Take-Out

by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

 

I’m Harvey Hickman and I’ve got the most dangerous job in America… I’m the pizza delivery guy.

Oh, I know, I know. Some people argue that the Chinese food delivery guys have it worse, or maybe the mailmen, uh, mailpeople. But c’mon, the guys that deliver your Chinese food travel in gangs that ride around in hopped-up Japanese crotch rockets and they carry fully automatic weapons (even though they’re still illegal), and those folks that deliver your mail show up in armored personnel carriers with specially modified cannons that shoot your mail right onto your porch or through your window, and besides, most folks just use email nowadays anyway—so no, it’s me alright. And that’s why the chicks love me and all the guys hate me, ’cause they all wanna be me (I mean the guys, not the girls).

It all started when the Rift happened. BTR (Before The Rift), I was just a skinny loser with perennial acne, a crappy car, and an even crappier job—pizza delivery guy. I mean, I couldn’t get laid if I were an egg! Even tips from my customers were rare. I’d be standing in someone’s doorway wearing that stupid Pizza Pete’s paper hat on my head, my hand held out for some sort of gratuity, and more often than not I’d get the door slammed in my face. What really burned me was hearing them all laughing at me from the other side of those doors. Now, not only do I get big tips, but there are plenty of times when a beautiful woman will show up at the door in just her undies and pull me inside for a little “afternoon delight.” Ah yeah, life sure is sweet now… but hey, don’t get me wrong—it’s still dangerous as hell. Literally.

*****

I don’t exactly know what happened, maybe nobody does, but the word on the street is that about a year ago some scientists working on a sort of secret collider project on a little island in the East River accidentally tore open a hole in the so-called fabric of time and space. Well, whatever it is they did, it turned into a real mess…

You see, that tear in space or whatever—what we now call the Rift—allowed all kinds of creatures from some other dimension (or whatever!) to enter our world and cause all kinds of trouble. At first it was just Manhattan, but soon after it became the tri-state area, and then the whole country. All kinds of weird animals and monsters were soon roaming through every neighborhood, attacking and eating people, pets—anything they could catch. There were hundreds, heck, thousands of them—all different kinds, but they all had two things in common: they were all mean and they were all hungry.

The cops put up a good fight at first, but it was just too big a job. It took the military to get things under control, but as the weeks and months wore on it became clear that these creatures (Rift Dwellers we call ’em) weren’t going anywhere—they were the new reality. But folks still had to make a living, and the president even went on television and told everyone to continue with their lives and go back to work. A lot of people did just that, and a lot of ’em got killed. So then it became legal for everyone to carry a gun, and plenty of folks got together and formed armed carpools and were able to get back to work, but by then the damage to what they call the national psyche had been done. People in general were still really afraid to go out, with thousands of folks stuck in their homes or offices—too afraid to get out and go back home, work, shop, or just get something to eat without being eaten themselves. People were starving, and law enforcement and the military were stretched too thin to be everywhere at once.

That’s when guys like me became the new rock and roll gods!

Now it’s another Friday and I’m sitting in the back room at Pizza Pete’s with my feet up and my 3-D glasses on—watching a movie between gigs. And there will be another gig soon, my eighth of the day so far, since Fridays are our busiest days.

“Yo, Harv,” came Joey’s voice from out front. “Have another delivery for you—lock and load, babe!”

That’s Joey Riccio, he owns Pizza Pete’s. I never actually met Pizza Pete, in fact I don’t know if there ever was a Pizza Pete.

I walk out into the dining area, past the heat of the ovens, and nod hello to the regulars. The regulars are actually a guy and two women that were here when the Rift opened and have been too scared to leave since. They look a little bedraggled now; their eyes have dark circles under ’em and their hair’s a little dull and shaggy. Marla, that’s one of the women, was pretty once and she used to smile a lot. Now she still smiles a lot, but in that weird kinda way that tells you she’s close to losing it. I’ve offered to escort them home plenty of times (especially Marla), but they’ve always been too scared to leave.

“You got two cheese pies, same address, right across from the park. You also got a pepperoni pie, buffalo wings, and a couple of two-liter sodas mid-town,” Joey said, taping invoices with the addresses on them on to the boxes.

I take the boxes and wings, and slip them into the wide vinyl sleeve that’ll help keep them nice and hot. Next I grab the sodas and drop them into my backpack. Lastly, I check my weapons. My main arsenal consists of a Mossberg semi-automatic sawed-off shotgun, a .38 Colt Diamondback revolver with the heat-dispersal vents along the top of the barrel, a two-shot .22 magnum Derringer, and a really, really big Bowie knife.

I prime the shotgun, sling the pack onto my back, grab the vinyl case with the pizzas and wings in it, and back out of the door.

At first the bright blue sky of outside dazzles me, but my eyes adjust quickly enough and I make it to my car without incident. I put the pizzas and sodas on the passenger seat, and turn in time to see a Bagger and two Hump-Lizards heading my way. A Bagger looks exactly like a plastic supermarket shopping bag, and it floats in the air or scoots along the ground just like those bags do when a breeze gets a hold of ’em. But then you notice that there ain’t no breeze and by then it may be too late—the Bagger whips itself over your head and suffocates you. Then it slowly starts to digest you, but eventually other RDs (Rift Dwellers) find your fresh corpse and help themselves to the feast. Hump-lizards are mastiff-sized lizards with 3-inch claws, 6-inch fangs, and humped backs that ooze acid.

I considered blasting them but changed my mind, jumped in my car, and took off instead. I mean, c’mon, I had to get those pizzas delivered in thirty minutes or less!

Speaking of my car, I got rid of the Yaris and now I drive a black, armored, super-charged, 2012 Chevy Camaro with bullet-proof windows and tires. This baby’s basically a tank that can do 240 mph on a straightaway, and shatter windows for a block when I crank the system up and blast music from the six titanium-reinforced exterior speakers. Holla!

I delivered the first pizzas to an address on East 71st Street and Fifth Avenue with virtually no problem—I just wound up running over a couple of love-struck Vampires, dodging some real persistant Baggers, and blasting a Raticorn (kind of a giant rat with tusks and a horn) that came running out of Central Park and right at me.

The second delivery was a little more eventful. It was in the “Lipstick” building on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. A few office workers got stuck there when the Rift happened and just never went home. There’re a lot of places like that all over—people saw their friends, family, even heavily-armed military guys get torn apart right in front of their eyes and it freaked them out. They don’t want to end up some RD’s meal and figure it’s a whole lot safer to stay put… and they’re right.

Luckily, I find a parking space right out front (hey, this is still Manhattan!) and while I’m getting the pizza out of the car I hear a roar off to my right and it’s getting closer—I already know what’s coming and I brace myself. They come zooming around the corner in tight formation, the sun gleaming and glinting off their helmets and Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles. A Chinese food delivery gang and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re making a delivery at the same address I am. They stop right behind my car and drop onto their kickstands in unison; like they’ve been rehearsing it for years. I finger the safety off my shotgun.

The leader of the gang saunters over to where I’m standing, checks the skies and removes her helmet—shaking free her long, glossy black hair. Oh shit, it’s Lisa Lim; so that means that this gang is the Sunny Garden crew… a very tough bunch.

“How ya doing Harvey?” she asks, putting one hand on her hip and resting the other on the snub-nosed Heckler & Koch fully automatic rifle slung over her shoulder on a Hello Kitty strap. “What are you doing in Sunny Garden territory?”

I sigh and repeat what I’ve told her a bunch of other times, “It’s only Sunny Garden territory as far as Chinese food is concerned—I deliver pizzas.”

She laughs and I can hear the rest of her all-female gang laugh under their helmets. I think I already mentioned how I don’t like being laughed at.

“If I say it’s Sunny Garden territory, Harv,” Lisa says, “then I’m talking about any and all food; and that includes your lousy pizza!”

More laughter. Then her voice and attitude get much more serious. “But tell you what, we’re going to do you a favor and deliver your stale pizza for you… isn’t that nice of us, Harv?”

While she’s talking I’m trying to figure a way out of this mess. I check my watch—I only have seven minutes to go before the customer gets a free pizza and it comes out of my pay. I’m sweating. I figure I can take Lisa and maybe two of her crew with the shotgun, but then they’d just chop me to bits with those automatic weapons of theirs. Then, as if she were reading my mind:

“Don’t try anything stupid, Harv,” Lisa says as she swings her rifle in my direction. I notice that the rest of her gang does the same. In unison again. Like synchronized swimming. Cute.

“Just give us the pizza, whatever you have in the backpack, your weapons, and your wallet. If you’re real nice and quick about it, we might let you keep your car.” There’s more laughing, so I don’t feel too bad about what happens next. Very slowly and deliberately I pull my knife out. I check my watch—four minutes to go.

Lisa sees me slide the 12-inch blade from its leather sheath and her eyes go wide in surprise. I hear the loud click as she snaps the safety off her rifle.

“That was a very stupid thing to do Harvey,” Lisa says menacingly as she levels her rifle at me.

I take a deep breath and use it to yell one word as loud as I can, “Incoming!” I point above and behind them, and luckily a few of them do turn to look. It’s their yelps of fear and surprise that make them all turn and look. That’s when they see the Baggers, hundreds of them, coming right at us.

Lisa’s gang forgets all about me as they point their weapons at the fast-approaching RDs and begin firing. The noise is incredible! I haven’t heard a racket like that since the early days of the Rift. Lisa’s firing her weapon too, and to their credit, the Sunny Garden crew shred dozens of the Baggers—but there are plenty of the little bastards to go around. Lisa’s gang really is doing a good job of fending off the attacking Baggers; but then they’re all wearing helmets. In fact, the only ones not wearing helmets are…

Lisa stops firing her rifle at the Baggers long enough to once again turn it towards me, “Saved some for you Harv,” she yells over the clatter of her gang’s guns.

I figure I’m done for and mouth some quick prayers—thankful that at least I’d finally gotten laid before I died.

Suddenly a Bagger swoops down and covers Lisa’s head, immediately wrapping its translucent appendages around her neck and pressing itself tightly against her face to deprive her of oxygen.

Lisa drops her gun and opens her mouth to scream, or maybe take a gulp of air; I don’t know which, and it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t succeed at either. She starts pulling and clawing at the Bagger, but it’s fastened itself onto her pretty tightly; and its skin is tougher than it looks. I check my watch: two minutes.

I grab my pizza bag again and start for the building when I spot a shopping bag bulging with Chinese food hanging from Lisa’s motorcycle, and I make a decision. I take my knife, slice through the elastic cord holding the food, and grab the bag before it hits the ground.

I spin on the ball of my foot, knife flashing, and I cut open the Bagger on Lisa’s face, saving her life but opening up a gash on her pretty face that’s gonna leave a nasty scar. I duck under and slice apart a Bagger that was coming for me and sprint for the building; with at least twenty of those Bagger bastards right behind me.

I make it inside, leave the Baggers outside, and grab the elevator to the third floor. As soon as the doors open I run to suite 3404, my sneakers squeaking as I skid to a stop in front of the doors and press the buzzer. The door opens and a gorgeous brunette with soft gray eyes and a beautiful smile is standing there. She’s wearing a blazer that matches the color of her eyes; part of what was once a chic business suit. I check my watch: nineteen seconds to spare.

“Well, another minute and I would have gotten a free pizza,” she says with that great smile.

“Nineteen seconds,” I say with a smile of my own. We exchange food for cash, and I remark, “That’s a lot of food for just one person…”

“Yes, it is,” she says with another smile as she opens the door wider and steps aside.

I start to step inside when I notice that there are already two other guys in the room. The older guy, in shirt sleeves and tie, salutes me with a glass he’s holding; the amber liquid inside sloshing around.

As soon as I realize my mistake I quickly step back out of the room. What I thought was an invitation was just her showing me she already had company. Now, I just stand there feeling idiotic and I can sense the color rising in my face. The woman in the gray blazer notices of course and says, “Those are my neighbors from suites 3406 and 3409… they’re lawyers.” She whispers the last two words as if she’s imparting some secret knowledge to me in confidence.

“We were just going to eat and watch the news, see if anything’s changed. You’re, uh, welcome to join us,” she hurriedly adds at the end.

I hear the faint rat-a-tat of gunfire from outside; Lisa’s gang still doing battle with the Baggers. Then I remember the Chinese food I’m carrying.

“I, uh, gotta deliver this,” I stammer as I hold up the torn shopping bag with the Chinese food inside. Something must have spilled because it’s leaking some sort of brown sauce.

“Oh!” she says in surprise. “You deliver Chinese food, too?”

I can only nod dumbly and turn away, heading back to the elevators. During my elevator ride up to the 11th floor, I mentally kick myself over and over for losing it during my delivery to suite 3404.

“That was the old Harvey Hickman,” I admonish myself. “The new Harvey Hickman is a red-hot lover, monster killer, and ass-kickin’ Chinese food delivery gang fighter!”

By the time I reach the 11th floor, I feel a lot better about things and I ring the buzzer next to a highly polished wooden door. A brass plaque on the door reads, “Rift Systems: Division 1.” Rift Systems? The Rift? Could this be a coincidence? I look around and see that there are no other offices or suites, which means that this Rift Systems: Division 1 (whatever that is) takes up this entire floor. The hair goes up on the back of my neck; there’s something weird about this.

I’m about to press the buzzer again when the door opens and some military-type ushers me inside. The soldier closes and locks the door behind me.

“Put that on the table over there,” he says. “And try not to get whatever’s leaking outta there on anything.”

I nod and look around; more than just a little surprised at what I see… The entire 11th floor looks like it’s been converted into a gigantic lab, with steel tables, computers, screens, gadgets, cubicles and scientists all over the place. There are soldiers too, although not many, and I wonder what the hell is going on.

“How much will that be, son?”

The voice, tinged with a slight southern accent intrudes on my thoughts so suddenly that I jump. Another soldier, this one an officer I guess by all the ribbons and medals on his jacket, walks over to me and asks again, “So, what do we owe you?”

I remember the amount written on the invoice stapled to the bag and I tell him. He counts out several bills and I see him add a $10.00 tip for good measure.

“Thanks, uh, thank you, sir,” I say as I stuff the cash into my pocket.

The officer glances at my weaponry and nods approvingly. “Glad to see you’re loaded for bear, son,” he says. “Times call for it! But hopefully that’ll all be in the past soon and things can get back to normal.”

“Normal?” I ask as I look around the room. This guy is starting to scare me. “What do you mean normal?”

The officer puts a big, meaty hand on my shoulder and points at a guy in a lab coat. “See that man there? He is the world’s foremost expert on the Rift and he’s figured out a way to close it,” he says.

“C-close the Rift?” I ask. My head swims; I can feel the old Harvey Hickman bubbling to the surface.

“Here, let me introduce you to the man that’s going to save the world,” the officer says as he steers me toward the guy in the lab coat. “This is something you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids about someday!”

We walk over to where the man in the lab coat is standing, talking to two foreign guys in tweed jackets.

“Professor,” the officer says; interrupting their conversation. “I know you’re busy but I just wanted to introduce you to a fan… or at least he will be once you get rid of this goddam Rift!”

The professor stops his conversation long enough to turn towards us. He’s a regular looking guy, about my height, a fringe of graying black hair surrounding about three-quarters of the dome of his bald head, and he’s wearing glasses. “A fan, huh?” The professor says this while he looks me up and down like I’m some kind of specimen. “Come back in another three months, the Rift will definitely be gone by then and you can be a fan all you like, until then I’m too busy to talk to some delivery boy.”

The professor turns his back on me and dismisses us with a wave of his hand. He continues his conversation with the two guys in tweed and basically forgets I ever existed. Just like the bad ol’ days BTR (Before The Rift), when everyone pretty much dismissed the old Harvey Hickman as being someone unimportant; someone of little or no consequence… while I’m having this, uh, revelation, the officer has me by the arm and he’s leading me back to the door.

“Sorry about that, son,” the officer says. “The professor’s a busy guy, but hey at least you got yourself a nice tip out of it!”

Suddenly, I make up my mind—I know what I have to do…

I spin on the ball of my foot, much like I did with Lisa and the Baggers earlier, and I march back towards where the professor was still conferring with the two guys in tweed.

“Hey kid, what are you doing? The professor’s too busy to talk to you right now,” the officer calls out loudly from behind me. “You have to leave now, let’s go!”

The other soldiers look on curiously; they’re all carrying sidearms but no one reaches for their weapon.

The professor, maybe wondering what all the yelling is about turns around and faces me. I whip out the Colt and shoot him exactly two inches above the bridge of his nose. The guys in tweed look on in shock until I shoot them too. Then all hell breaks loose.

By the time I leave that suite on the 11th floor, everyone in it is dead. I feel bad about the soldiers, they were only doing their job, but I had to stop the Rift from being closed… had to.

My backpack is heavy with all of the hard drives and other electronic filing equipment I plan to toss into the Hudson. Whatever hardware or software I couldn’t carry out of there I made sure to thoroughly destroy. I found a couple of manuals with lists of passwords for a series of online backup files that I plan on deleting as soon as I can get to a public computer in an internet café or somewhere…

I feel a stitch in my side and I put my hand there—it comes back wet with my blood. One of the soldiers back in the suite must have hit me. It’s not serious, I’ll live.

I take the elevator to the lobby and peer outside through the glass doors, expecting to see Lisa and her crew still out there waiting for me. To my relief, they’re gone—although it looks like they took the time to tag my car with that lousy silver spray paint that’s impossible to get off.

I limp to my car as quickly as I can, toss my backpack, the pizza bag, and my shotgun in, and climb behind the wheel while the sun starts to go down on another day. In the distance a sticky-cat yowls its welcome to the coming night, while from somewhere closer I hear the coughing sound made by a Fool You/Kill You. Soon all of the night creatures will be up and adding their own weird and unearthly sounds to the chorus.

I reload my weapons, start the car and put it in gear. I pull a u-turn and point my car’s nose uptown, towards the George Washington Bridge. I know a doctor in Jersey that’s terrified of leaving his home and he owes me a couple of favors, I’m sure he’ll patch me right up. Then it’ll be back to delivering pizza… and killing monsters.

 

A Girl’s First Time

by Elizabeth Stephens

 

“Would you stop that? Please, you look fine. Now stop fussing with it.” Lauren stepped over to Jenna and snatched the ribbon from between her fingers. Lauren rolled her eyes and tried to look condemning but with the music of the costume shop rattling the glowing orange walls as if the whole thing were one giant boom box the expression quickly became much more gentle and much less sinister.

Ashley was somewhere laughing, wreaking havoc on the store’s customers. She appeared from around a neon yellow stand wearing a bright white wig pulled down over her long, dark hair. Her bangs shot out over her forehead in every direction, but beneath the harsh fluorescents her bronze cheeks glowed. She’d spotted the grim face of a gargoyle hanging on the wiry black rack to Jenna’s left and as she swept past the girls, she tossed the wig to the floor and pulled the bloody, ghoulish mask on instead.

“I’m a monster!” she roared, charging at Lauren and Jenna with her slim shoulders squared. Lauren screamed and Jenna’s pulse quickened. She watched the ribbon slip from Lauren’s fingertips and pirouette to the ground in soft, crimson curlicues.

“Would you guys cut it out?” Jenna stammered as she reached down to get it.

Lauren laughed, but Ashley was already off, chasing a group of middle schoolers down the next aisle. Jenna couldn’t tell by the sound of their screams who was having more fun—Ashley, or the kids—and then she was distracted by the pressure of Lauren’s fingers tracing soft lines down the length of her arm. Swiftly, Lauren pulled the long piece of satin from her grasp. Lauren’s eyes seemed speculative in the mirror’s gaze, never condemning, but somehow Jenna felt something feral and snakelike stir inside of her at the contact, that lulling touch.

Lauren’s lips curled up into a smile as she ran the ribbon slowly around Jenna’s narrow waist. “Well, it’s not anyone’s fault but your own that we’re here right now, little miss I’m-too-cool-to-buy-a-costume. How could you forget a costume, Jenna? It’s Halloween.”

Jenna scowled so hard it hurt.

Lauren tilted her head to the side and stood back to admire her work, but Jenna hardly felt it mattered. Jenna knew that Lauren didn’t need the little halo on her head or the small feathered wings to make her look like an angel. With long yellow hair and blue-green eyes, she already looked perfect. Too perfect.

Lauren tapped her full mouth with a manicured finger and said, half to herself, “I think you need something, I just can’t figure out what.”

At the same time, color flashed in the doorway behind them, and in the mirror’s gaze Jenna caught sight of two men walking into the costume shop. They came to a dead stop at the sight of Ashley, bent over the front counter, flirting with the boy at the register. Jenna watched their eyes travel up the long line of Ashley’s legs, jutting out from beneath a skin-tight naughty nurse’s outfit until one guy shoved the other and they staggered forward into the shop. Jenna sighed while Lauren picked up three different kinds of face paint and held them up at eye level. She frowned and put them all back.

“What?” Lauren said, lips pursed.

“What.”

“That swoon.” She mimicked the action and came upright laughing. “Don’t get all romantic on me now.”

Jenna pouted. “Why can’t I do that?”

“Do what?” Lauren picked up the wig Ashley had been wearing earlier and placed it on the gargoyle’s now vacant rack. It stood out, a light among monsters.

“Do what you and Ashley do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Ashley just got a date wearing a disgusting ghoul face.”

Lauren perked up, smiling. “She did? Already?” She laughed and then said fondly, “That girl is crazy. It looks like we’ve got some catching up to do.” Her pupils dilated and Jenna’s heart sank. She turned back to her reflection and though it had only been a few seconds, she thought she looked paler now, and sick.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” Lauren said with a blonde brow cocked.

“What?” Jenna tried to sound contrite, but her pale cheeks were already warming.

Lauren held onto her shoulders and laughed, the sound coming from deep within her belly in a place that was full of confidence and verve. Jenna wondered if she could ever laugh like that. If maybe, after tonight, she would.

“You’re worried about not being able to get a date to Trish’s party. That’s what all this costume nonsense is about.”

“No, it’s not,” Jenna said too quickly. “And I’m not. I just…”

“You’re going to be fine. Just be yourself.” Lauren perched her pretty face on Jenna’s shoulder and Jenna felt all her insides tighten to tiny metal knots. Her focus was torn between Lauren’s gaze and her ribbon, as if either one or the other was responsible for keeping her together. At this point she wasn’t entirely sure which. “I promise,” Lauren whispered. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?”

Jenna shook her head.

Lauren ruffled Jenna’s hair and then smoothed it all down again, with a mother’s touch. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Now?” Jenna’s voice was strained.

“Yes, now. Before Trish and her pack descend on the streets and all the good ones are taken.” Lauren drifted towards Ashley at the register while Jenna lingered a few moments behind. She stared at herself in the mirror and attempted to mimic the way Lauren or Ashley smiled, but she only looked uncomfortable at best, and at worst, constipated. Lauren called her name from the register and Jenna turned away from her reflection. As she approached Lauren mouthed a single word. The word was “perfect.” Jenna gulped. Though she didn’t feel worthy of the adjective she still followed Ashley and Lauren out of the costume shop, and together they stepped out onto the street; no longer three girls, but a nurse, an angel, and a kitten.

*****

The carnival on Warwick Boulevard was at its peak when they arrived, just after ten thirty. Jenna looked around at the people swarming the asphalt and realized that they’d come at the precise moment when Halloween day was nearing it’s crest and descending into Halloween night. It was early enough still that the youngest kids, dressed as superheroes and princesses, ghosts and goblins, were just beginning to head in to tally their newly earned treasure; but late enough that the older kids felt safe enough to crawl from their caves and head to the bars for their own personal brand of trick or treating. Carved pumpkins stared out at the street from nearly every storefront. With gaping mouths full of large, square teeth Jenna sometimes imagined she could hear them talking. Their eyes watched her as she walked. She wondered what they were thinking as a rush of warm air swirled past her, lifting her hair away from the arc of her shirt’s neck, which was as deep as a satisfied smile.

In front of her, Ashley was twirling through the crowd, dancing in a way that suggested she’d never been embarrassed of anything before in her life. When Ashley did another spin Lauren said loudly, “Ashley, you’re going to run into someone.” And then she did.

Ashley crashed into an Elvis making out with a white rabbit underneath the harsh glow of a streetlight. It was bestiality at its finest, Jenna thought to herself, though the snake in her belly stirred reflexively and she was filled with heat, and longing.

“Whoops.” Ashley laughed, coming back to Jenna’s side. Ashley tilted her head up towards the stars, though there weren’t many tonight, and fanned the top of her dress open. When she lifted her wrist Jenna caught a glimpse of the tattoo she had there. In a slanted, looping scrawl four neat words embroidered her tawny skin, Sweetheart, are you listening? Jenna had never asked her about it, and as she attempted to decipher a meaning she remembered that Ashley had another tattoo hidden just beneath the deep V of her dress’s collar. She wanted to say something about it, but her curiosities dissolved as Ashley’s eyes found her face.

“What?” Jenna said bluntly.

Ashley began bouncing, an impulse she couldn’t control. “Did you know that Halloween predates Christianity?”

Lauren groaned, “Oh god, not this again.” She looked down at Jenna, whose height she eclipsed by nearly five inches, and pretended to whisper. “She does this every year.”

“Hey, don’t be mean. You know Halloween is my favorite holiday of all time.”

Jenna smiled. “What’s so great about it?”

Ashley hardly needed the encouragement. She said, “It’s a Celtic holiday and was celebrated on the one night between Autumn and Winter when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest.” She waggled her fingers in Jenna’s face, brown eyes wild.

“So, then what?” Jenna said with the ghost of a smile. “The dead walk the earth?”

Ashley looped her arm through Jenna’s, voice saturated with conspiracy. “The dead and then some. You know the tradition of carving pumpkins was started to keep us protected from the monsters that haunt Halloween night. It was said that their menacing faces would ward off the hungry spirits.”

“Does it work?”

“I carved my pumpkin yesterday, have you carved yours yet?” Ashley lifted a thin black brow.

Jenna rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Then I guess we’ll see.”

Jenna’s adrenaline spiked at the stark notes of menace she heard in Ashley’s voice, and Lauren shoved the naughty nurse into the ever-thickening crowd. “Cut it out, weirdo.” Ashley just smiled.

Lauren took hold of Jenna’s hand as the density of the mob smashed into them, nearly preventing them from moving forward. Warwick emptied into Fisherman’s Field and right now they were being funneled into the carnival’s main entrance. As Jenna’s eyes canvassed the crowd and the flashing lights just beyond it, she remembered coming here with her mother, father, and little brother not too long ago. She and her little brother would run through the hay maze terrorizing one another, her father would win her a teddy bear at the ring toss, she and her mother would gorge on sapphire blue cotton candy, and at the end of the night they’d all ride the Ferris wheel and race each other to the stars. She felt her lips tighten and her eyebrows come together. She didn’t talk to her parents much anymore.

“Ashley,” Lauren said, “go scout for us. I’ll need a detailed report on the hottest guys here and keep in mind who Trish brought to the last party. If you can, snag us a couple boys who are even more beautiful and bring them to the Ferris wheel. We’ll catch up.”

Ashley swooned, collapsing into Jenna’s arms. Jenna gasped and struggled under her weight while Ashley sighed, “Oh my god, that boy was positively delicious.”

Lauren rolled her eyes and helped Jenna lift Ashley back to her feet. “Get out of here,” Lauren said, laughing. After a second Ashley saluted both girls, and then disappeared into the mob as swiftly as a shadow. Lauren turned to Jenna then, giving her an apprehensive look. Her smile had almost fully fallen. “What’s wrong? You seem off. You’re not still thinking about Trish’s party, are you?”

Jenna scoffed, saving face, or at least trying to. “Well, now I am.”

Lauren’s smile returned as they stepped onto the field and gravitated towards the bright lights of the merry-go-round and the eerily seductive music that accompanied it. “Don’t even say it.” She spoke in that lilting way she often did, touched with just a hint of her previous life in Louisiana. Jenna felt her nerves flutter. She had to remind herself that even though Lauren looked so young she could seem so much older. Jenna closed her eyes and leaned into the weight of Lauren’s cool touch while the lights of the approaching Ferris wheel rained over them both, like fireflies. Jenna thought again of Trish’s party, and meeting all of Lauren’s friends. Nausea overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Lauren ignored her. “They are going to love you. You’re going to fit in perfectly, I know these girls.”

“Yeah, I know,” but it had to be perfect, “but still…”

“But nothing,” Lauren said, “You’ll be fine. And besides, I think I see Ashley.”

Seconds later Ashley bounded up to greet them, a large white teddy bear stuffed under one arm. “Hello lovelies.” She motioned over her shoulder and said, “I have a couple people I want you to meet. Connor and Jon. I met them at that balloon game over by the bouncy castle—they were losing horribly until I showed up—but anyway, we got to talking and they want to come with us to Trish’s party.” She feigned embarrassment. “Sorry L, I may have let the details slip.”

Jenna felt the hard curve of Lauren’s elbow clip her ribs as two boys Jenna hadn’t even noticed began to approach. Ashley continued talking but Jenna was lost in the boy on the right’s piercing blue gaze. He was beautiful, with shaggy russet hair and a light shade of stubble covering his hollow cheeks. He looked like the football players Jenna remembered from high school, though they’d never been interested in her then. But this boy stepped right up to her. He tugged down on the hem of his shirt, rubbed his square jaw, and touched the back of his neck. There was restraint in the way his hands twitched towards her, and in the way his eyes fought not to look up into her gaze. Like he was humbled by her. Like he couldn’t look away.

Jenna held out her small hand and it was quickly swallowed by his large one. He introduced himself again as if he’d forgotten that Ashley had already done it for him. “Hi, I’m Jon. Jon Weldon.”

“Jenna,” she said, feeling her stomach flip when he said his name. “It looks like you boys forgot your costumes.” She swept her eyes from Connor to Jon then back again.

Both boys laughed and she was surprised. She hadn’t entirely meant to be funny. Connor shrugged and said coyly, “Eh. Halloween’s never really been my thing. This dork over here wanted to dress up as Luigi and Mario but I was the rational one who talked him out of it.”

“That’s too bad.”

Lauren smirked and nudged Jenna with her hip. “Coming from the girl who I nearly had to hog-tie to get into cat ears and a black dress,” she said sarcastically.

Everyone laughed. Jenna bit her lip. Her eyes danced up to Jon’s and he seemed surprised again that she was looking at him. He gulped, dropped his voice and said very sweetly, “Well, I think you look nice. Really pretty.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks but Ashley thankfully interjected. “Alright ya’ll, I’ll be back in a few. Just going to pick up my date. Have fun on that death contraption.” Her eyes flashed up to the Ferris wheel in impish delight.

Lauren nodded. “Stay close. I’ll call you. Remember, we don’t have much time.” She ascended the first steel staircase and her heel clanged out of time to the carnival music. Jenna could see the ravenous notes floating above her beautiful friend’s head and she had the irrational desire to block Lauren from harm.

Ashley disappeared into the thinning crowd and Lauren nudged Jenna into the first carriage, next to Jon. Jenna wrinkled her nose apprehensively when the rickety car door closed and the metal bar came down across her lap. The red seats of the Ferris wheel were cool against the backs of her thighs as the rusting contraption resisted gravity and took them up into the sky. Jon was talking beside her, and in the car behind them she could hear Lauren and Connor laughing, as if they’d known one another for years rather than minutes. She felt something irrational swell inside of her chest, like the pinprick of a jealous love, but Jenna knew that was stupid. Lauren had that affect on everyone.

Jon cleared his throat. “So, have you lived here all your life?”

“What?” Jenna said, slightly shaken.

Jon smiled and the light hit the brights of his baby blues. They were powerful those eyes, pretty beautiful too. “Yep.” Her lungs jerked when the car came to a stop. They swung back and forth for a few seconds before the engine revved and they continued their climb.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy. I mean, not that it’s bad,” he said awkwardly as Jenna lifted a brow. Crimson swirls, like roses, blossomed in his cheeks. She felt the sinewy snake she’d been working to suppress slither down her intestines, filling her gut with desire, and heat. Jon gibbered on, voice breaking like a twelve-year-old boy’s as he said, “It’s great, I mean the town is cool, and Connor has lived here forever. We played football together in school, it’s just,” he stuttered, “just.”

“Small?” Jenna offered and he sighed, relieved.

“Exactly.”

“You’re not from a small town then, I guess.”

“No,” he confessed while a confident grin wiped away the remains of his insecure expression. His eyes unfocused and Jenna watched him fondly as he returned to another lifetime. “I’m from Chicago but me and my dad and my little sister, Becca, moved to the south when his granddad died. I’ve only been here for a couple years, long enough to finish up high school and take some classes at the community college but,” he let his statement go unfinished.

“I know, it is small but,” she paused, and breathed, “it’s amazing how many new things happen all the time. I mean I’ve lived here for all seventeen years of my life and I’m always surprised by the crazy stuff that happens, and the new people I meet. I mean, I just met Lauren last year.”

“No kidding, you guys seem like you’ve been friends forever. Sisters, even.”

Jenna nodded and felt pride spread across her cheeks so wide she could hardly contain it. Her eyes flashed to Lauren in the car behind them. Lauren was watching her and when their eyes met, even from so far away, Jenna could still see them gleam. “Sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes it feels like I’ve known her all my life, but then I realize I’ve only known her for a year. One year to the day. I met her last Halloween. In the Haunted Forest. She scared me, and it turned out to be one of the craziest nights of my life, but,” Jenna shrugged, “I don’t know. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“Ha. So it’s kind of like your one-year anniversary.”

A corner of Jenna’s mouth pushed up into a lopsided smile that she felt travel all the way up to her eyes. “Something like that.”

“Though it’s hard to picture her ever being scary,” Jon said, glancing back to confirm his suspicions.

Jenna laughed. “Yeah, it is. I guess you’ll just have to trust me then. Either that, or maybe I’m just a wimp.” She chewed on her lower lip as she confessed, “I am terrified of heights.”

“So, you do have a flaw,” Jon teased in a way that made Jenna bite her lower lip. He looped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in to his side so that the clean line of their bodies came together. Jenna felt heat rise to her cheeks. “But you’ve got nothing to be afraid of. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you, I promise.” Jon winked.

Jenna smiled up into his smile and felt that he wanted to kiss her and that she was going to let him and the snake was titillating her senses but her phone began buzzing. She glanced down at her phone and saw a text from Ashley flash across the screen, followed closely by another from Lauren.

Time to go, sluts.

You ready, love?

Jenna turned back to face Lauren and nodded.

Foreign energy tunneled through Jenna’s limbs as the four of them made their way to the parking lot. A gust of wind hit her and it smelled like popcorn and candy and something so much darker. Jon’s hand was wrapped around hers and Lauren was at her side looking at her in a way that made her feel beautiful and Jenna couldn’t help but wonder whether or not Ashley’s talk about Halloween meant anything. What if there really was something different about tonight? Something blossoming and golden and perfect.

Ashley drove like a maniac. Jenna drove with Jon, Lauren, and Connor in the car behind her. Left, right, grind the clutch, change gears, blast the music, another left. Jon, in the driver’s seat, could barely keep up. Jenna laughed when Jon commented crassly on Ashley’s driving under his breath. The caravan barreled down Route 3 like they were racing for the dawn and when Ashley veered off at mile 6, they took the turn going forty. Jenna swung into the door, hitting her head on the window. Lauren laughed, but still reached forward and asked if she was okay.

Jenna stuck out her tongue while her cheeks simmered. She whispered, “I’m not that fragile.”

“I’m not so sure,” Jon said.

Jenna laughed and hit his arm while the car squeezed down a narrow dirt road. Trees closed in around them, illuminated only by their slate grey silhouettes against the onyx sky. Soon the only lights left were the cars’ headlights, the slim face of the moon, and the glow from the jack-o’-lanterns guarding Trish’s house.

“Holy shit,” Jon muttered and Jenna felt her stomach clench as she saw all the cars piled in Trish’s unpaved driveway. The last spaces left were just beyond the tree line, and the hard tires of both vehicles desecrated the forest floor, dry leaves and pine needles crunching as they came.

Lauren was first out of the car, and opened up Jenna’s door for her. She gave Jenna a small, brief hug and in her ear, she whispered, “Don’t be nervous. You’ll have a great time if you just be yourself. Just be yourself.”

The boys gathered beneath the glow of the pumpkins, which lined Trish’s wrap-around, plantation-style porch, while the girls hung back. Ashley stepped up to Lauren and Jenna and threw her arms around both girls’ necks. “Happy Halloween,” she said.

“Ashley, you are a total freak.” Lauren rolled her eyes, though there was a small carnivorous smile corrupting her angelic expression.

“Oh my gosh, I love you guys,” Ashley said, looking between both girls and completely ignoring Lauren, “You guys are my family.”

“Yes. We are a family,” Lauren agreed, her gentle gaze pressing down onto Jenna. Jenna sucked in a breath and followed Lauren towards the house, as she would have followed her anywhere: blindly.

The mansion loomed up before her in Southern-gothic decadence. Baroque minarets spiraled up into the sky, every elegant detail carefully embellished. The house was three stories, and the third had a gnarled, wrought-iron balcony framing it. The light was on behind the landscape window and Jenna felt it watching her like an eye, searching endlessly for perfection. Spanish moss hung down from the third story to touch the soft eggshell awning. Jenna thought of the little ruby chiggers hiding in it. Perhaps if they crawled beneath her skin they’d find in her flesh the perfection she was seeking. Lush emerald ivy crawled up the sides of the house, overtaking the porch, so that it seemed almost as if the earth and the sky had fully claimed it. And amidst it all stood a handful of girls, so blindingly beautiful Jenna felt herself come to a dead stop at the foot of the staircase while the boys moved out in front of her. Jon turned back when he saw she wasn’t following and held out his arm. She opened her mouth, but Lauren spoke for her.

“Give us a minute, Jon. Girl stuff.” She wrinkled her nose, but Jon looked to Jenna for confirmation.

She nodded and let Lauren take her arm and pull her up, step after step, while the boys slipped inside the house. When the boys disappeared, a girl with glittering onyx hair stepped forward.

“Lauren,” she said, smile spreading. Two girls stood just behind her and they moved forward when she did.

“Trish, this is Jenna,” Lauren said, “Jenna this is Trish, Mary Beth, and Claire.” The girls behind Trish smiled, though Jenna could see the unmistakable hesitation lingering in the whites of their eyes. They looked to Trish for confirmation. Trish’s gaze hung on her face unwaveringly, and Jenna’s left knee threatened to buckle beneath its weight. Trish’s dark eyes were intense, and seemed to be searching for something. Jenna wondered if she’d found it.

“So, this is the one I’ve heard so much about?” Trish asked finally.

Jenna glanced to Lauren. Lauren’s voice was filled with pride. “The one.”

Trish said to Jenna with a wink, “She’s been hiding you for a while.”

Jenna’s mouth fell open but didn’t know what to say. So she didn’t.

The girl with the vibrant red hair, Mary Beth, interrupted. “Tonight is your first time?”

“Oh, hush now,” Trish said, moving forward towards Jenna. “No need to make her more nervous than she already is.” Trish’s eyes scanned Jenna up and down openly. When she finished, she beamed and touched her lips. “Oh my stars,” she said. Without prelude, she snatched Jenna up into her arms. “Lauren, you didn’t tell me she would be such a doll.”

Lauren smiled coolly, and somehow Jenna got the sense that Lauren and Trish had known one another for quite a while. “Of course. I told you there was a reason that I picked her.”

Trish wrinkled her nose and stared at Lauren affectionately. “You always did pick well.” Her eyes flashed to Ashley when she said this and Ashley blushed, looking humble for the first time Jenna could ever remember. “Well now, this is going to be fun. But we better get moving, it’s almost midnight and we don’t want to keep the rest of the girls waiting. They’re getting anxious.” Everyone smiled and glanced conspiratorially amongst one another. Jenna didn’t, but this was because Trish had her by the shoulders and was pushing her into the house, which swallowed her up.

It took Jenna’s eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. The only lights inside were soft orange orbs shaped like pumpkins with open mouths and wandering eyes, nailed to the kings-crown molding. Trish steered her into the kitchen and handed her a beer. Jenna sipped on it reflexively while Trish turned to the girls gathered around the coffee table and interrupted all of their conversations.

“Hello ladies,” she said, “may I introduce you to Miss Jenna. It is her first time tonight and I believe it’s about time for everyone to grab their dates and get on the dance floor!” Their reaction was instantaneous and Jenna was stunned as the mob of pretty, perfect girls cheered, and then swarmed her. They hugged her, and kissed each of her cheeks before darting off in every direction. Their heels click-clicked over the parquet and their voices reverberated through the big house as they went to spread the news.

Jenna was overwhelmed. While Trish, Mary Beth, and Claire emptied their beers and laughed at one of Ashley’s stupid jokes, Jenna’s eyes genuflected and found Lauren. Lauren looked up, as if she could feel Jenna’s eyes on her face and drifted over to her.

As Lauren walked, she said, “It’s alright Trish, I’ve got it from here. Go change the music to something a little more apropos and we’ll meet you in the living room.”

“Absolutely.” Trish gave Jenna one final hug before drifting out of the room. Mary Beth and Claire stared at Trish with reverence and followed her when she left.

Ashley gravitated to their small trio and held her hands to her lips. She smelled like candy and vanilla and cinnamon and said, “Tonight is going to be perfect.”

Perfect. It would be. It had to be. Jenna felt something small and beautiful burst in her chest.

Lauren adjusted the ribbon around her waist with affection. “Just,” she started.

“Be myself,” Jenna finished for her with a small smirk. “I know.”

“Good.” Lauren stared down at Jenna for a long time, then dropped her voice to a whisper. “And now we dance.”

Music blasted through the walls from a nearby room. It reverberated through the floorboards with deep sensual notes and Jenna felt sweat glisten on her forehead. The grandfather clock in the hallway read 11:52. Ashley clapped and pushed Jenna toward the hall, whispering sweet things into her ear as they went. Jenna felt deaf to the encouragement. Still, she followed Lauren from the foyer to the living room to the den, which was all bass and sweat and heat and dancing bodies moving to the rhythm of the darkness.

Jenna weaved through the crowd with Lauren and Ashley behind her, and when they reached a comfortable spot near the center of the dance floor, they stopped. People made room for them, and Jenna became distinctly aware of the pressure of many different sets of eyes wandering over her skin.

“Don’t worry about them,” Ashley shouted as she dipped her hips into the strangers behind her. She twisted and closed her eyes, and Jenna watched with envy as Ashley danced without inhibition. Jenna was frozen until Lauren grabbed her hand and wrenched her forward so that the warmth of their bodies collided. She gulped, but the snake in her belly was rabid. She could feel it thrashing and closed her eyes, letting herself melt into the dance floor beside Lauren and Ashley. Her family. Minutes later she started to sweat. She opened her eyes to see Lauren smiling, though her eyes seemed panicked. To her left, Ashley’s brown hands were roaming all over her body, combing through her hair, touching the curve of her neck. Ashley flipped her hair and Lauren closed her eyes and Jenna felt something blisteringly hot swirl beneath her skin.

Trish appeared just then with three familiar faces. “They were looking for you,” she said. She winked and pushed the boys forward. Jon stepped over to Jenna and she felt her smile widen while Ashley’s date slipped behind her and Connor took Lauren’s hand. Trish smiled and pulled her own date behind her and over her shoulder Jenna saw Mary Beth and Claire. They were watching.

“Sorry,” Jon shouted over the blare of the music. She could feel the mechanical jerks of the cymbals and low drone of the drums pushing up through the soles of her shoes, jarring her senses. Her bones rattled and she knew that the music was demanding something from her and she could barely hold on to it.

Jenna didn’t respond. Instead, she turned around to face him, stood up on her tiptoes, and brushed her mouth across his lips. He froze for a moment, as if surprised, but did not resist as her arms circled his neck and she pressed herself against him. His hands coiled around her waist hesitantly at first, but then as the seconds wore on, increased their pressure. He was touching her breasts, his hands moving down beneath the hem of her skirt to squeeze her inner thigh and Jenna could feel that they were still watching her, all of them, and she loved it. It was as if a match tore down her spine, igniting her body and she felt something strange twist the contours of her small face. Feelings she’d never before experienced consumed her, and then she opened her eyes.

Everything was in black and white. Panicked, she looked over Jon’s shoulder to find Lauren. Lauren was staring at her, back to Connor, and when their eyes met Jenna was spellbound. Jon continued to kiss her neck, but Jenna’s thoughts all came to a grinding halt, dwindling to just one: Lauren had never looked more beautiful than this. Her eyes were lidless, round orbs resting precariously in the top of her skull and her mouth was a messy, gaping hole. It was as if her whole face had been stitched from the corners of her mouth back to her hairline, and then ripped at the seams. All that remained now were teeth. They lined the black mass of her mouth like razor blades, or broken bits of glass, and they reflected Jenna’s world back to her in miniature. She glanced over at Ashley and saw tremors rip through the girl’s caramel skin in violent pulses. The boy who was breathing heavily into her hair and squeezing her breasts did not notice the snout protruding from between her cheeks or the ten-inch talons that had from her fingertips. Light gleamed off of her claws when Ashley reached up and pointed at Jenna’s chest. Jenna blinked, and the snake inside of her exploded. That last, lingering hesitation released. She was enraptured, and she knew that they were all watching her, waiting, because she was queen of the moment, and tonight was her night.

She pulled away from Jon and fear flashed through his eyes when he looked at her. He opened his mouth to say something but his lips fumbled, and at the sight of his terror the snake dissolved into her spine and she felt a smile form on her face. Her back arched forward, her hands distended into claws, and her jaw unhinged. Jon cantered back, but her thumbnail hooked through his shoulder, plunging through layers of tissue and muscle and skin. He unleashed a sad sort of sound, but was quickly silenced by the pressure of Jenna’s teeth sinking into the soft flesh of his neck. She took him down. Cheers rose up, followed closely by boys’ screams, but Jenna didn’t pay attention to any of that. Blood burst into her mouth and rushed down her throat and tasted both salty and sweet. Her body coiled around his like a constrictor and she ripped tags of flesh free of his chest, tearing straight through to the bone. Small fountains of crimson sprayed up and hit her face. She could feel him punching her side, resisting her in any way he could, but she knew she was stronger than he was. She knew he wouldn’t be able to get away. Jenna moved up to his cheek and nibbled on his right ear, then tore it away from his face. He screamed as the cartilage shifted to her stomach and settled with a feather-light weight. She moaned. He tasted like pure gold, a gratifying sin. She’d never known such glorious revulsion.

She tossed the mane of her hair back and glanced over to see a boy bursting for the door and two girls tearing after him, mouths wide and teeth gleaming. Beside her, Ashley was hunched over the dead carcass of her date and she was licking blood off of the soft tubes of his intestines. They looked like sausages in the soft, orange light and Ashley looked like she was in a euphoric state. She looked perfect. The top of her dress was ripped down the middle and Jenna could see her black bra and her full, blood-stained breasts. Jenna’s eyes focused on the tattoo decorating Ashley’s flesh. She read, Semper Esurio. Beneath her, Jon made a sound and she looked down at his blubbering lips; she tilted her head to the side, then leaned down, and ate them. She felt the pressure of Jon’s big, swollen heart stop beating shortly after that.

Jenna was distracted from carving her name into the crimson and cream of his breast when Lauren tilted her head back and howled to the unseen starlight. One of her now tattered wings was missing, and blood covered her white dress. Lauren straddled Connor’s muscular abdomen as she peeled back his skin, revealing the pulp of his bursting organs while he continued to choke on his own entrails, spitting up lungfuls of red. Her eyes found Jenna’s and she beamed at her with unrestrained pride before plunging her fist into Connor’s chest and ripping his heart out through his sternum. Lauren held the fist-sized organ between her talons, lovingly playing with it like putty as the life finally drained from Connor’s eyes. And then she stood, full of grace, and stepped across the floor, bare white feet plodding through puddles of deep burgundy. Jenna watched her as she walked. She watched her balance the slippery organ between her hands and then extend it towards her face. The smooth aorta touched Jenna’s bottom lip and Jenna opened her mouth wide as it’s heat branded her. Lauren squeezed, and the liquid splashed down Jenna’s throat while the music took her thoughts from the sweet, lovely boy lying dead beneath her, to the fresh flesh now feeding her own hungry, gluttonous veins. She’d never known such crippling lust, or glowing hunger, and she’d never felt more secure looking up into the eyes of her mother, sister, friend, and creator, bits and pieces of skin and muscle dangling from her narrow chin. Jenna rubbed the blood across her chest, bathing in its effervescence and it was then that Jenna felt it, for the first time that Halloween, flowing into her in crimson ribbons: that sweet, raw perfection. She drank the red nectar, and she was warm.

*****

Hours after the excitement had died down and they’d nearly absolved Trish’s house of blood and sin and excrement, Jenna found herself laughing with Trish and Mary Beth as they threw all of the beer bottles and red Solo cups into large black bags to be recycled. Trish carried the garbage bags while Jenna and Mary Beth dragged one half-eaten carcass out of the back door. Mary Beth was commenting on his weight and Trish shoved her into the bleeding guts of his stomach. All three girls laughed when Mary Beth resurfaced, covered in crimson. They were clearing the feast from the dance floor and Lauren told Jenna that she was glad that Jon had been her first, he was a sweet boy. Jenna smiled dreamily and said that she was glad too. She plucked the remains of her satin ribbon from between Jon’s hardened fingers and Lauren affixed it around her waist, then the girls dragged him out to the woods in two pieces; body separated from his head.

When Jenna and Lauren returned to the living room Ashley started singing a Spice Girl’s song, using her mop as a microphone. Pretty soon Jenna and the rest of the girls joined in, off-key notes rising up and reverberating through their ivory mausoleum. The house was as clean as it would ever be and tired, all the girls hugged and kissed good bye. They stepped out beneath the silver moonlight and dispersed to their cars. Jenna took the front seat of Ashley’s silver SUV while Lauren sprawled out over the back, picking foreign objects from between her teeth and examining what was left of her dress. One of Ashley’s nails had not returned to normal size and Lauren was still teasing her about it while in the front, Jenna fiddled with the dials on the radio until she came to a song they all agreed on. Talk again returned to singing, and as Jenna danced wildly with Lauren and Ashley in the car and the hollow yellow eyes of the jack-o’-lanterns watched them go, she felt perfectly calm. She felt at home.

 

Fear

by Grant Flint

 

The old man entered the bedroom and closed the door. Just before the door clicked shut, he saw what had been concealed on the back of it—a white sheet of paper with one word in the middle. The word, composed of irregular letters cut from newspaper print, said: “TODAY.”

For a moment the old man stood perfectly still. Then he retreated slowly backward, staring at the word, his mind numb the way he had attempted to make it when seeking sleep during the night. He couldn’t think of any one thing definite, myriad thoughts swirling in upon him. Then as the rear of his legs bumped into the bed, the first line of the telegram returned to him: “Your time has come.” He shook his head slowly, staring at the word on the middle of his door. He found himself moving toward the door as though in a dream. As he came closer, the muscles in his face tightened, pulling his mouth open. Suddenly he reached out and tore at the word. His fingers ripped part of the glued sheet away, and then in a frenzy he clutched and ripped with both hands, shredding the letters on the white paper until only a formless mutilation of scraps remained glued to the door. Breathing hoarsely, the old man continued to scrape furiously at the shreds, and then in enraged frustration he yanked the door open and limped hurriedly past the frightened cleaning girl to the kitchen where he grabbed a paring knife.

“Mr. MacIver! Mr. MacIver!” the girl cried as he hurried back toward the door.

The old man stopped and glared wildly at her. “You! You did it!”

“No! Didn’t do nothing! Nothing!” the girl said, backing up with her hands in front of her. As the old man started toward her, the girl turned at once and ran to the open front door. She was nearly to the street when the old man came from the house.

Breathing heavily, face still contorted, the old man watched the girl until she turned the corner a block away. Then he looked about wildly on the ground, picked up the poker and with the knife in his other hand entered the house. Glaring to left and right, weapons ready, he searched through all the rooms on the first floor and then the second. He found nothing.

Gradually a heavy fatigue replaced the fevered activity of anger and frustration. The old man returned to the bedroom door and started to scrape with the knife on the bits of paper. Finally he sighed deeply and dropped the knife. He went to the bed, sat down a moment, thought of resting for awhile, then sighed again and began to dress. After he had his trousers on, he took the telegram from his pocket and read it again. “Your time has come. What you fear most. Terror of terrors.”

“Today,” he thought, looking at the door. Any time now. This was something specific anyway. Something a man could fight. No joke. Somebody meant it. Well, whatever it was, he thought, they were going to have a fight on their hands. Not scared of anything, living or dead.

But the old man knew he was going to the police now. He didn’t think about it, didn’t make up his mind, but he found himself leaving the house. He locked the front door and then looked for the cat.

“Cat!” he called. “Cat! Damn it, where are you? Cat!”

He walked to the street, looked back briefly at the tall, dead grass on either side of the house, then started slowly toward the pay phone eight blocks away.

“Gettin’ riled up for nothin’,” he muttered, thinking about his reactions of the morning. “Bad as Timmy.” He remembered the time a few months before when his grandson had been at the house and he’d played the ghost game with him, a game he’d played with many children, including his son, Timmy’s father, when he’d been about Timmy’s age. Simple thing. An uneven breeze coming in an open window causing a door, preferably a squeaky door, to close almost, then open, then nearly close. “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” he told Timmy, “the ghost slowly opens, slowly, slowly opens the door.” And Jimmy had stood there bug-eyed, watching the door in the flickering light from the fireplace.

Of course, Claire, the boy’s mother, had been upset when she heard about it, but… that was the way it was nowadays. The “younger generation” was so damn scared of everything, they couldn’t put up with a little old-fashioned spookin’.

Claire telling him that Timmy would end up hating him just like the boy’s father had. Well, hell, the boy’s father had been so damn pussy-footed like his mother, what could you expect? Even died pussy-footed, a stroke at thirty-four years of age. Now what kind of fool thing was that to do? Hard to ever believe he’d had a son like that, any blood of his in that quivering namby-pamby.

And now Claire coming around once a week—would be around tonight or tomorrow—to “look out for him.” Hell. What she was “looking out for” was for him to croak. So she could sell his house and lot for that big money them apartment house people were always putting up. She knew what that young punk of a so-called doctor had said. Warned him to get his pressure down. 185/115. So what? So his kid had had a stroke. So? He’d already outlived the kid by 42 years! Ha! He’d outlive Claire, too, outlive the whole damn bunch, just the way that bastard cat had outlived all the cats in the area. Weren’t nothing could knock off that damn cat!

The old man was more than halfway to the pay phone now, walking slowly, head down, when a teen-ager on a bicycle rode up behind him on the sidewalk, blew his horn, then sped by giggling.

The old man was so startled by the horn, he nearly fell. “Damn them! Damn them all!” he muttered in frustration as he watched the youth hurrying on.

He hesitated for a moment, feeling an unfamiliar numbing fatigue in his legs and the beginning of dizziness. “Ah, damn police wouldn’t do nothin’ anyway,” he mumbled. “Just think I was crazy or somethin’.”

The old man remembered the only time he had asked anything from the police. He had received no satisfaction. It was about the noise and rowdyism of youths returning home from high school in the afternoons. It seemed to the old man that they picked the sidewalk in front of his property to congregate, make wisecracks, and mock fight. One group would go on, then another would come along, stop, and repeat the scene.

The neighborhood had deteriorated fast in the past few years from the way the old man remembered it. The aged Victorian houses had been torn down to put up apartment houses. Although he’d received and continued to receive repeated offers from real estate developers—offers which were becoming increasingly insistent, almost belligerent—the old man refused to sell his house, which stood alone now on the huge weed-grown lot, an isolated reminder of the past.

Those kids, the old man thought. No respect for themselves or anybody else. Especially an old man. He’d run them off enough times, shook his fist at them. But it did no good. Youth. Damn youth. It was hard to say which was worse, those pesky developers, who would not give up, hounding him—acting almost crazy at times, as though he were the villain, and they were the good guys—or the damn kids. All of them, the whole mass of them, developers, kids—never letting up—and him just an old man, alone, just wanting to live where he’d lived, just wanting to live here till he died. Kids. Damn kids.

“Damn cops won’t help an old man.”

But he continued to hesitate, unable to decide whether to go on or return home. The newspapers on the rack at the corner made the decision for him. He placed the quarters he had intended to use for the pay phone into the slot, took a newspaper, and slowly trudged back to the house.

“Cat?” he called tiredly as he came into the front yard.

Before entering the house, he turned to look once more for the cat. “Where are you, damn it? Cat?”

Cat was as tough as he was. And old. Hind legs paralyzed, dragging itself around. Weren’t nothing could kill that cat. Dumb, but unbeatable.

The old man went in, locked the door, walked the final steps to the living room chair. He sat down and leaned back, feeling more fatigued than he could remember. He closed his eyes to rest a moment before reading the paper, not unwilling to fall asleep if it happened that way. But suddenly the word “TODAY” jumped into his thoughts and he jerked up, opened his eyes and saw his wife’s photo on the mantel. “TODAY.” He pushed it out of his mind, wouldn’t think about it. That cowed look, he thought, staring at the picture, those big sorrowful eyes. But there was something else there, too, he thought tiredly, something hidden, something he’d never seen there before. And it was as though she was maybe using a disguise and underneath, underneath that beaten, sad look, she was maybe mocking him, waiting for him to get soft, show a weak spot. A damn disguise.

She’d nearly got him, too, in those first months after they’d married. All innocent, naturally, least that’s the way she’d acted it. Nineteen years younger than him. Sure, maybe he’d had a weak spot once, scared of being made fun of. Like her laughing first time she saw him naked, saw he was a little bow-legged.

Ah, the old man remembered, but he got back control fast! Took her game and beat her to hell and back on it. Easy. Easiest thing in the world. Like that time he’d waited until she got home from a party he’d made her go to, and then told her that her slip had been showing all night. Ah, but the best one was that time she’d spent two hours, two days, if you consider the whole thing, getting ready for that first Sunday with his relatives, and then they’d been on the way, halfway there, and he’d told her, real kind like, nothing outright smart about it, that she had on way too much makeup and that dress she had on, the dress and the makeup, well, it kind of made her look exactly like a whore. And then afterwards, coming home from that first Sunday—been about a dozen of his relatives there—he’d told her they’d shamed him by telling him his wife was like a child, always hanging on him, a clinging vine. When actually what they’d said was how nice it was that he and she were so affectionate, holding hands and all that.

Well, he’d got her all right. Beat her silly at her own game. She never once after that, never dared again to make any fun of him.

“So go ahead and look, damn you,” the old man muttered, staring at his wife’s picture. “Think you’re laughing at me under that damn sheep look. But I got your number, got you down good, and you ain’t never goin’ to win nothin’.”

The old man felt better now. He reached down to pick up the newspaper, but then decided to close his eyes for a moment and rest a bit more.

*****

When the old man awoke, he felt chilled and clammy. He looked up at his wife’s clock. Nearly 2:30. Well, he thought, the day is going and that fool sign said “Today” and ain’t nothin’ happened.

He got up stiffly and went to the kitchen where he warmed up some left-overs, ate standing up, and then brought back some coffee to have with his paper.

He read the obituaries, the want ads, and then the personals. It was near the bottom of the personals: “S.M. tonight. Seven. Y.X.”

The sentence blurred as the old man stared at it. He tried to read the next personal below and then abruptly could think of nothing at all. His hands began to tremble, rustling the newspaper. He lifted his hands a moment as though they were independent agents, apart from him. Then he clutched the paper grimly and read the personal again.

His initials all right, but the initials of a thousand other people, he thought. Probably a love message. A meeting on the sly. Y.X. Probably phony. Nobody had initials like that. Besides, the sign had said today, not tonight. Seven.

The old man looked up at his wife’s clock. For a moment, the clock was blurred. As he stared at it, its vague outline appeared to move. The cherubs seemed to be sliding together at the top in obscene union. The old man sat up and squinted. Twenty after four. Three—no, two and a half hours until seven. A long time. Seven. It didn’t mean a thing. Seven tonight. The cat. Where was the cat?

Everything in the old man suddenly centered on the cat. He had to find the cat. Bring the cat in, have the cat lying there, start from that, everything would be all right.

The old man stood up abruptly and nearly fell as the unaccustomed dizziness came upon him again. He waited a moment, shook his head wearily, and then started for the door, concentrating on nothing but the cat.

He unlocked the door automatically, stepped out. The cat was in the middle of the sidewalk halfway to the street.

“Cat,” the old man called as he came near. “Wake up, you ol’ bastard.”

A few feet away, he sensed it but couldn’t see, and then he was on the other side of the cat and saw its eyes open and mouth open with the worn teeth exposed, and he saw the clean bone, naked white, protruding from its broken neck, and the light red blood glistening in the sun, the blood touching the neck and then extending out and down on the sidewalk forming a nearly perfect number SEVEN.

The old man cried out, a shrill unintelligible sound like a seagull, and staggered in a half circle, looking wildly, blindly about him. Then, quickly looking at and away from the cat, he moved to one side and toward the house, but he stopped abruptly and turned to hurry to the street. He saw the cat again, just as his foot was descending upon it. He twisted his body awkwardly to the left and felt his ankle collapse in the instant of consciousness before he fell heavily over the cat and struck the sidewalk face down.

*****

When the old man regained awareness it was twilight. He lay motionless, listening. He heard nothing. He moved his head slowly to one side. His nose was numb. He could feel the dried blood on it and knew it was broken. Very slowly, listening intently, he began to move. He was distantly aware that his ankle was broken. The sharp pain was there, unbearable if he thought about it.

He felt rather than saw the darkness as he inched along the sidewalk until he was turned toward the house. He saw the exposed white bone on the cat’s neck as he crawled by, pulling his way with his elbows.

As the old man came closer to the front door, his breathing grew louder through his open mouth and he choked briefly on his spittle. He crawled the last few feet in increasing terror as he heard the sounds of his body betraying him to the unseen enemy.

At the open door the old man half rose, then fell forward and sideways and attempted to close the door before his legs were completely in. Tears ran down his face as he got the door closed and lay gasping on the floor. Suddenly he cried out again and struggled upright against the door to put the bolt in the upper lock.

Holding on to the wall, he hobbled in the dark to the front room, and then crawled to his chair. He tried desperately to find the switch on the lamp by the chair, found it with shaking hands, turned on the light, then knocked the lamp over onto his lap. He held the lamp up to see the clock.

Twelve minutes until seven.

He quickly turned off the light, still holding the lamp in his lap. He listened. He could hear only the heavy ticking of the clock. He had never been so frightened in his life. He was alone. Everything outside the house, the house itself, was closing in. The enemy was listening, waiting, ready to strike. He could feel the enemy, he almost knew the enemy, he could sense it, almost remember. The crime, the guilt, the unspeakable, the horrible revenge. He felt it, could almost know it. It had him. There was no escape. The unthinkable would happen, it was coming, it had to be, he could almost know what it was. It would be terrible, the most terrible thing of all. The time, the time—

The old man feverishly switched the light on. Three minutes until seven. He left the light on and stared at the clock, listening to the seconds. He thought once of the cat as his pulse began beating louder in his head. He heard the sounds outside coming closer, and it was part of the throbbing near-explosion in his head. Not yet, his mind screamed. Not yet! Not yet!

The old man stared blindly at the clock. He heard the muffled sound at the door and cried, “Not yet!” And then as the pounding in his head reached explosion he fell forward, eyes protruding, face frozen, the old man knew the enemy who had come for revenge, and in the last seconds of his life, he heard the crash, the rushing steps, the giggles, the taunting onslaught of youth, the wicked life force pressing in on him, triumphant youth.

 

An Element of Blank

by Brett Riley

 

As her father, Billy, drove the old LTD over the rutted dirt road, the two girls lay in the back seat, both of them covered in blood. River had found a ratty, ancient towel in the floorboard; she was pressing it hard onto Candy’s neck and trying to ignore the screams. Then the LTD’s back end fishtailed, tossing River to the floor and Candy into the driver’s-side door. Droplets of blood spattered the back windshield and the seats. Candy shrieked again, but it sounded weaker this time, more pain than terror, as if she were losing interest in her own mortality. River pushed herself up and grabbed the towel off the seat; it slapped wetly against her arm, leaving a bright red smear that resembled South America. She wrung out the towel, more blood pattering onto her bare feet, and pushed Candy back down on the seat. River pressed the towel to the wound again, trying to exert enough pressure to stem the bleeding but not enough to crush her best friend’s windpipe. The car hit another rut and the two of them were thrown nearly to the roof. They landed with Candy on top of River, who wrapped her legs around Candy’s waist. Somehow she kept the towel jammed against the gaping wound. Blood dripped onto River’s face.

Billy shouted, “We’re almost there! Keep the pressure on!”

“I’m tryin’!” cried River. “How far out are we?”

Billy said nothing as he yanked the wheel back and forth, avoiding the biggest ruts. The engine whined like a hive of angry bees. Candy looked pale and scared, but at least she had stopped screaming.

When the Plodders had come out of the woods between the three of them and the car, Billy had killed six with his axe while River and Candy tried to circle around. The girls had almost made it to the car when Candy tripped over a cypress knee and landed flat on her face. Before she could get up, a rogue Plodder staggered out from behind the tree and fell on her. River had seen that the thing was wearing ragged blue overalls and the remains of a once-white t-shirt before it sank its teeth into Candy’s neck, ripping out a three-inch chunk of flesh, blood geysering, spattering the cypress. The Plodder had missed Candy’s major arteries, but that mattered little. She had been bitten, which meant that she was as good as dead.

Suddenly Billy muttered, “Shit.”

River looked up. “What?”

“Runners behind us. Six or eight.”

“The patrols ain’t seen no Runners in two weeks.”

“Well, we’re seein’ ’em now. Most of em’s naked, but one of ’em’s fresh. Still wearin’ doctor’s scrubs. Hang on.” He reached into the seat beside him and picked up an old battery-powered walkie-talkie. Driving with one hand, he turned it on with the other. Static crackled over the tinny speaker. He pressed the talk button. “Jones. We’re comin’ in hot. Six to eight hostiles on my ass. We need coverin’ fire and a medic.”

From the speaker a gravelly voice said, “Roger. Be careful.”

River held the towel over the floorboard and squeezed it with her left hand. Blood dribbled over her fist and down her arm. She passed the cloth back to her right hand and pressed it against Candy’s throat. The initial gush had slowed to a trickle, but Candy lay still on top of her, a hundred pounds of dead weight. River wondered what she would do if Candy changed before they could get home, here in the back seat where there was nowhere to run and no room to fight. She tried to shove the thought out of her mind.

Her father glanced into the back seat. “Gate’s just ahead. Hold on.”

For a split second she heard inarticulate raised voices as the LTD barreled past the gate guards. Billy slammed on the brakes, the tires squealing as the rubber burned onto the asphalt. He threw the car into park and bolted out, yanked open the back door, and grabbed Candy under her arms, tugging her to the ground.

Marquis Fuqua, one of the medics, appeared at his side. Candy looked at the sky with bright and frightened eyes, her neck and upper torso soaked in gore. River scrambled out of the car and knelt beside her, brushing the hair away from her face as Marquis examined the wound. He frowned and then looked at Billy, shaking his head. River had seen him do that before and knew what it meant. Suddenly, the day seemed too hot, the air too thin; she felt as if she could not catch a full breath. Tears welled in her eyes. She blinked them away. She would not cry, not now, not when Candy needed her to be calm. She would do what she had always been taught—cut off the emotion, bottle it up and bury it. Empty the brain of everything save the information necessary to survive. From behind them she could hear snarls and growls and the slap of running feet on the road. She did not turn to look. After a moment, the guns roared, the deep booms of the shotguns and flat crack of rifles like voices arguing a point of great importance. Soon enough the guns fell silent, and the only sound she could hear was Candy’s shallow respiration.

Marquis sat back on the ground and peeled off his white latex gloves, tossing them onto the asphalt where they lay like shed snakeskin. He looked at Billy. “Runners did this?”

Billy shook his head. “Plodders. She was supposed to be our lookout, but she got to pickin’ flowers and let ’em sneak up on her. Next thing I knew, she was runnin’ like hell with twenty or more shufflin’ after her, smack dab between us and the car. We tried to get by ’em, but they was spread out pretty good. We got pinned against the river.”

“I reckon that current was still too fast to chance.”

“Yeah. I was clearin’ us a path, but she tripped at just the wrong time. Like somethin’ outta one of them bad movies we used to watch when we was kids.”

Marquis grunted and fished a tattered pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket. He did not offer a piece to anyone else. Nobody was making Juicy Fruit anymore; the troubles had killed the whole idea of making anything, unless you counted weapons and shelters. He looked down at Candy. “Well, I don’t reckon she’ll have to worry about trippin’ no more. She’s lost enough blood to get a good jump on dyin’. Plodder’s bite’ll finish it quick.”

Billy scowled at Marquis and nodded at River. Marquis grimaced, but River did not hold it against him. He was only being honest, not treating her like a kid. If she were old enough to go out on patrol or gathering missions, then she was old enough to hear the truth. And if both Plodders and Runners had wandered back into this area, the colony would need every able-bodied hand it could get. They could not afford the luxury of watching children come of age over the years, not when knowing how to shoot or wield an ax might determine whether you grew up at all. The problem had nothing to do with the girls’ age; instead, it lay with the assignments. They never should have let Candy be their lookout. She loved plants and animals and always tried to bring more back to the colony. Once she had gathered so much Spanish moss from the nearby trees that half the compound had looked like a giant spider web. She tended to look everywhere but right in front of her, and so they should have known that she would get distracted. But River was stronger and could carry more wood, so she had gone with her father, leaving Candy alone on the dirt road. What harm could it do? they had thought. Stupid. That should have been the first clue that trouble was coming.

Now Candy would die, just like her parents had. And then something worse would happen.

River cradled Candy’s head in her lap. Candy’s eyes fluttered open; her lips moved as she tried to speak. Marquis handed River a canteen; she unscrewed it with her teeth and held it to Candy’s lips. Some of the water ran down the girl’s face, turning the drying blood into swirls and eddies of pale salmon pink. She turned her head and sputtered; River handed the canteen back to Marquis, trying not to get too angry when he held it out at arm’s length and tossed it in the nearest trash can. Dumb. He knew Candy’s saliva would be harmless until she turned.

Candy looked up at River and croaked, “How bad is it?”

River tried to smile, the muscles in her face twitching in protest as if they had forgotten how. “It’s bad.”

She would not lie to Candy. She never had, not even when she had seen a pack of Runners chase down Candy’s parents just outside the gates and rip them to pieces. When Candy had asked what had happened, River had told her, right down to the goriest detail. Candy had handled it all well, just as she was handling the news about herself. She had always been both flighty and brave.

Now she nodded at River. “Better get me to the kennels.”

River stroked her hair. “No. We can sit here a while. Ain’t no rush.”

“Bullshit. I ain’t gonna let you set here holdin’ me till I jump up and eat your face off. Help me to the kennel or shoot me right now.”

River sighed and nodded. She eased out from under Candy and squatted beside her, grasping her around the torso. Then River pulled herself up, lifting with her legs; Billy stepped over and grabbed Candy under the arms and tugged until she was on her feet, swaying like a sapling in a hard wind. River held her by one arm, afraid that she would tumble over on her face and tear open the clotting neck wound. After a moment, Candy nodded and River let her go. She did not fall.

Candy looked up at Billy. “I’m sorry. I almost got you two killed.”

Billy smiled and then patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry about that now. You want anything? Some more water or some jerky?”

“No. There’s only one thing I want. And we gotta hurry. I can already feel it. Wonder if I’ll be a Plodder, like that thing in them ugly-ass overalls.”

River and Billy said nothing. No one had ever discovered why some people became Plodders and others turned into Runners.

They all walked toward the kennels as fast as they could go, though Billy and River had to wait on Candy, who could only shuffle along like the Plodder that had bitten her. River felt her heart swell and ache as she watched; she bit her lower lip hard, relishing the pain that drove thought away. She had been through all of this before with her own mother, with Candy’s parents, with a dozen friends and acquaintances. It never stopped hurting when they changed, and it never got easier to put them down afterward. Her father had taught her to harden her heart against anything that plodded or ran after a colony member, but she had never been able to take that one last step. You can’t see ’em as the people they were anymore. You’ve gotta see ’em as the things they are. She always remembered who they had been. When they hurt or died, she hurt with them. And so for most of her life, she had dreaded her thirteenth birthday, when, according to the colony by-laws, she would be old enough to hunt, to gather, to patrol, to stand guard at the fences. To wait coldly until a Plodder or Runner wandered into range and pull the trigger. To hack off a head, to burn a body. She had done it many times over the last year and felt she could handle it all as long as she had not known the creature in life. But when she had to kill someone she had known, she always felt as if she were lopping off some crucial part of herself—her empathy, her ability to love, her dreams. She had to get past that, or she would die young.

A cloud moved across the sun. River looked at the sky, so blue it hurt her eyes. A gentle breeze played across her face, bringing with it the scent of frying meat from the mess hall. All around her, people came and went, all of them carefully averting their eyes from the little party headed to the kennels; word had spread already. Birds chirped at each other on the nearby roofs. The three of them passed the garage and the weapons storage buildings and the residences, all of the structures painted in green and brown patterns. Her father had explained that the compound used to be an army base, back before the troubles came. Now there was no army, nothing for one to protect. She had a hard time imagining a world dense with living people like ants flowing out of a mound, a world without Plodders or Runners. Every time she looked at her father, she thought of that world; he had lived there. He had seen nearly everyone he ever knew get torn apart or transform into something much worse than dead. What must his dreams be like?

They reached the kennels in back of the compound. The set of six ten-by-ten chain-link cages stood empty, each one festooned with barbed wire and windblown pieces of wilted Spanish moss, like a hellish version of the tattered garland her father hung from a sapling every December. The metal support posts had been secured in foot-thick concrete. Inside each cage, five iron bars had been driven into the slab. A thick chain had been welded to each bar; each chain terminated with a locking cuff. Candy would die here twice, chained down like a dog, as so many others had. River had never seen the kennels full; the colonists only used them when someone from the compound had been compromised. The occasion was always sad and violent, ending with splattered brains and the smell of burning flesh.

They reached the first empty cage and Candy walked inside, no hesitation. She about-faced and stood in the nest of iron bars.

“You wanna do it yourself?” Billy asked.

Candy said nothing for a moment. When she spoke, her voice shook. “I’m tryin’ to hold myself together, but the truth is I’m scared shitless. Can you do it for me?”

Billy nodded and entered the cage. He picked up one of the closest shackles and pulled a set of keys out of his pants pocket. He selected a key and stuck it in the shackle’s padlock. He removed the lock, and the shackle fell open. Candy held out her hand. He fastened the shackle around her wrist and replaced the padlock, clicking it shut. River saw Candy wince as the lock shot home, the metallic clink somehow final and damning. The cuff looked too big for Candy’s skinny wrist, but she could not pull her hand out without breaking her thumb at the very least. Billy grasped the chain with both hands and yanked on it; the post did not move. He nodded and dropped the chain. Then he repeated the process until Candy’s wrists and ankles had been secured. He picked up the cuff and chain fastened to the central post and unlocked it, fastening it around Candy’s neck. When the final lock clicked shut, he stuck the keys back in his pocket and stepped back. Candy’s long blonde hair had fallen over her eyes. She tried to lift her arm, perhaps to brush the hair away, but the chain stopped her short. She had to kneel in order to get any slack, and on her knees in that cage, concrete baking in the day’s dry heat, her bloodstained blouse rippling in the breeze, she looked like an animal headed for the slaughter.

Candy ran her fingers through her hair and tucked it behind her ears. She looked up at Billy. “Thanks. Now go. I don’t want you to see.”

He frowned. “I aim to put you down. I owe you that much.”

“When that happens, I won’t know who’s here and who ain’t. But I do now. So go. Please, Billy.”

A single tear welled up in her eye and slid down her dirty, blood-encrusted cheek. Billy stepped forward and knelt, throwing his arms around her; she patted him on the back, the chains tinkling like musical accompaniment. Then Billy let her go and stood up. He turned and walked out of the cage, heading for the barracks. River could have sworn he was crying, though she had never seen him weep, not even when her mother had turned. Perhaps a man could only take so much before he started crying late at night, surrounded by the chirping of crickets, the night watch’s soft conversations, and the low moans and growls from the things in the woods. Maybe it only started with the weeping, uncontrollable and violent, and then one day, he would wake up and put his pistol barrel in his mouth or walk out into the woods unarmed. And if it happened to her father, she supposed it would happen to her someday, too.

River had been young when her mother changed, too young to remember the woman as more than a pale moon face leaning over her at bedtime, a shock of black hair that frizzed out in even the dampest of weathers, and a voice like the tinkling of silver bells. Her name had been Courtney. River had often seen her looking out the barracks window at night when both of them should have been asleep, scraping at the wooden sill with the sharp end of an old screwdriver, but River herself had never bothered to look. People were always carving on something. Then, while on patrol one day, Courtney’s horse spooked and threw her right into the arms of a Plodder, who managed to bite off a chunk of her calf before she got away. River soon learned that the bites’ efficacy equated with their distance from the brain; if you were bitten on the leg, you changed slowly, and if you were bitten above the shoulders, you might as well chop off your own head, because within a couple of hours, you would become a growling horror. So Courtney had lingered for days, dropping deeper and deeper into lethargy, her speech becoming more and more slurred, her eyes red and watery. Finally Billy had taken her to the kennels. River had not gone with them, but she had heard the story of how her mother turned into a gibbering, slobbering Plodder who would have eaten the living flesh of anyone within reach if Billy had not put a bullet in her brain first. No one would let River near the kennels, so she had taken her mother’s old position at the barracks window, watching people drift by and wiping tears from her eyes. She had looked down at the sill and saw that her mother had carved something in uneven, childlike letters:

Pain has an element of blank
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not

River had no idea where the lines had come from, but she had read them often over the years. And she had always thought she understood them when she remembered how Billy had come home that day and sat quietly in his favorite chair, reading old books and grunting whenever River asked questions. He did not eat for three days. But he had never wept, not in her presence. And now the girl whom he thought of as his adopted daughter had been bitten, corrupted, and the bite was high. Another day had brought a fresh wound, not just in Candy’s flesh but inside them all, and she could honestly not remember a time when that had not been so.

River knew that Billy would come back to put Candy down, but if he respected her wishes, he would not reappear until after the change. He had not told River whether or not she should stay. Maybe the decision belonged to her; maybe that was part of growing up, deciding whom you could stand to stay with as they died, and came back, and died again.

She looked at Candy. The neck wound had stopped seeping. Candy had dropped the towel; it lay near her knees like a ritual sacrifice, and the wound, open to the elements, looked cavernous and raw. But it had stopped bleeding altogether, which meant that Candy’s systems were shutting down. Her face looked like old parchment; her hair strung out from her head like tufts of cornsilk. And her blue eyes appeared to be tinted with amber. Her dry lips had cracked. River felt a tug somewhere in her guts, as if she had been fish-hooked. She and Candy had planned to pull out her father’s old Scrabble game and make dirty words tonight. They had planned to sneak out and watch the dark parts of the fence, hoping a Plodder would come along so that they could throw rocks at it. They had planned to tell each other stories of the world that was, a place full of cars and people and something called television shows. But now they had no time left.

“Can I get you somethin’?” she asked. “A little more water, maybe?”

Candy shook her head, the chains rattling. “No. I don’t want nothin’ on my stomach. I’m scared it’d make everything worse. I ain’t never been so hungry in my life.”

Billy had left the cage door open. River had no idea why he had done that. She had seen him march as many as two dozen people to the kennels, and he always locked the cages. Just in case, he said. Them chains ain’t never broke, but there’s a first time for everything, he said. Maybe he had left it open because of the sound it made when it closed. One time when she was little, she had snuck out of their barracks at night and tried to get over the fence, chasing a lightning bug like it was the only creature moving on Earth. The guards had caught her and marched her right back to her Daddy, who whipped her ass with his belt and then took her down to what he called a stockade. It was a little room with a cot and a toilet and sink and steel bars for a door. He had locked her in there overnight and told her that if she ever tried to sneak over that fence again, he would leave her down there for a week. When he shut the gate, those bars had clanged like the toll of a deathwatch bell, and she had burst into tears. She imagined that when they locked the cage on one of the corrupted, it probably sounded final and cold, like that stockade door. That was probably why so many of the dying screamed and begged and insisted that they were not sick. Soon enough they would begin to curse and threaten and posture. And then they would just collapse on the concrete until they changed. Maybe Billy could not bear to hear Candy beg him for a life that would soon end either way.

River turned her face up to the sun, letting the day’s heat bake into her. She felt feverish. A rogue thought leaped to the forefront of her mind: what if she had been bitten and had not even felt it in the headlong rush from the water’s edge? She checked herself all over, pulling her clothing back even when she could see no spreading bloodstain, craning her neck back as far as she could, never able to see everything. She spun around and around like a wounded animal tramping down the grass in its den.

Candy watched silently. Her hair had fallen back over her face, but she did not bother to brush it away. Her eyes were twin pools of fire in her pallid face. She said, “Don’t worry. You ain’t bit. You’d know it if you was. It ain’t just pain. It’s like somebody’s took out your blood and filled you full of ice-water. I stopped feelin’ my feet before you got me to the car. Now I’m like one of them smooth, cold rocks you pull out of the river in February.”

River stopped searching herself. She sat down on the concrete just outside the cage door and looked at Candy, who had been her best friend ever since they were born. They had been inseparable even when all their parents were still alive. Some days, River had awakened to find Candy sitting on the bunk across from her, eyes closed, perhaps listening to the noises of the burgeoning day drifting in from the cracked barracks window. On other mornings, River would dash out the door as soon as she had eaten and sprint to Candy’s quarters, where she would leap on the bunk and bounce until Candy woke up giggling, begging for her to quit it. They had eaten together, learned to drive together by piloting an old jeep around the compound in second gear, cowered together in the barracks when their parents went out to defend the perimeter. When her mother turned, River had stayed with Candy’s family for a week. And when both of Candy’s parents were killed and eaten within twenty yards of the front gates while the horrified guards looked on, Billy had gone to their barracks and brought Candy back. He had raised her as a daughter ever since. And now this. River could tell that Billy blamed himself for all the deaths; out of all his family and best friends, only River would be left. And she had no idea how to live without Candy when every breath, every movement, every sound and texture would remind her of something they had done together.

“I’ll tell you this,” River said. “From now on, I’m not just huntin’ for food or those fuckers out there. I’m gonna take out every cypress root I see.”

Candy laughed, loud and long, but even that sound betrayed her advancing condition. Her laugh had always sounded deep and throaty, like an enormous bullfrog trying to hock up a hollow-point bullet. A bizarre sound, but one that made any joke seem funnier. Now the laugh dribbled out in a series of wheezes, like an asthmatic trying to chuckle after sprinting a hundred yards. River tried to smile at her, but the expression felt crooked and wrong. Still wheezing, Candy said, “Damn. You look constipated.”

Now River burst into laughter, a healthy guffaw that startled a bird off the top of Candy’s cage. Candy brushed her disheveled hair away from her face and smiled, and then River’s laughter died in her throat, because she noticed for the first time that Candy’s gums had turned gray. Her teeth looked as white and flat as the barracks walls. River stared at them, unable to help herself. Suddenly an image appeared in her mind—Candy’s faded-parchment face hovering over Billy’s wounded but living body, one of his arms raised in defense as Candy struck like a rattlesnake and sunk those white teeth into his flesh, blackish blood pooling around her mouth and dripping down her cheeks as she shook her head from side to side, ripping and tearing at the meat like a shark.

That’s what it will be like if we don’t do it. She won’t be Candy anymore. She’ll be one of them, a Plodder or a Runner, and if you give her half a chance, she’ll eat your guts for breakfast and your tongue for dessert.

As if reading her mind, Candy stopped smiling. “You know it’s gotta be done. Ain’t no choice. But you don’t gotta watch if you don’t wanna.”

River shook her head. “I’m gonna stick by you until the end.”

From behind them, Billy said, “Sure you can handle that?”

River turned to look at her father. His expression was blank, as if he had changed his emotions as quickly and efficiently as someone else might change shirts. His eyes looked flinty and cold. His steady hands held a .30-30 rifle. She knew he would have already loaded a shell into the chamber. So there it stood, Candy’s 7.8 millimeter death, ready to explode from the barrel and turn her brain to shapeless goo, much of which would fly right out the back of her head. The entry hole would look neat; the exit would be wide and chunky, not so different from a Plodder’s bite. And in spite of all that, River knew she would stand it. For Candy, but also for Billy. She had to stick by him at every turn from now on. Even inside a compound, surrounded by other people, no one survived for long without friends or family, something to keep you sane and grounded. Something to fight for.

“Yeah,” she said. “I can handle it.”

Billy nodded and walked over to her. They sat down together in front of the cage and watched Candy, who had closed her eyes. Her lips were moving. River knew she was probably praying. No one said anything for a long time; the sun dipped further toward the west, their shadows growing longer on the hard concrete. Candy never shifted positions; she remained on her knees, head bowed, lips moving soundlessly. The heat and the stillness lulled River into a semi-doze, while Billy sat beside her, holding the gun in both hands like a knight kneeling with his sword.

Finally River looked up. “Candy. Hey.”

But Candy did not answer. Billy was still holding the rifle in one hand. River burst into tears, but Billy did not even look at her. He was watching Candy carefully.

A volley of rifle fire from the direction of the gate made them both jump and turn away. The steady deep boom of shotgun blasts rolled over the compound like thunder. They could hear raised voices shouting at each other between shots. River looked at her father; he had raised his rifle instinctively, but now he was lowering it, some emotion rippling over his features. He glanced from the gate to the cage. Someone came running in their direction and he raised the rifle again until they saw that the figure was armed with a shotgun.

It was Marquis. He skidded to a stop in front of them. “We got hostiles at the gate! Two big packs of runners! One of ’em made it over the fence before we shot him! We need everybody there right now!”

“Where you goin’, then?” asked Billy.

“Gettin’ more ammo.”

“Bring another rifle for me. I’ll see you there in two minutes.” Marquis nodded and ran off toward the nearest armory. Billy shoved the .30-30 into River’s hands; she took it on instinct and then stared at it as if she had never seen a gun before. She looked up into Billy’s cold blue eyes. She shook her head hard from side to side, tears streaming down her dirty face. He said, “It ain’t fair, but this is the only way. It oughta be you anyway. You’re practically her sister.”

“I don’t wanna,” River whispered.

Billy kissed her forehead. “I’d spare you if I could. Maybe I’ll get back in time. If not, don’t let her live a minute as one of them things. Lock that gate right now, you hear?”

He hugged her, the gun caught between them. Then Billy let her go and dashed toward the gates, not looking back. River stood looking after him, the gun heavy in her hands. She wanted nothing more than to drop it and run after Billy, to face the Runners at the gate, to fight all the Runners in the world bare-handed, anything but take on the task that had been assigned to her. Behind her, the chains rustled and clinked. River turned slowly and looked at Candy, who was crouching on her knees. She had gone even paler than before; she might have been made out of fresh bedsheets. Even her hair had faded, looking like a centuries-old painting of blonde hair. Only her eyes shimmered with color; they were redder than before.

In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “You remember when we was little and we used to play dolls? We’d make the boys kiss the girls, and then we’d make ’em do it, even though them dolls didn’t have no parts.”

River, her voice cracking, said, “I remember.”

Candy shook the hair out of her eyes. River saw the neck wound crack open again, but only a hair-thin trickle of blood flowed out. “I used to look forward to doin’ it. Sometimes I could hear my parents in the barracks, you know? They tried to be quiet, but them cinderblock walls—stuff echoes in there. It always sounded like work because they’d get so out of breath, like doin’ too many pushups or somethin’. But the way they’d talk to each other after… I could tell it was love. Pain too, but love all the same. I never knew you could hurt somebody and still love ’em. That love and pain might even be the same thing.”

River did not know what to say. She laid the gun against the fence, barrel up, and stood in the doorway.

“Now I’ll never get to try it,” Candy rasped. “Hell, I ain’t never even been kissed. What kinda way to die is that? Everybody oughta be kissed at least once.”

Candy burst into sobs, the sound deep and wracking, but no tears flowed. Apparently the ducts had already died, turned as cold as the rest of her body. River wanted to cry again too, but she would not lose control now. She could not. Candy deserved better than that.

“I’m sorry,” River said. “I ain’t got time to find you a boy.”

She stepped into the cage. Candy began to tremble. River rushed to her and knelt down, taking Candy’s face in her hands. It was like touching the belly of a catfish pulled from a deep riverbed, cold and somehow slimy. Candy’s blood-red eyes rolled back in her head and then snapped back in place. Her breath smelled like standing water and old moss.

River leaned in and kissed Candy, pressing their lips together, turning her head and opening her mouth just a little. Candy sucked in her breath and stiffened. Then she responded, flicking her tongue into River’s mouth, probing a moment, withdrawing as quick as a heartbeat. River held her mouth against Candy’s a moment longer; Candy slumped against her. River began to overbalance; she let go of Candy to catch herself.

Candy fell, the chains pulling her backward and rattling against the slab. Her head ricocheted off the central post and cracked on the concrete. She stared sightlessly at the blue sky. River stifled a moan and sat down, unable to move. Candy was dead. After everything they had been through, all the training and the raids and the nightmare images of teeth buried in flesh, she had been taken away by a cypress knee and one lone Plodder, a thing that walked as slowly as a baby could crawl. River felt the tears coming again and blinked hard. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands against them.

When she opened them again, Candy was sitting up. Her mouth had fallen open, long strings of drool hanging from her slack lower lip. Her eyes were pools of blood. She growled low in her throat like a cornered dog.

River felt her lower lip trembling, her breath hitch in her chest. She said, “Aw, shit!”

Candy sprang at her, arms outstretched, hands hooked into talons. The slack in the chains played out and they held Candy back, tearing strips of flesh off her wrists, neck, and ankles. The red muscle beneath gleamed like raw salmon. But River had been sitting too close; Candy slashed at her face, dragging long claw marks down one cheek. Drool flew everywhere as Candy whipped her head about and gnashed her teeth, shrieking louder and louder like an air-raid claxon, and River thought, She’s a Runner, she’s turned into a goddam Runner, and if that spit gets in the cuts I’m as dead as she is.

River screamed and crawfished backward toward the gate as Candy leaped for her again. The chains yanked her backward; River heard something snap like a dry twig and saw Candy’s right hand hanging backward over the cuff. Candy sat down hard, a low moan escaping her, and for the first time, River wondered if these creatures felt pain. She stood up, her back against the cage, as Candy fought against the cuffs, ripping and tearing at the chains, her high-pitched shrieks like bats’ language.

River stepped outside of the cage and shut the door. Then she fed the chain through and locked it. She picked up the gun and raised it to her shoulder, setting the end of the barrel through the chain-link fence, using it as a prop. She fixed her sight on Candy’s wildly snapping forehead, hoping against hope that she could do it in one shot.

She swallowed hard and said, “This is the only thing left to do for you. I hope you’d do the same for me.”

Candy stopped yanking at the chains and looked toward the fence. Her face slackened as if melting in the summer heat. Her hands dropped to her sides, and River wondered, Is she still in there somewhere?

She hoped not. If hell existed, that would be as good a definition as any. The tears kept trying to come; River kept blinking them back. She would be strong, like her father. Like her mother had been. Like everyone had to be, if they wanted to survive.

Pain has an element of blank, she thought.

Candy snarled again. And River pulled the trigger.

 

“An Element of Blank” was previously published in The Evansville Review.

 

Unrelenting

by L.A. Parish

 

On Tuesday evening, Dwight dug up Sophie and brought her into the kitchen. He laid her out on a broad sheet of clear plastic and sat beside her for a good three hours. During this time Dwight drank bottles of Amstel Light and scratched out images on loose sheets of paper. The images were crude, depicting nebulous unworldly creatures with large jagged teeth and long twisting tails. Just before the sun made an appearance above Tom Hull’s dilapidated barn, Dwight had Sophie back in the ground.

Dwight had Sophie out again early Thursday evening. This time he set her on the living room couch. He covered her body with a pale green blanket and used a corner of the old material to flick away particles of dirt and sagebrush from her young face. He sat with her head in his lap and watched as dark birds settled awkwardly on telephone lines outside. He gently stroked Sophie’s head and soon fell asleep. Dwight dreamed of a world overrun with large carnivorous frogs.

Dwight awoke in the early hours of Friday. He thought it too late to return Sophie. He stood and stretched his back and then knelt beside her and lightly kissed her dry nose. Dwight then stood at the window. The sky was a sickly rich blend of orange and red. There were six dead flies on the windowsill. Dwight gathered the little husks into his palm and examined them closely. He rolled them back and forth with little puffs of breath. Two of the husks still had wings attached. Dwight plucked at one and it fell apart at his touch. He shook his head and gently placed the husks back on the sill.

He made himself scrambled eggs for breakfast. He would have made toast as well, but he had not been to the store in over a week and there was no bread. Dwight had also not been to work in almost two weeks. On the first day of his absence, Dwight received two messages from Suzette in human resources. Her voice was slow and friendly, asking him to please call in. He replayed the message eight times. On the second day he received three calls but only one message. It was Suzette again. This time she did not sound as friendly. Dwight only replayed that message twice. On the third day there was one call and one message. Suzette. She said she was now becoming quite concerned about Dwight; in fact, they all were, and would he please return the call to let everyone know that everything was alright. Dwight played this message eleven times before erasing it. He then sat at the kitchen table and sketched an image of a naked woman with large teeth and a bright red telephone in her hand. The image aroused Dwight and so he quickly tore it up and slid the tip of a steak knife up under the nail of his left forefinger and pushed until blood spurted from beneath the opaque nail and the pain reset his mind.

Early Friday evening Dwight stood at the window and watched as the sky darkened and slowly filled with stars. He returned Sophie a little after ten, placing a handkerchief across her face so as to protect her eyes from dirt. He tamped the fragrant soil about her small body and sat beside her when he was done. The air was cool and things small and unknown to Dwight scurried about in nearby ditches. Something large drifted silently across the moon’s slender face.

Dwight slept poorly that night. His dreams were filled with erratic images of children engulfed in flames and of ships sinking into a dark sea. Just before sunrise Dwight awoke and sat at the foot of his bed. He looked out at the barren land beyond the window and wept.

Dwight dressed himself and nibbled at a breakfast of dry cereal. He drank a glass of orange juice. He checked to see if anyone had called. The message light pulsed with a single red zero. Dwight picked up the phone and set it to his ear. There was nothing but a faint static rustling. He set his glass in the sink and put on his heavy leather coat and went outside.

A side door to Tom Hull’s barn was swinging back and forth on loose hinges. Dwight walked over and latched it shut. He then walked up the broken steps to Tom’s kitchen door and knocked. There was no response. Dwight smiled and shielded his eyes and peered through a window. There were dirty plates and cups stacked in the sink and an opened package of sandwich meat on the table. Flies buzzed through the air between the sink and table. The edging of the meat had turned an iridescent green. Something with a reddish tail scurried out from beneath the table and darted into the hallway. Was there something inside that Dwight had missed? He didn’t think so. But to be sure, he would return later and check.

Dwight walked back to his property and sat on the back steps. There was an odd purple tinge to the sky and a slight tang of something bitter on the air. Dwight walked over to Sophie’s mound and knelt beside it. There were four other mounds nearby but Dwight would no longer dig up their holes. It had been too long now and things had changed drastically and the smell had become terrible. It was best to let them lie. But Sophie still looked like Sophie. She had died only days earlier. In time the others would die too. It never really seemed to take too long. Now and then Dwight could hear them calling. Their small voices muffled behind the thick cellar door.

Dwight knew that someone would in time come for Tom. It seemed that everyone had someone to miss them eventually. Dwight thought about Suzette and of her slow soft voice. He wondered if Suzette would in time come for him. And if so, what would he do when she did?

Dwight stood and stretched his back. He thought tonight would be the last night for Sophie. He would bring her into the living room once more, but this time he would set her in the chair by the window. If there was any shine left to her eyes he would try to position her head so that the lamplight caught it. He would sit beside her and wait. He may even draw something new. He would block out the other voices as he waited. In the morning he would dig new holes.

 

Just a Little Kiss

by Sarah Scharnweber

 

Alexander put his arm around Veronica. His hand crept down her shoulder and onto her breast. She shrugged him off. “Stop.”

He leaned in. “Just a little kiss?” He puckered his lips.

She looked into the blue eyes she loved so much, but she hadn’t planned for this. It was their first date and she wasn’t ready to move this fast. “I think it’s a little early for that.” She brushed his hand off of her shoulder and reached for the handle. “I think you should take me home.” She tugged the handle, popping the latch, but keeping the door closed.

“I don’t think I’m going to do that.” He leaned in further. “One kiss is all I want.”

“I don’t want to. Please, take me home.” She pushed open the door; the wind blew in, blowing her long blond hair into her face.

He grabbed her arm and tugged on her. “Stop.”

She shook the hair from her face. “Either take me home, or I’m walking.”

“You aren’t going to walk in the dead of winter. We are in the middle of nowhere.”

“Take me home, or I’m really going to walk.”

“Don’t be stupid.” He pulled her hard; her left wrist popped as she shook free of his grip and went tumbling out the door and onto the ground.

She landed on her right hand, pressing pieces of gravel deep into her palm.  She pushed herself to her feet, trying to ignore the pain. She heard Alexander’s door open. “Just leave me alone.” She tugged at her skirt, trying to straighten it as she walked down the road, away from him.

“Stop being a bitch and come back here. It’s not like I was gonna rape your or anything.”

“Just leave me alone.” She continued walking away from him.

“I’m just gonna leave you, then. This is your last chance.”

“Please do.” She shouted with her middle finger in the air pointed behind her. She walked for a few more second; heard him close her door, then walk around and close his own.

He slowed as he approached. “Seriously! Just get back in.”

“Just go, I’ll figure it out on my own.” She didn’t look at him as he drove away and his lights disappeared into the distance.

She walked for several minutes before she even noticed how cold it was. Her wool coat was warm, but it was short and so was the tight black skirt she wore. She pulled out her cell phone and sighed. Of course he would bring her to a no-service area.

She started crying, not sure what she was going to do as teardrops froze to her cheeks. She was very cold and she knew he wasn’t coming back. Before she knew it, she was talking to herself aloud. “So, this is how you do things. This is the best date ever. You are such a fucking idiot. This is what you get.”

She walked for nearly ten minutes before she saw her first highway sign. She checked her phone, but still had no service, but she believed she would be able to walk to a place where her phone would work.

She was beginning to worry about the dangers of frostbite when she heard the sound of a car coming toward her from behind. She felt a wave of relief when she saw the small black sports car pull around the corner and slow as it pulled up next to her.

The passenger window went down; Veronica looked in. There was a nice-looking man in his forties, dressed in a suit sitting in the driver’s seat. He looked confused. “I didn’t see a broken down car anywhere, where are you coming from?” He gestured behind him.

“Someone left me out here.” She looked into his eyes; they were brown, not blue. “Do you think you could get me into town? Just far enough for my phone to work is fine.”

He nodded. “Sure, just hop in.” He flipped a switch inside the car and the door unlocked.

She climbed in. The car was warm and her skin burned as her legs began to warm up. “Thank you so much.”

“Who would leave you on the side of the road like that?” He looked to her for an answer, then recognition overcame his face. “I’m sorry. I’m Ethan.” He reached out his right hand to shake, without looking away from the road. She took his hand, also looking at the road in fear while she did. “No one even uses this road anymore. Why were you out here?”

“Why were you out here?”

He chuckled a bit. “Looking for someone to eat.” He looked over at her and winked, then bellowed a deep laugh. “I’m kidding you, of course.”

She forced a laugh. “My date tried to take advantage of me, so I got out of the car and he left me here.”

“Sounds like there’s a young man who comes out this way quite often. That’s not the first time I’ve heard that same story.”

“So, picking up recently assaulted girls is some kind of a hobby for you?” Her fingers rubbed the edge of her skirt.

“Nah, just when I see a pretty girl, who looks like she’s in trouble, I stop. Last few months, there have been more of them.” He smiled. “I’m a lawyer; this is on my way home. Sometimes I see people and once in a while, I help them.”

She let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “You really had me nervous for a moment.”

“I’m sorry; I was just making conversation, was all.” He reached over and patted her knee.

“I don’t like to be touched.” She tried to speak gently, but the way she tugged her fishnet-covered knee away from him was cold.

“Wow.” He was calm, but seemed very offended. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He twisted his hands on the steering wheel and pulled air in through his nose. “Not like you don’t owe me, or anything.”

“I don’t want to owe you anything. If you want, you can wait for my mom to come pick me up and I’m sure she can give you some cash for your troubles, but that’s it. I’m not even eighteen.” She pulled out her phone; still no signal.

He looked over at her, licked his lips and smiled. “Age only matters if they catch you.” He took a sharp left and they headed down another street. His hand reached over and held down the power lock.

Veronica reached over and tried to pull up the lock, but it wouldn’t move. She felt her heart start to race as she continued pulling at the lock. She grabbed the handle and yanked at it.

Ethan stopped and looked into her eyes. “You jump out and I’ll run you over until you are dead. If you think I’m kidding, just try me.”

She let go of the door. Her hands shook and her heart thudded in her chest.

“That’s better.” He straightened in his seat. “You’re mine now. You may as well get used to that.”

She felt tears streaming down her face again. “What are you going to do to me?” She felt her chest growing heavy as she started to have trouble breathing.

“Whatever I want, I guess.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Not much further now and then I guess you’ll see for yourself.”

A moment later, he pulled behind a big barn that would have struck Veronica as odd under other circumstances, but she hardly even noticed its electric blue color in the dark as he dragged her through the doorway.

Once they were inside, he let her go. He turned back and padlocked the door to the outside, then turned back to her and smiled.

She glanced around the room. It was large with wood and plaster walls. A long couch with huge orange and brown flowers on a yellow background stood against the far wall. She stared at him, certain that running would do her no good inside this place.

He tilted his head as he spoke. “Victoria? That’s a beautiful name. It’s too bad for you, really. If you weren’t so stupid, you wouldn’t be here right now.”

Tears still streamed down Veronica’s face. “It’s Veronica,” she corrected. “I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry.”

Just as she spoke, she heard a scuffling behind her.

“Are you going to kill me?” She had gained some composure, but continued to cry.

“Not right away.” The voice behind her was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “First, we’re going to skin you.”

She turned and saw Alexander standing behind her. He had a long hunting knife in his right hand. “I thought you were going to be the one, but you were just like all the others.”

“The one what?” Seeing him made her angry. Her tears had stopped before she realized she wasn’t frightened of him.

“I thought you were going to be the girl we were going to bring to the family. You should have just kissed me; that’s all you had to do.”

She bit her tongue, certain that this wasn’t the right time to argue with him. She looked at him for a moment, before Ethan pulled her hand behind her back. She tried to fight, but it was too late.

Something heavy struck her head and then there was darkness.

*****

She awoke in a different room. It smelled like dirt and was completely dark. Her arms were restrained above her and her toes barely touched the floor. “Hello?” she called out. “Someone there?”

There was a cough followed by a low moan.

“Hello?” Her voice was louder than before.

“Shh,” a light and airy female voice whispered.

Veronica lowered her voice again, “Who are you?”

“My name is Mary. I’m not sure where I am, or how I got here. Who are you?”

“Veronica, I dated Alexander once. I guess that’s why I’m here.” Her eyes began to adjust to the darkness and she could tell there was someone chained to the far wall.

“You too?” Mary was calm. “What do you know?”

Veronica didn’t know what she meant. “I should have kissed Alexander and I wouldn’t be here.”

Mary sighed. “I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, but they’re going to kill us.”

“Because I didn’t kiss him?” Her voice was loud. Just as Veronica was going to ask more questions, there was a thud upstairs.

A door creaked and a small sliver of light illuminated the room enough that Veronica could see Mary’s long black hair hanging in unkempt clumps on her shoulders.

“Don’t make me come down there.” The low, scratchy voice had a slight drawl.

Veronica looked to Mary and shook her head, signaling her not to speak.

“Don’t make me get up again.” The door creaked closed, leaving the room dark again.

“You can’t make noise or they’ll punish us.”

“How long have you been here?” Her voice was almost inaudible.

“I have no idea. It’s been a while, but I sleep lots.” She groaned. “I’m sore, that’s for sure.”

“What are they going to do to us?”

“They sliced pieces of skin off of the last girl before they dragged her out.” She started crying a little, but managed to keep from sobbing. “I threw up and wet myself when I watched it. She was so sweet. Her name was Mandy.” She sniffed as if she were frightened they would hear even that above.

“Why would they want to kill us? I don’t want to die.”

“Don’t you start shouting again. If they come down here, I’m going to tell them you’re the loud one. Maybe they’ll kill you first.” She sounded angry, but it was clear that she was also scared.

“I’m not going to draw attention to us.”

“They’re coming either way; but I want to prolong it as long as I can.” She was calm again.

“I’m scared,” Veronica said.

Both girls fell silent.

*****

A high-pitched female voice made its way across the building above them and approached the stairs. The door exploded open and footsteps thundered down. “No hiding now.” The strange female voice approached. “You both thought that you were going to refuse my beautiful baby boy.” She shook her head as she stepped into the room and stood between the two girls. “Lucky for you, I hafta to do this fast.” The building rumbled for a moment before the room was filled with people and light. A large blond woman with an orange apron around her waist stood there, surrounded by men.

“Please, don’t,” Veronica sobbed as her head swung from side to side.

“You ran out of please a few days ago.” A large man in front of the group stood with his feet shoulder-width apart as if in preparation for a fight. “Time to pay the price.” A large man in a too-small tee shirt and cut-off jean shorts lifted his fists.

Veronica’s lip quivered as he pulled a small knife from his pocket and scratched the tip of it along her cheek.

 “I don’t want to die.” Her chest was heavy and full.

He looked into her eyes and studied them, while his thick, moist tongue lashed at his lips. “Bobby, carve into that one, I wanna see the look in her eyes.”

Veronica closed her eyes and looked away. She almost instantly felt cold, sharp metal against her cheek. Veronica turned her face away.

“Look at her.” He growled and dug his knife into her cheek.

She shook her head a tiny bit.

He cut a deep slit into her right cheek, nearly cutting all the way through. “I said look, dammit!” he shouted in her face.

She could feel blood dripping down her cheek as she forced herself to look.

A fat man in sweats, who Veronica assumed was Bobby, then sliced down her thigh. Blood poured down her leg as she screamed.

“Please, don’t.” Veronica sniffled and felt her lip begin to quiver.

The man in front of her chuckled, “More, Bobby.”

Fat Bobby carved into her thigh. Six inches to the right, parallel to the first cut. Alexander walked toward her, a meat cleaver hung at his side from one hand. He didn’t respond to Mary’s screams as he chopped at a piece of meat that now hung from her leg.

Blood splattered across the room, some of it hit Veronica’s leg. Veronica let out a squeal, but stifled it. “Please, just stop.” Veronica whispered.

Just then, she felt an explosion of pain and warmth as blood poured out of her stomach and down the front of her skirt. The man in front of her pulled up on the knife, ripping Veronica’s stomach open. She looked down and felt her head growing dizzy. 

*****

“Wake up, bitch.” She opened her eyes. Fat Bobby’s face was inches from hers. She was laying on something cold and hard in a bright white room. Fat Bobby stood to her right. She couldn’t feel her limbs. Mary stood on the left of her. Alexander stood behind her.

“Do it.” Alexander grunted at Mary.

She looked into Veronica’s eyes, begging her for an apology as she reached out and carved a flap of skin from her left breast. Blood trickled out. Veronica felt weak.

“I looked her in the eyes and cut her, am I in?” She looked from Alexander to Fat Bobby.

They both shook their head. Alexander reached down and picked the piece of meat from the knife. He put it between his teeth and pulled Mary to him.

The last thing Veronica heard before everything went dark was Fat Bobby’s voice, “I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Crawford.”

 

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.