grandmother stood up and said (more to herself than to her two guests), “How about a cup of tea? Would anyone like tea? I think we need some nice hot tea.”

The girl wanted to say that her grandmother should wash herself of the wolf’s saliva before she started worrying about tea. But she didn’t say anything.

The hunter walked across the room and looked out a different window. He frowned.

The girl had always been talkative and curious, and despite what had happened today she couldn’t change who she was in just an afternoon. The girl gave in to her curiosity and asked the hunter, “What is it?”

He didn’t answer for a moment and continued to look out the window. At first the girl wasn’t sure if he heard her, but before she asked again he spoke.

“Wolves travel in packs.”

Her grandmother dropped an empty tea cup and clutched her chest. She started mumbling a prayer under her breath, forgetting lines but continuing on despite the gaps. The girl didn’t react. She didn’t feel anything. In a clinical way she knew she should be afraid, but that didn’t matter to her. What mattered is that she should stay quiet. That she shouldn’t ask any more questions or say anything else. No more comments. No more questions. No more answers. She gripped the hem of her red cape tightly. No more.

The hunter spoke despite the silence.

“The better to hunt you with.”

 

Dolly’s Coffin

Dolly's Coffin

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Wade Newhouse

 

When my daughter Julia was born, she immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth, began to suck on it, and refused to be placated with anything else. We have a few photographs of her as a baby, thumb in mouth, looking new and innocent.

Julia got Dolly for her first birthday. Dolly is a soft pink doll, basically just a puffy stuffed shapeless torso with nubs for arms and legs and an oversized head with a smile painted on. Somewhere inside her squishy middle there was a tiny rattle of some kind, and we knew that Julia had picked Dolly to be her special toy when we could hear the muffled rattle in the middle of the night.

For the first few years after that, Julia carried Dolly everywhere with her, and invariably when Dolly was in one hand the other hand was shoving its thumb into Julia’s mouth. Whatever comfort doll and thumb provided seemed to be magnified by the other; just for fun we would sometimes pull Dolly away from Julia’s arms, and as if they were connected by a magic thread the thumb would pull out also. As soon as we released her, Dolly would snap back into Julia’s embrace and her thumb would pop back into her mouth.

By the time Julia started talking, Dolly was still cute but the thumb was not. We started to ask her when she might be a big enough girl to get through the day without sucking the thumb, but that line of questioning led to silence and a tighter embrace of both doll and thumb.

Are you going to suck your thumb in first grade?

Do you ever see any of your friends sucking their thumbs?

The more you suck that thumb, the longer you’re going to have to wear braces when you’re older.

Of course our talking did nothing. Whatever compels a child to suck their thumb is beyond the reach of language. It was not something she would talk about or try to negotiate; it simply Was, before and beyond all consciousness like St. John’s Word in the Beginning. But we began to decide that the thumb-sucking was becoming psychologically inseparable from Dolly, who by now had lost her ability to rattle and was limply, flatly, threatening to come apart.

When Julia was in third grade, Dolly and the thumb-sucking were becoming rarer parts of Julia’s routine, but in those most shadowy moments between stages of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, hiding after a particularly traumatic confrontation with authority—she would clutch Dolly and suck her thumb as heartily as when she had been an infant. We decided at the end of that summer that it was time to give Dolly up, and we decided to give Julia as much ownership of the process as possible.

“It’s time for Dolly to go away,” we said one Saturday morning.

“You’re going to throw her away!” Near-hysteria, with some hammy overacting.

“We’re not going to throw her away. We’re going to put her away, someplace safe where she can stay forever. And then when you get older and don’t need her anymore we can take her out and you can see her again.”

The hysteria became a blank stare.

“Now,” we continued. “You should make a box and decorate it however you want, and that’s where we’ll put Dolly.”

Julia considered this idea. Decorating boxes was a favorite activity, one that we had found useful to attach to all manner of otherwise unpleasant tasks. So she looked down at Dolly for a few moments, then went into her room and reappeared with her box of markers. I showed her the empty shoebox that we had already scrounged from a closet, and with a quick glance to indicate resignation, determination, and a fair amount of loathing aimed in our direction, Julia took the box and began to sort through her markers on the kitchen table.

Falling back into the routine we had established for artwork at the table, Julia reached for the day’s newspaper that she could spread out underneath her work. I got to it first and handed her the unread sports section, taking care to keep her away from the large headline on the front page. The oversized typeface announced starkly that the police were searching for the body of a third girl missing and presumed drowned in the lake behind our neighborhood.

* * * * *

Hillman Lake looks, in the early morning and at dusk, as if it might date back to prehistoric times. It is not roundly pond-shaped like those deep swimming holes carved out by glaciers in New England. Instead, it has that skeletal, graspy shape that is so typical of muddy waterways here in the south: long and narrow and winding, with fingers of water that curl in and out between jutting teeth red clay banks studded with pines and live oaks. To look across it at any point is easy, but to turn toward either side and imagine what torturous route it follows from here to somewhere further makes your head spin. Its tendrils snake off from the main body in almost untraceable tentacles of brown water that eventually appear under every secondary and state road north of Raleigh; you mount a strong bridge, believe that you have “crossed the lake” and then three hundred yards later cross another bridge. And then a mile further the trees thin out to your right and you see it over there as well. Occasionally narrow tracks of gravel lead off from the roads to those areas of the banks that have been cleared for fishing, but if you follow one and enjoy that location you might never find the same one again. Weather-blasted gray trees emerge from the shallows, showing their tangled roots above the water and then ending, broken off as if by some silent catastrophe. Up from the red earthen banks the land rises quickly into ridges and swales covered over with forests of white pine. When the water is low you can see the strata of the earth revealed in bronze and coral layers.

But Hillman Lake is not prehistoric. In truth, it is barely historic. It was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to control the course and flooding of the Neuse River and to provide drinking water for the city of Raleigh, which canny planners were beginning to predict would soon burst out of its sustainable postwar growth and into something potentially unmanageable. We have arrived there now. Great care has been taken to ensure that the entire endless perimeter of the lake is well screened from the development that creeps, amoeba-like, endlessly outward from the city. The closest neighborhoods, like ours, are a half-mile away from the water and built to seem organic, entirely and naturally part of the tall leafy forest that, on good days, disguises the very fact of so many people living in such proximity to one another. Numerous paths tumble their way down from our back yards, into the screen of trees and ridges and eventually down to the shoreline.

When I was fourteen my family lived in a small house on a gravel road on a different part of the lake. There were no subdivisions then; houses and streets simply sprang up in one place or another, and ours was one of several two-bedroom red brick ranch homes that had somehow been built in a sort of row not far from SR 98. Back then that was how you got from Wake Forest to Durham, and in the course of five miles you crossed the lake four times. Our road was just out of sight of two of those crossings. Without a neighborhood we had no real neighbors, but in the summers the kids from dozens of houses like mine would drift down to the water’s edge and we would get to know one another. We pursued adventures in the trees and in the water, but none of us ever grew particularly close.

That summer Emily appeared. I don’t know where she lived; I had the impression that she came quite a distance along dusty roads and through thickets to get to the part of the lake where I spent my time. Parents are always exasperated when kids can’t answer simple questions like where someone is from, but it really just never came up. Kids become just summer friends, together as time and opportunity allow. Emily came out of the brush one day and offered to help me build some floating contraption I had pieced together out of logs. Sometimes she joined the other kids in the water; other times she was fishing with one or another. Many times there was just the two of us, playing and growing through the summer the way everyone does.

She had strawberry blonde hair and dark eyes, and at fifteen she was shedding her tomboy angles and starting to soften around the edges. As the summer wore on her legs seemed to grow longer and smoother; the white strap that fell down from her shoulder seemed to grow tighter as her breasts began to be noticeable under her shirt; when she stood in the shallow water with her hands on her hips I began to see curves there. She tossed her hair back from her forehead and laughed at me, and I had to turn away or be caught staring. The other boys I played with noticed it too, and one by one they seemed to drift away in little groups of two or three, not sure what exactly she was good for or how they ought to treat her.

Eventually she realized this, and finally (more brave than I) began to talk about it.

“You ever been skinny-dipping?” she asked me one afternoon.

“No way. You?”

“No. You afraid of some girl seeing you?”

“More afraid of what might be in the water.”

She threw a stick at me. “You think some fish might mistake your thing for a worm and take his chances? You got a hook hidden in there somewhere?”

I jumped up from the water’s edge to the line where the erosion ended and the bank rose up in a sudden jutting line of red clay layers and exposed roots. “You don’t know anything about it. There’s a lot of stress involved in packing all this equipment in the water. What if—” I struggled to find a ribald joke that might sound appropriately grown-up. “What if I got it all tangled up in some roots underwater and got pulled under?”

Now we were both laughing. “I’d come down there and pull you out.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay stuck than have you pulling on me.”

She came up out of the water too and started pulling off her t-shirt and shorts.

“Good lord! Are you really going to try it?”

“No, stupid. I’ve got my suit on.”

She wore a white and yellow one-piece swimsuit. I usually just swam in whatever shorts I was wearing that day, and I always found it fascinating that girls had to change from one look to another in order to be right for swimming. I was sitting on a dead log that had fallen from the eroded ledge down to the water, and Emily sat beside me. It was brutally hot, and the far side of the lake shivered in a filmy haze. I often looked across from here and wondered how long it would take to swim across. At that time it never occurred to me to fear what might hide beneath the surface, or to wonder how deep the water ran.

“We should go skinny-dipping some time,” she said. “Just the two of us. Then we’d know what it was like, but no one else would have to know. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, would it?” She looked at me, not quite. “I mean, you wouldn’t be shy around me, would you? You know I wouldn’t look at anything.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. It’s just looking.”

I was looking somewhere down—not straight down at our feet but kind of halfway down, toward where the waterline began, and I turned toward Emily just as she hooked a thumb into the elastic legband of her suit and snapped it free from wherever it had stuck. In that brief moment the material pulled away from her torso and I saw, unbidden, a glimpse of porcelain untanned skin and a dark tuft of hair. I turned away, pressure rising up into my chest, and then I stood up and took a step closer to the water.

“Are you going in now?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just standing here.”

She hopped down from the log and joined me, then went the few extra steps and into the water up to her thighs.

“You’re not afraid to go out there?” I said.

“I got nothing for the fish to try to grab onto.” She held out her long arms and turned her hip sideways to show me.

“My dad said two girls have been found drowned. Both in like the last two weeks.”

“Boys can drown too, you know.”

“I’m not in the water.”

“Come on in, then. Keep me safe.” She smiled at me, and the complexity of her face then has returned to me endlessly over the years since. I have seen many smiles from many girls, and then women, and each new time I try to figure out how they work, what muscles they use, what emotions they connect between eye and lip and heart. I suspect Emily’s was simply honest, but I had never seen anything like it before.

A breeze came up, and I saw the point of Emily’s nipple stiffen beneath the fabric of her suit. “I think I’m going to go home,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in with me?”

“Not today.” Then, stupidly: “Maybe tomorrow.”

She laughed, and I think there was some sadness there. “I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Eventually?” It was the most complicated time scheme I could imagine back then. “Eventually.”

I pushed my way back through the brush and up the hill away from the water, and I thought that she might be close behind me. At some point I turned back, and I could just make out the gray glint of the surface through the trees, but she wasn’t there. When I was back on my street, with the chunks of gravel uncomfortably real beneath my feet, I felt the full weight of my foolishness. With the straight line of the road and the sight of those tiny houses tucked under their green and yellow canopies, the realization that a pretty girl had asked me to come into a lake with her pushed down on me so crushingly that I felt dizzy and out of all time and space. I turned back, but the trees had pulled over the path I had taken, and it suddenly seemed that I had been here between the mailboxes and driveways forever.

When I heard the next day that Emily’s swimsuit had been found at the edge of the lake, my first hurt, ignorant thought had been a lashing indignation that she had actually dared to go skinny-dipping without me. Even moments later, when I realized the true import of this discovery, I could not escape the mental picture of my own water-pruned fingertips touching some part of her just under the glassy green surface and how she might have smiled at me there, in secret, just the two of us.

After a day with no sign of her, the police and groups of volunteers began to descend on our corner of lake to search, dredge, and speculate. I lurked at the edge of the treeline, not far from where I had surrendered to my particular stupid fear, but after a time the police said they had enough men for the search and any more would be in the way. A Baptist preacher, his hair platinum-blonde above dark-rimmed eyeglasses, prayed with members of his congregation and explained the duality of grace and free will while middle-aged women sat in the shallowest water and clenched their hands and eyes tightly shut.

Closer to me was a plump woman of uncertain age, wrapped in thick brown and gray cloaks and blankets. She looked as if she herself might have been pulled from the water recently, with greasy brown hair half-plastered and half-frizzing around her round white face. Her skin was leathery, and a smell like old smoke lingered near her. By the time I realized how close together we were standing, she had noticed me.

“They won’t find her,” she said, as if we had been having a long conversation.

“Why not?” I had not then developed my habitual reluctance to talk to people I had not been introduced to and had no reason to trust.

“Some things just happen. Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be. That’s a whole different kind of gone for a girl to be.”

“Maybe she’s not gone,” I said. “Maybe she’s just lost.”

Now the woman turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had said something insightful or irredeemably foolish. “And now you tell me,” she said, “just what would be the difference between being lost and being gone.”

“She wanted me to swim with her,” I said, and in the strange comfort provided by anonymity I felt the enormity of the horror and my own place in it sweeping around me. The sky seemed invisible beyond the huge blackness created by my smallness being driven away on inconsequential winds. “But I didn’t go.”

“Of course you didn’t go.” If the woman knew about the choking guilt that I was only beginning to realize, she did not betray her knowledge. Instead, she smiled thinly at me—my second memory-corrupting female smile in as many days.

“Some things,” she said, “happen because they do. Some things you accept, or you don’t. That’s your choice to make. You can only react. But you can react well.”

Over my shoulder someone made some kind of strangled cry, and their foot splashed in the shallows, and the Baptist preacher was going on. “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

That night I dreamed that Emily came to me in the dark. I could not see her in the dream, but her voice was talking to me in my head, telling me things. She sounded very far away, but moving closer, and her voice was sad while she talked about being lonely and about how her skin felt when it was touched. When I opened my eyes she was asking me to please swim with her. I lay there breathing for a moment, staring up at the dark ceiling of my bedroom. Then I turned my body to the right and she was lying there beside me.

I closed my eyes to make her go away, and in the darkness of my head I smelled lakewater and sunscreen and wet swimsuit, and I wished that autumn would come.

* * * * *

Her brow creased in concentration, Julia was painting the inside of the shoebox pink. She had dug our miniature hot glue gun out of the drawer where we kept small tools and had plugged it in to warm up. On the table she had gathered a pile of small pebbles. She mumbled something to herself, fragments of a song, while she set the pink box down to dry and inserted a glue stick into the gun. Then she spread the pebbles out and searched for some that might match in size and general shape.

“Can we go swimming later, Dad?”

“I thought you were making a box for Dolly.”

“It will take time to dry. That leaves, like, hours.”

I could imagine the scene at the lake: police, concerned neighbors, television news teams.

“I don’t think today’s a good day to go to the lake, honey.”

Julia stopped her painting in mid-stroke and looked up at me. “What lake? I’m talking about going to the pool. Like yesterday? And the day before that?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Already she had forgotten me. “I’m going to put these little rocks all around the edge of the box. And then I’m going to put some words on the sides, so Dolly will have something to read while she’s in here. Then when I get her back she can tell me what she thinks about all of it.”

An eight year-old’s concept of time is much less absolute than ours. In our minds, we saw Dolly going into the box, then the box going onto a top shelf in a closet somewhere, hopefully to be forgotten until some distant moving day when we might, as a family, open the lid and remember how cute it was all those years ago when Julia needed Dolly by her side. But Julia was thinking not in months and years but in moments: there would be some bedtimes and some morning cranky times without Dolly, and then sometime Dolly would come back from her long sleep and they would start over again as if no time had ever passed. In short, I viewed the pink box studded with pebbles as a coffin, while Julia saw it as an elaborate drawer that could be reopened at our whim, provided that she could pressure us into having such a whim.

“You work on finishing up Dolly’s box. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes. When I get back we’ll see about the pool.”

Of course she never swam in the lake. Our backyard was a thick forest; we had chosen the house for this very feature, and Julia complained constantly that she was the only one among her circle of friends without a real backyard. A few yards past our property line the rules of the development ended, and as the boulder-studded ground began to slope downward toward the lake you could see where primitive paths had been cut into the woods before the development had been placed here.

I walked through our leafy wooded yard and, as if crossing a magic barrier at our property line, found the end of one of the paths. From here the walk was all downhill, and I remembered a thought I had had when we first bought the house, that autumn would be a fine time to take this walk, free from buzzing insects and with a smoky gray bite in the air. Now it was hazy and steaming; the ground was dusty beneath me.

The path ended on a rise of ground, one of those thrusts of land that stretched out into the lake and made boating a matter of some skill here. As I made my way down from the high ground to the beach, I felt for a moment as if I had discovered something secret, for in the thirty years since I had last played here the summers had grown hotter and the rains less common; the lake was slowly drying up, and the waterline had pulled itself down and back from where my memory told me it should have been. The beach was now some ten to fifteen feet wide from eroded cliffside to gray lapping foam. Bony stumps and branches poked up from the earth that had once been the shallow bottom, now streaked with deep gore-like fissures as the sun had baked the clay and it had shrunk in upon itself, cracked, and split open. Each year, as the parching summers and the growing thirst of the city pulled more water from the lake, more of the bottom was being revealed. Old losses were coming to light, old discarded remnants waking up from watery graves. The lake no longer seemed prehistoric, for no Jurassic waterhole would be found with a plastic doll’s head jammed into its hot dry earth, or broken bottles and rusted cans wedged together beside the shattered remnants of a Styrofoam cooler. These things had been safely invisible, but the water was retreating and taking secrets with it.

As I had expected, I was not the only local with a mind to visit this increasingly archeological site. There was a public beach not far from here, just around two more of these narrow escarpments, but the media had chosen this stretch for their background because it looked more bucolic, more like the kind of mysterious No Man’s Land where a teenaged girl might disappear. A pretty blonde reporter stood with her back to the water (though where she was standing would have been four feet deep when I was a child) while her cameraman adjusted his position relative to hers to get the best framing of water, sky, and treeline on the far bank. Several families’ worth of fat children gaped on the sidelines.

The whole scene was strangely noisy, and people kept coming and going through the trees in groups of two or three. Curious college kids holding beer cans, mothers in large sunglasses trying to keep their toddlers from the water’s edge, an oblivious old man with a fishing pole and tackle box who appeared to be irritated that his chosen spot had been set upon like this. A man with bright blonde hair was holding a Bible and leading a small group of older women in prayer.

“Like Your son, we ask that this cup of sadness be taken from us. But also like Him, we bow to Your awesome will and ask for the strength to endure whatever You ask of us.”

Sitting on a sun-bleached log, a very old woman in a shapeless and colorless dress watched the movement of society around the waterline. Her greasy gray hair lifted itself in the humidity, half-plastered and half-frizzing around her wrinkled white face, but her leathery skin was dry, as if she had been sitting here in the sun for eons and had given up all the moisture of her body to the air. She held a stick, broken from a dead branch. I could smell faint smoke dissipating with the briny odor of the evening water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked her.

“Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be.”

“Some things just happen.”

She started to turn toward me, but stopped herself, tired from the effort. “That’s right. Some things just happen.”

I heard someone mutter an Amen, and then someone said, “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

I looked back up the path that snaked through the trees and back to my neighborhood. “And in thirty more years? Will we be here again?”

The old woman poked at the ground with her stick and drew something there. “Some things you accept, or you don’t.”

I remembered that it would not take Julia long to finish Dolly’s coffin. I started to scramble back up the embankment with the exaggerated quickness of someone who pretends to believe that a few extra quick steps will change the amount of time needed to get from one place to another. I did not look back to the people by the lake, but as I went into the trees the smell of old smoke thinned out and I smelled instead something like youth: suntanned skin and wet swimsuits. I picked up my pace and it stayed with me. By the time I came out from the path into the sculptured landscaping of my backyard I found myself squinting into the sun, almost dizzy with the certainty that someone was just behind me, reaching out to upbraid me for my inability to be where I was needed.

The pink shoebox, decorated with pebbles and lined with scraps of paper bearing quotations from some page-a-day calendar of aphorisms by great thinkers, was waiting for me on the kitchen table. Glued in the very center was a square of paper that read, “Put Dolly Here.”

* * * * *

That night I had to tuck Julia in without Dolly. Julia put on a brave face and pulled her covers up tightly around her. She gathered up a menagerie of other stuffed animals and placed them ceremoniously around her.

“Dolly will come back, right, Dad?”

“Dolly will come back. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

“But you can’t be sure. Sometimes things just happen.”

“That’s right. Sometimes. But we’ll take care of her.”

She considered. “Maybe I’ll write her a letter. Just to let her know that I still love her.”

“I think that would be very nice.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sweetpea.”

“Night.”

I do not know exactly where Dolly was put; by the time I had left Julia’s bedside my wife had placed Dolly in the box and hidden her somewhere. We agreed that, since I was weaker at resisting Julia’s entreaties, I should not know where the box had been placed.
Sometime after midnight, when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, I opened Julia’s door to check on her one last time. She was sleeping peacefully, but the gaze of the damp and gently curving body of the teenaged girl in the bed beside her met my eye passively. I smelled distant sunscreen and wished for winter.

 

This Memory of Happiness

This Memory of Happiness

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by C.J. Henderson

 

“At Christmas play and make good cheer,
for Christmas comes but once a year.”
–Thomas Tusser

The slithering darkness formed slowly, patiently—as it did every cycle at that time. The days growing shorter certainly contributed to its increasing progress, as did the planet’s ever-expanding distance from the star around which it generated its orbit. Less sunlight to burn the growing seed, less of the noxious radiations spewed by the miserable, fourth-rate sun around which it twirled to hinder the steady progress.

Atom by atom it formed, carefully finding the bonding pairs it desired, using the terrible Arctic cold to help it attract the electrons it needed. Bending the surrounding elements to create itself anew. Slowly, patiently.

Bit by bit.

Every cycle, another attempt. Every completed circling by the miserable, insignificant dirtball of its gravitational center gave the visitor another chance. Of course, it was not as if the darkness minded the waiting—the repetition. Indeed, it possessed no actual concept of haste, no understanding of urgency. It did not scramble to accelerate its arrival. Such was impossible, impractical—worthless. It would expand as it expanded, a handful of particles at a time. Such was all that it knew.

During the comforting shelter of night, when the world’s inhabitants drowsed, shutting down the infernal chatter of their minds, disconnecting from the ether, the devouring growth would rally forth and blossom all the greater. When the day broke and set their gibbering brains screeching endlessly at one another once more, it would retreat, its progress slowed to a crawl.

Seven hundred and nineteen times had it grown, only to be beaten back on the shortest day. Several times over the centuries it had been stopped with barely a struggle. Five, if it remembered correctly. Hundreds of times it had almost won through. It did not matter. The long dark was coming, and it would try again. How could it not? After all, once more an entire, delicious world, filled with life, awaited its arrival. In only a handful of rotations the planet would reach the outside of its orbit—the shortest day of its year. Darkness would last its longest.

And the moment of escape would come.

The slithering ebony form thought on that moment, feeling the world rotate beneath it, its roots grasping—drinking. Building it. Strengthening it. Forming it slowly, patiently—as they did every cycle at that time. As it waited for its moment.

The moment when it would devour everything, turning the place called Earth into a charred and barren cinder. Before it moved on, so it could do it again on some other world.

As it had so many thousands of times before.

* * * * *

Jason Fletcher stared at the ceiling of the room he had been given, ignoring the heat, barely noticing the sweat running down the sides of his head, pooling between his back and the bed beneath it.

“Why me?” he asked the empty chamber, knowing the answer. He knew “why” him. The man who had come to him had told him exactly “why” him.

“I want you to be Santa Claus.”

Jason remembered the moment clearly, wishing he could not—laughing at the memory—terrified of it.

“What? You mean a job? What?”

He had stared, thinking as any reasonable person might that perhaps the fellow meant employment.

Yeah, sure, he thought, sighing with frustration as he did so. I guess I could play Santa Goddamned Claus.

He had let his hair go, after all. He needed a shave—and there was plenty of premature gray mixed in with the brown.

“But still, okay,” he told himself. “Yeah, maybe I let myself get overweight, but I haven’t turned into some jelly-bellied fat man.”

Still, as his self-pity tried to throw away another crumb of an opportunity, another part of his mind slapped at him brutally, screeching that a job, any kind of job, any handful of greasy, miserable dollars could be the difference between living and dying.

“Can you actually afford to just flush away another opportunity,” his brain hissed at him. “When was the last time one came our way? When was the last time anything came our way? Or do you just want to die?”

“Is that it—do you want to die?” another part of his mind had asked him then, snarling the question brutally, not surprised when he did not answer. Could not decide. “Do you actually want to die on Christmas?”

Jason wondered if he did. It would make things easier. In an instant, he watched his life flash before his eyes, witnessed in a moment the cavalcade of events which had blundered him to that second in time. Childhood and school and college, useless degree earned, career abandoned as his interest shifted to music, to rebuilding old instruments—

She had entered his life then, Melinda, encouraging him, pushing him, helping him build his business. Or, so he thought. Falling-down-in-love, he had worked feverishly, letting her take care of the financial end of things. He had thrown himself into his work for her. Had been willing to do so forever.

Forever had lasted eight months, two weeks and three days.

He had needed to purchase some varnish for a shipment of string instruments. If there had been thirty-seven dollars and eighty-six cents in his account he would have never known. But there had not been. She had taken it all, thousands—and left him with nothing. When he questioned her, she had not even bothered to deny anything. She had simply sighed, letting him know he had been fun for a while, and then walked out of his life.

Leaving him with nothing but a staggering pile of debt and a heart made numb. He had sat down on the floor and cried, and when his tears had ended, he had remained where he was, unable to move. The next day he discovered his rent had not been paid for three months, that Melinda had taken everything possible. He discovered this when the landlord had arrived with the police.

Jason had not struggled or protested. Silently, he had merely stood and left the apartment, not even bothering to gather up the loose change strewn across the dresser in his bedroom. Stumbling his way to the street, he had simply gone off to die, not caring when it happened.

As he sat in the alley, wondering on whether the effort to carry on was actually worth it or not, the man standing above him answered his question, saying;

“Well, it is a job, in a way. Not a job in the sense you’re thinking, though. No putting on a red suit, listening to children beg for crap they don’t really need, no suffering the greed of humanity as it reaches down to infect those who can barely speak—none of that. No, do understand me, sir, I didn’t say that I wanted you to play Santa Claus…”

He heard the words again, listened to them as they echoed within his head, slamming against the walls of his skull, seeming more absurd with each increasing ricochet—all of it so out of focus to him—especially being called sir

“I said I wanted you to be Santa Claus.”

“What…” Jason’s voice finally struggled itself upward out of his throat once more. Some vestige of pride swimming to his defense, he demanded, “what are ya, crazy? What’re you talking about? Don’t screw with me, wise guy. There is no Santa Claus. No one can be Santa Claus.”

“Funny,” the man had replied then, his voice sad, his eyes not looking directly at Jason, “it was only a few weeks ago when I would have said exactly the same thing. And probably with a great deal more conviction.”

Jason heard the sadness in the man’s voice, realized that for some reason, the fellow before him was feeling such not only for Jason, but for himself as well. Jason could understand the emotion being aimed at him. People had been pitying him for years. No one more so than himself. But, this time, something was different. Something about the resignation in the man’s voice which intrigued and frightened him at the same time.

“But, like you’re saying… now, something’s different. Now, for some reason… you believe in Santa Claus?”

“What I believe, my good sir, is that every year at this time, as the days grow shorter and the night sky stretches across the world to its greatest duration, that evil, that an unspeakable horror is given a chance to destroy all of us.”

Jason stared into the strong, deep blue of the man’s eyes, noticing the tiny lines of fear etching their way out of the corners. It was a look with which he was familiar. A look he had seen staring out of mirrors at him for years, until one day he lost his fear. Not because he had found his courage, but because he had run out of things of which to be afraid.

“My name is Piers Knight,” the man said quietly. “I’m a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and… I was chosen by… for lack of a better word at the moment… angels… to find you, and to convince you to fight for the salvation of the human race.”

Jason stared—out of words—unable to comprehend what was being asked of him. Understanding this, Knight had said;

“I know this must be unbelievable to you. All I’m asking is, please, let me… try to explain. It’s not much of an offer that I have for you, and I wouldn’t blame you if you sent me on my way. But…”

Knight had stared down at him then, seated on the frozen cement there in the alley, wedged in between the garbage bags for warmth. With nothing of condescension or demeanment in his tone, his entire self radiating nothing but sympathy and a sense of commiseration, the man added;

“Why don’t you let me take you somewhere for a good meal? I mean, if we’re all going to die, we might as well do it with some level of contentment, eh?”

Agreeing that if he was going to die on Christmas after all, it might as well be with a full stomach, Jason forced his way up off the bitter ground of the alley, following the curator out into the already gathering darkness.

* * * * *

Oddly enough, Knight did not take Jason to an eatery close to the alley in downtown Brooklyn where he had found him, but instead bundled him into his car and drove him down along the coast of the borough almost the entire way to Coney Island. Getting off the Belt Parkway two exits before the landmark, he drove instead to a restaurant nearly as old as the amusement park, and more favorably regarded by those who lived in the area.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said the curator, passing a menu to Jason, “this is the best Italian place in Brooklyn. The entire city, really.”

Jason was willing to agree simply from the fact they had allowed him entry. Knight had given him his own overcoat, leaving his guest’s in the trunk of his car, to help curtail the man’s pungency. Jason had headed for the restroom as soon as they had entered. When he emerged, he had washed both his face and hands, his hair and his armpits, in the cramped men’s room. Knight did not comment, other than to recommend they split a platter of the restaurant’s fried calamari as an appetizer.

The pair ordered when their waiter came, and if Jason was still reeking anywhere near as badly as he had been previously, the older man taking their order gave no hint that such was the case. Unable to help himself, Jason grabbed up a large portion of bread from the complimentary basket when it arrived, unable to wait long enough to butter it, or even for his coffee to be delivered. Knight said nothing, waiting for his guest to speak. After he had devoured some six slices of Italian bread, Jason muttered;

“Okay, we got a few minutes, I guess. Why don’t you start talkin’? Tell me what you meant about ‘angels’ sendin’ you to find me. That ought to be good for a laugh.”

“The Bounteous Immortals,” said Knight quietly. “The story is that Ahura Mazda, an earlier version of God, historically speaking, created them to aid him against evil. It’s an old, old story. Most scholars believe they were the inspiration for Johnny-come-lately Christianity’s archangels.”

“Yeah, so… what’s that got to do with me?”

Knight tried to speak, then stopped, unable to continue. Staring at Jason, his mouth open, wordless, he lowered his head, not knowing how to proceed. His silence did not worry his guest. Nothing worried Jason anymore. Not really. Finally, though, his expression one which implied he had little faith in himself at that moment, the curator asked;

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ yes?” When Jason agreed that he had, Knight nodded, tight-lipped, then said;

“All right, fine. Here goes. Several weeks ago, I was visited by… I don’t exactly know what, really—a presence? A vision? Angels?” The curator considered for a moment, then said;

“A better word than some, I suppose. Now, do understand, I’m not referring to the winged, Nordic chaps we’re all so used to in paintings and the such, no. These were primitive things, white, but in the way the sun can appear white. I could not look directly at them. Had to shield my eyes…”

As the waiter returned with their coffee, Knight stopped speaking, gave the man a pleasant smile and then waited for him to move out of earshot before continuing once more.

“They took me from my home, but didn’t… I don’t know how to explain—I was in two places at once. Sitting in my favorite chair, and yet somehow in the Arctic at the same time. I was freezing, but I wasn’t. Snow blew against my face, melted against my shirt, I could feel the dampness, but wasn’t wet—”

Knight stopped talking once more, his eyes filling over with a sad confusion. He stared at Jason, desperate to explain himself without sounding like a lunatic, not only to his guest but to himself as well. Grabbing hold of his emotions, his body trembling, he finally whispered;

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how… I know I must sound utterly mad to you. But, it happened. And please, do believe me, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t drink to excess, I—”

“Forget it,” interrupted Jason, holding one hand up to slow the curator’s words. “Trust me, I know something of drunks. I know something about crazies, too, and… I kinda hate to admit it, but I’m beginnin’ to wish you were one. But… you ain’t. Are you?”

“No,” admitted Knight sadly, wishing he were lying. Wishing what he was trying so desperately to put into words were something he could dismiss as simple madness.

“They showed me something up at the North Pole. Something growing there. A darkness, a blackness, some thing… I don’t know what else to call it. It was developing like a plant, rooted deep into the ground, feeding not on the ice and water, but on the very atomic structure of the planet. But it wasn’t actually a plant—”

Again the pair were interrupted as the waiter brought their appetizers. The calamari, plentiful, delicately fried, the aroma of it hammering at Jason’s long diminished sensory organs, and a plate of mozzarella sticks, finely breaded, bursting with steaming cheese dribbling from their seams. Knight stared at the calamari in particular.

It was possible that Spumoni Gardens was his favorite restaurant in all of New York City. It was certain their fried calamari was his favorite dish. And yet, he could not bring himself to eat. He was too frightened, too agitated by the duty that had been set before him, which he was trying so desperately to perform. Indicating that Jason should eat, he took a drink from his water glass, appreciating its icy chill, then began again.

“It was a creature, a thing that travels from planet to planet. It drifts through space, looking for worlds to… ingest. It delights in places where it finds life. Intelligence. It seems to need to find places where life has developed to the point of consciousness. Because, that’s what it really lives on. Thought. Emotion. Souls.”

Jason’s hand slowed, then stopped, as Knight uttered his last word, the forkful of calamari frozen in space inches from his mouth. His slightly abated hunger still gnawing at him, his mind replayed the curator’s words in his head.

that’s what it really lives on… thought… emotion… souls

The words were no more impressive than anything else Knight had said, but it was the manner in which he said them, his tone, his obvious desire to not be speaking—to not be hearing what it was he had to say—which had immobilized Jason. Suddenly, with the most preposterous thing he had said, he had convinced Jason that at the very least he believed what he was saying.

“And how do you know all this, about this thing, I mean? That it’s from space and all?”

“The creatures that showed it to me, they don’t exist within the boundaries of this world, or don’t choose to, I’m not certain. They act as conduits. What they could see and understand, so too could I. They showed me what this thing is capable of, what it can do, if it’s allowed to complete its development and free itself from the Earth.”

Jason’s hand finally moved forward, shoveling the calamari into his mouth, as he chewed absently, not tasting, unaware he was actually eating, Knight said;

“Once it’s reached its full size, under cover of the longest night of the year, it begins to hatch. Four days later it will expand forth throughout the ether, touching each of us one after another, sucking away our consciousness, our souls. We will know we are dying, but be powerless to resist. We will all die screaming, terrified, like babies being slid into a meat grinder—not understanding the how or why of what is happening, only feeling the pain. Our pain, and the pain of all those around us—everyone’s pain. All of it merged as our world is stripped of life.” Knight paused for a moment, “The solstice was two nights ago, it emerges in less than two days. Christmas.”

Finally swallowing, Jason washed down his bite with a long gulp of coffee. Stabbing at the calamari, absently loading his fork once more, he asked;

“So, did these guys show you anything else?”

“Yes,” answered Knight, his tone of resignation sounding more hopeless than ever. “They showed me you.”

“What?”

“I can not tell you why the Bountiful do as they do,” answered the curator. “I don’t understand the, the science behind it, the reality of it… all I can say is, as I shared their minds, alien as they were, I received an idea that this is their… duty. Every year at this time, they pick two people. They have done this since this thing first crashed into the Earth hundreds of years ago. They pick one who they feel can stop this creature… and one they feel… can talk them into stopping it.”

“So that’s what you’re all about, you want me to… you think you can make me—” And then, finally a monstrous realization settled over Jason’s mind. Laughing a bit too loudly for polite company, he wiped at his eyes, choking slightly, then snapped;

“I just got this… I just got the whole picture here. This is nutty enough to have been dreamed up by Congress. This hell thing that’s supposedly eating the North Pole, that’s goin’ to make dinner outta all of us, you said they do this every year… that they find some con man like you to sucker some boob like me into fighting this thing—right?”

Knight nodded his head.

“And so, every year, the boob goes to the North Pole and fights this monster, and… and… and what? I don’t get it. You said this’s happened hundreds of times. It don’t make no sense. You said this thing, if it gets out it’ll kill everyone in the world—right?”
Knight nodded again.

“So, so… what are you tellin’ me? I mean, if it got beat hundreds of times, then it’s dead—right? How does… why does, I mean, how can it—”

Jason stared into space, his mind reeling, the various sections of it arguing amongst themselves so vocally he could not communicate. Part of him still could not even believe what he was being told. He knew he trusted Knight, knew the man across the table from him was not lying. Knew that at the very least, the curator believed every word he was saying.

Yes, it was possible Knight was insane, but Jason did not believe such was the case. As ludicrous as everything he was being told sounded, as fantastically ridiculous as the story was, something deep within Jason assured him he was not merely being told what another believed, but what was.

For a while, neither man spoke. Neither knew what to say. After a handful of minutes, their dinners arrived. When the waiter arrived with his tray, he looked at the barely touched appetizers, immediately asking if there were any complaints. Both men shook their heads, Knight muttering that they had shared some bad news and it had put them off their game. Joking that there was no way anyone could ignore the fare of the Gardens’ kitchen for long, he assured the waiter they would be cleaning their plates.

So saying, the curator picked up his fork and speared a mozzarella stick, dipping it in the small bowl of hot sauce which had been brought with it. Popping it into his mouth, he spoke as he chewed;

“Come on, let’s eat. Forget why we’re here. The food in this place is too good to waste. Tell me about yourself, Jason. We’ll get to the other stuff later. For now, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

Numb from all he had accepted, Jason nodded, taking up his own fork once more. At that stage in his life, enjoying himself was almost a foreign concept. He was, however, he announced with a fair approximation of a grin, willing to give it a chance.

“What the hell,” he thought, already knowing the extent of the rest of his life, “what’ve I got to lose?”

* * * * *

Several hours later the pair found themselves in Knight’s brownstone home in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn. The curator had offered Jason a room, saying;

“If I’m insane, if I imagined all of this, it the gods are merely having sport with me, well then, bless all the tiny monkeys, so be it. You’ve got a place to stay for life. Welcome home.”

Knight had shown his guest to a bedroom, one with its own bathroom. Jason joked that the museum business must be a good one. It was an awkward comment, one which made neither of them laugh. Breaking the silence, the curator offered tactfully that since they were both tired, it might be best if they got some rest and waited to talk in the morning.

“After all,” he said, “it’s only the twenty-third. Nothing’s actually supposed to happen until Christmas—right?”

Jason had muttered some sort of agreement, then gone into his room and thrown himself on the bed. He did not bother to close the door. Having lived on the street for the past handful of months, the concept of privacy had become foreign to him. Stretched out in a comfort he barely understood anymore, he let his mind flow over all he had been asked to accept that evening. To merely catalogue the sheer enormity of it all took more time than he expected.

For more than seven hundred years, he was supposed to believe, some evil thing had repeatedly tried to grow large enough to destroy the world. Apparently it did not exist completely within our own plane of reality, meaning that humanity could not simply carpet bomb the Arctic and be done with it.

As Knight had explained it, the Bounteous Immortals, these angels, or whatever they were, considered this horror to be a test laid on humanity by their idea of God. Meaning they did not care one way or the other if mankind survived or ended up as entrees. Their only duty was to find someone to fight this thing, and then to find someone to talk them into it.

“Christ, like it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why,” he wondered, “why show Knight all this shit, and then have him try to get someone else to fight? If they want me to do it, why not show me?”

Maybe it had something to do with faith. But, even if he believed it all, even if he had the faith of ten men, what good would it do? This thing was supposed to be able to destroy the world, to suck the souls out of every living being. How was he supposed to fight something like that?

Of course, the Bountifuls had an answer for that, too. As Knight had explained it;

“They’ve been influencing events in the background of humanity for a long time apparently. Have you ever heard the fact that the historical figure of Jesus was actually born in the summer?” When Jason had assured the curate that he had, the man continued, telling him;

“Yes, well it seems that they exerted pressure from beyond on various church rulers to have them make the switch to coincide with the older pagan holiday that took place in late December so that the majority of humanity might be celebrating at the same time. In a cold, frightened, barbaric world, on its darkest day, if most of mankind’s functioning minds were filled with thoughts of joy, peace, good will, it gave them a weapon.”

“What?”

“When I was joined with their… essence… I could feel their plan. The joy of mankind at Christmas, the focus of children’s expectations on one individual, Santa Claus… it’s all been planned. As the creature has grown stronger, year by year, the idea of Christ’s birthday and revering gods has been allowed to fall by the wayside…

“But, the idea of Santa, however, has been enshrined. Millions, billions of people, thinking about St. Nick, not consciously believing in him, not really expecting a jolly elf to invade their home with gifts, but still, in the back of their minds, swirling with all the best parts of their childhoods, is this hope, this memory of happiness…”

Knight had stopped talking then, the struggle for words wearing him down. Besides, the entire idea was overwhelming him as well as his guest. It had been at that point the curator had shown Jason to his room, then gone off to his own.

Stretched out on his bed, still sweating, still staring off at nothing, Jason’s mind went numb, unable to find its way to any kind of conclusion. Yes, fine, he knew Knight believed in these angels, knew the man believed everything he had said. The curator had invited him into his home. Jason had lived long enough on the streets to know he was not being set up, not being deceived by his host. He also knew that Knight was not insane. No, he was frightened by what had been put before him, shocked and saddened and filled with pity for Jason—the man he had been tasked with sending off to his doom.

Which meant that it was true. That hell was being born at the North Pole, that some undying, unreasoning terror from another world had only another day to wait until it could murder all of humanity.

“And then it just jumps to another world and does it again.”

It was madness. As true as it must be, still it was insanity. The idea of Santa Claus, engineered to create a false happiness so angels could fuel a champion with love. Every year, Christmas grew by leaps and bounds, more chaos, more shrill, obnoxious spending, more glitter, more commercial damnation, because every year this unkillable monstrosity grew stronger, and more of humanity’s energy was needed to stop it.

“What does it even matter?” wondered Jason, his eyes closed, breathing rushed. “How many more years could we have? If this thing just gets stronger… nobody really cares about Christmas anymore… nobody cares about anything anymore.”

“I don’t believe that to be true.” As Jason looked up to find Knight standing in the hall beyond his doorway, the curator added;

“And I don’t think you believe so, either.”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because if you did, you wouldn’t be tormenting yourself so over this.”

Swinging his feet off his bed, Jason pulled himself into a sitting position. Wiping at the sweat on his forehead, he looked up, then said;

“It doesn’t matter what I think… I can’t do this. These angels, they’re wrong—they’re nuts.”

“They seem to have a fairly decent track record so far.”

“It only takes one mistake.” Staring at the curator, his eyes unblinking, Jason shouted;

“A loser like me can’t do this. How am I supposed to be Santa Claus, loved by everyone?” Tears breaking from his eyes, he screeched;

“I couldn’t get even one person to love me!”

“Maybe,” responded Knight quietly, “the Bountifuls aren’t looking for someone who has love. Maybe what they need is someone who has it to give.”

Trembling, Jason rose from the bed. Staring at Knight for a moment, he then turned and stared into the mirror over the dresser. Once more he saw his life pass before his eyes, but this time he did not merely relive it, This time he saw it as a spectator, viewing it from the outside, watching the twists and turns of the events which had built his existence not as things that had happened to him, but as choices he had made.

Every path trodden, he suddenly realized, he had chosen to walk. It had been Melinda’s choice to rob him and use him—to try and destroy him. It had been his choice to allow her to get away with it.

Turning, shaking from the realization, Jason looked at Knight and asked;

“You have anything to drink in this place?”

“There is a bar downstairs. Rum, brandy, bourbon? I do make a splendid Belmont cocktail.”

“Dealer’s choice,” answered Jason. “Something a condemned man would get a bang out of.”

Knight stared long and hard into his guest’s eyes. Seeing that Jason had made his decision, he asked;

“So, you’re thinking of going?”

Before Jason could answer, suddenly the room around him began to shimmer. The molecules of the air, super-excited, vibrated so violently the two men could hear their movement for an instant. And then, they were there. Tall and fiery, as wide as vision, as long as time, blindingly brilliant, the Bountiful Immortals stepped into human existence. As he had before, Knight turned his face, his eyes blinded, his hearing stolen.

Jason on the other hand merely smiled, understanding at last. As his old self fell away, the chemical stink of physicality eroding in an instant, he felt the joy of the world begin to course through him. And then, finally, he understood.

The Bountifuls could not reside on the human plane. To utilize the spirit of mankind, to transform what goodness and cheer and selflessness there might still exist within the souls scattered across the face of the Earth in their own defense, they had to find one to act as its conduit, one who might join them in their endless task.

In but an instant, Jason existed as man and spirit, and then he was gone, all trace of him absorbed into the brilliance which vanished along with him. When he finally dared open his eyes, Piers Knight found himself alone within his home, no trace of his houseguest remaining.

“Well,” he thought, his spirits suddenly somehow improved, “A Belmont still sounds like a capital idea.”

Heading downstairs, the curator headed for his kitchen for the necessary sweet cream, crushed ice and raspberry syrup. The dry gin he would get from the bar. And, after his cocktail, he decided, he would head out into the street.

There was an entire day left before Christmas arrived… or the end of the world. Whichever it was to be would be decided by how much cheer the planet’s populous might scrape together to offer its solitary defender. That meant wherever there were carollers, he would join them. Wherever someone needed a hot chocolate, he would be there to fetch it for them. Wherever the memory of happiness needed to be restored, he would be there to breathe on its embers until the fiery brilliance of it was felt once more.

Minutes later, armored with hat and gloves and overcoat, the curator stepped off his front stoop, marching off into the first moments of Christmas Eve. Looking upward into the dark expanse of night, he gazed at those stars visible in the Brooklyn sky, then asked softly;

“Please.”

After which, in one of those amazing moments which were almost enough to make one believe in a higher power, the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. Feeling his heart grow lighter within his chest, Knight smiled, saying;

“Well, God bless us… everyone.”

And then he walked off into the night, singing the words to “White Christmas” as best he could remember them, almost certain he would live to see the next day.

 

 

Patient Zero

by Stacy Neuberger-von Hoffman

 

There are some things that people just keep to themselves, secrets that never get told, and thoughts never shared. One doesn’t blurt out to their husband or wife that they are boffing their secretary or their pool boy. One also doesn’t tell their best friend that they have the ugliest baby ever seen on the planet, that in fact it is so ugly it should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. One should also make sure to compliment their mothers’ cooking, their wife’s clothing choices, or their boyfriends’ love for pizza, beer and football. That was the problem Baxter was facing right now, should he keep hiding the truth, or should he start telling people his secret?

Truth was Baxter was a zombie. He didn’t know how to tell people that he was one of the undead, especially since he was not the cool kind of undead. Plus, Baxter wasn’t a soulless monster, and he didn’t really want to be murdered because of what he had become. The idea that once he told people they would want to kill him made him a little uneasy, and he got this odd quivering feeling in the pit of his stomach, or the area of his body that used to be his stomach. Now he wasn’t sure what it contained, especially since he was unable to eat and feel sated.

Baxter believed that life would be better if he were a vampire rather than a zombie, even a werewolf would be a better supernatural being. For some reason vampires were cool, sexy; however, he was one of those people who didn’t understand the cult that the pale, blood-sucking undead had formed. Why would anyone want to be immortal and have a taste for sucking iron-tasting blood? The only problem he saw with being a werewolf was the excessive hairiness. Of course, it hadn’t been his choice, so he guessed that he couldn’t be too picky about which type of creature he was to be.

Death was the natural process of things. If he wasn’t so scared he would welcome death. He knew there had to be a reason he had become a zombie rather than a corpse, he just had to figure out what that reason was. The answer might never come. Quite possibly he had become a zombie because of his own mystical karma.

As far as he knew, Baxter was the only human zombie living. He might even be what the movies referred to as “patient zero.” Since he was the only one of his kind he knew he had to be extra careful. There were people out there, medical and government agencies, who would want to experiment on him, test him, find out why he was a zombie, and find out how much of a danger he was to others. In all honesty, he wasn’t a danger—at least not since he had become a zombie. Baxter believed that you were what you ate, and eating people would make him a cannibal.

Of course, before he became a zombie he had a nasty habit of raping and murdering prostitutes, although he didn’t consider it a horrible thing, just a thing that might have gotten him into trouble with his girlfriend, or the police, if he had been caught. He was sure his girlfriend wouldn’t have approved of him hacking a naked woman to bits and then throwing the dismembered corpse into the river, even though it was a family legacy. His father had been a Bible-thumping, whore murderer as well. Baxter was just following in his father’s footsteps. Except for Baxter, the electric chair was not an option. The problem, in this case, was if he hadn’t been a hooker-murdering businessman, he might never have become a zombie.

During one of his late night slash fests he was bitten by a cat. He should have been paying better attention to his surroundings. That night he was tired and just wanted to get through the bone and be done with it, so he could go home and have sex with his plain Jane girlfriend, whose name was actually Jane. Baxter was sure she would be waiting at his apartment, with some organic wine and organic berries in a vegan negligee. He tired of her clinginess and at times wished that he could kill her. She was weak, lived in a rent-controlled apartment, and liked to dine in.

Instead he was bitten on the right forearm by a scraggly orange tabby cat with one eye and a collar that jingled. The cat didn’t wear a nametag; Baxter guessed that at one point it did. Its name was probably something stupid like Twinkie, Buster, or Chuck Norris. Swearing, he turned to kill the cat, but it was gone, apparently it had not taken a liking to the taste of Baxter’s forearm and didn’t need a second taste. So he finished what he was doing, took care of the debris, cleaned himself up and went home. Having become a professional in the arena of murder, the clean-up only took him fifteen minutes. Killing in the nude had become habit, so there wasn’t much else to do besides push the body parts into the river. He was of course happy that the cat had not bitten him on his unprotected penis. Who would have guessed that there was a cat zombie roaming the world?

It wasn’t until two days later that he thought something was wrong. Antibiotic cream burned. In fact his arm had become swollen, also there was a weird, sickly smell that emanated from the wound. He was never a man with a tan, in fact his pale skin regularly seemed to reflect light, but he did seem paler than usual. Even his best friend and office mate, Toby, noticed. Toby commented on it one day, four days after he had been bitten.

“Man, Bax, you need to get out more in the daylight. You are so pale someone might mistake you for the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.” One of Toby’s favorite movies was Ghostbusters. He really loved watching the scenes with Sigourney Weaver, which was the reason he also like the Alien movies (even Alien Resurrection which was a horrible movie, but Sigourney Weaver was wet, so she was sexy).

Baxter had laughed it off, making a joke about Sigourney Weaver’s tits to distract Toby, but he wondered. He also worried and when he realized what had happened he began to use precautions. Formaldehyde became a staple of his daily skin care routine.

Baxter was forced to take two weeks off of work, the last three days of which he didn’t remember. When he woke up on the last day, he was covered in blood and there were several rat carcasses around his body. Apparently, while he slept the rats had decided he might taste like garbage, a favorite among the rat population, so they came in and nibbled on his feet. Thankfully they only got stuffing while they nibbled on his brown slippers. He wished they hadn’t come at all. The rats didn’t seem to bother him while he was sleeping, and from the looks of it he had gotten the best of them. There were easily fifteen dead rats, or at least the pieces of them, strewn about his pale green and yellow bedroom. Now his bedroom looked a little more like Christmas with the blood on the walls, carpet, and his body.

Jane had wanted to come over and bring him soup, or something to make him feel better. She wasn’t much of a cook and had gotten on a vegan kick, which was annoying since he was a rare steak and fries man. He didn’t care for miso soup, or tofu, or raw vegetables, or any of the other crap she brought by. So he told her no, don’t come over, and ignored the hurt and whiney voice on the other end of the line. Jane was beginning to bore him. She was too vanilla in her tastes, wanting to watch chick flicks and cry on his shoulder. Jane even begged to stick with the missionary position when they had sex. Baxter had begun to think about dumping her, yet it was so hard to find a simple, easy to maintain girlfriend.

Now, when he saw his pale face in the bathroom mirror he could see it all, could see what he had become, could see what he really was. He didn’t know how long he could hide the fact that he was a zombie. Baxter had to remember to breathe; if he didn’t breathe people would know what he was. A hard part was that he had to remember to eat, even though all the food he ate tasted like burnt hamburger. What he would have given for a bloody raw steak, or the raw flesh of something delicious, more savory than bloody rat. He had to remember to comb his receding blay (brown, blonde and gray) hair gently every day, so it didn’t all just fall out of his dead head. There was probably no possibility that hair grew back on zombie scalps.

When he walked into the office each day he knew he probably looked worse and worse. He would have stayed home, or quit, but he didn’t want people to figure out his secret, plus he needed the money.

His skin was becoming sallow, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days, or even weeks, but he could pass off his more than unfortunate looks because he had just been out sick for a couple of weeks. However, just by the glimpses he had caught of himself in the urine-tainted men’s room he knew he wouldn’t be able continue blaming his mysterious illness for the way he looked. Baxter was surprised every day he walked into the office that no one noticed the slightly sweet smell that was beginning to emanate from his body. He knew from research that the smell was a beginning sign of decomposition, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep himself together, literally.

“Hey, Mr. Kingsley, there is a meeting at ten in the main conference room. Mr. Derrwitaker wants to see you there,” said Ashley, the reception secretary.

She was always smiling her goofy bright smile. For some reason she thought that getting braces at the age of thirty was a good idea and might help her land a man. It was pretty silly of her to think that. A man wouldn’t want to kiss a mouth full of metal, unless he had a fetish for young schoolgirls. Maybe that was her hook, maybe she caught men by putting her hair in pigtails and offering them a little rub and tug. Ashley had tried to seduce him once. Jane had just become his serious girlfriend, so he had been forced to say no thank you. Maybe he should bite Ashley, make her his sexy zombie slave.

The smells that used to get him when he walked into the office weren’t as pleasant since he became a zombie. He used to love the smell of the freshly made coffee, the doughnuts from the mom and pop bakery down the street, the mix of perfumes that the ladies all wore. It was an intoxicating mix. The integration of smells made him want to eat and have anonymous sex all at once. Not a bad thing, sometimes he went home and masturbated to the remembrance of that mix of smells. Now he rarely masturbated. He was afraid that his penis would just fall off. Now the smells just made him want to vomit. The aromas that he liked more were the fragrant odors of the ladies—their skin, the blood pulsating through their bodies, and for some reason their heads smelled the best, a mix of sickly sweet shampoo and a butcher shop.

Baxter knew that today, almost a month after his transformation, was going to be another long day in acquisitions. It was a good thing that there were all these giant brains around here pretending to work. Meetings were the worst, always Mr. Derrwitaker talking, talking, talking, and nothing coming from it. Everyone knew big, fat Mr. Derrwitaker just liked to hear the sound of his own voice echo throughout the conference room, which was why he usually chose the main conference room to hold these meetings in; it was large and had pretty good acoustics.

When Baxter got to the room, four of the seven people were there already, he made five. Mr. Derrwitaker would arrive late, as per his usual routine. Hunger ached in Baxter’s newly transformed and forever-empty stomach. It often felt as if his stomach was eating itself. He knew that wasn’t possible, he assumed it was just the way things were when one became a zombie. What Baxter really wished was that he had found that cat instead of finishing with that stupid, heroin addicted hooker. She hadn’t even known who the sixteenth president was. Who didn’t know who the sixteenth president was?

When everyone finally arrived the hunger was overwhelming. While they were passing around the pink frosted doughnuts and the bear claws he was looking at each employees’ head wondering how hard it was to bite through bone (although he knew it was hard to cut through).

Reaching across the table for a bottle of water he instead grabbed the arm of his cubicle neighbor, Jeffery Darling, and took a toothy chunk out of his forearm.

“Son of a…” Jeffery screamed, grabbing his arm. “What the hell, Baxter?” Standing quickly, Jeffery grabbed his arm and watched as the blood flowed through his baby blue dress shirt, and pooled on the maroon carpet. That wouldn’t be too hard to hide later, blood mixed well with the color maroon.

“Hungry,” Baxter mumbled, blood dribbling down his hairless pale chin.

Screams echoed out in the hall as Jeffery stumbled out of the room holding his bleeding arm close to his chest. Girls screamed like girls, boys screamed like girls and everyone ran towards the room to find out what had happened.

Jeffery was quickly infected and almost immediately became a new species of zombie. Then it began.

Jeffery bit into Sally, the mail girl who just happened to be passing by, and she bit into Mark, her secret mail room lover who she liked to screw while sitting on the office mail in the mail cart. Mark bit Julie who he had wanted to bite for a long time but thought she was too beautiful with her large fake breasts, big blond hair, and bright blue eyes. Julie bit Anthony, her pool boy, when she got home—which is where she raced after being bitten by Mark. And Anthony, well he unfortunately bit his wife Alice and six-year-old daughter, Alyssa. Things just went downhill from there. Alyssa, being a child, was oooed and awwwed over and every person she came in contact with she bit. In fact she survived for three months, until Officer David Brennen found her—half her beautiful brown face missing, her left eye dangling out of its eye socket by a ligament. Everyone she ate wanted to help her, save her. Officer Brennen just shot her in the head and then shot her again, knowing that this was what you were supposed to do when you were going to kill a zombie.

Of course Baxter still knew how to survive, and his minor feeling of guilt at having started this whole zombie uprising thing, helped keep him hidden. He stayed low, didn’t go out if he didn’t have to, let his meals come to him, which they always did when stupid survivors were looking for a place to lay their weary heads. Baxter had moved three times since he had created the first zombie in Jeffery. After Jeffery he had eaten Toby because of all the stupid Sigourney Weaver comments he had been forced to listen to over the twenty years they had worked together. After finishing Toby he ran out of the building, screaming, “There is so much blood! Oh god, somebody help us!”

Currently Baxter lived in a nice three bedroom, two and one-half bathroom house. Formerly occupied by the Morris family, he had assumed control of the house after he had killed and eaten Mary, the mother, Steve, the father, and Seth, the teenage son.

Teenagers were especially meaty. The fat content in their bodies was almost as fresh as a chunky little babies’. Baxter couldn’t bring himself to eat a baby, and actually didn’t like the idea that he had been forced to become a cannibal. When he felt bad about eating a person he reminded himself again that you are what you eat and he was human so why not eat humans.

The good thing was that he realized he wasn’t the only zombie anymore; in fact he was the king of zombies. A god among zombies, the zombie maker, and he was sure that he could destroy both the humans and the zombies if he needed to.

Hearing a noise Baxter stood, wondering who would be coming in during the night, since everyone else had come in during the day, when they could open the forest green blinds and see the vast living room in the radiance of the sun. Tilting his head to the right, he was startled when his neck popped and wondered if it was a regular creak or if he had just snapped his neck by tilting it too hard.

Baxter heard a very audible click, and knew exactly what it was. There was nowhere for him to go, so he closed his eyes and waited. The blast wasn’t as loud as he thought it would be. Unfortunately a side effect of being dead was that his ears had also been dead for a few months now so they had lost some of their usefulness. His head ached as the birdshot exploded his face, he felt just a memory of pain, not actual pain. Falling to his knees he tried to smile, teeth fell from his mouth and tinkled on the floor, they sounded like the bells of a cat’s collar, the bell of that cat’s collar.

Looking up he saw the face of the person who had finally killed him, and he wanted to laugh. It was his girlfriend, Jane. Sweet Jane, the pathetic woman who would never hurt a fly, or an ant, or a spider. Boring Jane, who he had been planning to dump, and who he was thinking about possibly finding and eating. Plain Jane, now a beauty reflected in his cold dead eyes.

Patient Zero fell into a bloodless heap. Now a cure would never be found.

Let the zombie revolution begin.

 

Freezeheads

by Andrew Hoffman

 

The bell on the door rang. Reynolds, the new manager of Blue Scoop, had installed them on his second day at the shop. His name was Jerome but he insisted they call him by his last name. The bells were put on the front door to alert employees of the entrance of a prospective customer. The shop was only twenty feet by twenty feet, with a full plate-glass front to it—it was hard not to notice customers, bell or no bell.

The bell was only one example, among many, which kept Kevin from liking his new boss, despite his best effort. Kevin had graduated from Western at the end of fall quarter with a degree in some forgettable field, which he had already almost forgotten. He had taken this ice cream job during his final two years in school, and now two months clear of academics, he had kept on. He liked being by Mt. Baker to snowboard and camp on. He liked his friends there. He had liked Leonard, the old man who owned the Blue Scoop, before a national ice cream chain had bought it. Now three scoops was the priority.

“Thanks,” Kevin said and smiled. A man and a little girl, probably the man’s daughter, exited the store.

“What happened there?” Reynolds asked, entering from the back room.

“I don’t know? What?”

Reynolds kept looking at him quizzically.

After a long moment, Kevin said, “I don’t think I understand the question.”

“How many scoops did they have on that cone?”

“Two,” Kevin said, matter-of-factly.

“What happened there?”

“That girl was probably forty pounds. As much as you would want her to try, she, I’m sure, couldn’t eat her weight in ice cream.”

“All I’m asking is that you ask. Everybody.”

“Alright,” Kevin reluctantly agreed.

“Three scoops is the focus this month.”

“It’s February.”

“I know the month. I know how to read a calendar, too. I know you don’t ask like you should. Like we pay you to do.”

Kevin frowned and nodded. Reynolds returned to the back room with an air of dignity only a middle-aged manager of a small ice cream shop can have after balling out an employee.

The bell rang again. Luckily it was Janisse. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Gonna make it through today?” she asked, seeing the look of doom running down Kevin’s face.

“Maybe.”

“Is cow-nuts-for-brains riding your ass again?” she whispered as she passed.

“Yep.”

“Just think about tomorrow.”

Janisse was vacantly beautiful. She seemingly passed through life based on looks and flirting. Reynolds had hired her after only a five-minute interview. Kevin and Eli, another coworker, chalked it up to cleavage and gum chewing. Eli thought she was a very seductive gum chewer.

When Kevin asked him to clarify about the seductive gum chewing, Eli said, “you can’t explain something like that. But if that gum chewing were any closer to sex, newborn babies would be falling out of her mouth.”

So Janisse kept wearing her work polo with the buttons unbuttoned and kept chewing gum like a porn star—almost instantly she had fans and regulars. Kevin and Eli started blending into the background behind the new starlet, which was fine by them. Then, last week, Kevin was talking to Janisse about a solo snowboarding trip he was taking to Mt. Baker the following Tuesday and Wednesday.

“You’re going alone?” she asked, in disbelief.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Alone?”

Kevin held up his arms in why not formation.

“Take me,” she said.

Kevin knew for a fact she couldn’t ski or snowboard or even stand up on either based on previous conversations.

“My ex is being a raging dick lately. It would be fun to get away. I won’t bother you. Promise.”

Then she started chewing her gum. He noticed her unbuttoned buttons. Damnit, he thought to himself. “Sure.”

* * * * *

He picked her up as planned. She was wearing a bright pink ski suit. Kevin wondered what he had gotten himself into. They rode up to the mountain in his Toyota pickup truck on winding, uphill roads while keeping flat conversation. Exes this and party that and what a bitch, right? and so on. Kevin just looked straight ahead at the mountain and nodded at Janisse’s dissection of her twenty-year-old life.

The weather was getting bad that late morning. Thick flurries of snow and wind blew his truck around the road. Janisse’s conversation didn’t pause during any of it. She just kept on. They finally pulled into the lodge at 10:45. Kevin, being a gentleman, had splurged and rented two rooms there. He usually would just drive home late, but had wanted to make a real trip of it this time. He didn’t know why now that he was there. They checked in without a hitch, except for the moment when his heart nearly stopped at hearing the grand total for two rooms for one night at the lodge. He closed his eyes and handed over his Visa card that was closer to the limit than he would have liked it to be.

“There’s a lot of Chips here,” Janisse said while they wandered up to their rooms. Their rooms were next to each other on the third floor. The elevator was out of service, so they would be forced to use the stairs the next two days.

“What’s a Chip?”

“A Canadian.”

“Why do you call them Chips?”

“Because me and my friend Alison knew a Canadian named Chip. Ever since Chip we call them Chips.”

“How did you know Chip?”

Janisse just winked. Chip must have fallen for the gum chewing too.

“If I asked Alison about Chip, would she wink too?”

Janisse just winked again.

* * * * *

One hour later they met in the hallway in front of their rooms. Kevin would have preferred half an hour, but Janisse insisted that she needed a full hour. As they walked down the hall they saw a young man stretched out, lying across the floor a few feet in front of the staircase. Kevin looked over at the elevator. The out of order sign still hung from its closed door.

“You alive, or what?” Janisse blurted out.

The young man rolled over to look dead at the voice that had just spoken to him. He thoughtfully and deliberately said, “Yes.”

“Why don’t you get out of the way then?”

The young man continued looking at Janisse and Kevin, as if he was about to speak, the entire time he slowly moved aside. He didn’t say another word. He watched without blinking as they passed and descended the stairs. Janisse looked back over her shoulder—the young man was still watching them.

“He might have been cute if he wasn’t so weird.”

“He’s probably just a Chip,” Kevin said.

“Probably,” Janisse replied, sticking out her tongue at him.

* * * * *

After renting a snowboard for Janisse, they hit the mountain. Kevin patiently went up and down the beginner hill half a dozen times with Janisse before he could coax her onto the intermediate hill. He convinced her that she would be fine considering the fresh powdery layer that had fallen over the last forty-eight hours. Half-way down on the first intermediate attempt Janisse fell at a bad angle. Her left knee buckled and she shrieked. Kevin skidded to a stop and backtracked ten feet to the pink bundle that was holding its knee in the snow. She had lifted her goggles, and despite her best sniffling effort, tears were running her face.

“Can you move it alright?” Kevin asked after unbuckling her boot from the board.

She slowly extended her knee and winced. More tears ran.

Great, Kevin thought to himself. There goes a pleasant day of boarding.

“Do you want to try and stand up, or should I get the emergency team up here?”

Janisse shook her head, wiped the tears away. Just then a teenage boarder sliced by, yelling, “Get the hell outta the way!”

After getting to her feet, Kevin locked in her boot and slowly started loping down the hill holding her shoulders to steady her on their slow, coasting descent.

“Doing okay?” Kevin asked.

Janisse tried to clamp up her grimace and nodded resolutely.

“Maybe when we get down to the lodge we can get hot chocolate or something,” Kevin said.

Janisse nodded again, not hiding her balled-up expression as well this time.

Kevin nodded and smiled back.

They had about a quarter of the hill to go, and were going at a decent pace when, out of what seemed like nowhere, they were hit from behind dead on. It felt like being hit by a linebacker going full steam, not a snowboarder trying to avoid the injured girl in the pink snowsuit and the guy helping her down the run. The hit spun them in a half circle and they planted face first in the snow. Janisse plucked her goggled head from the white and screamed in frustration. Kevin turned and yelled, “HEY! ASSHOLE!” to the red-jacketed figure that had kept his footing and was still boarding down the hill without giving them a second glance. Kevin was turning his head back around to check on Janisse, but before he could do that he saw another red-jacketed boarder wearing a red balaclava coming straight at them at a blurring speed. Before the sight could even compute in Kevin’s head, the second boarder was on them, but swerved and avoided them at the last possible moment. As the second boarder careened around the just accosted duo sitting on the snow, he made a slashing motion with his hand, directly at the right shoulder of Kevin. The pain didn’t reach Kevin’s brain until the red balaclava-clad boarder was streaking down the hill twenty feet behind them. His shoulder suddenly exploded with heat. He touched his burning shoulder with his left hand and came away with a red smear of blood.

“That guy scratched me!” Kevin said, indignantly.

Janisse was crying to the point of hyperventilating. “That’s,” inhale, “more,” inhale, “than,” inhale, “a scratch.” She composed herself for a moment. “That guy cut you with something really sharp.” She inspected the wound a little more closely. “There’s actually two cuts. Right through your jacket and into your skin.”

Kevin disbelievingly looked closer for himself. He was so taken aback he couldn’t speak. His mind was racing through every filthy, degrading name that he could think of to call that guy, but his disbelieving mouth couldn’t function to form the words.

“Let’s get going,” Janisse said, with a sudden jolt of get-up-and-go. “We should turn that prick in.” Janisse seemed more composed now than she had since the lodge. The sudden attack had given her a greater threshold for her frustrations and hurt knee.

When they reached the bottom of the hill they both collapsed into a pile on the ground to rest. Kevin was breathing like he had just finished a marathon. With the combination of assisting Janisse, being steamrolled in the back, and then lightly slashed all in one run, his gas tank had run empty faster than normal. Skiers and snowboarders were looping around them and circling over to the chairlift. Some saying obscenities to them, others just avoiding them like every other obstacle to be avoided.

A worker skied over and said, “You look tired but you’re gonna have to move. You can’t just sit right here. It’s what those benches are for over there.”

“We were just attacked,” Kevin blurted out.

“Who?”

“We were,” Janisse seconded.

“By who?”

“I guy in a red jacket,” Kevin said. He started to look around, trying to locate the assailant. “He was wearing a red face thing.”

“Like a nasal breathing patch?”

“What? No. Like a mask thing,” Kevin said, running his hands over the length of his face.

“A nasal what?” Janisse asked, incredulously.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa,” The worker said, pointing to Kevin’s shoulder. Blood was running down the sleeve of his jacket, dripping from his elbow, and making a bloody flower in the snow. The worker seemed frantic, like the types who faint at the sight of blood. “We need to get you to our doctor.”

The worker helped Kevin to his feet. Janisse was left to get up on her own, bad knee and all. The worker picked up their two boards and ran them over to the ski stand. Kevin turned and surveyed the bottom of the hill one more time for red jackets. Suddenly he saw two. They had just sat on the ski lift not fifty feet from where Kevin and Janisse stood. The one pulled the balaclava from his head and smiled at Kevin. Then he began to lick his fingers. Just like you would lick barbecue sauce off. To his astonishment, he recognized the slasher. It was the young man who had been lying in the hallway of the lodge. The one Janisse said might be cute if he wasn’t so weird. Kevin turned to Janisse, who was rubbing her temples with her eyes closed. If she only knew how weird that guy was. Kevin looked back at the finger licker who was now laughing with his companion. He gave Kevin the PEACE sign but Kevin knew he wasn’t being wished any kind of peace by the maniac in red.

* * * * *

Kevin ended up getting four stitches on each laceration across his shoulder. The stitches hurt more than the birth of the cuts. Janisse all but forgot about the twisted knee she had sustained. She sat quietly by Kevin as the doctor worked on him, refusing to leave due to her paranoia of the boarders in red. Even though they hadn’t sliced into her, the knock down had shaken her, as well as the possibility of their return.

After a couple hours in the lodge emergency area, they made their way back to their rooms. Janisse shyly asked if she could stay in Kevin’s room a while. She was agitated by the idea of being alone, he could tell. He could also see there was no other motives in her request—simply the company of another at the end of a strange and singularly frightening day on the mountain.

They sat and watched television for a short time. They clicked through court shows, sit-coms, the obligatory Warren Miller documentary, and an array of other unwatchable and unnamable fodder. Kevin suddenly turned the T.V. off and jumped off the bed, then winced, as his shoulder screamed, reminding him of the injury he had momentarily forgotten.

“You hungry?”

Janisse nodded. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.”

“How about I run down and grab some food and bring it back up. I’m not really in the mood for a restaurant or anything.”

“I’m not either.”

“Your order, ma’am,” Kevin asked with a slight bow, trying to bring a smile to Janisse’s beleaguered face.

She did smile—then stood and said, “Just a cheeseburger and a Coke please,” then held the sides of her imaginary dress and dipped into a curtsy.

“Coming right up,” he replied, and backed up to the door in his bowed down position, not turning his back on the queen of the room.

He closed the door behind him and proceeded to the stairs, passing the spot where the young man had been on the floor, stretched out, earlier that day. The memory of the young man did not escape him as he passed and his shoulder flared again. While in the emergency room they had filed a report about the incident, and they were assured it would be taken seriously, but that didn’t ease his thoughts of running into the weird young man again.

Just as he took the first step on the stairs Janisse stuck her head out into the hallway. “Kevin,” she pleasantly hollered. “Can I come with you?”

“Sure. Come on.”

She closed the door behind her and lightly ran to catch up. “Sorry if I’m being a pest,” she said. She didn’t seem to be able to make eye contact as she spoke but looked like she had sincerely tried.

“You’re not a pest. Just a slight nuisance,” he said, winking at her.

She stuck out her tongue in reply.

That was when Janisse heard footsteps behind them. She looked back over her shoulder. She tugged on Kevin’s shirt sleeve. He looked at her, saw she was looking back, and followed her gaze.

They both watched as the young man who had pulled the red balaclava from his head and had licked his fingers not four hours ago on the mountain was coming at a fast clip down the stairs in their direction. In his panic, not exactly knowing why, Kevin pulled on Janisse’s arm and guided her to the landing of the stairs the next floor down and ran toward a door that had an emergency exit sign. He wanted to get where people were. As many people as possible. This guy had really creeped them out and they didn’t want to be alone with him to learn any more.

The emergency exit door was locked. Kevin shoved at it one last time with all his energy. It didn’t budge. He turned around as the young man was making the corner toward them, maybe fifteen feet back.

“So much for an emergency,” Kevin mumbled. Janisse did not respond.

The young man slowed to a stop ten feet away.

“Hi,” the young man said.

Kevin and Janisse didn’t say anything back.

The young man’s jaw twitched. “Hi,” he repeated.

“What do you want?” Janisse asked in a genuine piss and vinegar voice.

The young man’s jaw twitched rapidly for a couple seconds. Then he smiled at them. He held up the peace sign that he had flashed at Kevin from the ski lift. Kevin was confused. Was this guy just mentally slow and dangerous?

“What do you want?” Janisse repeated more sternly.

“What I’ve wanted since I saw you,” the young man said thoughtfully. “I just wanted him to know he can’t protect you. I wanted him to understand that.”

The young man was staring directly at Kevin.

“Do you understand that?” The young man asked.

“Nope,” Kevin said. Janisse squeezed his arm at that answer.

The young man’s jaw twitched again. More harshly this time. He had been holding the peace sign up the entire time, never wavering. Then something unexpected happened. Something that neither Kevin nor Janisse could ever have imagined. The fingers that were signing peace to them grew. Then Kevin realized it wasn’t the fingers that were growing, it was his nails. They only grew a couple of inches, but the suddenness and unexpectedness of it made both Kevin and Janisse stop breathing. The young man stretched his hands. Only the pointer and middle fingers had extended nails, the others had stayed the same.

Then his jaw twitched harder, faster than it previously had. The effect the nails made on Kevin and Janisse almost overshadowed the strangeness of the increasingly rapid jaw tic. Until his jaw seemed to unhinge completely, and two fang-like teeth folded down from the roof of his mouth.

Kevin instinctively started to look for other routes of escape. The only option he saw was an unmarked door that was closed five feet from where he stood. He had no way to know if it was open, but there were no other outs. The young creature saw Kevin look at the door. All three darted for it.

The door was unlocked.

Kevin was through the door quickly, holding Janisse’s right hand as he sprinted. It had opened inward making entry quicker but closing the door behind them a little slower. They had just beat out the young fanged man by a heartbeat, and not much more. As Kevin turned to slam the door in the face of the young man, hopefully rattling around those too-large teeth in the process, Janisse jerked back. Kevin saw the young man had a hold of her left hand and was hacking at her wrist with his overgrown fingernails. And his nails were as sharp as Kevin’s shoulder remembered. In four swift rakes on her wrist, the young man had lopped her hand completely off. Just as the hand came free, the young man lost his balance very briefly in a backward direction, at which time Kevin helped him by giving him a boot to the chest and slammed the door. To Kevin’s amazement, the door had a lock. He locked themselves in.

Kevin fumbled around for a light switch. It took him a moment to find the string that hung from a bulb in the middle of the room. Janisse was sweating so much that she gleamed like George Washington’s face on a new quarter. She was hyperventilating. Kevin had never seen anything like a hand being chopped off, but he had seen plenty of broken bones on the slopes over the years and knew the onset of shock when he saw it. Blood was flowing out of her wrist at an Olympic swimmer’s pace. She was lightly banging her head against the wall it rested on. Kevin quickly took off his shirt and held it on Janiss’s stump. The light blue shirt was quickly turning dark blue.

He looked around at his surroundings. They were in a janitor’s closet, it seemed. Yellow bucket with a mop-handle sticking out of it. Assorted cleaners, cleansers, sponges, wet floor signs, and garbage bags lined the shelves. The room was probably eight feet by eight feet. He was looking for anything to help stop the bleeding and could see or think of nothing. Streak-free glass cleaner? Orange-scented sanitizers? The room was medically useless.

Sweat was dripping from Janisse’s chin and falling on Kevin’s arm, like rain from an awning. Now her breathing wasn’t so much hyperventilating as it was irregular he thought. Out of frustration and fatigue his body slumped down to the side. His skin hissed and he jerked back off of the radiator. He touched the hot coils with his fingers. They hissed too. The radiator was hot enough to cause a hospital-worthy burn. He looked over at Janisse. She was only breathing through her nose. Her mouth was wrenched up. She looked pale.

“I hate to do this,” Kevin said.

“What?” she whispered in a frail voice.

Kevin removed the soaked shirt from her sad wrist, threw it to the opposite corner with wet smack against the wall. He firmly pressed her wrist against the radiator. The blood cracked as it cooked—like bacon in a frying pan. Like cold glass that cracks on extreme summer days. All Janisse did was exhale loudly and slide over to the ground. Kevin almost felt sick. For reasons he could not explain, he felt like he had just put a horse with a broken leg out of its misery. Maybe it was just the lifeless way she slid to the floor of the janitor’s closet.

Kevin looked at her wrist. It was ugly but the bleeding had almost slowed to a stop. With Janisse out cold, and with his lack of medical wherewithal, he pressed her wrist against the radiator again, to cauterize it as well as a radiator could. It seemed to work. The little closet smelled like a horrific sunburn. Now Kevin’s breathing was irregular. He was sweating like a geyser. He lay his head down next to Janisse’s. Looked at her face. It was a face of repose. A gentle countenance. Then Kevin heard a light tap on the door.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you two,” said a young voice.

Kevin could hear the young man humming and the raspy in-out of Janisse’s breathing. He hadn’t responded to the crazy young man’s taunt. He just sat—thinking. His cell phone was back in his room. He checked Janisse’s pockets. Empty except for her room key and a pack of gum. She hadn’t brought her purse with her. The humming paused.

“I’m holding her hand,” the young man said, “like we’re on a date.”

Kevin’s heart started to beat harder.

“Not much blood, though,” the young man added.

Kevin couldn’t help but ask the dumbest sounding serious question he had ever asked. “What… are you a vampire or something?” The very question made his skin crawl, but what else could he ask after he had seen those needle-like teeth fold down and the blood comment.

“Vampires are myth and lore and for the movies. I’m real. I’m sitting outside your door.”

“Someone will walk by.”

“Let them. I can barely hear you through the door. I’m sure, twenty feet away, at the stairs, they wouldn’t even notice you yelling.”

“If you’re not a vampire, what are you?”

“Like I said, all I am is outside your door holding your girlfriend’s hand.”

“What’s with the sharp teeth, then?”

“Is that really what you’re curious about?”

“Why were you licking my blood off of your nails and why chop her hand off?”

“To be honest, I just wanted to get stoned.”

“What do you mean?”

“Does that mean more than one thing here in America? It sure as hell doesn’t mean I want to have rocks thrown at me.”

“You use blood to get stoned?”

“I’m getting bored with this conversation.”

“That can’t be true. You can’t be real.”

“God knows about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I hope you’re not like this when you’re not panicking.”

“Like what?”

“Thick as a cedar stump.”

“God only knows about you as my hallucination.”

“No,” the young man said, “he knows about me for very different reasons.”

He started humming again.

Neither of them talked for the next ten minutes. Just humming that floated under the door like a poisonous gas. It rose up and dripped into Kevin’s ears. Do I know that tune? He wondered briefly at one point.

Janisse was still breathing like an old house sounds in a windstorm. A groan here. A creak there. All loose boards and rusty nails for lungs.

The small room with the warm radiator was starting to get muggy from the incessant sweating of Kevin and Janisse.

Kevin started to realize that they were not going to be saved from this Chip. If they were waiting to be rescued, they were apt to be waiting a good while. His eyes scanned the room in desperation. Cleansers and sanitizers and dusters yawned back at him, believing themselves to be useless to him. Then he saw something interesting, and a flint-spark idea came to him. He looked at the incapacitated body of Janisse, laying next to him, in an awkward position. He sat her up against the wall, next to the door. She sat limp like a forgotten ventriloquist’s puppet, jaw hanging by loose wires. Then he grabbed the replacement broom handle from the corner it was leaning in. He propped it against the wall, on the other side of the door from Janisse.

He shook her shoulder lightly. Nothing. She wasn’t waking up for awhile. Kevin sat a moment and took in the sight of her slack face. He gazed at her stumped arm. He put his hand on her knee.

“I need a sacrifice,” Kevin said, no louder than a light breath. Then he thought better of it. “I need a decoy,” he finished, more accurately.

Kevin looked at the door. He tried to look through it as much as he could. To the other side, where the young man sat holding Janisse’s severed hand.

“What are you going to do to us?” Kevin yelled.

“You ask boring questions.”

The voice sounded like it was a few feet back from the door. “What’re you going to do, huh?” Kevin yelled, again.

“I’m getting very…”

Kevin unlocked the door and threw it open quickly. He slid Janisse out across the hardwood floor away from both him and the young man. The young man stood frozen, looking at Kevin, glancing over at Janisse, then back at Kevin. The young man darted toward Janisse. Kevin grabbed the broom handle and sprinted after him. The young man arrived first, then turned to get his bearings on Kevin’s approach. That was when Kevin descended on him with the cleaning apparatus. A girl stepped down on the landing of the stairs, saw what was happening, and screamed.

* * * * *

Kevin sat on the floor, slouched against the wall. The bloody broom handle had just been confiscated by the police. The young man and Janisse had just been taken by the paramedics. Ski lodge management was standing by in horror. None of them could believe this had happened at their ski lodge. There were groups of snowboarders and skiers standing around gawking. Despite the shock of the display, the two factions had managed to separate themselves much like boys and girls at a middle school dance. An older cop walked up to Kevin.

“Gonna have to take you down to the station. You know that, right?”

Kevin nodded.

“I would categorize this as an abnormal display, son. Even among this group of partiers, and snowboarders, and snow-bunnies, and what-have-you’s.”

Kevin nodded.

“You beat the hell outta that boy. You realize that?”

“I told you already—he’s not some normal boy.”

“I know you said that. I heard your story, which just compounds the abnormality of this whole deal.”

“I know,” Kevin said, in defeat.

“We’ve yet to see signs of the nature you describe with that boy.”

“Keep looking.”

“We intend to do our job. No pep talk from you is going to change that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kevin wiped a splotch of blood on his pants.

“Not to mention, that girl’s hand was hacked off.”

* * * * *

After a week of dealing with the police, Kevin finally was back at Blue Scoop. They had initially arrested him, but there were no charges brought against him by the young man. Then, Janisse finally came around and was able to talk, two days after the incident. She told the police the same far-fetched story that Kevin had. The police still could find no evidence of fangs or rapidly growing, razor-sharp fingernails on the young man. They released him but kept a close eye on him as they ruminated over what to charge him with if that day ever arrived.

Kevin went to see Janisse in the hospital. He waited in the hall until he saw her mother leave her room. He slipped inside.

“Hello,” he said, catching her by surprise. She had been looking out the window.

She smiled back at him. “They said I might’ve died if you hadn’t stopped the bleeding.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die.”

She smiled again, but more sadly this time. “Me, too.”

“How do you feel?”

“I’m on painkillers most of the day. I don’t feel much—of anything. I just mostly feel like I’m in a dream.”

“Are you dreaming now?”

“I don’t think so.”

Kevin put his hands in his pockets. He looked out the window. There was a supermarket across the street. People were filing in and out. Loading their trunks and beds of their trucks with sacks of food.

“They can’t put my hand back on. They said there was probably never a good chance, but it’s impossible after you burned the wound closed. At least that’s what they said.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I lived.” She pulled her bandaged stump out from under the bed sheet. She moved it around in the air, trying to get a feel for the new sensation of weightlessness it gave her. “Just don’t stop being my friend. Okay?”

“Why would I?”

“My friends will be nice and supportive at the beginning. But with the types of friends I have, most of them probably won’t be around much longer.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting rid of some friends that were never really friends.”

Then a nurse walked in. They said their pleasant goodbyes and Kevin left.

* * * * *

Things seemed very different now that he was back at Blue Scoop. Reynolds went about the corporate business of ice cream as if nothing strange had happened the previous week. Three scoops! was still his battle cry. Eli worked with Kevin his first day back, although he didn’t ask too many questions. The rumors, some true, some not, were flooding through Bellingham. Eli had heard that Kevin had actually stabbed the Canadian with a Swiss Army knife. Eli would get the whole story eventually. He would just give Kevin some space at first.

Kevin had worked half of his first shift back in a daze. He thought maybe he was dreaming, like Janisse had felt on the painkillers. As he was looking around for clues of reality, a man with black hair walked through the door.

“How’s it going today?” Eli asked before the bell on the door had time to stop clanging.

“You Kevin?”

“No,” Eli said.

“Where’s Kevin?”

“I’m Kevin,” Kevin said, deciding this was reality after all.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“About what?”

“About fucking up my girl’s life, is what,” the black-haired man said, as menacingly as he could.

“You must be Ben.”

“Must be.”

“The one who was fucking up her life before I came around.”

Ben pointed at him. “I catch you outside these doors I’m cuttin’ your hands off. You hear me? Both of ’em”

Kevin felt no fear at all. This threat was as deadly to him as a kitten. He had confronted something very like a vampire and come out on top a week ago. What was some ex-boyfriend with a big mouth to him now? Not much. Kevin turned and picked up a slicing knife from the counter that they cut bananas for splits with. He tossed it on the ground in front of Ben. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin said.

Astonished, Ben said, “See about what?”

Kevin walked around the counter. Eli’s pulse was skyrocketing. Even if this didn’t scare Kevin, it was frightening the living tar out of Eli. Kevin pulled up his sleeves to expose his wrists. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin repeated, directly in front of Ben.

Ben stood silent. Maybe even shaking a little. Kevin picked up the knife from the ground, grabbed Ben’s hand, and placed the knife in it. “Cuttin’ time,” Kevin said.

Ben’s silence continued. Kevin shook his head. “Ben, you’ve disappointed me.”

“Kevin, what’s going on?” Reynolds said, walking out of the back office.

“Ben just finished disappointing me,” Kevin said evenly. “I won’t return the favor.” Kevin turned quickly back to Ben and pushed him as hard as he could. Ben stumbled backwards into the glass front of the store and went right through the glass onto the sidewalk outside. The glass broke just like sugar-glass in the movies. Ben lay on the ground, writhing a little. He kept spitting glass out of his mouth. He looked confused. Reynolds ran out the door to go check on the ejected man. He hunkered down next to Ben and called 911 on his cell.

“What have you done?” Reynolds yelled at Kevin.

Kevin walked behind the counter, got a scoop of Blueberry ice cream, and threw it at Reynolds. It hit him squarely in the shoulder of his white button-down shirt. “There’s your third scoop, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Kevin walked out of the store, left his truck in the parking lot and walked home.

* * * * *

He arrived at his apartment two hours later. No police. He was surprised. He walked inside and sat on the couch. After a half-hour, or so, of waiting, he fell asleep.

Knocking woke him up. He had been sleeping three hours. He figured it was the police. When he opened the door he saw Janisse’s mother. She was frowning at him in a very motherly way.

“Hello,” Kevin said, politely.

“Hi, Kevin.”

“How did you know where I live?”

“Janisse told me. She wanted me to thank you. I don’t agree with how you handled it but she wanted me to come thank you.”

“Handled what?”

“Ben.”

“You heard?”

“She did. I think Eli called her.”

“Oh.” Kevin almost looked ashamed.

“Don’t feel too bad about it, he deserved it. But don’t repeat that.”

“I won’t,” Kevin said.

They both grinned.

“The cops never showed up. I thought they would.”

Janisse’s mother shrugged. Kevin noticed she was chewing gum. It was very seductive, as Eli would have said. Kevin could see where Janisse got it from.

 

The Sleep Diet

by Ronald Van Sant

 

Doctor Callenger sat at his desk, watching the online news broadcast while he fondled his father’s World War II forty-five automatic pistol. The world was going to hell. Shit, the world had been going to hell since the fifties. There was no way they could blame it on him. The pile of reports, however, was irrefutable. It was all his fault.

The reporter spoke from behind a wall of riot police in New York. People were killing their fellow humans, just as they had been doing in London for the past five hours. The rioters had killed fifty-eight in New York, hundreds more in London. Both were cities where his diet clinics had large clienteles. Within hours, he expected the same trouble to break out in his city, Dallas, and then finally Los Angeles. He put the freshly loaded clip into the ancient gun.

A rapping on his office door saved him from his dark reverie. At that moment, however, he didn’t want company. “Go away!” The physician ordered, but the pounding grew more insistent. Doctor Callenger placed the pistol into his desk drawer, rose unwillingly to his feet, crossed the office, and unlocked his door.

“It’s you,” he said. “Come in if you must.”

“You’re in a mood.” The night nurse replied. “The patients have received their evening meds. It should have them sleeping soundly soon.”

“OK.” He closed the door, opening it again instantly. “Nancy?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“Tell Dailey I would like to speak with him.”

“Yes, doctor.” She turned and walked down the long hall, lined with doors to the patients’ rooms. It was his clinic, his treatment and he was proud of it. He discovered a way for the overweight to shed pounds harmlessly while they slept. It would have replaced liposuction. Mr. Daily, his research assistant, walked down the hall toward him.

“What’s up?”

“Come into my office please.” The doctor allowed the younger man to pass and then closed the door behind him. “Have you seen the news?”

“Yeah, the world’s gone a bit crazy.” Mr. Dailey had been on the floor, but had caught bits and pieces of news from the clinic’s patients; enough to know there were riots in New York.

“There are people dying, I don’t think ‘a bit crazy’ covers it.” Doctor Callenger moved back to his seat.

“Sorry sir, I was trying to lighten the mood.”

“Well, don’t.” The doctor leaned back in his chair. “I suppose you’ve heard about Rachelle Taylor?”

“The actress? Yes, it’s tragic.” The young research assistant couldn’t have avoided the story. The story broke that morning and was blanketing the news stations. Her pregnancy had been fodder for talk shows. She was a wild woman who partied to excess and no one seriously thought she would be a good mother, but no one could have predicted that she would awaken in the middle of the night and eat her own infant.

“She was your patient.”

“Yes, but you can’t be implying this is our fault. The woman had post-partum depression.” Mr. Daily took the seat before the physician’s desk.

“I discharged her yesterday, after her course of treatment was over.” The doctor said.

“Yes, and if I recall correctly it was a complete success. The patient lost over twenty pounds in five days.”

“Do you recall the side effects of our initial treatments?” The doctor looked at the young man intently.

“Yes, abdominal cramps and intense cravings for meat and particularly fat. Mixing the lipophagic virus treatments with sedatives alleviated those symptoms. Now the patients sleep through the night when the symptoms are the worst.”

“That was a very good idea you had. Losing weight while you sleep is our best selling point.”

“It wasn’t just my idea sir, you were the one to genetically engineer the virus that ate fat cells and passed the byproducts out through the urine. That was the real stroke of brilliance.” The researcher was gratified at such praise, but he felt it was best to show some humility.

“Don’t be so modest; learn to take credit for your accomplishments. That’s how we make a name in this field. I will personally see to it you get full credit for this breakthrough.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Such a credit on his record could make his career. He could just about choose any university in the world for his doctoral studies, any project he wished to pursue.

“Back to the Rachelle Taylor case. We released her from the clinic yesterday at eleven AM and at approximately midnight she ate her child, just tore into him with her teeth. You don’t see a connection?”

“She was diagnosed with depression. Who knows what could have set her off? Nothing to do with us.” The researcher didn’t feel like it was his place to defend the clinic from its head physician. “You don’t think there will be a law suit?”

“It would be difficult to prove. However, there is one point of concern. She was still asleep when she did it.”

“Pardon?”

“She was sleepwalking,” the doctor said. “Her subconscious was in control.”

“Even if that were true, it still couldn’t have been the result of the treatment. The final stage of the treatment was to inject the patient with the antivirus and kill it. I gave her the injection myself the day before we released her. The virus was dead and the sedatives wore off long before we released her.”

“I don’t think so.” The doctor pushed the file toward his young protégée. “Read. There have been similar cases in our London and New York clinics.”

The research assistant opened the file and looked it over. “The virus adapted, mutated. The antiviral serum didn’t kill it?”

“The sedatives put the conscious mind to sleep while the virus ate the fat away; the patients’ bodies craved the lost fat. The subconscious took over—driving the patients to look for what they needed. They sleepwalk. And in Mrs. Taylor’s case the virus drove her to consume the nearest source of meat and fat, her son.”

“That’s not possible.”

“People have driven cars while asleep, and some have even cooked food and eaten while under the influence of sleep medications.” Callenger said. “There have been other incidents. Most cases have been simple assaults. The patient awoke, unaware of their actions.”

“You’re serious.” Daily could feel his newfound career faltering with each word his mentor spoke.

“The mutation went unnoticed and a batch was sent to all the clinics. They started using the new serum today.” The doctor picked up the television remote and turned up the news. The newswoman was reporting that the rioters appeared to be in a murderous trance, attacking and attempting to eat whoever they met.

“Dear god, no.” The researcher felt the enormity of the situation fall on him, he wanted to vomit. “We’ve treated and released over a hundred patients worldwide. What about them? We have to stop the treatments immediately.”

“It’s too late for that.” The doctor said. “The virus’ mutation was more radical than just immunity to the antiviral treatment, it’s gone airborne. Our patients became carriers, spreading the virus to all the general populace. Don’t you think it’s a bit coincidental that all these riots have been breaking out in cities where we have clinics? And that they start in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t make the connection.”

“I did.” Doctor Callenger raised his hand and took back the file.

“What do we do?”

“Drink lots of coffee to stay awake.” The physician said. “We’re both probably exposed.”

“The antiviral won’t work?”

“No. When we go to sleep tonight there is a chance we’ll go into the same kind of feeding frenzy.”

The researcher thought of the patients in the rooms down the hall. “What about them?”

“Soon the virus will cause the sleeping patients to rise and engage in cannibalistic attacks,” the doctor said.

“Aren’t you going to do something?” the researcher asked.

Doctor Callenger reached into his desk and pulled out the newly loaded gun. “Yes.”

“You can’t mean to kill them.” Part of the young researcher wanted him to do it, before they infected him even further. “They’re your patients for christ’s sake.”

“Killing patients wasn’t my intention.” The doctor stood up as sounds of smashing equipment merged with the terror-filled, and soon silenced, scream of the night nurse echoing down the hall. “It begins.”

“Nancy!” Dailey ran into the hall as Doctor Callenger moved to the door as his assistant pushed the blood-soaked bodies of his sleepwalking patients aside to get to the nurse. Once he cleared them away, the doctor could see blood still gushing from her ripped throat. He shut and locked the door and walked back to his desk.

“They killed her!” Dailey shouted from behind the door. “Let me in!”

“Go away!” The doctor pulled his briefcase out from below his desk.

“What?” Daily cried. “They’re coming.”

“Then run, you fool.” The doctor pulled out a pile of files and replaced the ones on the desk. You’ll get the credit you deserve. 

“You’re insane,” the assistant pounded on the door.

“No. Thanks to you, however, I’m going to become extremely wealthy.” Doctor Callenger put the new files into the cabinet. “This plague will spread, carried on the wind. The overweight people of the world will lose those pesky inches they’ve long struggled with. Then they will go to sleep and awaken and seek out the only readily available source of human fat available to them, other people. It’ll be horrible, and I’ll have the only cure.”

“No.” The young researcher screamed. “Help me, let me in. They’re coming.” Outside the door, he could hear the growing groans of hunger that emanated from his patients and the wail of pain and terror from his research assistant as they tore his flesh apart with fingernails and teeth.

The doctor retrieved the file and virus samples. In his hands, he held the only samples of the improved retrovirus. The files he left behind meticulously documented the project research. They detailed how the sample was inadvertently corrupted by an overly ambitious research assistant who died, ironically enough, at the hands, or more accurately teeth, of his victims. Yes, he would indeed give the credit for the discovery to his dead protégée while he himself kept the credit for discovering its cure. The scientific community would soon be praising him as the next Curie.

Sleepwalking patients began to bang on the office door, moaning in primal hunger. The doctor put the files into his briefcase and grabbed his pistol. Although he couldn’t see them, he fired several shots through the door until he heard a body drop. That would give the cannibalistic monsters something to snack upon while he made his way out the window.

Old bones creaked as the physician twisted his body and dropped to the grassy lawn. He grabbed his case and moved nonchalantly toward his car in the parking lot a few dozen yards away. His gray Mercedes waited for him under a streetlight. The doctor, intent on making a clean getaway, failed to notice the lumbering, groaning, blood-soaked mob that came around the building until it was too late.

Reaching into his frock pocket, Doctor Callenger pulled out his father’s gun and emptied the pistol into the crowd. The noise from the weapon failed to awaken the sleepers, the virus was too strong. Two fell, but the group continued toward him unimpeded. They continued toward the physician, intent on live flesh. None of the victims were his patients, apparently the virus had spread more rapidly than he could have imagined. He turned and ran toward the clinic. They were on him in seconds.

“No! Stop! I’m a doctor. I can help you…” He screamed as the teeth tore into his arms, legs and finally his neck causing his blood to spray across the clinic entryway. When the sleepers finished eating, they went back toward the main strip to find more animal fat, intent on easing the insatiable cravings.

 

The Fantastique

by Joseph Jude

 

It was a blurry mass. Mostly black and dim blue. However, there was one point that stood out. It was a mix of pink and green with some red. It was moving.

Ethan became afraid. He tried to focus on it more intently with no reward. His vision was returning at its own pace. He watched the thing’s motion. Then he relaxed slightly, determining that it wasn’t moving towards him. It just seemed to be bobbling up and down. It was the dash board hula girl his kid sister gave him when he first bought his Lexus. It was sideways; or rather the entire car was sideways. Ethan was upside down. Despite a migraine that felt like it would blow his skull apart, he tried to remember what had happened.

He was driving. He had left the office directly after speaking with Mrs. Jennifer Heisensten about the flap reconstruction on her left breast. Both she and her husband, Douglas, seemed quite pleased with the decision to transplant to the chest as a micro vascular flap. There would be the longer healing time on the scar, but Mrs. Heisensten liked the news that the tissue would be taken from another part of her body, and that she could even have an improved abdominal contour. In fact, she requested she have the skin taken from her thighs.

Ethan loved that part of his job. The rich people were always so agreeable when they were told they could look as good as new, even better, whatever the cost. Money was no object but they certainly were and wished to remain so. Even after, when they didn’t look instantly beautiful, they could be talked into believing that more time, and more checks, were all that was necessary. It was such an easy sell. It was so much different from the other jobs he took to get him through school. Many that he lost when he was too pushy with the customers who didn’t want to see it his way.

It was very dark for six. There was a brief patch where he turned off the bridge, a spot of trees and very little traffic. It was never his favorite part of the drive home, and he always tried to make his way through it as fast as possible. It was here that the red truck came at him. It had to be right out of the foliage as there was no intersection. He remembered seeing it at the last second before it collided with the passenger’s side. The Lexus rocked and slid, and he could remember it flipping as it glided off the road, into the forest behind. That was when he blacked out.

His eyesight was finally clearing up. He could see the dashboard and the dark shadowy trees beyond his broken windshield. He tried to right himself, and then he heard the noise. Somebody was walking though the grass, towards him. He turned to the sound of the driver’s door opening, people coming at him. He couldn’t make out their faces in time. He couldn’t make out anything. It seemed anywhere between two and ten people the way he perceived the commotion. So many faces and hands reaching at him.

Then he was out again.

* * * * *

This time, his vision wasn’t blurry. He sprung straight up with a scream. He saw the same events play out over and over in his dreams; variances included strange people doing strange things to him. They were groping, pulling at him. He felt like he was floating. He was moving, he was being moved. Then he wasn’t moving, but he was. He was in something that was moving. He was taken out of his car, and placed in a different one. Then he was floating again. He could hear a terrible squeal, some kind of animal. It couldn’t be. It was too regular. The people were all around him. He couldn’t make out their faces. It was blurry, fractured, as if looking in a broken mirror.

Ethan jumped to attention, swinging his arms and searching around. There was no one there, nobody attacking him. He checked his body, he seemed to be intact.

But he wasn’t safe. He was in a strange place. He was on an old hospital stretcher that was stained and musty. A single bulb hung above him barely lighting the room. He was shrouded in dark hues of umber, a combination of the lighting and the dirty walls.

“It’s okay. You’re protected.”

Ethan looked in the direction of the voice, there was someone approaching him. It seemed to be a woman but there was something wrong with her voice. It reverberated oddly with a deep bass like she had the worst frog in her throat.

“We’ve been waiting for you to come to. You can meet us now.”

Ethan could see her. He could see it.

It was humanoid in the loosest sense. It had a face made up of many faces, different pieces from different people, sewn together roughshod. A blue eye in a Caucasian socket was entangled with a brown eye in an African American socket which led down to a man’s mouth sewn to the right side of another woman’s mouth. There may have been twenty different pieces, sewn together with no concern for symmetry. One side of a nose stretched and twisted into the other side which was far too short to match. Veins were extra prominent due to the inadequate fashion in which they were attached or reattached. Much of the skin seemed ready to rip open from the pieces of skull that jutted out entirely too much. The eyes, the ears, the hairline that held a multitude of different strands of hair, it was a horrible mess of features that stared at him.

That was only for starters, the head sat atop a body equal in it misshapen mess. One breast of the darkest skin was attached to a lily white chest merged to a male sternal region leading down an inframammary region, abdomen and flank of five different colors. There were a lot of patches of blue on it, flesh that blood wasn’t properly flowing to, tissue that was rotting off this living creature.

The thing walked awkwardly towards him. It simply didn’t function well. One shoulder twisted in and out of is frame as if it could snap loose at any second. One leg was entirely too short compared to the other. It could barely keep its balance. An unfortunate amount of curiosity made him glance between those legs. He saw half of what would be hanging between a man’s. It was perfectly halved with exposed insides, and something meshed and pink in the body sewn into the base of it. Ethan quickly looked away.

It was right in front of him. It spoke and Ethan could deduce why its voice was so distorted. Heaven knows what was done to the vocal cords.

“You must come now.” Half of its mouth smiled with some muscles pulling so tight they pressed right through the skin, the Zygomaticus minor and major. The other half of the mouth didn’t work at all.

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to be here.” Ethan was as forceful as ever. No matter what this thing looked like he wasn’t in the mood for its nonsense.

It lost its smile. It rose above him.

“Come. We won’t hurt you. What we have to show you is amazing.”

Hope for an exit drove him forward.

The thing led him down a long hallway. The place seemed to be a typical doctor’s office once. There was a hallway with various rooms on each side. He saw one doorway at the end far ahead without a door that could lead to the entrance from the outside, and he considered just running to it, but decided to wait. Ethan didn’t want to admit he was scared. The thing was a walking card house, but the dementia it emitted kept infecting him to his heart.

The whole time he looked at the walls, the cracks and the mold and occasional foggy picture that hung crooked, left behind from whoever owned this place before. Anything to keep from having to look at his guide; oozing pus, colored liquids, and thick blood flowing from its seams. It opened a door to the left, between two stands with vases. No flowers in them, just dirt and maggots.

They entered and three other “people” turned to Ethan. One spoke. Its voice could be male or female depending on the word.

“Ethan Foree. We’re happy to meet you.”

“Who are you people?”

“We don’t use names anymore. We… are we.”

“Huh?”

“We are a people that exist under a brilliant new philosophy. A solution to the horrors of the world. An amazingly simple one. What our society does instead of tackling the prejudice and hate on a cerebral level, is attack it on a physical one.”

“Physical?”

“We are perfect. We are without individual identity. We are all people, all races, all sexes. Once we convert everyone there will be no longer a reason to argue about differences, about identity. There will no longer be a reason to hate.”

“That’s great.” Ethan didn’t smile. “So when can I leave?”

They said nothing.

Ethan sucked in a gust of air, then asked. “Okay, So… what do you want from… me?”

“We want you to join us.”

“Of course.”

“We regularly choose new members to join our people, but we’re especially anxious about you. Before we cut your driver’s license up, we noticed it said MD. You are a doctor?”

“Plastic surgeon.”

“Oh, that is especially fortunate. You will be of great help to us.”

“You cut up my driver’s license?”

“Yes. We each have a piece now.”

He was looking at the others closely. The one that spoke seemed to have more masculine parts than feminine. At least on the body, the head however was entirely female.

There was more. Hanging off of the body were extra parts. A bicep dangled off its side. An entire arm erupted from its back. Extra patellae protruded from the same knee. Looking closer, Ethan could see additional fingers, toes, ears, noses, and not just on the parts of the body they belong, but sprinkled all over as ugly growths. Bones and joints seemed randomly inserted through the body with skin pulled over them giving the person long spokes, some of which could move and twist by themselves.

The other two people were equally mixed and matched. One had two hands where its feet should be. Its face made up of more hands, fingers intertwined and sewn together except where the mouth, nostrils, and eyes should be. Long thin muscles tightened, and metacarpophalangeal articulations of the hand seemed spread all over the body. For the third one, about fifty eyes covered its body like a leopard’s spots. Some of them still moved and blinked.

“How many of you are here?”

“Millions.”

Ethan figured not to push it. Trying to get straight answers out of these people would be like trying to push a toothpick through cement. He also knew that there had to be a lot of donors for these parts, people that probably didn’t want to come over to their way of thinking.

“What happens if I don’t want to join your community?”

“Everyone joins us.”

“Crap.”

“You should see our newest member. We picked her up a week ago. Like you, she was hesitant, but soon she saw the logic in our life. She is currently becoming part of us. We can show you.”

“I don’t want to see.”

“But you must. You must see.”

What Ethan did see were knives; long, homemade, bloody ones in their hands, and they had a lot of hands.

* * * * *

Ethan was taken to an operating room at the far end of the hall, right next to the waiting room he was first led out of. He had seen the doors back then. It chilled him to think that he was looking at a person in some horrible state just behind them. Ethan didn’t want to go through those doors. He had pulled apart skin and muscle, repaired people after circumstances broke them to shards, and he still didn’t want to see what was beyond those doors.

It was what was behind their logic. The horrible truth behind their logic.

“I’m telling you people, I don’t want any part of this.”

“You’ll see.” The one from before couldn’t stop grinning. It had extra teeth jutting out from its gums.

The mixed people pushed open both doors for Ethan to cross through. He took one step, then another. He tried to stretch it out as long as he could, but he could see his hosts growing impatient. As he moved further in, he could see a curtain drawn in front of what he assumed was the bed holding their newest convert. A light behind lit the curtain blue.

Ethan paced around the curtain to see. There was a thin carcass lying on an operating table. No skin left, much of the musculature had been torn out. Fresh components had already been fastened in some places. Tendons from outside sources weaved with her own, creating new pulley systems for the extra parts to be added later. Additional bones were tied to her leftover ones with locks of dead flesh. A third working lung was imbedded in the remaining leg, alongside new roots for growing hair inside the skin. It was questionable who had the other leg.

Ethan sighed and sucked his lips in as he looked at the head that stared back. It had to. There were no eyelids. Much of the face was removed, and the woman breathed in and out in short, strained breathes. A number of intravenous tubes led into the holes through the remaining portions of her face, the buccinator, the masseter, and the levator labii superioris. The tubes fed her any possible combination of fluids that kept her alive, nothing that Ethan could recognize. Many were a putrid brown. One looked like urine.

“She is still in the process. It has to be slow or she’ll die.”

“How long before she’s done?” Ethan sarcastically pouted.

“None of us are complete. We must continue to change and evolve.”

Ethan mulled his options. There’s no way these thrown together clunkers could outmaneuver or overpower him. Still, those knives. They were all around him. All they needed was a lucky jab, and it would be curtains. On the other hand, there was no way that things were going to get better.

“This is what I have to look forward to?”

“Yes. Beautiful, isn’t it.”

“Can I… Can I have some time to think about it?”

It looked at him. It tried to furrow its brow in a confused expression but the skin just compressed together and one eyeball rolled completely backwards.

“We guess you can.”

It must not be a question too many visitors have asked.

* * * * *

Ethan was led into a small room, a utility room. He was tied to an old metal chair and left alone. They locked the door behind them.

Ethan started to notice the cold. The furnace wasn’t working. Most likely nothing was working. These people probably warmed themselves with bonfires, drank the remaining water out of the toilets, and ate whatever meat they didn’t attach to themselves. Ethan looked around for a clue, more information on them. Who were they? Where did they come from? There was nothing of use.

“Damn it.”

Ethan sat for several minutes in silence trying to formulate a plan. He hadn’t counted on them tying him up. As loopy as they were, these living quilts weren’t totally out of it. He regretted not making a break for it when he was free. He imagined he was stepping in the footprints of the poor girl in the operating room who now stared endlessly at the ceiling while alien flesh devoured her.

His thoughts were broken when the door opened again. Two new hosts entered or was it one? Ethan couldn’t tell. One set of legs stepped in, followed by another set of legs, all belonging to the same animal. It was a jumble like the others. Two of them sharing one torso, a chest from which two heads sprouted out the top and two waists sprouted out the bottom. It was two people perpetually facing each other. It was impossible to pin ownership to either side. Both had backs. There was no front. They shared a pair of arms with thumbs on both ends. Two sets of muscles on each side of the hands with no palms on either. The fingers crudely bent both ways.

The heads turned, and smiled at Ethan. They could’ve been female or male.

“We understand you are unsure about becoming one of us.” One of the heads said. “We can show you the splendor of what we are.” The other one said. Both heads kissed long and hard.

While they kissed, it inched closer to Ethan until it dominated his view. Ethan turned his head to both sides, trying to avoid it. He closed his eyes, tight. He could hear them still, the sound of their lips smacking, body parts rubbing.

A hand suddenly dug into Ethan’s face. He screamed through it.

“Open your eyes and watch.”

“I don’t want to watch this, you freaks.”

“Open them. Open them.”

The hand dug tighter.

“Alright! Alright. Let go.”

The hand unclasped from his face. It drew away from his sight and he could see it, both heads smiling at him. Then they went back to their spectacle. Squinting his eyes, but having to leave them open enough so it could tell he was looking, Ethan watched it explore itself. The hands rubbed over the pieces that one head owned, then the same hands went over the other head’s pieces. Back and forth, all over the legs, buttocks, back, between the legs where they had an arrangement like his first host had. On each waist were mirror images on either side. A half of one male genitalia merged with the half of one female across from another half of each. They could’ve been two halves of the same wholes.

They were designed to fit into each other, although not quite perfectly due to the quality of the surgery.

Ethan could taste sickness in his throat as his stomach churned. He tried to concentrate on not throwing up. This helped divert his attention. He had to keep staring. They would constantly turn to make sure he was watching to see how fabulous this freak show was. Their sex organs slid in and out of each other. As before, there was no skin to cover the insides of what was cut off and they chafed against each other too. Brownish clear liquid slimed between it all, dripping off. The same could be said for the rest of its body where the cuts and seams were only fairly seamless, and the ordeal and rubbing was too much for the form.

They continued anyway, moaning and groaning. Their expressions contorted in eccentric ways. Their teeth glistened nonstop. Part of it was the way their new faces were constructed, but Ethan knew that despite whatever psychoses these people were suffering from, they were also in a lot of pain. They probably didn’t even know why at this point. They hopped onto this strange answer to whatever problems they were tormented from before and continued to push, convinced it was the cure. All the hurt it caused only persuaded them they needed further adjustment.

Ethan wasn’t even paying attention. His eyes were locked on them but he wasn’t seeing. His face had settled into a sad relaxed gaze. They did manage to instill a sense of understanding.

He felt pity for these people.

They climaxed together, dripping with blood-tainted sweat. Weakly, they both faced him and beamed, totally converted to their twisted world.

* * * * *

The two-headed creature left, and Ethan was alone again for a minute. Then they all came back. The one who spoke the most, the leader who probably first dreamt up this crap, approached Ethan.

“Have you made your decision?”

“I have… I want to get the fuck out of here.”

It sighed. “You still do not grasp our reasoning. You still hold on to your desire to be separate. Why?”

“Why?”

“Everyone we’ve ever known who wanted to be separate, wanted to so they could hurt others. Why do you want to hurt others? We can cure you.”

“I don’t want your cure. I don’t hurt anyone. I’m a doctor. I’ve spent my life healing people.”

They didn’t respond. Ethan made an attempt to reach out.

“I can heal you. All of you.”

The leader thought a moment.

“Of course, I understand now.”

“You do?” Ethan could tell it didn’t understand in the least.

“I see what you need to understand.”

“What?”

* * * * *

Dr. Foree was back in the operating room. Back standing over the girl picked up a week ago. This time, two small tables stood on each side of him. On one was a collection of the tools they had been using; old scalpels, saws, needles, thread, pliers, screwdrivers. Everything was rusted solid. On the other table were the materials for use; a forearm, a thigh, the gaping head of a thirty-some-year-old man, and a pile of random skin.

The crowd waited eagerly behind him.

Ethan looked at the girl, at the table of parts, at the knife in his hand.

“What do you want me to do, exactly?”

“Do what your expertise tells you. Heal her. Complete her.”

“I… I…”

“You said you could. Don’t you do it all the time?”

“Not like this.” Ethan looked at them. The leader, especially, was getting edgy. Ethan couldn’t think at all. They wanted him to—what?

Go hog wild? Chop and sew this girl any way he wanted like she’s a blank canvas?

He looked down at her. She was still conscious. She was witnessing everything that was going on. Worse, she was probably still feeling it. Ethan was hoping that the agony she had gone though had short-circuited her sense of comprehension, but maybe not. She looked up at him, blade in his hand, intention to cause her more pain to impress these nuts and buy him time.

“DOCTOR!”

“Alright.”

He looked at the supply table. He avoided looking at the head, lest it look back as well. He focused on the arm. Making a show out of inspecting it, he picked it up, looked at all the sides, as if there was actually something he was trying to determine. Then his took his knife and slid it into the dead limb, cutting through the skin, removing a rectangular piece as if he was a butcher cutting lunch meat. He carefully lifted the hunk of skin, all the while knowing that it made no difference if the damn thing bounced off the floor a few times.

Cradling it in his hands, he took another look at the fidgeting crowd. Then he laid the skin down next to the girl’s side, and looked at the knife in his hand. He would have to jab her with it sooner or later.

He looked at her eyes, blank but alive.

Ethan could feel his heart beating so much it almost hurt. He could hear her heart beating just as rapidly. It was pretty easy to, considering how exposed her insides were. She was aware.

He lightly pressed his knife against her shoulder, what remained of it, about to push harder. He could draw blood with a feather nudge.

Then, inspiration hit him.

“Anesthesia.”

No one said anything.

“I said anesthesia.”

They looked back and forth to each other. The eye-spotted one spoke. “We—we have none.”

“You have none? How do you expect me to work without it? In fact, how do you expect me to work with any of this? These tools are totally inadequate.”

“They are all we have.”

“That will not do. I am the expert and if anyone knows how to properly apply your theory to living subjects, it would be me. Now, to complete her as well as the rest of you, I need the proper tools. Then you will all be… perfect.”

The leader spoke. “Really?”

“Yes.” Ethan was grinning ear to ear, his best salesman smile.

“Before I complete any more work. I will compile a lift of necessary items. Then a few of us will go to retrieve them, and yes, I must go with you. Only I have the knowledge to pick out what we need. Once we have done that we can start on truly transforming you all into flawless people.

They all smiled. They were excited.

“Tell us. We have no time to waste.”

Ethan rattled off some random items; whatever came to mind first; lipo suction cannulas, nagata sculpture knives, an auricular septum elevator, some diamond dermabraders, and a flux capacitor for good measure. They scrawled down the words on a tablet. Then, they exited the room. They had to gather clothes, and ready themselves for another trip outside. They would have to be extra prepared. They were doing more than simply running someone off the road this time.

They all scurried out, leaving Ethan alone with the patient. He thought about trying to make a run for it, but considered that it might be better to wait until he was on the road. He could overpower whoever there was riding with him, and take the car to the police. They might try to tie him up again for the trip though. He would have to have some bullshit ready, a reason why he must be free.

Ethan remembered the girl behind him. She was quivering. She was crying.

He wondered if there was any way to save her. Nothing that he could think of could undo the damage. Even if she did live, would she want to? Worse, what if he came back with the cops and they weren’t here. What if they went on the lam, taking her with them. This may be the last time anyone normal would have access to her.

He knew what he had to do to heal her.

Ethan grabbed the bottom of the curtain, scrunching it up. He took the curtain in both his hands, and pressed them down on what was left of her face. Her body shook violently for about a minute. Then it was done.

He couldn’t hear her heart anymore.

He turned away from her and the leader was right there, stabbing him in the stomach. Stunned, Ethan dropped to his knees. Soon the others were back, surrounding and holding him.

“We believed you.”

“Wait, you—you don’t understand.”

“We should’ve known. You have none of us in you yet. You are still tainted. We have to introduce you to us first.”

It lifted its knife.

“NO! WAIT!”

It held Ethan’s head firm and placed the blade to his cheek. Ethan pulled, but couldn’t move. He could feel the blade sliding under his skin.

“Wait! Wait! I’ll do it! I’ll really help you! Whatever you want. I’ll join you. Stop! Just for a second. Please!”

“But why would I stop if you want to join?”

It slit deep into Ethan’s face. He felt it cutting in, deeper and deeper. It felt like it was going to reach his eye. He screamed then blacked out.

“One way or another, everyone becomes part of us.”

* * * * *

Ethan awoke. He was on the stretcher. The pain was extraordinary. He instinctively grabbed his face then pulled his hand away when it hurt even more. He looked at his palm. It was coated in blood. Ethan’s breath trembled. Low, quick moans of panic escaped him. His hand leveled over his sore that he couldn’t see but feel. He wondered how much of his face was left. He lightly tapped parts of his head to see if the skin was intact. He could determine the breaks directly below his left eye to his jawbone, through his lip. There must’ve been a good two-inch chunk missing.

Then he deciphered another pain, one farther down, around his thigh.

Terrified, he slowly pushed himself upright, constantly glancing down his body, then looking away, not wanting to see what they did. Finally, the point of violence came into his view.

His right leg was gone, cut from the femoral depression. In its place was a small, more slender leg, a woman’s leg sewn on.

A mix of horror and disgust filled his scream. He tried to grab the leg with his hands but couldn’t. His hands wouldn’t touch it. His whole body shook, including the foreign leg that shuddered both to his body’s instructions and of its own authority, a parasite trying to become one with him.

He couldn’t stop spilling out small screams.

Eventually, his brain functioned again and he realized an important fact. He was alone, and he wasn’t tied down.

He was still in the operating room. He looked next to him, the table where the woman still laid. Ethan looked at her right thigh where there used to be a leg.

“Fuckers.”

He looked around. He didn’t hear anything. He needed a weapon. There were the doors that led to the hall. There was another small door, some kind of closet.

He swung his body, lowered the legs to the floor and lifted himself off the stretcher. He could feel the slow cold oozing of blood down the rest of his face. More spurted out the seams between his body and the leg. He tried his best to operate the new appendage, but it only worked on a rudimentary level. When Ethan concentrated, he was able to support his weight on it for a few seconds, enough to limp on it and use his other leg and his arms on the surroundings to move about.

He pushed the stretcher along with him, leaning on it as he made his way towards the closet door. He pulled it open. Inside was a pile of unused limbs and organs. Flies and maggots infested it all.

He noticed something else. The pieces were all on top of some kind of clothes. He strained to reach down without falling. He pulled on the cloth. The parts tumbled out of the closet, but he pulled out what seemed to be a few straight jackets with more possibly underneath. The first skin shed by these people.

Nothing else of use, he limped himself and the stretcher over to the hallway doors. He slid one door open a bit, peeking down the hallway.

It was a clear path.

Ethan knew he had to hightail it. He was already feeling weak and dizzy. He pushed open the door, cursing himself for the loud noise it made. The stretcher was even worse. Its old rusted wheels wailed down the hall, alerting everyone to its movement.

The entrance in front of him opened and one of the mix people came out, the leader.

“You cannot leave. You are part of us now.”

Ethan was ready with the proper course of action this time.

“You want part of me? Have my fist!”

Propelling himself from the stretcher, he sprung forward, driving his clenched fist out. He connected with the leader who dropped backwards. Ethan fell to the ground too. He was feeling very faint at this point. He squinted his eyes, concentrating on the one necessary task of getting up.

He pushed himself to his feet, feeling backwards for the stretcher to brace himself. He could see the leader struggling on the ground. It was plain how Ethan managed to drop him with one shot.

The mix’s neck had tore open and its head hung only by a few cords. It gagged and choked out, striving to speak, juices gushing out all over the floor.

“Just shut up damn it.” Ethan looked at him. It was a prime moment when he could poise his disgust with these people and what they were doing with what he thought was the most humane solution to their disease. Steadying himself on the new leg just long enough, he stomped down his own foot through the leaders head. It exploded like a water balloon.

Ethan had to keep it up. He picked up the leader’s blade, and continued pushing the stretcher down the hall. More doors opened and more mix people charged out at him, their eyes fluttering in disbelief. Somehow, despite how many times victims must have rebelled, this group still could not process that anyone would want to fight back. Familiar from before, these people rushed at Ethan. They couldn’t run, they really could only move with a minute amount more precision than Ethan. He swung the blade across and clipped all three of the fanatics across their necks and faces, dropping them. Loose meat ruptured out of the holes, spraying Ethan across his own wound. This only made the doctor angrier. Even in death, these things were trying to merge with him.

Next, the two-headed creature appeared in front of him, as shocked as the others. Each head had something to say.

“Please, don’t leave.”

“Please stay.”

“You can join us.”

“We always wanted you to be part of us.”

“GET OUT OF MY WAY!” Ethan jabbed the blade straight down between their heads into the one chest. Both owners gasped, and then looked at Ethan, simultaneously screaming “NO!” The devastating terror of being torn apart was all over them. They grabbed his hand, trying to force it back up. Instead of pushing the blade farther down, he yanked his hand back out of their weak grasp. Each of his hands grabbed a head, and he pulled them away from each other. Their mouths swung open but silent as he pulled the being apart, leaving only a second long gusher of blood and organs that dropped to the floor.

“Anyone else? Huh? I’ll rip your arm off and beat you with it.”

Ethan slid a bit, walking over the remains, but was gaining confidence in his new limb and didn’t fall. He heard the screaming behind him. He looked at three more beings coming out of rooms that he already passed, people that he hadn’t seen before. One was missing a head and had its face sewn into its stomach. Another slithered out, no major body parts, just a twisting stalk of necks and random skin bound together with an elongated head on top, possibly made of several fractured skulls. The last was a web of torsos and limbs. It took the most time to crawl, spider-like into view. On top of a thick neck were three heads that met at the mouth, each piece taking the place of one lower jaw. All three heads had a brain inside; all three clicked their teeth against each others. Their eyes shifted all around, fighting to get some of the view. These things were spectacular in a way. A marvel of engineering despite the fact that none of them worked right. They all struggled to get down the hall. It was clear why it took them so long to make an entrance. Ethan decided not to even pay them mind, and instead rushed forward toward the front door.

Outside the door was a small staircase that led up to another door. Ethan left the stretcher behind and climbed up. Unlocking the deadbolt, he slipped out into the deserted street. The fresh night air hit him, and he felt a second wind.

He couldn’t tell where he was. It looked like an abandoned neighborhood, mostly closed stores and empty lots. Ethan didn’t know what to do, where to go. He wouldn’t last long; he was too weak, dying. He scuffled along, scanning everywhere. Behind the building was a parking lot with several cars, all covered by tarps. Ethan hurried to them. Yanking a few of the tarps off, he found several different vehicles, including the Ford Truck that hit his own. Wherever they obtained the cars was questionable, what they were used for wasn’t. All of them were smashed in the front or back. Ethan tried the door on an old Dodge Ram. Not surprisingly, it was unlocked. The keys left in the ignition.

“Mental patients.”

Ethan started the Dodge. His first idea was to clear out of there, but then he saw a pack of matches in the ashtray. All of these cars were probably sitting in a similar state of readiness, and Ethan figured out a way to improve the circumstances.

He used his good leg to hit the gas and sped the truck around the corner, past the doctor’s office. After several feet, Ethan swung the truck around, and flew it right back to the front of the office. He braced himself under the dashboard as the truck bashed through the front of the building. When he felt the thing finally stop moving, he poked his head up to see that he had broke through all the way to the main hall.

He couldn’t see where any of the mix people were, nor did he care. He swung open the door and climbed out the truck to the gas tank, carrying with him the matches and a map from the glove compartment. Twisting the map up into a long stalk, he opened the flap to the gas tank and stuffed the map in leaving a good portion of it pointing out as a wick. Enough for him to light. He climbed out the front hole he made.

Ethan limped all the way to the parking lot when he heard the explosion. He could see the orange glow from the front of the building and smoke was already rising out in large puffs. He stepped into an old white van, its keys waiting to be turned. He slammed the pedal, and was on the road in no time.

He looked behind him. The fire was clear to be seen but none of the tenants were. He was very weak now, could barely keep his eyes open. The bright white lights of a gas station drew him. When he saw an eighteen-year-old kid rushing to his bloody body that had spilled out of the door, he knew it was safe to pass out.

* * * * *

It was five months later. Ethan’s friends had pitched in to ensure he received the best treatment, many handling the work themselves. His face never looked the same. In spite of their best efforts, there was just too much lost. Luckily it was only half of his face, and he always had a joke about his good side at the ready. His exercise was a bit grueling at first, but he adapted to the prosthetic leg sooner than anyone thought. With the help of a cane, he was back to moving naturally. He couldn’t do much surgery anymore. He settled into teaching and advising roles, and of course, there was an interest in his story for its potboiler value and among the medical profession. Indeed, seeing the work the mix people completed did give him a unique perspective on just what medicine could accomplish and the human body was capable of. Whether or not it should be accomplished was another story.

The police thoroughly investigated the area, especially the remains of the doctor’s office. None of the mix people could be found, although a slew of dead bodies, or what remained of them, were uncovered. It took a while for the police to identify them as teeth, fingerprints and any other parts that could be used to establish identity were intentionally removed, even from their dead. No individuality, no names, just flesh.

Ethan wondered whatever became of them. The detectives gave him a few updates when he inquired. Ultimately, there was no resolution. No mental hospital ever emerged as the source of the mix people. No occurrences in which they appeared again. Ethan wondered what the survivors could be doing now. They could be dead. They could be mixing themselves with animal parts. They could be joined together into one giant muddled mass, which he assumed was their eventual goal.

Ethan was concerned about whether they would come back for him. He figured that they probably didn’t even remember who he was, just more meat. Then again, he was an expert on bodies. Perhaps the reason why the mix people’s methods would never work was that there are simply some things the body doesn’t want, just as there are some things the body does. He remained a little scared because, if nothing else, there was always the possibility that one day, wherever it was, that leg of his would track him down.

One Bad Choice After Another

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

“Tell me one more time why I agreed to this.”

Karen looked at me with embers behind her green eyes. The headlamp she wore cast a glare as she stared at me, making it difficult to tell if the fire there was at all playful.

“Because,” she said, her tone suggesting she was more irritated than I’d hoped. Not that I could have hoped for anything else, really. “You’re the one who is always bitching about needing some sort of adventure. Something exciting. Well here we are: excitement coming out of our asses! Happy now?”

She was right. As always. I had been the one that insisted we explore the cave we found while hiking. I had, in fact, been the one that insisted we go for a hike at all. Everyone else would have been happy hanging at the camp and swimming or reading or doing anything other than wandering aimlessly through a cave that had so many passages you had to wonder how the ground didn’t collapse.

Still, her tone had been a little sharper than necessary, but I guess that’s marriage for you. Some days one or the other of you is wound just a little tighter than usual, and the words come with just a little too much zing attached.

I swallowed the burst of anger in my throat and reminded myself that we were all tired. We had hiked for nearly three hours before we even found the cave, and the four of us had wandered for close to another three before we would admit to ourselves we were lost. That had been nearly six hours before.

And still, the fact that it was my fault we were there hadn’t changed.

So, I left off my usual sarcasm. I took out my water bottle and had a long drink before I leaned against the wall and said: “Sorry. I’m just a nervous talker.”

“I know, babe.” She smiled weakly, but I could tell her exhaustion had her feeling raw on the inside.

“I think we should all take a rest for a minute. What do you two think?”

Rachel dropped her pack to the ground and plopped down beside it. She unzipped it and dug around inside for a moment before pulling out a water bottle and two Clif bars. She tossed one to her husband, Alex, before tearing into her own. He sat down beside her and took a drink from her water bottle when she offered. The four of us had been friends for well over a decade, but I could tell that at that moment they both wished they’d never met either of us before.

When they finished eating, Rachel looked at her watch and let out a bewildered sigh.

“Well, I think we should think about setting up some sort of camp. We’ve been walking all day. And all night for that matter. I need to just sit here for a while or I’m going to collapse. It’s dark outside, anyway. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the exit.”

“I agree,” Alex said, leaning back against the rock wall. “I could use a little more to eat, and maybe even a few hours sleep. I hate to ask this, but does anyone have any idea where we are?”

“We’ve been in this same stretch of cave for the past three hours,” Karen said. “Which makes me think we’re nowhere near where we first entered. There were tons of side tunnels coming off that first tunnel.”

“Yeah,” I said, remembering. There had been one to our left after only about fifteen minutes after we set foot inside. From there we passed a tunnel on the right or left every twenty minutes or so. “We’d walked for close to two hours before we made that first right-hand turn.”

“That was when we first heard the water,” Karen said, her eyes glazed with memory. “We never did find that damn river.”

The statement hung in the air like an insult handed to you just after someone socked you in the gut. We all felt it, but it stung me the most. Just like all the other events of the day, it had been my idea that we try to find it, after all. The whole day had just been one bad choice after another.

“So, we should turn back, then, right?” Rachel asked, looking first to Alex, then to Karen, and then, finally, to me.

It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to speak. There was something in the question that seemed charged, loaded. Like it might explode in our mouths if we tried to answer. We all just sat there, leaning against the rough stone walls, looking at anything but each other.

“It doesn’t really help that none of us know what we’re doing,” Alex said.

We all agreed silently. For my part, I had never been in a cave that hadn’t also been some kind of tourist attraction, and I was pretty sure that was true for the others as well. That fact alone should have been enough to keep us all outside.

“We should never have come in here,” I said.

“Well now,” Karen said. “That’s not going to help us get out of here.”

“I know. I just feel like shit for getting us all into this.”

“As you should,” Alex said, grinning beneath the light of his headlamp. “Come on, man. We all chose to come in here. You didn’t force anyone.”

I frowned, wanting to believe him. I didn’t.

“I say we all try to get some sleep,” I said, changing the subject. “We can try to come to a decision once we’ve had a bit of rest. Right now I’m so tired I can barely think at all, much less straight.”

Everyone nodded and grumbled their consent. We spent the next few minutes digging Clif bars and individually wrapped cheeses out of our packs and then stuffing our faces. We made sure not to eat all of our rations, though, just in case it took us longer to get out of the cave than we were all hoping. After our impromptu dinner by headlamp, Rachel and Alex curled up together beside the cave wall. They mumbled a half-hearted “good-night” and then turned off their lights. I could see they were using their packs as pillows, and I wondered vaguely if that was comfortable.

Karen and I decided to try the same arrangement, but without much luck. She had always been prone to insomnia, even in the least stressful of times. With a real reason to be anxious—like being lost in a cave, for example—sleep was as unattainable for her as the Fountain of Youth is for everyone else. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, she sat up and whispered to me in the dark.

“It’s no use,” she hissed. “I can’t sleep. I’m going to go a little further down the passage to see if I can makes heads or tails of where we are. It might help us decide if we should turn around or not.”

“I’ll go with you,” I whispered back, sitting up.

“No. Try to get some sleep. I won’t go far.”

“I really think we should stick together, Karen. What if something happens and you get hurt?”

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Hang here and get some rest. If I’m not back in half an hour or so, come find me.”

After eight years of marriage, I recognized that tone. There would be no arguing with her now that her mind was made up. I could try, of course, but I knew how it would end: both of us pissed at each other and even more unhappy than we were when we started. She was going to do what she wanted no matter how I felt about it.

“Okay,” I said, more than a little irritated.

“Don’t worry,” she said again. “I won’t be gone long.”

She turned and switched her headlamp on. I leaned against the wall and watched as it moved steadily away from our mock camp. After a few minutes, the passage must have curved, because the light vanished. I looked at my watch. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I would give her half an hour and then I’d go after her if she wasn’t back yet.

I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes for half a second. The stress of the day and all the energy I had spent hiking worked together so that that brief instant was all it took for me to fall dead asleep.

* * * * *

Rachel pushed me gently, and I woke with a start. A quick glance at my watch told me it was just after five in the morning.

“Fuck!” I said aloud, and then to myself: Why do I screw everything up?

“Is Karen back?” I asked. As I looked around the makeshift camp, the panic in my throat eased for an instant as the hope that she’d returned while I slept popped into my mind.

Before Rachel shook her head in response, though, I knew she hadn’t. She would have woken me.

After spending about five seconds making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I turned in the direction I last saw Karen heading and was off.

“When did she leave?” Rachel asked from behind me after a quarter of an hour. I hadn’t turned to check, but I could sense that both she and Alex had followed me from the start.

“Around two,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“You let her go off alone?”

“Come on, Rachel. You know how she can be sometimes. I tried to go with her, but I got the feeling she was just wanting to be alone for a little while. She’s probably just up the tunnel here, curled up asleep.”

“Maybe.”

She sounded about as certain as I felt. Karen required more solitude than most people, and sometimes if she could go off by herself for a little while she could get around her insomnia long enough to catch a little rest. But, unfortunately, as the minutes ticked by and turned into an hour, we still hadn’t found her. Asleep or otherwise.

After two hours of walking I was growing very nervous and was having trouble keeping myself calm enough to keep moving. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore uncertainty, we came to a fork.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.

“When in doubt, Merriadoc,” Alex said from behind, “follow your nose.”

I wanted to laugh. I did. He was trying to ease the tension we were all feeling, but I just didn’t have it in me.

Which way did she go?

I felt so desperate that for a few minutes I actually did try to sniff out a difference between the two tunnels. Maybe if I’d had any experience spelunking I could have detected something, but to me both passages had the same musty dirt smell that I’d always associated with basements and Halloween Haunted Caves.

Even though I couldn’t smell a difference, after a moment of standing there I thought I did detect something. Not in the smell, but in the sound. There was a deep, rhythmic pulse that I almost felt more than heard coming from the right-hand passage. It was a very slow and drawn out sound, but it repeated over and over: hhhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. Hhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. It seemed so familiar that I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time. And then I had it.

It sounded like someone breathing.

Sleeping, to be more exact. It sounded like someone—or something—breathing while in the midst of a deep dream.

It was so faint, though, that I had almost convinced myself it was my imagination. If Alex hadn’t said something then, I probably would have ignored it.

“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Do you think it’s Karen sleeping up ahead?”

The terror that had been growing in my chest gave way for a moment. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. “Maybe,” I said, hopeful.

I stepped a few feet into the tunnel, straining to hear. “Karen!” I called, still a little spooked, so that I didn’t do it as loud as I could. The breathing seemed to pause for a moment, but then resumed.

I started to go deeper in the tunnel, and Rachel followed.

From behind Alex asked: “What if it’s a bear?”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” I said and continued without pausing.

About a hundred yards down the passage the floor fell away to a steep incline. It wasn’t a straight drop, but it would have been a nasty fall if I’d come upon it unawares. We stood there for a moment, looking into the darkness.

“I don’t think Karen came this way,” Rachel said as she and Alex crowded around me at the edge of the slope, hoping to see better.

“Neither do I,” I said. Something about the place felt wrong. There was thick dust and muck over everything. “I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a long, long while. Nothing looks like it’s been disturbed recently.”

“Right. And when did you get your Tracker’s merit badge?”

“Okay, Alex, good point. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but something about this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Karen would have come this way alone.”

“She could have not been paying attention and fallen,” Rachel offered.

I frowned and shook my head. Looking more closely at the ground, I noticed that the ground was much softer through this part of the cave. I looked closely and was able to spot the footprints the three of us had left as we came through. I pointed it out to the others.

“While Alex is right,” I said, “and I don’t know shit about tracking, it really only looks like three sets of tracks have come through here. I don’t see anything by the edge of the slope, either.”

“Neither do I.” The voice came from behind us so suddenly that it startled us all, but none so much as Rachel. She let out a gasp that was almost a shriek and jumped almost two feet into the air—away from the source of the sound. Which meant toward the drop off.

When she landed, a large rock slipped out from under her foot, and her momentum carried her toward the edge of the precipice. She slammed down hard on her tailbone before her momentum carried her into Alex’s legs, sending him tumbling after her. Alex cried out in either fright or pain—I couldn’t tell which—and then the two of them went crashing into the dark.

Karen was at my side and holding my hand in an instant. I nearly jumped out of my skin again, but the realization of what had just happened dawned upon me. In stunned silence, Karen and I turned toward the sound of Rachel and Alex’s calamitous journey down the slope. When the crashing came to an end, I waited for a moment before calling down after them.

“Alex? Rachel? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”

It took a second, but Alex’s voice drifted up from below.

“We’re all right. A little banged up, but nothing seems to be broken. There’s a pretty nasty drop off at the bottom here. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get back up without some rope.”

“I found a way out,” Karen yelled. “I can run back to the camp and bring rope and help.”

“Yeah, you might want to do that.”

There was something different in Alex’s voice. Something that sounded very much like fear. A second later I thought I heard Rachel say something. It sounded like a question.

“Mike,” Alex yelled. “I think there’s something down here with us.”

Then Rachel screamed.

Karen gripped my hand with one of hers and squeezed my bicep with the other. Her nails dug deep into my arm.

I gasped as Alex’s voice joined his wife’s. A second later both voices were drowned out by a sound unlike any I had heard before. Somewhere between a screech and a snarl, the sound brought goose bumps across my flesh as it echoed through the cavern.

The timbre of the screams in the dark below us changed. They went from a bone-chilling tone of fright to a sickening chorus of pain as a second screeching/snarling voice joined the first. Then a third came, and a fourth, until there were so many that it was impossible to count. Within seconds Alex and Rachel’s voices diminished. Eventually, they died out all together.

Karen began to back away from the edge of the downward slope, her face a mask of panic-stricken terror. The way her headlamp illuminated it against the utter darkness of the cave around us suddenly seemed to me the most frightening part of everything that was happening. It took me a second to realize she was still clinging to my arm and pulling me away from the slope with her.

I almost began to protest, not wanting to leave Rachel and Alex behind, but then I heard something from the pit below. The things that had attacked my friends, whatever they were, were talking to each other.

I couldn’t understand their language, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was intelligent communication. This, on top of everything else, was just too much. As we turned to run, I heard something else from the bottom of the slope. Despite my better judgement, I paused and cocked my ear in order to hear what was going on. The things were still chattering to each other, but there was a strange scraping sound that I couldn’t quite place. In a gift of vision, it suddenly occurred to me that what I was hearing was these things crawling up the rocks toward us.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Karen’s hand. She led the way out, taking me into the passage we’d ignored when we first heard the strange breathing sound.

“The way out is pretty far,” she said. “But if we hurry, I think we can make it.”

We took off running, with her in the lead. The cave was much rockier and wet here, not to mention that it had a fairly serious uphill grade. Our boots fought for every foothold, and we both slipped several times as we tore through the tunnel. Once or twice we lost our balance and hit the ground. As these happened more often, I became aware of sounds behind us. Scratches, grunts, and other disheartening sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and I felt the same terror from before sprung to life anew in my throat.

But each step we took brought fresher air that carried with it hope. Hope that we might actually make it to the outside. What we would do when we got there was irrelevant. One goal at a time was all my mind could handle at that point.

Karen slipped and fell, crashing down hard on her left knee. She let out a cry of pain and slumped onto her right side, cradling her knee.

We had been running for half an hour by then, and how I was able to pick her up without stopping still confounds me. But I lifted her onto my shoulder and carried her through the cavern on a wave of adrenaline. My pace was slowed, though, and I could hear the sounds of our pursuit growing closer.

“I can walk now,” Karen said several minutes later.

I grunted and picked up my pace, not trusting her knee yet. If she was wrong and stumbled again it would likely mean our deaths.

Minutes ticked by and the cave grew closer around us, making it difficult for me to carry Karen. I ducked and slid as much as I could, but the passages were shrinking and my back was starting to get pretty adamant in its protests. Not for the first time since we set out to go hiking yesterday, I made a decision.

“We’ll try it now,” I grunted. “Be ready to run the second I put you down.”

“I will.”

I heard in her voice the same fear that was in my mind: what if her knee won’t support her?

Pushing the thought as far into the back of my mind as I could, I paused for an instant and set her down. She stumbled on her first step, and I nearly grabbed her. But she stayed up and kept moving. I could tell it was causing her serious pain the way she was favoring it, but we were keeping a pretty brisk pace regardless.

Seconds turned to minutes and as our pace began to diminish, the sounds of pursuit were getting louder. I spared a glance back once and thought I saw something, but it had to have been my imagination. If it had been as close to us as I’d thought we would have died seconds later.

I was beginning to lose hope, beginning to think that maybe lying down and letting them have me not be so bad after all. But then it appeared. It started as no more than a thumb-sized dot, but each step I took brought it closer: sunlight.

The sight of it renewed me, and Karen must have seen it, too, because her pace quickened as well.

We were sprinting by then. How we managed to keep our feet in that rocky terrain is a topic for theologians to discuss. All that mattered was that the sunlight was getting closer, and we would be safe there.

I don’t know why I believed that, but I did. Maybe I read too many stories as a kid or maybe something was happening on a deeper, more instinctual level. Either way I thought—no, I knew—that we would be safe as soon as we hit the surface.

As if sensing the same thing as I, but preferring a different outcome, the things behind us began moving faster, narrowing the gap between us. The snarls and screams and screeches were getting louder faster than the light was getting closer. I thought I could feel the heat of their breath on my skin, and imagined they were nipping at my legs, taking tiny scrapes of flesh with them until my skin felt sunburned.

Fear and pain mounted, and with one final burst of speed I didn’t think either of us had left in reserves, we broke through the cave mouth. As I crossed into the morning sunlight, I felt a jab of pain in my left heel and went tumbling forward. I rolled head over heel down a rocky hill, eventually slamming back first into a boulder and stopping.

Through the haze of pain, I could make out several shapes in the mouth of the cavern, crossing back and forth, yammering to each other. They were pointing at me and Karen, who had run down to where I’d fallen and was leaning against the same boulder I’d crashed into, gulping air and nursing her knee. Otherwise she seemed fine.

The creatures were never completely visible. They ducked in and out of the pockets of shadow inside and around the cave. At first I thought they were very doglike, but the longer I watched them the more they took on feline characteristics.

Covered in what looked like filthy, matted fur, their snouts were long like a dog’s with large mouths and very sharp teeth. Saliva dripped from their chins and large tongues as they barked and chattered to one another. They sat on their hindquarters and held their front paws in front of them, though to call them paws is a little misleading. Long, slender fingers with sharp claws opened and closed in ways that were uncannily hand-like, and it seemed that they might even have had thumbs, but it was too far away to say.

“They seem like they’re trying to decide something,” Karen said between breaths.

She was right. I got the distinct impression that they were discussing something, and I didn’t need three questions to guess what it was.

I looked at my heel, which was now but one of many injuries commanding my attention. My whole body, especially my head, throbbed with a pain so intense I was finding it difficult to understand what was happening around me. My sock, just above the top of my hiking boot was torn and soaked in blood. I pulled myself up on the boulder and tried to put weight on my left leg and nearly passed out from the pain.

The chattering of the creatures got more excited.

Karen, seeing the extent of my injuries, and not knowing what else to do, found a long, straight stick that I could use as a crutch. I thanked her as I leaned against it, still feeling nauseous from the last attempt at walking.

I took one last look at the creatures, which seemed on the verge of disregarding whatever it was keeping them at bay and coming after us, and started moving as fast as I could away from them and down the hill. I was in too much pain to worry about whether we were headed toward the camp or not, but luckily Karen had a clearer head. She removed the old-school GPS her uncle had insisted we take with us the day before. It took her a few minutes since we were afraid to stop moving, but she got us pointed in the right direction. We thought we had the radio with us for a moment, but then we remembered that Rachel had been carrying it.

We were lucky in one small way: since we hadn’t returned the night before as expected, and since they couldn’t raise us on the radio, Karen’s aunt and uncle had organized a search party. Several of the members of this party knew about the caves in the area and had sent people to all the known entrances. We stumbled upon them about twenty minutes after exiting the cave.

Help was called in and we were escorted back to camp where the police had already arrived. They weren’t very convinced by our descriptions of the creatures or our accounts of what happened to Alex and Rachel, despite the fact that they questioned us separately and our stories matched exactly.

I can’t say I blamed them. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

Another search party went out, headed toward the cave we used to make our escape. We warned them repeatedly and begged them not to go, but I think that just made them more suspicious of us.

Karen and I were taken to the hospital to make sure we would be well enough to be taken into custody. My achilles tendon had been severed, and the imagined cuts on the backs of my legs turned out to be real. Most of the skin on my legs and parts of my back and arms was gone. On top of that, I shattered several ribs when I hit the boulder, which was also when I got the concussion.

The good news is the doctors say I’ll be all right.

It’s just going to be a little while before they can get me in to surgery. In the meantime, I have the morphine which is administered by the all-powerful button to keep all my troubles at bay: the pain that won’t stop, the screams of Rachel and Alex that I still hear, and the feeling that those—things—are still nipping at my legs that I can’t shake.

The morphine is all that I have to help with all of that, and it isn’t working.

 

The Night Jennifer Lopez Ate My Soul

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Sometimes I hate her.

She lays there, her arms wrapped around her pillow, sound asleep. I throw the covers off and pull them back on, but she’s oblivious. Her foot is twitching like it does when she’s having a really great dream, too.

Sometimes I really hate her. 

I glance at the clock and groan when I see it’s already 3:42. If I fall asleep now, I can still get three hours. I can function on three hours.

I roll over again and pull my leg out from under the covers for what has to be the hundredth time. It’s still hotter than the seventh circle of Hell. I look up at the ceiling fan and wonder why the people that designed it didn’t include a more powerful setting than ‘high.’ Something along the lines of ‘ludicrous speed’ would suit me just fine.

I manage to tilt my head so that the brunt of the fan’s airflow is hitting me in the face. After a few seconds of enjoying this, my body relaxes and I can feel the first gentle caresses of sleep brush my mind. Within seconds, I drift into sleep.

I jump at the sound of breaking glass.

The clock now reads 3:49.

Fuck, I think. What now?

I try not to wake Rene, though it would serve her right, as I slip out of the covers. There is another loud crash from the kitchen; my heart leaps into my throat. All thought of sleep is gone as I reach into the closet and remove my baseball bat. I’ve never owned a gun, and for the first time I wonder why.

The cold feel of aluminum in my hand gives me courage. I take a deep breath and, making as little sound as possible, I creep out of the bedroom. Expecting to find a man with a black ski-mask waiting for me in the kitchen, I almost drop my bat when I espy the shape of a woman standing just inside the door.

“John,” she says.

I stop. How does she know my name?

“I’m glad you’re awake. I need your help.”

“Do… do I know you?”

She giggles. “I need you, John. Come with me.”

Something about her voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Stepping closer, her perfume tickles my nose. She reaches out and takes my hand. I let the bat slip from my fingers, and it slams against the floor. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder why Rene hasn’t woken up.

“Come on, John. Follow me.”

She leads me through the door, and we step out onto the front porch of my parents’ old house. This is strange for several reasons, mainly because that house was torn down over ten years ago. This strikes me as odd, but before I can comment on it the girl turns, allowing me to see her for the first time.

My heart skips. Standing there in nothing but a see-through teddy is Jennifer-fucking-Lopez.

I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

She tosses her hair over her shoulder and smiles. Her skin glows in the moonlight, and her curvaceous form dances in the breeze like the flame of a candle.

“Come on, John. Let’s go,” she says. 

Her voice is soft and sultry, and I can feel my baser animal urges fighting for control of my mind. She takes my hand again and pulls me to the end of the porch.

Reason is replaced by desire, and I follow her down the stairs and into the driveway. She turns and tosses her hair again, beckoning me with a slender, dexterous finger. I follow her around the garage where she leans against the wall, caressing her belly.

“What are we doing here?” My voice sounds odd, distant.

“Well,” she says with a smile. “I couldn’t fuck you in there with your girlfriend watching, could I?”

My knees almost buckle. Before I can answer her, she reaches out and pulls me close. Kissing my neck, she pulls my shirt over my head. Hard nipples rub against my chest as long fingernails make their way across my back. I feel myself grow hard against her. She pushes me to the ground and straddles me, giggling.

“There’s nothing like a good outdoor fuck, is there?” She giggles again.

She kisses me as her fingernails dig into my chest, flooding my senses with a strange mix of pleasure and pain. She arches her back, and I can feel her growing moist.

Saying nothing, she reaches down and rips open my boxers. This show of strength is surprising, but all I can think about is her warmth. She laughs then. It is not the girlish giggle from before. It is… darker, somehow.

“Ready?” she asks. Her eyes glow, and her expression is that of hunger.

I answer her with a kiss. Our tongues dance and she pulls away just enough to tease me. She runs her hand along my chest again and without warning impales herself upon me. Ecstasy unlike any I’ve known before courses through my body, and she assaults me with her mouth. Alternating between subtle flicks of her tongue and small bites, she works her way up my neck. Her breath is heavy in my ear, and her thrusts grow stronger and more violent. She claws at me, her nails digging deep enough to draw blood; her bites are no longer playful. She rips a chunk out of my shoulder, and I scream.

Crimson runs down her chin, and she smiles devilishly. I try to push her away, but she wraps her arms around me, refusing to let go. Her strength is monstrous. With a cackle, she continues to ride me, but my exaltation from before is gone forever, replaced by revulsion and pure pain.

I grip her chin and fight to keep her mouth from tearing any more of my flesh, but my fingers slip in blood. Realizing I can’t hold her, I change my grip and close my hand around her throat. She laughs.

I squeeze her neck, but she doesn’t notice. She rocks back and forth, cackling. I try to push her away again, and in the process I look down.

My legs are gone.

I scream and redouble my efforts. Pulling my hand from her throat with ease, she puts a finger to my mouth and shushes me.

“It will all be over soon,” she whispers.

She thrusts again, and another few inches of my body enter her. I flail my arms, trying to grab hold of something I can use to pull myself out of her, but my fingers find only empty air.

She thrusts again. And again. Within seconds I’m in up to my armpits. I cry out, begging for her to stop. She laughs and thrusts again.

In my last second, I look up. Her face has changed. The comely face of J-Lo is gone, replaced by the twisted countenance of a hag. She thrusts one last time, and everything disappears.